Title: The Northern Sky in Winter
Beta Reader: ckofshadows
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): EWE, Character Death.
Summary: When it is darkest, men see the stars.
Memory is the library of the mind.
They marry later in life and have no children, which suits them fine. They are both teachers for many years, and when they retire they move to a small house in the country, which also suits them fine. Hermione tutors students on the weekend and Snape brews up antidotes to Kappa bites and accidental Belladonna poisonings. They read books and take walks. They entertain old friends occasionally, but as the years pass the friends visit less frequently, which, they both agree, is also fine. They eat and travel and quarrel fiercely and make up quickly and love one another very much.
It begins slowly, the descent. It is like creeping fog, she thinks later, quiet and murky, but ever-present and vaguely sinister. Snape misplaces things. Can't remember where he left his Potions notebook or his spectacles, which he has taken to wearing as his eyesight dims. She finds the things and tsks gently and he raises his eyebrows and insists he checked there and they weren't there a minute ago. He buys double portions of Lovage and Wormwood when he already has a full store at home. Little things, she supposes, but still. He loses his gloves. He loses his scarf. He loses his wand.
Then, one day, when he is quite old, Severus Snape begins to lose his mind.
She finds him puttering about in the garden, muttering about Sneezewort and Screechsnap. It is late October and getting colder, though this day is bright, almost too bright, and she shades her eyes against the glare. One of the last few good days, she thinks.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
He startles. He turns and blinks at her. "If you must know, I'm pruning the Flutterby bush and wondering why the Hellebore is so horribly sparse this year. How on earth am I to make a decent batch of Peace Draught with this?" He waves the scraggly plant at her, his forehead creased.
She doesn't move. He arches one brow. "Was there something else?"
"Why don't you come inside? You look cold. I'll make some tea and we can sit by the fire."
He blinks again, hesitates. "Well, I am feeling rather chilled."
Still he doesn't move.
Hermione tilts her head. "What is it?"
"Nothing." Then, very politely: "Only, I'm sorry, what did you say your name was again?"
"Well, I've done a complete diagnostic, and aside from some completely normal aging afflictions, he seems quite all right at the moment," Luna says serenely.
They are sitting in the kitchen, mugs of cooling tea in front of them, afternoon light slanting across the floor. Snape is in the sitting room, a copy of The Daily Prophet abandoned in his lap. He is staring out the window at a stand of trees, bare and colourless. He has been sitting exactly like that for a good half hour.
"Yes, he does, at the moment." Hermione is holding her hands very tightly in her lap. He jaw is clenched. "That's the whole point, Luna. It comes and goes. And it's getting worse."
"He was quite lucid when talking with me. Called me a 'blonde brainless twit.' I'm fairly sure he recognizes me."
"Well, he knows who I am today, as well, so I'm afraid that doesn't help."
"Is he getting enough sleep? Adequate mental stimulation? How is your sex life?"
"Yes, yes and perfectly decent. How is yours?"
"Oh, Neville's always been a bit of a prude, really. He's never gotten over that, even in these later years. Honestly. How difficult is it to dress as a Thestral to excite me just a little?"
"Anyway. I'm going to give you some relaxation techniques, if that's all right with you. You can try them together, if you like. Walking, for instance, is very good. Keep on with the sex. Always splendid. Any type of exercise, really. And have you ever tried stargazing?"
"I find it opens the mind, to all sorts of possibilities."
After Luna departs in a swirl of purple silk and feathers and the scent of Thestral dung, Hermione brews Snape a hot drink, takes it to him.
"Drink this," she says, handing him the steaming mug. The cloud hovering above it is viscous and green. Snape takes one whiff and puts it down.
"Gurdyroot Juice. Honestly, Hermione. Gurdyroot is one of the most useless, pop-psychology embracing, ineffective—"
"She, Luna…we are both just trying to help."
"I have no doubt." He sighs. "What else did she suggest?"
"She also thinks we should look at the stars."
Snape snorts loudly, rolls his eyes, shakes his head. "And you think my mind is addled."
She finds him down cellar, after searching for a full 20 minutes. She is on the verge of full-blown panic and she stands stock still on the bottom stair, her heart thudding painfully in her chest, her hands clenched in cold balls at her sides. He is hunched against the far wall, wand in hand, muttering and waving, casting, she surmises, spell after spell after spell into the gloom.
