25 September, 1998

Hermione placed Ancient Runes and the Modern World on the desk in front of Madam Pince and waited while the librarian made a notation in the library ledger and on the card in the front of the book.

Madam Pince looked at Hermione with a sour expression. "Are you taking this home with you?"

Hermione suppressed a smile. Madam Pince had vehemently opposed allowing library books to be removed from Hogwarts, citing long-standing rules against it, but Professor McGonagall had overruled her, pointing out that the old rules weren't applicable in the current situation. There were several students living away from Hogwarts this year, and it was impractical to expect them to study only in the library.

"Yes," Hermione answered, "but I promise that I'll return it safe and sound."

Madam Pince sniffed and made an additional notation in the ledger before reluctantly handing her the book.

Hermione thanked her and tucked it into her bag. She slung the bag over her shoulder and left the library. Dinner was being served in the Great Hall, and the fourth-floor hallway was deserted. She headed for the main staircase, but stopped when she heard a large thump and a muffled curse. Just ahead and to her left, a door she'd never seen before was standing open.

Memories of the war and Draco Malfoy's treachery were still too fresh to ignore, and Hermione drew her wand as she cautiously approached the doorway. She took a quick peek inside to see appeared to be a storage room. Boxes and trunks filled the shelves lining the walls and overflowed to crowd the floor, leaving only narrow pathways between them. The new Headmistress of Hogwarts was bent over with her back to Hermione, rummaging through a carton near the centre of the room.

"Professor McGonagall?" Hermione said, surprised.

The Professor started and glanced at Hermione over her shoulder. "Hello, Miss Granger."

"I didn't mean to disturb you, but I heard a noise," Hermione said, stepping into the room. "Everyone else is at dinner, and since I'd never seen this door before, I thought it best to check."

"You're not disturbing me." Professor McGonagall's voice was muffled. "I'm looking for a report, but it's eluding me at the moment."

"You don't want to Summon it?" Hermione looked around, openly curious.

"No, I don't want to risk tearing it to pieces as it tries to wriggle out of a box." Professor McGonagall replaced the lid on the box she'd been searching and straightened.

"May I help?" Hermione asked.

"Thank you, but I'm sure you have other things to do." She placed her hands at the small of her back and stretched with a grimace. "Aren't you staying for dinner?"

Hermione shook her head, studying Professor McGonagall. A creased marred her brow. Professor McGonagall had never completely recovered from the Aurors' attack during Hermione's Fifth year, and the stress of the war had continued to take a toll. Now she was dealing with the stress of being Headmistress, and while the Professor had always been slim, she was verging on gaunt. There were new lines on her face and silver liberally threaded her dark hair.

Hermione pulled a Sickle from her pocket, and with a series of elaborate swishes, she transfigured the coin into a wingback chair, complete with a large squashy pillow. It blocked the doorway, but that was the largest open space Hermione could see.

Professor McGonagall nodded her approval. "Your Transfiguration skills are still exemplary, but are you planning to watch me search?"

Hermione smiled. "No, you're going to sit here while I search. Tell me what to look for, and I'll find it while you take a break."

"Nonsense. I'm perfectly capable of doing this," Professor McGonagall said, but Hermione noticed she reached up to rub one shoulder and cast the chair a longing look.

"I insist," Hermione said, gesturing toward the chair. "After everything you've done for me, it's the least I can do."

"I've only done what was required," Professor McGonagall answered.

Hermione shook her head. "We both know that's not true. The fact that I'm not living at Hogwarts this year is proof enough of that. You didn't have to allow it."

"You aren't the only student living away from school this year." Professor McGonagall made her way through the narrow aisles to stand beside Hermione. "There are five Muggle-borns whose parents refused to allow their children to return to Hogwarts unless they were allowed to go home each evening. After that awful situation with the Muggle-born Registration Commission, how could I refuse? If I allowed it for them, I certainly had to allow it for you. Kingsley was good enough to have Floo connections installed at their homes so they can Floo into my office each morning. Although, you are the only one who lives alone. I do wish you were staying here instead of that cottage."

Hermione shook her head. "I spent too much time cooped up with Harry and Ron in that tent, and I need some time to myself. Besides, I just couldn't come back to the girl's dorm and see empty the beds where people used to..." Hermione's voice cracked, and she stopped, forcing a smile. "The cottage is perfect for me. It came furnished, so I didn't have to worry about that, and I have it leased through the end of the school year."

Professor McGonagall hesitated before saying, "It's unfortunate that the situation with your parents made it a necessity."

Hermione's lips tightened, and she nodded to acknowledge the sympathy, but she didn't reply. What was there to say? Her relationship with her parents had changed. She'd taken their memories to protect them, but once restored, her parents no longer completely trusted her. That lack of trust, coupled with the fact that they'd truly enjoyed their carefree lives as Monica and Wendell Wilkins had caused them to choose to remain in Australia. They'd sold their home and possessions in England and had given Hermione the money they'd saved for her university tuition.

