Summary: HBP Spoiler warning…….Random bit of oddball-ness. A fire makes two people collide and the journey to rebuild what once was, is a path of difficulty.

Disclaimer: NOT MINE so don't sue me.

Rating: pg-13 to M I'm afraid. some dark material but mostly fluff

Ash

By Poet

XXXXX

Word of the fire had spread quickly through the nearby village and the fire brigade had been dispatched within twenty minutes. However their response had no effect on the flames that leapt into the night sky, sometimes to heights of fifty feet or more. No owners presented themselves immediately and despite their best efforts, the fire brigade could do little to save the old house. In the sleepy town, few onlookers had bothered to even make the journey up the long drive and watch as flames consumed everything. The whispers traveled though, at first just through the town itself. But these hushed conversations were quickly carried by the few witches and wizards in residence in the surrounding hills, across the country side, back to London.

The oldest house in Spinner's End was burning.

The news was a shock to some. To others it seemed fate was finally as it should have been. Severus Snape, who had lost nearly everything in the course of several short months, had seemingly lost his final link.

And still the fire raged. It would be two days before all that was left of the dark old building was cinder and ash. Still there was no sight of its owner. With the flames extinguished and much indecision about any further proceedings, the townspeople and the fire brigade withdrew and the smoking rubble was left to smolder defiantly. Black against a world of color. As out of place as the man who had inhabited it.

XXXX

Hermione Granger had heard of the fire three days after the house had been reduced to nothing. The whereabouts of Severus Snape were still unknown, but word was not long in coming after the news of the destruction. A letter arrived in her flat at five after seven, just as darkness began creeping into the sky beyond her window. The owl, a large tawny creature with dark eyes pecked impatiently at her window for admittance. The envelope it bore was light and the writing concise. After paying the bird who took flight with what could only be called condescension, she closed her window and retreated into her living room.

Ms. Granger,

I thank you for all that you have done and suffered on my behalf. Were it not for you, I believe I would still be in Azkaban. It is hard, you must understand, for a man like me to admit a need for help, but yours has been most appreciated. Should you ever have need of me Hermione, I will forever be at your services. I am wholly indebted to you.

Yours most sincerely and respectfully,

Severus Snape

PS: At last released from the burden of my two masters, I am free from the life I knew.

She set the letter carefully on the table in front of her. Unable to tear her eyes from the parchment, Hermione sat in the stillness of the room around her. No one had seen him in a month; the letter had no post mark on it. It could have been written before the fire. Perhaps as a goodbye. The last thought lodged itself in her mind. Panic began spreading through her and she stood quickly. Grabbing a heavy cloak to ward away the chill of the night, she draped it around her shoulders. A sharp crack echoed in the room as she apparated away.

XXXXX

The smell of wet smoke was the first thing to greet her as the fog of her hasty apparation cleared from her mind. The air was heavy with it as she began walking. The town of Spinner's End was dilapidated at best. Buildings were boarded up, refuse was in the street and the place had an air of abandonment. The thick cobbles beneath her feet were slick with moisture from a recent rain and she made her way cautiously. The walk passed quickly and before she realized it, she was at the residence of Severus Snape.

The destruction before her made her throat constrict. The small dwelling was nothing now. Only broken timbers and piles of rubble were left as testaments to any prior inhabitation. Despite herself, Hermione could not help but release a single sob.

"Severus…"

Hermione did not know where to begin looking for him. Her heart dropped when she allowed herself to wonder if he was somewhere inside the charred ruins. After all that had occurred, it seemed incomprehensible that he might take his life, and in such a manner. A short stay at the manor, six months before had revealed to her an unknown side of the former Potions master. Volume upon volume of texts lined full shelves. Countless herbs, ingredients and mixtures, some volatile, some deadly, were sorted into precise arrangements. Her view of the man had been torn apart and altered during her stay.

Now, all that was left was the ashes of what had once been great. It broke her heart, and it made her angry. The anger flared for several moments. If Severus had been present, she would have throttled him. After all of their work, their tireless struggle to look for any evidence that might free him, that might clear his name; it had come to an abrupt end.

Unable to control herself, Hermione bent and picked up a large rock. With every ounce of anger and hatred she could muster, she hurled it towards the wreckage, screaming his name. The projectile made a satisfying thud as is ricocheted off of the loose pieces of wood and Hermione stood still, silent and shaking. Suddenly a gentle weight settled itself on her shoulder, and she could feel the whisper of breath against her ear as someone spoke to her. Her strength quickly fading, she turned, coming face to face with Severus for the first time since his release had been secured.

