Snape followed Hermione through the empty and dimly lit castle. Whatever had made him propose telling her about his past? He certainly hadn't intended to do it. But he had felt guilty about his behaviour towards her, eager to reestablish their relationship. And when he had talked to her just now he had been careless, lulled by the strange effect her presence had on him.
Now he found that he was becoming more and more nervous. He had no idea how she would react to what he was about to tell her and part of him was terrified lest she'd despise him, end their friendship and he'd never see her again.
"Here we are," she finally said, opening the door to one of Hogwarts's spacious guest rooms. A fire was burning in the fireplace, casting shadows on the wood clad walls and the heavy velvet curtains at the windows. Hermione stepped in and quickly lit a few candles until the room was cast in warm light. Outside the snow was falling thickly, obscuring the view over the lake that the large windows gave.
Hermione looked around, then pointed to a small couch standing close to the fire. "Let's sit down," she said. "Would you like something to drink?"
"No thanks," Snape replied, sat down at one end of the couch and watched her as she got out of her boots and sat down at the other end with her legs tucked up underneath her.
Hermione looked at him expectantly and for a second he thought again how young and innocent she looked, that she could only be repulsed by what he was about to reveal. But he knew that that was not true. She had experienced so many terrible things, she knew probably nearly as much of the darkness within people as he did.
And so Snape started speaking. He told her everything, everything he had ever done in Voldemort's service, be it as his follower or later as spy. His voice was level and matter-of-fact, only sometimes did it shake a little. He neither hid nor embellished anything, describing everything with ruthless and cruel candour. And all the time his eyes were fixed on Hermione's face, watching for her reactions.
There was shock and terror, pity and pain. Sometimes she shook her head in disbelief. And sometimes her large eyes filled with tears. But never did he see those emotions he had dreaded, repulsion, disdain and hate.
Finally Snape had finished. He noticed how tense his body was and slowly relaxed, for the first time looking away from her face out of the window.
"How did you survive all this without going mad?" Hermione asked quietly. He turned back at her. She was leaning forward a little, her eyes searching his. "Without…" she made a furtive gesture with her hand.
"Losing my soul? Destroying it irrecoverably?" he finished her question.
She nodded reluctantly.
"Perhaps I didn't," Snape said simply.
Hermione looked at him intensely, then shook her head. "No. If you had, you wouldn't have suffered so much. And you wouldn't be here now."
Snape's breath caught and a cold and heavy lump in his chest dissolved suddenly, leaving him feeling strangely light and happy. He looked away quickly, not wanting her to see how her words had touched him. "You always believe the best of people, don't you?" he said rather gruffly.
He turned back at her to see her shrug her shoulders and smile at him. "I was right with you, wasn't I?" Her face got serious again. "Thanks for telling me," she said softly.
He gave a slight nod. "Thank you for listening."
Her large eyes held his and suddenly there it was again, that strange feeling of lightness. Abruptly he got up. "I should leave now. It's very late and I have impinged on your time quite enough."
She looked up at him, startled by this sudden departure. "Please don't go yet," she said. Then, hesitating, added, "You shouldn't be alone…now."
Snape stood very still, his mind in turmoil. "Very well," he said eventually and sat down again.
An uncomfortable silence descended and Hermione was wondering what had made her stop him. Well, actually she knew well enough what had made her. Now that Snape had finally opened up to her, was talking to her again, she wanted to enjoy this as long as possible. She just didn't know what she should do next.
"Have you heard about Livia?" Snape jerked her out of her thoughts.
"No, what about her?" Hermione asked, glad for this safe topic.
"She got a life sentence in Azkaban," he stated. "Not only because of us, there are many more crimes from her past which have finally caught up with her. Constantine got 15 years."
Hermione shivered. "I'm glad. But it's horrible, being locked away like that, isn't it? After spending over twenty years in the void…"
Snape gave her a curious look. "She tortured and tried to kill you. And me, I might add. And still you feel pity for her?"
Hermione shrugged. "Perhaps I shouldn't." She grimaced. "Actually it's even worse. I miss Mary. Of course I know this is stupid, that she never really existed. And I'm angry with Livia and with myself that she was able to fool and use me. If I hadn't been so gullible… But still I miss the woman I thought she was."
Snape shook his head. "You had no way of knowing anything might be amiss with her. Don't feel guilty for it." He paused. "And on second thoughts, don't lose your pity for her. She might not merit it, but this…compassion…is a great quality."
"Thank you," Hermione said, surprised. He suddenly seemed rather self-conscious and didn't meet her eyes.
Hermione looked at Snape's sharp face, its paleness accentuated by his customary black, high collared gown. During his confessions there had been several times when she had wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she had always held herself back. Yet it was hard not to act on it and now again she was overwhelmed by a surge of aching tenderness.
"You are getting soft," she said, her joking tone giving no indication of the emotions raging inside her.
"What?" Snape's head jerked back to meet her eyes again.