It had shocked Hermione to realise that her parents had secretly hoped she'd return to the Muggle world for university, and that had — in turn — shaken her trust in her parents. In an effort to rebuild their relationship, they'd agreed that Hermione would visit them every other weekend throughout her seventh year. Professor McGonagall had been instrumental in arranging the necessary Portkeys.

Hermione turned toward the boxes and changed the subject. "So what am I looking for?"

Professor McGonagall sat down and sighed with relief. "The report is labelled "Textbooks and Equipment, 1997-1998". It shouldn't have been packed away, but the house elves didn't differentiate between the things that belong to the school and those that were Headmaster Snape's personal items. I'm afraid it's all a bit of a jumble."

Hermione's brows drew together, and she gestured around the cluttered room. "Professor Snape's things are in all of these boxes?"

"No, just those four boxes there and the trunk behind them." Professor McGonagall pointed. "They contain the things he'd left at the school. The rest are filled with copies of records, reports and the various paperwork involved in running Hogwarts."

"This is the File Room for Hogwarts?" Hermione made her way through the labyrinth of boxes.

"One of many." Professor McGonagall smiled, but when Hermione arrived at the indicated boxes, her smile quickly faded. "I should have already sorted through Severus's things; I just haven't had the time."

Hermione looked down and shook her head. "Four boxes and a trunk... Considering how many years he was at Hogwarts, that doesn't seem like much."

"Severus was rarely sentimental about possessions," Professor McGonagall answered. She shifted in the chair, adjusting the pillow at her back. "He seldom kept anything he didn't consider useful."

Hermione knelt and opened a box. She flipped through the contents, raising her eyebrows. "But apparently he did keep every receipt he ever received." She lifted out a stack of old receipts tied together with a piece of string. She rifled through them with one finger; they were all for teaching robes and tailoring. But there were more stacks of receipts underneath.

Professor McGonagall sighed. "When Severus was first hired, his expenses were examined regularly by the Board of Governors. They didn't approve of Albus hiring a former Death Eater, but Albus insisted, and they eventually agreed. But they had to have their petty display of power, so they audited Severus's expenses. In response, Severus drowned them in receipts." She smiled faintly. "When Lucius Malfoy took a seat on the Board, the audits stopped completely, but Severus continued to keep copies of everything, just in case."

Hermione shuffled through another sheaf of receipts — these for purchases of alembics and filtering vessels — and she suddenly stopped with a soft sound of surprise. She took a tattered copy of Potions Quarterly from the box.

"I remember this magazine," Hermione exclaimed. She raised it to show Professor McGonagall. "During my first few days at Hogwarts, I went to Professor Snape's office to ask him a question, and he was reading this."

"You remember a specific magazine you saw once as a child?" Professor McGonagall asked, her eyebrows raised. "Your memory is astonishing."

"Well, there was a little more to it than that," Hermione answered with a wry smile. "I was curious about what he was reading, and when Professor Snape left to check on the Slytherins, I sneaked a peek at it. I remember being terrified that he'd come back and catch me, but I was thrilled to prove that I was brave enough to peek at all. It was the first time I felt like a real Gryffindor."

She lowered the magazine and flipped through it until she found the article she remembered, Integrating Charms into Potions. Just as she remembered, the margins were crowded with notations. However, she was no longer a brand new firstie, and she now recognised Professor Snape's spiky script. Once again, Hermione was tempted to stop and read what he'd written, but she forced herself to look up at Professor McGonagall.

"It was open to this article." Hermione tapped the page with one finger. "I even wrote to the publisher and purchased a copy because it seemed so interesting. Later, I asked Professor Flitwick, but he didn't think the theory it described was feasible." Hermione glanced over at Professor McGonagall and smiled faintly. "Although, I suppose I shouldn't confess that I rifled through a teacher's things."

"I'm fairly certain the statute of limitations on peeking at a potions article has expired," Professor McGonagall said dryly, and then her expression became thoughtful. "Would you like to have it?"

"What?" Hermione asked, surprised.

"The magazine. Would you like to have it? Severus had no surviving family, and he left his estate — such that it is — to Hogwarts. As Headmistress, I'm allowed to disperse his property as I see fit." Professor McGonagall paused, and her eyes suddenly glimmered with unshed tears.

Once, Hermione might have been shocked by such an open display of emotion from a woman who'd always seemed so stern and implacable, but the war and its resulting casualties had left everyone's emotions raw and volatile. It wasn't uncommon these days for people to swing from laughter to tears within a few seconds, and Hermione simply waited until she could continue.

