A/N: *peeks head around corner* I AM ALIVE and I'm so sorry for the delay! So yeah, that's the good news-I'm alive, I'm doing better, my mother is doing better and thank you all sooooooo much for your sweet messages. Bad news: I've not yet won the lottery which is why I've been working overtime and falling asleep after typing two sentences at a time which is why it takes so long to finish one lousy chapter. But by the grace of a white chocolate mocha latte, I managed to finish this last night. So since I cannot offer Halloween tricks through the internet, here is your treat ;)

Speaking of Halloween...anyone doing anything fun?

I *had* grand plans of a long Halloween one-shot but um... well, let's see if I can get it done by Tuesday.

Again, thank you for your kindness and patience. I know I'm not the fastest updater and believe me, if I could change this I would, but adulting is damn hard and even harder for hobbies. I took up sewing and can you believe that the only way I managed to finish a dress was when I stayed home sick for two days?

Thank you for the reviews, follows, alerts, messages, everything!

I think I got most of the errors squared away but feel free to drop me a line if something is amiss.

You all are the best!

"All right there, beastly, settle down!" Filch groused as he was accosted by a rambunctious half-kneazle.

The moment he touched ground back inside his rooms, courtesy of Dobby Apparating him back into Hogwarts, Crookshanks descended upon him.

"For God's sake, cat, at least let me get off my boots," Filch grumbled from the armchair, attempting to untie his laces. Doing so was hard when a cat's face was beneath your hands, and Filch paused to nudge Crookshanks out his way. But the cat was able to smell Hermione's scent on him and refused to relent.

Mrs. Norris sat nearby witnessing this entire exchange, and it was clear that she did not appreciate another feline honing in on her territory. She hissed when Crookshanks attempted to climb into Filch's lap again, but the sound did nothing to deter the half-kneazle who was behaving as though the caretaker had his mistress tucked into the pocket of his oversized coat.

"Bleedin' cat... Your mummy isn't here! But if ye stop climbing on me for a moment I might be able to tell you that I saw her and she's fine."

If Crookshanks could talk, Filch was sure that the cat would be slagging him off. The look in his beady little eyes said 'piss off' but the way he sat patiently at the man's feet gave the impression that he would wait.

"Damn, now I need to piss. You there, you had better not follow me to the toilet," said Filch, pointing menacingly down at the half-kneazle.

Crookshanks stayed perfectly motionless, as if proving that he was capable of following instructions. He was still in the same place when Filch returned. The man removed his coat, tossed it aside, and fell back into his armchair.

"I'll find a way to get you to see her," Filch told Crookshanks through a wide yawn. "I'll figure out something. I know she misses you."

Crookshanks, pleased and grateful by this bit of information, remained at Filch's feet. He stayed there until the old man slumped sideways in his chair and began snoring.

The next morning, Filch remembered his promise about bringing books to Hermione. A quick glance at his small bookshelf let him know that he owned nothing suitable for the young woman, unless she was into obscure fiction or titles concerning household cleaning tips. Filch felt his face go red with shame when his eyes fell upon the large stack of books he'd purchased from The Kwikspell Company, all of which proved to be useless as tits on a bull.

Placing his own shortcomings aside, Filch tried to remember if Severus's room was still unlocked. He could easily go inside and find something; between Severus and the girl, there was no shortage of books inside. And if the door was locked, he'd get Dobby to let him inside.

Both ideas sounded good, but their execution turned out to be impossible. Severus's door was locked, and no matter how many times Filch called for Dobby, the house-elf remained absent.

Filch hadn't planned on visiting Hermione so late in the evening but was left with little choice as Dobby was missing in action for most of the day. That left him with another dilemma—getting back to see Hermione. At quarter to six, Filch toyed with the option of Flooing to St. Mungo's. He knew the rudimentary aspects of using the Floo Network at Hogwarts, but felt ashamed at having to ask where the Floo was when the time came to leave the hospital.

Also there was the issue of trying to explain this trip in the event he was caught using the school's Floo.

When the house-elf remained a no-show, Filch became desperate enough to take the chance to use the Floo. At half past seven, just as Filch was about to step out into the corridor, Dobby showed up and walked right into his knee.

"Where have you been elf?! I've been looking for you since noon!"

"Dobby is sorry, Mr. Filch," Dobby cried, rubbing his nose where he'd bumped it on Filch's leg, "but I had to help–"

"Never mind. Can you get me to St. Mungo's now? I'm sure by now Granger is beside herself, thinking I forgot about her."

"Yes, Mr. Filch sir! Dobby can help!"

Before he had a chance to utter another word, Filch found himself in the clutches of Dobby's tiny hand and choking beneath the uncomfortable sensation of Apparation.

"I hate it when you do that!" Filch spat, swaying unsteadily when they landed in an unoccupied corridor.

"But you said you wanted to come here!"

"Yes, but a little warning would have been nice! I keep telling you, I'm an old man and I'm not used to popping up here and there. Especially not here!" Filch hissed as he began walking and quickly recognised the main floor of the hospital. "Why didn't you take me up like before?"

"I is sorry, Mr. Filch, but Dobby must go. Professor McGonagall is calling Dobby again and she doesn't like to be kept waiting!"

Before Filch could utter a retort, the house-elf popped out of sight.

"Bloody useless," Filch grumbled under his breath. He turned round slowly, all the while trying to come up with some sort of plan to get upstairs without giving away Hermione's identity.

Filch was nervous as he walked down the corridor and drew closer to the Welcoming Witch. He'd gone over many different approaches to take, but shot down each one as they all seemed flimsy. He was certain that he'd have to have a pull with the usually cranky witch at the front desk but to his surprise, a different woman was there.

"Hello, sir. And how may I assist you this evening?"

