A voice in the dark
She had finally run out of everything except Christmas songs and was wondering how long it would be until she'd have to start with mathematical formulas again. It was strenuous not to let her concentration slip, but listening to her voice, even if she knew that it was only in her mind, held the panic at bay.
Suddenly Hermione stopped. Had she just heard someone call her name? She listened hard, wondering if she was finally going insane. But there it was again, like a ripple through the darkness around her.
Her pulse quickened. "I am here!" she shouted, or thought, or whatever it was she did at this strange place. "I am here!"
There was utter silence again, then, after what seemed like an eternity of tense waiting, Hermione once more heard her name, more clearly now, or so it appeared to her.
"Here! I am here!"
And suddenly there was something beside her. The darkness was still impenetrable, but she could feel a presence next to her.
"Hermione, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me!" she cried out, nearly overwhelmed with happiness. Then suddenly it struck her. That voice. It sounded like Snape. "Severus… is that you?"
Her voice was full of disbelief and questions, but he just said "Yes, it's me." A few moments later she felt him touch her very lightly. He found her right hand, took it and pressed it firmly.
Hermione's mind was whirling. What was he doing here after everything that had happened in September? How had he come to this strange place? What did all of this mean? "I am glad you are here," she said, distracted. "You have to be careful. If you don't concentrate your body dissolves."
"Good to know," he said, and hearing his wry tone made her so happy she just wanted to reach out and hug him.
"What is this place? And how come you are here?"
"We are in trouble, Hermione," he said, his voice suddenly very serious. "You have been abducted by a very dangerous woman. Livia Chatswold. I mentioned her once."
The name rang a bell. "Is it the woman who was killed by Bellatrix? I thought she was dead."
"So did I, but she's not. It seems she was in a kind of coma and spent 23 years in this…place."
"23 years!" Hermione shivered.
"Yes. She wants to take revenge on me for my betrayal of Voldemort. Livia was his most loyal follower before she…disappeared. She is very powerful and intelligent and absolutely ruthless." Snape paused and even though Hermione couldn't see his face she realized how worried he was. "I came looking for you and she sent me to this place. To be honest, I have no idea how we can escape from here. And even if we do, how we can get away from Livia."
Hermione pressed his hand encouragingly. At the moment she didn't much care for whatever dark witch was out there. It was just so good to have someone next to her, even if it was Snape and she had no idea what she should think or feel about his sudden appearance. "We'll find a way. But why am I here?"
He seemed to hesitate. "Because of me, I'm afraid. Livia thought that she'd get at me via you. That I'd come looking for you if she abducted you."
"Oh… And you did." There were so many questions hanging between them and Snape was glad that she couldn't see his face. This place was terrible. He shuddered to think that Livia had been here for 23 years. How had she kept her sanity? Probably she hadn't, and that would explain a lot of things.
"I am sorry," he suddenly said. "It's because of me that you're in this terrible place."
Again Hermione pressed his hand. "You needn't." She paused, then went on tentatively. "It's rather egotistic, but I'm so glad you're here." He felt her shudder. "It was not pleasant, being alone in here."
"I can imagine that. I heard you singing. Christmas carols."
She laughed but it sounded shaky. "Yes. To keep sane. I even recited the dates of the Goblin Rebellions. Professor Binns would be proud of me."
"I thought I was losing myself," she went on. "I was afraid I was stuck here for the rest of my life. That no one would come for me and I would go crazy eventually…" Hermione trailed off and there was a strange silence. "But perhaps I am crazy," she suddenly said slowly, suspicion and terror in her voice. "Perhaps you are nothing more than a figment of my imagination, a projection of my fear and loneliness."
He felt her shiver next to him. "Hermione, of course I'm real," Snape said in a soothing tone, trying to calm her down.
"No," she whispered. "You can't be. You wouldn't come for me, not after what happened at your house. And even if you'd come looking for me, how would you know I was missing in the first place? And how would you find me? No, this is just a hallucination." And slowly she let go of his hand.
Snape felt a strange mixture of guilt and fear and tenderness. "Don't let go, Hermione," he said urgently, reaching out for her hand but realizing that he couldn't find it. He still felt her presence nearby, but it was getting less and less clear. Panic gripped him. He couldn't lose her, couldn't let her draw away from him and get lost in doubts and fear. Snape reached out with both hands and, after a few moments of heart stopping search, suddenly touched Hermione. He quickly drew her close, holding her pressed towards him in an awkward embrace and, after a second of hesitation, started stroking her hair very lightly. "I am real," he whispered. "And everything will be all right."