When Professor McGonagall spoke again, her voice was thick. "I knew Severus Snape for almost thirty years, and the last time I saw him, I cursed him and called him a coward. Those were the last words he ever heard from me, and I'll never forgive myself for that. He was a... a difficult man, and while I expect most will acknowledge his heroism, I doubt that many will remember him fondly. You seem to have fond memories of the magazine, and Severus is a part of those memories, so it's fitting that you should have it."

Hermione was oddly touched by Professor McGonagall's words. "Thank you. I'll take good care of it." She bit her lip. "But I'm sure Professor Snape would've wanted one of his Slytherins to have this. Perhaps his portrait would know who he'd prefer?"

Professor McGonagall pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and discretely blew her nose. "There is no portrait of Professor Snape."

"No portrait?" Hermione echoed, her brow furrowed. "But he was Headmaster. I thought all of the former Headmasters and Headmistresses received portraits once they died."

"They do, but not in this case. The other portraits are of the opinion that Hogwarts doesn't recognise Severus as having been a legitimate Headmaster because he was appointed by a Minister for Magic who was under the Imperius Curse."

Hermione was stunned. "But that's not fair! Professor Snape was on our side. He tried to do the right thing. Sending Ginny to detention with Hagrid instead of one of the Death Eaters? If nothing else, that's proof he was trying to protect the students."

"I agree," Professor McGonagall said, "but I've yet to find a way to compel the castle to produce a portrait. At times, it seems to have a mind of its own."

Hermione shot a nasty glare at the walls of the storeroom, as if they were personally responsible. "Then we'll commission a portrait of Professor Snape ourselves," she said firmly. "I'll talk to Harry; I know he'll agree."

"You'll have to receive permission from the Board of Governors to hang it at Hogwarts, and that may be no small task," Professor McGonagall said. She nodded toward the stacks of receipts that Hermione had set aside. "Most of them never liked Severus, and they tend to hold a grudge."

Hermione's eyes narrowed. "We beat Voldemort. How tough can they be?"

"You've never dealt with bureaucrats, have you?" Professor McGonagall asked dryly. "However, I'd like to help with the cost of the portrait, and I'll speak to the Board as well. Severus deserves his place on that wall."

Hermione nodded her agreement and removed the next stack of receipts. She smiled and pulled out a sheet of parchment. Standing, she took it to Professor McGonagall. "Is this what you were looking for?"

Professor McGonagall took the report and looked it over. "Yes, this is it. Thank you very much." She stood and reversed the Transfiguration on the chair. With a smooth flick of her wand, the Sickle rose from the floor to hover in front of Hermione.

Hermione plucked it from the air and returned it to her pocket. She retrieved the issue of Potions Quarterly and pointed to the boxes at her feet. "Shall I repack those for you?"

Professor McGonagall shook her head. "I'll see to it. Thank you again, Miss Granger."

"You're welcome. I suppose I should go," Hermione said, tilting her head toward the door. "Crookshanks will be wanting his dinner."

~*~

Outside the gates of Hogwarts, Hermione briefly debated walking to the small cottage on the outskirts of Hogsmeade that she now called home. It wasn't far, and she sometimes walked when the weather was fine, but daylight was fading rapidly now, so she chose to Apparate.

A complicated flick of her wand dropped her wards, and she opened the door, calling out, "Crooks, are you hungry?"

She went into the kitchen and placed her book bag on the table. She set down fresh water and food for Crookshanks and put the kettle on to boil. While the water was heating, she went upstairs to her bedroom and found her cat curled up in the middle of her bed.

"Lazy boy," she chided affectionately. Crookshanks cracked open his eyes and rolled onto his back, front feet waving slowly in the air. Hermione grinned and leaned over to gently rub his belly; he responded with a soft rumbling purr.

"There's tuna in your bowl when you decide to wake up," she said, smiling when his eyes slipped closed again.

She hung her school robes in the wardrobe and went back down to the kitchen. She made tea and a sandwich, and after she'd finished eating and washing up, she opened her book bag to remove the magazine. She was terribly curious about the notes she'd seen in the margins of the article. She took out the magazine, and then she stopped herself. She had an essay to write for Professor Flitwick's class. It wasn't due until next week, and she'd visited her parents last weekend, so she had plenty of time to write it, but she'd never liked to put off her schoolwork.

She'd save the magazine as a treat for finishing her essay, she decided. She laid it aside and took out her books and parchment, quill and ink. Halfway through her essay, Crookshanks came downstairs, rubbing against her legs until she reached down to scratch under his chin and rub his ears. Satisfied that he'd received his due from his human, he ambled over to eat his dinner. A few minutes later, engrossed in her work, she vaguely registered the click of the cat flap as he let himself outside.

