It was easier to endure living with Snape with McGonagall's reassurance.
A few days later, while Hermione was checking her deadlines to ensure she hadn't forgotten any homework, she heard Snape's rasping voice.
She could tell by his tone that he had something new to dose her with. Her stomach shriveled, and she reluctantly made her way out to the kitchen.
Snape was preparing a poultice and glanced up only briefly to slide a potion across the worktop towards her. Hermione picked it up, studying the colour.
"You need to sedate me?" Her voice was tight and nervous.
Snape didn't look up from the poultice. "I've consulted with several healers in Switzerland. The curse originated in your arm, but it extends throughout your entire bloodstream. This poultice will, hopefully "—the word was enunciated through his teeth—"draw the curse back through your blood and out of the wound. It's not a cure, but you may show progressive improvement, and I'll have time to explore further options of breaking or removing the curse."
Hermione swallowed and looked back down at the sedative gripped in her hand. "Is it going to hurt?"
Snape looked up at her, his sallow face expressionless. "It is."
Hermione nodded, and her hand shook slightly as she unstoppered the vial and swallowed the potion. It hit her like a tidal wave, and she dropped heavily onto a kitchen stool.
She was distantly aware of Snape moving around the worktop to stand behind her, and his thin fingers parting her lips and sliding something between her teeth. His skin was calloused and rough against her mouth.
She bit experimentally. A gag?
Her heart rate skyrocketed. How much was this going to hurt?
She tried to sit up and pull away but found her arm immobilised and pinned to the surface of the worktop. She jerked wildly, fighting to get away.
"Be still!" Snape's voice was an angry snarl in her ear. "Do you want to live or die?"
Hermione stilled. Her blood was roaring in her ears, and her arm was throbbing in tempo with her pounding heart. Her thoughts were a vague and incoherent rush in her brain, but she was certain she didn't want to die.
Her jaw was trembling. She bit down harder on the gag before nodding.
She could vaguely feel his cool hands unwrapping the bandages on her arm, and then she watched through drooping eyes as he picked up the steaming poultice and pressed it against the open incisions on her forearm.
She started screaming.
It hurt. It hurt. It hurt like being crucio'd. It was as though he'd set her arm on fire. The fire was spreading into her veins, up her arm and into her chest, up her throat and down her back, her stomach. Everywhere. She was burning everywhere.
She screamed and screamed through the gag and nearly rammed her head into the worktop as she tried to tear her arm free.
Snape's left arm was wrapped tightly around the top of her head. She was pressed back against his chest, and his right hand had entwined with hers to keep her from clawing at herself or him.
It felt like an eternity of burning through her entire body before she felt the poultice pulled away and the fiery agony slowly faded. Snape removed his hands and Hermione released the gag from between her teeth, dropping her head down onto the worktop.
Her entire body felt drained. She didn't even have the strength to shake as a long, agonised wail escaped her, tears slid out of her eyes, and weak, gasping whimpers emerged from her throat. She lay slumped and struggling to breathe.
"You need sleep to recover," she heard him say.
She was lifted—not levitated, but actually picked up—and carried to her room.
He laid her on her bed and sat beside her, casting several spells on her arm and body and studying them with a veiled expression. He slipped his fingers into a pocket in his robes and withdrew several potions which he helped her swallow. He smelled medicinal. It wasn't exactly a pleasant smell, but Hermione found it oddly comforting.
Aside from being tortured, she didn't think she had ever experienced anything so painful in her life. Of course "the cure" would be as horrible as the disease. She curled weakly onto her side and passed out with exhaustion while Snape was replacing the gauze and wrapping fresh bandages around her arm.
The next day Hermione felt better. Noticeably. She woke feeling as though she had actually rested and ate breakfast because she was hungry rather than out of a sense of begrudging obligation.
Snape stopped her in the hallway on the way to Charms, and they stood in an empty classroom while he cast several spells on her. His expression betrayed nothing, but his eyes were less resentful as he nodded and swept away without another word.
