Like Death

"Miss Granger," he spoke stonily, "It is now time to begin testing."

As if his words flipped a switch, they both jumped into action. He cleared a space to place his arm while Hermione organized the vials into clusters as outlined in the notes. He then awkwardly commanded her to vanish his shirt sleeve, and she did so just as awkwardly, feeling flustered as Snape's pale, wiry arm flashed into view. Last time she had seen this much skin was when he had been a corpse, but seeing it while he was conscious… it was only an arm, but it was more of Snape she ever wanted to see.

They were about ready to start, and she took stock of their situation. While she felt as if they might make a mistake and destroy his arm forever, Snape looked as if he was thinking the same thing. Where was his usual composure? It wasn't reassuring at all, but Hermione understood – she really did – because she had also tested magic on her body and completely fudged it up – the most memorable being the awful Polyjuice incident. She still remembered the embarrassment of having curly whiskers. Seriously, what cat had curly whiskers?

She cast a spell that erected magical walls to section off small, rectangular patches of skin. The arm now looked as if someone had tattooed onto it a grid. The spell was like a shielding spell except it was so precise and firm that it prevented potions from mixing even after absorbing into the flesh. Hermione wondered where he had learned or whether he had developed it himself. She wouldn't put it past him. She would have asked him to teach her ages ago had Snape been a normal person and not a snarling devil.

After flipping to the next page of instructions, she reached for the first vial and looked up at Snape for confirmation to move forward, only to see his narrowed eyes watching each of her movements closely. Hermione froze and blushed bright red as she realized that it was his research and his arm that she had taken over.

"Erm, sir," Hermione stuttered, quickly thinking of something to say before he flew into a rage, "Have I set this up correctly?"

She groaned to herself, that's just inviting him to insult me.

His eyes shifted from her wand to her face and gave her a piercing glare. "Another inane question, Miss Granger?" he snapped. "Just pay attention and get on with it. I want my arm to remain in one piece."

Hermione swallowed visibly and checked the notes for the Application Phase before pouring half a vial of clear blue liquid onto the first section of skin. Quickly writing down the immediate observations, she set an alarm to ring in five minutes. She repeated the steps for the first cluster of vials which was based on the Awakening Potion. After each five minute alarm went off, she wrote down another set of observations for each section.

Hermione moved on to the second cluster of murky green potions, this one based on the Invigoration Draught. Only when she looked up for permission to begin the second cluster did she notice he was also writing down his own set of observations. Good, two sets of observations for comparison was infinitely better than one set written clumsily by her.

After a sharp nod from him, she repeated the process with all four clusters of potions, finally stopping when all the potions had been tested and the last timer had gone off. The entire arm, excluding the rectangular area sectioning off the Dark Mark which they were leaving untouched until finding a treatment, was now covered in patches of different colored skin. She barely stifled a chuckle at seeing Snape wearing so much color.

Snape cocked an eyebrow. "Is there something you would like to share?"

"No, sir," she answered contritely.

"Then we will commence Diagnosis Set One. Flip to page seven of instructions. This diagnosis spell reveals the composition of flesh. I assume you have never cast it before."

"No, sir. I have only read about it but haven't had the opportunity to try."

Snape snorted. Of course you have, he thought for the second time that day.

"Here are the movements. You must cast it precisely, or you will waste my time with inaccurate results."

They continued through Diagnosis for all clusters, and then moved into Stimuli Testing Phase One: poking, pinching, scratching, hitting, etc. It was plain disturbing, and she let him take care of this step since she didn't want to abuse a teacher – especially not Professor Snape.

"Professor!" Hermione exclaimed suddenly, interrupting his stimuli testing of skin Cluster Five. "Cluster Three is reacting. Badly!"

"Shit, it's the extra billywig. Cast a stasis!" Snape cursed. "Granger, a stasis now!"

It took her three seconds to recover enough from the shock of seeing orange boils bubble from the skin to suspend it under stasis. The boils and ripped skin were sickening – the pus was orange! – and even Snape couldn't hide a queasy grimace.

"What do we do now, sir?" She choked out, not fully recovered from the panic.

