Continuing Tales

The Buried Life

A Harry Potter Story
by Kalina Lea

Part 26 of 27

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Even if she hadn't been in love with him, Hermione would have had to admire the way Severus Snape handled himself in the aftermath of Horatio Barter's death. He had been imprisoned, tortured by the dementors, confined in a cave, and then presented with one of the greatest shocks of his life, yet he still was able to think quickly and effectively about what needed to be done next. She, on the other hand, felt unequal to formulating the simplest of sentences. Had it been left up to her, they might have stood in the cave forever with their mouths hanging open.

Her eyes were drawn to the lifeless body of Horatio Barter. She had known that man in life, albeit briefly. She had stood next to him at a dinner party in her prettiest robes and had felt a thrill when she had learned that he owned a publishing company. It was different, somehow, than seeing Neilus Finbar dead. Finbar had been little more than a name and, briefly, the hand holding the wand that tortured her. Horatio Barter had been a real person, someone who might have been one of her parents' friends. As she had told Severus, he had been nice.

Except that he hadn't been nice at all. Even though she thought she had already acknowledged that fact, there was a childish part of her that refused to believe until she actually looked into Barter's dark eyes as he threatened her. Killing her meant nothing to him. Beneath the patina of wealth and respectability beat the cold heart of a man who was beyond redemption.

Severus was right: There was no other way.

Even as she acknowledged that truth, she recognized that the revelation of Barter's true colours had not been the greatest shock of the day. Rather, it had been the sight of Albus Dumbledore stooping in the dirt to close the dead man's eyes. It was beyond comprehension. She knew she would need to take it out and look at it from every angle, to make sense of it a little at a time, but just then it seemed impossible.

While she was certain the sight had been no less shocking to Severus, fortunately it hadn't paralysed him.

"Where is Potter?" he asked. His tone was brisk, insisting that they all focus on what needed to be done.

"He and Gregor King are both lying stunned outside of the cave," Albus said. "They do not otherwise appear to have been harmed."

"Let's collect them, then, and be gone from here." He stepped over to Barter and picked up Hermione's wand, but he didn't return it to her. He looked at the Headmaster. "Albus, did you use your wand?"


"Good. Take Hermione out, if you please. I'll follow in a moment."

Dumbledore frowned at his Potions Master. "What are you up to, Severus?"

"Horatio's body mustn't be discovered. Trust me, Albus. I learned a few things from the Finbar debacle."

Dumbledore paused for a moment, as if undecided, but in the face of Severus's unwavering stare, he nodded and reached out to Hermione. "Come, child. Let's go awaken your friends."

Against all reason, Hermione was frightened at the thought of leaving Severus alone with Barter. After all the man had put them through, it seemed quite possible that he might arise and once again get the upper hand. Ignoring her long habit of obedience to the Headmaster, Hermione took a step closer to Severus.

Severus brushed her cheek gently with the backs of his grimy fingers and said one word: "Go."

It was the soft touch that did it, as he had surely known it would. She went, trailing reluctantly behind Dumbledore.

They found Harry face down outside the entrance to the cave, his wand still clasped in his hand. Barter had obviously come upon him from behind. Fawkes was stationed just beside Harry as if standing guard, but he soared into a nearby tree as Dumbledore approached to awaken the fallen wizard with a clap of his hands. Harry's eyes opened immediately, and he scrambled to his feet in obvious confusion. "Hermione…Professor. Where's Snape?"

"Professor Snape will be along in just a moment, Harry," Dumbledore said, and Hermione felt a bubble of hysteria rise when she realized that the Headmaster had placed his usual corrective emphasis on Severus's title. Dumbledore moved from Harry to Gregor, who was laying a few metres away.

"Wait!" Severus said, emerging from the tunnel.

Dumbledore looked up. "Yes?"

"We need to decide what to do about him." Severus nodded in Gregor's direction. "It might perhaps be best for everyone - him included - if he has no memory of these events."

Dumbledore frowned at that. "Severus, I dislike the idea of…"

"Albus, the boy has behaved admirably. I have taken measures to ensure that Barter's death here will not be discovered, but if it is, would you have him implicated?"

"No, perhaps you're right," Dumbledore agreed heavily. "I will bow to your greater experience in these matters."

"What exactly happened, sir?" Harry asked.