"Calm yourself Hermione. It's alright." His hand brushed gently against her face when she made no effort to respond, concern written clearly across his features. When it seemed that she would remain mute, he place his lips gently against her forehead and drew her body into his arms, securing her against his chest.

"Severus. I thought you were…that you had…I'm so glad you're alive." Finally she spoke, her words rushing out before she could order them. Against her forehead, she could feel his lips turn in a smile and he pulled himself away from her. When their eyes met, she searched his expression, trying to find any answers that might lay there.

"I'm fine Hermione, and still breathing much to the disappointment of some."

XXXX

Six Months Prior

Azkaban had been cruel to Severus Snape. Captured less than a day after the end of the war, he had been locked away without any hope of trial or appeal. In that time, word of his arrest had reached the Order. Hermione had met with little support for her pleas to secure his freedom. Few of the other members could be bothered to break away from their own happiness to help Severus. Even Harry and Ron were hesitant, though they knew best of all, that he was innocent. Killing Albus had been planned from the start of the trio's sixth year at Hogwarts. Harry's involvement in it had been orchestrated by the Headmaster.

When the curses finally stopped flying during the final battle, it was Hermione who had been fighting side by side with Severus. He had protected her several times, and had gone so far as to encourage her away from the field of battle. She had met his urgency for her safety with the stubbornness of her resolve to stay and finish what had been started. Before either could speak, a horde of Aurors descended, wands aimed at Snape and each and every one of them practically spitting the Death Curse. With mild confusion, Hermione had turned just in time to meet Severus's eyes before he apparated away. She had seen fear there, for the first time since the end had begun. It was not long afterwards that he was captured.

It was two weeks before Hermione could arrange a visit with the Potions master. What she saw behind the bars of the window made her sick. They wizards in charge of his captivity had been very rough with him. He related his treatment to her with a sneer, sometimes breaking into coughing fits before being able to continue. On his first day, he had been bound, gagged and stripped. The beatings had been short but painful. Not content to inflict pain with a curse, these Aurors had resorted to fists and sticks. Still Severus refused to beg them for mercy.

One morning, two weeks into his imprisonment, the man in charge of his cell had produced a pair of dull shears from his robes. Severus had spit in his face, and as the fists descended on him, he felt fear for the first time. He awoke several hours later, his body screaming in pain and dried blood caked to his face. It was his hair that surprised him the most. Apparently while he was unconscious, the man with the shears had gone to work on him. All that was left was a few inches of matted hair, full of blood, sweat and grime. Groaning, he propped himself against the wall. Hermione's voice in the corridor drew his attention immediately. Swollen eyes turned towards the small barred window as she appeared in the bright light beyond it.

"Severus?"

"Hermione, what are you doing here?" He groaned softly, as the door opened and she stepped into his cell. With a sharp crack, they were locked in together. She fell to her knees by his side, unable to comprehend his beaten appearance.

"Merlin Severus, what have they been doing to you?" She asked in a choked whisper. Lifting a hand, her fingertips hovered next to his face but she dropped her hand, not wanting to cause him anymore pain. Cold fingers wound their way into warm ones and she stared at their interlocked hands for a long time. "I'm going to get you out of here Severus. I promise you." She felt him shudder next to her, or so she thought. When she looked, she saw a sad smile on his face. He was laughing.

"I think it's time for us to acknowledge that this is something that was inevitable." He said it softly, closing his eyes in thought. Hermione's warmth made the cold in his body all the more unpleasant. A shiver traveled through him and he opened his eyes again. Hermione had removed a small bundle from her robe. He watched mute as she untied the strings and revealed the contents. Inside, two small bottles of liquid, a package of linen bandages and a book were revealed. He looked questioningly at Hermione for any explanation but she wasn't watching him.

"Take off your shirt Severus; I need to see how bad your wounds are." She expected irritation, an argument even. It was a testament to how worn the Potions master was that he made no refusals. Instead, he grimaced as he peeled the limp, filthy fabric from his shoulders. His chest was a landscape of bruises, welts and gashes. When her fingers probed one of the deeper cuts, Severus hissed in pain. He brushed her apology aside, asking her to do what needed to be done.