"I, uh, I'm here to see my niece."

"Very good. Normally visiting hours are over at five, but we make an exception for family. Do you know what floor she's located on?"


"Very good, sir. And your name?"

The woman's kind face and placating tone did nothing to sway Filch's anxiety, and he grew riled upon being asked for his name.

"What do you need my name for? What's with all the bloody questions? I tell you I come to see my niece and what do I get? Harassed. I get treated to a bloody inquisition. Is this how you lot handle people who come to see their loved ones?"

"Sir, I just need your name for the badge," the woman continued in the same annoyingly warm voice. Completely riled by the irate man, she used the tip of her wand to point to a pile of blank identification badges that lay next to a sign which read 'All visitors must wear a badge'.

The last thing Filch wanted to do was give his name, but to not do so would incite suspicion. He begrudgingly spelled it out for the woman, and she waved her wand over one of the badges and handed it to him.

"The lift is down that corridor and to the right."

"Thank you," Filch grumbled under his breath, hiding his face as he affixed the badge to the outside of his coat. He was sort of embarrassed for his display but felt relieved as he hurried away. "Well, that went better than expected," he muttered to himself as he waited for the lift.

There's a place between sleep and wakefulness where one still remembers dreaming. That was where Severus could be found and if Hermione had a choice, she would have stayed there.

Hermione didn't have a reference of time, but for what felt like the longest, her hours spent sleeping were the only thing that allowed her slight reprieve. It was that state of blissful ignorance where she felt completely at peace. Only during this time she had not a care in the world. Her blankets were warm, her bed was cosy, and the pillow was comfortable beneath her cheek. She didn't even realise it was still her hospital bed. It was akin to those moments at the weekend where you knew there was no reason to rush out bed, for there were no chores or responsibilities to wake up and face, and you could have a lie-in for a long as you liked.

Sadly, those moments were fleeting. The moment Hermione opened her eyes, the bare surroundings of her hospital room came into focus, and she remembered everything all over again.

Yet today would be different.

At least, that was what she hoped.

Breakfast was brought in by a stern woman in white robes who didn't say more than two words. The porridge was watery and unappetising, and Hermione pushed the bowl to the side. She picked over her eggs but ate all her bacon. Just as she put the last piece into her mouth, the same woman returned to her room and silently collected the breakfast tray.

The afternoon brought no visitors, yet Hermione remained hopeful.

Lunch was as palatable as breakfast. Even if it had consisted of something she liked, Hermione was too anxious to eat.

Dinner was better. She was just finishing up when someone knocked at the door, and Hermione became so excited that she almost knocked over her empty plate. She was mildly disappointed to not see the Hogwarts caretaker, but not so disappointed by who it was instead. The boy with red hair and a shy smile only stayed for a second, but he dropped some chocolates into her hand after taking her tray, and cast a final sidelong smile in her direction before scurrying out her room.

The chocolates were nice—and better than anything else she'd eaten in a while—but not nice enough to quell the disappointment of being stood up.

Just as Hermione was ready to settle in for another lonely evening, someone else knocked on the door. She didn't want to get her hopes up in case it wasn't who she expected, but when Mr. Filch rounded the corner, Hermione fought the urge to hug him.

"Apologies for my tardiness," Filch greeted, sounding winded as he awkwardly patted Hermione's forearm. "Dobby was a little tied up and I had to wait for him. And before I forget—" Filch paused to reach into his left coat pocket, then the right, producing two small books. "As promised."

Hermione accepted the books with a smile and tucked them beneath her pillow.

"Right, I need to catch my breath. Come on, lass, we're going for a walk."

Hermione was hesitant when Filch held out his left arm. But when he hissed impatiently and jabbed his elbow in her direction, she stepped forward and linked arms with him.

"You told me you wanted to see Severus, right?" Filch exhaled hard, realising his error. "Well you didn't exactly say so, but I know you want to. Just don't be obvious, all right? Far as this lot are concerned, we're just having a nice chat whilst taking a turn up the corridor."

The walk across the hospital wing took all of a few minutes, but for Hermione it felt like an eternity.

"It's our luck he's on your same floor. I suppose that's where they keep the other serious cases. That's it, just keep behaving as though you belong over here," Filch directed in a offhanded manner as he steered Hermione toward a door that was similar to hers, right down to the red sign affixed to the wood that read 'Magical Risk'. She wondered what that meant.

"Wait, better let me go in first. Make sure he's alone."

Hermione nodded and lingered behind a tall cart holding stacks of clean linens that had been left in the corridor.

"He's alone," Filch muttered under his breath when he came back out. "Come on."

Her feet suddenly felt like they were made of jelly. Thankfully Filch noticed because he immediately caught Hermione's arms and led her inside. She didn't know what to expect and that was utterly nerve-wracking, but she soon realised that the reality was much more of a shock.

This room was dark and didn't have the charmed window that she had. But the two low-burning lamps on either side was enough to show her the sight she was so desperate to see.

Plain as day before her was the man who had completely captured her heart, body and soul. There was no mistaking that dark hair and sharp features with anyone else. But the quiet fire that always lurked beneath Severus's many layers of black had been extinguished, and left behind was a man who looked as though life had beaten him repeatedly with the short end of the stick. Gone was the stark black teaching robes and piercing stare, replaced by a plain hospital gown and an eerie sedated state. The thick layer of bandages covering his neck and chest was impossible to ignore, as was the unshaven face that held no colour and no sort of expression.

"Now, now," Filch murmured in her ear, forcing Hermione to refocus. She didn't realise that she'd been on the verge of falling, and now registered the tight hold two knobby-knuckled hands had on her elbows. "I've got you, I won't let you fall. Sit down there."

Filch walked Hermione over to Severus's bed and guided her to sit on the edge.

