New Perspective 2

TAKEN ON TRUST

By Bellegeste

A/N: With Deathly Hallows looming, I feel that the Potterverse, as I know and love it, is about to go decidedly pear-shaped. Rather than leave the ending of Taken on Trust open for a sequel, I have decided to wrap up this story once and for all.

It was never my intention to write a Last Battle fic. I have set this epilogue two years after the previous chapter, in a conveniently post-Voldemort world and have merely sketched in several other threads, most notably Harry and the Horcruxes, in order to concentrate on the main theme: Hermione and Snape.

In the last chapter, Snape was arrested. That was in September 1997; it is now early October 1999. The students have completed their final year at Hogwarts and have been working in the wizarding world for 15 months.

Epilogue : INITIATIVE

Like a washed-up wreck, the ruins of All Saints' Parish Church, Pontefract, lie on a triangular island of green on the eastern outskirts of the town. On three sides, a sea of tarmac laps at its grassy shores: the A645 South Baileygate; North Baileygate the route back into the town centre; and, forming the hypotenuse, the access road for the recently constructed estate of redbrick townhouses. Lashed by centuries of unforgiving Yorkshire wind and rain, the crumbling medieval church walls offer no angles to the weather; the sandstone blocks are worn smooth, rounded as bone; a blackened, beached carcass. Constructed within the original shell, the 'new' Victorian clock tower thrusts skywards, boxy and sharply defined, as though the conning tower of a giant submarine had surfaced directly beneath the broken ancient hull and pushed itself through and up amidst the hallowed stones.

The hands on the clock were approaching two-thirty as a sturdy figure in a shapeless, bottle-green duffle coat entered the churchyard by the southern gate. After taking a moment to take stock of his surroundings, he ambled towards the only other castaway on this deserted island. This was a young woman, walking slowly, hands plunged deep into the pockets of her padded jacket, her back to the gusting wind, which snatched rudely at her hair, buffeting wild brown curls across her solemn face.

"I thought I might find you here." Neville Longbottom fell into step at Hermione's side. "When I Flooed your office and they said you'd taken the afternoon off…"

"You Flooed me at work?" No words of greeting.

"Just to say hello. What with today being – well, you know."

"You can say it, Neville. I won't fall to pieces. '…today being the anniversary of his death.' I've got to get used to the idea sooner or later."

This was said with such a total lack of conviction that, perversely, Neville was cheered. Hermione was barely making an attempt to deceive him any more, and he took this as an encouraging sign. For two years the subject of Snape's death in custody had been emotional quicksand to her. One false move and it would drag her under.

Her footsteps didn't falter, but she was staring blindly into the distance with the fixed determination of someone trying not to give way to tears. Already she had cried enough for one day. After a few silent yards she linked her arm through Neville's. Together they paced the length of the paved path as far as the eastern apex of the triangle, turning sharply as it angled back along the other side of the building.

"You're the only one, Neville, who even remembers," she said quietly. "To the others it's just history. All that drama over Harry and Voldemort! Who gave a toss about Severus? People just shut their eyes to it, blotted it out. I think they want to forget him, to forget it ever happened… The way it was all hushed up, you'd think he'd never existed."

Neville's face still tightened at her use of the forbidden name. Even when the name no longer constituted a threat. Voldemort would not be returning. Harry had seen to that. But some memories were too painful to share in public.

"Happen they're right," he said. Spilt milk; water under the bridge. "Getting angry's not going to bring them all back. And folks have their own ways of remembering."

"They remember Harry," she muttered. She had tried to be magnanimous, to celebrate Harry's triumph, to honour his memory, but true forgiveness eluded her. If it hadn't been for Harry, Snape might still be alive.

"Aye, and so they should." Neville stuck up for his friend. He hadn't been there the night Harry cast the Dessicorpus; he hadn't witnessed Snape's agony; he hadn't seen Harry's face contorted with the intent to kill. In Neville's eyes, Harry's heroic image remained unsullied. "Give him his due, Hermione. He saved us all. He fulfilled the Prophecy, and he paid the price. He really was the Chosen One."

"He was lucky." A part of Hermione begrudged Harry his success. It rankled, though she could never complain of the end result. How had he tracked down the remaining Horcruxes without her help? She'd never rated him as particularly bright – brave, yes, plucky, adventurous, but not clever – so how had he managed to discover the secret locations? It had to be luck. Either that or he had a hidden vat of Felix Felicis stashed away somewhere. Maybe he had enlisted Slughorn's assistance, promising a share in the spoils of fame. But, somehow, he had located the Locket, the Wand and the Cup. And what Nagini had been doing in Hogwarts' lake with the giant squid was anybody's guess. A fatal mistake.

"But no one cares! He died, and as far as they're concerned it was 'good riddance'. All very convenient…" It was clear from her aggrieved tone that Hermione was no longer talking about Harry. She mourned him too, but not in the same way.

Neville guided her to the bench by the church's main entrance, the wooden doors locked and bolted at this hour on a Thursday afternoon. Around them the ruins of the earlier nave, now open to the elements - its gothic arches had framed neither timber nor glass for four hundred years - gave an illusion of shelter from the plucking wind.

Hermione's listless gaze took in the devastated stonework, the remnants of carved tracery.

"Must have been beautiful once," she sighed. "It dates from the 13th century, you know, but it was sacked in 1645 during the Civil War. The tower and transept were restored in 1831. It's noted for its double helix staircase."

Neville stared at her in awe.

"Goodness, Hermione. What you don't know wouldn't fill a pea pod."

Her fragile smile came and went.

"Thanks, Neville, but there's a historical plaque above the door." She nodded upwards and the young man's eyes humbly followed her lead. He quickly fell into old patterns of behaviour. "Though I have done some research too. And I still don't understand it. Why here? There must be dozens – hundreds – of graveyards in the country. What's so different about this one? Why, in the name of all that's holy, would Snape ever have wanted to be buried here? He wasn't even a Christian – at least, I don't think he was. I don't even know that for sure. Why would he be? I don't really know anything about him. Except that I miss him. After all this time, I still miss him."

Bear-like, Neville put a brotherly arm around her shoulders. Hermione leaned into the scratchy duffle, which smelled reassuringly of earth and thyme with a faint undertone of stale sandwiches and Stinksap. Neville understood. There were things she could say to Neville that she wouldn't have dreamed of confessing to anybody else – not to her parents or Molly Weasley or even Ginny.

"It's not as though anything ever really happened," she murmured to a bottle-green toggle. "But there was something – some sort of connection… I'd never met anyone like him."

"I know," Neville agreed. "We spent all those years thinking he was descended from a dragon and he was going to skin us and eat us alive, when really he was just doing his job. And underneath it all, he was a decent human being."

"Sometimes. When he wanted to be." Hermione qualified Neville's rosy picture of their detested schoolmaster. A man doesn't have to be a saint to be loved. "Oh, Neville, I can't believe he's gone. If they'd sent him to Azkaban there might still have been a chance… I can't help thinking that if I hadn't built it into such a big issue, he might still be alive."

"Or he might still have died," countered Neville stolidly. "If he were so poorly, like. Prison wouldn't have made him any better."

