"Here, drink this," a voice said as a feminine hand placed a vial on the desk in front of him. Bleary-eyed, Severus tried to decipher what it was.
"What is it?" he asked suspiciously.
"It will make you feel better," the voice said.
Severus turned his attention to the owner of the voice, who had seated herself across from him. "Hermione!" he exclaimed happily, then frowned. "It's not really you, though. You're mad at me. Maybe you're Lily, pretending to be Hermione, like Hermione pretended to be Lily." Confused, he deepened his frown. "But Lily's dead. Maybe I'm dead."
"You're not dead, Severus, though perhaps you will be if you don't drink this." She leaned forward and pushed the vial a bit closer to him.
"All right," he agreed, a bit sulkily, before adding under his breath, "Doesn't really matter if you poison me. Hermione hates me, anyway." He drank the vial.
"I do not hate you, Severus. I'm mad at you. There's a big difference."
Sobering up as the potion took effect, Severus frowned again, only this time he was more lucid. "You said you never wanted to see me again. Come to gloat?" he asked tiredly.
"No, I came to ask you to tell me the truth. I mean it, Severus, I want the absolute, complete, unvarnished truth."
"Did you put Veritaserum in the Sober Up? Because if you did, it won't have taken effect yet."
"No, I didn't."
"Do you want me to take some? You said you'd never believe another word I say."
"I want you to answer my questions with absolute honesty without Veritaserum."
"Why does that matter?"
"Because I need to decide if I can trust you, and Veritaserum really won't help with that, unless I plan to dose you with it in perpetuity. Which I don't," she added when he just stared at her.
"What do you want to know?"
She shrugged. "Everything." Severus didn't know where to start. She must have realised this, because she said, "Why did you befriend me? Was it because Lucius told you to?"
"Yes," Severus said. "And no." She raised an eyebrow and waited. "Initially, it was Lucius's suggestion that I apologise and … well, be charming, I suppose, to get you to rescind your resignation. I don't know what he expected, but I certainly thought I'd be a bit nicer for a few days or weeks, and you'd sign a new contract, and then we'd ignore each other as much as possible." He paused.
"What changed?" she asked after a moment.
"You weren't around enough for me to charm. You were avoiding me." Another pause.
Eventually, she said, "Severus, this will only work if I don't have to drag every detail out of you."
"I know," Severus replied. "I'm just … I'm not good at this, Hermione, and if I say the wrong thing, you'll leave and you really won't come back."
She watched him thoughtfully. "What aren't you good at?"
He gestured. "This. Us. Communication. Relationships. Friendships. I'm not good at any of it. I always drive away the people who matter the most to me."
Digesting that, she said, "Would it be easier if I promise not to decide anything until you've said everything you want to say?"
Shrugging, he said, "I suppose. Though if I don't ruin things today, I'll probably do so tomorrow, or the next day. I always do, in the end."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Tell me, as clearly and fully as you can, what happened with Lucius and you and me."
So, seeing no other option if he had any hope of salvaging some sort of relationship with her, Severus told her everything that had happened from the time Lucius pointed out the folly of driving her out of Hogwarts until the moment she overheard him and Lucius earlier that day. He concluded with, "And now I presume you'll leave, and I'll never hear from you again. I knew it would have been smarter to keep things platonic."
"Why would you presume that?"
"It's what I always knew would happen. It's why I didn't tell you all this weeks ago."
"Severus, from what you just said, most of what passed between us was due to real feelings. You stopped pretending by sometime in late March or early April."
"Well, yes, but that doesn't make my reasons at the beginning any more palatable."
"Good Lord, I would hate to be you! It must be awful to feel that mistakes are unforgivable no matter what else one does afterward."
Severus was surprised there was any question it could be otherwise. "In my experience, they are."
"Well, I'm here to tell you, they're not. Look at it this way: if you hadn't started trying to charm me with your imperfect motives, we'd never have become friends. Is that really something you'd rather have missed?" she asked, raising a challenging eyebrow at him.
