A/N: Thanks a lot for all of your helpful feedback RE: chapter length — the general consensus seemed to be that while you guys appreciate longer chapters, more frequent chapters are preferable in order to stay involved with the story. This makes sense, and I'll definitely consider it for future updates.
As Severus stepped back into his laboratory for the first time since Albus' death, it struck him how odd it was that everything was just as he'd left it. Though it felt like a proper lifetime since he'd last had cause to utilize the well-maintained space, here it was, just as tidy and meticulously organized as it had ever been under his residence. Had no one else been in here in all that time? ...He supposed it made sense that the facilities would fall into disuse in his absence, since there hadn't been enough time or opportunity to appoint another Potions Master before the school had been shut down entirely. He had half-expected to find the place vandalized at the very least, though, since he imagined that anything associated with him would have been targeted in vengeance after his apparent insurrection. Irrationally, he was almost disappointed to find that no such lashing out had taken place... hadn't anyone cared enough to punish him—the dastardly traitor—by whatever means were available to them? Hadn't their anger toward him approached even a good fraction of that which he'd harbored against himself?
He supposed that their grief might've taken other, less outwardly destructive forms... but that was hardly any consolation to him. To find his property so respectfully intact hurt him in a way that he wasn't too keen on investigating, but hurt all the same. It was almost as if it had never happened, which was, of course, woefully inaccurate. Albus had died by his hand, and all that he had to show for it at the moment was a heavy heart and the insufferable looks that he was getting from the Weasley watching his every move.
"You better not try to poison her," Ron warned as Severus speculatively held a dark vial in one long-fingered hand.
"That would negate the wisdom in having just saved her life," Severus muttered sarcastically.
"That's a laugh!" Ron scoffed, "You? What did you do to help her? I seem to remember you being too tied up to even help yourself, let alone Hermione! All you did was lie there and make a lot of noise."
Working his lips tightly in agitation, Severus resolved not to rise to the young wizard's tactless provocation — at least not beyond some requisite verbal sparring.
"You might recall the fact that—had your moronic friend not been determined to waste time toying with me—you might have all escaped the Dementors unharmed. Instead, Hermione was almost killed, Potter's elf was killed, and you may well have incurred some form of mental impairment along with your physical injuries."
"Huh?" Ron asked, unconsciously reaching a hand toward his head. "My head feels all right to me..."
"Not a surprise. Retardation is rarely understood by the afflicted."
Glaring at Snape, Ron continued, "You still haven't told me how you supposedly saved Hermione's life."
Severus paused to examine another vial before smoothly explaining, "If it hadn't been for my insistence, Potter might never have been prompted to take appropriate action. By convincing him that preserving her life was a greater priority than any kind of revenge scheme he had been counting on, I spared all of us from what I assure you would have been a most gruesome fate."
"Exactly. You saved yourself. If Hermione was saved, too, it was completely... coincidental," Ron asserted after taking a moment to find the word he was looking for.
"How conveniently you forget that I asked Potter to leave me to the Dementors in order to return Hermione to the cottage," Severus bitterly replied. "Not that I expect you to have been able to pay attention to anything other than your own cowardice during the attack."
"Cowardice?" Ron repeated incredulously, "Cowardice?! ...how dare you call me a coward, Snape!" Ron seethed, surprising Severus with his vehemence. "If you knew half of what I've been putting up with these last few months! If you knew half of the complete and utter shite you unleashed when you killed Dumbledore! What Harry and I have been doing—alone—to try to make even the smallest dent in this impossible war! You have no idea! NO IDEA!"
"Calm down, Weasley," Severus snapped, frowning as he turned to the irate young man in irritation, his acerbic reply momentarily postponed as his attention focused again on the way Ron was gripping the locket around his neck. Setting down the vial he'd been considering, Severus slowly approached the table where Ron was sitting beside Hermione, cradling her head in one hand as she lay helpless on the tabletop. His other hand clutched tightly at the locket, as if holding back something that fought to break loose.
Looking down suspiciously at him from his lofty height, Severus inquired, "Why do you wear that bauble around your neck, Weasley?"
As he reached toward the object in question, Ron turned sharply, shielding it from his touch. "None of your business," he replied in a tone thick with warning.