"You won't hurt him. Besides, he needs to know that you're here," Filch explained when he saw the uncertainty on Hermione's face. "I know you can't talk but you can hold his hand."

Hermione hesitated, but eventually she drew in a shuddering breath and edged her way towards Severus to tentatively stroke the top of his hand. His skin was cool to the touch and so pallid that the blue veins were extra visible. The hum of magic was faintly palpable and an incandescent blue line circled both his wrists and led to the bed railing, and Hermione was horrified when she realised that he'd been magically tethered.

She wanted Severus to know that she was there, and she absolutely wanted to hold his hand. Yet her heart was torn; to hold his hand meant threatening to unleash a barrage of emotions, and thus far that proved to be detrimental. What she really wanted was to throw herself on top of her mate, cry into his chest and tell him how terrified of losing him she'd been. She wanted to break the magical chains around his wrists, yank the overly bleached sheets away, snatch the ugly hospital issued pyjamas off his frail body, and pull him out of this dismal, depressing, and disgustingly sterile room that held all the appeal of a sanatorium. She wanted Severus to awaken so she could look into his black eyes and know that he was fine.

Sadly, reality was inescapable and Hermione forced herself to deal with the matter at hand.

It took more than a few deep, calming breaths before she was able to fully take hold of her lover's hand but the moment they touched, a gentle warmth caressed her palm. Almost instantly she felt calmer, and that allowed her to breathe freely.

Filch loomed in the background throughout all this, and he immediately noticed the girl's reticence when he suggested that she hold onto the professor's hand. For a second Filch wondered if he had got in over his head. Just as he was about to chastise himself for being pushy, he saw a change in Hermione's posture. She no longer seemed overly agitated, and she began cradling Severus's hand between both of hers.

"I'll, erm, I'll give you two a bit of privacy," Filch mumbled, ambling across the room and keeping his back turned to give the illusion of seclusion.

It was marginally less awkward with Filch no longer standing so close, although his presence still would not have deterred Hermione from carrying on with her unconventional reunion.

Hermione wished that Severus was awake, but it didn't stop her from pressing her face against his hand and kissing his palm. Filch told her Severus would know she was there, but she wasn't sure if she believed him. How would he know? How could he know?

None of that mattered, because the Dark Lord could have reanimated himself and come sauntering through the door, and it wouldn't have been enough to make her relinquish her hold. One of the Healers likely would have more luck; some were so mean-spirited they made Voldemort look almost charming. It made no sense to butt heads with those impatient Healers, for all they would do was use one of their subduing spells or potions that rendered her unconscious. Those drastic measures always left her incoherent when she awoke hours later, and it took another hour or so for her to remember where she was.

Hermione prayed that if one of her Healers were to approach the vicinity of Severus's room, they would walk past because she was not ready to leave. Oddly enough, she now felt so peaceful that she almost didn't care if someone else was to walk in.

At some point Hermione closed her eyes, and she fell into what resembled a deep sleep. She began dreaming, only the scenes flashing before her eyes seemed to be from Severus's point of view. Hermione saw herself tucked beneath a thick blanket, sleeping soundly, with her face a hairsbreadth away from Severus's bare chest. He was lying next to her and also appeared to be asleep, though he roused a few times to kiss her forehead.

It was difficult to know if it was all a dream or some sort of twisted reality. Hermione was sure that she had been able to actually feel his thin lips against her skin, as well as the lingering heat of his kiss.

From an outsider's viewpoint, it appeared as though Hermione had fallen asleep at her beloved's side with his hand in hers. What could not be seen was the mental exchange due to a shared bond between the couple.

While this was going on, Filch quietly lamented the room being absent of a chair.

"Wish I did have a ruddy wand," he grumbled quietly. "At least I could be sat comfortably whilst resting my feet."

If I had my pipe, that would also be grand. Just as well, I suppose. Not like you can smoke in here.

The entire twenty minutes Hermione sat at Severus's bedside, she kept his hand in hers. His skin had grown a bit warmer from the contact, and she was able to feel a slight pulsing form in his palm. And despite his scent being all wrong, Hermione kept inhaling deeply, hoping to permanently embed it in her memory. She knew it would soon be time to leave, and she tried to do her best to take whatever she could with her.

"All right, lass. Think we ought to get you back before we're both caught."

Hermione opened her eyes to find Filch standing beside her. She knew he was right; there would be hell to pay if one of the unfriendly Healers found them. But that didn't mean that she had to go agreeably and the look on her face displayed this clearly.

"Not to worry, I'll make sure you see your man again. Promise."

Nodding and brushing her lips across the top of Severus's hand, Hermione gently tucked it back beneath the sheet and rose from the bed. There was no forthcoming fussing or fighting as Filch slowly led her out the room, their arms linked in the same fashion as before.

"Now we'll walk back nice and slow, and if anyone asks I'll say you needed to stretch your legs."

It was amazing what one could get away with by merely behaving as though they weren't doing anything out of the ordinary. Yet as life goes, it was only fitting for a spanner to be thrown into the works. Filch and Hermione were nearly back at her room when a tall man with wavy blond hair and a pearly smile that was bright enough to blind stepped in their path.

"Hello there! Don't I know you?"

As the man stood there grinning like a court jester in a faded quilted robe with its sash askew, lilac-coloured pyjamas peeking from beneath it, Filch began looking around for the biggest thing he could get his hands on in case he'd need to knock this smiling lunatic unconscious.

Of all the people he expected to see, the former Defence Against the Dark Arts professor was the last person. It was difficult to forget the man; there had been daft teachers that briefly graced the corridors of Hogwarts, but Lockhart was at the very top of the list. Filch had often wondered why Dumbledore hired the man. It hadn't taken long to figure out that Lockhart was nothing but a fraud, yet at the very least he did offer some comedic relief to the school staff. The first term had barely started when a few of the teachers started a pool where each person guessed what outlandish tale the man would tell next.