Finally she completed the essay and made a fresh pot of tea. She opened the magazine and found the article on merging charms with potions. She re-read the article, then carefully read those intriguing margin notes, frowning slightly as she puzzled over their meaning. From the different shades of ink, scratched out sections, and the way some notes overlapped others, it appeared that Professor Snape had done a great deal more than just jot down his thoughts on the article. He'd actually tried to transform the theory into reality.

She wondered if he'd had any success. The ability to merge charms with potions would completely revolutionise both potions brewing and charms work, and the potential uses for the resulting potions were endless. Mediwizardy, in particular, would be forever changed; charms could be embedded into healing potions, and then it would only take the flick of a wand to activate—

Her breath caught in her throat.

He'd raised his wand.

Did that explain Professor Snape's inexplicable actions when he'd last faced Voldemort?

Hermione's mind raced, ticking off the facts as she knew them. Professor Snape had known he was in danger. He'd raised his wand against Voldemort but hadn't tried to defend himself. His body had never been found, and no portrait had appeared at Hogwarts. If Professor Snape had successfully bound a charm into a potion, it could have been activated with a non-verbal spell. Depending on which potion and which charm....

Had Professor Snape survived? She'd been certain that she'd witnessed his death, but she was no medical expert. She'd read of cases where doctors had been fooled by appearances, so it was certainly possible that she, Harry and Ron had made a mistake. It would explain everything except why the floor in the Shrieking Shack had been cleaned. That still puzzled her.

The click of the cat flap alerted her to Crookshanks' return, but it was the high-pitched squealing noise that drew her attention.

"Oh, shite," she muttered under her breath. She put down the magazine and went into the lounge to find Crookshanks carrying a squeaking rat in his mouth.

She glared and pointed at the cat flap. "You take that right back outside. You know the rules. No vermin in the house!"

Crookshanks looked up at her with an implacable expression before delicately dropping the rat on the lounge floor. The rat took off at a dead run with Crookshanks in hot pursuit and Hermione racing after Crookshanks.

The rat scurried under the sofa, and Crookshanks skidded to the halt, face squashed against the fabric. One paw swept under the sofa, claws extended, to drag out his prey. The frantic rat darted out from the other side of the sofa and into the kitchen, momentarily confusing Crookshanks. Hermione ran after the rat, and Crookshanks streaked between her legs, causing her to stumble into the wall, arms flailing.

There was a loud clatter in the kitchen, and she rushed in to see Crookshanks' food and water bowls upended and the rat cornered. It was squealing in fear as Crookshanks drew closer, and Hermione snatched her wand from her pocket with one hand and grabbed Crooks by the scruff of the neck with the other hand. She dragged him back and cast a quick Stupefy and Mobilicorpus on the rat.

The rat rose in the air, and Hermione released Crookshanks, who glared up at her.

"Don't give me that look," Hermione scolded. "You know you weren't supposed to bring this in here. We've talked about this."

Crookshanks' eyes narrowed, then he turned his head, lifted his back leg and began washing his arse.

Hermione huffed. "Yes, well, you can kiss my arse, too."

The rat didn't appear to be injured, and Hermione levitated it through the lounge and out the front door. She gently lowered it to the ground and cast Ennervate. The rat jumped up, shook itself all over, and ran toward a nearby wooded area, disappearing into the underbrush.

In the kitchen, tuna-covered paw prints criss-crossed the floor, tracking through the spilled water and tuna. Crookshanks sat under the table, washing his paws.

Sighing, Hermione Scourgified the floor and the food and water dishes. At least it wasn't blood and body parts. Only a week ago, she'd returned home to find the remains of a mouse in the middle of the lounge, blood smudged across the floor.

Blood. Hermione's fingers tightened on her wand as the thought struck her. A pool of blood had accumulated under Professor Snape's neck — she remembered it clearly. If he'd lived, he would have smeared it or even tracked through it as he stood. If he didn't want anyone to know he'd survived, he would have had to erase all traces from the floor.

"That's it!" Hermione cried, startling Crookshanks, but her enthusiasm deflated rapidly as she realised all she had was conjecture. She tucked her wand into her pocket and put away her books and the essay as she mulled over the situation.

She hadn't seen Dobby's death; she'd been too weak from her torture at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange to focus on anything except the pain still racking her body. Fred had died out of her line of sight. She'd even been shielded from witnessing Voldemort's death when Ron had shoved her behind him at the last moment in a misguided act of chivalry. But she'd seen Professor Snape die, or at least, she'd thought she'd seen it. If he was dead, she should now be able to see the thestrals.

It was nearing eleven o'clock — too late to go to Hogwarts — but Hagrid was always up early to tend to his animals. Hermione resolved to go see him first thing in the morning.

