It had taken him a long time to work up the courage to come here.
His mother had told him where the house was some time ago. But Draco hadn't known for a long time if he even wanted to see the man again. Snape had lied to him, from the very beginning... he'd trusted the Potions Master, had treasured the approval and praise he gave so liberally. Only when he'd been given his own mission, one he wasn't sure he could perform, had he turned against the older man, fearful of losing his chance to redeem his family. And even then, Snape had come to his rescue, had killed Dumbledore and protected him...
But he'd been a spy. All the time.
Draco had avoided Azkaban by the skin of his teeth. Although he'd been technically a Death Eater, he'd been able to swear truthfully that his life, and his family's lives, had been threatened... and he had, after all, helped Potter in the end, more out of the fear of what Voldemort might do if he lived than anything else. Mother was right... the truth could be a better defense than a lie, if you used it right. She'd been released as well... she'd had even less to do with Voldemort than he had. They were social outcasts now, of course, and most of the family's assets had been siezed, but he was alive and free, and he would take that and be grateful.
He wasn't sure, even now, what it was that he wanted to ask Snape. Well, no... he knew what he wanted to ask. But running to him like a child, begging for reassurance that Snape had really liked him, had protected him because he wanted to, not to further some subtle purpose of his own... no.
He rapped on the small, shabby door, frowning. Maybe when he saw him, he'd know what to say.
Then the door opened, and what he wanted to say said itself. "What are YOU doing here?" he demanded in blank amazement.
Granger looked up at him... it was her, although she looked very different. Her hair was tied back in a tight braid, and she looked tired and a little drawn. And not at all pleased to see him. "I could ask you the same thing," she said flatly. "What do you want?"
"To see Professor Snape. This is his house," Draco said, a shade of uncertainty entering his tone. "Isn't it?"
"Yes." She stepped back, letting him step into a pitifully small, cell-like living room. "Did you let him know you were coming?"
"No." Draco turned, folding his arms and scowling. To find her, of all people, here... "What are you doing here, Granger?"
"Looking after him," she said coolly. "Someone has to." She ignored Draco's gaping, and walked to one of the bookcases. It opened, revealing a flight of narrow stairs. "I'll tell him you're here. If he decides to see you, don't agitate him or upset him... it isn't good for him." She left, slamming the bookcase behind her.
He stared at it for a long time. Hermione Granger? Here? 'Looking after him'? What was that devious little mudblood after? Surely she couldn't think she could trick or cozen Severus Snape... and although she'd improved as she grew up, she certainly didn't have anything special to offer in the physical sense. So why was she here? Why hadn't Snape thrown her out?
He was looking the other bookshelves over, and getting impatient enough to consider leaving, when he heard the bookcase open again and turned to give Granger a piece of his mind. And flinched.
Snape saw the flinch, and smiled thinly. "I am afraid, Draco, that you haven't caught me at my best," he said dryly. In a horrible, unintentional parody of his usual slow pace, he limped to the chair and sat down with a quiet sigh. "What brings you here?"
Even if Draco had known what he wanted to say, the sight of the man he'd respected and admired from childhood would have left him speechless. The deep, purplish scars, his skeletal thinness and obvious weakness... looking after him, Granger had said. He hadn't realized she meant this. "I... wanted to see you, sir," he said lamely, and then wanted to kick himself. That sounded so stupid.
"And you have seen me." Snape leaned back in his chair, his remaining eye surveying his former student with a cool, calculating gaze. "Did you come by merely to enjoy the freak-show, Draco, or did you wish to speak as well?"
"I didn't... know," Draco admitted. "That it was this bad. I would have come sooner, if I had." And that was true. The Potions Master had been guardedly kind to him, offered him precious approval and acceptance. There were few people who, if Draco had been willing to admit it, meant more to him.
Snape gave him a piercing look, and then relaxed slightly, a slight smile briefly curling the corner of his mouth. "Aside from Miss Granger, few do," he admitted. "And she, as I'm sure you are aware, is abominably nosy. I certainly didn't intend for her to find out."