Undaunted, Severus persisted, "It's hardly of a style one would expect young wizards to sport these days... in fact, I'm sure it's an antique... one of apparent value, clearly beyond that of your average wizarding household... not the kind of trinket you'd expect to find among Mr or Mrs Weasley's heirlooms..."
"Leave it alone, Snape," Ron warned again in a curiously dark tone, clearly uncomfortable by the older man's scrutiny.
Severus could tell that something was off, but decided to pursue it at a more convenient time. There was no mistaking the Dark aura that the piece was radiating, and something disturbingly familiar about its signature gave Severus pause. Still, there was Hermione to think of...
"You've somehow gotten yourself mixed up in Dark magic, boy. Don't think you can hide it from me; I know it when I see it." Severus turned from Ron with a dramatic flare of his robes as he returned to his stores, feeling the heat of Ron's glare at his back. "We'll finish this discussion after I've seen to Hermione's recovery."
"Why do you keep calling her that?"
For a moment, the only indication Ron had that his words had registered was a slight pause as Severus reached for another vial. After resuming his ingredient gathering as if unimpressed by the question, Severus replied at length, "That is her name."
"It's her first name, and it's pretty familiar of you to use it."
Without missing a beat this time, Severus smoothly replied, "If you haven't noticed, school is out. You aren't my students anymore, and I'm certainly not your professor now. If you wish me to maintain any of the old formalities for your own peace of mind, I'm afraid you won't find me very accommodating."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You forgot to call me 'Weasley' at the end there, like you've been doing this whole time. And calling Harry 'Potter,' in that same old nasty voice of yours, just as usual..."
When Severus didn't respond, Ron persisted, "But you call Hermione by her first name. And you don't sound very nasty when you say it. In fact... when you say her name, you almost sound a bit—"
"I'll thank you to keep your inane observations to yourself, Weasley," Severus interrupted, managing to inject an effective dose of malice into the wizard's surname. "If you want your friend's recovery to be effective, you'll allow me to concentrate!"
Ron scowled as Severus returned to his work, but was able to shut up long enough to let the man gather the needed ingredients. By the time he had begun setting up his equipment, however, Ron felt compelled to open his mouth again.
"Harry should never have let you loose."
"If he hadn't, I highly doubt that you would be able to brew this elixir."
"You're a criminal, Snape; a murderer and a traitor. Harry was out of his mind to think you can be trusted for even one moment..."
Sighing at the tedious accusation, Severus replied, "While I don't disagree with your assessment of Potter's mental faculties, he did, in fact, make the right decision in releasing me."
"We'll see about that... I know what you're really up to, Snape. You can't fool me. I'm onto you."
Severus snorted disdainfully before muttering, "Is that so."
"Yeah. I know why you really want to fix Hermione... I know what you're really after..."
"I don't like your tone," Severus warned, becoming increasingly irritated by Ron's insinuations.
"I'll bet you don't; you don't like being called out as the snake that you are, do you? But it's perfectly clear to me what you want from her."
"I'm warning you, Weasley — I haven't the time or patience for your impudence!"
"Struck a nerve, did I?"
"I'll strike something else if you're not careful..."
"They say that you're a real letch, you know; that you lusted after her for years before you finally worked out a scheme to kidnap her. They were right about you, weren't they?"
Ron stared daggers into Severus' black-clad back as the Dark wizard stood stiffly over a cauldron, knuckles white as his balled fists pressed hard against the countertop. Unable to prevent the rising tirade that the horcrux was furtively encouraging, Ron persisted against all his better judgement.
"Where was she all this time, Snape? Where have you been hiding her? Have you been keeping her as your own private whore? Is that why she's dressed like a tart?"
Ron noticed the sharp intake of breath from his opponent, but was undaunted. "Is it true what they say about you? That you've had a dirty little schoolgirl fetish this whole time? Dumbledore wouldn't hear of it, but I think he was just afraid to admit that he'd been wrong about you; afraid that he'd let a disgusting pervert into his school after all. But we found you out, didn't we... We know what you're really like. Dirty old bugger... how many times did you rape her, Snape?"