The poultice had to be applied every week to counteract the effects of the curse. In between, Hermione had to take dozens of potions to bolster her body and repair all the gradual damage she was suffering from. Potions to repair her kidneys, liver, and heart, her lymphatic system, endocrine system, and digestive tract. Almost everything was damaged and would continue to be re-damaged for as long as she continued carrying the curse. The poultice just reduced the damage enough to give Snape more time to remedy some of it.
He had potentially bought her several years, at the ongoing price of utter physical agony for three minutes every week.
At least she didn't have to tell Harry and Ron that she was dying when they came to visit that Hogsmeade weekend. The conversation was terrible enough as it was, although she had felt better than she had in weeks.
Harry and Ron both turned so pale she was worried they were going to faint. Harry's eyes kept getting bigger and bigger, and he kept saying, "but you're going to be alright, right?" until Ron actually smacked him across the back of the head.
They carried Hermione's bag and brought her drinks and food, and when she said she was tired, they both held her hands and walked her all the way back to the castle. As they left, they told her to promise to tell them if there was ever anything she wanted them to do.
Hermione felt increasingly better and better with every week of additional treatment. She had energy; she regained her lost weight and got ahead on all her assignments. She began to remember what it felt like to take an interest in life rather than just feeling tired constantly. But the weekly treatment was traumatic and did not become easier to handle or less painful. It hurt just as much and lasted just as long every single time.
"Could you stun me?" she asked while he was preparing a poultice for the third time.
She was sitting on the kitchen stool, trying and failing to remain calm as she waited, dread curdling through her veins.
Snape paused and looked up at her, appearing to suddenly notice that there was an actual person in his presence and not merely a cursed arm with vital signs attached to it.
He stared at her, blinking, for several seconds.
Hermione cringed and braced herself for him to say something scathing about her ingratitude or fling a reminder of her desire to live into her face.
Instead his cold, tense expression eased slightly. He looked at her in silence for a moment longer before reaching up and adjusting the high collar that he wore to conceal the heavy scarring on his neck. He pressed his hand against the fabric for a moment before he cleared his throat.
"The magic I'm using is not traditionally resorted to for several reasons. Firecrab glands are generally lethal. They are burning the curse out of your blood, and it is a delicate balance to destroy the curse without the process killing you. Your magic—" his voice grew thinner and cracked as he spoke. He paused and cleared his throat again.
"Your magic"—his words were stronger—"is reactive and directs and restricts the effects of the treatment to the curse. If you were unconscious, your magic would be less able to contain the process, which could result in a heart attack or organ failure."
Hermione nodded slowly. She'd assumed the answer would be no. "Alright."
Her hands were shaking slightly as she spelled the bandage off her arm and took the sedative.
When she was slumped down and crying afterwards, Snape brushed back the curls sticking to her face and waited for a minute before picking her up and carrying her to her bed.
After he'd dosed her with several potions and stood to leave, she caught his wrist.
"Do you care—if I die?"
He firmly withdrew his hand but then sat back down onto the edge of her bed and studied her.
"I am not entirely without conscience, Miss Granger," he finally said in a cold voice.
Well, that wasn't the immediate 'no' that she'd half-expected. Hermione kept looking up at him and waited for him to add 'but no, not particularly.'
Instead he glanced away and cleared his throat. "If you die, you'll be immortalised as a Wizarding hero, and everyone will forget what an insufferable know-it-all you were."
Hermione choked and gave a small laugh. The corner of Snape's mouth twitched.
He stared at her for several seconds before glancing at the downturned picture beside her bed. "You deserve to live part of your life outside of the oversized and unappreciative shadow of Mr Potter."
Hermione was silent.
He stood and walked away.
Hermione discovered Snape was at his least unpleasant after her treatment, and he would occasionally answer her questions. Once her health was no longer in a steady decline, he became considerably less testy while continuing to brew potions and endeavoring to find a means of permanently breaking the curse on her.
He was dramatically better company than anyone else.
Now that word was getting out that Hermione was "mortally cursed" on account of her wartime heroism, she found herself regularly ambushed in the halls and library by students who wanted to know all the particulars. Most of the faculty indulged her unbearably and tended to grow misty-eyed whenever they looked at her.
