She had been grossly understating the matter when she had talked about the range-of-motion exercises as being "unpleasant." A hangover was unpleasant. A blister was unpleasant. This was torture. Every session left him shaking with exhaustion and covered in perspiration.
First, there was a massage to limber up muscles and joints, then the grueling stretching exercises themselves.
He had baulked at first. "Isn't there someone else who can do this?" It seemed…too personal, to be touched by her like this. She had smiled and ignored him.
Now, two days later, he could still feel color flushing his face as she sat down at the end of the bed, pulled the covers to the side, and matter-of-factly lifted his foot into her lap. She pretended not to notice his embarrassment as she pulled out a jar of potion and started to rub the ointment into his toes and his instep.
"By the way, I ran into Molly Weasley this morning. She is threatening a visit, now that she found out that she owes you the life of her only daughter." She grinned at him. "I thought it best to warn you."
He groaned. Then winced as she started working her fingers firmly into the tight muscles of his calf. "Once you get one Weasley, there is usually another one right behind. Will I have to suffer an invasion of the whole clan?" Somehow, carrying on a conversation on an unrelated subject made the fact that she was manhandling his lower extremities easier to bear. Less personal. He was grateful for that. And her fingers, massaging the soreness and stiffness out of his muscles, were skilled and capable. He felt himself relax.
She laughed. "You might. I'm afraid you have become a Weasley personal hero as of late. Ginny will want to stop by, for certain." She worked the ointment over his knee, gently stretching and pushing the ligaments and tendons. "She's rather pregnant at the moment, and it isn't easy for her to get around. The baby is due in less than two weeks."
Just what the world needs. A Weasley-Potter hybrid. He snorted. "What about Potter's red-headed side-kick? I haven't heard you mention him."
She bent her head low, her hair falling over her face so he couldn't see her expression. "Ron died," she said quietly. "During the last battle. We were engaged to be married."
There was a short, awkward pause. "I apologize," he said stiffly. "I didn't realize…"
"It's all right," she said, looking back up, her face sweet with pain. "It was so many years ago."
"Still. I am sorry."
She gave a small nod. "Thank you." With practiced hands, she continued to massage the potion into his leg. "It was rough at first. Every day seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. There were days I wasn't sure I would make it…" She paused before looking up at him quickly. "But you know what it's like. You've lost someone you love."
It was his turn to look away now. She gazed down at him with a soft ache in her chest. At least she had had friends and family to help her through the hard times. He had had no one.
"Did you ever tell her?" she asked softly. "The way you felt about her?"
Abruptly, he turned his head to face her again, the expression on his face as hard and bitter as his voice. "Why would I? She was clever, beautiful, popular, with a kind heart and a charming personality. All I ever was was clever. I might as well have wished for the moon."
"You said she was a friend…"
"Of sorts. As I said, I was clever." His voice was acidic. "She had some use for my company, for the sort of intellectual back and forth that was not exactly her Quidditch-obsessed boyfriend's forte. And she was kind." He said the words as if they had a bad taste to them. "But take a good look, Miss Granger, and tell me that any woman in her right mind would want this." His eyes were icy. "Not even your idealistic little heart could be delusional enough for that. And from now on, I would appreciate it if you would confine yourself to topics that might even remotely be your concern. Or even better, don't talk at all."
She ignored the jibe. "You don't give yourself enough credit, sir," she said lightly. "You're not really all that bad."
With a bitter snort, he turned his face to the wall again, obviously done with the conversation.
Hermione quietly continued in her work, smoothing the ointment over his skin, loosening his corded muscles. At least he had talked to her—the fact that he had said as much as he did must mean he was getting more comfortable with her, in spite of his bluster.