With a harsh growl, Severus finally broke out of his tense posture to stalk swiftly toward Ron, grasping him by the collar and shoving him against a wall before he ever had a chance to use the wand he'd been gripping in anticipation. Ron made a strangled sound as he lifted his wand in retaliation, only to have it violently plucked from his grasp and tossed aside with a clatter.
Staring hard into the young man's angry eyes, Severus allowed his penetrating gaze a moment or two to take full effect before speaking, quietly, but with a rough edge, "I think that's enough gossip to be going on with, don't you?"
When Ron just stared back hard at him, Severus continued, "What? No bitter comeback? No more ugly, slanderous replies? Come now, Weasley... I'm certain there's an abundance of obscenities in that filthy little mind of yours. Better get them all out now, before Hermione regains consciousness, because I swear to you... if she hears a single one of your disgusting accusations, I will tear your tongue out with my bare hands, is. that. understood?"
Ron twisted against the older man's steely grip, red-faced and scowling viciously. It was then that Severus noticed the Dark pulse emanating from the locket, notably more potent now than it had been before. Narrowing his eyes, Severus lowered Ron to the floor as he released his grip with a rough shove, swatting Ron's protective hand away as he moved to seize the locket.
"Don't touch that!" Ron hissed, squirming as Severus effectively restrained him while he scrutinized the piece, eventually working the chain over the young man's head to better examine it.
"Give that back!" Ron protested desperately, his violent energy visibly draining and replaced by a heavy exhaustion as the necklace was removed from his person.
"Please..." Ron croaked, suddenly sounding quite pathetic.
Severus watched the transformation curiously before returning his attention to the locket. After a few moments, he asked slowly, "Do you have any idea what this is?"
"Puh." Ron snorted, dropping to the ground in defeat as the horcrux's influence drained away from him, then lowering his head to his hand as he struggled to reorient himself. "Probably more than you do, I should think."
"I should think not," Severus contested. "This is very Dark magic..."
"Ha. No kidding."
Frowning at his deflated opponent, Severus squinted at the locket again, turning it over several times as he felt each nuance of the magical signature respond to his probing.
"I believe I know who this belongs to," he murmured aloud. Looking to Ron again, he knew that his assessment was correct when he spotted the look of concern pass over Ron's tired features.
"I have no idea how you got your jammy hands on it, but don't think I won't find out why. ...In the meantime, I don't think either of us should be in close contact with it at the moment."
"Oi! Where are you taking it?" Ron protested, starting to chase after Severus as he made his way toward a chamber door. Severus had passed through and shut the door behind him before Ron could catch up, only to find it impenetrably locked. When Severus reemerged after Ron had worked himself up again beating against the dark wood, the locket was nowhere in sight.
"It's safely stowed away, Weasley. Calm down; the desperation that you're experiencing is undoubtedly the residual influence of the trinket. I suggest you lie down while I brew the elixir."
"That wasn't yours to hide, Snape! Harry trusted me! I'm supposed to look after it for him, it's important!"
"Well. You did a fine job," Severus taunted. "If you like, I'll tell him that you put up a suitable show of resistance."
"You're out of line, Snape!" Ron huffed, shaking his head with incredulity, "You don't even know what you're interfering with!"
"You can rest assured that I will find out. Meanwhile, there's a cot in the adjoining storage space that you're free to make use of."
"I don't want a bloody cot," Ron ground out, "and I'm not leaving you alone with Hermione."
"Suit yourself," Severus murmured. "But you will remain silent, if you insist on remaining at all."
Ron opened his mouth to retort, but the look he received upon doing so quelled whatever response he'd been prepared to make. Begrudgingly, Ron shuffled over to a bench and slumped forward against the table, resting his head in his palm as he waited out the long potion-making process.