Draco nodded. "Sir... why is she here?" he asked, more than a little bewildered. "Why haven't you gotten rid of her, if you don't want her here?"
The smile faded, and he looked away. "Because I can't," he said, rather grimly. "I have been... considerably weakened, by my injuries and a recent illness. I lack the ability, at this time, to eject that wretched girl from my home. I assure you, I will throw her bodily from the house the moment I am capable of doing so."
Draco swallowed hard. For Snape to admit to a weakness, it must be a truly dire one. "I... see." He sat down on the edge of the narrow sofa, frowning a little. "That doesn't explain why she-"
"If all you wish is to discuss Miss Granger's presence, Draco, you might more profitably discuss it with her. She is willing to go into details as to the reasons for her presence. I am not."
Draco subsided. "I... yes, of course, sir." He looked down at his hands. "My mother asked me to make her apologies," he said, taking refuge in the formalities. "She is unable to visit, at this time, but she may at some time in the future. She asked me to thank you for keeping your word."
Snape's face softened slightly. "Please give her my greetings. And... soften your report of my condition, if possible. I am recovering, and would not have her worry for no reason."
Draco nodded. "I will. She's... she gets upset easily, these days. I won't do anything to make things more difficult."
He nodded. "I suppose," he said, rather grimly, "you want to know about my... loyalties. During the war." Draco jumped, and he inclined his head. "It requires no great deductive skills on my part. I would wonder, in your position."
"Yes." Draco nodded, his fists clenching on his knees. "I want to know... why you changed sides so often."
"I didn't," Snape said coolly. "I only ever changed sides once, Draco. I repented of my loyalties to the Dark Lord, I went to Dumbledore, and he took me in and forgave me. From that day, I was loyal only to him, and to my own conscience." He quirked an eyebrow as Draco stared at him in surprise. "I do have one. Somewhat vestigial, but it's there."
Draco scowled. "You told me once that a conscience was a weakness," he said accusingly. So Snape had lied to him.
"I told you, as I recall, that..." Snape closed his eye for a moment, remembering. "Only the weak permit themselves to be ruled by the prickings of conscience. Like fear and anger and pride, it makes a poor master." He opened his eye again, looking at Draco. "The saying goes, if you recall, that pride makes a good servant but a poor master. All four of those qualities, as I tried to imply without saying the words outright, are useful if kept under control... only when they control you are they a weakness."
"You could have just told me that!" Draco snapped. He'd been wrong, Snape wasn't different... he was exactly like Draco's father, expecting him to just know what he was being told, what he needed to know, from the tiniest of clues.
"I didn't dare!" Snape sat up straighter, his eye flashing with annoyance. "I tried to lead you into safer paths than those your parents chose for you, Draco, but I did not dare to do so openly! If they or you had ceased to trust me-"
"And I shouldn't have trusted you!" Draco didn't care that he was being unreasonable. Knowing that yet another person he cared about had lied to him, treated him like an idiot child who couldn't be trusted. "You lied to me, all that time-"
"I was trying to protect you!" Snape shouted back, rising to his feet as Draco did the same. "If your father had ever suspected that I was leading you astray-"
"Oh, it was for my benefit? I was just too stupid to understand? Well, of course, that makes sense now! I should be grateful for your condescension, shouldn't I?" Draco's voice rose, pain and anger harshening it. "You let me walk blindly into the Death Eaters because you were too concerned for my welfare to WARN ME!"
Snape drew a breath to roar back... and then he choked. Staggering, he prested a hand to his chest, making hoarse sounds as he tried to draw in another breath and couldn't seem to manage it. Horrified, Draco stood rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do, what to think...
A door slammed open behind him, and a slender blur in blue robes dashed past him, catching Snape, ashen-faced now, as he staggered again. "I told you not to agitate him!" she hissed, turning a furious glare on Draco. "Get out of the way!" She supported Snape to the sofa, helping him down onto it. Kneeling beside him, she fished a small vial from her pocket and opened it, holding it to his lips. "Drink this," she told him, and her voice was gentler and warmer than Draco would have imagined possible. "Try to relax... that's it." The ghastly pallor was fading, and Snape was breathing hoarsely again. "That's better. Don't try to talk," she added, as his mouth opened again. "Just lie very still, relax, and get your breathing steady first. You know what the healer said." She stood, turning to Draco again, and her eyes narrowed. "And you," she said, in the shrewish tones he knew far too well. "Come with me. Now." She grabbed his arm, dragging him through the door she'd burst through - again, hidden behind a bookcase.