Presented with the first bottle, he drank it quickly. The faint taste of mint lingered on his tongue as warmth spread through his body. It was a healing potion. Knots in his muscles began untangling themselves, bruises began fading and healing. Sighing as some of the pain lifted, he watched Hermione work on him. The second bottle tasted hardly better than it went down. The fluid in the bottle became thick and viscous in his mouth, a strong antibiotic to any infection, however, unpleasant all the same. She knew what she was doing. The wounds on his arm were knitting together; dried blood remained as the only testament of their presence.

"I've been granted permission from the Minister to pursue you case Severus. I've got a man working for me; he's good at what he does. We've started digging, uncovering some things that are going to help get you out of here. It just going to take some time." She spoke softly as she worked, concentrating on him.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because you're innocent Severus, and I know there's proof, I just need to find it." The antibiotic and healing potions were working. He could feel the swelling in his face begin to recede, and for the first time, she appeared clear from the haze. He held her gaze for a long time, both of them sitting in silence. "I think that should do it. How do you feel?" He considered himself for a moment, feeling no immediate pain he smiled sadly.

"Thank you Hermione."

"You're welcome. The minister has given you protection from interrogation. That means that the guards are forbidden to touch you anymore. I'm only sorry it couldn't have come sooner. Those bastards should be locked in here, not you." At this, he laughed and gave her hand a squeeze.

"You've done too much already Hermione. I can't allow you to help me anymore." She dropped his hand and stood quickly. Had he not been so thoroughly abused, he was sure she would have slapped him.

"Why not?"

"Because of what you're going to suffer on my behalf. You're trying to free the murderer of Albus Dumbledore. People will…."

"I don't give a damn what people will say. You're innocent. I know that you had a deal with the Headmaster, all I need is proof." Her anger was met with silence. He refused to meet her eyes, instead focusing on the dull stone lining his cell. After a long moment, he looked up, focusing on her.

"In the headmaster's office there is an oak box with a phoenix carved into it. Inside there is a key. It is the key to his vault at Gringots. Enter the vault, there you will find a vial of liquid. It is the memory of a vow made months ago." Hermione stared in stunned silence for a long time, though Severus's eyes never wavered.

"How…how do you know this?" A wry smile appeared for the first time on his features and he let it linger as he answered.

"I know Hermione, because it is the memory of my vow to kill him."

XXXXXX

The discovery of the vow between Severus and Dumbledore had shattered the Ministry's attempts of killing Severus in the name of retribution. His death had been a forgone conclusion the moment he was captured on the battle field. When Hermione had presented her evidence revealing the nature of the vow, the case was immediately thrown out. Still, Severus was forced to sit in a cell for a further two months due to mishandling of his paperwork on several occasions while the Ministry reorganized.

Hermione frequented his cell, often staying for hours before being forced out by a guard. During her visits with Severus, they spoke of everything they could bring to mind, trying to escape the reality of their encounters. It was in the last week of his imprisonment that a change could be detected. Hermione called him on it, as she was leaving.

"The hatred in you is gone isn't it? It no longer rules who you are." He seemed surprised at her words, considering them a long moment before he answered. Standing as he spoke, he approached her slowly.

"If there was anything ruling me, it was a need to free myself from the chains of two masters. Perhaps I hated more, under the guise of both spy and servant and now it is gone. But I would not call it that." Leaning against the stone wall in front of Hermione, he paused again, trying to order his thoughts.

"What would you call it then?" He reached for her hand, locking his fingers within hers and gently pulled her towards him. When she was mere inches from him, his lips descended and he placed a chaste kiss on her lips. Before he could deepen the kiss he withdrew, sighing softly. The flush on Hermione's features made him smile, and he brushed a strand of hair from her face.

"I would call it the renewal of hope."

XXXXX

His release had been quiet, no publicity, no formal apologies, not even an official escort out of the prison. They had merely opened his cell and pointed him down a long hallway. She had been waiting for him in the courtyard of the immense building. A smile lightened the gloom on her face as he appeared, walking slowly in sunlight that he had not felt for months. He was much thinner than when he had been imprisoned. His skin was pale after the weeks spent in darkness and half light. His dark hair, though still short from the cut he had been given, seemed to make his lack of color all the more obvious. Still, he smiled as he caught sight of Hermione. As he reached her he opened his arms and felt her collide against him.

"Miss me did you?" He spoke, when they had parted at last.

"I'm glad you're free Severus." She said as they walked through the gate of Azkaban.

That had been weeks ago, and still no word had come. And then, just as suddenly as he had disappeared, his letter had arrived.

