Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created by J. K. Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended. The poem is Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and according to Shannon from WIKTT, is has been used before in AB's Blank Slate. Go check it out.
A/N: This was begun and edited before the release of OotP, but I find, upon rereading, that it might be consistent with the book as well. After all, Padfoot is not at all mentioned in this story, as of yet. A caveat: you might find yourself floundering while reading this story, or chapter, since several things remain unexplained… but please be patient. Finding it too hard to begin in the beginning, I have chosen to start in the middle. The loose ends will be explained and tied up in future chapters. Also, please feel no anxiety about the ending. I myself am squicked at the thought of the two of them doing anything untoward while Hermione is still a student, and I assure you that this is not what they are doing.
Dedicated to the memory of Sirius Black, who lives on forever.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The Potions classroom, she decided, was no less frightening at night than it was during the day.
The only light in the room came from the candle that Hermione Granger had brought with her; she certainly didn't want Filch seeing light seep from beneath the classroom door, when no one should have been there. There was no fire, and thus far too little warmth. Shadows danced in the candlelight, and the smallest sounds from far away nearly had her jumping; Hermione fought the shivers that began to run up her spine, as well as the urge to flee.
Now was not the time to be frightened by absolutely nothing.
She looked at the candle that sat beside her on the Potions Master's desk, and fretted that it wouldn't last for much longer. When she had stumbled out of the Gryffindor Portrait Hole (receiving the unwanted admonishments of the Fat Lady), her candle had been relatively new, still about a foot tall, and burned bright.
Now, it was small, nearly a stub, and it sputtered.
A sudden sound—footsteps, she realised—reached her ears, and her initial fear was replaced with gratitude, and a relief that she could not at the moment examine. The footsteps were heading towards the classroom, and it was not the slow, heavy gait of Argus Filch. She would recognise these footsteps anywhere.
She bent sideways to blow the candle out, distracted not at all by the spatter of wax that her fierce breath sent flying to her skirt and now not in the least scared by the darkness that enveloped her. Hermione braced herself, feeling her breath run faster in both anticipation and dread, as the person she had been waiting for came closer and closer to the Potions classroom.
The footsteps stopped. A whispered Alohomora later, the door swung open, and the hallway light spilled into the dark room.
Her heart swelled; her Potions master stood there, tired and leaning his weight against the doorframe, but still quite alive, as his heavy breathing told her. Her euphoria went a notch down, however, when he did not notice her presence, even as many moments had passed. It was a mark of his tiredness that he would let his guard down like that.
The rustle of cloth and the slap of shoe leather against the floor made Severus Snape jerk his head up in surprise, and immediate vigilance. His wand was directed quickly at her, and she fought the urge to whip out her own, instead walking slowly towards him until she was thrown into complete light, and he could see her face.
"Miss Granger," he said as coldly and as quietly as his fading strength could muster, "what the hell do you think you are doing here?" He dropped his wand and gave a wan imitation of his usual glare.
She didn't answer—Hermione knew that at any answer she provided he would simply snarl and tell her to go away. Instead she took his arm and led him into the classroom, shutting the door behind her and murmuring a spell that threw the whole room into light.
She saw him flinch at the light, and thought that she would have to fix him a headache potion. Hermione led him to his desk and sat him down on his chair, stepping back to look at him in a quiet assessment of his injuries.
His cold, silent façade broke.
"You can't keep doing this," he protested, his throat hoarse and his voice breaking, as he sat reluctantly down, and she snorted.
"You can't keep doing this either," she bit out, her hands on her waist, and was immediately sorry. She felt her anger at his stubbornness melt away, to be replaced by the fierce compassion that always enveloped her when she saw him like this. Her eyes took in every detail.
As usual, there was dried blood on his hands, under his fingernails and in the creases of his skin. Sorrow coloured his eyes, but she was relieved that his pupils were normal, the irises still the same shade of black that she had always known. His hair was weighed with sweat, and she reached out with her fingers to touch his neck, confirming that he was damp there as well and checking his pulse, which was far too quick for her taste. It meant that his physical exertion and the upheaval of his system had not yet settled down into simple exhaustion.
And he was shaking.
Which meant that the Death-Eaters had gone on another killing spree that night.
The realisation swept her with nausea and regret. "Oh, dear—" she said, biting down her jaw to keep back the prickle in her eyes— "I'm sorry, Severus, I—let me help you—". Hermione carefully helped him to his feet, ignoring the anger and exasperation in his eyes, and led him slowly to the stone wall, where she touched the slabs in a pattern. The wall opened into a quiet, ill-lit passageway barely big enough for the two of them, and she hoped that his claustrophobia wouldn't kick in just then.
She lit her wand, still held his arm as they walked slowly down the hidden corridor. She wanted him to talk at her, to scold her and to be his stubborn self; criticising her always made him feel better, and distracted him to some extent in times like these. To her consternation, though, instead of doing that, he allowed himself to be silently led, even leaning some of his weight upon her shoulder. Such acquiescence worried her.
They reached the end of the pathway, and a door stood closed before them. Hermione unlocked it with her wand, and walked into his rooms.