Still stunned, Draco let him drag him down a dark, narrow hall into a tiny, messy dining-room that was clearly being used as a study. "It's been months," he said worriedly, glancing over his shoulder. "How long will it be until he's fully recovered?"
Granger turned to him, scowling. "He won't," she said flatly. "He'll get better, but he's never going to recover completely."
Draco actually felt his jaw drop. "But... not ever?" he asked, almost childishly. Snape had always seemed so strong, almost invulnerable...
"No. Not ever. The damage... there was just too much. His lungs are damaged - he's all right most of the time, but if he exerts himself too much, or gets too upset... well, you saw what happened." She looked away, and he realized with surprise that instead of the triumph he'd expected, she looked sad. "It's hard for him, knowing he's lost so much," she said quietly. "He doesn't even have his health, anymore."
Draco nodded slowly. "Why are you here?" he asked again, really wanting an answer this time.
She shrugged. "He needs me," she said quietly. "Well... he needs someone. And given that you're the first visitor since me, and he'd have been dead long before you got here if I hadn't showed up... I sort of got volunteered by fate." She smiled a wry, humourless smile. "Believe it or not, I was actually almost glad to see you. Someone - anyone - wanting to see him can only help the state of mind he's been in."
"But you always hated him," Draco said, frowning. Even for an insanely, inanely noble and self-sacrificing Gryffindor, surely this didn't make sense."Why would you do this? Why not... I don't know, call me or one of the other Slytherins?"
"Why? Because, once I pointed out the fact that he'd crawled off alone to die, you would suddenly have cared?" she snapped. "I was the only person who bothered to come looking for him. I wouldn't have trusted anyone I had to drag here by the ear to do their duty."
"Why would YOU care?" he fired back. "Even for a sentimental Gryffindor-"
"Oh, for god's sake, stop it with the House rubbish!" she snarled. "We're not at school anymore, Draco, remember? I wouldn't have left anyone alone and suffering the way he was. Not even you, and unlike him, I have NO respect for you."
Draco opened his mouth, and realized that he had no idea what to say. She'd changed a lot, from the scrawny, aggravating girl he remembered. Everything had changed, since then. Somewhat to his surprise, he realized that he'd changed, too. "I didn't have any for you, either," he said, but not with any particular animosity. "At least, not until now. Now... I'm not sure. I'm glad someone was here to take care of him."
"Even if it had to be me?" she asked, raising an eyebrow and smiling a little. She had a kind of pretty smile, he realized.
"Even if it had to be you," he agreed, smiling rather ruefully. "Will he be... all right? After I upset him, I mean."
She nodded. "It's happened a few times before. He's probably able to talk again by now, actually... we should probably go back in before he starts trying to walk around. He's supposed to rest after these attacks, but he never wants to." Her voice softened distinctly when the topic turned to Snape. It was... weird. And a little disturbing.
Draco followed her into the sitting-room, to find Snape sitting up, slumped a little against the back of the sofa. "I'm... sorry, sir," he said guiltily, seeing how pale the older man still was.
Snape made an impatient noise. "Don't be ridiculous. It's hardly your doing that my lungs are a mess." He leaned back against the sofa's high back, closing his eye for a moment. "I am sorry, Draco, that I couldn't do more to protect you," he said quietly, ignoring their startled expressions. "If I'd known that you were going to be recruited to the Death Eaters before you had even finished your schooling, I would have warned you more plainly."
"I... thank you, sir." And he would. Draco believed him - he would never have embarrassed himself by admitting to a fault (in front of Granger at that), if it hadn't been important to him. "I should go. Would it... may I visit again, to see how you're doing?"