Right now Lockhart's appearance was nearly identical to the one during his stint at Hogwarts, save for his hair which had grown dull from lack of expensive potions and an extensive styling regime. On top of that, the too-long strands flew every which way and was in dire need of a proper cut. This seemed to not matter to Lockhart, for his stance was as pompous as ever. Hands fisted at his waist, he stood grinning proudly at the pair as though he was decked in silken finery and awaiting fans at a book signing, instead of donning rumpled nightclothes in the middle of the utilitarian St. Mungo's corridor that smelled of bleach.

"I know, I know, it's almost too good to be true. But here we are, and good fortune finds you today! Though I must insist, one autograph per person. It wouldn't be fair to keep everyone else waiting."

Filch wanted to tell the cocksure man that there was no one else, and furthermore, he wouldn't wipe his arse with his autograph, but decided that playing it cool was safer.

"Maybe we should let this idiot sign something so we can get rid of him," Filch muttered to Hermione, who was wide-eyed yet nodded in agreement.

While Lockhart prattled on Filch dug into his coat pockets, desperate to find any scrap of parchment to shove into the man's hands.

"I can sign your pyjamas if you like!" Lockhart trilled at Hermione with a wink, his grin widening even further to neatly display all his teeth. "Anything is fine, really!"

"I don't think that'll be necessary," Filch gruffed, finally unearthing an old, crumpled shopping list from his left pocket. Unsurprisingly there was no quill or ink.

"Oh dear, that's only enough for one autograph. And I still need something to write with. Not to worry, my adoring fans! I'm sure one of these good people will obligingly lend me a quill. Stay right here, I won't be a moment!"

"That's our cue to get the hell out of here," Filch told Hermione as they watched Gilderoy flitter out of sight. "Better hurry before that nutter comes back."

"Hello there! Might you have a spare bit of parchment?" Gilderoy could be overheard asking somewhere down the corridor. "No? What about that book you're reading? You won't miss a page, just one tiny page? What about a bit of the corner? Also a quill, might you have a quill to loan me for a moment or two? And a pot of scented ink, jasmine preferably?"

Whoever Lockhart was begging for a piece of their book and a quill and scented ink was clearly in no mood to be harassed, for they could be heard telling the man to piss off before they settled him with a Sleeping Draught, quickly followed by asking how he'd managed to get out of his room.

Filch and Hermione didn't wait around to see what was going to be done about Lockhart's free-for-all around the hospital wing. Instead they hastily made their way back to Hermione's room and shut the door once they were inside.

"That were too bloody close for comfort," said Filch as Hermione sat on the edge of her bed. "Good thing he's mad as a hatter else we would have been caught for sure. Well I suppose I ought to be going, but I'll come back tomorrow if you like. Maybe I can find a way to sneak in that cat of yours."

Hermione let out a soft, audible gasp.

"Is that a yes?"

Hermione nodded.

"All right then, tomorrow. Now I'll get out of your hair."

A hug seemed too personal and a handshake was too impersonal, so Filch settled for an awkward pat on Hermione's shoulder before telling her goodbye.

Filch was unsurprised to find Crookshanks waiting right beyond his chamber's door, perched in a stance that was all business as he awaited the report concerning his mistress's condition. He was polite enough to refrain from pouncing on the caretaker this time, and patiently waited by Filch's feet as the man removed his boots.

"Your mummy is fine, cat," Filch snarled as he fiddled with a knot in his left laces. "I told her I'd try to sneak you in for a visit. So mind that you don't disappear tomorrow."

Crookshanks lowered his head and began licking his paw.

"That had better mean 'yes'. Now bugger off. I need a drink and my pipe."

With Mrs. Norris at his feet, a freshly filled flask tucked into an inner pocket and lit pipe jammed between his lips, Filch set off on a small excursion through the quiet, moonlit castle grounds.

The next two visits to St. Mungo's went more smoothly than the previous. Filch was able to go up to Hermione's room without a hitch, although he did notice a few odd glances aimed at the beat up brown leather satchel dangling from his fingertips.

Dobby had insisted upon helping Crookshanks into the rucksack. It didn't end well for the house-elf or Filch; Crookshanks made it clear that he did not want to be touched, and hissed before swiping his claws in Dobby's direction. Two long scratches along the side of Dobby's arm was warning enough for him to let go, and only then did Crookshanks calmly stroll into the bag and allow Filch to close it.

"Blast, cat, at least let me completely unzip the damn thing!" Filch grumbled when Crookshanks barely gave him a chance to open the bag the minute he set foot in Hermione's room. The half-kneazle clambered out the bag and bounded into Hermione's outstretched arms, dutifully accepting a series of tight hugs and kisses.

Crookshanks didn't mind the over-exuberant display of affection. He'd missed his mistress and while the crotchety old man had done a good job of looking after him, it wasn't the same. For one, he smelled completely different from her and two, her hands were a lot softer.

There was a brief interruption when the man explained that they were taking a walk down the corridor, and that if he let out a single 'meow' they'd be thrown out the hospital and his visit with Hermione would be cut short. The man also explained that Crookshanks would have to hide beneath his overcoat for a minute or two. Crookshanks was not happy about that, as it smelled of turpentine and tobacco. Thankfully his stint beneath the overcoat was short, and when Filch lifted him out and handed him over to Hermione, he set eyes on someone else he hadn't seen for some time.

His mistress was perched on the bed beside the sleeping man, and Crookshanks was compelled to go over and wake him up. His efforts were thwarted, however, as Hermione immediately caught him and pulled him back into her lap.

