WHO BY FIRE?
The silence was absolute except for the sounds of the wizard fighting for every breath he took. Swathed in a thick, luminous pink casing of mediwrap, Snape floated an inch or so above the Charmed bed. Not that she would have known it was him. With only his eyes, nostrils and repaired lips on view he had the look of a particularly malevolent pupae.
Still gripping the Advanced Portkey, which had brought her to St. Mungo's, Hermione fought for control. The air around him was so thick with the magic that was keeping him alive that it made the hairs on her forearms stand erect.
"Severus...?" She didn't think her whisper could have carried to him until she saw eyelids devoid of lashes stir.
Then all the alarms went off and the room was full of medical staff, while Albus tried to prepare her for the worst.
He tried to focus on her through pain-bright eyes, only half-convinced that he wasn't hallucinating. "Why are you in England?" The halting rasp bore little resemblance to his usual rough-silk tones but his breathing had improved.
"I wanted to see you."
The pause which followed owed nothing to his struggle for air.
"Better late than never," he said sardonically, before he surrendered to the blanketing weight of the analgesics he had been given.
In no hurry to advertise his wakeful state, because it would only result in him being sent straight back to sleep again, Snape finally managed to turn his head the necessary few inches.
He wasn't going mad. She really was here, although he didn't pretend to understand why.
Then it became impossible to think of anything but the pain.
Sinking in and out of consciousness, his only anchor to reality was the sound of Hermione reading her way through Potions Today, from front cover to back, including what sounded like every advertisement. Reassured, he surrendered to drugged sleep, pain and terrible dreams, which he was afraid might once have been real.
Waking to discover she was still there, he found the strength for one more round of the unendurable. She was there, but the dark mark was not. He kept repeating that to himself throughout the days that followed.
Emerging from the mediwrap like a chrysalis from its casing, Snape had the look of a creation of a mad scientist who had lost interest halfway through. But once they got the glitch with the Nerve-Regenerating Charms worked out his rate of recovery began to improve.
While the pain was fierce and bright, it wasn't all-consuming any more and breathing had become an involuntary action rather than an all-consuming struggle. Best of all, there was one person in his new world who didn't speak to him as if he was mentally defective.
"You're here again," he said, when the analgesics began to take effect.
"Who else can help me write a scurrilous rebuttal to that cretin Edwin Thweep?"
"You don't remember him? Ah, well. Edwin..."
He fell asleep, wrapped around in her tart observations about the Minister of Money.
Like a miser with his gold Snape harvested his strength so he could watch her, still only half-convinced she was real and not a product of his own need.
Then she looked up and the pleasure which lit her face when she saw he was awake kept him going through the tests and unpleasant treatments that followed in the next few weeks.
"You're always here. Long holiday?" he asked.
"I'm taking a sabbatical to do some research. It's confidential, I'm afraid."
"The governors of Hogwarts have allowed me to make use of the Restricted Section. Well, Albus has. I don't, for one minute, suppose he bothered to consult them. I'd never appreciated what an excellent library Hogwarts has until I had to leave it."
She had always talked too much and too fast when she was lying but he let it pass, content to leave the difficult questions unasked. He had surrendered his pride some time ago where Hermione was concerned.
Burning brightly, he lay in drugged splendour, waiting for his over-sensitised skin to burst into flames. His mind ranged expansively; he encompassed worlds but couldn't concentrate for long enough to retrieve his wand. If he could just focus, the pain would stop and then he would be able to think.
A distant, tinny-sounding voice gradually became more distinct, pulling him back.
"Severus! You have to stop trying to use magic! It's far too dangerous."
He gestured reassuringly. "I feed on fire. Danger is my bread of life."
"Very likely. I meant too dangerous for me."
The anger came from nowhere when he recognised Hermione's voice. "Then fuck off. Don't want a nanny wiping drool from the idiot's mouth."
"You're not... I don't... " Her voice was wobbling all over the place.
But he had already moved on, plucking uselessly at his skin. Nothing seemed to move at the speed it should, slowing until he was trapped in a world of flame.
"Hurts," he whispered, and a tear burned its way down his cheek. "Make it stop."
"Oh, Merlin, I can't put him through this!"
"Severus! You have to try. You have to stay with me. Listen, you stubborn bloody man. I can't do this without you. You have to help me. I need your help," the voice said, sounding scared.
"Hermione?" He frowned as he fought to concentrate. "You need my help?"
"Yes! And only you can do this. Stay with me."
"I don't understand. What's happening to me?" For a moment he was afraid she had gone away.
"You're having an allergic reaction. Nothing that won't pass. I'll be with you the whole time. Do you understand?"
He shook his head fretfully, knowing she was lying. "The air is burning, burning and I am flame. I am... I am... Who am I?" he asked blankly.
"You're Severus Snape, Potions master at Hogwarts. And you're going to live. But you mustn't try to do magic. Your wand was destroyed. We'll get you another. When you're well."
"You're holding my hands."
"Yes." Her voice was warm now, wrapping itself around him. "Do you mind?"
