Disclaimer: It's all JKR's.
Part of this section hasn't been Britpicked/Beta'ed, since I added a portion due to Bellegeste's comments on the draft before handing the story in to the exchange. Any mistakes are mine.
When his eyes finally fluttered open, she sat up in her seat. "Sir?"
He looked at her blankly.
"You were injured. Madam Pomfrey gave you something to help you sleep through the worst of it."
"I remember." His voice was still raspy and hoarse. "I…was brewing Wolfsbane. The cauldron exploded…You could have killed us both."
Hermione nodded miserably. "I'm so sorry."
"You should be," he growled. "Irresponsible child!"
Hermione lowered her head, feeling wretchedly guilty as she saw the tight lines of pain around his eyes. He could call her every name in the book if he wanted to, and she would deserve them all. "I know. That was…unforgivable. I should never have…not around a boiling cauldron."
"No, you shouldn't have," he said harshly. He closed his eyes for a moment before opening them again. "Where is Pomfrey?"
"She had to go back to work, I'm afraid. But she told me what to do. Are you in a lot of pain?"
"It's...not as bad as it was."
"Madam Pomfrey left an analgesic, but she said to take it on a full stomach, or it would make you sick. Do you think you could eat?"
He nodded. "Yes."
"Good," she said briskly. "I'll be right back."
She returned a short time later. A bowl of tomato soup with a poached egg floating inside, a piece of buttered bread, and a glass of apple juice. It had seemed best to start with something fairly light. "Here you are, Sir. I hope this is all right." She slid the bench over next to his bed and set down the plate and glass.
She watched as he unconsciously wet his lips. "Where did you get this?"
"I went shopping while Pomfrey was here."
"Yes, you can," she interrupted him firmly. "I feel terrible enough. Please let me do something." She handed him the spoon. "Eat. Please."
After a moment's hesitation, he finally pulled the bowl closer. He ate slowly, slightly propped up on one elbow, an expression on his face that almost hurt to watch. It was just tinned soup and an egg… Hermione turned away as she felt her eyes begin to water. She managed to busy herself at the dresser, getting his potion ready, until he had finished eating.
Once he had taken the pain potion, she picked up the pot of ointment. "I'm afraid this is going to hurt…" She dipped out some of the potion and began to work it across his back, as gently, carefully, and quickly as she could. Even so, she could feel him tense under her hands, could feel him flinch as her fingers worked over particularly painful areas.
When she finished treatment, they both let out the breaths they had been holding. By the time she had put the lid back on the jar, his eyes were starting to drift shut.
She was about to tiptoe out and let him sleep when she heard his voice, uncharacteristically hesitant. "When you went shopping – did you happen to buy any tea?"
She smiled. "I did. Milk and sugar?"
She nodded. "Give me just a few minutes."
When she came back, she watched as he cradled the warm mug, pausing with closed eyes to deeply inhale the fragrant steam before taking the first sip.
He looked up when he felt her eyes on him. "Next time, make it stronger," he ordered.
Hermione laughed. "Yes, Sir!"
For a couple of minutes, there was silence as they both sipped their tea. Then, "May I ask you something?" she said.
He groaned. "Not again. Look where it got us last time."
"Why did you do it? I deserved to get hurt. The whole thing was my fault."
He winced at the attempt to shrug. "I suppose because the wizarding world would get by much better without a Death Eater than without a Gryffindor war hero?"
Hermione's mouth pursed slightly. "Do you always have to do that?"
"Try and vex me."
"You don't believe me?"
"I don't believe that's what you were thinking, no."
He sighed. "Still a know-it-all. You tell me, then."
"Here's what I think," she said carefully. "I think you didn't think anything. There really wasn't time. You realized what was going to happen, and you simply reacted. And your reaction was to put yourself between me and danger. And furthermore, I think it wouldn't have mattered if it was Neville Longbottom or Harry himself instead of me. I think you would have done the exact same thing anyway."
"Hm," he grunted noncommittally.
"By the way, I never said thank you." She felt her cheeks color.
He raised an eyebrow. "And why would I deserve thanks for something that apparently didn't require any conscious thought on my part whatsoever?"