"We will discuss that later," Severus said firmly. "At the moment, we need to get away from here. Barter might have told someone that he was coming, and it wouldn't do for any of us to be found." He looked from Harry to Hermione. "How did you two get here?"

"We Apparated," Hermione said. "Remus taught us."

He gave her a sharp look at that but then nodded. "Good. Albus, can you Apparate with Mr. King?"

"Of course."

Severus handed Hermione her wand and stooped to retrieve Gregor King's before giving Dumbledore a questioning look.

Dumbledore seemed to know what Severus meant. "My cottage," he said. "We'll be safe there for a time."

Severus nodded and glanced at Hermione and Harry.

"See you there," Harry said, and moments later they all were standing in Dumbledore's sunlit vacation home, with the exception of Gregor. Dumbledore dispatched him to one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Hermione wanted to weep with the sense of homecoming and to rush around embracing the charmed furnishings as old friends. She had been whisked from nightmare to fantasy, in a twinkling. She automatically moved toward Severus and then paused, hurt, when he took a step away from her.

"There is much to discuss," he said quietly, "but since we are safe here for a while, I would like to clean up a bit first. Albus, may I use your shower?"

"Of course."

Severus nodded and swept off in the direction of the bookcase. Even grimy and unshaven he had a presence that was overwhelming, and she watched him with starved eyes as he left the room.

§ § § §

Severus began unfastening his robes even before the bookcase slid shut behind him. He had never been known for strict adherence to personal hygiene, but even his fairly low standards were compromised by time in Azkaban followed by imprisonment in a cave. He felt disgusting, frankly, and couldn't get out of his filthy clothes fast enough. He left a trail of clothing across the bedroom and was naked by the time he got to the bath. He stepped immediately into a steaming shower, welcoming the stinging spray against his sore muscles, and stood there for several minutes, eyes closed, just letting the water pound him.

Hermione…Albus…Potter. All waiting for him just outside. He hadn't wanted to be in Azkaban - of course he hadn't - but there had been a part of him that had welcomed the finality of it. He had lived in the shadow of Azkaban, or death itself, for so many years that in a way it had been a relief to finally have it over with. Now he was free, but at the cost of living in the shadow once again. He wasn't at all sure it was worth it.

But he had a responsibility to each of the three people in the next room, and having battled his fate for so long, simply giving into it was unthinkable. Azkaban might yet claim him, and death certainly would, but neither would get him now without a fight. He knew what it had cost Albus Dumbledore to save him - twice - and he could not repay that debt by resigning himself to prison. No, he had to fight, and in this case, fight and flight were one and the same. Albus would understand that, and Potter, too, perhaps better than anyone. But Hermione…

He tried to shake off the memory of the way Hermione's eyes had followed him out of the room. He didn't want to think about that at all. It was easier to stand in the scalding water and hope that Albus had cast a happily-ever-after charm on the infernal place and that for once, his difficulties would simply be washed away.

But of course, all that washed away was the top layer of grime. He reached for Albus' soaps to rid himself of the rest, sure that his troubles were all still waiting for him just outside the door…bookcase…whatever. He towelled himself dry and was on his way out of the bathroom when he glanced at the fogged mirror – some impulse drove him to wipe it clean. His hand made wide streaks through the condensation, briefly making things worse instead of better, but after a minute the mirror began to clear and he leaned in to examine his face. He knew he had never been a handsome man, and now he was too thin and badly in need of a shave. He should have looked dreadful, but thanks to the three people on the other side of the bookcase, the reflection in the mirror was enhanced by love and respect and caring. He still wasn't attractive, exactly, but he looked likeable, approachable. He knew he would never look quite so good again.

He used Gregor's wand to deal with the shave, since Albus' ancient razor appeared better suited for slicing through the underbrush whilst on a safari. He glanced down at his filthy discarded robes and realized that he would need Muggle clothing. It took him a moment to remember that the third drawer of the dresser was charmed to provide whatever clothing was desired by the person who opened it – one of Albus' more useful charms. He was soon dressed in trousers and a white shirt.

He reached for Gregor's wand, tapped the wall, and the bookcase slid open noiselessly.

§ § § §

Once Severus had gone, Dumbledore recovered himself sufficiently to play host; he produced tea and biscuits for his guests before settling into his favourite chair before the fire. Hermione noticed somewhat irritably that the chair seemed to embrace him the moment he sat down.

