Ignoring the hand tugging at his arm, Severus strode down the block, half-dragging Granger behind him. He could hear Weasley chortling in the background like a mad thing.
Finally, she wrenched her hand free, and he spun to face her where she stood obstinate in the centre of the pavement.
“How are you alive?” she demanded. “And where are you taking me?”
“I am taking you to the park, where I can answer your first question. However, if you really wish to discuss this with all of London passing by—” His glare encompassed the snarl of traffic as well as the irritated passers-by, swerving to avoid the pair. When she remained stubbornly still, he deliberately softened his approach. “Look, you were in an awkward spot back there, and I thought I’d help. If my assistance is unwelcome, though...”
“No! No, I appreciate it, I truly do.” Her fumbled thanks brought a smirk to his lips. Sometimes Gryffidors were so predictable. “But I don’t understand how you came to be there. Or here, for that matter.”
“All shall be revealed, once we’re in a place where we can speak freely.” He raked his hand through his short-cropped hair, doing his best to ignore Weasley’s whispered advice. “What were you doing, working in a place like that? If you’d asked me a week ago where I could find Hermione Granger, a working as a barista in a coffee bar in Muggle London wouldn’t even be on the list.”
“I don’t see how that’s your business,” she answered tersely.
“Right, then. My survival is none of your concern, either, unless I care to make it so. So shall we part company now?” He paused as Weasley growled angrily in his ear. Down boy. Let me handle her, Inner Severus told the spirit. “Or will we purchase chips from that van and have a picnic and civilised conversation in the park?” He queued for the chips van, not watching to see if she followed. His show of indifference decided her, though, and soon she was standing beside him in the queue. Weasley’s voice came again. “Nice... Why didn’t I ever learn how to do that?”
Fifteen minutes later, they were seated on a half-shaded bench in the park, looking out over the green. A sort of truce had been called while they consumed their lunches.
“Mmmmm. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this,” Granger said, not-very-discreetly licking a spot of grease from her finger.
“So I gathered.” Severus looked pointedly at her empty box. Giving her a “stay put” look, he gathered up their rubbish and carried it to a bin. “Be nice, Snape,” cautioned Weasley. When he returned, he sat so that he could pin her with his stare.
“Why are you here?”
“You brought me, remember? And anyway, shouldn’t I be asking you that question?” Ah, the truce was indeed over.
“I’ll explain my survival and current circumstances, but only on condition that you do the same.”
Her nod was the only reply he got.
“I survived through an accident of fate.” He chose his words carefully, knowing that Shivvy would blast him if he told the entire truth. Under no circumstances was she permitted to know of the existence of the Fates or of Weasley’s presence. “I wasn’t meant to... I didn’t mean to. But when I woke up alive instead of dead, it seemed that perhaps my luck had turned and I’d be able to have a life free of the weight of my youthful errors. To that end, I Transfigured an animal bone into a facsimile of my own corpse and left it to be found by the victors, whoever they might be. And then I Apparated to my home in Manchester, treated my wounds, and gathered up the materials I’d need to make a new life. I created a new identity for myself—Stephen Lang, Research Librarian—and manufactured credentials that would support my finding work in London. Three years later, here I am.”
“Didn’t you care about the battle? Don’t you care who won?” Her colour was high and her eyes were bright.
“Of course I did. I’d given over seventeen years of my life to bring about the Dark Lord’s downfall, and when it came down to it, I’d given my life itself. Not my fault that my death didn’t take.” Hermione’s indignation faded in the face of his anger.
“I—I’m sorry. You’re right, of course, and I’m being ungrateful.”
“In any case, I was able to deduce that the Dark Lord had been defeated simply because nothing happened in the Muggle world; in fact, things became calmer. For all I knew, though, your victory had resulted in a price being put on my head. It’s only recently that I learned that my name has been cleared.”
“A bit over six months ago, actually, is when the formalities were completed.” She looked down at her hands for a moment, then continued, “I returned to the Muggle world immediately after the Wizengamot made the declaration.”
“In response to that fact? In protest, perhaps?”
“No! No, it was the last thing that I needed to complete before I left. My fiancé died, and I couldn’t bear to stay.”
“Weasley? I heard that he’d been killed. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It happened two days before our wedding... the Wizengamot added your hearing to its schedule at the very last minute and called Harry and me to give testimony the next day. Ron wanted me to ask for a delay, because Fleur had volunteered to spend the day prettying me up for the wedding. But it had taken three months to get that hearing on the schedule, and we knew that they’d take advantage of any opportunity not to have to deal with us, so Harry and I decided to go. We argued, Ron walked out, and he never came back. We held a funeral instead of a wedding.” Her voice was dull, as if she were reciting an oft-repeated story.
She turned her eyes upon him, and they pierced his heart with the mixture of pain, guilt, and loss he saw. It was like looking into a mirror in those first years after Lily’s death.
“I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry that my defence took such a terrible toll on your life.”
“It isn’t your fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really, except for those two idiots who were duelling in the centre of Diagon Alley. It’s just...” She fell abruptly silent and resumed studying her hands.
He gave her a moment to compose herself, then asked, “Where are you living? I didn’t think you were a native Londoner.”