"Can't do that," said the old man. Crookshanks noticed that he sounded sad. "It's no use trying to wake him."

That bit of news was disappointing, but Crookshanks settled for resting a paw atop the dark man's hand. His mistress was holding onto that same hand, but she used her free hand to scratch his favourite spot at the back of his neck.

Crookshanks wished the dark man would wake up. he knew he'd been in a bad way the last time he'd seen him. Everything had been topsy turvy, and all he could hear was the old man yelling something about the dark man's neck to his mistress.

Neither the dark man nor his mistress had returned, but the old man mentioned something about a St. Mungo's and that his mummy and daddy were safe. The old man's speech had been somewhat slurred and his breath had been foul, but Crookshanks understood well enough. Still he worried, and not seeing Hermione for such a long time left him anxious. But as she now stroked and scratched his head, Crookshanks felt as though some things were being put right.

The old man wasn't the only sad one; Crookshanks didn't need to look at his mistress's face to see her misery. Unhappiness emanated from her centre, despite her appearance of trying to keep it together. She felt lost without her dark man. It wasn't enough that his body was merely next to her; without his usual snarls and witty repartee, the atmosphere was off. Crookshanks would have happily traded all the catnip in the world for the dark man to be brought back to normal, and would happily accept the man yelling him for napping on his desk, in his armchair, or atop his pillow.

The next few visits were the same. Filch smuggled Crookshanks into Hermione's room via rucksack, then down to Severus's room beneath his overcoat, and the tiny group remained at Severus's side for an hour or so. The late hour worked to their advantage as the hospital was less staffed at that time. Filch also managed to sneak a chair out of an empty room, and he sat comfortably while Hermione and her cat had their visit.

In Filch's opinion, things were going moderately well after taking into consideration all the tribulations of that year. It was true, the professor had yet to wake up, but Filch figured his body was still on the mend and it was only a matter of time before he was completely healed in the physical sense. Restoration of the Great Hall and main entrance to the school was almost complete, and Kingsley Shacklebolt was doing what he could to slowly restore order to the wizarding world.

It wasn't long before whispers about the disappearance of Severus Snape were heard throughout the castle. Potter had told the story about Severus being attacked by Nagini in the boathouse, and he assumed the headmaster succumbed to his injuries. Yet remained the mystery surrounding the absence of his body in the boathouse.

Some thought the headmaster had survived and gone into hiding, others thought perhaps the Death Eaters were somehow involved. However, five inhabitants of Hogwarts knew the truth behind the professor's disappearance: Filch, Dobby, and the three cats. Filch had no intention of divulging this knowledge and he made Dobby promise to keep his mouth shut. And unless the animals suddenly possessed the power of speech, Filch knew the secret was safe with them.

Unsurprisingly, most were unconcerned with Snape's disappearance. The whole story about Dumbledore asking Severus to bestow upon him a mercy killing was out, and it was known that Snape truly had been working for The Order the entire time. Yet that wasn't enough for everyone to rid themselves of their loathing of the man. That bothered Filch, especially after he remembered Severus telling him years ago that it wouldn't matter if people thought of him as a good or bad, because once someone made their mind up about a person, that view was the only one they would accept. This sort of close-minded thinking was something Filch was all too familiar with, and that was another reason why he had always been compelled to look out for Severus.

Filch would continue looking out for the man, but he was worried about the Ministry catching wind of the headmaster's whereabouts. He didn't think the professor would face the threat of Azkaban, but that didn't mean that he would not be subjected to some sort of issue with the Aurors.

Severus Snape wasn't the only one being talked about in hushed tones. Hermione Granger's name had also been brought up, and Filch overheard Potter saying that the last time he'd seen the girl was at Malfoy Manor. Potter claimed that she'd been tortured and he and Ron had been unable to save her, and Filch could tell that the young man harboured guilt over the event. Part of him wanted to tell Potter that his friend was alive and faring well as could be expected, but doing so would open the door to many questions that he was not prepared to answer.

"Your mates are asking about you," Filch told Hermione on his next visit. "They've not taken your disappearance too well."

Crookshanks was splayed across Hermione's lap, enjoying the sensation of her fingers stroking the top of his head. She stopped when she heard Filch mention Ron and Harry, and Crookshanks began pushing her head against her hand to make her continue.

"'Course I didn't tell them a thing, figured it's not my place to. Besides, they'll find out eventually."

Hermione knew Harry and Ron would learn that she was alive at some point. Still, it was nice hearing that she hadn't been forgotten about. There had been plenty of times over the course of the past year when sharing a tent with the boys had driven her mad, so mad that she wanted to kill Voldemort herself just so she could go back to a life that afforded her a bit of solitude, as well as a proper bedroom and bathroom. On the other hand, during that same time on more than one occasion, Hermione almost drove herself mad with the idea of losing her best friends. Ron leaving her and Harry in the lurch had made her sick with worry, as all she could think about was Snatchers catching him and torturing him. Then the night when Nagini attacked Harry when they visited Godric's Hollow had nearly been her complete undoing. There had been a few seconds where she thought he was going to die, and that idea left her terrified. Hermione had almost cried with relief when the ugly flush in Harry's cheeks faded as his fever finally dissipated. At that moment she realised that she didn't care about Ron leaving. She didn't care about how hurt and angry she'd been: she just wanted to know that he was safe.

Thoughts of Ron and Harry were interrupted when someone knocked on the door.

"Get under the bed!" Filch hissed at Crookshanks just as the door opened.

The tip of Crookshanks' bushy tail had just slipped beneath the bed when the person rounded the corner and smiled at Hermione, clearly only having eyes for her.

"Who're you?" Filch asked, although his words sounded rather like an accusation.