"No. I remember Severus Snape."
"So do I. Sleep now. Rest."
But the flames came again, burning brighter than ever, too bright for him to bear and he fell into the darkness, screaming.
The smell of St. Mungo's was unmistakable; his nose wrinkling, he sneezed once, then rubbed a minor irritation and paused.
"I have eyebrows again," he said, wondering when they had regrown.
There was a flurry of movement, some ragged breathing and then a familiar, slightly wobbly voice. "That's nothing to boast about. Everyone does."
Turning his head, he located Hermione over by the window, her back to the light. "You're here again?"
"Long lunch hour."
He nodded. "I'm sure they don't feed me enough. I'm starving."
"I'll call someone," she said.
To his irritation he didn't see her again that day, just Voldemort waiting for him, the Ancient Ones behind him, lighting up the sky.
Snape blinked, but it was definitely Hermione in his line of vision.
"Why did you choose curse-breaking?" he asked, failing to account for the expression which crossed her face.
"I hate what hexes can do to lives - people. And I'm good at Charms. Very good at breaking even the worst of them."
"Yes." Memory rolled over him, flattening the hopes he had permitted himself. Optimism, at his age!
"Ah, so it's work that brought you to my bedside. I knew there must be a reason. What you did for me was remarkable, but you can't succeed. Accept that and let me go."
"No," she said flatly.
"Let me go," he repeated. "I'm too tired to fight any more." Weakness dragged at him. "Voldemort bound the hex with the magic of the Ancient Ones - a dragon's death song. And that can't be defeated."
"Watch me," she said. The force of her will was like a third party in the room.
"You could die."
"We're all going to die. One day. Just not before our time."
"I won't permit it," he said, fighting the pain.
"You don't have any other choice," she said with cruel accuracy. "So don't give up on me. If we burn, we burn together."
"I won't be responsible for your death."
"Then be responsible for my life. This isn't work, this is personal. How bloody dare you try to keep me away? It's my right. And you know it," she added in a different tone, a finger gently tracing along his mouth. "Severus, just because I behaved like a fool is no reason for you to do the same thing. Please," she added.
Hermione never begged, hers an enviable world of certainty. He scowled in her general direction.
"All the years you protected us, one way and another and you're so full of pride that you won't let us return the favour. It's because I'm a Gryffindor, isn't it?"
The only word which actually emerged was 'Ridiculous," but he knew she had taken his meaning when she gave a smile, of sorts.
"Then there's no reason for us not to work together. Besides," she said, her voice gentle now she had got her own way, "I'm not working alone. We have the strength and power of the Order of the Phoenix on our side. Look..."
Following the line of her gaze Snape saw that they were not, as he had supposed, alone. Albus, Fawkes, Potter, McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout, Weasley and...Neville bloody Longbottom.
"Oh, kill me now," said Snape, in a moment of total lucidity.
"A simple thank you would have sufficed," said Hermione, struggling not to laugh.
Her face was melting. Snape whimpered and tried to push her to safety. Someone screamed.
There was nothing like being flat on your stomach on a real bed for raising the spirits, mused Snape, revelling in the sensation of crisp, clean linen under his cheek instead of that resilient goo that reduced you to the status of an infant with an infant's dependence on others.
He fought off sleep with all the force of his considerable will. While he didn't know how long he'd been here, snatches of overheard conversation between the medical staff suggested it had been a while. He pushed aside the flutter of panic that Hermione might leave again without telling him.
His spirit worn down by pain, too many doubts and the knowledge that he still looked like a freak from a sideshow, Snape avoided reflective surfaces and discouraged visits from his former colleagues, whose eyes always betrayed them. But it explained why he often caught Hermione looking at him when she thought he wouldn't notice.
Able now to sit propped up, he watched her sleep. He was worried about her, although no one else he spoke to seemed at all concerned. Her work didn't seem to be progressing well; she was here a lot, mainly, he suspected, to avoid sleep. Something must have happened. Curse-breakers always worked in pairs. If Bill Weasley had let her down he'd make sure he ended up wearing his bollocks for earrings.
The angle at which she was curled in the chair, together with the fall of her unbound hair, meant that he couldn't see her face but she was obviously in the throes of some nightmare, the small signs of distress intensifying until she started awake.
"You were dreaming, that's all."
"Yes," she agreed, still looking shaken and scared. And he couldn't even comfort her.
"Don't make the mistake of relying on the Dreamless Sleep Potion. It solves nothing in the long term. If I ever get out of here I'll make you a batch of - "
Hermione was off the chair and kneeling at the side of the bed in a moment. "Of course you're going to get out of here," she interrupted him, her voice tight and brittle with suppressed emotion.
Yet to take the miracle of movement for granted, Snape reached out a weighted arm to brush the hair from her eyes with the backs of his fingers. "You look terrible," he said worriedly.
He watched as her chin quivered just before her face crumpled, jagged sounds escaping her.
"Hermione? You know I didn't mean it like that. Damn it, woman. Oh, come here. Yes, up here. I can't get to you yet. Must you argue about every bloody thing? Of course you won't hurt me." Which, if not the truth, was close enough. Nothing hurt as much as not being able to touch her.
