Nineteen Years Later
When Severus Snape woke, the pain was so intense that he couldn’t draw breath fast enough to scream. Not that he was still able to – he had screamed his throat so raw that his abused vocal chords couldn’t produce even a hoarse moan.
But the pain wasn’t the worst aspect of his condition; he was used to agony, after all.
It was the very fact that he could still wake at all that tormented him.
Though upon further reflection, he realised that this was merely in keeping with the misfortune haunting him since the day he was born.
He didn’t bother to open his eyes. Instead he allowed himself to sink back into oblivion. There was time for more pain later. And now that he had established to his chagrin that there would be a ‘later’ after all, the pain was inevitable. For the time being, unconsciousness was the option he preferred by far.
When he regained consciousness again, the pain had receded to a dull throbbing ache that enveloped him like his scratchy white blanket. Hesitantly, he inhaled, fully prepared for the sudden, piercing agony of broken ribs. But to his surprise, the resultant pain was tolerable. Most of all, he experienced a sensation of intense tightness wrapping around his upper torso. So while he was not healed, something had been done to him. And – while unpleasant – it didn’t feel like a new method of torture.
Strange. Wherever he was, almost no magic would work here. As far as he could tell, only healing spells and divination would be effective in this place.
His nostrils flared. The scent reminded him of something, of some when … long ago. At first he thought it must be a compound of the smell he had mentally catalogued as ‘Hogwarts, hospital wing’. However, that wasn’t quite correct. Whatever it was, he had smelt it before. But it was so long ago he could not recall where or why.
He fell asleep.
Severus woke slowly, fighting his way to awareness through a heavy haze. Drugs. But why would they drug him? He stirred stiffly. Then he forced his eyes open. Every blink felt as if he was grinding sand into the delicate tissue of his eyeballs. Suddenly lukewarm liquid – water – was dribbled into his eyes and carefully wiped outwards.
He gasped and hissed, and blinked even more vehemently. His vision swam in black and white spots. His throat burnt like fire, parched and raw, but at least he could produce sounds again.
“I have a concoction with lime and honey that ought to help your throat, Professor,” a warm voice said, a little to his right. A British accent, but obscured by many years of speaking a foreign tongue.
He blinked again, and finally he could make sense of his surroundings.
It was a hospital wing after all, with a long row of metal beds made up in starched white sheets and blankets, white walls, a grey lino floor and the acerbic scent of disinfectant tickling the back of his tongue. Still, something was off. He couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was, only that it was all wrong.
Awkwardly, he turned his head to see his companion.
Next to his bed sat a woman on a wooden stool. She was dressed in black robes, with the most perplexing headdress of Â a tight-fitting white cowl and a length of black fabric falling over her shoulders and down her back. She did not look like the keeper, jailer or torturer he had expected. He stared. No witch he had ever seen dressed like that.
Then it struck him. Of course – she was no witch. She was a Muggle. A Muggle nun!
A Muggle nun in a hospital wing. A nurse?
He exhaled, and some measure of tension drained away. Blinking again, the spy in him took over, as he analysed her features surreptitiously, trying to learn as much about her as possible. She was around thirty-five years old. She looked older, but her complexion was still too fine to put her beyond her fortieth birthday. A broad, heart-shaped face with strong brown eyebrows and a stubborn chin. Clear brown eyes. A nose that must have been horribly broken once, and which had healed crooked, giving her features a strangely wistful slant. And a wide, sensual, beautiful mouth.
“Careful, Professor. You had a car accident – you were seriously injured,” she cautioned him. “It will take a while for you to heal.”
“It was a lorry,” he corrected hoarsely. “And it wasn’t an accident.”
“You are very, very lucky to alive,” the nun agreed.
Belatedly, the form of address she had employed registered with him and chased away the last cobwebs of Muggle drugs obscuring his faculties. He shot up in bed and promptly groaned deep in his throat when broken bones and torn muscles protested the sudden movement.
“You -” he croaked. “You are dead.”
She nodded. “I am,” she agreed. Her voice had changed, calmed and softened. “And yet I am still here.” A spark lit up in the depths of her brown eyes. An expression once annoyingly familiar, now an almost forgotten grace.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. Then she smiled. “I thought I would never get the chance to thank you. And now here you are.”
“Thank me?” Dumbstruck, he gaped at her. “But I -“
Involuntarily, her fingers reached for her nose. When she noticed his eyes following her movement, she snatched her hand away. “I was already near death, sir. My magic taken, tortured, wounded. That you kicked me and wiped your shoes on my broken body did not make matters any worse than they were.” Again that crooked smile. “And that way you were able to plant the Portkey on me that transported me to safety eventually. Therefore: thank you.”
With a violent heave, his mouth filled with bile. He convulsed, attempting to turn on his side, but Hermione was quicker. With one arm, she supported his upper body, with the other she clasped an emesis basin. She never flinched, but held him securely.
When it was over and he lay limp on his pillow, she cleansed his face with a damp flannel that scented faintly of mint.
“I am sorry, sir. I should not have bothered you with such things so early in your recovery.” She gazed at him with earnest concern.
Irritably he attempted to shake his head, froze, and then just exhaled very gingerly. “No matter,” he whispered. Then, with a shaking hand, he gestured at her habit and at the long room they were in. “How?” he rasped. “Why?”