She tried to sleep but her mind wouldn't quieten. She had so many questions about Professor Snape. Was he still alive? If so, where was he? Was he hurt? Did he need help? She tossed and turned through the night, but by the time the first rays of light broke the eastern horizon, Hermione had a plan.

She gulped down a cup of tea and Apparated to Hogwarts. She hurried across the grounds, fog hanging thick in the air, and she pulled her cloak close around her against the morning chill. She noted with relief that there was a light on in Hagrid's hut. At least she wouldn't wake him.

Hermione knocked on his door, and Fang started barking. She smiled when she heard Hagrid's gruff voice inside.

"Hush, Fang. If it was somethin' bad, it wouldn't be knockin' first," Hagrid said as he opened the door. His face brightened at the sight of her. "Hermione! Yeh're up and about early on a Saturday."

"I need your help," she blurted out.

His expression sobered, and he quickly looked past her in the morning gloom, searching for danger. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," she said quickly. "I just..." She hesitated as she suddenly realised how odd her request would sound to Hagrid, but there was nothing for it now. She might as well get it out. "I need to see a thestral."

Hagrid's brow furrowed. "A thestral?" he echoed. "Why?"

Hermione didn't like to lie, especially to Hagrid, but she didn't want to tell him her suspicions about Professor Snape, either. Hagrid had been heartbroken at Dumbledore's death, and even though Harry had assured him that Professor Snape hadn't murdered the Headmaster, Hagrid hadn't been completely convinced. Squaring her shoulders, she skirted the issue.

"You know I don't like to get anything less than an Outstanding," she said, "and it's difficult to describe something I've never seen. I was already living in Hogsmeade, so I didn't ride the train on the first day of school. I never saw the carriages."

"Oh!" Hagrid laughed. "Yeh're writin' a paper. I shoulda known. Well, I suppose I could go ahead an' take Tenebrus his treat. He's been feelin' a mite poorly, so I'm feedin' him up a bit." He opened his door wide. "Come in out of the damp, an' I'll make yeh a cuppa first."

"Thanks, but I really need to get this done," Hermione answered as she stepped inside the warm hut. "I couldn't sleep last night for wondering what I'd see." That much was true, she thought.

Hagrid relented. "All righ'. Jus' let me get my coat and the leg o' mutton."

"Thank you so much, Hagrid." Hermione smiled. "You don't know how much this means to me."

~*~

They went into the Forbidden Forest, Hagrid calling for Tenebrus. Finally, they arrived at a clearing, and Hagrid tossed the leg of mutton on the ground. The fog obscured most of the meat, but cautious, Hermione gripped her wand. One never knew what manner of creature Hagrid might inadvertently coax from the forest, especially with the scent of blood in the air.

There was a rustling noise in the underbrush and the muted sound of hooves. Then Hagrid crooned, "There yeh are, old boy. How're yeh feelin' this morning?"

Hermione didn't know if Hagrid expected an answer, but she stiffened when something invisible tore off a large chunk of the bloody meat. She heard the muffled sound of chewing, then another hunk of meat was ripped from the mutton.

Her heart was pounding so loudly she was certain that Hagrid and Tenebrus must hear it, and her mouth went dry as she watched the leg of mutton vanish bite by bite, eaten by the invisible thestral.

"That's a thestral," Hermione said. Her words sounded inane to her ears, but Hagrid beamed.

"Tha's right. They can put some people off because o' the way they look, but they're proud animals, and they do us a service here at Hogwarts."

Hermione dumbly shook her head, but her mind was racing. This still-invisible thestral was proof that Professor Snape had been alive in the Shrieking Shack.

Stopper death. Those long-ago words rang in her mind. When had he managed to bind a charm to a potion? Could that be what he'd referenced in his first year speech? Had he been surreptitiously flaunting his breakthrough even then?

Hagrid patted her gently on the shoulder, shaking her from her reverie.

"Ol' Tenebrus won't hurt yeh. He might look a mite fierce, but he's a gentle creature," Hagrid said.

Hermione broke into a grin. "Actually, right now I think Tenebrus is absolutely beautiful."

~*~

Hermione returned home with one more answer in the mystery surrounding Severus Snape. Having proof he'd had been alive when she'd left the Shrieking Shack didn't equate having proof that he was still alive, but it was a start. She acknowledged that it was entirely possible he'd died hours or even minutes after he'd left the Shrieking Shack, but she hoped that wasn't true.

She made another cup of tea and fed Crookshanks, then tried to calm her agitated mind. For the next step in her plan, she needed to relax.

Casting a Patronus had never been Hermione's strong suit. She spent too much time worrying about her parents, Harry, Ron, her marks... Well, everything, really. She'd long ago reconciled herself with the fact that she was a natural worrier, and that constant low-grade worry precluded having many truly happy memories. The strained situation with her parents, and her growing understanding that she and Ron weren't truly suited as romantic partners made summoning a happy memory even more difficult, but she had to do it. She needed to conjure a Patronus in order to send a message to Professor Snape.