There was a damp and emotion-filled interval. Eventually she quietened, her breath still hitching occasionally, her face hidden from view against him.
"That moisture I can feel running down my neck better be tears," he warned huskily, when she gave an unpleasantly moist sniff.
"Never mind," he added with a hard-done-by sigh when she muttered something apologetic and sniffed again, without making any attempt to move. Inhaling the living, breathing scent of her, he continued to stroke her bird's nest hair with a gentle hand.
"I've forgotten more than that imbecile will ever know about Potions - and I hate hospitals," Snape added, resenting his own weakness.
"Do tell," said Hermione tartly.
"And don't bloody well humour me," he snarled.
"I'll hex you if you don't drink it."
"It makes my ears smoke."
"Oh dear, what a shame, never mind. Drink it. You sound like a sulky schoolboy rather than the Dragon-Slayer of the Last Battle - well, that was what it says on the chocolate frog card they've bought out for you. While it isn't a very flattering picture, the scowl's familiar," Hermione added blandly.
"Chocolate frog card?" His voice was a good half octave higher than usual.
"That's right. Want to see it?" asked Hermione through a mouthful of chocolate.
Snape gave her a glare of impotent rage. "You'll get spots."
"Not since I was fourteen," said Hermione, happily biting off the frog's head.
"Have you read the garbage they've written about me?" His voice was ascending the scale. "I should sue."
"For being turned into a hero?"
"For being turned into a public spectacle. When I get out of here the first thing I'm going to do is kill Albus Dumbledore. The old fool must be senile. While most of my life seems to have been a mixture of agony and farce, I'd hoped for a more dignified end than to be felled by dragon dung. If that's not bad enough, Albus decides to feed the journalists a pack of lies that only the mentally deficient would believe - and not only do they print it but the public swallows it! Thanks to him I can expect hate-mail from dragon lovers for the rest of my life."
"Maybe next time you'll think twice before you do something so stupid. You still haven't drunk this."
He gave the glass she was holding out to him a moody look. "What's in it?"
"I don't know. If you keel over I'll presume it's poison."
He drank the potion without another murmur of complaint.
Even the deep crimson of the robe he was now able to wear couldn't give Snape the illusion of colour but he was now covered in healthy, if still lurid coloured new skin; he was peeing for himself, eating regularly and growing more irritable by the day as they continued to ween him off the dangerously high doses of analgesics he had been taking. The new Nerve-Regenerating Charms being used at this stage of his recovery weren't particularly painful but he loathed the crawling, prickling sensation which persisted for hours afterwards. And his increasingly large number of visitors.
"I am not some bloody exhibit in a freak show and..."
"They expect too much, I know," Hermione said. "It's just that we're all so pleased that you're - "alive, sane and as bad-tempered as ever " - making such good progress."
"You're humouring me again," he noted, wondering when someone was going to tell him what was really wrong.
"Wishful thinking's free. What were you doing staggering over to the window when you thought no one would notice?" When they were out of here she was going to hex him once for every grey hair he had given her.
He gave a guilty twitch. "I just wanted to breathe something that hasn't already been through the lungs of fifteen other people."
"You must be thinking of the water. What's really the problem?"
Snape scowled at her. "When did you take up Divination?"
"You're about as subtle as a Bludger. What is it?"
"Outside. It's winter, isn't it. It was June when... "
"It's December the tenth. You've been ill." She grinned at the look that piece of stupidity elicited. "You haven't glared at me like that since I was in the first year."
"I have, you just haven't been paying attention. So Albus retired, McGonagall's Head. What about my Slytherins? And who's taking Potions? What - ?"
"Harry, Albus and Pansy Parkinson - Longbottom, I should say. She and Neville got married last month. Harry's teaching the first and second years, Pansy the third and fourth and Albus all the seniors."
"Potter? You let that maniac loose on my Slytherins. What idiot - ? Bloody Albus. And if you don't stop smirking..."
"Yes, yes. Stop fizzing. Your Slytherins are fine. In fact they want to send a deputation to see you."
"Make it tomorrow. I want to make sure they're all right. Who's the acting Head of House since Sinistra died?"
"Ah. You might not like this part," said Hermione.
"Given that you're enjoying it far too much, I would say that's a certainty. Who is it?"
"Harry. Don't explode," she added hastily. "It's not as bad as it sounds. Don't forget, the Sorting Hat wanted to put him in Slytherin initially. Having the former coach of the English Quidditch team as their temporary Head of House has helped their self-respect a lot..."
"I'll just bet it has," he said bitterly.
"Severus, you're not seriously jealous of Harry?"
"Certainly not," he sniffed, bristling at the very idea but it was noticeable that he failed to meet her eyes.
Hermione sank onto a chair. "You're an idiot. If it's any consolation, your Slytherins managed to gloss over the fact that it was Harry who killed Voldemort. They desperately needed a hero to improve their morale, and given that an official Gryffindor was out of the question, I suppose you were the best of an uninspiring bunch."