"R-Rook, sir," the young man stammered, jumping when he saw that Hermione wasn't alone. He peered nervously at Filch, then at Hermione, and back at Filch. "I only came to clear her supper tray. Meant to come by earlier but I got busy and didn't get a chance."

Filch grunted and continued giving Rook a hard stare until he caught Hermione shaking her head at him.

Please be nice, her eyes seemed to say. Filch harrumphed again but he toned down the hostility when he saw Hermione give the boy an encouraging smile as he picked up her tray and made a swift exit.

"He fancies ye. That much is plain to see," Filch commented, eyeing the small pile of chocolates Rook had left in what he thought was an inconspicuous manner in lieu of the empty tray.

Hermione gave a small shrug and held out one of the chocolates to Filch.

Filch declined by holding out a hand. "No thank you, besides, they were meant for you. But if that boy tries any funny business, you let me know and I'll break his arse."

The idea of Filch threatening someone on her behalf left Hermione both worried and touched. Mr. Filch wasn't able to use magic, but that had no bearing on the fact that the man had a sadistic streak and would happily follow through with his promise.

"Have you been outside at all since coming here?" Filch asked after they returned from their secret trip to Severus's room.

Hermione paused and tried to remember the last time she'd felt the sun on her cheek.

"I'm guessing that's a no," Filch replied. "It's not healthy to stay cooped up in here like this all day. You need fresh air. And at the very least you need to be around other people. I know this place is packed with nutters but even if they are annoying, it's better than being alone all day and night."

The last time she'd gone to the common room proved disastrous. She hadn't meant to scare the other patients but it happened anyway. Going for an afternoon stroll was a marvellous idea and much more preferable, but the idea of trying to convince the Mediwitches to let her outside was laughable.

"Not to worry, we'll sort it out."

The following day, Filch's words floated around in Hermione's mind. His point was quite valid—she did need some sort of socialisation. Of course that was difficult seeing as how limited her communication was, but it was better than staying in her room all day.

Although ten minutes into sitting in the common area made her long for the quiet solitude of her room. Everything was too loud, too bright, and the only reading material was a small pile of battered children's books that looked as though their covers had been chewed on. To top it off, one of the residents had taken to spinning round and round at random, and she was steadily making her way in Hermione's direction. It was plain to see that the woman was getting dizzy, and Hermione wondered why one of the staff didn't stop her. One more twirl and she was going to either fall on the floor, or topple right into someone's lap.


That familiar voice drew Hermione's attention away from the twirling woman, and she found herself staring up at a gaped-mouth Neville Longbottom.

"I'm here to see my parents. How... How are you? How long have you been here?" Neville asked as he sat down next to Hermione, nervously yammering away. He sported a fading black eye, and purplish bruises on the cusp of healing covered his hands and wrists. "Ron and Harry don't know you're here, do they? Last I'd heard they thought you..."

Died was obviously on the tip of his tongue, but Neville's face flushed pink as he stopped himself.

"Are you all right? You look all right, but I'm guessing something isn't right if you're in here. You're welcome to stop me whenever you want, by the way. I know I'm being annoying."

Hermione rested her hand on Neville's forearm and shook her head.

"So... Are you going to be here for long, or...?"

Hermione gave a little shrug and turned her head. A woman wearing fluffy blue slippers was heavily engaged with caressing one of the tall potted plants that decorated the sitting area. Just as she was about to take off her dressing gown and put it on the plant, a Healer came over and gently explained that the plant was fine without clothes, and she could keep her dressing gown.

"That's my mum," Neville continued, deliberately avoided Hermione's eye when she turned to look at him. "Dad's over there too." Neville pointed to a man sitting quietly across from them. "I'd introduce you but they don't talk much. They don't even know who I am."

Even though Neville said this somewhat matter-of-factly, there was a hint of sadness beneath the façade and Hermione gave his arm another reassuring pat.

"At least Bellatrix is dead. Ron's mum saw to that when she tried to kill Ginny."

Hermione tensed when she heard Bellatrix's name. Images of Bellatrix's twisted smile as she was tortured at Malfoy Manor still flooded her subconscious at night. Sleeping next to Severus had been a comfort and helped to ease her nightmares, but it wasn't as though she could sneak down the corridor and slip into bed with him now. As she had no watch or clock, it was hard to pinpoint the exact time the Mediwitches made their rounds. Furthermore, it would be hard, impossible even, to explain why she was in bed with the unconscious man.

"Sorry, I've been prattling on ever since I saw you. Am I bothering you? Are you not in the mood for talking? Because if you are, that's fine and I'll leave you to it."

Neville moved to stand up and Hermione placed a hand on his arm to stop him. When he looked at her questioningly, Hermione sighed as she tried to explain her silence via pantomime.

"You're having trouble with your throat... Do you need water? Tea?" Neville guessed. "You lost your voice... you can't talk... Really? You can't talk? What happened? Oh, right, you can't answer that. Sorry. Blimey, did someone curse you or something?"

As Neville attempted to surmise Hermione's affliction, she'd been nodding or shaking her head. But when he asked if she'd been cursed, it made her pause.

Hermione didn't know why she was unable to speak. She had vague memories of Severus asking her the same question, but she truly had no idea. The feel of Bellatrix's blade cutting into her skin was unforgettable, and the bone-breaking pain of suffering round after round of the Cruciatus curse was something she unfortunately would never forget, but everything after that was foggy.

"Can you write? Maybe we could try that. I don't have a quill though so I'd have to ask one of the staff, but the one on duty is sort of touchy if you interrupt her while she's doing her crossword."

It didn't matter that Neville had no quill or parchment, because he caught his mum trying to dress the potted plant again and he sprang out his seat to run over to her.

