Well hello again. :) I'm back from my NaNo-ing adventures! I had hoped to be able to get an update to you just before November started, but some personal things happened and everything went a little haywire. I hope you can forgive me. :) Thank you all for your patience these last couple of months, and here's the next chapter anyway…if you haven't all abandoned me. :) Enjoy, and thank you also for all your lovely reviews. You still continue to make my days.

Eleantris :)

Disclaimer – I don't own Harry Potter.

Chapter 53 – An Implosive Impasse

Severus chewed absently on the inside of his mouth as he reached for the glass stirring rod to his left. His teeth were gritted, jaw set and shoulders squared as he brewed, his entire body less fluid and more rigid than it usually was when he was in his lab. She wasn't here, he kept telling himself. It was infuriating the amount of times he had turned to ask her to hand him something, or held something out for her to take, only to be greeted by the silence from cool, stagnant, and empty air. But he should get used to it. She wasn't always going to be there, and he had been surprised to find that he needed to retrain himself to brew alone. How had she slipped into his senses so easily, so subtly, imbuing herself there as habit without him ever noticing?

He needed to start easing her out, gently, piece by piece. That way when she left, and her eventual leaving was inevitable, she wouldn't be ripping herself from beneath his skin, from just under his ribcage in the left side of his chest, but would simply be drifting away from him, pulling a few lingering, tendrils of ties behind her. She might not leave next week, or next month, or in a few months, even. But she would, at some point in the future. He wanted it to hurt as little as possible.

He picked up the tiny vial of platinum essence and added a small, precise drop to the base he was experimenting on. He was just thinking that she was a little bit like the silver element he was being so careful with – infinitely precious, yet ultimately dangerous if caution was not taken to distance yourself and measure your exposure – when the blackness boomed before him, and a hellish sound raked through his ears.

He felt a harsh scrape and thud at the back of his head, an absence of oxygen, and then nothing.

"Hey, Hermione, could you pass me the pepper?"

Smiling widely and setting down her fork, laden with pasta, Hermione passed the pepper grinder across Ginny to Hestia, who received it with a grin.

She began spattering it liberally across her spaghetti. "This food is so good. Hey, Gina, do you know if they've got some of Hogwarts' house elves back there in the kitchen?"

Everyone around the table laughed, remembering well the sumptuous feasts of their school days, but a few cast surreptitious glances around the cosy Italian restaurant, watching their fellow diners – all Muggles – to ensure they weren't taking any particular notice of what was being said.

A conversation started up about the flowers – there were exclamations of how well the white lilies and lilac roses would go with Gina's colouring, and glowing descriptions of bouquets – and Luna was just in the process of warning everyone about a certain type of Nargle that liked to nest in lilac roses, when Hermione felt a gentle tap on her shoulder and heard someone quietly clear their throat behind her.

She turned away from the happy gargle of chatter at the table to see a waiter stood by her chair, looking a little nervous. He seemed young, barely older than seventeen, and Hermione wondered if perhaps tonight was his first shift.

"Err… Sorry, Miss, but there's ah… There's someone here asking for you. They say it's urgent." He looked behind him towards the restaurant door, and following his gaze, Hermione realised why he looked so anxious and confused.

At the door stood what was, to any Muggle at any rate, a very odd looking man indeed. His hair was dark, face cleanly shaven and showing a strong, intelligent jaw line. He had on a dark grey cloak, and beneath that, an almost clergyman-like lime green robe that Hermione instantly recognised as the uniform of the St. Mungo's healers. She rose from the table, frowning.

As she approached him, the Healer stepped towards her. "Miss Granger," he greeted, with what Hermione could only describe as a grim smile. "I've had a job locating you tonight, that's for sure. I eventually managed to contact Mr Potter and he directed me here."

Still frowning, Hermione asked, feeling a sickening panic subtly closing her throat, "Why, what's happened? …Who…?"

The Healer paused, and she could feel her heartbeat begin to pound achingly in her chest, sounding out the syllables of the name she expected but dreaded to hear. Henrietta.