Harry and Hermione had little wish for tea but accepted out of habit, Harry taking the opposite chair and Hermione curling into one end of the sofa. Harry was the first to speak.

"What happened while I was stunned, sir?"

"Well, Harry, I arrived at the island to find you and Gregor King outside the cave. I was concerned, of course, and left Fawkes to stand guard over you while I went to look for Severus and Hermione. When I found them, Barter was threatening them…had taken Hermione's wand. I revealed myself to Severus when Barter's back was turned, and he was able to keep Barter talking so that he wouldn't hear my approach."

Harry's mouth fell open. "So you're the one who…?"

"Yes, Harry. I killed Horatio Barter." Dumbledore didn't sound apologetic, nor did he sound proud of his actions. He simply offered the truth. "It seemed the best choice at the time."

"It was, sir," Hermione said. "If you'd let him live, he wouldn't have been punished - you've seen how Fudge treats him - and sooner or later, he'd have found someone to make that potion for him. That's why he kidnapped Severus, you know. None of us would have ever been safe if you'd let him live."

"Perhaps not," Dumbledore agreed soberly. "As I said, it seemed the best choice at the time, and perhaps it will seem that way in hindsight as well. It is done, at any rate, and I am profoundly glad that you're all safe."

"How did you find us?" Hermione asked. She had been wondering that ever since he had appeared in the tunnel. At the time, it had seemed nothing short of miraculous.

"Fawkes led me to you," he told her, gesturing to the phoenix who was perched contentedly nearby. "I am not certain how he knew, but he has come to Harry's aid before; when he let me know that I needed to accompany him, I did so without question. He guided my Apparition to the island and led me straight to Harry."

Harry was still staring at Dumbledore, obviously as stunned as Hermione had been by the fact that the Headmaster had cast a killing curse. "Harry?" Hermione prodded. "Do you know how you managed to call Fawkes?"

"Er…no, I suppose I don't," Harry said, rejoining the conversation with some effort. "When Fawkes came to the Chamber of Secrets, you said it was because I'd shown you great loyalty, but I hadn't really done that today. I mean," he shot Dumbledore an apologetic look, "I wouldhave, of course, if it had come up, but Barter stunned me before I even knew he was there."

The Headmaster made a thoughtful sound as he looked at his bird. "I've often wished that Fawkes could speak. Perhaps we'll never know how he found you. I'm just grateful that he did."

"Actually," Severus said, re-entering the room, "I can probably clear that up."

They all looked up, startled, at the sound of Severus' voice, and Hermione reached out to him with one hand, urging him to come to her. He paused and seemed undecided for a moment but then joined her on the sofa, sitting next to her without actually touching her.

"Well?" Harry asked.

"I assume you got the package I left for you," Severus said. When Harry nodded and lifted his wand slightly, Severus went on. "I arrived early for a meeting with Albus one day and took advantage of the opportunity to ask Fawkes for a new feather. It was before I knew I'd be going to Azkaban, but I had promised you I would help you disappear, and I knew that you'd need a new wand. I didn't expect him to give it to me, actually." Severus shrugged slightly. "I just thought as long as I was there, it wouldn't hurt to ask. He turned his back to me, and I thought that was a 'no' - I felt bloody foolish about it. I had already started to turn away when I caught sight of the feather falling to the ground."

"So he just gave it to you?" Harry said.

"He gave it to you," Severus answered. "I told him who it was for, and why."

"That's interesting, but it still doesn't explain how Fawkes found me," Harry pointed out.

Dumbledore smiled slightly for the first time since they had arrived at the cottage. "I believe your godfather must have put a charm of some sort on the feather. Am I right Severus?"

Severus nodded. "A tracking charm, from the feather to its source, so that if Potter was ever in great need, Fawkes would know it and be able to find him."

"You had no right to do that!" Harry exclaimed hotly. "You promised to help me run away, not to keep me on some magical leash to the Headmaster's office."

"I am well acquainted with your proclivity for getting into trouble, Mr. Potter. It was my hope that the charm might save your miserable life in the event that the rest of us were too far away to do so. And if I'm not mistaken, it worked perfectly. Since Hermione's life – and my own – happened to be very close to yours at the time, I can't find it in me to apologize."