Whatever he might think of her, she personally was becoming rather fond of him. He was a fighter, working himself to the edge of his endurance to get better. He might complain endlessly about minor, unimportant things like the temperature in the room or the quality of the food, but he bore true pain stoically. She knew him well enough by now to know that he took compliments badly—but one day, she hoped that he would be able to see that he wasn't bad at all. That he was someone well worth knowing. That he was brave and loyal and strong as well as clever. That he had more courage than ten other wizards combined. And that once you'd seen his true colors, he didn't look so ugly any more.
A week later, the patient was able to stand up and walk a few steps with assistance. It galled him to have to lean on her, but walk he must, if he ever wanted to get out of here.
He concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other, noticing with disgust how shaky his knees still were.
"Very good," the girl said encouragingly. "It's amazing how far you have come in such a short amount of time."
He didn't answer, sweat beading up all over his face. Each step still felt as if he were walking on broken glass. But she was right; compared to a few days ago, he was much improved. She led him over to the bed and supported him as he sat down. "Can I get you anything?" she asked as she handed him the cloth to wipe off his face.
He shook his head. "No." Exhausted, he leaned back into the pillows, closing his eyes as she pulled the blanket up over him. There was a knock on the door. He cursed quietly under his breath. The last thing he wanted right now was company.
"Tell whoever it is to go away," he murmured, his eyes still closed.
"I don't think that is a good idea," she said quietly as the door opened. The odd tone in her voice made him open his eyes.
"Mr Snape." The false, practiced smile of the professional politician plastered on his face, the lion-maned Minister of Magic stepped through the door, inclining his head at the convalescent. With a wave of his wand, he conjured up a comfortable chair and made himself at home. "I thought I would come to see you in person to inform you about the outcome of our deliberations regarding your case." The way he lifted his bushy eyebrows made it clear that he expected Snape to keenly feel the honor of being thus visited. "Erm, Miss…?" He looked condescendingly at the girl. "If you have other duties to attend to, this would be a good time to leave, as I have private things I wish to discuss with Mr Snape here?"
"She is my caregiver," Severus interrupted him shortly. "Anything you have to say can be said in her presence." He was not going to be left alone with Scrimgeour if he could help it. He did not trust the Minister any farther than he could throw him. Which in his present state was not very far at all.
"Very well," the man said with a slightly disgruntled expression. The girl turned and busied herself with setting to order a shelf on the wall which held assorted jars and vials. Scrimgeour cleared his throat as he looked back at Snape. "Very well, then. I am pleased to inform you that the memories of the late Albus Dumbledore were examined in detail and found genuine and untampered with. In view of this new evidence, I have granted you an executive pardon. When you are well again, you will be free to go wherever you please."
He reached into the pocket of his robes and pulled out a package. Carefully, he began to unwrap it. "Which brings me to another topic. Regretfully, based on the information we had at the time, we have auctioned off the majority of your belongings. No buyer was found for your house, so the dwelling has remained in the Ministry's inventory. We are pleased to return it to you." He placed two keys on the bedside table.
"What about the rest of my belongings? Will those be returned?"
"I'm afraid," Scrimgeour said smoothly, "that the statute of limitation for wrongful seizure of assets is only one year, and has long since expired. I regret that things are quite out of my hands as far as that is concerned. We are not obligated at all to even return the dwelling at Spinner's End into your possession, but it seemed the least we could do in view of the regrettable mix-up."
Snape uneasily noticed the girl's face had taken on a markedly fixed expression, and that a dull red color was slowly rising in her cheeks. He fervently hoped she would be able to keep her mouth shut just this once. The last thing he needed was for her to embarrass and humiliate him in front of the Minister. But if past experience was anything to judge by, that particular hope was bound to be a futile one.
"Then," Scrimgeour continued, "there is the matter of your wand. As all charges against you have been dropped, it has been decided to return it to you at this time." He placed the slim black rod next to the keys on the bedside table. "I hope that pleases you."
Snape had to restrain himself from grasping at it immediately. His wand. They had returned his wand. With an effort, he turned his face away, back towards the Minister. Looking at him with a tight, mocking smile, he asked, "I assume an article regarding my newly established innocence will appear in the Daily Prophet within the next day or two?"