A small, sickly looking canary emerges from his wand and falls to the floor. Snape sighs. Hermione moves from the last step. Snape jumps and turns to her. It is very quiet, except for the occasional weak chirp.
"I've been looking for you," she says at last, just to break the silence.
"Yes." Her voice sticks in her throat. It hurts. "Didn't you hear me?"
"I suppose not."
They stare at one another.
She takes another step. "What are you doing down here?"
"Isn't it obvious? Keeping my skills honed." He pauses, slides his wand into his sleeve. He looks around. "And would you mind telling me exactly where here is, anyway?"
"I will be reading from the Blue Book today," he says loudly one November afternoon. It is dull and grey and blustery. Bare branches scraping clouds. Raindrops slapping window panes. A horrible day and Hermione feels horrible in it. Wrapped in a heavy jumper, she stares at Snape, uncomprehending. Some days she has more patience than others for his ramblings. Today she has none.
"The Blue Book, the Blue Book," he says, sounding much like his younger self, his irascible self, the one she crashed into love with. She smiles, despite herself.
"Unlike you, Severus, there is nothing wrong with my hearing. I simply don't—"
"I have, in order to remain as coherent and lucid for as long as possible, sorted my memories into books," he explains, not too patiently. "I have a bookshelf, here." He taps his forehead. "It is quite large, fashioned of a lovely, dark mahogany. There are four shelves. On each shelf there are four books. In each book are memories specific to certain years, certain events." He pauses, not looking quite at her. "And, certain people."
"Ah." She is mesmerized. "And, this…Blue Book."
"A beauty," he says at once, smiling. "Bound in the finest mooncalf leather and printed on Fabriano parchment. I keep very precious memories in this one."
She waits. When he speaks, his eyes are blazing.
"Today, I will be remembering our courtship."
Then there are the bad days. The days when he drops everything he touches, when he can't find his way from the sitting room to the kitchen. When she finds him, still and stone-faced in the garden, clutching handfuls of mangled plants, no memory of how he got there and what he's doing.
She guides him inside — he won't let her touch him — tells him to sit as she fetches a hot water bottle and a small bottle of Firewhisky.
He mutters something she doesn't catch.
"What was that?"
"It's too bloody cold," he says, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. She conjures up a fire, which brings a ghost of a smile to his lips. "That always was your specialty, wasn't it?"
"One of many," she teases. "I used to have to hide it from you, back in the day."
"That's what you liked about me, remember?"
He takes a great, shuddering breath, holds it a moment, then expels. He gropes for her hand, finds it, holds it tight.
He has taken down the large, dragon-hide bound Red Book today, from the Hogwarts Years, her student days. They are lying in bed together, listening to late-fall wind rattle the bones of their house.
"You were a puzzle to me, right from the start," he says. "Gryffindor! Bloody Gryffindor."
She lays her head on his chest. His fingers trails through her curls, now more grey than brown, coarser and unrulier than ever.
"You were not conventionally pretty, of course," he says and she stiffens, opens her mouth to protest, then smiles. "And annoying. Sassy! But smarter than any student I'd ever had, and you knew it."
"I like to think I mellowed a bit over the years. Became, perhaps, a bit more approachable?"
"Perhaps." His lips twitch. "I watched you from afar, all those years, attempting to quell my feelings, and when they could not be quelled, daring to hope you might one day return them."
"How could I love a student?" He sounds puzzled. "How could I allow that to happen to me? All those years, surrounded by all those fine minds, but you were the first."
He pauses, looks directly at her, blinks as if realizing something. "And, the last."
Sign hanging in the local pharmacy: Of everything I've lost, I miss my mind the most.
He is in bed, curled on his side, tears running down his face. The pillow is wet under his head.
She puts her arms around him. "What is it?"
"I'm so frightened."
"I don't know how this will end."
"I'm frightened, too," she says.
Because I think I know exactly how this will end.
"Why are we doing this again?"
"Luna says to keep active, both in mind and body," she says for the seventh time. But it's cold, so bloody cold. Late December cold, thick and insidious, seeps in despite their layers of clothing, despite the warming charm she has cast. Her magic is weak, she realizes, has been weak for months, though she has barely had the time or energy to dwell on this fact. She is tired, and scared. They have followed this path many times before. She slips her arm through his and he holds it close as they walk, their boots squeaking in the snow. The sky is absolutely clear, deep and black and full of so many stars it takes Hermione's breath away.