"Well you can bloody well take it off," Harry snapped. "Or else I'll get a whole new wand. It's a bit hard to blend in with the Muggles when you've got a bird that looks like Fawkes showing up every time you bang your shin." He slashed angrily at the air with his wand, and several books flew from the nearby bookshelf, one narrowly missing Dumbledore's pointed hat, while a nearby lamp shattered and then quickly repaired itself.

Severus raised his eyebrows and smirked but didn't comment. "Very well. Just know that the next time you're stunned from behind - something that seems to be becoming quite a habit with you, incidentally - you'll be on your own."

"Perhaps we could digress for just a moment," Dumbledore said, interrupting the sparring. "What is all this about Harry going to live with the Muggles?"

Harry glanced guiltily at Snape and Hermione and then faced Dumbledore. "Professor Snape agreed to help me run away again, sir," he said. "I told him that I didn't want to live in the wizarding world any more."

"He's old enough to make that choice, Albus," Severus said. Hermione couldn't tell whether he was defending Harry's plans or his own complicity with them.

"Yes," Dumbledore said, nodding and looking at Harry over the rims of his glasses. "Yes, you are, Harry. And while I am disappointed, I can't say I'm surprised. The wizarding world has not shown you its best side in these last few years. Perhaps some time away from it would be good for you, particularly in light of recent events."

"As to that…" Snape said.

"Yes." Dumbledore sighed heavily. "We must consider what is to be done with you, Severus. As much as I would like to have you return to your dungeon, I fear that option is not available to you."

"No," Snape said. "I hadn't expected that it would be. And with Barter dead, there's no way to prove that I didn't manage to escape somehow. If I'm found…well."

In the silence following that statement, Hermione reached hesitantly across the few centimetres that separated her and Severus and tangled her fingers with his. It was a few seconds before she felt the reassuring pressure of his response, but when it came she felt something tight in her chest begin to loosen. She had expected that once he was found they would throw themselves into one another's arms, but for every step she took toward him, he seemed to take a step back. She had wanted to lean into him as they sat beside one another, but it was as if he had erected an invisible barrier, and she sensed that her touch would be unwelcome. It had only been a few weeks since they'd been together in this same cottage - their bodies pressed together, their limbs intertwined as they talked and laughed and kissed and dreamed. So much had happened since then that the weeks seemed years - and she wasn't the one recently out of Azkaban. She told herself that was why he seemed strange. It was because of his recent experiences and nothing to do with her, or how he felt about her.

The slight press of his hand on hers made all of her excuses believable and gave her the courage to relax into his side. He drew his hand from hers and put his arm around her, pulling her closer and drawing his fingers gently through her hair. Her tears came then, silent tears of relief and joy that dampened the front of his shirt.

"Where will you go?" Dumbledore asked quietly.

"No one place for very long, I imagine," Snape answered. "I don't relish the idea of living among the Muggles, but I suppose I'll have to for a while."

"I will work tirelessly to bring about your full pardon, Severus. I won't rest until it is safe for you to come back to us."

"As long as Fudge is Minister, you'll find that a difficult task."

"Nevertheless, I will see it done."

"I'll not maintain contact with you," Severus said. "I won't put you in that danger."


"No, Albus. If Fudge had the slightest reason to believe that you helped me to escape, he could make things very difficult for you, and you're needed too much at Hogwarts to risk that. I won't have the threat that hangs over me hanging over anyone else."

Hermione felt his fingers go still in her hair as he said this last, and she pulled away from him so that she could meet his eyes. "I'm going with you," she said quietly, firmly.

"No." He shook his head slightly.


He sighed and closed his eyes. "You have too much promise…I won't have you throw everything away for a life in hiding."

"Damn you!" she said, glaring at him with real anger. "I don't care about any of that!"

"Then I'll care enough for both of us." He sounded exhausted but resolute.

"You're not in charge anymore," she snapped. "And I'm not some student you can order about while you perfect your martyr act. This is notjust your decision."

"Hermione." The room had narrowed to just the two of them, and the intrusion of Dumbledore's voice startled her. "Severus is right. He needs to be able to travel quickly and easily. Two will be more easily remarked than one."

"Actually," Severus said, "I was thinking of taking Potter with me."

"What?" she exclaimed, outraged. "You want to run off with Harry and leave me behind?"

"Potter is already planning to leave and has good reasons for doing so," Severus said quietly. "He, too, is facing a Ministry inquiry and is quite guilty of the crime he is accused of having committed. However, his last foray into the Muggle world was an unmitigated disaster. He is not, in my opinion, ready to be on his own."