"But he wasn't! When I saw him he wasn't ill. Well, he was, but not ill enough to die. All those details the Ministry released to the Prophet about him being on hunger-strike since his arrest and 'injuries sustained prior to his detention' – that's all rubbish. They made it up; they must have. I swear to you, there was something funny going on. They must have tortured him. Or simply wanted to get him out of the way. I said so at the time and no one believed me."

Neville recognised the opening phrases of Hermione's militant protest. They had had this conversation several times over the past two years. She blamed herself for not noticing, during that snatched Polyjuice visit to Snape's cell, how his health was failing.

"But," he said gently, "that spell of Harry's – Snape told you himself there was no antidote. It was a miracle he survived at all, even for a short time. Happen he got worse, sudden like. You don't know what damage it may have done, you know, internally. You did all you could."

"And it wasn't enough." Hermione stood up, sloughing Neville's comforting arm. She marched out towards the path, ducking her head as she passed through the old gateway, though the massive stone lintel cleared her hair by a good six inches. Its squat proportions made it seem lower than it actually was.

"Look at it," she cried, waving a dismissive hand at where the gravestones had been neatly repositioned along the perimeter walls like sponge fingers lining a trifle dish. "No one's been buried in this churchyard since the 1840's. I've checked," she added dangerously as Neville looked dubious. "So where is he? There's no stone, no plaque, nothing to mark his grave. No records in the church register. He must have been buried in secret; either that or the gravediggers have been Obliviated. Or someone's lying."

"I half expected him to be under a tree," said Neville, looking around as though a fully grown Yew tree might at any moment sprout underfoot. Apart from the grass there was not a scrap of greenery on the 'island'. A bed of rose bushes had been autumn-pruned back to spiked stumps. "But there isn't one."

"I don't follow." Hermione frowned. "What tree? This had better not be some sick botanical joke, Neville."

"No, I'm not being funny. His last words were, 'You're barking up the wrong tree', right? So, where's the tree?" Neville could be very literal minded at times.

"Last words? Who said they were? How do you know? Why hasn't anybody told me this?" Hermione swept round to confront Neville, her eyes flashing. Any information, however trivial, appertaining to Snape's death, might be important. Another fantasy imploded: Snape expiring with her name on his lips.

"Sorry, I thought everybody knew." Neville wouldn't have kept it from her on purpose. "It was going round the staff-room. I think perhaps McGonagall got it from Tonks, and she heard it from one of the Aurors who was there at the… at the end. You'd have thought Snape'd come out with something more… more clever."

"Epigrammatic? Neville, he was dying! He was probably delirious." It broke her heart to think of him suffering, alone and abandoned, in that dismal ministry cell.

"Well, if it were me dying and I knew somebody like you loved me, I'd have tried to leave you a message," declared Neville. "Not that that's ever going to happen. I mean, I know as how I'll die someday, but…" He wasn't pining for Hermione; he'd phlegmatically accepted that he would never be in her league; he'd known it ever since the first year when he'd been grateful if the trio would simply let him tag along.

"Do you really think so?" Hermione softened momentarily at the thought. The idea of receiving a message from Severus, from beyond the grave, was painfully appealing. Misting, her gaze drifted again to the distance, resting loosely on the mounds and slopes of what was left of old Pontefract Castle. Its blunted curtain walls flanked the path leading back into town. She saw, not the earthworks of a motte and bailey, but her kitchen, long ago: Snape was approaching her; she had her back to him. 'Hermione, I…' What might he have said, if Harry hadn't come bursting in at precisely the wrong moment? She shivered inside her jacket and blinked away the 'what if's. It was too late now. "Wrong tree? No. If it is a clue, it's too cryptic for me. It could mean anything. I know you're trying to be positive, Neville, but to me it sounds more like the Aurors were trying to make him confess to something and he was refusing to cooperate. That'd be more like him. And it would explain how he… why he… I'd much rather have it your way, but…"

Her eyes slid back to the serried tombstones. Decades of moss and lichen obscured the engraved names. It had taken her more than one visit to the graveyard to decipher them. The need to know was bordering on obsession. She was loath to admit to Neville just how many times over the past two years she had Apparated to Pontefract to try to find answers to the nagging puzzle. And to be near Snape – wherever he was.

"Oh God, it's so frustrating!" she exclaimed out loud and then, remembering where she was, mouthed an abashed 'sorry' to the heavens. "I don't get it. What earthly connection can he have had with this place?"

"Family? Parents? Grandparents?" Neville rightly assumed Hermione would have investigated these possibilities. The wind-tangled brown mane shook despondently.

"Nothing doing. Not a single Snape or Prince there," – a nod towards the tombstones – "or on there." Her head tilted the other way, towards the war memorial, a tall stone pillar topped by a Celtic cross. It stood in the comparative shelter of the outer walls, in the right-angle formed by the junction of nave and transept. Four bedraggled Armistice Day wreaths leaned askew on the steps of the plinth, their soggy petals bleeding into the stonework. It would be another month before their replacements took up their posts, reverently, to silent salutes. Low afternoon sunlight burnished the names of the fallen. On the wall behind, the shadow of the monument, with its slim stem and rounded top, formed its own timeless, weather-resistant poppy.

Neville wandered over to take a look.

"I see what you mean." In a reverent tone he began to read out the listed 'S's: "Scarth, Shay, Slater, Strangward," and then the 'P's: "Parker, Pettit," and then, as if mesmerised by the litany, went back to the beginning, starting with the 'A's: "Ainscough, Anstell, Arnot… Baker, Barkin, Birkby, Butterfield… Chadderton, Chapman…"

"Neville!" Hermione was getting too cold to stand and wait until he had recited the entire alphabet.

"Sorry." He was blushing, or maybe it was the chill of the wind pinking his cheeks. "Do all Muggles do this? List all the names? It's rather ghoulish, isn't it, but effective."

" 'Lest we forget'," murmured Hermione, thinking about Severus.

"We could do it too," said Neville. "Set up a memorial to all the wizards who gave their lives in the war against You-Know-Who. All his victims, and the people who died fighting him. Harry and Dumbledore and Sirius, and the Prewetts and Ollivander and Cedric and Hannah's mum - all of them. And Snape. You could remember him that way." Would his own parents qualify? Was their sacrifice any less worthy of mention?

Hermione, on the pretext of sweeping her hair out of her eyes, brushed away a tear.

"Thanks, Neville. I'd like that." Forlorn, defeated, she surveyed the churchyard. "It's no good; he's gone. There's no coded message. He must have been too sick to know what he was saying. I'm just trying to create a mystery out of nothing. And I've got to come to terms with it."

Neville hid his relief. He'd been worried that Hermione would make herself ill fretting over her conspiracy theories, seeing codes and symbols and significance where none existed. It was time for her to move on, from denial to acceptance.

"I bet," he said, taking charge once again, "that you haven't had any lunch…"

XXX

Neville set the tankard onto the pub table and passed Hermione her orange juice.

"I gave the barman the blue money and he gave me this back," he said proudly, handing over the change. The novelty of Muggle shopping never failed to thrill. Hermione found it adorable. "That's twice in one day," he told her, taking off his hot duffle coat and dumping it on the chair next to him, on top of his parcel.