Hermione found the tears and the trite words about what a fighter she was to be irritating.
She wasn't going to die. There was a treatment now; in a few months Snape would discover a cure and then it would be all over. She was going to be just fine, and no amount of crying and tear stains on her robes, or thanks and praise for her bravery was going to make one speck of difference.
Snape did not treat her that way at all. She had a very intriguing cursed arm and that was the extent of his interest and concern. He didn't give her excessive points for knowing answers in class or having her robes on straight the way other professors did. He made only the most perfunctory of allowances towards her, and it was a source of profound relief to have one person in the castle who didn't coddle her constantly
She started grading essays for him. He was spending most of his time trying to treat her; she could at least return the favour by reducing his evening workload.
When she first offered, he was scathing in his refusal. However, she had the energy to persist and kept prodding him about it until he finally gave in and let her do a "preliminary" grading of the first year essays. Then gradually, as the evenings progressed, he "permitted" her to grade years first through fifth. NEWT level essays he still graded personally.
She would sit in the kitchen working on her own homework or grading potions essays for him while he was brewing, or casting experimental spells on her injury, or rapidly perusing book after book or scroll after scroll of medical correspondence with various healers and potions masters.
He had consulted with dozens of magical hospitals and specialists since he'd begun treating her. He regularly receive letters that he'd angrily set on fire when the healers in question advised making Hermione comfortable and letting her die peacefully rather than giving her false hope.
After two months of the poultice treatment without a new breakthrough, Hermione gradually developed nerve damage and an acute sensitivity to temperature. When a cauldron nearby began to radiate heat, she started trembling, and her body broke into a cold sweat
She tried to move away from the worktop and over to the sofa unobtrusively, but when she was halfway across the room, her knees suddenly gave out, and all her books slipped out of her hands and fell crashing to the floor.
Her fingers and arms kept trembling, and she couldn't pick the books up. She tried to breathe calmly and keep trying, but every time the books slipped out of her fingers and she heard the spines break further, a quiet gasp would escape her, and her hands would shake harder as she tried again.
Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. Pick up your books. You're not helpless.
Anxiety burned in her lungs. If she couldn't pick up her books, she'd have to withdraw from school. Her vision started blurring. They'd put her into St Mungo's, and she'd die there. Her chest contracted as she fought to breathe, and she tried to pick up her books again.
Her throat felt as though there were a bezoar lodged inside it, and she tried not to visibly break down.
A hand closed over hers. "Leave them."
She tried to pull her hand free. "No, I can—"
Snape firmly pulled her fingers away from the book she was trying to grasp. His hand was warm.
"I can—" Her throat felt too tight to breathe.
He held her by the elbows and pulled her to her feet, steering her over to the sofa.
She leaned forward, half-doubled over as she tried to breathe, and he braced her up with his shoulder.
He had his wand out a moment later, casting diagnostic spells on her and studying them before taking her wrist in his hand and feeling her pulse. Her whole body was trembling violently as though she were going into shock.
Breathe. She just needed to breathe. She wasn't anywhere near the cauldrons. She squeezed her eyes closed when they started to burn, and kept dragging short gasping breaths in through her teeth until she gradually calmed down. Finally, she managed to inhale slowly and the scent of soap and vervain that clung to Snape's robes filled her nose.
He was silent, sitting beside her without a word until Hermione stopped shaking, and her chest wasn't hitching sharply every time she inhaled.
She drew a deep, steadying breath and awkwardly straightened so that she wasn't pressing half her body against his shoulder.
Snape remained seated beside her.
"I believe it would be in your interest to space treatment out to fourteen day intervals," he said at length. "It will give your nervous system more time to recover."
Hermione's stomach plummeted and she looked up at him, eyes wide. "But—but—that won't be enough to counteract the curse then."
"No," Snape said, and his expression rippled briefly before becoming mask. "But it will slow it, and still provide additional time to break the curse. Otherwise, the damage from treatment may become worse for you than the curse itself."