She gave an irritated little huff. "There you go again."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Very well then. You're welcome."
"And you're wrong, by the way. About the 'war hero' and all that. The wizarding world in general wouldn't miss me much more than you."
He cocked an eyebrow in mockery. "You. Hermione Granger, friend of the mighty Harry Potter. Forgive me if I don't believe this."
She grinned. "Brewster Withers, for one, would actually miss you more. He got rather put out when I explained to him that he had to find his Wolfsbane elsewhere this month."
"He can hardly be considered representative."
"Still. Wizardom sees what the Daily Prophet wants it to see, for the most part. And to the Prophet I was never anything but Harry's potential love interest. Once it became clear that his affections were firmly tied to Ginny Weasley — well, that was that."
"You fought in the Last Battle."
"So did most Order members. We were all mentioned in the small print, and we all got our Orders of Merlin, Third Class. Harry got the headlines. Which is as it should be." She shrugged. "After all he's been through, I don't begrudge him the attention."
"What's the famous Mr. Potter up to these days?" he asked diffidently.
She paused, taken aback for a moment. Well, yes, of course he wouldn't know. He'd been cut off from any news of the wizarding world for the last two years. "Married, to Ginny of course. They have a little baby boy."
"And Miss Weasley's brother?"
"You mean Ron? I don't see much of him any more. He took a job with Magical Games and Sports. Last I heard, he was dating Lee Jordan's younger sister."
"And Draco? Has anyone heard from him?" He had turned his attention to a loose bit of skin on his forefinger, his voice one of carefully studied indifference.
Hermione regarded him with slightly raised eyebrows. "I'm afraid not. After his mother died, he seems to have dropped off the face of the earth." She could see him stiffen, his eyes half closed. "Not that we ever heard much from him before that, but…"
"Narcissa is dead?" he interrupted her.
She gave him a questioning look. "Well, yes. After your trial, she and Draco moved to America. She was killed in an accident last year. That's the official story, anyway. There are plenty of theories — I'm so sorry," she interrupted herself as she watched the color drain out of his face. "She was a friend of yours, wasn't she?"
To her dismay, he started to laugh. It wasn't the kind of laugh she ever wanted to hear again — brittle-dry, bitter, acidic.
"Sir? What's the matter?"
"Do you know why I killed Dumbledore? Do you want to know?" There was a wild, maniacal look on his face as he spat out the words.
"Because he asked me to! Because I'd been too clever for my own good, and I ended up swearing an Unbreakable Vow."
Hermione put a hand on his arm. "Please. You aren't making any sense."
He still had that crazed glint in his eyes. "I Vowed to keep Draco from harm." He laughed again. "Narcissa considered Azkaban very harmful."
"Shh." Hermione knelt down next to his bed and took his face in both of her hands. "Look at me, Severus. I don't understand. You need to start at the beginning." He stared at her wildly for a moment, eyebrows drawn together. "All right?" She waited as he closed his eyes and drew in a deep, ragged breath. When he nodded, she let her hands drop slowly. "Then tell me. Tell me what happened."
He exhaled slowly before starting to speak. "Narcissa came to me. She was…quite distressed. About a task the Dark Lord had set Draco. She asked my help. I was…flattered. And concerned. I'd heard nothing about this. I wanted to find out. So…" He ran his hand over his face. "I made a mistake. I ended up kneeling on the floor, making an Unbreakable Vow: to watch over her son as he fulfilled the Dark Lord's wishes, and to keep him from harm." His hand plucked restlessly at the sheet. "I was…so stupid," he muttered. "She added a third part. For me to finish the task, should Draco for some reason be unable to do so. Only later did I find out that that task was to kill Albus Dumbledore."
Hermione felt her breath hitch in her throat. She knew how an Unbreakable Vow worked. "So either you or Dumbledore had to die."
He nodded. "Yes." His voice sounded hollow.
Slowly, Hermione was feeling her way around his words, trying to make sense of all this. "So he asked you to let him die when the time came? To kill him yourself, if necessary?" It was exactly what she would have expected the headmaster to do in that situation.
"Yes. On the Tower — there was no other option. He was dying anyway, and how could I save him? There were plenty of Death Eaters willing to finish what Draco couldn't do."