It's a good day for Snape. He has forgotten only one thing — the day of the week — but since it is Wednesday and boring, she doesn't fret. He walks slowly, but with purpose, his breath mingling with hers in front of them, hanging thick in the still night air.
"I must…rest, just for a moment," he says finally, with some embarrassment.
"Of course," she says. She conjures up two soft chairs and a fire. She eases him down, conjures a wool blanket for his lap.
"Look at all the stars, my love." They look up, as they've done before.
"The northern sky," he says at last. He speaks quietly, but she hears every word. "And there, see? The bright star. The North Star. The Pole Star. Polaris."
"I see," she says, following his finger. He is the teacher now, she the student. It's so easy to fall back into those roles, comfortable and somehow comforting. It's a Red Book Day, she supposes. Wednesday. A Hogwarts Day. She holds on tight to the moment.
"Polaris is famous for holding nearly still in our sky while the entire northern sky moves around it," he begins. How she loves his voice. "Some think Polaris is the brightest star in the nighttime sky, but it's not. It's actually about the 50th brightest."
"Really?" she says. He nods. She has, of course, heard this exact same speech at least three times before, each time they've made this trek. She blinks her tears back and sniffs, but he thinks she is simply cold and doesn't comment.
"Yes. Polaris marks the way due north, a yellow supergiant star shining with the luminosity of 2,500 suns. This single point of light that we see as Polaris is actually a binary — two stars orbiting a common centre of mass. It's is also the closest and brightest Cepheid variable star — a type of star that astronomers use to figure distances to star clusters and galaxies."
He talks as if he's reciting from a text book. He talks from memory. She doesn't know where he has gleaned this knowledge, but she doesn't dare ask, doesn't want to break the spell. She keeps holding on.
"The Big and Little Dippers swing around Polaris, making a full circle once a day, or, more precisely, once every 23 hours and 56 minutes."
"Drawing a line through the pointer stars—" he indicates with a gloved finger. "— Dubhe and Merak always take you to Polaris, the North Star. In turn, Polaris marks the end of the Little Dipper Handle. Like the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper has seven stars. But the stars in between Polaris and the outer bowl stars — Kochab and Pherkad — are rather dim."
"Depending upon the season of the year, the Big and Little Dippers can be found high in the northern sky or low in the northern sky. On spring and summer evenings, they shine highest in the sky. On autumn and winter evenings, they lurk closest to the horizon." He pauses. "Am I going too fast for you?"
"Very well. The Big Dipper is really an asterism, a star pattern that is not a constellation. In Thales's day, the stars Kochab and Pherkad marked the approximate direction of the north celestial pole, the point in the sky that is directly above the Earth's North Pole. To this day, Kochab and Pherkad are still known as the Guardians of the Pole.
"Guardians of the Pole," she says, so quietly she doesn't know if he's heard her. Then, "Go on."
But he doesn't. He has suddenly run out of words. She squeezes his arm.
"Severus?" she says. He looks at her and he is gone.
"Who…are you?" he says, his eyes startled. He swallows, pulls back slightly.
"I'm Hermione," she says.
"Yes. You were just telling me about the sky, the stars, Polaris—" I will not cry, she thinks.
He shakes his head.
"I…know you, and yet." He closes his eyes, angry. "I know you!"
He grasps his head in his hands, grinds his teeth together. She puts her arms around him, tries to pull him to her, but he resists, his body stiff and straight.
"It's all right," she says, over and over. "It's all right."
But of course, it isn't.
The Yellow Book (bound in salamander skin), she learns, contain the most recent memories, their travels, their various career successes, potions invented and lessons taught, their aging, together. On Yellow Book days he is excited, wild-eyed with their adventures, the trip to Australia to rescue her parents, a speaking engagement at the Sorbonne. Awards, accolades, achievements.
Yellow Book days always end with a rousing bout of lovemaking.
Hermione looks forward to Yellow Book days.
On very bad days he calls her Lily and she hides in the broom closet, crying as if her heart is breaking.
"I've done all I can for him," Luna says. "And, so have you. It's time to accept—"
"No!" Hermione wants to put her hands over her ears. She wants to shake Luna until her teeth and her cork necklace rattle. "You don't understand. Surely…surely there is something…"
"You have to remember he is half-blood," Luna says with a half-smile. "And therefore susceptible to Muggle infirmities, including ailments of the mind. Alzheimer's. Dementia."