Hermione dragged in a ragged breath and felt as though her chest were being crushed. Snape's hand was still warm on her wrist, his index finger resting against her pulsepoint in a strangely comforting way.
You're going to die. He's not going to find a cure. You're going to die. He just doesn't want to tell you because he actually feels sorry for you.
Then she almost laughed at herself, because she was almost certain Severus Snape had never felt sorry for anyone in his entire life. She swallowed and looked away, pulling her wrist free and gripping her hands.
"I don't know what to do," she said at last. "I don't know—what I'm supposed to be doing any more."
She looked down at all the books she'd dropped in the middle of the room. Five of them were library books, and she could tell by the way they were lying that the pages had been crumpled in addition to the spines being broken.
Madam Pince would be incensed when Hermione returned them. Hermione would probably be banned from checking out rare books. She might end up with a severe fine.
She'd never worried much about money before. But that was prior to her decision to shut down her parents' dental practice and relocate them to a different continent. Before she'd withdrawn all the money from her building society account for food during the horcrux hunt.
Before she'd been cursed, and needed weekly treatment with highly-regulated potion materials.
"I don't know if there's any point to this," she said, still staring at the books on the floor. "I keep thinking there must be one; that I'll figure out what it is eventually and then everything will come together, or at least be more bearable. But maybe there isn't." She gave a strained laugh under her breath and looked down at her ink-stained hands. "Maybe that's the point."
There was a long silence.
"I didn't expect to survive the war," Snape said, just as she was about to stand and go to her room.
Hermione looked over at him with surprise. He never spoke of the war. He'd given the most begrudging and evasive testimony possible at trial and would have ended up in Azkaban if Harry hadn't been insistent and shared Snape's memories with the Wizengamot.
Hermione had gotten the impression that Snape would have preferred Azkaban.
Post-trial, Snape made it quite clear that he despised Harry, and nothing he'd done in Lily Potter's memory had anything to do with caring an iota about Harry personally. For reasons Hermione couldn't comprehend, Harry seemed to think that eventually Snape was going to come around to him.
Hermione didn't think Snape had the intention of ever coming around to anyone.
He was still seated beside her, staring across the room at the potions he'd been brewing. His expression was far away.
"Albus rarely gave me instructions that indicated I was more than a valuable pawn. My usefulness to him was primarily because of the level of penance I owed." His voice had the strained, rasping edge to it that was typical after a long day of teaching, but he seemed unaware of it. He raised an eyebrow, and his mouth tensed. "When he asked that I kill him in order to protect Draco Malfoy, my place was made clear."
He looked down at the floor. "When I learned that he had been grooming Lily Potter's son as a sacrificial lamb despite knowing my years of service had been for the sake of protecting him in her place, it was undeniable." There was a pause, and his expression twisted in a brief grimace. "I assumed a quick death would be the most I could hope for. I believed Albus had been correct, and Harry would die as well. It seemed—appropriate, to plan no further."
He snorted, and it made him cough. His long fingers pressed against the side of his neck for a moment before he adjusted the collar of his robes, and his hand vanished back into the voluminous sleeves. "When I woke in the Shrieking Shack with that damnable bird weeping over me, I didn't know what I was intended to do. I despise being a professor at this school—but its been my home most of my life now."
He was silent for several seconds before glancing over at Hermione. "If the war requires a final victim, it is unacceptable that it be you when I'm here, forced to survive against my own volition."
Hermione gave another dry laugh. She'd found that when she wanted to cry, forcing herself laugh instead cut the impulse.
There was the briefest hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth as he looked at her.
"I was glad you survived, Professor." Hermione managed a small, unsteady smile of her own and raised her eyebrows as she met his eyes. "You deserve to live part of your life outside of the oversized shadow of Albus Dumbledore."
He narrowed his eyes, but they seemed to glint briefly with amusement before he gave a derisive scoff.
Updates weekly on Monday.
Also: there were a few comments expressing concern about the ambiguous ending I referenced in the opening notes. I'd describe the conclusion as implied HEA, but not explicitly depicted.