"You didn't betray him…" she said in a whisper.
The fire rekindled in his eyes. "Never."
"But why didn't you ever say anything? Merlin, Severus, all these years… And how are we ever going to prove any of this?"
"Proof? You want proof?" He gave a short, angry laugh. "I can tell you exactly where at Hogwarts to find letters and a sworn statement, complete with Authenticity Charms, as well as a bottle of Pensieve memories. Did you really think that Dumbledore would just leave me to my fate?"
"Then why? Why did you never say anything?"
"Something neither he nor I considered. The second part of the Vow. To not let any harm come to Draco."
Understanding dawned slowly. "The Vow was still in force."
"Yes. The Vow would stay in force until Narcissa released me from it, or until her death."
"And she wouldn't release you…"
"Not if that meant her precious son was sent to Azkaban."
"Those messages that the Order received…"
"Came from me."
"I knew it!" she exclaimed, a quick smile flitting across her face before it turned serious again. "But how did Draco find out?"
"I told him."
"Of course. If everyone thought that he was the one who betrayed Voldemort to the Light… It was the only way you could keep him out of Azkaban." She drew a deep, shuddering breath. "Is there a way to prove that those notes came from you?"
"I kept copies in a safe place…"
Suddenly another thought hit her. "Why didn't Draco let anyone know? He must have known that you would be able to tell the truth once his mother had died?"
"Of course he did." Snape's voice was dry as a bone. "Why else do you think he disappeared? He would have assumed the Aurors would come looking for him once I was able to reveal my true loyalties."
"I never could stand that little snot!" Hermione said heatedly.
There was a small, bitter smile playing around the corners of his mouth.""Don't be too harsh on the boy. The thought of Azkaban makes much stronger men quaver."
She sat back on her heels. "So what do we do now?"
Severus Snape looked at the girl in front of him with narrowed eyes. We? That was the second time she had used that word...
Reluctantly, he admitted to himself that he would need help. Someone would have to retrieve the evidence Dumbledore had left. Someone would have to go and approach the Ministry on his behalf. He wasn't fool enough to think that any of his minders would listen to him in the absence of conclusive proof.
During her years at Hogwarts, he had seen the relentless campaigns she waged to right real or imagined injustices. That kind of…ruthlessness would be what he needed.
Still, he could not let her. "Who among the Order members do you think would speak on my behalf?" Many of those he would have trusted had died in the war. Minerva McGonagall, Kingsley Shacklebolt…
She looked taken aback. "Order members? I know plenty of people in the Ministry. And I can talk to Harry. He's still my friend. He'll help, if I explain to him."
"Potter?" His lip curled. "I doubt he could be moved to speak in my defense."
"You underestimate him," she said quietly. "He can admit when he's wrong. He certainly hated Draco almost as much as he hates you… He'll listen to me. Especially if I bring him proof."
"I cannot allow you to get involved," he said shortly.
"And why is that?"
"If your name gets tied to mine — even if I should get exonerated — it'll cost you your career. You must be aware this will not be something that'll blow over in a day or two. It will take months of back and forth, of hearings, appeals, trials, negotiations. Even if I'm cleared of the charges, there will always be those who'll think that where there's smoke, there's fire. By the time it's over, no one in the Ministry will want to touch you with a ten foot pole."
The girl looked at him determinedly. "Bugger my career. To tell the truth, I don't really like that job much anyway. I'll find something else."
"You don't realize…"
"I realize perfectly," she interrupted him. "And don't try to stop me. You'll find that in some things, I can be at least as stubborn as you are." She gave him a smile that was bordering on the cheeky.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes for a moment. "We'll talk about this tomorrow." The nervous excitement had left as quickly as it had come. Suddenly, he wanted her gone, wanted to be alone. His back hurt, and he felt bone tired. After two years spent in virtual isolation, there was simply…too much of her right now. He needed time. Time to pull himself together. "I think I'd like to sleep now, Miss Granger."
"All right." By some miracle, she seemed to understand. "Tomorrow, you can tell me where to find the letters. And we'll take it from there." She briefly put her hand over his. "But today, you just get better. Rest now." She paused at the door. "And please. Call me Hermione."