"Cast a diagnosis," he answered with a scowl.

"Do you… feel anything, sir?" She asked as her wand swept above the arm. It showed the billywig had indeed reacted to the lovage, causing an overload of stimuli to any flesh exposed to the air.

"No, but we can rule out any Awakening solution with more than three billywig stingers," he replied, eyeing the disgusting mess. "Get a vial of Boil-Cure."

The rest of the clusters caused no negative reactions, but there were no positive reactions either. She looked hopelessly at the now blotched skin, her heart sinking at the thought of failure and what it would mean for Snape. She could feel his frustration rising along with hers and knew that soon, either she would start thumping her forehead on the counter or his temper would explode; both of those seemed rather distasteful, especially in such a wonderful, pristine setting, and it appeared to be up to her to head off the disasters.

Hermione took a deep breath and asked, "Sir, could armadillo bile be useful with the Invigoration solutions instead of billywig since it is the active ingredient in the Wit-Sharpening Potion?" She paused to gauge his reaction, but his stony face revealed nothing as usual. "I don't think it will act against the lovage and it might even recreate a connection of flesh to the brain."

Snape's angry face showed a flash of surprise before it was smoothed away to indifference. He had to admit, her idea made sense. Armadillo bile and lovage were rarely combined because its effect was so similar, but the idea had merit.

"I also think the mashed catfish eyes from Mandrake fertilizer, ground pomegranate seeds in Infection-Cure Potion, and lemon peels for zest could be tested as well," she went on, lowering her head to study each section of skin. Without thinking she reached out curiously to feel the texture flesh but snatched her hand back at a hair's breadth away from the skin as she remembered this was Snape. He most certainly would not appreciate her audacity. She rose hastily and snapped her head up to apologize, but the words died in her mouth as she saw his thoughtful expression.

"Miss Granger, your suggestions are very… unusual," he said grudgingly, "Perhaps a new outlook from a mind not yet conformed to conventional potions may provide some useful observations."

For a moment, Hermione's mind froze in confused at his words. It sounded as if he had spoken in a completely different language – which he had, since that was certainly not Snape-speech – but when her mind wrapped around his meaning, she couldn't hold back a delighted grin that split her face.

"Prepare a list tonight for testing tomorrow morning, seven o'clock sharp," he said with a sharp glare. "However, before I am rid of you, we must heal this nauseating chaos of an arm."

Hermione skipped to the Hospital Wing and hopped through the floo after an evening in the library and a night of deep, refreshing sleep. She happily tumbled out of the fireplace and bounced to what she now referred to as the 'Outer Lab'. Anyone observing her would have said she had lost her sanity – not that she cared – this bright and wonderful morning. She greeted Snape with a polite but sunny "Good morning" and waited to be led down to what she called the 'Dream Room'. She certainly felt like she was in a wonderful dream.

Severus, on the other hand, wanted to stab her as he did every morning with Albus. If this girl offered him sweets or tea or anything, he would rip her throat out and use it as the crucial ingredient in the extremely rare, extremely difficult, and extremely dangerous Siren Elixir. Her throat could probably make four to five vials, and he was sure there were many unsavory but filthy rich characters around the world that would pay a fortune for one drop. In his current position of nearly dissolved ties to both the Dark and Light sides, he could safely escape to Brazil and live the rest of his life in peace and luxury among all the exotic potions ingredients found in the rainforest.

Unfortunately, she stayed quiet, though smiling like an idiot, and gave him no excuse to seize his paradise. He always cursed having a conscience.

"Pepper-Up, four batches, Hospital Wing," he grunted with his usual morning charm.

Hermione almost cried in disappointment. She was so close to the Dream Room – just three doors away – but instead of happily researching, she was mashing newt tails. Gross.

An hour later, she finally finished and it seemed Snape's disposition had improved as well; he almost looked eager to start testing.

As soon as they entered the Dream Room, Hermione shoved several pages of parchment into his hand and immediately began enthusiastically preparing the lab, completely forgetting proper etiquette…

Severus stood at the entrance with a cocked eyebrow, clutching crumpled parchment, and was about to kick her out when is irritation turned to amusement at her humming. Never in his life had he been treated so casually and without fear by anyone other than several colleagues at Hogwarts. As one corner of his lips twitched, he decided to watch what would happen when she realized what she had done. He was certain there was more amusement to come.

