Chapter 26

When Fred Apparates into her parents' living room, Hermione's mother shrieks and drops her mug.

"Sorry about that," Fred says, and casts a wandless Reparo.

"What are you doing here?" Hermione asks. She's curled up on the sofa in her pyjamas, eyes red and swollen from crying, Peeves on her lap.

"I'm here to bring you back to the land of the living," Fred says. "Or at least to the Leaky. Neville finally popped the question and we're having an impromptu engagement party tonight."

"Tell him congratulations for me."

"Tell him yourself. It's six o'clock at night and you're already in your pyjamas. We can't have that."

"Not already. Still," Helen Granger says with a pointed look as she heads into the kitchen.

Hermione hugs Peeves closer and even though he doesn't like it, he allows it, because she needs to and Kneazles know these things.

"Your jilted fiancé won't be there, if that's what you're worried about," Fred says. "Just Harry and Ginny embarrassing us with their PDA and Ron groping Lavender's arse when he thinks no one's looking."

"So Parkinson didn't show Neville the door once Malfoy was back on the market?" Hermione asks.

"In our timeline, Pansy is a lovely girl and a dear friend of yours. She has been so over Draco since fifth year." Fred leans forward. "She told Lavender that Neville does things in bed that you absolutely…" He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Would. Not. Believe."

"Ew! God, Fred, so not okay. Could you Obliviate me, please?" Wait, maybe that's the solution. Maybe Fred could Obliviate this entire fucking soap opera and she could start fresh. "Why would Lav-Lav tell you about Parkinson's sex life anyway?"

"Lav-Lav told Won-Won—apparently hoping he'd study up—and Ickle Ronnikins came to me as the Weasley family sex god in hopes that I'd give him some pointers."

"Please tell me I never told anyone anything about my sex life that got back to you."

"You didn't," Fred says, his eyes sparkling with mischief, "but old Snapey said you were a very dirty girl."

When tears fill Hermione's eyes, Fred looks puzzled, and then stunned. "Gods, Mione, you and Snape?"

She starts crying in earnest now.

"I didn't know, I swear," Fred says. "I was just trying to make you laugh."

"It is laughable. It's totally ridiculous," Hermione sobs, and lets the whole story pour out along with her tears. Well, not the whole story. She'll never hear the end of it if Fred knows about that book, and she does not want to join Parkinson and Lav-Lav as fodder for Fred's innuendo.

"What am I going to do, Fred?" she asks, not expecting an answer.


What she does is owl Arthur that she needs time off, pick up her Kneazle and her beaded bag and Apparate to her parents' cottage in Cornwall where Mum can't fuss at her all the time about snapping out of it and stiff upper lip and getting back on the horse.

It's off season there so she has plenty of peace and quiet in which to cry as she walks along the deserted beach. When the weather is nice enough that she might run into other people out being happy, she stays in the cottage and cries on Peeves's fur.

As the weeks pass, her memories continue to return, until it's all there, the complete history of her last seven years, alongside the memories from the seven years she lived through before she went back in time.

Without question, this is a better world than the one she left. Fred and Ron and Harry and Tonks and Remus and Luna are alive. Her parents know who she is. Ginny is married to Harry and has three children. Minerva and Lucius and the Longbottoms are all sane and healthy. Albus is alive but safely out of everyone's hair. And, of course, Severus is alive.

So, why does she feel so terrible?

This morning, it's gray and overcast, perfect weather for self-pity, so she's giving her long-suffering familiar a break and doing her crying on the beach.

And wouldn't you know it, despite the dreary weather, some tosser just has to go for a walk on her stretch of beach. She turns around and heads back toward the cottage, and then stops, because she has this strange tingling sensation, like when someone is staring at you and you can practically feel their eyes in the back of your head. She turns and looks back and for a moment she thinks it's Severus but that's ridiculous because of course it isn't. He's gone and he doesn't want her, couldn't bear to wait for her during the seven long years she grew up and fell in love with Draco Malfoy.

She turns and heads back toward the cottage, then stops again, and looks back at the man walking toward her on the beach. It can't be Severus, but somehow, it is, and he's walking faster now.

"Hermione," he says when he reaches her. She says nothing. She can't speak without making a fool of herself. She doesn't ask why are you here. Doesn't say how dare you. Doesn't throw herself into his arms and cling and sob and never, ever let go.

"You're not marrying Draco?" he asks.

She gives her head the slightest shake no.

"Why?"

You know why, damn you, she thinks.

"Hermione, talk to me."

"I wanted to talk to you three months ago, but you refused. You left me alone in a world I don't know," she shouts through her tears. "You, the only person here who knows me, this me."

"For you it was a few seconds. For me it was seven years."

