The ensuing months were extraordinary ones for Severus. Not even during his friendship with Lily had his much-valued privacy been so thoroughly invaded.
Weasley stayed in the apartment for the most part, finding excursions to the library as boring in death as he had in life. But Granger... Well, Granger had somehow insinuated herself into both his work life and his private life quite thoroughly.
She had taken his words quite literally and appeared at the library each morning like clockwork. She sorted, shelved, and—once she had proven herself trustworthy to the Head Librarian, a woman who made Irma Pince look like a pussycat—catalogued. She volunteered to assist with research topics and became adept at tracking down on-line resources. She looked up hopefully every day at lunchtime—honestly, they were going to become obese if they continued their regular trips to the chippy—and accompanied him home for Indian take-away at least three nights a week. Of course, she was soon Moggy’s best friend, bringing him kitty treats every time she visited.
She beat Severus at Scrabble quite regularly, even when they played the wizarding version, which allowed spell names and potions ingredients. He, on the other hand, always beat her at chess. It was particularly helpful that Weasley would murmur hints into his ear when he was in danger of losing. Sometimes it truly was useful to have an invisible, inaudible roommate.
For some reason, Hermione never sat in Weasley’s chair.
As the months passed, he came to know her as well as he’d ever known anyone. And to be known by her, in return. It was most uncomfortable.
One November night as they left the cinema, an owl found her. She took the letter from the creature and fed it some leftover crisps before it flew away. She examined the envelope and slipped it into her pocket without opening it.
“It’s from Harry,” she confessed.
“Does he write often?” She’d never indicated that she had any contact at all with anyone in the wizarding world.
“Every Tuesday.” She bit her lip, and her hand strayed to the pocket where the envelope rested.
“Yes, I know.” She pulled it back out and broke the seal with her finger. As she held it to the light and read, her face flooded with colour. She thrust the heavy parchment at him and turned away.
He read, wincing. “He’s getting married in June.”
“And he wants you to return. Hermione...”
“He knows I can’t. I’ve told him I can’t go back.”
“Hermione, he needs you.”
“Not yet, Severus. I just can’t even think about it now. I’m sorry.”
Not now, then. But when?
They shared Christmas at her flat. She cooked—nothing special, she assured him—and they opened gifts in front of the tiny tree she had set up in her front window.
“What are those?” he asked, nodding towards a small pile of gifts still waiting beneath the tree.
“Oh, they arrived this morning.” She avoided his eyes. “I didn’t really feel up to opening them; I wanted to have a happy day.”
He knew how to handle her now. He merely sat silently, waiting for her to find the right words.
“They’re from Harry and the Weasleys. I read the cards, but I couldn’t bring myself to open the gifts.”
“Why not? I can’t imagine that they were unkind.”
“No, they were just really insistent that I join them tonight. Even though they knew I wouldn’t, as shown by the fact that they sent the gifts.” She sounded unbearably weary.
A long pause, and then she burst out, “I just wanted to spend Christmas without ghosts. Was that too much to ask?”
“I don’t think Weasley—”
“It’s not just Ron. It’s the children. All day, I’ve been seeing the children.” She dropped into a chair and pulled her knees up against her chest, burying her face in the denim covering them.
He crouched in front of her. “Tell me about them, Hermione. Tell me about the children.”
Her voice, when it came, was muffled. “He wanted two children, a boy and a girl. Rose and Hugo. He told me all about the trouble they’d get into... I think he was trying to frighten me, but... well... I could see them. I could feel them in my arms. I saw their first Christmases. I pictured Rose, leaving for Hogwarts with Harry’s son. I heard Hugo singing. They were so real...” A sob broke through. “And then Ron was gone, and so were they. My babies. Gone, and it’s all my fault.”
For the first time, he gathered her close. “Not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
“I can never go back home. I see their ghosts everywhere,” she sobbed.
“Ssshhhhh, you can. You will, when you’re ready. I promise.”
It struck him, one rainy March day as they sat reading in his sitting room, that this had been going on for over six months.
“You’ve got to go back, Hermione. It’s time.”
“No, Severus. I’m happy here. I belong here with you and Moggy.”
“No...” He shook his head sadly. “No, you don’t. Not really.”
“Have I offended you, that you want me to go away? Am I a burden to you?” She stood and began gathering her belongings, dropping them into her handbag one by one. He reached out, catching her hand between both of his.
“Hermione. Sit down. Listen to me, please.”
She dropped back into her chair, clutching the bag to her chest. “Don’t send me away, Severus. Please don’t send me away. I have nowhere—”
“You have home,” he interrupted. He swallowed to clear the lump that had lodged itself in his throat. Hoarsely he continued, “There are people who love you and miss you there. People whom you love in return. You belong there: it’s your home, and that’s where you’ll find your true happiness.”
“But what about you?”
“This is my home. And I’m as happy here as I have ever been in my life. I’ve built something for myself here, and my soul is my own. There’s nothing for me there. But you...” He swallowed again. “You will be welcomed back with open arms. They’re your family, Hermione. They’re incomplete without you, and you’re incomplete without them.”
It was the measure of how far they’d come that she studied his face gravely, searching for some sign of doubt. Weasley was silent, but Severus was acutely aware that he was hanging on their every word.
“And if I think you’re wrong? If I think my place is here?”
“You’d be wrong.” He took a deep breath. “Do you really believe that?”
Her eyes dropped.
“I think you want to believe I’m wrong. But I think that you know I’m right.”
“I don’t know what to do. You’re my best friend.” Her voice wavered.
“I’m your best friend here. And I always will be. But you have another best friend back there, and he needs you, too.” Weasley grunted his agreement. “This doesn’t have to be goodbye, Hermione. Au revoir will do.”
She nodded slowly. “Yes... yes, I suppose it will.”