"I don't need a babysitter," Harry snapped.

"Yes, Mr. Potter, you do," Snape returned, glancing pointedly at the books on the floor. "And I am bound by my obligations as your godfather and as your teacher to make sure that you learn to control your considerable abilities before being sent out into the world. I had hoped that by arranging your independent study your training would be accomplished, even in my absence. Now, however, it makes little sense for you to return to Hogwarts. We will leave together, and you will study with me."

"You can't make me," Harry said, sounding like a sulky child.

Snape merely raised an eyebrow at him. "I think I'll leave you to discuss that with the Headmaster," he said. "Hermione and I will step outside for a few moments."

He stood and offered her his hand, and she took it, despite her acute feelings of betrayal and anger. She had spent every waking minute working on trying to get him free so that they could be together, and now he was telling her that he wanted to leave her behind. It made her furious, but not so furious that she would spurn his touch after all they'd been through. She let him lead her out the door.

§ § § §

Harry watched Hermione and Snape leave and then turned to Dumbledore. "You want me to go with him, don't you?"

"If you must go, then yes, I would prefer that you travel with Professor Snape for a while – for both your sakes," Dumbledore answered. "He can give you the training that you need, and you can help him learn to live amongst the Muggles, something he's never done before. It will be difficult for him."

That put a bit of a different spin on things, actually. Harry hadn't considered that travelling with Snape would be anything other than a dictatorship. He rather liked the idea that he had some experience that Snape didn't. But still, to live with Snape

Dumbledore obviously saw that he wasn't convinced, so he tried another angle. "Harry, I feel that I have failed you," he said sadly. "I don't blame you for wanting to leave – needing to leave – but I am loathe to send you out unprepared, particularly when that lack of preparation is due entirely to my own short-sightedness. I had hoped that certain lessons wouldn't be necessary for you, but I realise that I was naïve. I believe that Sirius saw that, and it is why he selected Severus Snape as your godfather. Sirius knew that you weren't ready to be on your own, and he believed that Severus had something to offer you. Please have faith in Sirius's judgment, even if you have lost your faith in mine."

"No, sir!" Harry said quickly. "I haven't ever..." He looked away briefly as he tried to work up his nerve to say what he really felt. "I thought you were disappointed in me…for what I did to Pettigrew and for running away like such a prat. I've always wanted to be like you, but I don't think I ever really will be."

"Nor do you need to be," Dumbledore said gently. "You have done quite well so far just being Harry Potter. You are more than capable of being the hero of your own life, Harry. You don't need me to fill that station."

"That day in the infirmary…"


"You asked me if Voldemort was the first person I had ever killed…asked me how I felt."

"And now you want to ask me those same questions." Dumbledore said perceptively.

"Well, yes, sir. If you don't mind, that is."

"You've earned the right ask me whatever you wish, Harry, particularly as our time together is drawing short." Dumbledore appeared to gather his thoughts for a moment, and then he answered. "No, Horatio Barter is not the first person I killed, as I'm sure Professor Binns taught you at some time or another. I killed Grindelwald back in 1945 and two other men in my youth, when I was still learning about what it meant to wield power."

"Professor Binns just told us that you were involved in the battle against Grindelwald. He sort of…skipped over the details, now that I think about it." Harry didn't add that he might have fallen asleep that day. He didn't think he had, but with Professor Binns there was always that possibility.

"Professor Binns no doubt knows that I prefer to be remembered for other things, but that doesn't mean that I want to re-write history. I discovered early in life, Harry, that regardless of my capabilities, I have no taste for killing or for Dark Magic. I have avoided both, perhaps too assiduously. I killed Grindelwald as a last resort, after watching many of my friends fall. Even so, and even as I was celebrated throughout the wizarding world, I was tormented by the act…convinced I should have found another way. A part of me feels that way about Horatio Barter already, but I knew today that I couldn't stand by and let another monster gain a foothold in our world whilst I searched for alternative methods of battling evil. We have not yet recovered from Voldemort's most recent rise. We are not strong enough to fight another Dark Lord. And yet, that's not the only reason I killed him. At the very moment I cast the curse, I think I killed him because he was threatening two innocent people, two people I cared about, and I had the power to stop it. I took no joy in the act, but neither do I regret it at the moment."