Snape blinked, and then gave Draco the rare, slight smile that he bestowed on few others. "I would... like that," he admitted, looking a little embarrassed and... pleased. "Thank you, Draco."
Pain made for restless sleep, and Severus was reluctant to rely on sleeping potions. Hermione pressed them on him now and then, when he'd had more than one or two bad nights in a row, but other than that, she held her peace. She was, he was willing to concede at least to himself, a very good nurse. She respected his privacy and his dignity, but at the same time wasn't afraid to push him when it was necessary. He shuddered to think what it would have been like if he'd stayed at Hogwarts... Poppy Pomfrey was a good nurse in her way, but she fussed. Endlessly. Continuously. He would have jumped out of a window within days, just to get away.
So he was awake when a soft cry came from the next room. Muffled by the wall, he wasn't entirely sure he'd heard it until it came again a moment later. Hermione. Well, she had said, during that first embarrassing episode, that he'd have his chance to wake her from nightmares...
He slid out of bed, pulling a heavy black dressing-gown around himself and limping towards the door. He owed her several wakings by now, including the one he only vaguely remembered, thanks to the fever... but the memory of soft, protective arms around him, holding him as she crooned reassurances, was persistent. He hadn't admitted that to her, of course.
As soon as he opened her door, he knew he'd been right. The moon shining in her window showed him that she was thrashing against the blanket that had wound itself against her legs, whimpering and crying out in protest. "No... no, please..." she sobbed, clawing at it with sleep-weakened hands. "I don't... no..."
"Miss Granger..." No. That wouldn't work. He could see why she'd started doing it now. "Hermione," he said gently, limping towards the bed. "Hermione, wake up. It's just a dream." He leaned down to touch her shoulder, shaking her gently. "Hermione?"
She sat up so fast she nearly cracked her head against his face. Her eyes were huge and she was trembling. "What... I... no..." she gasped, pushing his hand away and scrambling for the edge of the bed. Then she seemed to wake fully, stilling and lifting shaking hands to rub her face. "Oh, god..." she whispered. "It's been weeks since I had that one." She looked up at him, and he wasn't sure if it was the moonlight or the nightmare that left her as pale as a ghost. "Thank you," she whispered, her lip trembling. "For... waking me up, before..."
Her protests, the way she'd reacted to being touched... he thought he could guess what that particular nightmare featured. He wasn't sure what to do... would touching her again distress her more, or comfort her as it had comforted him? He settled for sitting cautiously on the very edge of the bed, trying to stay close enough for reassurance, but far enough away that he wouldn't unnerve her further. He was no good at being comforting, damn it! "You did say that I might have to," he pointed out. "You've done the same for me, several times. I could hardly do less."
She nodded, wrapping her arms around herself. "It's... thanks," she whispered again, drawing in shuddering breaths, trying to master herself again. He recognized the state - he'd been through it himself more times than he could count. "That particular dream... I'd rather not live through that again."
He nodded. "I am familiar with the feeling," he said rather wryly. "I... is there anything I can do?" he added rather lamely. "Tea, perhaps?"
She shook her head, swallowing convulsively. "I'd just be sick. Just... talk to me for a minute, please? If I'm not fully awake for a while, it'll pull me back in."
He nodded. That feeling, too, he knew. Usually he read to combat it, but he had to admit that Hermione's irritating presence worked surprisingly well too. "The full moon was once said to bring nightmares," he said, glancing up at it through the window. "And madness. Or, sometimes, wisdom..." And then he stopped, because she'd started to cry, helpless, convulsive sobs that shook her slender body. "I... I'm sorry, did I say something...?"
"No," she gasped between sobs. "I... you were just being so normal, and it felt so unreal, and I just..." She turned towards him blindly, and he found his arms automatically going around her as she clung to him, her face buried in his shoulder as she cried.
He had little experience with tears, and less still with comfort, but he tried to imitate what she'd done before... holding her gently, cradling her against him, and rocking just a little bit. The soothing noises he felt unequal to attempting, but not because he didn't want to comfort her. He just didn't really know how...