Not now. Please. Not yet. Not tonight.

But if it were so…why would the Healers contact her? How would they know to? She wasn't next of kin, or of any relation at all, for that matter.

But no matter the speed of her thoughts or racing of her heart, nothing could have prepared Hermione for what the Healer told her next.

"It's Severus Snape, Miss Granger. We were alerted – or rather, the authorities were initially alerted – to a dangerous implosion of magical elements at his home a few hours ago. I'm sorry to say he's in a critical condition, Miss."

It wasn't the first time Hermione had felt as though the magnetic poles of the Earth had lost their power, and jerked her entire world off its axis with one fell swoop of her stomach, but she had never learnt to deal with the sort of staggering sense of shock that came with such news. She stared blankly at the Healer for a moment, with wide, panicked eyes, and felt her blood start pulsing manically through her veins, as though her heart had forgotten how to pump it properly.

It didn't even occur to her to ask the questions 'where, what, when, why, how?' as she swiftly returned to the table, gathered up her coat and hurriedly made her excuses in a voice that refused to remain steady. She was leaving the restaurant with the Healer, whose name she hadn't even asked, within two minutes.

As they stepped outside, the air mild for the time of year, although Hermione could only feel cold – piercing, penetrating cold, that made her shiver and sweat at the same time – he told her he'd apparate them from a safe place straight into the hospital itself, but she barely heard him.

She could only hear the horrified thumping of her own heart in her chest, and her deafening cries inside her mind willing that his was still beating, and would continue to do so.

St. Mungo's had the rare quality that Muggle hospitals lacked, in that it never smelt of death and disinfectant the way they did, but instead the air had a neutral, not pleasant but not unpleasant smell, but Hermione still hated it. She hated the anxiety that echoed in every tap of her heels down the tiled corridors, she hated the gleaming white walls and the white magic that hummed subtly in the air, the way everyone was busy, the way everyone looked so scared, so serious, yet so calm at the same time. It was a place of conflicting elements, of good and bad, and it terrified her.

He terrified her.

The thought of losing him. It tightened the already wound knot in her stomach, and when the Healer – whose name was McCarthy – asked her to wait a few moments outside of a nondescript, white door, much like every other one she had passed as they'd made their way through the hospital, she felt sure she was going to be sick.

No-one was explaining anything to her, no-one was telling her anything. It niggled at her mind that perhaps she should ask, but she couldn't trust herself to open her mouth, let alone speak. A building pressure of bitter salt was stinging the back of her eyes, an iron lump in her throat forming that she felt might burst into a choking sob at any minute.

After just a few brief moments, Healer McCarthy reappeared again.

"As I've already told you, Miss Granger, Mr Snape is in a critical condition. Whilst we can see no severe signs of the magic involved infecting his system as such, the physical consequences of the explosion were serious. You'll find him in a coma, although we are unable to judge how alert his subconscious is beyond that."

Hermione tried to suck in a deep breath, but found she could only take in a shallow intake of air. Her throat constricted further. "A-and…" She tried again. "What…what are his injuries?"

The Healer looked grim, but she supposed she should be grateful for his not sugar coating it.

"The coma is the result of a severe injury to his head, close to his temple, the other effects of which we are unable to completely determine whilst he remains unconscious. He's suffered serious muscle damage from the blast, burns, broken ribs, a fractured arm, and extensive blood loss from the head wound. The bones, of course, are easily fixed, but it's the drain on his energy and his magic we're most worried about. He's very weak, Miss Granger."

The word reverberated in her head painfully a few times: weak. It was never a word she thought could possibly be used in conjunction with the name of her former Potions master. It wasn't fitting; it wasn't right. He was the strongest, most formidable man she knew. Nothing in this world could possibly make him weak.

But…he had endured so much already, both physically and mentally. There was only so much torture and injury one human body could take, even a magical one had its limits. She tried to take another deep breath and failed.

"Are you ready to see him, Miss Granger?"

