With very sincere thanks to heartmom88 and ofankoma. Without their help this storu would be a far, far lesser thing. Love you!
She had intended to go home.
She wandered from the empty street down the little lane towards the canal. She had some vague idea of using the cover provided by the bridge to Disapparate, desperate to simply escape and return to the world she had accepted as hers. She had mourned him twice already; it seemed bitterly unfair that she was to lose him again.
There had been no trace of Severus in Snape's harsh features. He'd looked well enough, she supposed; the hazarded potion had obviously done its job. He was thin, possibly thinner than she remembered him being, but otherwise he seemed fine. Still dressed in shirt and waistcoat despite the dilapidated state of the house, his hair the longest she had ever seen it, he had seemed completely recovered. Yet his black eyes had betrayed so little after his initial shock at being discovered, the only flicker of emotion being over the fate of the Malfoys.
Reaching the end of the street she found her way barred by another metal barrier. Using her wand to help squeeze through one of the gaps, she gaped at the destruction beyond. What had been a little terrace just like the Snapes' was now reduced to several large piles of rubble, the old street gouged clear of its cobbles. The distinctive smell of building dust filled the air, unpleasant and final.
She picked her way carefully past the exposed foundations and piles of timber towards the end of the street. From her elevation she could see the roofs over what appeared to be several new buildings already springing up where further rows of housing had been. The old mill's chimney stack no longer dominated the skyline; instead, perhaps a mile away, stood three new tower blocks of flats.
Hermione dropped her eyes back to the ground. Although she couldn't be sure, those flats looked perilously close to the little patch of woodland where Severus had taken her after the distressing visit to Ollivander's.
After a moment's consideration she turned and made her way back through the gap in the high fencing, holding her robe closely to prevent it from snagging, and walked the long way back to the canal.
On reaching the water's edge, she paused. While Spinner's End had yet to be demolished, it appeared that the regeneration work had already reached the canal. The path to the side of the canal had been cleared, and it looked like the water had been dredged. It was pretty.
It was quiet, too. The ducks had gone; no doubt scared away by the work going on around them. While the noise of the ducks in the park by her home had made her dreadfully nostalgic, the absence of it here troubled her. She made her way to the bridge, suspecting that she might find them there, but it was clean and oddly empty.
She hadn't paid attention the last time she was there, nor honestly the time before that. She would estimate that it had been the early to mid-eighties when she had visited Severus as a young man in his twenties. In the following years, it would seem as if everything had come undone. Soon Spinner's End would be gone, and the entire world she had shared with Severus would no longer exist.
It was beautiful beside the water now. The walk beside the canal would be lovely.
She hated it.
She turned and walked in the other direction, desperate to find something she recognised.
It was all so confusing. Even if she was to accept that Severus was gone - and she wasn't certain that she could - it didn't change the fact that Snape was alive, and about to be made homeless. That wasn't the sort of information that you just kept to yourself. What if something were to happen to him? She would never be able to live with herself if, yet again, she were to stand idly by when she could have done something to help. But did she honestly have the right to inform anybody that Snape had survived? Which was more important, that he receive the thanks and forgiveness that he deserved or that he be allowed to keep his anonymity?
How would she explain her connection to him? Much as she might resent it, she had a high profile, thanks to her exploits with Harry. There was little chance of maintaining some sort of a relationship with the man without it becoming common knowledge. And there still was the question of how her friends would react. Harry might have come to terms with the memory of Snape but there was no telling how long it would be before years of ingrained hatred and resentment flared up were he to encounter the real thing.
It had been so much easier when she was Emma. There was no world waiting in the wings, no friends she had to inform, no social expectations to meet. She had been able to give her entire self over to loving Severus and he in turn had responded to her. Snape seemed disinclined even to speak to her.
The neat modern houses they had ventured amongst now seemed dated, just post-war estates thrown up with little thought for aesthetics. Should she bring Harry here, she wondered, so that he might see his mother's home? She could pretend she had discovered the address whilst researching Snape. She would have to wait until he had calmed from his sudden rage over the demolition of Spinner's End. He might even succeed in slowing the destruction of the street. She probably ought to warn Snape to expect a visitor or two in the near future.
There were more cars here now, and the curb had been dropped in front of the older houses to allow them to turn their front gardens into drives. The lettering on the street signs was different. The street lamps seemed taller. Everything here had changed. It was as if there was nothing left for her at all.