"Yes, what have you been buying – a shillelagh?" Hermione had noticed him carrying the package earlier in the churchyard, but had been too preoccupied to comment. It was long and knobbly, loosely wrapped in a few muddy sheets of the Castleford and Pontefract Express.

"Liquorice root." Neville grinned, thoughtfully licking the beer froth from his upper lip. 'Boddingtons' was good, but not a patch on Butterbeer. "You can't come to Pontefract and not buy liquorice, can you?"

Hermione thought you probably could, quite easily.

"Yes, but most people buy the sweets, Neville, not dig up a bush." The small, flat, round liquorice sweets known as 'Pomfret' or 'Pomfrey' Cakes had been a speciality of the town since the 1700s.

"Can't beat a genuine English liquorice root," Neville enthused. "Not many places sell 'em any more. Monkhill's still grow a few – mainly for the tourists, like. This is the only place in the country where it flourishes – it's the soil, you know, light, loamy, well-drained…"

Hermione wished she hadn't asked. Once Neville got going on soil properties there was no stopping him. "It's a right pity," he continued happily, "most of the root stock's imported now – Turkish or Spanish – but it's nowhere near as good. Not as sweet. Do you realise, Hermione, liquorice is fifty times sweeter than sugar?" He took a long pull on his beer, smacking his lips this time, getting a taste for it. "It's the climate. The bushes don't flower so well in damp conditions. Flowering - it reduces the sweetness," he added, noting Hermione's bafflement. "It's a long do, though. In this country the roots can take up to four, maybe five years to mature – not what you'd call a quick crop. No surprise the local growers have gone belly up."(1)

"I know it's used as an ingredient in lots of potions." Hermione could remember the jars in Snape's store cupboard; liquorice in all its guises: freshly grated; dried and powdered; the dark, syrupy extract. In her mind's eye she watched him unscrewing a container of flaked bark, sensing the strength in his long fingers as he applied pressure to the resistant lid, the calculated precision as he extracted a pinch, the delicacy with which he sprinkled the pale flakes into the cauldron's rising steam…

"Madam – er, Poppy – uses masses of it." After a year of working at Hogwarts, Neville had still not adjusted to first name familiarity with other members of staff.

"Her ancestors probably come from round here, with a name like Pomfrey," Hermione remarked. She'd have no trouble tracking down her relations. Life could be so unfair. She wouldn't have to spend hours poring over the dusty pages of the Register of Deaths, scouring the names for any reference to a long lost Snape or Prince. Hermione and the registrar at Pontefract Town Hall were virtually on first name terms themselves by now.

Neville was still talking about liquorice.

"… as a sweetener, primarily, but it also acts as a blending and binding agent for other ingredients, and it's healing in its own right – for coughs and digestive, er, things…" He tailed into vagueness, hazy on the precise medical properties of the plants he grew or, in this case, procured. His attention was caught by something going on outside in the street. Hermione peered through the leaded panes but could see nothing unusual; the wide, pedestrianised Market Street was less busy than normal, but Thursday was half-day closing, so not all the shops were open; nothing strange about that.

"What am I missing?" She rose in her seat, craning to see.

"Eh? Oh, nowt. See that woman – just going in to Kitsch & Tinkers, look…"

Hermione was in time to spot a tall woman in a brown cord skirt and navy quilted gilet enter the hardware store.

"I saw her at Monkhill's this morning. I'm sure she's the same one. Struck me as odd, someone like that buying liquorice root."

"Why odd?"

Neville made a 'search me' face.

"I don't rightly know. She seemed so… ordinary."

"And only complete nutters buy liquorice. Hmm, you do have a point, Neville."

"There was something else too," he said, ignoring her. "She reminded me of somebody, but I can't for the life of me think who. No matter. How's the book coming on?"

"Getting there. Slowly."

For a while they discussed Hermione's work. Her contribution to the newly revised edition of 'Hogwarts: A History' had caused such a stir that she had been urged to expand it into a book in its own right. Her insightful historical analysis of the rise, reign and fall of Voldemort, 'The You-Know-Who Years', was almost ready for publication.

"Bumped into Ron the other day." Neville forked the name into the conversation like muck onto an allotment. "Must have been… oh, a few weeks back. In Diagon Alley. You'll never guess who he was with."

"No. Who?" The odd rumour had reached Hermione, but lately their paths had not crossed. She hadn't seen Ron since Harry's funeral.

"Romilda Vane! They were getting her books for the new term. Seemed right chummy."

"If she can't have Harry, then Ron's the next best thing, is that it? What potion did she use this time?" It had been on the tip of her tongue to call Ron a cradle-snatcher, but, really, a couple of years were nothing, not compared to the twenty year age difference between herself and Sn-. She shook her head; comparisons were pointless, redundant, painful.

"Oh, she's a pleasant enough lass," said Neville, sounding older than his nineteen years. "Good luck to 'em."

Then their food arrived and Neville rapidly refocused his concentration onto a giant Yorkshire pudding the size of a castle, filled with mince and vegetables and surrounded by a moat of rich onion gravy, all thoughts of liquorice, the woman, Ron and Voldemort forgotten.

Hermione returned from the cloakroom to find Neville doodling a large lollipop on a paper napkin.

"Are they always that shape?" he asked. "War memorials?"

Hermione laughed. For an awful moment, she had thought he was preparing to give her an illustrated lecture on the life cycle of the liquorice plant – from pod to sprout to root to bush to tree. As she went on to describe the various stone crosses and obelisks she had encountered in her lifetime, Neville sketched them, adding a couple of his own design – a minimalist wand-shaped one and something that resembled either a witch's hat or an Erumpent tusk, depending on which way up you held the napkin.

"I'll run the idea past McGonagall and see what she says," he promised, reluctantly rising to leave. Ideally, he would not have Apparated so soon after such a big lunch. "Sorry to dash, but I'm supervising Detention at five. Creevey junior. Nice lad. I'm not too special at the whole discipline thing, though; 'appen we'll end up chatting about Quidditch."

But Hermione wasn't listening. She was staring at the napkin as though Neville had inadvertently jotted down the formula for the Elixir of Life.

"Thanks for everything," she murmured distractedly. "You've been great."

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine. I'm fantastic. Never better!" Hermione declared. "Neville, you are a star!" Jumping up, she planted a kiss on his startled forehead. There was a manic gleam in her eye.

All Saints' Parish Church war memorial. A Celtic cross, a poppy, a lollypop… or a tree? Could it be? Was that stretching credibility too far? Yes, it was a ludicrous idea, about as far-fetched as an idea could possibly be, and yet… Hermione was humouring herself. It wouldn't hurt to double-check. She'd never forgive herself if she left this last stone – more of a pebble, really – unturned. Of course, she might still be 'Barking up the wrong tree'…

The October light was fading fast; in less than half an hour it would be dark. Already the back of the monument was in deep shadow. Stepping around the plinth, she gripped her wand tightly. If anybody asked, she'd say she'd lost an earring.