What he was doing seemed to be right - she clung to him, crying hard at first, but her sobs slowly eased, and she relaxed against him, almost nestling against him as he held her gently. "I'm sorry," she whispered, after a while, sniffling a little as she lifted her head from his shoulder. "I shouldn't have... fallen apart all over you, like that."
It was easier, in the room full of shadows and moonlight, to be honest with her. And with himself. "If not me," he said softly, "then who?" She gave him a startled look, her eyes still glimmering with tears, and he gave her a small but genuine smile. "You have done similar service for me. I should certainly return the favour."
"I suppose I have, haven't I?" She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her nightgown... not the skimpy satin thing, this time, but a more traditional garment made of fine, soft cotton. "I didn't think you remembered."
"It is... all quite hazy," he admitted. "But I do remember. I simply had no reason to admit it."
She managed a weak laugh at that. "I guess not." She looked at him, and reached up to touch his cheek lightly with cool fingertips. "We're both kind of broken, I guess," she whispered. "It's... easier to admit to someone else, if they are too."
"It is," he agreed, the touch sending an odd little shock through him. He didn't usually like to be touched... too many bad memories to be brought back. But this... was almost pleasant. "And that is a good description, I think. We are both... somewhat broken."
"But still standing," she said softly, smiling a little. "We're both stubborn. None of that sissy falling down."
Broken, but still standing... he liked that thought. It described him well... and her, too, now that he thought about it. "Stubbornness is underrated," he agreed. "I've always rather valued it."
"Me too." She sniffled, and reached out to give his hand a brief squeeze. "Is that offer of tea still open? I think I could manage it now."
After that, things were... different. And on the whole, better. Although Severus was no less vitriolic at times, a lot of the defensiveness was gone. He was more relaxed around her, and they even managed several quite pleasant conversations, mostly on the topic of potions... their brewing, their invention, obscure descriptions in books... He had hundreds of books on the subject, and - in a clear lowering of at least one barrier - finally gave her permission to read them.
And Winky confirmed what Hermione had suspected... the small, sturdy shed down at the end of the run-down garden was a potions laboratory - and rather larger on the inside than on the outside. Given their new understanding, and his slow lowering of his defenses...
It was filthy, of course. Winky had been ordered not to go in so forcefully that, free or not, she hadn't dared even peek around the door. A great many of the ingredients in bottles and jars had withered, dried up, or congealed, their preserving spells long gone. He hadn't been in here in a long time.
Winky still wouldn't set foot in the shed, but once Hermione piled cauldrons, beakers, vials, and assorted other items outside, they were whisked away for the most thorough scrubbing of their lives. Meanwhile, Hermione wrapped a scarf around her masses of untidy curls, opened the door and both windows, and declared war on dust, dirt, grime, and tiny manylegged creatures alive and dead.
She hadn't bothered to tell Severus what she was doing. She assumed he'd notice sooner or later. What with the clouds of dust, and all.
She'd been working hard for nearly an hour when the light was suddenly blocked. Looking up from her excavations under a long bench - mountains of dirt and dust, several bits of broken glass, and a tiny, mummified mouse corpse that she'd covered up hastily with the dirt after sweeping it into the dustpan - she blinked at Severus, who was glaring down at her. "Hello," she said brightly.
His eye narrowed. "What," he said, his voice icy, "do you think that you are doing?"
"Cleaning. This place was filthy," she said with a virtuous air. "I've had to throw a lot of things away already."
"Throw things-" He went almost purple, and she fumbled hastily for the lung-clearing potion in her pocket. "Hermione Granger, do you DARE sit there and admit that you have been casting my possessions away!"
"Not possessions, exactly," she said, getting to her feet. She was wearing muggle clothes today - as much as she liked the loose, flowing comfort of robes, they weren't much use for cleaning. Loose jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt were much more practical. "Ingredients. I can't imagine you having any sentimental attachment to daisy roots that are now so much kindling, or frogspawn - I think it was frogspawn - that's all dried onto the sides of the jar."
The purplish colour receded and she relaxed. Prodding him into activity was good. Prodding him into another attack wasn't. "That... is true," he conceded rather grudgingly. "If the preserving charms had run down..."