XXXXX

Present

The fire had consumed nearly everything that had been his home. Its wrath had not been defeated as it blazed through the night and on into the next day. And still he had merely watched content to sit and think as the flames reduced the old house into ash. An hour before it had begun, Severus had written a single letter. As the owl had departed, he gathered his last few possessions left in the world and exited the house on Spinner's End for the last time. Then, turning at the curb, he uttered an incantation and flames leapt into life. The response of the few remaining villagers had been surprisingly quick, but to no avail. The flames consumed everything, unobstructed even by the hundreds of gallons of water that had been thrown. It took two days for the house to be destroyed, and Severus remained for the duration, feeling alive for the first time in years.

When the last onlooker had left and the hoses of the fire brigade had been rolled and stored, he emerged from disillusionment and surveyed the damage. The flames had done a satisfactory job. The manor was no more. Walking amongst the wreckage which smoked and glowed red in places, he tried to recollect any memories worth having in the home of his youth. There were none. Satisfied, he had walked away for the last time.

Until he heard the crack of an apparation. Using his wand, he disillusioned himself quickly and made his way back towards the manor. It was not until he heard a familiar voice, screaming his name that he felt panic. When the crack of apparation occurred, he'd assumed that a wizard or witch had come to either loot or gloat over his losses. But Hermione's voice only meters away shook him.

She was too absorbed in her anger to hear his quiet approach. Even from behind, he could see the sorrow in her features. Her shoulders sagged, her head bent slightly and she trembled, as if sobbing quietly. She nearly jumped when his hand touched her shoulder and as he whispered, he felt the sharp inhale of breath she had taken.

"Severus?" She had turned to face him, shock screaming across her face. "I thought you were…that you had…I'm so glad you're alive." His lips against her forehead drew heat across the skin there and she shuddered in his arms.

"I'm fine Hermione, and still breathing much to the disappointment of some." He offered her a smile, which she finally returned. "I take it you received my letter." Speaking softly, he felt her slide from his arms and turn to look at the destruction beyond them.

"I did. Only twenty minutes ago. I thought that you…that you were saying goodbye." Hermione turned back, this time glaring at him. He chuckled softly, the sound foreign to him. The laughter did nothing to remove the anger from Hermione's face.

"Foolish girl, I sent the letter as a thank you. If I had intended to kill myself, it would have been long ago in Azkaban."

"Why did you burn down your house?" Her question startled him; she'd already seen what had been done and knew it was by his own hand. Rather than answer, he took her hand and urged her to follow him. The two stepped carefully through the debris until he found a suitable spot. Bending, he scooped up a handful of ash and cinders. As Hermione looked on puzzled he gestured for her hand. She did not hesitate and he took it gently in his own. Their fingers intertwined of their own accord and for a long moment, Severus stared at the connection.

"I am free from the life I once lived Hermione." He began, his voice near a whisper in the still evening air. "I am free from the imprisonment of a darkness I willingly allowed to rule my life. My debts are paid. My vows are fulfilled. This place, this dark place was the last of it. And now it is gone, and I am free." With that he let the ash in his hand fall loosely through his fingers, memorizing the feel as it slipped away. Hermione looked on in silence. Severus's gaze was locked on hers and after a moment, she leaned up and touched her lips against his. Gently he released her hand and slid his own up to cup the side of her face. She responded in turn, a hand slipping up his side to rest at his neck. Her fingers wound themselves in his short hair and she held him against her. He kissed her with more passion in that moment than he had lived his entire life with.

At last they withdrew, though both were flushed and he could feel his pulse quicken, pounding in his ears. Smiling, he memorized the hint of red on her cheeks, the pout of her lips. Amazement drove him to run a gentle thumb over her lower lip and he felt her sigh softly. Pressing a kiss against her forehead, his hand sought out hers and they turned. Walking from the ruins of the manor, he smiled as he heard her whisper.

"I'm glad you're finally free Severus."

XXXXXXX

The End.

I do hope you enjoyed it. Reviews are much appreciated. I'm even working on getting back to my story "Before I knew" in the near future.

A/N: I'm going to say now that I understand not all of you will enjoy the take on Severus I've just written. I tried to write this story as originally as I could. My take on Severus stems from my beliefs: 1. That he is not an evil man in the books. 2. That he made a vow at Dumbledore's wishes and fulfilled it to the best of his abilities. And finally 3. Every man chooses the path they walk in life, just as they choose when to alter that path and pay for the sins of a former life.