The streets became busier as she neared the row of shops and she was glad she had left her cloak behind by the canal. As it was, her clothes were formal and unusual enough to mark her out. The tear tracks down her face probably didn't help, either. She was getting nowhere in her musings and she was beginning to tire. Her shoes, though comfortable enough for an evening at the Ministry, were not suited to walking long distances, and she found herself wanting nothing more than to go home and curl up on the sofa.
The late spring breeze stirred the air, bringing with it scents from the high street. There was a bookie's there now and a Chinese takeaway. The Post Office had been replaced by a Spar shop, but there, at the end of the row, was the chip shop that she had first visited some twenty years before. She breathed in deeply, her stomach growling at the gloriously unhealthy smell of things frying in batter. She had left the Ministry before the food had been served, and thanks to Ginny's stern intervention, she was used to eating regularly once more.
The liveliness of the street helped alleviate some of the gloominess that had followed her since the silent, empty streets of the older part of town. She would buy herself some chips, she decided. Retrieve her cloak from under the bridge and head home. There wasn't anything else she could do that night.
She ducked through the door into the warm space inside and joined her place in the queue. There were some plastic chairs pushed against one of the walls, and the menu seemed to have been extended to include onion rings, but other than that the place seemed entirely unchanged. She had thought that finding something familiar would be comforting, but instead all it made her feel was an aching sadness. She stared up at the price list over the counter, willing herself not to cry until she got back home.
When her turn came, she realised with a start that the man behind the counter was the same man who had served her the last time she had been here. She hadn't even been aware that she had remembered him, but there he was, grey haired and slightly stooped, but still filling orders with the same efficient, practised flair.
He grabbed a sheet of the thick white paper the orders were wrapped in and looked at her expectantly.
"Yes, love?" He asked. "What is it you want?"
She dropped her carrier bag just inside the front door as she looked around. She had only been gone for a couple of hours but already the change in the small room was staggering. The shelves lining the walls were empty, the books now lying shrunken and boxed on the floor. The hidden door clicked open to reveal Snape carrying an antique-looking leather suitcase.
She blinked, speaking carefully as she tried to control her voice.
"Were you even going to tell me you were leaving?"
She thought perhaps for a moment that he had looked ashamed but his face shifted back into its impassive mask before she could be certain.
"Would it have made a difference?"
She stopped herself from answering, uncertain what reply could undo the harm the last few months, even the last few years, had done to them. Instead, she took a deep breath, and wondered what Emma would have done.
It was Emma that he had wanted, after all. Emma, who would turn to him, trust him without demanding answers, who would let him simply be himself. It made no sense to be jealous of part of herself, yet, defying all logic, she was.
The spell hadn't only created Emma, though. It had given her Severus. Just as he had needed someone to accept him, she had needed someone who would simply be there for her; a constant in her messy, spiralling life.
Perhaps what she hoped for was impossible outside of the private, closeted world the spell had created for them. Maybe Severus was right to recognise the futility of what she hoped were their mutual desires. It was possible that there was nothing she could do to bridge the chasm that had opened up between them. That the people they had once been to each other had ceased to exist.
Yet Hermione had surely spent too long facing down the impossible to let it stop her. The final year of the war had shown her that no matter how difficult something seemed, no matter how the odds were stacked against you, you didn't just give up.
They had stood no chance of even finding Voldemort's Horcruxes, let alone managing to destroy them, with the meagre information they'd been provided. They hadn't had a hope of standing against the Dark Lord's assembled supporters and spies, the Snatchers or the power of the infiltrated Ministry of Magic. They had been without family or friends or even adequate food.
No, she had never thought that they would be able to defeat Voldemort, had never believed that she would start to get her life back together after the war, had never believed that she would find that place where she could simply stop and rest and know that she was safe. Yet Light had triumphed over darkness and then, against all odds, she had found him. That safe place where she could feel at home, regardless of how lost she truly was.
Severus was simply too precious to give up.
So, perhaps there was no way she could ever expect the world to understand what she had found in this damaged, forgotten man. No way that she could solve the extraordinary situation he had been placed in.
Yet perhaps she wasn't supposed to.
So she couldn't change the past. She couldn't predict what lay ahead for either of them. Did it really matter? Real life was always going to be waiting just outside the door. That didn't mean she had to invite it inside just yet.
He watched her carefully as she crossed the room towards him. There was no hope in his eyes this time, merely wary suspicion, and he stood stock still as she wrapped her arms around him. Perhaps his lack of reaction would have driven Hermione Granger away, but Emma simply buried her face into the creased material of his shirt and let his scent envelop her. Perhaps she would never be Emma Jones again but then, having spent so long with the other girl's less complicated thoughts, she would never wholly be without her, either.