The message she settled upon was brief: It's Hermione Granger. I promise not to tell anyone you're alive. Let me help you.

Finally, she focused on that lovely feeling of accomplishment when the last piece of that initial puzzle had fallen into place and she'd first realised why Professor Snape had Scourgified the floor of the Shrieking Shack. She lifted her wand and cried, "Expecto Patronum."

A silvery otter erupted from her wand and hovered in front of her face for a moment, its soft, intelligent eyes meeting hers. It abruptly wheeled in mid-air and streaked out through the front window of her cottage.

Hermione nervously paced her lounge, waiting. As the minutes ticked by with no response, Hermione decided to send the message again, and once again the ghostly otter sped off to deliver her message, but her efforts continued to yield only silence.

Hermione steeled herself to cast another Patronus, but this time, the message would be sent to someone else entirely. She had to know if a Patronus behaved differently when asked to deliver a message to the dead. She concentrated on a message to Fred Weasley — a brief "hello" — and took a deep breath before casting the Patronus.

Her otter shot from her wand, but instead of leaving the cottage, it spun in confused circles and gave her a reproachful look before fading away.

Filling with a jumbled mix of exhilaration and relief, she sank down onto the sofa. Professor Snape was alive! Crookshanks jumped into her lap, and she rubbed his ears to still her shaking hands.

She continued to wait for a reply to her original messages, but as the minutes dragged on in silence, her euphoria faded. She forced herself to examine other options. Could he have lost his magic? Perhaps he was in a coma or otherwise unable to respond? She nibbled on her bottom lip, deep in thought, turning over the alternatives in her mind.

Not once did it occur to her that Professor Snape might simply be ignoring her.

~*~

As the months wore on, Hermione became convinced that Professor Snape was in a coma or otherwise incapacitated, but she continued to send daily Patronus messages to him. She didn't receive a reply but neither did she expect one. Her messages always began with her name, her promise to keep his secret and an offer of help, but gradually she began to tell him of other things...

She ended her romance with Ron just before Christmas, leaving their relationship strained. An unintended consequence of the break-up was that her friendship with the other Weasleys — Ginny in particular — suffered. Hermione couldn't truly blame them for siding with Ron. He was their family, after all, but it still stung a bit. Harry made it clear that he would remain neutral, but he was busy with Auror training, and the fact that he was dating Ginny meant that Hermione saw him only rarely.

The reconciliation with her parents was still fragile, and it wasn't going as well as she'd hoped. Monica and Wendell Wilkins were the people that Hermione's parents would have been if they'd made different choices earlier in their lives, and they were reluctant to leave that behind. Deep down, Hermione was plagued by the suspicion that the root of their reluctance was Monica and Wendell Wilkins' childfree status.

Hermione's solitude — so welcome at first — slowly turned into a burden. One morning she awoke to realise she'd gone from being alone to being lonely, and that gradually her messages to Severus Snape had taken on a chattier tone. He couldn't respond, of course, and if he was awake to hear her ramblings, he'd probably hex her, but Hermione found it surprisingly cathartic to natter on via her Patronus. For once, he couldn't judge or criticise, and it became routine to unburden herself to him at the end of a trying day. It was almost like having a pen friend.

She didn't notice that somewhere along the line, he'd become "Severus" in her mind instead of "Professor Snape".



20 May, 1999

Severus Snape had just lowered himself into a steaming bath when Hermione Granger's latest Patronus arrived. Usually her otter simply appeared, delivered Granger's message and vanished, but today it delighted in finding him submerged in water. It hovered in the air, eyes widening before circling his head twice, turning back flips and diving into the bath with him.

For a supposedly incorporeal creature, it made a surprisingly large splash.

When he'd received Granger's first message, he'd been confused. Why did she believe he was alive? She had no proof, and he couldn't have been sighted. He'd been so ill the first week after the attack that he hadn't left his bed. Since then, he'd been careful never to go into public without first using Polyjuice. He'd taken on the identity of Erik Cztanovitch — one that, years ago, Igor Karkaroff had seeded into the Durmstrang records in case he ever chose to flee — but Severus had opened a small mail-order potions business under that name during Granger's fifth year, so that shouldn't have attracted her attention.

Severus finally decided it was a combination of guilt over leaving him in the Shrieking Shack and a fishing expedition on her part based on the lack of a body. He'd remained silent, hoping that she finally would tire of sending messages and leave him alone, but he'd had sod-all luck with that. As she grew increasingly lonely, Granger's messages had only grown in length. While he could admit, if only to himself, that he'd found some of her chattering interesting, he put it down to being cut off from his former life. By nature and necessity, he was a solitary man, but even he occasionally missed the meagre companionship provided by his colleagues at Hogwarts.