"Lumos!" she whispered, hardly daring to look at the engraved names. Maybe she had misheard Neville; maybe this sudden crazy conviction was too much of a lateral leap. But no – there was the list as he had recited it: Baker, Barkin, Birkby, Butterfield. Barkin! It had to be more than a coincidence, didn't it? Or was it all too tenuous? Was she clutching at straws, clinging to the last shred of hope that somewhere, buried in that final phrase, Snape's last living words, was a riddle intended for her and her alone? It had to be obscure, otherwise the Aurors would have solved it. Supposing, just supposing, that Snape had intentionally, subliminally, led her to the name Barkin…

Barkin! So what was the connection with Snape? According to the memorial, a Sgt. W.T. Barkin had died in 1943. Was he the link? A friend of Snape's father, perhaps? A relative by marriage? A Muggleborn who had known Snape at school – the parent of a Slytherin class-mate? She'd have to check the Hogwarts class lists.

No wonder all her investigations had stalled at dead ends – she'd been researching the wrong family tree. Intuition told her that at last she was heading in the right direction. She was sure of it. She hadn't felt so sure of anything for two years, since that moment in Snape's cell when he had held her – for all of a millisecond – in his arms.

On weekdays, Pontefract Town Hall Records' Office shuts at four thirty p.m. Throwing caution to the blustery winds, Hermione Apparated directly to the entrance lobby and scooted up the stairs. The clerk greeted her with a clock-watching negative, but Hermione's air of urgency, combined with her most winning smile, melted his objections.

" 'Deaths' again, Miss?" he asked with resignation.

"Not this time. I think I'll start with 'Marriages'," she told him. A dead Barkin was no good to her; she needed to trace a living one. "The past twenty-five years should be enough. I'll only be a few minutes. If you're busy, don't let me stop you."

In previous visits she had got the hang of the microfiche. The clerk, having logged her onto the system, no longer stood at her shoulder scrutinising her every click and scroll with protective disapproval, but left her to it while he went about his closing-up tasks, winding down the blinds, checking the windows, locking the filing cabinets, rinsing out the tea mugs.

It took her less than ten minutes. With the unerring instinct of an Emperor Penguin identifying its mate amongst the frozen, thronging thousands, Hermione singled out an entry: Robert Walmsley Barkin, bachelor of the parish, factory foreman, son of Walter Thomas Barkin… Her eyes devoured the page. Occupation, residence, spouse… On the 13th May 1977 at All Saints' Church, he had married one Asperia Snape.

XXX

A bell on the door tinkled as Hermione entered the hardware shop. It was the kind of place that sold everything from tea strainers to torque wrenches.

"We're closed. We've totalled the tills," a granular voice called out.

"I'm sorry. I was wondering if… Do you think you could give me directions to Weaste Lane?" 27 Weaste Lane. That had been the address on Barkin's marriage certificate.

"Look like a policeman, do I?"

"No, but…"

"Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies." Behind the counter a sales assistant was flattening cardboard boxes. She straightened up as Hermione approached, dusting rough hands on her scarlet tabard apron. "Well? I haven't got all day. Some of us have homes to go to."

Hermione gulped. Under the apron, the assistant was wearing a brown cord skirt. It was the woman Neville had noticed earlier.

"Cat got your tongue? Or have I grown a second head? Last time I looked I only had the one," the assistant needled. "What can I do you for?"

Hermione stared. The woman was tall – about five foot eight – and muscular, with large, hard-working hands, the fingernails cut short and square. Her hair, shaped in a low-maintenance, nondescript bob, must have been dark once, but was now uniformly grey, making her appear older than her skin suggested; from appearances alone, Hermione would have estimated her age at anything between thirty-five and fifty. Neville was more observant than she had given him credit for. It was the nose that was the giveaway – a long, aquiline beak of a nose. Hermione already knew its contours by heart. She had no doubt that she was looking at Mrs Asperia Barkin, née Snape(2).

With that realisation came another: that she was not prepared for this confrontation. It was too soon, too sudden, too much of a shock. She needed to plan what to say. For all she knew, the woman might not even be aware that her brother – Hermione had made the assumption, based largely on age, that this person must be Snape's sister, or possibly a cousin – was dead. Maybe Snape's last words were, in effect, the instructions for her final errand – to track down his remaining relatives and give them the news.

"I'm s-sorry," she stuttered. "Do you, er, sell street maps of Pontefract?"

"Look like a bookshop, do we? You want Smiths, up the road, 'cept it's shut, like what we should be."

"I'm sorry to have troubled you," Hermione said again, retreating. As the shop door banged, the woman was already advancing, a bunch of keys in hand to lock up.

"Bleedin' tourists." Hermione heard her mutter.

XXX

Hermione guessed they must have walked over a mile. From the town centre they had crossed the busy dual carriageway, skirted the municipal rose garden and zigzagged through a mesh of backstreets. Gradually the residential zone petered out into countryside. Still Mrs Barkin kept walking, briskly and at a steady pace, looking neither right nor left nor behind. If she had, she might have seen Hermione tailing her at a safe distance.

As yet, Hermione had formulated no particular plan other than to follow, observe and possibly introduce herself. Away from the pressures of work, the woman might be more amenable. She might even be civil. Now they were on the very outskirts of the town; there were no street lamps here, and less traffic. Before leaving the shop, Mrs Barkin had exchanged the red apron for a camel coloured, calf-length jacket. As the occasional cars passed by, their beams picked out the solitary figure striding along the pavement, her jacket glowing pale gold in the headlights. Hermione stayed well back, keeping her in view. Another half mile and they branched off the road and onto a single-file lane bordered by fields and farmland. A buckled and mud-spattered sign, long since crushed into the hedgerow by some careless driver cornering too fast, labelled it Weaste Lane. Two grey donkeys surveyed each of them critically as they passed. Behind them, the ambient light of the town diluted the darkness; up ahead all was pitch black.

Without warning, the woman turned sharply left and disappeared. Hermione heard the clunk of a latch and hinges creaking. Cautiously, she caught up. The gate opened onto a narrow cobbled pathway leading to a cottage. No light shone from any of the windows. Hermione felt an irrational stab of disappointment. What had she been hoping? To meet the mysterious Barkin? To find a cosy family of Snape's nephews and nieces eagerly awaiting their mother's return?

Suddenly the downstairs lights blazed. Like a Peeping Tom, Hermione watched from the total blackout of the garden. Should she knock and say hello? Should she come back tomorrow in daylight? 'Get your facts straight', Snape would have said; 'Know your enemy'. So she watched. In the tiny kitchen, Mrs Barkin dumped her heavy carrier bag onto the table and took off her camel jacket, hanging it on a hook on the back of the door. She filled the kettle and set it to boil, riddled the grate and added fresh coals to the embers. A tabby cat detached itself from the fireside and wove anxious, demanding circles around her feet until she spooned something out of an open tin, smacking the saucer down onto the floor in what looked like exasperation.

Hermione was plucking up courage to approach – with each passing moment it seemed a worse and worse idea – when the woman snatched up the carrier bag again and marched outside. Another, narrower, gravel path led the length of the garden towards a dilapidated outhouse. From the combative set of her shoulders, her grim expression and aggressive gait, Hermione deduced that Mrs Asperia Barkin was not at all pleased.