Eventually his arms came up to hold her, tentatively at first, simply resting lightly about her shoulders. She sighed happily and his arms tightened, pulling her closer still.
When she finally pulled away she knew that tears were pouring down her face unchecked, yet she was smiling, smiling as she hadn't done since the Iuesto Momento had released her. The terrible look of resignation on his face seemed to falter, and for the first time, she caught a glimpse of Severus beneath the tired mask of Professor Snape.
She reached out and caught his hand, marvelling at how seamlessly his fingers seemed to mesh with hers still, after all this time.
"I thought you'd left." He sounded confused, perhaps even resentful. It struck her then that she had probably behaved just as he had feared, walking away from him almost as soon as she had found him.
"Oh, Severus." She knew that she should tread carefully, that both of them were still half broken by their experiences. How much had she hurt him already, simply by allowing herself to be scared away? For the first time she had left him, not because of some unknown spell, but under her own power. "Severus," she repeated. "I've never wanted to leave you. Not once."
She raised her free hand, amazed at her own daring, and gently grazed his face with her fingertips. He flinched, just slightly, but remained still under her touch. She could not decipher what new emotion was causing his eyes to burn, but she was grateful that finally they had begun to lose their carefully maintained emptiness. Even anger would be better than nothing. She was prepared to work for his forgiveness.
She let her fingers creep up into his hair. It fell lankly around his face, so different from the carefully groomed tresses he'd had the night that he had summoned her to his side. She wondered if it was indicative of how little hope he had held out for her return. Yet he had stayed here all those months just the same. He had kept his promise.
"I promised you that I'd come back," she whispered. "I'll always come back."
She had risked her life to save this man, she was damned if she was just going to let him slip through her fingers now that she had finally found him. She had lost too much already to simply let him go.
Picking up the bag, she brushed past him into the cramped little kitchen. Now that the glamour had fallen away it was clear that the room was at least usable, though the oven still leaned drunkenly away from the wall.
"Have you packed the plates already?" she called, not bothering to turn. It wasn't easy playing this role, playing at everything being fine in the desperate hope that he might play along. "If not, I suppose we can eat off the paper."
She pulled the heavily wrapped polystyrene cartons from the bag and set them out, motioning for him to sit. She allowed herself to breathe only when she heard the chair scraping against the ancient lino of the floor.
"I wasn't sure if you liked fish," she continued, willing her voice to stay level, even as her hands trembled as she unwrapped the paper. "So I got one cod and chips and one sausage supper. There's a pot of gravy in the — oh, it's leaked all over the drinks. Do you have a cloth?"
Finally looking up she found him staring at her, his dark eyes still wary.
"What are you doing?" he asked quietly.
She dropped her eyes, her hands toying nervously with the half empty bag. "I'd like to say 'whatever it takes', but honestly, I don't really know. I know what it is I'm not doing, though. I'm not going to let you push me away."
"Emma —" he began, only to stop, aghast. "Hermione. Gods, I don't even know what to call you." He let his head drop into his hands, his words muffled. "I've been in love with you for years, and yet I don't even know who you are."
His voice was pained, as if each word had been dragged from him against his will. He looked, for all the world, like a man condemned.
Staring silently at his bowed head, Hermione felt her cheeks begin to ache from the smile that had crept across her face. She had expected to cajole him, bully him, even plead with him, just to allow her a few more minutes by his side. She hadn't expected a declaration, even one as unwilling as that.
He loved her.
Every confusion, all that horrible fear that had dogged her footsteps back to the little house and had caused her to stumble over the simple spell needed to open the front door, all of it vanished in a heartbeat. She reached for him, then stopped, recalling the gravy that stained her fingers. Without even thinking, she wiped her hands on the embroidered silk of her skirt and reached for him again, stroking the lank mess of his hair.
"Severus," she whispered. "My Severus."
He looked up then and for the first time she felt as if he was watching her, really watching her. There were a thousand things she wanted to tell him. So many questions left unasked. Instead, she simply smiled.
"Eat your tea," she instructed, "then I'll help you pack. You can store everything in my attic until you decide what it is you want to do."
He mutely accepted the parcel of food, picking up the wooden fork and stabbing at the fish automatically. "As simple as that?" he demanded. With his eyes on his food she had no way of telling if he was being caustic or - perhaps - hopeful.
"As simple as that," she confirmed. "It's no worse than any of the other plans we've had." She pried the lid off the remaining gravy and poured it over her chips, wondering if it would be safe to use a knife from this ancient kitchen. "You'll work out what to do. I have the utmost faith in you. I'll guard your secret until then."