Ah, so she was right. He did move on. So why is he here? "How did you find me?" she asks instead.

"I went looking for you at your parents' house. Your father asked was I the arsehole who made his daughter spend a month crying all over the cat. I said most likely I was. At least I hoped I was. After he punched me, he—"

"Wait. He punched you? My father is a very non-violent person."

"Even so, he did."

"And what did you do?"

"Nothing. I figured I had it coming."

"Too right you did."

"I had to know, Hermione. I had to know you'd still want me after all the memories returned. Can't you see that?"

"All I can see is me lying in the hospital wing calling after you, begging you not to leave me—begging you—and you walking out the door."

"For years I looked for a sign, the slightest indication that I was anything more to you than first your teacher and then your boyfriend's godfather, but there was nothing. Not the slightest hint," he says. "You were a beautiful, brilliant young woman engaged to a rich, handsome young man. You chose him. You knew us both, and you chose him."

"She chose him. A girl who never knew what it was like to fight in a war and lose everyone she cared about. That girl wasn't me. I chose you."

"I wanted to give you time to—"

"You left me, Severus. I was all alone in a world I don't know and you left me. You fucking left me."

"Yes," he says. "I did, because I was afraid you'd choose him, and I couldn't bear to stand there while you looked at me with pity in your eyes and told me you were marrying Draco."

Oh, Severus. The look in his eyes just about breaks her heart.

"Can you forgive me?" he asks.

"That's really why you left?"

"Yes."

"You still love me?"

"Yes."

"I suppose you must if you let a Muggle punch you and just stood there and took it."

"I almost let Fred Weasley do the same, but fortunately, he has better impulse control than your father."

"Or maybe knowing more about you than Dad, he's a little afraid of you?"

"Maybe," he agrees. "Does that mean you forgive me?"

Hermione nods, and then she's in his arms and he's kissing her and she's crying but still kissing him through all the tears because she'll never as long as she lives get enough of kissing this man who knows her and loves her anyway. And he's telling her he does, over and over, in between all the kissing.

"It's too bad Lucius and Cissy hate me now," she says, fingers tangling in his hair. "I'll miss the library. And the cakes."

"Lucius and Cissy would have had a snake-faced despot camped out in their drawing room without you," he says, palming a breast. "I think they owe you one."

"Think they'll ever let me use their library?" she asks, then gasps as he feels his hand moving…oh, yes, there, yes, just like that.

"Eventually," he murmurs against her throat. "Until then, I'll sneak books out for you." He pauses, frowns thoughtfully. "Though they're probably not speaking to me, either."

"Probably," she agrees, and then he kisses her again, and she forgets all about the Malfoys and their library. "Don't leave me again," she sighs in between kisses. "I couldn't bear it."

"Never," he promises. "Do you really forgive me?"

"I do. But honestly, Severus," she says before the snogging and groping gets out of hand. There's nobody here but it is a public beach, after all. "That dunderheaded stunt moves you way past Albus on the greatest gits list."

"I'm number two?"

"Maybe even number one."

"Really, Hermione? I'm worse than Riddle? Worse than the fucking Dark Lord?"

"Well," she says, "maybe tied."

"I'm tied with a reptilian megalomaniac? When I haven't made even a single Horcrux? When I haven't cast an Unforgivable since 1981?"

She looks at him with eyes threatening to overflow again. "You took my heart and chopped it up like it was potions ingredients."

His voice is a strangled cry as he pulls her close and murmurs the kind of things he used to sneer at people for even feeling, let alone saying out loud, and the kissing and crying starts all over again. Though the crying is only Hermione, because really, there are limits to how soppy Severus is going to get.

"You were going to let me marry Malfoy," she says when she's recovered herself. "I told you not to let me marry Malfoy."

"I did convince the two of you to put off your wedding until this summer. That has to count for something."

"It shouldn't have even got as far as planning. Do you have any idea how much time Cissy has wasted on this ridiculous, ostentatious wedding? And the money! I don't know how far in advance you have to pay deposits for a wizarding wedding, but—"

"So I should have told you to marry an over the hill ex-Death Eater with bad teeth when the most eligible bachelor in wizarding Britain was courting you?"

"Yes."

"When you seemed happy to be courted?"

"Yes."

"When your fiancé was young and handsome and smart and made you laugh?"

"Yes. And honestly, the only reason you have bad teeth is that you're too perverse to fix them. You could if you wanted to. You're a wizard, for fuck's sake."

"Come home, and I'll fix them," he says.

"I don't give a rat's arse about your teeth, Severus."

"Come home, pet."

"I am home."

"Cornwall is home?"

"No," she says. "Wherever you are is home."