"You've let the fire go out." The woman addressed somebody inside the shed, barely across the threshold before launching into her complaints. "And Tiffin was ravenous."

Hermione edged closer to hear; she wished she could get a look at the unfortunate, inefficient Mr Barkin.

"Here am I, working all the hours God sends, and what are you doing? Holed up in this shed of yours, poncing about with mixtures. Is it too much to ask – two simple jobs? Wouldn't kill you, would it?"

The reply was little more than a mutter. It was a man's voice though.

"You've not even lit the stove – it's like an icebox in here. … The smell? Nothing wrong with the smell of honest to goodness paraffin. …Well, even if it does give you a headache… No skin off my nose if you catch your death, but I've enough on my plate. Can do without having you laid up again for weeks on end, coughing your guts out. Think I haven't got better things to do than wait on you hand and foot?"

"… …" (Inaudible.)

"Didn't get much choice, did I?"

Hermione crept to the door, which had swung back a few inches on its rusty hinges, and peeped inside. Her view was largely obstructed by the solid person of Mrs Barkin, but she could hear better.

"Here's your log." The woman dumped the carrier bag onto a wooden workbench, tipping out the contents. Newspaper wrappings sprang open and a length of liquorice root fell onto the bench, scattering the surface with sandy loam. "You'd better knock out a batch of that concoction of yours smartish, that's all I can say – you've been like a crocodile with toothache these last few days. See if it'll sweeten your temper. Oh, what's the point? Blood from a stone! Or is that something you lot do too? Well?"

"Well what?"

"A word of thanks wouldn't go amiss. Spent my tea-break traipsin' to Monks' for that blessed stick. If that's what passes for manners at that fancy school of yours, I was well out of it, that's all I can say."

"I wish it were."

The querulous flow shrivelled to a disdainful 'Hmph!' but it was obvious that there was a great deal more Mrs Barkin could and would liked to have said on the matter. Regardless of the man's wishes, she struck a match and lit the paraffin heater. Smoky blue warmth oiled the air.

"I'd best be making a start on tea, then," she declared in a martyred tone.

Hermione ducked out of sight as the woman picked her way back to the cottage. Her heart racing, she leaned against the wall of the shed, faint and trembling. The man had spoken a mere half dozen words, but the sound of his voice left her sick with disbelief – and wild, insane, life-sustaining hope. It couldn't be him, could it?

The shed door was flung open. Snape had extinguished the paraffin stove and was wafting out the offending fumes. He coughed, took a couple of breaths of fresh night air and retreated inside, leaving the door ajar.

Hermione slumped further down the wall, the turmoil in her mind leaving no room for niceties such as balance. Alive? He was alive? And living here with that miserable cow? He'd chosen to live with his nagging harridan of a sister rather than come to her? Why? Why? He'd survived, escaped, and for two years – two years! – he had let her go on thinking he was dead? That was cruel. It was beyond cruel. If he had been injured, incapacitated in some way, she might have forgiven him, but he looked fit enough. Fit enough to be brewing potions. Had he cut his losses, turned his back on his old existence and started a new life here? While she had wasted two years of her life eaten up with grief and regret, mourning a fantasy, cherishing the memory of… of what? Of a love that had never existed. Of something false and shallow. Of a figment.

With leaden limbs Hermione pushed herself to her feet. In three Ds she could be home. She would have to revise her chapter on 'Snape, the Unsung Hero'. There was nothing left for her here.

But she couldn't bring herself to leave. Minutes later, it was another Hermione - a Hermione in whom indignation and wounded pride had ousted rejection and disappointment – who stole to the open door to confront Snape, to have it out with the man she had so ludicrously loved and lost.

Fastidious as ever, he was dusting the spilled sand off the bench. The shed was demarcated into two distinct territories. On the right hand side, traditional, muddy, garden shed clutter was stacked high. In sharp contrast, the space on the left had been cleaned, emptied, organised, restocked. Transfixed, Hermione scarcely registered the array of pots, jars and containers that filled the planking shelves. She had eyes only for Snape. From the equipment laid out on the table, it was evident that he had established a rudimentary but functional potions lab. Phials and bottles glittered, polishing the mean light into sharp sparkles. A single Davey lamp cast sickly shadows, darkening his eye sockets, hollowing his cheeks. A glass flask on the bench contained a greyish substance Hermione didn't recognise.

She spied on Snape as he turned his attention to the liquorice, wiping it carefully and cutting off a sizeable chunk from one end. The long, capable fingers, which had so often caressed her dreams, began to peel away the skin of the root.

Hermione jumped as a silver-grey tabby – the sadly neglected Tiffin - brushed past her legs. It slunk into the shed and in a single, fluid bound leaped up onto the workbench. The thought flitted through Hermione's mind that it might be McGonagall's animagus, that there was some massive conspiracy going on to which she was not privy, but the cat took up a position at the far end of bench and squatted demurely, its ringed tail curling around its bunched body like a black and grey striped scarf. Snape looked at it and scowled. Hermione waited for him to swat the animal out of the way, but he merely raised an admonitory finger, warning it not to come any closer. The cat blinked.

Working methodically, Snape selected a bottle, poured several inches of colourless liquid over the section of root and set it aside to steep. He stoppered the bottle and replaced it on the shelf, twisting it so that the label lined up neatly with those of its glinting neighbours. From a covered dish he took three delicate teal blue eggs. One by one he held them up to the light, shook them, weighed them in his cupped palm. Lighting a candle, he heated a needle in the flame until Hermione could see the tip glow red. Then he pierced the largest of the blue eggs, first the more rounded end and then the other. Lifting the egg very carefully to his lips, he began to blow…

A gust of wind caught at Hermione's hair, dragging it across her eyes. Impatiently she pushed it out of her face.

"Who's there? Asp? I told you, I'll be down shortly," Snape barked, without looking round.

"Asperia's gone," said Hermione, stepping forward into the light. Snape froze. His back was to the door; Hermione couldn't see his expression. The blue egg slipped from his fingers and smashed on the bench top.

"Hello, Sir." She'd intended to stride in demanding an explanation, but now that the moment had come, her self-assertion had deserted her. She wished he would speak. Why didn't he say anything? A rapturous welcome was too much to hope for, but he might at least acknowledge her presence. There was something scary about this shocked immobility.

"Snape? It's me. It's Hermione."

Slowly he turned; first his head and then his body swivelled towards her. Still he said nothing. The dark eyes were wide with alarm; his face was white.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," she said, "but I'm the one talking to a 'corpse'." A note of accusation had crept into her voice. She took another step.

"Don't…! …no nearer!" He gasped a warning. His right hand groped behind him, feeling for the bench to steady himself.

"Severus – you're shaking! Here, look, you'd better sit down. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

Automatically, naturally, her arm went round his shoulders, but at her touch a violent shudder ripped through Snape's body. Stung, Hermione pulled away. She saw he was working for breath, a faint clogged-filter wheeze deep in his chest.

"Pass me… that…flask… would you?"

The tabby cat, furtively licking up the spilt egg, shied away as Hermione reached across the table. Snape took a gulp of the thick, grey mixture, his face contorting in disgust.