He didn't think he would actually be able to sleep, but he finally dozed off. She only slipped into the room for a few minutes on the hour, to bring him a drink and to rub more potion on his back before slipping out again.
As he drifted in and out of sleep, he could hear her singing to herself in the kitchen. There was something…strangely wonderful about that. About a woman singing in his kitchen… He fell back asleep with a smile on his face.
By late afternoon, his back had healed enough that he, with Hermione's help, was able to get up for a short while to use the bathroom.
Later, she brought him dinner. She had obviously put her time in the kitchen to good use. Pork chops, a green salad with home-made dressing, potatoes with butter and chopped parsley. Just the sight of it made his mouth water. And he was able to eat it sitting up on the edge of his bed. Wizarding medicine, he contemplated, really was a wonderful thing.
When she had cleared the dishes, she came back, bringing her bag with her and taking out a ball of yarn and some knitting needles. A wave of her wand, and the bench turned into a rocking chair.
He watched her through half-closed eyes as she sat, her head bent down, rhythmically rocking back and forth.
The click-click-click of her knitting needles was relaxing. He smiled as he recalled Minerva complaining in the staff room about upset house-elves and clueless young Muggle-borns trying to impose their values…
He remembered her differently from her school days. She had been such an irritating child, over-eager, shrill… She seemed much older now than she had then. Older than three years should have made her. War would do that to people, he supposed. She had seen more suffering and death than someone her age ever should.
There was nothing awkward about the silence in the room. It was oddly reassuring to look out of the corner of his eye and see another person there, someone warm and alive. Someone who, by now, thought well of him.
It had hurt badly when she had thrown her disappointment at him this morning. "…Those notes that the Order received? I hoped until the very end those were from you."
Yet it had made his chest feel tight that she had harbored hope until then. That in spite of the evidence, she had wanted to believe that he was a better man than she had been told.
He had seen the joy in her eyes when she had found out she had been right. He still could not fathom why that should matter so much to her, but it was clear that it did. She had been happy since then. Smiling to herself; a lightness in her step. And he had never heard her sing before…
It was a mystery, he thought as he drifted back off to sleep on the waves of Pomfrey's analgesic. But it was a very nice mystery indeed.
It took close to three months of concerted effort to get his sentence revoked. Three months of the girl running herself ragged, spending most of her free time working his case through the Ministry's bureaucracy.
At the intercession of Harry Potter — who had apparently taken a much more reasonable view than Snape would have expected — Magical Law Enforcement had recognized that, in view of his circumstances, he should be assigned a liaison. Hermione had promptly volunteered for the position.
It was…puzzling. He had never had friends. He certainly had not expected to acquire one while incarcerated at Spinner's End. And yet it seemed that that was exactly what had happened.
She had turned into a steady visitor, stopping by at least two or three times a week to update him on recent developments, usually toting a bag of groceries.
At least he could now reimburse her for her expenditures. When Hermione had gone to Hogwarts, she had found the letters and the bottle of memories — and a large leather bag filled with Galleons. It seemed Dumbledore had made provision for him in more than one way.
His living conditions had improved dramatically. Good food, clean clothes, books, someone to talk to.
He should have been happier. More content.
Instead he found himself afraid of hoping too hard, veering wildly between cautious anticipation and abject certainty that this was never going to end. That he would be stuck between these barren walls forever, that this was just a pipe dream, that the Ministry would never agree to set him free.
While Hermione was practically bubbling over with optimism and plans for the future. It could be…intensely trying at times.
On good days, there were quiet dinners together, talking strategy. Or just plain talking.
On bad days, she often found herself at the receiving end of a tongue lashing as he vented pent-up frustration and anger on the only person available, showering words on her that he wished he could take back as soon as they had left his mouth. More than once he had reduced her to tears.
It made him feel — ashamed. And yet he seemed unable to stop himself.
There was one day when he was certain that he had gone too far. After she had stormed out the door, he sat down heavily at the table, despair closing in like a thick wet blanket, threatening to smother him. If she did not come back… She always had before. But this time...