She wasn't ready. And yet she was dying to at the same time. She managed a meek, shaky nod, and the Healer gently pushed the door open for her, letting her enter before him.

Hermione felt herself silently choke as she approached the bed. A shimmer of magic covered his body, monitoring his vital signs – so much more discrete than the constant beeping of a Muggle heart monitor – but nothing could disguise the deep grazes on his face, the bandaging to his head, imbued with some kind of healing potion, the worryingly shallow rise and fall of his chest and the paler than usual pallor of his skin. He looked sickly, a deathly shade of pale, and she was reminded of the darkest days of her Hogwarts years, when Voldemort was regaining his strength and Severus was once again a servant to two masters.

She sat down in the chair at his bedside, fearful her legs might collapse beneath her if she didn't.

For a long while, she just sat and stared at him. Healer McCarthy had quietly told her she could stay for as long as she liked and slipped out. She barely moved, barely dared to breathe, even, as she watched him take in shallow amounts of air and exhale them shakily. His eyes were closed, as if in sleep, but the maze of cuts across his sharp features and the bruising and burns visible now on his neck told a different story. She could see now, too, the scars from Nagini's snake bite – white and putrid on the side of his neck, ugly reminders of an ugly time.

He didn't deserve this.

Hermione didn't know how long it was before she reached out, shaking, to touch him. Her fingertips brushed his shoulder first, then withdrew, touched his arm, his chest. They fluttered above the magical gauze for a moment, as though unsure of where to settle. Eventually, she moved her hand down to take his, tucking her quaking fingers around his, still as stone.

She felt as though she should say something. That was what everyone said, wasn't it? That you should talk to patients in a coma, because they might be able to hear you. But what should she say? Words wouldn't form in her mind, let alone on her tongue, and she remained silent. She could only sit and stare at his unmoving form, as though waiting for time alone to heal him – as though to move from his bedside would be inconceivable until he opened his eyes again, until she felt the movement of muscles against her palm where it rested against his.

Her thoughts were incoherent as she sat there - racing, but indecipherable. A million different emotions and thoughts created havoc in her chest, tightening the valves of her heart, thinning her blood. She felt drained.

What had he been doing? Why had he been brewing without her there to help? How had it gone wrong? What had happened? Why? How?

She hardly knew what questions she wanted to ask, but then the only person who could give her answers was laid before her, in no state to hear her, let alone reply. Her gaze traced the pale, paper-thin skin of his eyelids, closed over obsidian stone – often cold, sometimes warm. Invisible now. She followed the noble line of his nose, the sharp cheekbones and narrow jaw. Without his usual layers of black wool robes, and just a hospital gown and sheet to cover him, she could see how thin he was. The war had long been over. He should look after himself better. She felt an insatiable desire rising up inside her to be the one to look after him. He needed someone to do it, after all. He needed somebody. Because this – this silent, powerless state – was what happened when he didn't have anyone.

A message arrived from Ginny an hour or two later, hoping that everything was okay, and asking what had happened. Hermione sent back a short, explanatory reply, but kept her vigil at Severus' bedside. It was as though the hand she clasped was stone, unable to relinquish hers, and she surrendered to that thought.

Later, when midnight had passed and the early morning hours were advancing still, a Healer came in to find Hermione asleep in the chair, her neck bent sideways to rest her temple against the wall. Her hand still held Severus' cold one. Not having the heart to wake or move her, the Healer transfigured the chair into something more comfortable, propped a pillow behind her neck to stop it cricking, and covered her in a blanket.

When Hermione woke the next morning, bleary-eyed and stiff despite the larger, more comfortable chair and pillow and blanket, nothing had changed.

The charm monitoring his vitals showed no change – the Healers who came in and busied around him reported very little to her.

She remained where she was.

I'm sorry to update after such a long delay with such a grim chapter, but I assure you I'm not the type for an unhappy ending. This will resolve itself, but I've had it planned for a while now, so… I hope you're all okay with it. Thank you for reading, and please let me know your thoughts in a review. :)

Eleantris :)