The squeal of his chair against the floor was loud enough to make her wince, as he stood abruptly and moved to the other side of the kitchen. He stood at the sink, his hands braced on either side of the basin, as he stared through the dirty lace curtains to the tiny yard beyond. Hermione had to fight the urge to speak. His silences and sudden moods had never worried her while she'd been caught in the spell. She had accepted them as easily as she had accepted his help. Instead, she resolutely picked up her wooden fork and focussed on her food, determined not to force his hand.
She was rewarded moments later when he sighed and reached for the teapot.
It wasn't perhaps the most romantic of proposals, but it was more than she had any real right to hope for. "Tea would be lovely," she smiled, watching as he filled the kettle then tapped it sharply with his wand.
He busied himself at the counter, and by the time he sat back down, he had furnished them each with a large mug of tea and some slightly tarnished cutlery. A plate of sliced bread was quietly buttering itself in the space between them.
He glanced at her plate in distaste. "You do realise chip shop gravy is almost exclusively made from monosodium glutamate, don't you?"
She shrugged, and speared another thick, greasy chip on her fork. "I love you too, you know. Just in case you were wondering. I want you to be very sure about that."
"You hardly know me," he muttered, frowning. "Not really."
"Let's not start that again. Technically I've known you since you were three."
"And I still know next to nothing about you."
"Maybe that's true," she conceded. "But I'm not going anywhere. Now that we're together again, we've all the time in the world for things like that."
"You're serious about this, aren't you?"
That was her opportunity, she realised, if she wanted to push him, ask him if he was as serious as she needed him to be or if perhaps she should give him more time. Yet she had already had one very real declaration of love from him and another when he had allowed her back into his home. Perhaps, later, she might try for another still, finally give in and let herself kiss him; partly to see if he still responded in the way she remembered, but mostly because she had wanted to kiss him now for hours.
Instead, she contented herself with simply reaching for his hand across the table.
This time, it was he who entwined his fingers with hers, their hands locking together as neatly as before. He studied them, a naked, oddly unguarded expression on his face. She bit her lip, reminding herself sternly that kissing him wouldn't be a good idea until both of them had accepted the other as they were now. She was willing to wait for as long as needs be. Severus - Snape - it was still so strange to see the two of them at once, yet both were just as real - Severus seemed to have other ideas. He tugged at her hand slightly until she slid closer to him.
Looking up into his face, she took careful stock of his harsh, familiar features. Hair, dark and unkempt, eyes almost black, his pale skin seeming whiter still in the fading light. His, thin, expressive lips, parted ever so slightly as his eyes flicked to hers. Seeing him like this, his defences finally lowered, it was easy to see the boy she had once known. He was older, toughened and battle-scarred, but he was still there. He pulled her hand again, and she shifted almost to the edge of her seat as she closed the final distance between them
His mouth tasted like vinegar and salt, and the slightest hint of strong, milky tea. The angle of their chairs made it awkward and clumsy, but somehow all the more perfect. It was a gentle kiss; thorough, but unrushed, and so terribly sweet that she could already feel the ache of it beginning to form in her stomach. It wasn't until they broke apart that Hermione realised her fingers had bunched themselves into the cotton of his shirt as she had tried to pull him closer.
Hermione found herself remembering the morning, long ago, when they had sat together at this little table, sharing tea and toast. Sitting with him now, she found the memory didn't hurt so much any more; none of them did. He had looked after her so carefully before. Perhaps he would let her take care of him now.
It was probably equally unrealistic to hope that things would be easy for them, that the events of the war would fall away and that they would be able to simply focus on being together. To hope that real life would simply fit around the curious happenstance of their finding one another. It didn't matter, though. She was going to fight to keep him with every fibre of her being.
Hermione frowned at a sudden thought. She'd abandoned real life without explanation several hours before. If she was to learn how to balance the peace she had found with Severus with the life that awaited her beyond the condemned little street, then now was probably the time to begin.
She let her hands rest against his chest a moment longer, smoothing the creases in his shirt, before retrieving her wand and flicking it towards the dusty window. Severus paused in reaching for his tea, to watch the twisting plume of silver that emerged before it streaked off into the evening.
"It's alright," she reassured him. "I'm just letting Ginny know she can stop worrying." At his raised eyebrow she simply smiled and picked her fork back up.
"I've found my way back home."
. . . And that's it! Thank you all so very much for taking the time to read this story and my eternal gratitude to everyone who left reviews or added Fade to Grey to their favourites or alerts. I had an amazing time sharing this story and can't wait to do so again!