"I suppose it depends."
"On what?" she asked, sounding a little offended but as though she was trying hard to cover it.
"Whether you're leaving or not."
She stared at him for a long moment, and he shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny. At last, she said, "Before I answer that, answer one more question for me. And remember, complete honesty."
"All right," he agreed reluctantly.
"How do you feel about me now?"
Severus wished he could take a shot of Firewhisky. She had said complete honesty, but did she really know what that meant? If he told her the complete truth, she'd either run away from Hogwarts as fast and as far as she could, or at best, she'd try to let him down gently. Realising she was waiting, he decided he had nothing to lose, really, since deception had got him into this mess and she was probably going to leave anyway. "I'm in love with you," he mumbled at last, and could only hope she'd heard him, because he didn't think he had the nerve to say it again, or any clearer than that.
"Good," she said briskly, standing and straightening her robes. He expected her to leave him to nurse his broken heart, but instead she came around the desk, pulled his chair back, and seated herself on his lap. "I love you, too. Now, promise me you won't lie or omit anything important in the future so we can get on with the make-up snog."
Startled, Severus stammered, "I – I promise. No more deception of any kind."
"Good," she said again, and kissed him. True to her word, they had a very long and satisfying make-up snog.
Eventually, something occurred to Hermione that she had forgotten to ask him about. She reluctantly pulled back and asked, "Severus?"
"Do you really think my colour-coded schedule is pathological?"
Smirking, he said, "First of all, I said almost pathological. Secondly, I find it to be a charming idiosyncrasy, and third, don't you think it's almost pathological to have a colour-coded schedule for the summer?"
"Organisation is very important, you know," she argued. He raised an eyebrow and waited. "But I suppose, if you put it like that, some people might find it a bit much."
He kissed her briefly. "It's … adequate."
She grinned and kissed him again.
Fortunately, they were still almost fully clothed a short while later when Lucius popped his head into the Floo. "Severus, did you ask –?" Spying them, he paused. "Does this mean you've rescinded your resignation, Hermione?"
Feeling her cheeks flush, Hermione said, "We haven't really discussed it, Lucius. We're busy. Perhaps you could come for tea tomorrow?"
"Of course, of course," Lucius agreed, sounding smug. "I'm sure you have better things to do than talk business this evening, eh, Severus?"
"Go away, Lucius."
"I'm going, don't worry. Narcissa will be so pleased to hear of this development. She never really believed that whole 'publicity stunt' story you tried to sell us, you know. And to think, I made the match myself!"
"What?" Severus sputtered. "You did not! You almost ruined everything, you meddlesome fool! I swear you've been taking lessons from Albus." But Lucius had already disappeared. "Are you sure you want to take tea with him?" he asked, turning to Hermione.
"Of course," she said sweetly. "We have my pay rise to discuss, after all, since it would be a conflict of interest for you to negotiate with me now we're together."
Seeing the glint in her eye, Severus began to laugh. "May I watch?" he asked, still smirking. "I have a feeling Lucius has seriously underestimated you."
Hermione just grinned. "Indeed he has, Severus, my love. He really, really has."
A/N: That's all, folks! Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me for the story, especially if you had issues with parts of it. A huge thank you to everyone who left a review along the way (I'll try to catch up on answering them individually in the next few days). Thanks again to my alpha reader Atuliel, and to my Britpicker, Ruth, for their help with this story.
Finally, as promised, here's the prompt that started it all: "Headmaster Snape is becoming increasingly frail after his brush with death in the Shrieking Shack, and - though such a thing hardly seems possible - increasingly unpleasant. Everyone's suffering under his escalating nastiness, but no one bears the brunt of it like Hermione Granger (who's returned to take her NEWTS or, if you'd prefer to write her older, has come back years later as a professor). No one knows what's behind the hostility - and if Hermione does, she's not telling - but it's clearly about to come to a head. (Romance preferred.)"
I'd love to hear your thoughts on how I did with it!