"I see the adulation didn't last long," Snape said dryly, fighting to keep his eyes open.
"I don't know why you're making such a fuss. Order of Merlin, First Class, your picture on the front page of the Daily Prophet, only this time not on the Most Wanted List, and Harry spitting tacks about owing you a life debt - and having to listen to everyone singing your praises."
Snape's expression brightened. "There is that. Trust the little bastard to have emerged without a scratch."
"Well, you've only yourself to blame for that," Hermione pointed out blandly. "And everyone knows it."
Snape closed his eyes to cut out her misty-eyed smirk and promptly fell asleep.
"Well?" growled Snape, to hide how apprehensive he felt.
"You've won - or should I say worn them down. Subject to the final all-clear from Dr Sprong, and your wizard's word of honour to take your medication, accept treatment from Poppy every day, and to do the exercises but not over-exert yourself, you can leave hospital tomorrow," said Hermione, her face aching because she'd been smiling since she first heard the news. "You might even be allowed to stay in your own quarters rather than the hospital wing - if Poppy agrees to come to you for the treatments."
"She will," Snape said grimly, before he realised Hermione wouldn't be visiting him any more. "If you're still working in the Restricted Section no doubt I'll see you around Hogwarts," he said, emotion pressed from his voice. He hid his shaking hands from sight.
There was a small silence.
"I hoped I could move into your quarters. Just for the Christmas holidays," Hermione added hastily.
There was a terrifying moment when he was afraid he was going to weep, so of course he snapped out a retort to cover the moment of weakness. "It's nice to be consulted about our living arrangements for a change."
The bleakness of his expression made her heart twist with the realisation of what a mess she had made of things. Her head bowing, Hermione gripped her wrists tightly.
"What the matter now?" said Snape spikily. "Damn it, woman, I didn't say no, did I? Of course you can stay. Are you crying?" he added accusingly.
"Certainly not," she said thickly, before she blew her nose with an unladylike vigour.
Snape stared at her with outraged disbelief. "I can't believe you just used a corner of my sheet as a handkerchief."
"Well you complained last time when my nose ran down your neck and - I never cry," she broke off to add, giving him a wet-eyed glare.
"Never used to, you mean. You have got to get some sleep," he added, reeling her in with some of his newly-regained strength and holding her as if she was the most precious thing in the world.
She fell asleep in his arms, his hooked nose buried in the exuberance of her hair.
"Given how long they've been empty, my quarters might not be very comfortable," warned Snape, who had been fidgeting with nerves all morning.
"With all those house elves around? Don't be absurd. I hear that the medical staff decided not to stick pins in your effigy after all. Not many people remember to thank them - though I suppose you had more cause than most, the way you've treated them."
"Nonsense. A patient capable of taking an intelligent interest in his treatment must have been a pleasant change."
"Self-delusion is a wonderful thing. Still, the flowers were a nice touch."
"With any luck they'll all get hay-fever. Yes, yes, I'm kind to old ladies and children too. What are you looking for?" he added, when he saw Hermione glance up at the ceiling.
"The bolt of lightning that should be striking you down at any time."
They both turned as the door opened, Hermione's fingers tightening over Snape's.
"Oh, Dr Sprong..."
Hermione studied Snape with interest when he finally wound down. "We're Apparating back to your quarters and that's all there is to it. The bar to Apparating into Hogwarts has been removed in your honour."
Snape looked unconvinced and muttered something under his breath.
"Severus, I passed my Apparating exams thirteen years ago," she pointed out tartly.
"On your sixth attempt," he reminded her. "I'd never been splinched before - and I don't intend to make a habit of it."
"I only did that to you once," she said indignantly.
Distracted by her heaving bosom, he automatically took the hand she extended to him.
"If we're going we may as well do it now." Snape smoothed a hand down the light wool robe he wore and shot her another wary look. "Does this look all right?" Mirrors had never featured large in his life but it occurred to him that perhaps he should have ordered one. Something was obviously still wrong by the way Hermione kept looking at him when she thought he wouldn't notice.
Her expression giving nothing away, Hermione studied him. "Passable," she allowed, her fingers tightening around his. She Apparated into his quarters at Hogwarts before he could think of any more objections.
"So?" she said, anxiously monitoring his physical condition.
Busy absorbing the fact he was home, Snape didn't even hear her. The sitting room smelt of beeswax polish, lavender and old books, a log fire was burning and a new bottle of brandy sat by his favourite chair. There were 'Welcome Home' messages propped along the mantlepiece and, more promisingly, a stack of Hermione's luggage in the corner of the room. He tried to avoid staring at the latter, or her. He had learnt the folly of making assumptions.
Hermione watched him slowly make his way around the room, brushing his fingertips over favourite items, as if he had never expected to see them again. Her arms folded in front of her chest, she clasped her own elbows to stop herself from rushing over to him when he was forced to make use of the support of a chair back, then to stop altogether.