"Ugh. Oh… ugh." The unsweetened, bitter potion made his eyes water. Gradually his breathing eased. "Chest gets tight," he muttered. "Ever since that damn Dessicorpus."

Against her instincts, Hermione kept her distance. Two years of deceit rose between them, an intangible force, pushing them apart. That shudder had lefty her confused, uncertain. She tried to keep the pain out of her voice, as if coming upon a dead man calmly working in his shed was an everyday occurrence.

"So this is where you've been hiding?"

"On and off." He eyed her. "Quite the little detective, aren't you, though hardly up to your usual standard." The remark was loaded with a reproach Hermione did not understand. It seemed to be directed at herself, yet she was the one who had been cheated.

"My usual - ?"

"Out of sight, out of mind?" There was no sarcasm or irony there; he was genuinely wounded.

"What?"

"I didn't anticipate miracles, not even from the incomparable Miss Granger, but I'll admit, after the demise of the Dark Lord, I dared to hope… Was it Scrimgeour? Was he intractable?"

"Scrimgeour was OK. No worse than normal. Why?" Hermione felt she was being expected to create a potion when she had only half the required ingredients. Something was definitely missing.

"I see. So why now? What made you change your mind?"

"Change my - ?" In a sickening strobe of insight the truth danced before her eyes: Snape had been waiting for her to find him. And he'd concluded – after how many lonely months? - that she had given up on him; she'd called off the search.

"Sir, listen, I don't think you realise -" she began, but he cut her off.

"Tired of playing at prison visitor?" Did he think that her clandestine infiltration of the ministry had been some kind of a joke?

"Please, Sir, we all thought -"

"Lady Bountiful act lost its novelty?" …that she had regarded him as nothing more than a charitable cause?

"Stop it, Severus! We thought you were dead! The Ministry issued a statement saying that you'd died. From the after effects of the Dessicorpus."

"So I heard." Dry; sardonic. "And you believed them?"

"Yes. Yes, I did." Now she was ashamed to admit it. "I did think it was very sudden. I was suspicious, but, yes, I believed them. Why shouldn't I? How was I to know…?"

"It did not occur to you to demand proof?"

"Proof?"

"A body."

Stricken with retrospective guilt, Hermione moistened her lips and gulped.

"Yes, but… But they said… They said you'd had a relapse, that the spell had come back and that… They said your body was… I'm sorry." Seeing him like that once had been more than enough.

"I see."

Again Hermione detected a note of reproach, of disappointment. How had she failed him this time? What else could she have done?

"You try getting a straight answer out of the Ministry," she declared in self-defence. "What was I supposed to do?"

"I thought you might have -" he began, but broke off, silencing himself with clamped lips and a shake of the head, pulling back from the verge of indiscretion.

"What? Might have what?"

"Nothing. I don't know." Whatever he had expected from her, he wasn't going to say. He was angry with himself now.

"I'm not psychic!" Hermione snapped back. Or was that what he had expected? That some sixth sense would have told her he was still alive? Is that what had kept her coming back to Pontefract, never quite reconciled to his death, not yet ready to abandon hope?

"I'm sorry," she said again. "But that's why I didn't come to look for you. Do you imagine that if I'd known you were alive, somewhere, I wouldn't have spent every waking minute trying to find you?"

Snape didn't need Legilimens to know she wasn't lying. But his eyes sought Hermione's anyway; a tentative arc of understanding flickered between them.

"But you knew where to find me." Hermione wasn't ready to let two years of misery go unchallenged. "All last year I was at Hogwarts… And now that I've left you could have asked my parents or the Weasleys… But, no, you chose to hole yourself up here. Is it any wonder we believed what Scrimgeour told us? How were we to know it was all some Ministry cover-up? So you escaped? How embarrassing! I'm not surprised they wanted to gloss over it. You knew – you must have known – that you could come to me; that I'd hide you even if you were on the run. But you came here, to that woman. To your… sister?"

Snape nodded.

"I didn't even know you had a sister. Nobody did. You kept that quiet. And then what? Nothing! Not an owl, not a note to say that you were all right. Nothing! How do you suppose that makes me feel?" A dry sob choked her. She hadn't intended to sound so needy; what was meant as self-righteous anger had come out as helplessness and hurt.

Snape stood up. Hermione recognised the tactic: self-justification – lies, excuses, whatever – would sound more authoritative when he was vertical, and dominant.

"I had my reasons," he said gruffly.

"Then tell me!" Hermione implored. "Look, I've pretty much laid myself on the line here. The least you can do is give me some sort of an explanation. You owe me that much. Then I'll go. I won't hang around to be a nuisance." Not if you don't want me.

She saw him glance at the door. Was he afraid or hoping that Asperia would return and find them? Or was he ready to make a run for it? He would do almost anything to escape being put on the spot and having to spell out his emotions.

"Perhaps I wished to avoid completing the hat-trick," he said quietly.

"What do you mean?" Hermione was confused enough without another riddle to complicate the mystery.

"The hat-trick! You saw me die once under Potter's spell; Scrimgeour appears to have sold you on the notion of my second death. I couldn't… Hermione, I couldn't put you through that again. However much I wanted to see you." The last sentence was swallowed into an aside. Hermione only just caught it.

"But, you didn't have to die. I wouldn't have handed you over to -"

"The Vow, girl! The Vow."

"The Vow's invalid!" she exclaimed. Snape visibly relaxed. "How could the Vow still be operative – Dumbledore's dead, Malfoy's dead, Voldemort's dead. There's no one left. And why should it matter now anyhow?"

"No," Snape contradicted her bleakly. "The other Vow."

XXX

Two years earlier…

…"On your knees, Death Eater!" Savage's wand jabbed into Snape's throat as a simultaneous 'Jellylegs!' from Willets felled him at a stroke. Still dazed from the brutal awakening – dragged bodily from his cell in the middle of the night – and weakened by weeks of captivity, it had not needed a hex to bring him down.

"What's going on?" Snape gasped. His spell-damaged lungs were fighting for oxygen; he felt light-headed, his muscles strangely unresponsive.

"That rather depends on you, Mister Snape."

Rufus Scrimgeour limped into Snape's field of vision.

"Working late?" Snape flung out a barb. "I thought you Ministry types knocked off at tea-time." He didn't know if he'd live to get another chance to insult the Minister of Magic.

With the butt end of his walking stick, Scrimgeour lifted Snape's chin. The yellow eyes blazed with hostility.

"I'm not here to exchange banter with you, Snape. To barter, maybe, but we'll get to that in a minute." He leaned against the edge of the desk, looking down at Snape with studied contempt. One hand rested on his knee, the thumb massaging the aching joint with small, repetitive circles. "You, Snape – and I'm speaking candidly here – are a thorn in the Ministry's side. Thanks to that loud-mouthed, interfering, crusading, busy-bodying gnat of a girlfriend of yours, you are famous. Infamous. My office is knee deep in petitions campaigning for your release. The Department has been inundated with demands for a judicial review." He tapped a sheaf of papers on the desk. "There are proposals here from well-meant but clearly deranged individuals regarding your rehabilitation. Equally vociferous are the factions who would prefer to see you variously hung, drawn and quartered, despatched to Azkaban or abandoned to the tender attentions of the Dementors. We can't get into the Ministry without having to fight our way through placard-wielding pickets on the pavement. Next thing we know, the Muggles will be getting wind of it. And then where would we be?"