Severus was as precise as ever as he worked, his methodical, self-assured movements putting Ron inexplicably at ease even as he returned his attention to Hermione. For a long time he simply looked at her, unable to completely reconcile the way she looked now with the girl he had known. Somehow— without the insidious influence of the horcrux, perhaps— Hermione looked less 'tarted up' now than she'd appeared to him at first glance, and more like the lost little girl that she'd become in Ron's mind. He couldn't begin to imagine what she must have been through in all that time, but now that she was back, he was determined to keep her safe. He wondered if she'd thought about him anywhere near as often as he'd thought about her; if she'd missed him as much; needed him as much. He wondered if she hadn't forgotten how it had been between them before she'd been taken; if the unspoken feelings that he'd only barely been aware of at the time had been preserved at all, or whether they'd diminished entirely. He supposed it didn't matter... they'd both changed, just like everything else had. Whatever there still was between them—if anything—it could never be like it once was.
Ron looked up to notice Severus regarding him suspiciously through a veil of steam from the cauldron, then averting his gaze as he returned his attention to his work. What was that all about? ...If Ron had been a more perceptive lad, he might have recognized Severus' expression as a kind of territorial jealously. As it was, he only got the sense that Severus was as untrusting of Ron around Hermione as Ron was of him. He supposed that it was only fair, though it still made him uncomfortable. What right did Snape have to be untrusting of Ron where Hermione was concerned? She and Ron and Harry were friends, and Snape had no business doubting it. Well, aside from the part where they had stunned her into unconsciousness, but that was obviously an accident...
After an inestimable duration— during which Ron had thrice fought the urge to nod off on the bench, then finally succumbed to his exhaustion at the last— Severus siphoned off a portion of his brew, and approached the table where Hermione lay. He was just contemplating the thought of casting a light slumbering spell over Ron— so as not to wake him while he spirited Hermione away to his old quarters, where he imagined she might recover more comfortably— when Harry finally reappeared.
"Is it done, then?" Harry immediately demanded to know.
Severus graced him with an unimpressed look before replying, "I have brewed an elixir that should prove effective, provided the damage you've inflicted upon your friend isn't worse than I've estimated." Satisfied by Harry's fleeting look of remorse, Severus continued, "I shall administer it now, though perhaps she'd be more comfortable if she was moved to someplace more private..."
"No," Harry objected, following Severus' line of thought as the older man glanced toward his chamber door, "do it here. Now."
Frowning, Severus replied, "Rather inconsiderate of you, Potter, given the fact that you put her in this state to begin with. The least you could do is allow her to come to her senses without the distraction of your presence. After all, it has been some time since—"
"I'm not leaving her alone with you, Snape," Harry interrupted, "forget it. Wake her up now."
"The effects won't be immediate," Severus snapped irritably, "and you'd be wise not to provoke me."
"You're under my protection here, Snape," Harry meanly reminded, "—and I can revoke it at any time. If you do anything to hurt me, expect the house elves to throw you to the Dementors in a heartbeat."
Severus stared down the brazen young wizard for a long moment, contemplating all the vicious retorts he wanted to unleash before deciding that diplomacy was, unfortunately, more prudent. He had questions about that locket and thus needed Harry to be as cooperative as possible, despite his lack of faith in such a scenario.
"Your threats are unnecessary," he replied slowly, "I am not interested in hurting you, Potter. You can trust that if I were, you'd be begging for mercy right now instead of making these insolent comments. Even so... as a wizard nearly twenty years your senior, I won't suffer such discourtesy. You forget yourself."
"I haven't forgotten anything, Snape," Harry responded meaningfully. Severus' raised eyebrow and resulting frown indicated that he knew exactly to what Harry was referring.
"Are you determined to dredge up that business now... or shall I see to Hermione's recovery?" He asked slowly.
With a glower and a short sigh, Severus knew that he had finally gained the upper hand as Harry crossed his arms and bit the inside of his cheek, indicating that Severus should continue. He was somewhat surprised to find Ron still asleep at the bench, and rudely shoved the boy into wakefulness so as to direct him out of the way. Ron blearily acknowledged the man's instructions, looking to Harry with offended pride as he shuffled away from the table.
"How do you know he isn't going to poison her?" Ron whispered to Harry, not at all quietly enough to escape Severus' notice.
Severus rolled his eyes before Harry answered, "I doubt that he would have gone through the trouble of trying to save her from the Dementors if he intended to poison her now, Ron."
"What do you mean?" Ron asked around a stifled yawn, "He never actually did anything... he couldn't do. You're not really going to believe all that talk of his, are you? He was desperate! What if he was just trying to help himself?"