She tensed and for a terrible moment Snape thought she'd push him away. But then Hermione relaxed and rested her head just below his chin. His heart was hammering wildly and he had no idea if Hermione noticed it. It felt so good to hold her, to feel her near him. But she had questions, dangerous questions, and he didn't want to answer them. Didn't really know what to think and feel. We have to get out of this first, he told himself, then there will be time to think about this.
"Even if you're not real I don't really care," she mumbled. "I'm so glad you're here. I'm sorry I'm so maudlin."
"You needn't be. Being in this place all on your own would get to everyone."
"How long have I been gone?"
"About half a day."
Hermione raised her head. "But how did you know? I was in Rome, wasn't I?"
"Yes, you were," Snape replied, thinking fast how to explain to her that he had kept watch over her all the time. She wouldn't like it. And she would suspect that he had pushed her away not because he loathed her, but wanted to keep her out of harm's way. She would be furious. "Hermione, actually…"
All of a sudden there was a blinding stroke of light. When it had vanished, Hermione found herself lying on a sofa in a bare room. Her head hurt like mad, and she was very thirsty. At the other side of the room she saw Snape lying on the floor. He stirred slowly and got up, staring at her. Hermione stood up and tried to walk towards him, but was held back by an invisible barrier. A quiet laughter made her turn around quickly and she saw two people standing in the doorway next to the sofa. An elderly, thin man she had never seen before, who looked nervous and had his wand pointed at her. And a woman. Hermione's eyes widened with confusion.
"Mary? What are you doing here?"
The porter looked at her with a very strange expression in her eyes, an expression Hermione couldn't interpret until finally, unbelievingly, she realized that it was contempt.
"Hello Hermione," Mary said in a voice that was so unlike Mary's that Hermione wouldn't have recognized it.
"You know her?" Snape looked from Mary to Hermione, his face very tense.
The elder woman laughed unpleasantly. "Oh yes," she sneered, "I know your little Mudblood very well. Such a nice girl, always friendly and helpful. And always glad for someone who listens to her troubles with her male friends…"
Realization hit Hermione. "You are Livia Chatswold?"
"I am indeed."
Hermione's mind was reeling, her old image of Mary fighting with this new reality. How could she have been so deceived? "Did you harm Sam?" she asked, her voice very hard now.
"No, luv," Flavia answered in a parody of the tone she had used as Mary. "I had nothing to do with his heart attack. But it gave me the perfect chance to keep an eye on you. And on Severus."
Suddenly things fell into place. "So you poisoned Severus."
"I did indeed. A shame I couldn't see how the potion worked."
"And you made me go to Rome," Hermione went on slowly.
"I did. I didn't want to make it too easy for Severus."
"But how did you know he'd come for me?"
Livia smiled. "I think you should ask him that question."
Hermione turned towards Snape but he was staring at Livia, ignoring her completely. "How did you get into my house?" he asked sharply.
Livia smiled broadly. "Oh that was easy. Kind of disappointing, really, I had thought it would be harder. I tailed you and Hermione most of the times you met in London. I have a rather good invisibility cloak. One time you were carrying a large briefcase and I was able to touch it just before you disapparated. That brought me straight to your house, and once I had been there I had ways and means of finding it again. And of observing it, of course."
Snape met her triumphant gaze, trying hard not to show his frustration and fear. He wouldn't give her the pleasure of seeing how much she had got to him. "What do you want?" he asked coldly.
"But you know what I want, Severus," Livia said in a fake sugary tone.
"Revenge, I know. But why?" Snape asked slowly, holding her gaze. "Voldemort never cared for you. Ask Constantine. When we thought that Bellatrix had killed you he did nothing to punish her. Nothing at all."
Flavia's face twisted with fury at his words. "Crucio!" she spat.
Snape fell down to his knees, clenching his teeth, his body twitching, but he didn't utter a sound. Hermione gasped and stared at him in shock, but when she tried to rush towards him the barrier pushed her back. After what seemed like eternity Flavia lowered her wand.
"You are strong, Severus," she stated in a cold tone. "Strong and proud. And I suppose you've had some…practice…with this over the years."
Snape raised his head, his face white with pain. "Why do you want to avenge him?"
"Because she loves him," Hermione suddenly said.
Flavia jerked around, staring at her.
"He was your anchor, wasn't he?" Hermione asked. "The thought of him, and your love for him, was what kept you sane in…that place."
The elder woman stared at her for a few seconds. "You are indeed clever, Mudblood," she eventually said.
"But when you finally woke up he was gone," Hermione went on slowly. "And everything had changed."
"It had indeed."
"Killing Severus won't bring him back," Hermione stated quietly.
"No." Suddenly there was great pain in the elder woman's face. "But it will make me happy."