Hermione awoke to a throbbing headache the next morning (or was it afternoon?), her legs tangled up in the bed sheets. Rising up into a seated position with a groan she couldn't be bothered to stifle, she hunched over her stomach, which was beginning to churn in both hunger and discomfiture. Despite the hangover, she remembered the events leading up to it in minute detail.

Where was Snape?

She scanned the room for him, her bleary eyes finding his straight-backed figure seated upon the wing chair, an academic periodical laying open upon his lap. His black hair and robes contrasted starkly with the dull whiteness of the room, making the pale, sallow skin of his hands and face appear to glow. Blinking sharply to force her vision into focus, she found that his gaze was already upon her, his dark eyes solemn and unreadable. Her stomach flipped over as an ineffable wave of feeling washed through her and- -

- -She clapped her hand over her mouth and ran to the bathroom to be sick, regretting that she hadn't had time to close the door behind her and praying that Snape wasn't listening. After washing her face with cold water, she stumbled back to her bed, pulling the sheets around her clammy body. Ashamed, she was afraid to look Snape's way again and kept her eyes fixed blankly on the space between their beds.

"You should eat something, Miss Granger." His sonorous voice cut gently through the stillness. So it was 'Miss Granger' again?

"Why aren't you sick?" she asked with a hint of petulance. He scoffed and she heard him rise and move about the room.

"Because I have a far better tolerance for alcohol than you. Here." He was directly in front of her bed, one of his hands coming into her view, its long fingers wrapped around a glass of water. "Drink this."

She obeyed the command, enfolding his hand in both of hers as she brought the drink to her lips. She felt his fingers jump and tense beneath her own and pulled him closer as she tipped her head back to drain the glass of its contents.

"Are you quite finished?" he asked, his voice constrained.

Hermione smiled and at last raised her eyes to look him in the face, which was turned away from her, the pensive crease of his brow visible in profile. She enjoyed expressing her feelings for him with spontaneous, intimate gestures. Her heart was full to overflowing with the joy and wonder that such tender feelings for another often cause in youth while Snape seemed troubled and uncertain. Perhaps it was due to his age, perhaps his position... She had never before genuinely considered the strain he must be under, how out of his element in all aspects of their relationship he must be.

"Thank you, Severus."

She made no move to relinquish the glass, nor his hand as she continued to scrutinize him. After a tense moment, Snape cleared his throat and gently extricated himself from her grasp. He looked at her for a moment, his lost, confused expression twisting her heart. He opened his mouth as though to speak and then, as if thinking better of it, turned away and strode to the table where her breakfast of oatmeal sat untouched and cold at her usual seat. He pulled her chair out and gestured to it, wordlessly entreating her to sit down and eat. Keeping the sheet wrapped around her shoulders, she did as he wished, eating the food slowly so as not to further upset her stomach.

Satisfied, Snape issued a small grunt of approval and made to return to the wing chair. As he rounded the table, the sleeve of his left arm caught on its sharp edge and was pulled halfway up his forearm before he could stop it, several of its buttons flying off and rolling about the floor. He cursed under his breath, meeting Hermione's eyes as he quickly pulled his sleeve back down, but she knew it was evident in her shocked expression that she had seen it: the Dark Mark. Harry had told her how he had seen it on their professor himself, describing it to her in detail, but hearing about it and seeing it for oneself were completely different things. She couldn't think of anything to say, her eyes wide on Snape's face, the expression of which grew dark and clouded. His lip curled as if in disgust and he stalked to his seat, falling upon it with a flourish of black robes and covering his face with his reading.

Hermione did her best to keep her mouth closed against the burning questions within but only braved a moment of silence at best.

"S-Severus," she began, noting the tightening of his shoulders at the thin sound of her voice. "Why does... He... not call you any longer? Since we've been... here?"

Long seconds ticked by as he ignored her, not even lowering the periodical from his face to acknowledge her question. Just when she was about to push the issue he let loose a long-suffering sigh, dropping the periodical onto his lap in favor of massaging his temples with the fingers of both hands.

"The short answer, Miss Granger, is that I do not know."

Hermione furrowed her brows, her mind immediately attempting to take apart the cryptic answer. Snape sighed again.

"Before you waste any of your time-and, more importantly, mine-pondering aloud as to the meaning of my words, let me elucidate. Just after you and I went "missing", Lucius Malfoy told the Dark Lord that I had been found out and captured by the Light and am most probably dead. The Dark Lord, apparently believing this, is well aware that any attempts to use his... link to summon or contact me would be, at best, useless and, at worst... detrimental to himself."

Snape's supercilious tone was reminiscent of the days when he was merely Hermione's Potions Professor and nothing more. After all this time alone together, it angered her, raising her proverbial hackles. And the information he had just decided to bestow upon her was jarring. Why had he not told her of these things before? Why deny her information that could sooner or later be vital to her survival? Her chagrin must have been visible in her expression because Snape's own features softened infinitesimally, the hard glint in his eyes shifting into a guilty gleam. His lips quirked and he looked away from her, picking at some invisible lint on his robes. Hermione rose from the table, intending to stalk over to him but the sudden movement made her head swim and she gripped the table with both hands to steady herself. She remained standing, waiting for the nausea to pass while glaring at Snape, who continued to conspicuously ignore her.