"Sorry about that," Neville apologised when he returned. He'd managed to cajole his mother into sitting at the table with a puzzle, and she had busied herself with turning one piece round and round between her fingers. Her husband sat next to her, watching with great interest. "Grandmother's waiting for me so I have to go soon, but I'll come back soon if you like. Now that everything's over I try to visit mum and dad as often as possible."

After Neville hugged her goodbye, Hermione decided that she'd had her fill of people for the day and returned to her room. She spent the rest of the afternoon reading, only pausing to have a bath after dinner. A couple hours later, someone knocked on her door.

"Hello dear, are you awake?" someone asked after pushing open Hermione's door. Hermione was relieved to see that it was the nice Mediwitch. "I'm sorry to bother you, but there's someone who is most insistent upon seeing you. Are you up for a visitor?"

She had been on the verge of dozing off but curiosity got the best of her, and Hermione nodded.

"Shall I fetch your robe while he waits outside?" asked the Mediwitch, flicking her wand at an empty space in the room and making a chair appear.

Hermione smiled her thanks and accepted the robe when the older woman handed it over. She doubted it was Filch waiting outside her door, and didn't think Neville had returned so quickly.

"You may come in now," the Mediwitch called, beckoning in the person. "She needs her rest so mind that you keep it short."

"I will," the person replied, still standing outside the door. The Mediwitch stepped aside to let him in and shut the door behind her. Hermione's mouth fell open when she saw her visitor.

"Hello, Hermione."

Untidy black hair that stood up in the back, bright green eyes behind a pair of round glasses, and a lightning-bolt shaped scar on the person's forehead. These things belonged to one and only one person she knew, and Hermione flew across the room and into their arms.

"I thought you were... I didn't know what to think," Harry managed to get out from beneath the bushy curtain of curls drowning his face. "I'm so sorry, Hermione. We tried to get back to you but everything got so fucked up—"

Harry was on the verge of tears and Hermione reeled him back in by tugging him over to the chair and making him sit. Once he was settled, she perched at the edge of her bed and rested her tightly clasped hands in her lap.

"Sorry for barging in on you like this," Harry began, sounding marginally calmer, "but when Neville told me he saw you, I had to come and see for myself. Neville also said you can't speak; is that true?"

The sad look on Hermione's face was enough of an answer for him.

"I'm sorry, I'm so damn sorry this happened to you. And I'm so sorry it took me this long to find you. It's been nothing but madness day after day."

Hermione wanted to tell Harry that she didn't blame him or Ron, that it wasn't their fault she'd got stuck at Malfoy Manor.

"I didn't tell Ron I was coming. I figured I'd see how things went first considering all he's going through. Right, you wouldn't know what's going on cos you've been here. Fred was badly hurt during the battle. We hope he's going to be all right but it's hard to say just yet."

A heavy curtain of silence fell, but it wasn't enough to hide the fact that Harry was bursting with questions.

"Do you, erm, do you know why you can't speak?"

Hermione shook her head.

"What about the Healers? The Mediwitches? Someone must know something."

Hermione knew that Harry was just spouting off whatever came to mind, much like people tended to do when faced with a crisis. But fact remained that no one could pinpoint the cause of Hermione's affliction. Mumblings of some sort of curse had been tossed about, but even the most experienced of Healers was unable to help.

Two hours was the amount of time the senior most Healer spent with Hermione, waving his wand about and casting a multitude of diagnostic spells that gave the same results each time. The man reeked of garlic and his bedside manner was brusque and impersonal. Annoyed at having no luck, the Healer stalked out the exam room without uttering a single word to his patient. Hermione had been left sitting on the cot, feeling as though she had done something wrong.

"I don't want you to think I'm rushing off, but I promised the Mediwitch that I wouldn't stay long. I'll come back though, and if you need anything, just let me know... Right, you can't exactly do that at the moment. Well we'll work out something."

Harry stood up and opened his mouth. He paused, as if reconsidering, but continued.

"Fred isn't the only person Ron's worried sick over, you know. Do you want me to tell him that I saw you?"

Hermione didn't want to heap additional stress onto the head of her other best friend, but knew that Harry holding back this bit of information would only serve to make things worse. So she nodded, letting Harry know that it was fine to tell Ron.

After giving Harry one last hug that was less bone-crushing than the first, Hermione waved good-bye and found herself left with more tumultuous thoughts for company.

Seeing Harry had been wonderful as well as a welcomed break from the monotony, yet also highly surreal. She'd missed her best friend, but seeing him in the flesh merely reinforced those feelings. It also made Hermione slightly desolate as she realised just how isolated she had been for the past few months. She even looked forward to seeing Ron, which was something she rarely had cause to say in the past.

Shortly after breakfast the next day, Harry returned with Ron in tow. There was the same display of hugging as the day before, only Ron didn't try to hide the fact that he was crying in Hermione's hair. Once he let go, he apologised for wetting her with his tears. Two minutes later, he saw the remainders of Hermione's rashers and asked if she planned on finishing it. Hermione laughed as she passed him her tray.

"Clearly some things never change," said Harry, shaking his head as Ron shoved the last bits into his mouth.

As much as Hermione had been looking forward to this visit, part of her secretly hoped that Ron and Harry would soon say their goodbyes. Just sitting with Harry the day before had been wonderful yet uncomfortable due to her inability to speak. It was plain that he found the situation just as awkward. Yet Ron, who had never been known for having tact, didn't think twice about stating the obvious. Hermione knew he hadn't meant to hurt her feelings, and yes, he was telling the truth, but saying so served no purpose.

Ron's offhand comment about "Well this is odd, you not talking and all," made Hermione wonder if she was going to get her voice back, and if not, what her life was going to be like once she left St. Mungo's.