He sat quietly for a while, his head in his hands, wishing for a bottle for Firewhisky, feeling hollow and cold. As futile as it seemed – over the last few weeks and months she had begun to…matter. She had become more than a pleasant diversion, more than his ticket out of this place. On some days it seemed like her presence was the only thing anchoring him to sanity.
He looked at the other side of the table, where the last traces of the chair she had Conjured before dinner were slowly fading away, leaving an empty spot in more than one way. The idea that she might never walk through his door again was close to unbearable. Old fool, he chided himself dully. You're too old. Too worn. There are too many memories you carry around. Whatever would she see in you?
It was right then that he heard the knock on the door.
When he opened it, there stood Hermione, traces of tears still on her cheeks. Carrying a chair.
She marched past him and put the chair down at the other side of the table. "There. That's better. I don't know why I didn't think of that before," she said with satisfaction.
"Just what exactly are you doing?"
She gave him a small, lopsided smile. "Unrolling a hedgehog."
Sometimes the woman was nigh incomprehensible.
"I suppose I should apologize," he said stiffly.
"Yes, you should." For a moment there was silence. She raised her eyes and gave him a measured look.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry."
Her smile lit up her eyes. "I know."
The trial was conducted in absentia, with Hermione and the late Albus Dumbledore's Pensieve memories giving testimony on his behalf. He spent the day restlessly pacing the house, trying to think of mindless little tasks to occupy himself, to keep himself from going mad.
She came bursting through the door in the late afternoon. "They dropped the charges! They'll be coming tomorrow to take off the shackle! You're going to be free!" And then threw her arms around his neck and burst into tears.
He stood awkwardly, feeling shivery and weak-kneed, an aching tightness in his chest, before slowly closing his arms around her, letting his face drop into the soft frizziness of her hair.
He was going to be free.
Hermione had made sure to be there when late the next evening Magical Law Enforcement showed up to free him from his confinement. Within minutes, she could have slapped them to where the Bong Tree grows. They rummaged around the house, removing everything that they deemed "state property" — including all the remaining brewing equipment and potions ingredients. Another few set to dismantling and moving the transport vault. Then it took a small eternity to take down all the wards from the doors, walls, and windows. By the time one of them finally turned to Snape, she was antsy with anticipation.
She retreated to a corner of the room, not wanting to embarrass him by the tears that were running down her face as he stretched out his thin, bare leg, and the Auror lifted his wand. It seemed to take forever until the ugly iron ring finally sprang open and rolled away, clanking on the linoleum floor.
She waited there until the door closed behind the Aurors. Snape was still sitting on his chair, his face impassive. He turned his head to face her as she approached.
Hermione knelt down on the floor next to him. She wanted to reach out, to touch his ankle, to run her hands over the red, irritated skin, to rub away the hurt. He would bear those scars for as long as he lived… But she knew better than to take such a liberty right now.
"You've been crying," he said quietly.
"Yes." She smiled at him, not caring that her eyes filled up with tears again.
He looked down at his leg, a lost look on his face. "I can leave the house now."
"Would you like to?"
He nodded. "I think I would."
He got up clumsily, and she followed him to the door. He stopped on the threshold, looking out into the empty, cobble-stoned street. The trees down by the river were moving in a light breeze… He felt his breath speed up as his heart beat a painful staccato.
Suddenly, he felt her hand slip into his, warm and soft against his own. His fingers closed tightly around hers. It would be sheer foolishness to think she would stay, now that the battle was over and all that was left was — him. But right now, he was glad that she was here.
One step. It would take only one step to finally move out of what had been his world for the last two years. One step out of the house. One step back into life. At least, now he had hope there would be a life.
He looked down at the girl next to him, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the door.
A/N: ...And we know how Hermione feels about him, even if he doesn't yet. :-)
In Draco's defense, he would have expected Snape to hear much sooner (there seems to be a reasonable flow of information into Azkaban) - except he of course isn't in Azkaban, which Draco cannot know.
Thanks again to Bellegeste for beta'ing and Britpicking, to Scatteredlogic for adminning this for the exchange, to everyone else (especially GinnyW and Shiv) at the Exchange for making it a fabulous round, and to Servantofall36 for a wonderful prompt.
You can find the other exchange stories at community . livejournal . com / sshgexchange
Thanks so much for reading!