But having that otter in the tub with him was another matter entirely, and it was time to put a stop to this nonsense.

A tiny voice in the back of his mind spoke up to remind him that he'd grown accustomed to Granger's messages, but he resolutely pushed that thought aside. However, the voice refused to be silenced, immediately returning to point out that it was strangely comfortable to hear her voice prattling on about the news of the day while he was sitting in the bath.

Severus ground his teeth together.

~*~

Finding her home wasn't difficult. She'd explained she thought he was in a coma or vegetative state, so she'd been very open with information. He knew she'd leased a small cottage on the outskirts of Hogsmeade, down the road and past The Three Broomsticks. There was a catflap in the front door — she'd complained often about her cat bringing in mice — and a large Flutterby Bush at the corner of the cottage — she'd pruned it early in the season and was fearful she'd cut it back too much.

Getting through her wards was trickier. She'd mentioned that she'd modified the standard warding taught at Hogwarts, but hadn't gone into detail. He found that she'd added in the Conjunctivitis Curse and a nasty little stinging hex. Severus was moderately impressed; it was a neat bit of spellwork.

Once inside, he raised the wards behind him, adding a silent tell to alert him to her presence. In the lounge, he found her cat curled up on the sofa. He remembered the orange beast from Hogwarts, and it jumped down now sniff at his trouser legs. Instead of hissing or spitting, the animal simply hopped back onto the sofa.

"For a half-kneazle, you're an appallingly poor judge of character," Severus said, glowering down at the animal. "Perhaps I'm here to harm your mistress?"

Crookshanks fixed him with a long, measuring stare and then dismissed him with a slow turn of its head. The cat made a show of kneading the sofa cushion and blithely settled down to finish its nap.

Severus walked through Granger's home, looking about. He had no desire to paw through her things, and he spent the majority of his time perusing her copious bookshelves. As he'd expected, she had an eclectic collection, apparently reading everything from Muggle literature and romance novels to magical theory and biography.

He pulled out a copy of Lunar Brewing - Astronomy, Potions and the Influences of Moon Phases and checked the publication date. Granger had the newest version, which he hadn't yet read, so he settled into a chair near the fireplace to read.

He felt the tale-tell buzz of Granger taking down the modified wards, and he set the book aside. When she walked into the lounge, he was already on his feet, wand in hand.

Her gape-mouthed expression was decidedly amusing.

"You're— You're—" she stuttered briefly in surprise. "You're here!"

"That much is apparent," he said dryly. He casually gestured toward the sofa with his wand. "Sit down, Miss Granger. I have a few questions for you."

She nodded toward his wand, but her tone was pleasant when she spoke. "You don't have to threaten me. I've freely offered you my help."

"And you've not been threatened." He smirked. "Yet."

She pursed her lips together tightly, but she sat down next to her cat, and Severus took the opportunity to study her. He hadn't seen her in almost two years, and the changes were obvious. She was taller and thinner than he remembered, and her hair was longer, bound into a loose plait down her back. She'd lost the softness that had rounded her face during childhood, and her chin and cheekbones were sharper. Her left hand was idly stroking the cat's back, but her right hand was hidden in the folds of her school robes, and Severus had no doubt that she was grasping her own wand.

There was something vaguely disturbing about the sight of her, and it took a moment for him to put his finger on it. She was an adult now — all sharp edges and guarded eyes — and that made her school robes incongruous.

Severus leaned against the mantel. "Explain how you knew I was alive."

"When did you wake up?" she shot back.

He had to refrain from rolling his eyes. "I haven't been in a coma."

"So you chose not to answer me? For months?" There was a trace of hurt in her voice.

"I went to a great deal of trouble to disappear," he replied sharply. "Answering you would have negated that. Now explain how you knew I was alive."

"Well, I suppose it started with the floor in the Shrieking Shack. You used Scourgify, and I wondered why anyone would clean the floor," she explained. "And then there was the magazine. Once I saw it, I just knew."

"What magazine?" he asked, but he knew. How had she managed to get her hands on it?

"It's an old issue of Potions Quarterly that you had. It was in with your things at Hogwarts and once I'd read your notes..." She shrugged.

Shaking his head in resignation, Severus sat down in the chair. "So you had nothing more than speculation and conjecture."

She was immediately indignant. "I had a great deal more than that." She went on to explain about the thestral and how her Patronus reacted when taking a message to someone she knew was dead.

"Who else knows that I'm alive?"

"No one," she answered. "I promised that I'd keep your secret, and I've kept my word." Her expression turned suspicious. "But there's no point in Obliviating me. I'll just figure it out all over again."