"How could you keep these things from me-"

"Damn it, Hermione!" Snape shouted suddenly, startling her so that she fell back into her seat. He raked a shaking, clawed hand through his lank hair, his teeth bared in a crooked grimace that was almost frightening. For a moment he shut his eyes tightly, as if to protect them from troubling visions passing behind his eyelids. When he spoke again, his voice was tremulous and almost manic.

"The more questions you ask, the more you push at me, the more difficult it is for me to protect you. That is my job, my sole purpose on this Earth, as it has been for the past seventeen hellish years: to protect. To give my very life for Harry Potter and his trouble-making friends."

Hermione's eyes were blank as they fixated on his hunched figure, her mouth hanging slack. His words had the emotional effect of a punch in the stomach. 'Trouble-making friends'? Was that all she was to him? After all this time?

"Always," he continued, speaking as though to himself. "Always the pawn, always the subservient!"

Snape's ragged breathing was the only sound in the room. He seemed to become aware of this and quieted, slowly turning his head to focus on Hermione as if he had just remembered she was there. She was staring at him with a look of contemplative concern. His breathing slowed to normal, he sneered and returned to his reading, this time not obscuring his face with the text.

At least an hour had passed in quietude, Snape continuing to read, Hermione lying in her bed as she brooded on her erstwhile professor and steadily recovered from her hangover. Although still upset that he'd kept information from her, she was not angry with him but grudgingly understanding of his predicament. During his tirade, he had opened his soul to her more than ever before while still keeping the meat of his secrets from her. Having come to appreciate the virtue of patience during their time in the cell, Hermione decided to wait until he was in a better mood to question him further.

Tiring of staring at the ceiling, she rolled over as soundlessly as she could in order to view the object of her ruminations. His face was, as ever and always, stern and serious, the index finger of one hand rubbing absently at the hollow beneath his lower lip while his eyes darted back and forth along the pages of his periodical. She smiled; he was the only person she knew, aside from herself, who could spend so much time contentedly engrossed in a book. Quickly sensing her scrutiny, his eyes snapped upwards, narrowing as they met her own. The scowl he perpetually wore deepened, the thin crease between his brows now a stark black line.

Hermione knew it would anger and confuse him but she couldn't remove the smile from her face. The forbidding expression that had once struck fear into her heart, along with the entirety of the student body and some adults at Hogwarts, she now found endearing.

"What in blazes are you grinning at?" he snapped.

"You. When you sit and read as if no one is there, in your own little world... You're lovely," she blurted, not having expected her words before she spoke them. Her mind racing now, she could not think of any more suited to replace them.

What little color Snape possessed drained from his face, his mouth opening and closing with an audible click. He cleared his throat and walked deliberately to the loo, quietly shutting the door behind him. While what felt like an unusually long time had passed, Hermione went over what she'd just said to him, hoping the innocent words had not somehow hurt or embarrassed the sensitive man.

Finally, Snape emerged from the washroom, his pallor having regained its yellow tint but his eyes were lightly rimmed in red. Hermione's heart lurched at the thought that she had actually made him cry. Tears pricked at her own eyes and she failed to register that he was coming toward her until he had knelt down before her bed so that their faces were level. To her further shock, he firmly grasped one of her small hands in both of his own. He met her gaze directly, his eyes shining with grave intensity.

"I've never... That word... No one has ever said- -" he closed his eyes briefly and sighed, gathering himself. "Thank you."

Hermione knew intrinsically what he meant. She smiled and nodded, unable to form a coherent reply. He returned the gesture, the barest hint of a genuine smile twitching at his lips, let go of her hand and quickly returned to his seat. A faint blush colored his cheeks; he seemed to be making a concerted effort not to look back at her.

The small smile she'd given him still playing about her lips, Hermione stared down at her hands for a long while, recalling the smooth, cool feel of Snape's grip. Unexpectedly, her stomach rumbled with hunger, the sound so loud Hermione could have sworn she heard it echo. Knowing her face was beet red with humiliation, she refused to look at Snape, whose head had snapped up at the noise.

"Perhaps you should check the cupboard for dinner," he suggested gently, a touch of mirth underlying his tone.

Hermione only nodded her agreement as she moved to follow his advice, grumbling inwardly at her body for ruining the moment. Indeed, two small meals awaited them in the cupboard, along with a folded scrap of parchment addressed to Snape. Raising her eyebrows, Hermione wordlessly brought it to him at once. These days correspondence from Malfoy was few and far between. Her heart hammered in fearful anticipation, plummeting into her stomach as she watched Snape's expression change from one of solemn interest to that of dour severity.

"Wh-what is it?" she asked, her voice cracking on the words. Snape handed her the note in response.

'He knows you're alive. Will visit shortly to discuss.'