"Dementia." Hermione stops, reminded suddenly of an uncle, Lenny, slumped in a wheelchair in the corner of a nursing home, unable to remember the day of the week, his name, his wife, his life.
"No," she says, already shaking her head. "No. Not Severus. He is too…"
Intelligent, wise, snarky, ornery, stubborn.
"I won't send him to St. Mungo's. I won't."
"Luna, you've been a Healer for more than 20 years now. What is your prognosis…honestly."
"He is human, Hermione. He will die one day, as will you. But he still loves you. Today. You can't forget that."
"No. But, he can."
"I heard what Luna said today."
It is late, more shadows than light.
"I didn't mean for you to."
"I don't want to forget you."
"I don't want you to forget me."
"How will I know? I'll have forgotten."
"I'll remind you."
She wraps her arms around him, holds him as tightly as she can. He lays there, unmoving, staring at her face.
"How on earth could I forget the only person who has ever truly loved me?"
He runs from the house, panicked, half-dressed, bare feet slipping on ice. She finds him huddled beneath the willow tree, asking for his mother.
Christmas and presents and carols and just the two of them and he remembers her, remembers everything. It's a Yellow Book day.
"I want it to stay like this forever," she says before thinking. They are dining on guinea hen and indulging in their second cups of mead. Snape lowers his fork, raises an eyebrow.
"As do I."
"I don't understand…any of this. I don't…it's not fair." She swallows her drink, dabs her eyes on her napkin.
"Life is unfair. It's cruel, Hermione. Aging is a cruel joke and I have decided to be a part of it no longer."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"It's quite simple, really. I will control my destiny, not some hideous disease."
"Really. Do tell."
"I have a few ideas up my sleeve, shall we say."
"What? A potion? A dark spell?" Hermione reaches for his hand. He takes it.
"Perhaps," he says, lips twitching, "Or perhaps I will simply look to the stars."
January, cold and white and still. The sun is out. It's a good day.
"Where are you off to?" she asks, wiping her hands on her apron.
"A little solitary jaunt," he says. His voice sounds strong and steady, and she is suddenly, magically transported back, years and years, to the Potions Classroom. He is well and whole and a teacher and he looks at her with eyes that are bright and sane and full of passion.
He puts on his cape, a pair of gloves. He takes his walking stick from behind the front door. He kisses her soundly. He holds her to him. She feels his heart beating.
"I think I should come." Panic twists her stomach.
"No, I'm afraid not." There are tears in his eyes, briefly, before he blinks them away. "This is one voyage I take alone."
He pauses with his hand on the doorknob. He speaks without looking at her. "I will be reading from the Green Book today. My favourite. Well worn, because it is so well used, but beautiful, because of that. A book in which I have gathered all my most treasured memories of you. A long, joyful chapter, full of the poetry of devotion and desire. The story of how we fell in love, how we love one another still." He looks at her and smiles. "Written in the stars, yes?"
Then, he is gone.
It is, of course, the last time she sees him. He never returns to their house, and though she searches, though many people search, he is never found. Somehow she prefers this, this last act of magic, this disappearing act, to stumbling across his emaciated body, frozen and mangled by animals; or to a long, drawn-out death in his bed, withdrawing further and further into the dark tunnels and mazes of his decaying mind.
I have not lost him, she tells herself. I have let him go.
She walks often, that first year alone, long rambling walks, but the winter walks are her favourite. She relishes the cold biting into her skin. She likes the way her breath plumes around her face. She likes how her eyes sting and water, almost as if she was crying. The stars are so bright in the black winter sky it hurts to look right at them and she continues blinking until tears drop from her eyes and freeze on her cheeks.
Big Dipper, Little Dipper, she whispers, head tilted back, fingers curled tight inside her mitts. The stars are steady, blazing, hard as ice. All those stars. Millions and millions. Where are you? Where are you?
She wants to cry, but it is too cold. Instead she stamps her feet, hard, kicks at the snow, heads for the house. The stars watch.
Where are you?
She is dizzy, suddenly. She closes her eyes, but that makes it worse. When she opens them the stars are right there in her face, dazzling, huge, overwhelming.
As she walks she recites them by name, from memory. They are old friends now: Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe, Alioth, Megrez, Mizar, and Alkaid. Kockab and Pherkad, the Guardians. And Polaris.
She stops once more.
She smiles. Polaris, bright and still, holding steady and true in the north sky, guiding and illuminating, while everything else, planets and stars and wayward travelers, swing faithfully, unerringly, around it.