The irony of it all was that Severus Snape, a man known to have the warmth and compassion of an executioner, was the only one who didn't make her feel like a freak for not being able to speak. She knew that Mr. Filch had been uneasy around her, but he also managed to not make her feel like an anomaly.

It wasn't easy with only two of three people keeping up a dialogue while trying to keep their silent counterpart included, but it was manageable. The upside to it all was Ron asking if Hermione needing anything. She had barely finished pantomiming her request when Ron blurted out, "Let me guess, the library here is rubbish and you need some books?"

That was a bit of needed levity, and the three laughed until Ron began hiccoughing.

"I was sort of joking, but we'll bring you anything you want," Ron promised once he caught his breath. "Including every book we come across."

"All right, Hermione, we'll be going now but we'll have those books tomorrow," Harry told her. "If you need anything else I'll be at the school."

That goodbye wasn't hard to make, but Hermione found herself growing increasingly agitated over the idea that she might never get her voice back. What would she do? How would she survive on her own? Would Severus still want her?

The whole thing made her chest tight with anxiety and Hermione stayed in her room for the rest of the day.

That evening after the ward had quieted down, Hermione decided to visit Severus. Just sitting next to him somehow loosened the ball of tension in her belly, and he was the only person she wanted to be near.

When the timing was right, she carefully made her way back to Severus's room. It was odd without Mr. Filch and Crookshanks tagging along, but right now Hermione preferred a twosome instead of a quartet.

As usual, the lamps were burning low and giving the bare minimum of light. It was enough for Hermione to notice that the bandages on Severus's chest and neck had been changed to smaller ones. It was also enough light for her to locate a chair and drag it to his bedside. After sitting down and searching for Severus's hand through the pile of blankets, Hermione wove her fingers through his and rested her forehead on the mattress.

Hermione didn't realise she had fallen asleep until the sensation of fingers in her hair caused her eyes to open.

"This is one of those weird 'Am I awake or am I asleep' things, isn't it?" she murmured, looking around to remember where she was yet seeing nothing but dark.

"It would appear so."

Seeing Severus in this light was not clear; he seemed close yet so far, and it was almost as though Hermione was looking through a pair of glasses that weren't meant for her eyes. But the sound of Severus's voice sounded close, and his skin against hers felt quite real.

"Usually you're never this quiet," Severus commented.

"I know," Hermione sighed. "I suppose I'm exhausted from trying to keep up with everyone else today. You wouldn't think it's tiring to sit and listen to people drone on, but it is. I have to at least give the illusion of being alert lest they think something's wrong. I mean, obviously something is wrong because I can't talk but—"

"Hermione, I'm the last person you need to explain yourself to or tire yourself by putting on a farce. Rest if you need to."

"I don't want to close my eyes. I don't want this to end."

"This separation is merely temporary, sweet girl. Did I not promise that I'd never leave you?"

"You did."

"Yes, I did, and I don't make promises that I cannot keep. Now, do you plan on spending this little time we have together with a debate because if so, I have a better alternative."

"Do you? And what might that be?" Hermione asked as she rested her head on the pillow next to Severus's and reached for his hand.

"You've sussed it out already, which is no surprise. You've always been a fast learner when it came to most things."

"'Most things.' Should I feel insulted?"

"Not at all. No one knows everything, Hermione, not even me. Even if I give the opposite impression."

"And to think, all this time I believed you were omniscient."

"Omniscient my arse. If that was the case, I could have saved myself a world of trouble and avoided nearly getting beheaded by that fucking snake."

"I don't know how you manage to speak about that so glibly," Hermione muttered, distressed by the instant flashback of Severus bleeding out as she clutched onto him. "There are a lot of things I can't remember now, but seeing you that night is something I can't forget no matter how hard I try."

"I'm sorry, Hermione. I didn't mean to upset you. But better to laugh about it than to cry; after all, I'm still here."

"I know, but it's still not funny," Hermione sniffled.

"If it's any consolation, I didn't find it funny at the moment of attack," Severus confessed in a wry tone." I have no trouble admitting that I was terrified. And before you really start blubbering and soak my pyjamas, might I remind you again that I am here. Right here with you, like I promised. Now no more chat. We both need our rest and it's terribly rude of you to keep an ill man awake."

That comment made Hermione feel a little less forlorn, and she managed a weak laugh before closing her eyes and drifting off.

"Wake up, Hermione. Go back to your room before you're caught."

Hermione didn't want to wake up, and she definitely did not want to leave her wandmate's side. But Severus had a point, and she forced herself to sit up.

"I'll come back," she promised through a yawn. "I'll come back later."

"I promise not to leave."

It was odd feeling as though she'd woken up twice, but the moment she pressed her lips to Severus's during their joined dream state, Hermione felt herself awaken suddenly as though a bucket of ice water had been dumped over her head and she almost fell out her chair. Everything was still muddled and it took a few seconds to clear her head, but upon feeling another hand in hers, Hermione remembered that she'd sneaked into Severus's room for a visit. She looked over to see him lying in bed, his eyes closed and his body in the same position as when she first came into his room. Bits of their mental exchange lingered in her mind, but grasping onto them was like trying to catch smoke.

This was the part she found most distressing; besides having to go back to her cold, empty bed, she felt as though she was abandoning Severus yet again. And while meeting him in her dreams was better than nothing, upon waking she felt desolate and empty, her heart aching as she yearned for the real thing.

Not remembering everything of their exchange bothered Hermione, but she did recall Severus telling her to go. She dragged her chair back to its original spot and prepared to make her goodbyes. Wanting a real kiss this time, she leaned over Severus with opened eyes. Just as she carefully touched her lips to his, giving him the barest of kisses that was feather light as it was sweet, Hermione found herself frozen in place when his eyes fluttered opened partway and stared straight into hers.