"You'll be delighted to hear that Hogwarts is going to be a child-free area for the next two and half weeks. Term ended the day before yesterday. Severus - "
"Nothing. Just... Severus." She shrugged, smiled and turned away, busying herself unnecessary with plumping some fat, exotic looking cushions that he didn't remember seeing before.
They had always been physically comfortable around one another and Snape was relieved to see that had not changed.
Hermione emerged from the bathroom on a cloud of lemon and verbena steam, the tie of her bathrobe trailing behind her as she collected her moisturiser and headed back again. His eyes shadowed, Snape watched the door close behind her. She had a number of bedtime rituals, and he missed watching every single one of them almost as much as he missed debating and arguing with her, her mind one which constantly challenged and stretched him in a way few people could.
Now they talked about the weather or - if they were feeling really adventurous - something they might have read in the Daily Prophet.
Lying on his side, he fought to stay awake. The new exercises Poppy insisted on were exhausting, the effort required to keep that from Hermione even more so. When eventually, she emerged from the bathroom, it was to produce a thin mattress and bedding on the floor, next to his side of the bed.
His sense of disappointment was so acute that he literally couldn't speak for a moment.
"Why are you sleeping down there on that ridiculous arrangement?" he asked finally. He couldn't bring himself to ask the more obvious question of why she wasn't sharing his bed. It couldn't be because she was afraid of unwelcome sexual advances - not even a newly-fledged optimist such as himself could believe he had any hope of threatening anyone's virtue in the foreseeable future. If ever again.
"For the pleasure of looking up to you," she retorted. "Where are you going?" she added, as he began to ease himself out of bed. She doubted it she would ever take for granted the beautiful sight of the play of muscle under thin-fleshed skin. The dark hair at calf, thigh and groin, following the crooked line up the belly to where a few dark hairs were scattered on his chest. The beard shadow ghosting on his chin and cheeks, the thick, dark eyelashes, strongly-marked eyebrows and the still-inclined to tuft black hair that was only about three inches long as yet. And the scowl, of course.
"I'm not in the habit of allowing women to sleep on the floor while I have the bed."
Hermione propped herself up on one elbow the better to direct her glare. "What you have is a mattress so old that if we both tried to sleep on it we'd roll together in the middle. I'm still having nightmares. I'm not risking lashing out at you in my sleep and setting your recovery back. End of discussion."
"I always suspected you'd turn into a shrew," he said, with deliberate provocation.
"How nice for you to be proved right." A twitch of her wand and the room was in darkness.
She could hear the susurration of bedlinen, then silence, before he was crouched beside her. His hand gently cupped the back of her head, his thumb caressing the nape of her neck.
"Move over. We share a mattress down here, or we share one up there," he said quietly.
"I mean it, Hermione. Besides, you couldn't hurt me. You fight like a girl."
The lie was outrageous, and totally out of character, but try as she might to control them her giggles finally betrayed her. They only increased when he was forced to ask for her help to get to his feet.
"Has anyone ever had a word with you about tact?" inquired Snape, when he was finally flat on his back.
"No need. I seem to save all my insults for you," said Hermione cheerfully. She hesitated at the side of the wide bed.
"Who better?" said Snape, throwing back the covers for her. Then he eased onto his side away from her and didn't stir until she woke them both, some time in the middle of the night.
Hermione spent the next few days keeping would-be visitors at bay and examining his chambers with an increasingly critical eye. In the thirteen years they had been lovers - on and off - she had never taken up his invitation to visit them. When she was in England he had always come to the flat she had rented in Diagon Alley. After a while, he had taken the hint and stopped inviting her to his rooms.
It was so stupid, because Albus had assured her that Draco's hex hadn't taken effect, but she had never been able to forget it. Maybe if Justin hadn't died two weeks after they'd moved in together... Three years later she'd fallen in love with Caracas. A month after they'd started living together he'd been killed in that thunder storm. She had promised herself she would never be responsible for the death of another lover. Somehow Severus' safety had become linked to not living with him; when he'd asked her, in her own flat, she'd panicked and fled, never allowing herself to think of how much she must have hurt him.
Until he'd told her - just by the fact he had never mentioned it when he was lucid.
More than anything she had wanted to keep Severus safe. Instead he had ended up facing Voldemort and the Ancient Ones without her at his side.
Pulling on a cloak, she headed out of the castle, walking quickly in an effort to escape her thoughts.
Inwardly marvelling at how much leave Hermione had been able to take from her job as a curse breaker for Gringotts, Snape reminded himself that witches with her formidable skills were thin on the ground. She had made quite a name for herself, working around the world, alongside Bill Weasley.
His mouth thinned. He and Hermione had never lived together. He had suggested it only once, at the beginning of the year. Her only reply had been to pack; she'd been gone from his life in twenty five minutes, and he still wasn't sure what he had done wrong. In the six months which had followed she had ignored every Owl he had sent her. When he had spent his life-savings to hire an Advanced Portkey to take him out to Samarkand at the beginning of the summer holidays there had been various excuses to explain why he couldn't see her. He could still see the embarrassed pity on Bill Weasley's face as he had tried to lie for her.