He believed her, both about keeping her word and about her figuring it out again. She always was a know-it-all, and she couldn't resist a puzzle. It was either kill her or strike a deal with her.

Sighing, he put his wand away. "What do you want, Miss Granger?"

"I beg your pardon?" She frowned, confused.

"In exchange for remaining silent. What do you want?"

"Nothing," she said promptly. "I don't want anything."

But her eyes had narrowed in speculation.

"What is it?" he asked, suddenly feeling weary.

"Just..." She paused, then she leaned toward him, and it came out in a rush. "You did it, didn't you? You managed to combine charms and potions? I was right about that?"

He nodded. "Several years ago."

"And that's what you meant in first year when you said you could teach us to stopper death?"

He nodded again.

"I knew it!" She looked extremely pleased with herself, but then her face fell. "Aren't you going to publish your findings? It will change Mediwizardry completely."

"I can't," he answered. "I'm living under an alias, and I don't want to draw that sort of attention to myself."

"And something like that would draw attention from all over the world," she said, nodding. Her brow furrowed, and she suddenly asked, "Why did you come here today? If you'd been ignoring me for months, why come to see me today?"

He felt heat rise in his cheeks, but he'd be damned before he'd tell her about the otter in his bath. "I came to tell you to cease your endless messages. I've no interest in being an instrument to assuage your guilt."

"My guilt?" She blinked at him. "What guilt?"

"It's clear that you feel some guilt over leaving me in the Shrieking Shack. Sending these messages has been your way of relieving your conscience. I neither require nor desire an apology—"

"Well, that's good," she interrupted, scowling at him, "because I don't intend to offer one. I don't have anything to feel guilty about."

His eyebrows shot up. This wasn't the reaction he'd expected at all. He thought that once he'd brought it up, she'd be mewling and begging for forgiveness. Instead, she was annoyed.

"I admit that I didn't try to help you," Hermione continued, "but I thought you were our enemy. You'd done a good job of convincing us of that, and I had no reason to think otherwise. I was horrified at Voldemort's casual attitude in attacking you and in the fact that he used Nagini to do it, but... but..." At that, she faltered.

"What?" he pressed, curious in spite of himself.

"But I knew you were dangerous," she blurted out, "and it was preferable to have you dead than to face you on the battlefield later on."

Surprised, Severus stared at her for a moment. He hadn't expected that level of ruthless pragmatism from her.

It was really very admirable.

"Perhaps you're not as hopeless as I'd thought, Miss Granger," he said slowly.

"Hermione," she said softly. "My name's Hermione."

He hesitated, then conceded. "Hermione, then."

There was a long, awkward silence before Hermione said, "I think I have a way that you could publish your work, but we'd have to do it posthumously."

"We?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.

She smiled. "Well, I have the magazine, after all. Would you like a cup of tea while we talk about it?"

~*~

Two hours and two abysmal cups of tea later, Severus had added the correct method for binding charms and potions to the notes in the magazine margins. Granger — Hermione — had provided different quills and inks for him to use, and he'd layered the instructions in, replicating how he developed the method over time.

She agreed to make Muggle photocopies of his notes and send them, along with a letter explaining how she'd come to have the magazine and her discovery that Severus Snape's method was successful, to Potions Quarterly. In addition, she'd send copies of the notes and her letter to the Head of Potions at St Mungo's, the Daily Prophet and the Quibbler.

"This will help so many people," Hermione said, smiling at him. "You'll be honoured all over the wizarding world for this."

"It will be nice to have my name associated with something other than the war," he said quietly.

"Would you like more tea?" she asked.

Severus frowned and pushed his cup away. "No, it's time I took my leave." He rose and went to the door. "Besides, you make horrible tea. It's weak as dishwater."

She followed him. "Then you can make the tea next time."

"Next time?" She wanted him to return?

She glanced down, then squared her shoulders and looked up into his eyes. "I've enjoyed talking to you, and you'll need to come back to find out what responses I've received to our letter."

She was lonely, he reminded himself, that's surely all this invitation was — a request based on loneliness.

"You could always send me a Patronus message," he said dryly.

She smiled. "I could, but I won't. You'll just have to come back."

Loneliness or not, it had been... agreeable talking to her. She wasn't the obnoxious child he once taught, and it was certainly a relief to speak to someone without worrying about keeping up his Erik Cztanovitch persona.

"Perhaps," he said. His voice was noncommittal, but he found himself nodding. "But I'll brew the tea."

The End


Author's Note: Written for HJSnapePM for the Winter 2008 round of the sshg_exchange Livejournal community. Original prompt: "Post-DH, EWE or however you can pull it off. Hermione can't see Thestrals. Snape's death is the only death she is absolutely, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt sure she witnessed, and 3. A missing scene between Snape and Hermione sometime within the books."