He raked a hand through his mane.

"So, Snape, what am I to do with you? It may please you to know that our forces are stretched to their limit in the hunt for your erstwhile ally – He Who Must Not Be Named. I really have neither the capacity nor the inclination to waste my resources on your security any longer."

So this is where it ends.

"It's your decision, Snape. What's it to be – Azkaban? Death? My vote's on Azkaban, or it would be, if it weren't for your damned fan-club. Or might we come to some arrangement? You see, Snape, frankly, I need to get shot of you – you're small fry; there are other bigger fish in this ocean."

"You want me to escape? And be conveniently cursed in the attempt, I presume?" said Snape.

A perfunctory smile cracked the Minister's bedrock features.

"Oh, come, Snape. Never let it be said that Rufus Scrimgeour is not a merciful man. It's simply a matter of your swearing to stay out of harm's way." Scrimgeour leant forward exuding sincerity.

Nothing is that simple.

"Banishment?" Snape knew he should be searching for loopholes, but tonight he was too battered, too ill, too exhausted to start analysing ramifications. The way he felt now, a speedy death was the most attractive option.

"I'm not here to quibble over terminology, Snape. I prefer to use the word 'freedom'. Freedom or death? Is that so difficult?"

"I'd hate to be a stain on your pristine conscience." There was no choice. Shakily Snape raised his right hand.

"Knew you'd see sense. You Slytherins are all the same." Scrimgeour lowered himself into a kneeling position in front of Snape and grabbed his hand.

"Let's get this charade over with. Savage, you're the Bonder, hurry up with that wand. Ready? Will you, Severus Snape, leave this place, never to return?"

"I will," said Snape. With pleasure. But it can't be that straightforward.

As the first strand of flame entwined their wrists, Scrimgeour's grip tightened until his powerful paw was crushing Snape's fingers.

"Will you undertake not to approach, either directly in person or through the intermediary of a third party, any of your former colleagues, students, friends, associates or acquaintances, magical or Muggle?"

Snape hesitated for so long that Scrimgeour's raised arm began to quiver.

"Get on with it, man! Will you or won't you?"

"I will," Snape sighed. I'll never see her again.

The second flame emerged in fragmented wisps, which played teasingly up and down Snape's sleeve before linking with the first.

"Will you swear not to initiate contact with any of the aforementioned, by any means, verbal, written, Muggle or magical – and that includes owls, Floos, Patronuses, magical mirrors and any of your devious Dark devices?"

"I will," said Snape. How will I let her know?

The third tongue of flame lit up two faces: one self-satisfied and smug, the other wreathed in despair. The fiery knot bound their clasped hands in an Unbreakable pledge. It might as well have been a noose around Snape's neck.

Scrimgeour levered himself to his feet, shaking out his right hand as if he had been touching a tarantula.

"One last thing, Snape. I think this belongs to you."

He produced Snape's wand, impounded by Tonks on the night of his arrest. Snape refused to be tricked into showing interest. His expression remained impassive as the Minister snapped the wand in two.

xxx

"Get up, scum." A mild Crucio hit him in the kidneys and Snape jerked back to consciousness. For a moment, he had no idea where he was. Ah, now he remembered: collapsed on the floor in Scrimgeour's office. And his life – as he knew it – was over.

"I give him a month," Willets chuckled to Savage. "No wizard could keep to a vow like that. He'll go off his rocker. A month before he's back here – in a box!"

"I get a State funeral too? Too kind," Snape croaked. There was bile rising in his throat; he felt he might be sick.

"Oh sure, and where would Your Darkness care to be buried?" jeered Willets, yanking the prisoner up, nearly dislocating Snape's shoulder in the process.

"Pontefract. All Saints." The name stumbled out of Snape's subconscious. He barely knew what he was saying. He had no real plan, no strategy. Just a link to the past. There'd been no time to think. But the fraction of his brain capable of coherent thought knew that his final words had to be controversial. There was the remotest chance that someone – that she - might get to hear of them and begin to ask questions…

Willets gave an incredulous guffaw.

"Got a right one 'ere."

"Better tell the gov'nor though. Could be important – one of them Death Eater meeting places or something," said Savage.

"Nah. He's takin' the piss. Mad as a hatter." Willets wrenched Snape's arms behind his back and bound them securely as a precaution before Side-Along.

"Barking mad," Savage agreed.

In the pain-addled depths of Snape's mind another memory stirred.

"You're Barkin' up the wrong tree!" he shouted.

XXX

(present time)

"So they Apparated you into the middle of nowhere?" Hermione probed. As Snape's story unfolded – hesitantly and with much glossing over unpleasant detail – she had shifted her chair next to his and, later, gently taken his cold hand into her own. Snape raised no objection, but gave no encouragement. His troubled gaze dropped to their joined hands as though they were a dubious gift he no longer had the willpower to refuse. Hermione might have deposited a Phoenix egg in his lap – something rare and infinitely precious, but which might crack into flames at any minute and scar him for life.

"You could say that. Watford. And then I made my way north." He made it sound easy.

"Without magic?" Hermione knew how daunting non-magical travel could be to a wizard born to broomsticks and Floos and Apparition. Living in a Muggle world would be fraught with stresses.

"I returned here to claim my…" Snape paused, then plunged on with his explanation. "…my mother's wand. I could have stolen one, but… I might have been recognised. I had no way of knowing how sensitive the Vow might be." A rueful snort hinted at months of frustration. The effectiveness of the Vow was hardly something he could have put to the test. "The price one pays for celebrity! It almost makes me sympathise with the late, lamented Potter."

Almost. Even Harry's noble self-sacrifice and his defeat of Voldemort could not compensate for the hardships his thoughtlessness had caused Snape, directly or indirectly.

"You heard about Harry?" Hermione didn't know if The Daily Prophet was available in Muggle Pontefract.

"If Scrimgeour thinks that banishment and a broken wand is enough to make me sever all links with the magical world…" Snape flared. "Of course I followed Potter's progress – when I could - and … and yours. Your N.E.W.T.s results were no less than I expected. And now you're a writer. You've made quite a name for yourself."

Hermione glowed.

"It's just a book," she said. "Anyone could have written it."

Then, lest there should be any misunderstanding about her motives – Snape was only too capable of interpreting her visit as a piece of scholarly research – she addressed him, shyly.

"What I said to you that day at the Ministry… do you remember?"

How could he forget?

"Well, I…" she faltered. Without the Molly disguise it was much harder to tell him to his face, to say that she loved him. He must know it already; she'd as good as said so. Her very presence shouted it out loud. But sometimes people need to hear the actual words. "What I'm trying to say is… I mean… Nothing's changed…" Oh, he'd know what she was talking about. "Has it?"

For several aeons, she thought he wasn't going to answer.

"No," he murmured at last, meeting her halfway. "Some things don't change."

Then he retreated, breaking the spell, clearing his throat. "So, after my parents' death, Asperia dealt with their effects. I was counting on the fact that she would still be in possession of the wand. She has scant respect for the wizard world – as you may have noticed – but even she would never throw away a wand."