Pushing the thought aside, he waited for Ollivander to arrive with a selection of wands for him to try.
Hogsmeade was full of Christmas revellers, the shops full of tempting gifts, but none of it seemed quite real to Hermione. All that was real to her was back at Hogwarts, where Severus was grimly over-working as he battled to recover from a hex so ancient and so powerful that it would have killed almost any other wizard.
It had almost killed all of them.
Voldemort's assault on Hogwarts had been over before she'd even heard about it and Severus had forbidden anyone to tell her he was dying - or why.
At least Harry had carried on his tradition of ignoring everything Severus told him. She'd been with Severus ever since. And during all those weeks and months he had never once asked anything of her - as if he didn't know he had the right.
She stopped so abruptly that a plump, elderly goblin bumped into her, muttered something uncomplimentary and went on his way. Hermione didn't even notice.
How could she expect him to know?
He had been in an odd, edgy mood all day. Not sure what to make of it, Hermione tried not to smother or over-protect him. Every day he grew stronger, gained in confidence, and looked more like the terror of first years everywhere and less as if a puff of wind would blow him away. But it was so hard to stand back and watch him exhaust himself performing everyday tasks she took for granted. He hadn't even mentioned his lack of a wand.
She was on her knees, her face rosy from the heat of the fire as she toasted crumpets with Severus' battered brass toasting fork, when something made her glance around to find him watching her.
"What?" she asked, because she could tell nothing from his shadowed face. "Do you need a dose of - ?"
"No. You're burning that crumpet," he pointed out, at his most prosaic.
"That's all right. It's yours," she said cheerfully. She buttered it with a liberal hand and passed him the plate. "You haven't opened your post yet."
"I had an Owl from Bill this morning." She didn't notice him tense. "There's a lecture in Petra next month. Repudiating Professor Lemming's theories. I wondered if you'd like to come with me? Poppy confirmed you'd be well enough to Portkey by then." She tried not to sound too eager.
"Bill has the expertise to gain the most from it," said Snape, choosing each word with care.
"I know but he's already going. I thought you might enjoy Petra even if you don't enjoy the lecture. Though it should be a lively affair." She could hear how overly-bright her voice sounded, as if her enthusiasm could make up for his lack of it.
"It would be interesting to see Petra," he allowed, after a moment.
He retreated to bed a short time later but he was still awake when she came into the bedroom although he pretended to be asleep. He didn't even protest when she settled down on the floor beside him.
None of her nightmares had approach the severity of the dream which woke them both just after three a.m.
There was nothing discreet about the sobs which racked her. Her guard finally down, she was too lost to the horror of how close she had come to losing him to be aware of how painfully she was gripping him as words gushed from her.
Snape made no attempt to reason with her, or to move her, but simply eased himself down onto the floor, dragged the bedding after him and tucked her in the protective arc of his own body. Rocking and crooning soothing nonsense, he held her for what remained of the night, long after she had fallen into an exhausted sleep, one of his hands locked between both of hers and tucked under her chin.
Blankly astonished after piecing together her jumbled wails, he stared out into the darkness. Of all the contingencies he had considered, it had never occurred to him that she was even more fucked up than he was. His eyes bright, he gave a shark-like smile out into the darkness.
That, he could deal with.
Snape's quarters were an odd mixture; the chaos of his office, whose shelves bulged with parchments and some disconcertingly lively books, was balanced by the painful tidy bedroom, the surprisingly welcoming sitting room and a bathroom that seemed to get more clinical every time she had to use it.
"It looks like a mens' lavatory," Hermione told him critically, as he shrugged out of his bathrobe and got into bed.
"Your point is?"
"It's not very welcoming."
He studied her for a moment. "Are we still talking about my bathroom?" he asked warily.
"Unless you've developed lots of chrome and white tiles, yes. It could be wonderful."
Snape lay his own bed, supported by his own pillows and wearing nothing but his splendid new skin, which was all the colour and sensitivity it should be, paying only half an ear to Hermione's plans for his bathroom. The odd grunt was usually enough to keep up the pretence that he was paying attention. At peace with the world, he watched her get ready to plait her hair.
"I could do that for you," he said quietly, before he had time to think.
"You always did make a better job of it than me," she allowed, sinking onto the edge of the mattress with her back to him.
He took his time to brush out the knots - her hair tangled as you looked at it - and deftly worked the multi-shaded strands of brown hair into two fat plaits before producing ribbons with which to fasten them.
Hermione emerged from her trance-like state of well-being to turn then. "Where did - ? Ollivander's been and you didn't tell me?" She sounded hurt.
"There wasn't much to say. He brought a whole selection with him and after five minutes this one - Sycamore and unicorn hair," he anticipated " - presented itself."
"Oh, sycamore is apt, in so many ways. Male unicorn hair, of course? For sacrifice."
Snape looked pained. "Hermione..."
"The females are the warriors."
"So I discovered," he said dryly. Her clasp of his hand tightened.
"It wasn't you I was running away from," she said abruptly. "It was me. You do know that I love you?"