Hermione grinned at his expression. "Coming here for Christmas… Getting reunited with your colleagues… You didn't snarl at anyone, were even rather civil to Quirin. If you don't take care you'll get positively likeable."
Snape snorted. "Must be your bad influence," he said, the drawl of his voice being betrayed by a jerking of his lips. "That's what you get from associating with Gryffindors."
Hermione laughed out loud. She felt curiously light and elated, sitting here with him, talking to him like that. And suddenly, without thinking, she said, "I missed this. Our conversations, I mean."
"So did I," Snape replied quietly.
Hermione's breath caught but he looked away immediately, as if he were sorry that he had said anything.
Silence descended. Hermione's mind was racing. If she spoke now, if she said what was on her mind, she'd cross a line and perhaps destroy their brittle relationship forever. Was she ready to risk that? But he was uncommonly open tonight, and this might be the only chance she would ever get. And so, with her heart hammering, she eventually asked softly, "What are we going to do now?"
Snape looked back at her, his brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
Sobered and half regretting that she had spoken at all, Hermione was quiet for a few seconds. "About our…friendship…I mean," she finally said hesitantly.
She saw Snape stiffen and quickly added, her heart beating fast, "you can stop me now and I will never talk about it again. And we can just go on like this. Just be…friends. That's something. But if what happened meant anything…more…to you, than I need to know, Severus."
She leant forward, her eyes riveted on his face. He was very still.
"Of course it meant something to me," he finally said strenuously. "But you shouldn't squander your affections on me."
A painful coldness spread in Hermione's chest. "Because you still love Lily?" she asked tentatively.
Snape's face tensed but he didn't look away. "I will always love her…in a way." His voice was low and sad. "But she is dead. Has been dead a long time now."
Hermione looked at him intently. "Then why…"
He stared down on his hands. "Because you deserve someone your age. Someone like Quirin. Someone who is not tainted the way I am."
"But what if that doesn't work out for me?" She asked very quietly. "I have tried it, believe me. What if I want you?"
Snape's head jerked up and he looked at her in absolute astonishment. No one had ever said anything like that to him. He must have misunderstood her, or she must be joking. But her face was sincere.
"Why should you do that?" Snape asked, raw surprise in his voice.
"Because you know me, Severus," Hermione said simply, her intent eyes never leaving his. "You know my past. You can understand what I have experienced. You know what's important to me, what drives me. And even more, you share my passion for knowledge, my intellectual curiosity. And I like being with you, talking to you, sharing my thoughts and ideas." She gave a tense laugh. "I even like your grumpy dry humour. And you saved my life, twice. You were willing to die for me. How could I not…love you?"
Silence descended. Hermione thought Snape must hear the beating of her heart. But his face was absolutely still. There was wonder in his eyes, confusion and something else. Suddenly he reached out, lightly touched a strand of her hair which had come loose and softly tucked it behind her ear.
Before he could withdraw his hand Hermione reached up and caught it. Her eyes never left his as she gently brought it to her mouth and placed a soft, swift kiss on the palm.
His eyes widened for the fraction of a second. "Are you sure about this?" he asked, his voice husky.
"Would I tell you if I hadn't thought about it carefully?" she replied with a smile, feeling strangely light.
"I suppose not." He extricated his hand from her grasp but only to reach out for her and lightly touch her cheek, trace the lines of her face.
They stared at each other and when Snape leaned forward Hermione came to meet him, their lips touching softly and a bit awkwardly at first. A warm feeling of utter happiness erupted in Snape's chest and he pushed back all his worries and unbelief. The only thing that mattered was to hold her close, to feel the intoxicating sensation of her lips on his, her body next to his.
When they finally separated Hermione looked at him with laughter dancing in her eyes. "I'm so glad I wasn't wrong about Stratford," she said mischievously.
He gave his short, barking laughter. "You have no idea what confusion that kiss threw me in," he said, softly tracing her lips with his index finger.
She quickly closed the distance between them and kissed him again, eager and passionate. "At least you could remember everything," Hermione stated accusingly when she had finally broken the kiss. "I was wondering for quite some time if I was just having rather strange dreams about you…"
Again Snape laughed. Suddenly the light in his eyes was dimmed by new wonderment. "I don't know how this happened," he said quietly, looking at her. His face was absolutely unguarded. "I don't know how I…merit…this. But I know that I love you, Hermione Granger. And if you really want…this…then I will try to make it work."
Hermione's heart skipped a beat. "Then everything is all right now, isn't it?" she asked softly.
Snape drew her close, resting his chin on her head. "Yes, it is."
Thanks to all of you who have stayed with this story until the end and special thanks to those who have left a review!
My biggest thanks however go to my staunch Beta C.E. Belvedier. Without her help and encouragement this story would have been much worse.
Even though the story is now finished I am of course glad for every comment you have.
And I'm curious: If you happen to also have read my first story, "A Touch of Frost", which one did you prefer? And why?
I have an idea for another story, but it'll take some time until I get around to posting something. Nevertheless, stay tuned.