"They had." Hermione wrinkled her nose. "It smelled as if an A-to-Z of magical creatures had crawled in here to die."
"And that should have been an indication that I wished the place to remain shut up," he growled, looking around with an offended air. "Not an invitation to crawl around in the dirt, cleaning by hand..." His opinion of that distasteful muggle habit was clear from his scathing tone.
"Yes, by hand." She raised an eyebrow at him. "Severus Snape, if YOU think it would be a good idea to start throwing spells around in a small, breakable building in which an assortment of very magical substances had been slowly decaying for god only knows how long, you're not nearly as intelligent as I thought."
He opened his mouth, and closed it again, giving her the furious look that she recognized from Potions as 'you've actually out-logicked me, but I'm never EVER going to admit it'. "There are ways to avoid causing... difficulties," he said loftily. He looked around, and his face softened a little. "It's been so long since I used it, I'd almost forgotten it was here," he admitted.
"I thought that, since it's here, it's foolish for me to keep making potions up in the kitchen. And rather unsanitary, too," Hermione agreed, looking around. It was going to be quite nice, when it was clean again... it was all built and arranged for someone taller, of course, but it was convenient and well-organized. She loathed messy workspaces, and from his constant bitching in Potions, she knew he did too. "We're almost out of the salve we've been using on your scars again."
Severus blinked. "I was under the impression that you had gotten that from a healer," he said, rather suspiciously. "You've been making it up yourself?"
"And improving on it a little." She caught his suspicious look and rolled her eyes. "Severus, this is me. I was brilliant at Potions, remember?" She tilted her head back, touching the side of her neck. "I just wish I'd gotten it to work on you sooner."
He blinked, leaning in a little to look... and then he reached out, and she felt calloused fingertips trace the line of very faint burn-scars. "I'd never noticed them before," he said quietly.
"They weren't as bad as yours, but the salve helped a lot." She smiled wryly. "I have quite a few more." Most of them in places that didn't usually show, something he was bright enough to work out without her spelling it out for him. "Nothing to compare to yours, of course."
He nodded slowly, and gave her a small, wry smile. "I will continue using the salve," he said, conceding the point. "It is certainly effective." He paused, and then curiosity obviously got the better of him. "What, precisely, do you use in it?"
Aha. He was interested. Hermione smiled. "As soon as this place is cleared out, I'll show you," she offered. "I'll make a potion, you can watch and criticize, it'll be like old times."
He considered that, then shook his head, smiling again. "Not like old times. I am no longer a teacher, burdened with dozens of unwilling, dunderheaded students. We might, perhaps, work together." He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Athough please do not take that to mean, Miss Granger, that you have nothing left to learn. I assure you, that is hardly the case."
She giggled, feeling very good all of a sudden. "I know. I'm still but a humble beginner." She assumed a very meek expression. "A brilliant, gifted, ingenious humble beginner, mind you."
He laughed, and she almost fell over from the shock. She'd never heard him laugh before - not a laugh of genuine amusement, rather than a sardonic little exercise in exhaled irony. "And so modest, too," he said dryly, smiling at her. "Get on with your cleaning."
"You're not going to help?" she demanded.
"Of course not." He pulled his immaculate robes around him, drawing himself up to his full height. "I am not a well man," he said gravely. "The dust would be very bad for me. You may finish alone."
He swept off up the path, while Hermione swung helplessly between wanting to laugh and wanting to throw the dead mouse at him. He'd actually laughed, and made a joke about his infirmities, and that was so GOOD that she wanted to dance for joy...
On the other hand, he'd left her to do all this cleaning by herself, and THAT merited a dead mouse if anything did.
Thanks for all the feedback:) It's definite incentive to get the later chapters tidied up and posted. (The story's finished, but I'm still getting the hang of formatting it myself)
MelissaJooty, I will definitely check out Ashwinder, and vanityfair, I'm sorry about the abrupt POV shifts - my scene dividers vanished! Hopefully they're working now, and they make the shifts in POV less jarring. Everyone else, thank you so much for the kind words! I hope you like the next chapter.