"Mr Weasley," Severus huffed, turning around sharply with great effect, "if you're so concerned over the contents of this vial, perhaps you'd like to test it yourself? You are looking rather peaky. It would certainly do wonders for your complexion, though you'll have to excuse the taste of the newt skins. That particular ingredient is not known for its palatability."
"...I'll pass, thanks," Ron replied sullenly, looking a bit green at the suggestion. He could smell the fumes from where he stood beside Harry, and he had no desire to taste what he was smelling.
"Then kindly desist in your ridiculous speculation. Had you paid any significant attention to your coursework, you would have no trouble identifying this potion as innocuous. Your wariness of its effects only exposes the true depth of your immense ignorance of potionry. Be silent, lest you embarrass yourself any further!"
Ron and Harry exchanged a look that Severus had been witness to many times before— Ron looking affronted, while Harry commiserated— before Severus turned around in satisfaction. Without further ado, he gently held Hermione's head in place while he lifted the vial to her slack mouth, deftly pouring the contents down her throat.
"How long will it take?" Harry asked.
"That depends on the level of damage to her system," Severus replied quietly as he lowered her head back, then gently parted her eyelids to observe her pupils. "It could take anywhere from an hour, to a full day... I suggest now that we at least move her off this table. Weasley, fetch the cot from—"
Severus' instructions were cut short by the unexpected sound of a faint cough, which caught all three wizards by surprise as they turned their attention onto the waking witch.
"Hermione!" Harry shouted, causing Severus to quickly motion for him to shut up.
Supporting her in his arm, Severus furrowed his brow as he helped Hermione to a sitting position as she proceeded to cough weakly. "She's regaining consciousness," he said with disbelief, surprised by the potion's swift result. Realizing that she needed further stimulation to pull out of it effectively, Severus shocked Ron and Harry by lightly slapping Hermione across the face.
"Whoa!" Ron protested, gripping Severus' arm to prevent a repeat of the incident. "What do you think you're doing?!"
"I'm reviving her, you half-wit!" Severus snapped, roughly shaking out of the younger man's grip.
When Severus moved to slap her again, Harry reached out to prevent Ron's instinctive interference. "Let him," Harry said quietly.
Ron frowned at the command, but did not make another move to interfere. After a couple of minutes, Hermione was blinking into alertness.
"Hermione?" Ron started hopefully, eagerly anticipating a happy reunion with his friend.
As Hermione's eyes fully opened, she seemed a little disoriented by her surroundings at first before she focused on Severus' concerned face.
"Severus?" she said weakly, surprising her old friends by her familiar use of the Dark man's name.
"Hermione..." Ron tried again, "you're back..."
Reluctantly turning her attention away from Severus, Hermione blinked as she took in the hopeful expressions of Ron and Harry. After regarding them in confusion for a moment, she dropped her gaze and shook her head as if to rattle something back into place.
"Hermione, are you all right?" Severus asked in concern, his voice low and deep, before he carefully moved her toward him, inviting her to lean against him in support. Ron and Harry frowned at the gesture, but made no move to interfere.
"Severus..." Hermione said again, gratefully resting her head against his chest for a moment. Severus exulted in the warmth for its short duration before she sat up again suddenly, looking around the tabletop as if trying to figure something out. Severus recognized the signs of agitation — it seemed as if something were bothering her.
"You're safe," he assured her, "you've just had a shock, but I gave you something to recover."
"I..." Hermione started to say, trailing off as she tilted her head, clearly trying to organize her thoughts.
"What is it? Is something the matter?" Severus asked quietly, "What do you need?"
"Severus," she said again with a small sigh, this time saying the name with such sweet intimacy as to be unmistakable even to the sometime-dolts across from her. Both gaped in stunned confusion as she lifted a weak hand to the Dark wizard's face, prompting him to return her gaze and recognize the import of whatever it was she meant to say to him.
"Severus... I... I remember... it's all there..."
As the odd couple exchanged a tremendous look of recognition, Hermione offered a small, fragile smile, delicately pressing her fingers against Severus' face.
"I remember everything."