“Oh, no. I sold my parents’ home after the war and purchased a tiny flat in Chelsea when I moved to London. I’m comfortable enough, and it’s convenient to work.” She smiled wryly. “Or it was, anyway. I didn’t really need the job, but it was a reason to get up every day. I’m glad I don’t rely on the salary, as things turned out.”
Severus stared at her for a moment. Weasley wanted him to be kind, but he found her passivity infuriating. “Uh-oh,” Weasley said clearly. It pushed him over the edge.
“So, let me get this straight. You spent ten years struggling to be taken seriously in the wizarding world. You were given the best education our world could offer. You worked hard and you excelled. Most of your teachers would name you as the most gifted student they had ever taught... and some of them taught me. After the war, you were feted... you could have written your own ticket. You’d won the respect of everyone, even pure-bloods, by dint of talent and sheer hard work. And then you quarrelled with your lover, it ended badly, and you threw it all away. Isn’t that what happened, Miss Granger? You’ve run off to die alone somewhere, because it hasn’t all turned out according to plan.”
She gaped at him, flushing and paling in rapid succession.
“Weasley had potential. He was a good enough wizard with a decent mind. He’d never have reached it with you, though, because you and Potter both overshadowed him. And you... you were going to have to tone it down, weren’t you? Because Weasley didn’t like being overshadowed.” “Low blow, there, Snape!” Shut up, Weasley. “So the most brilliant witch of her age—of several ages—was going to hide her light under a bushel. She’d settle for a mediocre job so as to not outshine her husband. He’d settle for one because he had nothing to live up to. And two-thirds of the Golden Trio would in reality be tarnished brass. No heroes here, just move along.”
Weasley was screaming at him. Granger stared at him with stricken eyes.
“No wonder you broke your wand and crawled out here to die in the wilderness. It is a wilderness here, isn’t it, Miss Granger? The Muggle world; the site of your greatest sin. You destroyed your parents here in London, didn’t you?”
She finally found her voice.
“How dare you? How dare you? I didn’t destroy my parents, I saved them!” she cried shrilly.
“Did you? Then where are they, Miss Granger? Where are they?”
“They’re safe in Australia! They’re happy!”
“What are you doing, Snape? I swear, you’re not going to sleep for the next seventy years if you hurt her any further. I’ll make what’s left of your life a living hell, and then I’ll turn you over to Shivvy.” Weasley’s rant blended with Granger’s angry protest.
“They’re happy? Happy without their daughter? How can that be?” he demanded.
“They don’t remember me... they’re better off without me.” The anger seemed to drain out of her, and she collapsed back against the bench. “They’re better off without me.”
Just as quickly, his anger evaporated, as well. Weasley shut up. “Why? As I recall, they were proud of you and your accomplishments. I’m sure they’d be prouder still to know the woman you became.”
She shook her head. “Mr Moody gave me a spell to use to send them away, to protect them from Voldemort. It wiped their memories completely, replacing them with the identities and life events of completely different people. He didn’t tell me it was irreversible until after he’d relocated them to Australia.”
“Damn him.” Severus could feel Weasley nodding agreement beside him.
She sighed. “It was for their protection, I know that. I just wish there had been another way... You’re right. They trusted me, and I destroyed them. It was necessary; we found their names on Umbridge’s lists. But I can’t just excuse it based on that, can I? If we begin to accept that the end justifies the means, then where does it stop? What do we become?”
“It doesn’t stop. And we become Dumbledore. Or me.” He paused. Weasley had nothing to add. “Listen, Granger, and listen well. I know how you feel. All you want, having destroyed those you loved, is to die. Dumbledore was disgusted by me when he saw me wallowing in my own guilt and pain and spite. And rightly so... I was indeed disgusting. The difference between you and me is that I had Dumbledore to force me to stay. I didn’t run away from everything, however much I may have wanted to do so.”
“No? What are you doing here now, then?”
“I came here to build something, Granger, not to die. I’m living my life. I can’t say the same for you, though, can I?” he sneered.
“For God’s sake, Snape!” Weasley was angry again. Severus ignored him.
“It distresses me to see a witch of your abilities—a woman with your potential—creeping away into oblivion.” There. That sounded reasonable, didn’t it?
“I don’t know what you want from me.” She was staring at her fingers again as they twisted helplessly in her lap.
“Too many have died, or have wasted their lives.” “Like you, Snape,” Weasley jeered. Yes. Exactly like me. replied Inner Severus. “For now, I want you to find a reason to get up in the mornings that matters.”
“I’ve just lost my job, and I’m not really qualified for anything,” Hermione told her fingers.
“We’re always looking for volunteers to assist us at the library, if you would be interested in helping out there.”
She glanced up, a gleam of interest creeping into her eyes. Satisfied, Severus arranged for her to arrive in time for lunch on Monday and obtained her mobile number, providing his in turn. He watched as she walked to the edge of the park, turning only when she’d disappeared into the mass of people making their way to the Tube station.
As he began walking towards his exit, he snarled, “Was that kind enough for you, Weasley?”
A passing nanny looked at him, startled, and pushed her pram more quickly up the footpath.
Weasley, wisely, kept his silence.