Harry had lost count of how many times he had felt utterly humbled in the Headmaster's presence. He didn't think any of them approached that moment, when Albus Dumbledore willingly stepped down from the pedestal Harry had had him on for years and admitted to his own doubts and human frailties - let him see that he, too, lived a life defined by shades of grey. It was one of those moments that divided time and altered Harry's perspective forevermore. Dumbledore had spent more than six years teaching him how to be a wizard, but Harry realized that he should have been paying more attention to t t he lessons on how to be a man.

"Thank you, sir," he said softly. "You've made me feel better about some things."

"I'm glad," Dumbledore said. "Remember, Harry, that I was already an old man by the time I defeated Grindelwald. You faced Voldemort while still little more than a boy. You have earned the right to step away for a while - to understand your own capabilities and decide how you want to use them. But do consider letting Professor Snape help you along that path."

Harry nodded, knowing that the decision was already made. Severus Snape wouldn't have been his first choice of a companion in exile, but he was a logical choice - Harry had to admit that - and even being with Snape might be preferable to being alone. "Yes, sir. I'll go with Professor Snape."

Dumbledore gave him a fleeting smile. Of course, he, too, had known that the decision was made. "We will miss you, Harry, but I have the feeling that you'll return to us one day. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but I do think you'll return. There is a place for you in our world - a place that's been yours since the day you were born - if only you will come and take it."


Dumbledore held up a hand. "There is no need to say anything. I only want you to know that you are not closing any doors by leaving us now."

Harry nodded, relieved by Dumbledore's words but not quite willing to admit it. He had to leave before he could know if he would ever want to come back. He was grateful that Dumbledore seemed to understand that.

§ § § §

In spite of her feelings, Hermione's hand tightened on Severus' as they walked out onto the patio - another homecoming. She had no idea where they were, she realized. Not in Ireland any more, surely. They could be anywhere in the world, but the gentle slope of lawn leading down to the pond was the same. The place where she'd sat the first night they'd really talked. The place where he'd held her for the first time.

The place where they would say goodbye.

She knew it, somehow. It was in his touch and his posture and in everything he hadn't said and done since she'd found him in the cave. He was retreating from her, drawing away, back into the lonely place where she'd found him, and she was powerless to stop it. He had been in control since that first day in the Leaky Cauldron, not because he had made it a condition of taking her along but because she was intelligent enough to know that she had a lot to learn. Now he had the power to leave her behind and she realized that there was nothing she could do about it. She had been bluffing inside; it was his decision. She had convinced him before with her tenacious arguments and her fierce determination – to let her help search for Harry, to let her go to the cottage with him. She knew that this time he would not be swayed. The one who was willing to walk away always had the upper hand.

He led her to their familiar spot in the grass and once again pulled her against him. His arms went around her, binding her to him as he buried his face in the curve of her neck. She felt him shudder, and her throat constricted.

"No," she whispered.

"I'm sorry."

"Severus, please." She would beg if she had to.

"You cannot come with me," he said. "Three of us travelling together would be too easily remarked, even with disguises, and I would sooner be back at Azkaban than live with the knowledge that I put you at risk. I won't ask Potter to live with that either."

"He said he won't go with you."

"He will." Severus sighed. "It appears that once again the Fates are having a laugh at my expense and that I will be stuck with Harry Potter for a while longer. I assure you that he is not my Gryffindor of choice, but he wants training, and I can give him that."

She couldn't argue with that, actually, and she felt a great deal better about Harry knowing that Severus would be with him, at least for a while. But that didn't mean she was content to be left behind. "Let me know where you're going," she pleaded. "I'll finish school and then join you. Perhaps it will be safer then."

"Perhaps, but there's no way of knowing, and if they should call you before the Magistrate and administer Veritaserum, I want you to be able to say that you have no idea where we are."


"I'm sorry, Hermione. As I said in my letter, I should never have allowed myself to get close to you."

She twisted in his arms so that she could face him. "You can't live your life that way."

"Of course I can," he said harshly. "I have for years and never should have stopped." He shook his head and reached to cup her chin with one gentle hand as his voice softened. "This never should have happened."

"Don't say that," she said, jerking away from him, feeling herself start to cry. "You're just looking for excuses, aren't you? Excuses to crawl back in that hole you've been hiding in! But Professor Dumbledore promised he would see you pardoned…"

"He might not accomplish that for years - or at all - and I won't have you waiting for me."