Scrimgeour squirmed slightly. "As the events regarding your capture would place the Ministry in an undeserved bad light—you understand, I am sure, that we are not to blame in assuming your loyalty to Riddle under the circumstances—and we are still trying to recover credibility from the many years of mismanagement under my predecessor…" He delicately trailed off.
"I understand," Snape said coldly. "If that is all?"
"There is," Scrimgeour continued, pulling a small pouch out of his robe pocket, "one more small matter. I have a certain amount of galleons available in the Ministerial budget to spend at my discretion, and in expectation of your continued cooperation and understanding, the Ministry would be happy to provide you with some help in starting over, as a token of our good will?" He discreetly placed the pouch next to the keys and wand.
Staring at the pouch, Snape would have liked nothing so much as to throw the coins at Scrimgeour's dragon-hide-booted feet and tell him to go to hell. But beggars can't be choosers. If he were to go home, he would at least need some money for potion ingredients and equipment so he could start supporting himself again. And his Gringotts vault was as empty as a politician's promises. He nodded shortly, swallowing his pride along with the bile rising in his throat. "If you are finished…?"
"I am." Scrimgeour rose, and with a wave of his wand the chair disappeared. He stopped at the door, a glib smile on his face. "All that remains is to wish you all the best for your recovery. A good day to you."
The door had barely closed behind him when the girl exploded. "Who the bloody hell does he think he is, the toad-livered, slime-covered, imbecilic…"
Snape listened with wry amusement as the list went on for a while. For someone he had always considered fairly genteel, she had a quite extensive vocabulary of swear words. Well, being close friends with Ron Weasley for so long, she was bound to have picked up a few gems along the way…
She was slowly working herself up into a state of righteous indignation. "…I am not going to let him get away with this! I'll get Harry to write an article for the Quibbler. Or something like that...Luna will help... To let the whole world keep right on thinking you are evil personified…it's just wrong! And there has to be something we can do to get your things back. Petition the individuals that bought your belongings, appeal to their better selves…it simply isn't right….You don't deserve that sort of treatment, after all that you did…"
With alarm, Snape realized he was about to become a Project.
"You will do no such thing," he cut her off sharply in the middle of her tirade. He only too well remembered her S.P.E.W. year. This needed to be nipped in the bud. "I am an adult, I am perfectly capable of supporting myself, and the last thing I want is to make it appear as if I am some sort of charity case. All I want is to be left alone. Your interference is not needed, desired, or appreciated, nor is Mr Potter's. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
She pressed her lips together tightly. "Yes, sir," she ground out.
"Good. As long as this is understood." He leaned his head back against the pillow, weariness claiming him as the tension of the confrontation slowly left his body.
The fire drained out of her eyes, to be replaced with concern. "Are you all right, sir?"
"I'm fine," he said shortly.
"I am sorry," she said contritely. "I wasn't thinking. Here I am going on an on, and all you want is some peace and quiet. You need to rest. Is there anything I can get you before I go, anything you want? Something to eat, a cup of tea?"
"I could do with a cup of tea," he said. God, he was tired.
"Coming right up," she said with a small smile and disappeared through the door. She came back a few moments later holding a tray with a small pitcher of milk, a spoon, a teabag on a saucer—and a cup filled with cold water.
He looked at her questioningly.
With a twinkle in her eyes, she picked up his wand and put it in his hand. "You make the tea." Briefly, she rested her small hand over his and gave it a light squeeze. "I'll leave you be now. Drink your tea, and then get some sleep. That's an order. Sir."
His fingers closed around his wand as she walked out the door, and he took a long, measured breath as something tight and heavy lifted off his chest. He could sense the magic in himself focus as he tightly grasped the handle. It was only a cup of tea, a simple heating spell—but he could feel tears pricking at the back of his eyes. He was finally a wizard again.