It took her until she finished setting up to wake from her happy trance. She suddenly stopped, her arm frozen halfway on its path to place a vial on the table. She took a sharp breath and spun around with wide eyes which were no longer glazed, looking as if the world was about to end. Her jaw opened and closed but nothing came, and her arm was still half raised with a vial grasped tightly in the hand. Severus felt another twitch of his lips forcing its way out; this was the most comical thing he had seen since the Polyjuice accident several years ago, and ironically, she was at the root of both. As long as she didn't break anything, he now didn't care.

So he merely shot her his most lethal death glare and settled himself on a stool to read her notes. Through his hair, he could see the nonplussed expression on her face, which was the only part of her that had moved since freezing. Had she even taken a breath?

"Miss Granger," he said suddenly, "Breathe. I prefer not to deal with a corpse so early in the day."

She took two shallow breaths before stammering, "I-I'm sorry, sir! It was… I was…" She took another shallow breath and made another attempt, "I'm sorry!"

That was apparently the extent of her vocabulary at the moment, he thought with another wave of amusement. Looking up at her, he scowled, "I shall overlook your insolence this one time," he paused. "Do not let it happen again," he barked and then resumed reading as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

On the other hand, Hermione's mind had short-circuited, and it was taking quite a long time – minutes – to replace the parts and reboot. It was a relief that she had finished setting up before losing her brain, or something would have exploded before they even began.

Once she returned to the regained her focus, Hermione nervously watched Snape read through the list of ingredients, its effects, and her theories which she had compiled the night before. Some suggestions were logical – at least to her – and others could have been pulled out of Ron's arse – but also made sense to her. Now it was up to Snape to decide whether she had come up with something insightful or had lost her mind.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, he procured a quill and red ink. Was he grading the thing? He made slashes across something and circled something else and scribbled angry words on every clear space of parchment; the results didn't seem promising.

His head snapped up, and their eyes met. Hermione held her breath and waited as he appraised her.

"Miss Granger, several of the suggestions have merit," he said pointing to the parchment covered in his angry red slashes. "Prepare these."

Hermione gave a shaky smile and dashed to the storeroom.

Severus shook his head and stared at the girl's notes. He had no idea where she had found the time to come up with all of this between last night and this morning, but everything written was thoroughly researched. Many of her ideas were radical but logical while others looked as if they had been pulled out of Longbottom's arse.

Granger bustled back into the room with an armful of ingredients.

"Miss Granger, explain your theory of Blast-Ended Skrewt droppings and crystallized fluxweed," he said.

And the Testing Set Number Two continued with him asking questions and her explaining. He was impressed – reluctantly, of course – by the extent of her knowledge and creativity which many brewers lost through the years of following recipes.

They began the brewing, this time with him also handling two cauldrons. Between the two of them, they produced six out of fifteen of her ideas tweaked by him to ensure accuracy and safety. For Severus, it was a slightly awkward affair since he only had use of one arm, but he was a Potions Master and refused to be held back. After Granger bottled the last potion, they repeated the process of blocking off skin, applying each solution, and applying stimuli. By the end of the Testing, both were frustrated again by the lack of progress, but this time Granger didn't have anything else to add.

"It seems we are unable to develop a successful treatment to revitalize nerves," he stated.

She opened her mouth to protest, no doubt to babble about not knowing if they don't try or some other sentimental rubbish.