“The Portkey took me to the park next to the cathedral here. A priest found me. There is a monastery of the Benedictine Order, right next to the cathedral. The monks run a school, the nuns this hospital. We share the responsibilities concerning a shelter for the homeless. – They took me in, nursed me back to health. And when I refused to answer any questions, they let me be. I had no magic and no money. Nearly everyone I ever loved or cared about was dead. And without magic I would be nothing but a liability for the few that remained. Staying here seemed the smartest solution.” Again that crooked smile. “I am sure you remember my fondness for lost causes? Buckbeak. The house-elves.” The smile faded. “The Order, in a way.” She sighed. “As it turns out, the Muggle world has sufficient hopeless causes of its own to keep me busy.”
Then she shook herself a little. “I am so sorry, sir. You must be tired. Here, try to drink a little water. And then you should try to sleep some more.”
A mere three weeks later, he was hobbling on crutches and snarling at her when she tried to assist him. The curse Lucius Malfoy had used to take Hermione’s magic must have been not completely successful. Severus had heard other nuns talking about Hermione’s healing hands. And his own injuries, a ruptured gall bladder, broken ribs, compound fractures in both legs, a cracked skull … should certainly not have healed the way they did treated solely with Muggle means. Her magic – or at least a spark of the original blaze of her magic – must still reside within her.
“Where are you taking me?” he grumbled for the third time. “Why can’t you just let me be?”
“You need the exercise,” she explained calmly, for the fourth time. “The doctor said so. We are going to the cathedral.”
She moved ahead and slowly pushed open a huge wooden door that was adorned with an array of carved saints gazing at him woefully. “Come,” she urged.
He shook his head. But for some reason, he obeyed her command and laboriously shuffled after her.
Dim twilight enveloped him. Through high stained windows colourful rays of sunlight reached barely far enough to illuminate graceful gothic pillars and arches, growing higher than the trees of the Forbidden Forest. The shadows were different here. They offered a quiet, peaceful embrace instead of a hissing, menacing threat. The smoky scent of incense laced the air. From a chapel the muted sound of singing voices drifted over.
Ahead of him, Hermione’s robes whispered over the grey flagstones and tombstones that made up the floor.
She led him to a narrow chapel off the southern quire. A gilded baroque altar sported a darkening oil painting of a bearded saint with a medallion hung over his chest who carried an axe and a staff.
On the metal rack in front of the ornate fence that sheltered the chapel proper, a number of votive candles were burning.
Watching Hermione bend her knee and sketch the sign of the cross over her chest caused him an unexpected pang of pain. He had hoped against hope that she would live. That he had wished for more, that he had wished she could walk away from the graveyard of her youth to actually make a life for herself only proved what a fool he was.
“So?” he sneered.
“When I could walk again, Father JosÃ© showed me around the cathedral. He explained the chapels to me and their saints,” Hermione said calmly. “This is the chapel of Saint Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost and forgotten causes – also the patron saint of our hospital.”
Noticing that one candle was all but extinguished, she went to the rack and deftly lit a new one. “Ever since that day, I’ve been lighting candles here. For my dear ones. For the dead. For nineteen long years. I know the name to go with each candle on this rack by heart.” Her brown eyes were solemn, as she indicated each candle in turn. “My parents. Ron. Neville. Luna. Ginny. Fred and George. Professor Dumbledore. Professor McGonagall. Molly Weasley. Arthur Weasley. Kingsley Shacklebolt. Sirius. Remus. Tonks …” She went on and on.
Severus followed her from candle to candle, from name to name. All of them dead. All of them gone.
At last her gaze came to rest on two candles on the far right of the rack. Each candle looked pristine, adorned with an unwavering, bright flame.
For a moment she stared at the two candles in silence. Then she turned to face him. “After nineteen years and hundreds of candles, I can tell you exactly when I need to replace which candle at which time of the year. I know intimately when a certain draft in a certain month under certain conditions of weather and climate will make a certain candle burn down much faster than the next one, even though only a mere inch separates them.” Now her eyes were burning, too, with a brown-golden fire bright in their depths. “Do you see the two candles to the right there?”
He inclined his head.
“When do you think I have lit them?”
He was tempted to roll his eyes and sneer, but her tone was so solemn, so intense, that he merely commented, “Maybe this morning; or perhaps just before you forced me to leave my comfortable bed and hobble into this chilly church.”
She smiled. “I have lit them nineteen years ago, Professor,” she whispered. “Nineteen long years ago. And they are still burning as if I just lit them one minute ago.” Her eyes bored into him. As if she were able to pierce his heart with one look. Maybe she was.
“This one,” she went on, “is for Harry.”
A slender white candle. A bright, brilliant flame.
“And this one -” Hermione hesitated. Then she awkwardly reached for his hand and squeezed it. “This one is for you.”
His mouth went dry. Harry Potter was supposed to be dead. He had died in the final battle at Hogwarts in 1998. Everyone knew that.
And a candle for him? For the Death Eater, the most exalted confidante of the Dark Lord, his Second-in-Command and trusted Potions master and brewer of poisons? A candle for the man who had kicked her in the face, broken her nose, spat on her, used the torn robes that covered her cracked ribs as a door mat? Yes; he had attempted to save her then – but that did not make any of his deeds less heinous. A candle for him?
“Why?” Severus asked hoarsely.
Hermione shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they are just candles that burn very slowly. But personally, I think that this is a sign – a sign, that certain causes are not lost yet.”