Only a few days later he was reading in a chair by the bed when she came in, holding a bundle neatly wrapped in brown paper in her arms. "Morning, Professor." She placed the bundle on the bed next to him. "I think you'll be happy to hear that Healer McKenna feels that you have progressed enough to go home. Here's your clothes. I've taken the liberty of getting them mended, cleaned, and pressed. Hope you don't mind." She stepped back as he uncertainly looked at the package.
"Did you do the mending, cleaning, and pressing?" He didn't need yet another thing to be beholden for.
She laughed. "No, sir. Heavens, no. My knowledge of household spells is dismal as can be. No, this is Dobby's handiwork. Did you know that he lives with Harry and Ginny now? He was more than pleased to take on this assignment, once he found out you saved his mistress's life."
Snape unwrapped the package and ran his hand over the heavy wool. All of a sudden, he couldn't wait to get dressed. He would look like himself again, not like some helpless invalid. Painfully, slowly, he levered himself up from the chair. The girl made no attempt to help him up, nor was she offering to help him with getting dressed. Good. She was learning.
He came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, wearing his own robe and cloak. It was such a relief just to be out of the blasted hospital gowns. The weight and sway of the fabric made him stand up straighter, feel taller. She looked at him shyly when he emerged through the door.
"Why is it that all of a sudden I feel like a first year again?" She smiled up at him. "I shall miss you, you know."
He snorted at that. Right.
She took a deep breath. "Well, goodbye, sir," she said. "What will you do now?"
I am going to go home, he thought. Back to my shabby, deserted house, in my shabby, deserted town. I will somehow start to build a life again. I will figure out what to do with myself now that no one is hunting me and no one needs me. Suddenly, the future seemed to stretch out bleakly before him, the years reaching empty from horizon to horizon... He shook off the feeling with an irate jerk of his head. "Go home," he said shortly.
There was awkward silence for a moment. Then, "Will you be all right?" she asked haltingly. He could see the concern on her face.
"I'll be fine." I am not about to become a burden on the wizarding public. I can brew potions to sell through apothecary shops. I won't starve. Don't you worry your pretty little head about me. Once I walk out that door, I won't be your problem any more.
She nodded. "Good luck, then." Suddenly, she stood up on tiptoes and planted a quick kiss on his cheek as his eyes widened in surprise and he took a quick, involuntary step back. "Take care of yourself, sir. Don't forget to do your exercises, at least for another two weeks. And don't be a stranger."
The corners of his mouth turned down. Pretty words, words she could not possibly mean. She would be only too glad to get rid of her unpleasant patient. He looked at her again. She had been kind. It was her job, of course, but she had been kind. He nodded, and turned to leave.
Good-bye for now, Professor, she thought, looking on as his stiff black back retreated slowly and haltingly down the corridor. But I will see you again.
It seemed odd to think that out of all the people on the planet, she knew him better than anyone, knew secrets and memories he would never share with anyone else. And she was only too aware that he hated the fact that she knew. But he needed someone to look after him. And she was just the Gryffindor to do it.
She knew where he lived. In a day or two, she would stop by, purely in a professional role, of course, to see how he was faring. And then again, a day or two after that. He was too much of a gentleman to throw her out.
And once he really was well again—there were still quite a few advanced medicinal potions that she had trouble brewing. And he was an expert. If she asked him the right way, he would offer to help. Grudgingly and with any number of insults to her professional abilities, of course, but he would offer.
And then, maybe one day, once they had known each other for a while, she would find an interesting article in Practical Potions, and she would Firecall to ask his opinion. And then tell him that talking over the Floo was too awkward, and would he like to come over for a cup of tea so they could finish their discussion? And he would come. Grudgingly and with any number of jeers at her limited intelligence, of course, but he would come. And things would go from there.
Hermione looked at his retreating back and smiled. He was a friend already—he just didn't know it yet. But one day he would. Oh, yes, he would.