"Miss Granger," he said sharply before she made a single sound, "We have tried everything that is available to us, and the use of anything else is close to illegal." He felt hopelessness which he had not felt in years sweep through him and felt a powerful urge to destroy something – many somethings – but while she was in his presence, he had to remain in control. He hated himself for all the mistakes he made in his life, he hated the Dark Lord for existing, he hated Dumbledore for allowing him to atone for his mistakes, he hated the world which allowed such a war to occur, and he hated his parents for birthing him. He just wanted the pain to stop. He should have ripped out Granger's throat and left for Brazil…

As he stewed in self-loathing, Hermione eyed him sorrowfully and dragged herself to clear away the mess they made on the counter. She barely gathered enough will to move; Snape's multicolored arm sitting on the counter in front of her was a constant reminder of her failure to solve the problem. He stayed still with a blank face and empty eyes, waiting for her to complete the clean-up. The pristine laboratory – the Dream Room – didn't seem so wonderful anymore. It was more like a sterilized prison haunted by countless research studies that never reached fruition. This was the first time she had failed in something so critical, and if each failure produced the feelings she felt now, she would probably spiral into deep depression before the war was over.

Hermione carried each cluster of vials to the sink and was about to gather the last cluster when one vial slipped from her fingers. She hastily reached out to catch it but her attempt was thwarted by the vials already in her hands, and Snape, still in deep thought, didn't notice it until the vial had shattered on the counter, shards embedding into his arm.

"Sir, I'm sorry!" Hermione cried, scrambling to set down the vials and grab her wand. However, a piercing scream froze her before her hand even reached her sleeve. It was a shout of pain. Of pain. In his left arm.

"Professor Snape!" She cried again. "Do you feel something? Professor!"

But he didn't seem to hear her, his scream becoming a guttural cry then groans, and he would have crumbled to the ground had he not been sitting.

Hermione suddenly knew what she needed to do.

She stuck his right arm onto the table, whipped out a clean sheet of parchment and quill and scribbled down everything. The vial, its composition, the shards, his pain, the skin, the flesh, the Dark Mark.

Gods, the key had been the Dark Mark, but that was the one section – the only section – they hadn't touched. If the situation wasn't so dire, she would have broken into mirthless laughter.

Finally, she set down her quill and removed the shards with her wand. There had been no reaction in the rest of the arm as observed during the prior diagnosis, but the skin and flesh around and under the Mark was red, angry and burning. Snape had stopped groaning and was now grinding his teeth with eyes squeezed shut and a light sheen of sweat forming on his forehead.

"Professor, is there anything I can do?" Hermione asked loudly.

The only reply was a slight jerk of his head which she interpreted as a no. She didn't know whether to cheer or to panic; they finally attained the reaction they had toiled two days for, but it was accompanied by such horrific pain. Hermione grabbed a towel soaked in cool water and wiped away the sweat on his face. Was there really nothing she could do to relieve his pain?

Snape leaned his face into the towel, slowly unclenching his jaw and calming his breathing. A few moments later, the skin around his eyes relaxed and he blinked them open to look straight at her.

"Granger," he rasped, "Seems you've found the solution." A pain-filled half-smile formed on his face before he closed his eyes. "You're just full of irony," he chuckled a hacking cough.

She could only offer a weak grin as she continued cooling his face and neck.

Relief came ten minutes later when his shoulders relaxed and jaw unclenched. Severus drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Keeping his eyes closed, he furrowed his brow, and struggled to move his fingers. They only twitched, but a twitch was triumph. He used his right hand to stroke the left arm – his fingers, past the elbow, and to the scar line. He felt only feather light touches, but those were triumphs as well.

He finally opened his eyes and looked at Granger who was fidgeting next to him, her face wrought with worry. Severus couldn't stop the corners of his lips from twitching upwards.

"Granger," he said in a hoarse voice, "Congratulations."

A smile bloomed on her face. "Here, sir," she said while sliding a parchment across the counter, "I recorded the observations. It was Cluster Six with the Sea Dog scales! Maybe we can also try the other solutions – not the ones from yesterday but the potions from today. I think Cluster Four with the hippogriff saliva and bowtruckle droppings might work as well…"

"Miss Granger, do you ever turn off?" He cut off her rant.

"Yes, sir," she replied sheepishly.

"Good," he gave another half-smile, "Perhaps we should take a meal before plunging into another round of research." He groaned inwardly. Damn, my brain must be really scrambled to say that and smile.

"Grumpi!" He called out.

An earsplitting crack announced the house-elf's entrance. "Yes, Master?" Grumpi asked with a glare.