That night she took no glances at the interior, ignoring the bookshelves and not at all seeing the rich tapestries and comfortable chaise lounge. She had only time to spare a thought of gratitude that the house-elves had lit a fire in his marble grate before she guided him to a door on the left, opening it into a bathroom.
At the sight of the black and white tile, Snape tugged at her arm, and she released him. He strode quickly to the bathroom, but the wave of sickness must have come sooner than he had anticipated, because as he suddenly raced to the toilet he didn't even close the door.
Hermione followed him in, seeing him kneel before the toilet and begin to retch.
She stood for a few moments, and felt helpless.
This had happened times before, sure enough, and it didn't matter that he was obstinate or angry with her for trying to help (as much for his sake as for hers); she always ignored his comments on her having nothing better to do and brushed aside his blatant dislike of her. But every time she saw him heave, a part of her wished that she hadn't even ventured out of her dormitory, because she was overwhelmed with her own anger and disgust, as well feelings that she couldn't understand, not to mention ever confess.
She had to do something, to occupy her hands, because thinking was too hard and feeling was too painful.
She made herself useful.
The sound of vomiting and running water filled the small space as she turned on the tap and shoved a face flannel under it. Hermione knelt beside him on the floor as he flushed the toilet and sat back on his heels, his face tilted to the ceiling. The cloth she pressed to his forehead was cool, and she hoped that it soothed the building headache somewhat; he always had a headache after throwing up. Other than this simple action, though, she took care not to touch him, and pressed her elbows to her sides so that she wouldn't reach out to him. It would only annoy him, and she was grateful and worried, at the same time, that he didn't brush her hand away.
As another bout of retching began, she stood, chose another flannel from the cabinet atop the sink, and soaked it as she did the first. She conjured a glass and filled it with water, then knelt beside him again as she finished. The worst, it seemed, was over; Snape wasn't shaking anymore, although he still looked exhausted and overwhelmed. She tried not to look at him as she gave him the second cloth to wipe his lips and handed him the glass of water to gargle with.
He spat into the toilet, not meeting her eyes, and tried shakily to stand up. She took her time in following suit, so that he might not feel that she anticipated him stumbling.
He threw the glass to the floor, breaking it into a thousand tiny shards, a small concession to his anger. Not at her, she realised, but at Voldemort, and at his weakness. Snape brushed past her, heading to his sitting room.
"Go back to your dormitory, Miss Granger," he said, the professional mask back in place as he took the floor step by painful step. Step, then—he suddenly found he couldn't move his feet. Hermione watched as his shoulders sagged in resignation.
Slowly he turned his head to find, as he must have expected, Hermione behind him, wand raised.
"I am not going anywhere," she said, quietly and dangerously. (Hermione later wondered at this, as she reviewed the night's events. At any other time she would have yelled in indignation. Perhaps she had picked this silent anger up from him?) "And you—you are going to have a bath."
She turned around and headed back into the bathroom, and he heard the rush of running water repeatedly hitting the porcelain bottom of his bathtub. His nose was attacked by a deluge of the scent of his soap, and he was, to some extent, grateful that she had anticipated his need for a harsh, hot bath, in an attempt to rinse from his skin all the gore of that night.
She had never done so before.
He heard her step out of the bath, moving around him to face him, a determined gleam in her eye and a towel in hand that she threw onto the chaise-lounge. Hermione lifted her hands, and at first he wondered what she was doing. He would have stepped back in shock if he could have, because her fingers landed on the collar of his robes.
"Miss Granger—this is highly irregular—" he began, but didn't even get past the first word as her hand clamped over his mouth.
"Severus," she said.
And he let her. He was too weak to fight.
When the bathroom door closed behind him, she had taken care of the wounds that he had accumulated, and he was left only with the bone-deep weariness now that the irritation of the surface cuts had gone. Taking off his trousers, he tested the waters with his hand and thought the temperature satisfactory. Snape sank his sore, sore body gratefully into the bath, but almost jumped out again as Hermione entered the room.
Oh. So that was why she had filled the bath with so much soap.
She pulled up a stool beside the porcelain, claw-footed tub, and turned her head sideways, not looking at him, her expression clouded and the faint candlelight playing in her hair.
She didn't say a word, and he found himself unexpectedly thankful for the silence, and for her presence. He began to breathe again, and picked up the wash towel.
He noticed that the glass was on the sink again, whole.
Half an hour later, she sat on his bed.
Snape walked into his bedroom, clad in a towel, knowing that he would find her there and not very sure how he felt about it. Hermione Granger, his best student of seven years, sat on the edge of his bed, which was draped in green.
To an outsider, Hermione thought, the room would have seemed suitably Slytherin and masculine at the same time, with its deep, rich colours, dark furniture, wooden panelling and jewelled carpet. But Hermione, who knew of the torment of his nights and the bleakness of his days, went so far as to notice the dark red dressing gown draped over a chair, the strong tobacco on the pouch on the mantel, and even the incense on a table by the large, unexpectedly soft bed. This room was meant to console Severus Snape in his dark, joyless moods; the sensory feast—the smells, the tastes, the bright colours and the mattress—was meant to fill up the bleakness that came after every summons of the dark lord.
She looked up as he entered, and stood up to meet him halfway.
Shortly after, the towel fell to the floor.