"I love you, Severus." That simple truth was all the argument she had, really, with the tears on her cheeks as evidence. She loved him and she wanted to be with him. He loved her and wanted to leave her behind. And somehow, they were both right.

"Foolish girl." Those two whispered words had made their way from admonition to endearment, and now they were a mixture of both. She flew at him with a cry of frustration and fury, clutching at his shirt and the skin of his chest beneath. Not caring if it hurt. Wanting it to. His fingers closed around her wrists and pulled her hands away before he moved swiftly to crush his mouth to hers, swallowing her sobs and absorbing her shudders with his own lean frame. The kiss turned savage as they raged against the parting that was to come. He pressed her into the soft grass, pinning her with his weight and moving against her with no more reservation than a wild creature mating in the forest. His bruised mouth left hers and attacked her neck, her ear, her jaw, as she wrenched one wrist free and clawed at his back through the fabric of his shirt. She cried out as his teeth made contact with tender skin, and he drew back and looked at her, panting, sanity returning to tame the wildness in his eyes.

"Damn you," she whimpered between ragged breaths. "Finish what you start."

"I can't," he managed, shaking his head slightly and pulling away. "I can't."

She wasn't sure if the emotion that scalded her in the wake of his quiet words was love or hate, but she knew with deep certainty that she would never feel anything so intense again. She wanted to scream, to rage, to cry, but their passion had moved them into an isolated place no words or tears would reach.

They returned to the cottage with bits of grass still clinging to their hair and clothes, the marks of their fierce goodbye still visible on their skin.

She didn't care.

§ § § §

All it took was a glance for Hermione to see that Harry had agreed. He would be going with Severus. Severus apparently saw it too because he didn't bother to ask, just declared brusquely that they needed to leave as soon as possible.

Harry nodded and rose from his seat, approaching Hermione with a stricken look. Just as she had known that he would give in to Severus' wishes, he seemed to know that she would be left behind. He pulled her into his arms and held her, but in the face of so much to say, they said almost nothing at all. "Thank you," he whispered. "Take care of Remus for me. And Hedwig…she's yours now."

She nodded into his shoulder but couldn't speak. Later, during the course of a hundred sleepless nights, she would compose lengthy speeches to him - odes to their friendship, entreaties to be careful, profound thanks for sharing the loves and laughs and pains of the last six years. At that moment, she couldn't think of a single thing to say, and even if she'd been able to come up with something brilliant, it wouldn't have made it past the lump in her throat.

He pulled away from her, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself and stood to one side as he embraced Dumbledore and received the Headmaster's gentle thanks and praise. "Your parents would be very proud of you, Harry," Dumbledore said. "Never doubt that. I hope that you'll return to us one day, but more than that, I hope that you find happiness, wherever life takes you."

"Thank you, sir," Harry said hoarsely. "Thank you for everything."

Dumbledore squeezed Harry's shoulder briefly and then turned to Severus. "The entire wizarding world owes you a great debt, Severus, and I'm profoundly sorry that we've repaid it so poorly. I will miss you, my friend, and I will not rest until it is safe for you to return home."

"There's no debt, Albus," Severus answered quietly. "I know what it cost you to do what you did today." The two men embraced quickly and somewhat awkwardly, and then Severus stepped away.

"We should all go now," he said, not looking at Hermione. "You need to return to Hogwarts before dinner is served and Potter and I need to be on our way. I assume you'll take care of Gregor?"

Dumbledore nodded. "I'll have to alter his memories, I'm afraid, but after that I'll make sure that he gets home safely."

Severus nodded. "Good. Potter and I will disapparate from outside." He glanced at Harry. "It's time."

She didn't expect him to come to her. She thought there was nothing left to add to what had transpired between them outside, and part of her shied away from the thought of any further contact. Even the gentlest touch is painful to an open wound.

But he crossed over to her and pulled her into his arms; though she did feel the pain, it was worth it to feel his touch one last time. "I told you outside that this never should have happened," he murmured into her hair. "And that's true for more reasons than I can count."

He pulled away and framed her face gently with his hands, forcing her to look at him. "But in spite of that…I'm glad it did."

She nodded and bit her lip, unable to speak, and with a brush of dry lips across her brow, he was gone.

The Buried Life

A Harry Potter Story
by Kalina Lea

Part 26 of 27

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