"Prepare some lunch for us," Severus requested. "Miss Granger, will an assortment of sandwiches, clam chowder, and pumpkin juice be sufficient?"

As soon as Granger nodded, Grumpi disappeared with an even louder crack.

He visibly winced at the sound; it now felt like he was suffering a hangover, and that stupid creature wasn't helping.

"Sir, do house-elves usually travel that loudly?" She wondered out loud.

"No," Severus grunted through his growing headache, "A house-elf's crack gets louder as their mood sours, and Grumpi lives up to his name."

Grumpi appeared again with a crack louder than the first two, dumped the tray of food on the table, sneered, and cracked back out.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered, "Unfortunately, he is one of the Snape family house-elves and works for me exclusively."

"Um… are you the one who named him, sir?" She asked quietly after a moment's hesitation.

He looked at her in amusement. "No, one of my nieces fell in love with the Muggle Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She renamed seven house-elves after the seven dwarves," he cleared his throat. "The insufferable girl gifted him to me – or more like she forced him on me – around six years ago, and he has grumpily been with me since. I believe she thought us a perfect pair," he said drily.

Granger choked violently on the mouthful of pumpkin juice she had just taken.

It wasn't until dinnertime that they finished brewing the second batch of her potions. Hermione adamantly refused to leave for dinner and insisted on staying to follow through to the end of the research, or at least end of the evening. She also noticed Snape was in a rather lenient mood that night, probably from the pain, and decided she would take full advantage of before he reverted to being a bastard.

"Miss Granger, what are your theories on this effect?" He asked as they cleared a space on the counter. Hermione had healed the skin around the Dark Mark, and it seemed either his previous pain had disappeared, or he had incredible control over himself.

She looked at him apprehensively and answered, "In your observations on Voldemort's call, you concluded that the curse of the Dark Mark is attached to the nerves. If we use the Mark as an entry point, the treatment will spread through those nerves and regenerate them."

He nodded poured the first potion onto the first area which produced no reaction, the second resulted in a small twinge, and the reactions for the next three were miniscule. They finally reached the sixth and last vial – the one Hermione had dropped – and stopped all movement.

"Well, Miss Granger, it seems this may be the only solution," Snape said softly and had her heal his skin.

"Uh… sir?"

"What is it?"

"Perhaps it would be better if you were on a sofa or bed," she suggested. "The last time… well… this time will probably hurt more, and the ground…"

"Ah, yes. Follow me."

She followed him out of the lab, down the corridor, and through another blank painting. As dim light illuminated the space around them, Hermione's breath hitched at the sight. They had stepped into a spacious room decorated in beautiful steel blue and grey. In the center of the room were inviting armchairs and sofas surrounding a low center table of gorgeous dark heartwood. The arrangement was assembled in front of a magnificent fireplace which promised soothing warmth for tired joints, and unlike what she had seen of the dungeons excluding Snape's private lab, the stone walls here seemed welcoming rather than dank, its rough texture complementing the soft furniture and a thick, shag rug.

The room was the complete opposite of Snape's shabby sitting room upstairs which looked like part of a dilapidated house.

"Persephone's Drawing Room," Snape informed her. "For two thirds of the year, this room is decorated as such, but during the four months of summer, the room brightens and walls sprout lush vegetation as if Persephone has descended to the underworld."

"The dungeons as the underworld… Fitting," Hermione noted. "But isn't Persephone supposed to be the 'dread' Queen of the Underworld?"

"Ask the castle." He said simply.

Situating himself on a sofa, he removed his shoes and lifted his arm to rest on the sofa back.

Hermione's awkwardness at seeing him in a black waistcoat over a white shirt tucked into black trousers had only just dissipated, but seeing him without shoes shocked her – like she was an intruder in Snape's private life rather than merely the professional.

"Miss Granger, you are to empty the entire vial regardless of my reactions, and do not let anyone know of this," he reminded her. "Now, do it."

She hesitantly tipped the solution onto the Dark Mark.

As soon as the first drop hit the skin, Severus's arm began to convulse. His face twisted and only Occlumency and rigid control kept him upright long enough to absorb the entire solution.