The muscles of his face relaxed, gentling his expression. He toyed with the curling end of one of her plaits. "I had an inkling," he murmured.
Her shoulders slumped. "I made such a mess of everything."
"True," he said helpfully.
She jabbed him with her elbow, then swung back, contrite in case she'd hurt him. "I am sorry," she said. "For everything."
He nodded. "I know. The only thing I don't understand is why you were so worried about a hex from Draco Malfoy. He couldn't even hex Potter without it rebounding into you."
Successfully sidetracked, her eyes narrowed. "No. And I still haven't forgiven you for that comment about my appearance."
Snape gave her a quizzical look. "And in all this time it's never occurred to one of the cleverest minds in wizardom that it was a diversionary tactic."
Hermione frowned. "No? Really?"
He sighed. "I suppose it did require a modicum of subtlety - not something Gryffindors are known for."
"Are you getting to the part where you tell me how clever you were?"
"You may recall that the corridor was full of over-excited Gryffindors and Slytherins. Potter and Malfoy had begun to duel and tempters were high. Even I would have been hard-pressed to control twenty two of you. So I created a diversion. Insult the injured friend - and a girl no less - of the Boy Who Lived and all the Gryffindors - including Potter - transferred their feelings of hate back to me. My Slytherins - including Malfoy - were too busy laughing and sneering and congratulating themselves that I was on their side to see the obvious. Danger dissipated, life went on."
"You devious bastard," said Hermione, looking rueful. "I cried my eyes out over what you said."
"I thought you might," conceded Snape, with no sign of remorse. "At least you've toughened up since then - except for what I trust are your temporary crying jags. Which reminds me, when were you going to tell me I'm in your life debt."
"Your memory's come back?"
"Obviously," he said dryly.
"How much do you remember?"
"Probably more than you'll be comfortable with. For instance, I know you risked your sanity and your life to break Voldemort's dying hex. I was making up the fire when some sparks shot up from a burning log. Some caught me on the wrist. Don't fuss. It's nothing. Truly." He extended his hand, so she could see for herself. "But that small smart... It was the burning, I suppose. Suddenly the memories were back." He tucked an arm around her midriff, his chin resting on the top of her head. "I may never forgive you for putting me in Longbottom's debt."
There were a few seconds when he thought he must have misjudged it before she made a choked sound and turned to him.
"I'm surprised you didn't use a Memory Charm to block my memories," he said, handing her the tray before getting into bed beside her.
"No! I wouldn't. Well, no, I would have," she confessed, shame-faced. "But Albus wouldn't let me."
"Maybe he has his uses after all."
"Dr Sprong said it was the trauma you went through that made you block it out. Albus kept to the dragon story for the press because he didn't want anyone else to know about the old magic. That hex... " Hermione shuddered and unconsciously settled against him, brushing the hairs on his thigh the wrong way with the side of her thumb. "I've never met anything like that."
"Who else but Voldemort would have been arrogant enough to use it?" said Snape, deliberately prosaic because if he thought what she'd put herself through he'd be forced to go and kill Potter for being stupid enough to tell her about the hex in the first place. "Have some of this buttered toast."
"Nonsense. Just the thing to disperse high drama, buttered toast."
Hermione gave him a look of horror. "Do you know how terrifying it is to hear you channelling Albus?"
He gave a thin-lipped grin. "Oh, yes."
She absently munched her way through the buttered doorstep he handed her. His subtlety with potions didn't extend to culinary matters.
"Still," she mumbled, "at least it taught me what was really important. That would be you," she prompted, when he sat waiting for the punch line.
"Does that mean you're going to get up and make some more toast?"
"Only if you decrumb the bed."
That night she slept spooned against Snape, with his arm tucked possessively around her. Dark hairs tickling her breasts, Hermione gave a sigh of satisfaction and didn't stir for seven hours.
Listening to the love in Hermione's voice as she crooned unintelligible nonsense, Snape flung open the bedroom door only to stop dead when he saw Hermione flat on her back in the centre of the bed. Her revolting familiar was sprawled along her torso, his front paws visibly kneading her breasts as he responded to his mistress with soft noises that Snape preferred not to think about.
Snape wasn't proud of his surge of envy.
"Is that still the same animal you used to have at school?"
"Oh, hello. I wondered where you'd got to. Of course. He was only three when I bought him. He's good for at least another thirty years, aren't you, my gorgeous one?"
Tom cat acknowledged tom cat as Crookshanks spared Snape a look of smug superiority from unblinking orange eyes.
"Where's he been all this time?" asked Snape. "Samarkand?"
Raising her head, Hermione gave him a look of surprise. "Of course not. I brought everything back with me. Minerva's been looking after him - spoiling him. Look at the shine on his coat. I must find out what she's been giving him."
Snape made no attempt to disguise his sneer.
Crookshanks gave him a thoughtful look. A few seconds later he padded over to Snape, looked him up and down, visibly discounted any idea of him being a threat and ambled past.