"She's not magical herself then?" Smiling, Hermione indulged him in his tactical withdrawal. He'd said as much as he could. She pictured Asperia. Anyone less magical would be hard to imagine. Wearily Snape shook his head.

"Took after my father. And not just in the nose."

"That's how I recognised her – by her nose," Hermione murmured. An impulse to reach and touch Snape's own nose propelled her hand upwards, but she controlled herself and let it drop to rest lightly on his thigh. "But I thought your family came from further west?"

"She moved here with Barkin. When I was still at school. It was no skin off my nose -" he echoed his sister's phrase, dissociating himself from the pun with a low snort. "We were never what you might call close. Ran away with him and got married at that Muggle church in the town. A man twice her age. He died a few years ago." Snape's answers had become less guarded and more honest. The details dripped out, one by one, as the rush of warm feeling condensed on the exterior chill of his reserve. The vacuum-sealed vault of personal information, which had contained his secrets for so long, had finally sprung a leak.

"And your parents?" Hermione asked.

"Killed in the first war," he replied bluntly. "At the time it was not, ah, politic, for me to associate myself with their deaths. They are still unrecorded. By then Asperia had already eloped. The Dark Lord was unaware of her existence."

"How awful for you." Hermione squeezed his hand. A thought occurred to her. "Did Dumbledore know?"

"About my family? It wasn't a secret, if that's what you mean."

No, and nor was the fact that you were the half-blood son of Eileen Prince. But no one seemed to know about that either.

Hermione considered. Easing herself over, she leaned until her head was resting on Snape's shoulder.

"It's strange to hear you talk about your family," she said softly. "I think that…"

"…that what?"

"…that Professor Dumbledore had more than one reason for trusting you."

For a few moments, they sat in silence, side by side, absorbing the miracle of each other's presence. Hermione didn't want to rush him and, in the relief of finally talking, Snape was sinking into a trance-like state of nervous exhaustion.

"It was you, wasn't it, who helped Harry?" Hermione spoke at last, voicing the suspicion that had been lurking in her mind. "He suddenly had this extraordinary run of good luck, finding the Horcruxes. None of us could figure out how he was doing it. Professor Dumbledore had been looking for years, and yet in six months, Harry had the lot. How did he… how did you do it?"

"Let's just say I eliminated certain obstacles. Never underestimate the usefulness of Invisibility Charms and Polyjuice – and intelligence." Snape wouldn't elaborate. "It was Potter who delivered the final coup de grace."

Coming from Snape, that last comment was generous. Hermione found herself looking up at him with unconcealed admiration.

"I knew you couldn't mean it," she said. "When you stormed out and said that from now on Harry was 'on his own'."

"I meant it. That night I meant it." Snape's voice was subdued. His fingers curled round Hermione's, locking them into a grip that could have been alarming. He was a strong man. Hermione used her free thumb to smooth the back of his hand, repetitively stroking from wrist to knuckle. The skin was unblemished, the werewolf scars long since healed.

"That was the most appalling clue, by the way." Trying to shift the conversation away from Harry, Hermione chose a subject hardly less painful. " 'Barking up the wrong tree'! How was I supposed to make any sense of that? It's a pure fluke I ended up here, you know. If it hadn't been for Neville and his silly liquorice…"

"Not my finest hour," Snape admitted, rousing himself. "I'm afraid I wasn't feeling up to any cunning conundrums." He had tensed again at the very mention of that night.

"Shh. Don't think about it. You're better now – aren't you?"

"I'll live," he said wryly. "No thanks to Potter, or Scrimgeour."

It had been several weeks before he was well enough to venture back into the wizard world. Even after his health had recovered, his life still teetered precariously on the threshold of imminent death. Any chance encounter with an acquaintance in the street might have triggered the Vow. Only an oversight – the omission of the word 'family' from the threefold pledge – had allowed Snape this refuge with Asperia. It was far from ideal, but it was the one place where he could be himself.

Indignation got the better of Hermione.

"I'm going to have this out with Scrimgeour," she seethed. "There must be something we can do about having the Vow revoked or repealed, or whatever it is they do. You can't go on like this. I'm going to get you to a proper Healer, and… Oh!" She sat bolt upright, gazing at him aghast. "That's what you meant before, isn't it, when you asked me about Scrimgeour? You thought I'd already got him to cancel the Vow."

"I had hoped so," he said, evasive again.

"God, I'm going to nail that man! With what I've got on him now he'll be lucky if he's still the Minister of Magic by Christmas. But -" Snape's renewed reticence alerted her. "Oh, Severus, when I bowled up here tonight, you didn't know, did you? Whether or not the Vow was still in force? That's why you were so shocked. You thought… Oh no, you expected to…"

"…drop dead at your feet? The thought did cross my mind." He tried to make light of it, and failed. Hermione read the anguish in his eyes.

"Severus, come here." Sliding her arms around his waist, she gathered him towards her into a hug that channelled two unbearable years of loss and longing. Pulling him closer still, she buried her face in his neck, stroking her hands up his back, needing to know every inch of him, never wanting to let him go. Beneath her fingers she felt his muscles, tense and defensive, his body rigid. Then, with a plosive sigh, as if he had been holding his breath for those two long years and only now had finally allowed himself to exhale, he wrapped his arms about her shoulders, crushing her against him, holding her so tightly she could hardly breathe.

"I wanted to come to you," he whispered hoarsely.

"I know. I know…"

"I waited…"

"I'm here now. We'll get through this."

At last, as the trembling stilled, Hermione felt Snape's desperate grip on her relax.

"Severus, when I arrived and you wouldn't speak to me or anything – that was because you were afraid to 'initiate contact'?" she asked, still exploring the contours of his back, almost drunk with the freedom of being able to touch him.

"It posed a risk." He didn't want to talk about it.

"But we're in contact now…" Hermione persisted, teasing.

Snape manfully ignored the double entendre.

"The wording of the Vow was specific. It was Scrimgeour who was sloppy. I hoped that if you made all the advances, the Vow might not be activated. I would not have taken the chance, but in the circumstances, what else could I do?"

"So, does that mean it'll always be up to me to 'take the initiative' from now on?"

Tenderly cupping his face in her hands, Hermione pulled him down towards her own upturned lips.

"Hermione, what are you doing?" As if he didn't know!

"You'd better get used to it. I'm taking the initiative…"

THE END

That really is the end this time. I know that, as Epilogues go, this was rather long, but it would have been pretentious of me to post it in separate chapters. Thank you to all my readers, to my wonderful betas Duj and Cecelle, and to everyone who has reviewed or emailed me. Bfn…

1. In its heyday Pontefract boasted 10 liquorice factories, exporting their produce all round the world. Today only two remain: Haribo (a German company) and Monkhill.

2 . Asperia Barkin, nee Snape. OK, so there is no canon evidence that Snape had siblings, cousins or any other relatives apart from Eileen and Tobias. Personally, I see him as an only child, but for the purposes of this fic I have interpreted the 'laughing girl' who watched 'the scrawny boy' (presumably Snape) on the broomstick, as being a relative rather than a fellow student.