It was more painful than his branding at initiation. It wrapped around the arm as if under a Cruciatus, then the pain spread within his flesh as if the flesh was on fire and burning. It was crawling. That was it. Crawling – like a thousand worms digging its way through the arm.

When he could hold himself upright no longer, he fell backwards across the sofa as part of a convulsion. As soon as his control slipped, a bone-chilling scream of nightmares tore out of his throat and echoed around the room. He fought it. Fought it like nothing else, but not even his mind could block out the crawling pain. He could imagine those worms escaping and entering the flesh through the pores of his skin. They wriggled holes and ate through flesh.

The crawling morphed into bubbling – like the blood was boiling lava inching through the veins, this time melting everything around it. The flesh melted and hardened, then melted again as lava flowed through in waves. The Mark pulsed, and now he imagined the lava flowing out of the tattoo and wrapping around the arm, first encasing his hand, and then moving upwards past his elbow and up to his shoulders. But it didn't stop there. It continued flowing, spreading from his shoulders up his neck and down his side. The melting and boiling.

Whenever the arm hit something – the sofa back? – sharp pain flared over the constant burning. Each time was like a direct hit on the head from a Bludger. He tried opening his eyes, and he swore he did physically but there was only darkness. Nothing. Blindness. He tried to stifle the screaming, but all he could do was tone it down to a strangled cry.

He couldn't feel the right side of his body anymore. His entire focus was on the pain, and it felt like he was half a person. Half of a dying person. No torture in his past amounted up to this. He wanted to beg for it to stop – beg them to stop torturing him – yet somehow he retained pride. But what good was pride when he was torturing himself?

The pain just wouldn't stop…

Hermione watched the scene in horror as his piercing scream shot through her body. There was not a single part of his body which was not seizing. Even his toes clenched and unclenched violently under his socks. Redness had spread outward from the Dark Mark, crawling like a blush. Then under that reddened skin, the flesh began to bubble, like boils forming and subsiding rapidly, but this time the Boil-Cure Potions would not be of any use.

She didn't know what to do. She conjured a wet towel to wipe his face, but at the first touch, he let out an even louder scream. She reared back in shock and dropped to the ground. Touch. He couldn't stand touch meaning she couldn't do anything at all.

No, there was one thing she could do. Hermione raised her wand and carefully transfigured away the sofa back. It wasn't much, but hopefully it would help.

She curled up on an armchair next to him and watched his screaming mouth and bulging eyes. She couldn't help but think that this was her fault. This pain was induced by her suggestion and her mistake. Sure, it was a solution, but if only she had thought harder and found an alternative, he wouldn't have to experience this torture.

She wanted it to stop, for his sake and for hers, but all she could do was watch and hope for the best.

An hour later, Snape's cries quieted to gasps and, his body calmed to twitches. He slowly turned his head in her direction, and she could see his glazed eyes slowly regain focus and take in his surroundings.

"Water," he whispered hoarsely, flinching from the pain in his throat.

"How are you feeling, sir?" Hermione asked quietly as she helped him take a sip.

"Like death."

He said nothing else until he drained the water.

Then, "Apply the second vial."

She stared at him in shock. "But, sir! You can't do this again!" She cried. "You will surely die this time."

"Now, Granger."

"Sir, what about tomorrow? Once you've recovered," she suggested desperately.

"No, it needs to be done now while it has not yet set," he whispered so softly that she barely heard his words.

They glared at each other, him with hardened stubbornness and her with anguish.

"You must."

After a long silence she slowly nodded, blinking back the tears forming at the corner of her eyes. Her trembling hands uncorked the vial and raised it above his battered arm. She met his half-open eyes again for a final confirmation and dumped the liquid all at once.

Immediately, Snape convulsed violently. His attempts at screaming produced nothing louder than hoarse gasps; Hermione whimpered as she covered her ears to hide from the harsh sounds escaping his damaged throat. The agony in each sound he did manage was a jolt down her spine. Never before had she seen such agony and felt such despair.

But she never expected his silent screams to be even worse.

Again, Hermione could do nothing but watch over him.

A/N: Am I getting too technical? I'm doing my homework with the HP world, but is it too much?

My dear readers, review!