Snape resisted the temptation to speed him on his way with the toe of his boot, then half-turned to follow Crookshanks' progress as the Kneazle oozed into the just open wardrobe. After some careful consideration he hooked Snape's favourite shirt from its hanger and settled down on it before proceeding to groom himself, thus ensuring that every item of Snape's clothing acquired at least a few orange and white cat hairs.
"Bless him. He likes you," said Hermione fondly.
Snape supposed that even the best of women were entitled to the odd blind spot.
"You don't mind him moving in, do you?"
An accomplished liar, Snape barely paused. "Of course not."
After some genteel coughing Crookshanks produced a hairball, which he deposited in one of Snape's new boots.
"You don't need to go to bed this early just because I am," said Hermione. Pink and fragrant from her bath, she automatically turned so that he could plait her hair for her.
Once in bed he frowned when he realised that the sumptuous cotton bedlinen caressing his skin was new. "What are these doing here?"
"Your old sheets were threadbare. Don't you like the sensation of these against your skin?"
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"There's nothing wrong with a few creature comforts."
"I already have good books, a roaring fire in every room, comfortable furniture and some excellent brandy."
"Comfortable? The stuffing is sticking out through the holes in the upholstery."
"How you do harp on about inessentials."
Hermione blinked rapidly. "I know I do. But if I don't I'll just start thinking about how close I came to losing you again and - "
Snape gave a long-suffering sigh before he took her into his arms, her head automatically tucking under his chin as they curled together on the bed. "You never used to get PMS this badly. I would have remembered. And poisoned you."
"It isn't PM... Never mind. No. Severus, don't. We can't do this," she muttered, trying to ease free. "I'm too heavy for you."
"Nonsense. You're light as a feather."
While watery, there was genuine amusement in her smile as she tried to tidy his still-inclined-to-tuft hair. "If you're going to lie, you might pick something vaguely believable."
Caught in the weight of his gaze and the wanting she saw there, Hermione forgot what she had intended to say next, her hand cupping the strong bones of his now-healed face. She traced her thumb along his thin-lipped mouth, which parted for her.
Her kiss - their kiss - was so intense that there was a period when she wondered if she was going to faint from lack of oxygen alone. Every doubt, every fear was swept away by the wonderful rightness of being with him again. Eventually the need to breathe became paramount and they had to draw apart. Lip dragged over lip, their mouths unwilling to relinquish contact. His lips were still slightly parted in a subtle, half-conscious invitation. For a moment their disorganised breathing was the only sound in the room.
Then he smiled, his eyes unguarded as she had never seen them before, and slowly said her name, his pleasure in every honeyed syllable obvious as he tucked a wayward tendril of hair behind her ear. He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers and she nuzzled them, bit lightly on the mound at the base of his thumb.
"Later," he murmured, his breath mingling with hers as they kissed again, slowly this time, relearning one another, automatically making all the small adjustments of lovers familiar with one another's bodies.
They lay sprawled together for an untold time, the once pristine linen crumpled beneath them. Hermione lay on her stomach, one arm draped over Snape's chest, her mouth to the hollow of his throat, just breathing in the scent of him. His fingertips traced curving patterns in the downy hollow of her back, his lips brushing her hair.
"I sent Minerva my formal resignation this morning," he said into the contented silence.
Raising her head, Hermione gave him a look of disbelief. "You did what?"
"So much for the afterglow," he said wryly.
"I'm not the idiot who's just abandoned his career. Why?"
"To be with you. I've had enough of a half-arsed, long-distance relationship."
Hermione cocked her head. "You always did get dictatorial after sex. I suppose it was too much to hope that would have changed."
"Have you ever taken any notice?"
"In your dreams. But it's the principle."
His smile was a token thing. "You still don't want to live with me?"
"Of course I do. It's just... Minerva offered me senior Charms and Head of Gryffindor House. And I accepted. This morning. So we could live together," Hermione added pointedly.
"Oh. But what about your job at Gringotts? You could have your pick of - "
"They fired me when I portkeyed out in the middle of an assignment," said Hermione without interest. "As if treasure could compare to your life. Besides, Head of Gryffindor is the pick of jobs. I've always wanted to teach Charms at Hogwarts, once I'd had a bit of life under my belt. Filius will stay on to teach junior Charms. He's longing to write that book of his. And he and I have always got on well."
"You gave up your job, for me?"
Hermione found herself pinned beneath an appallingly smug looking wizard and tugged gently at his hair. "Much as I'm enjoying this unconvincing display of humility, move, you're squashing me." She prodded his rump with her foot, then lingered to rub it with her toes. "Of course for you. If I ask Minerva if you can have your job back, can I live with you?"
Taking most of his own weight on his elbows, like any well-brought up wizard, Snape mouthed the curve of her breast. "You can do anything you want with me," he said rashly.
It was a promise Hermione reminded him of with monotonous regularity down the years.
No, I haven't abandoned FFI, it's just that this insisted on being written. I had intended to do a short, PWP festive story but Snape and Hermione had a different idea. Pretend the house elves are singing Jingle Bells off-stage. Season's greetings anyway.
The title comes from the song by the wondrous Leonard Cohen.