A/N: Hello! Here's my latest... an introspective story about what can come from guilt and friendship and respect, and how transformative the process of falling in love can be. This one will end up around 60,000 words. Rated M for language and some naughtiness (although nothing citrusy in this chapter.)

This chapter was alphaed by Aurette, but ages ago. (Hi, A!) Any spelling and grammar mistakes you see are mine.

It's good to be back with my SSHG peeps. :)

Chapter One

The cottage sat tucked behind the main house, shrouded by a stand of poplar trees. It was visible if one knew to look for it, but Snape had ensured that it came equipped with a potent Notice-Me-Not charm to keep busybodies away. After decades working as a spy for an ungrateful populace, he was ready to slip into graceful anonymity in the Muggle world. No Boy-Who-Got-Lucky pounding on the door to ask pointed and painful questions about Lily. No Howlers from witches or wizards who'd never even lifted a wand to fight. No need to constantly rehash the past.

No. Here in his little Muggle cottage in the heart of the Cotswolds, blissful stillness cocooned him. Snape settled into his favorite reading chair in the library, enjoying the hiss of the leather sinking beneath his weight, and placed his tumbler of pumpkin juice on a coaster on his side table. In the grate, a wood fire popped and crackled. With a deep sigh of contentment, Snape opened his book and reached to take a sip of his drink.

He rolled it around his mouth before swallowing. It wasn't firewhisky, but it'd have to do. He was just about to dive into chapter one of a thoroughly un-edifying mystery novel when he heard a tap on the door.

"Sir?" he heard.

He sighed and ignored it.

Another rap sounded on his door. "Open up! My hands are full. I'm knocking with my boot."

He stood up, took a moment to catch his breath, and then walked to the door. Snape paused, hand curled over his stuttering, pounding heart as he waited for his heartbeat to settle. Fucking Nagini.

"Snape! I know you're in there."

"For god's sake, stop yammering. I'm coming, Granger."

He opened the door and saw her standing there, her hair writhing like a venomous tentacula in the wind. Her cheeks were ruddy from the cold air, and she held a large plate of biscuits covered in plastic wrap.

She smiled at him hopefully and jiggled the plate. "Can I come in? I brought you biscuits…" Her breath steamed in the frigid air.

"I don't really think that's necessary, do you? I'm perfectly capable of ingesting gingerbread by myself. Eating is one of the few things you said I could do on my own."

She huffed. "Come on, Snape. I'm freezing my tits off, it's so cold out here."

He stared at her, standing there on his doorstep with her horrid hair and hopeful eyes, and he thought she's so young. Then he tried to remember the last time someone other than Granger had made him biscuits—or done him any kindness really—and couldn't. So he stepped aside, ushering her in with a formal hand. "Please come in."

She swanned into the kitchen, juggling the plate between her hands as she shed layers. After throwing her red wool coat and nubby scarf over one of his chairs, she peeled off the plastic wrap and thrust the biscuits toward him.

"Here! They're still warm. Eat one."

They did smell good, like cinnamon and nutmeg and Christmas, and maybe if he ate one, she'd be happy and leave him in peace, instead of tromping around his house in her snow boots, disturbing his quiet. Sighing as if he were doing her a favor, he reached out and picked up a gingerbread bear by the ear.

"If you insist." He took a bite, rolling the piece of biscuit around his mouth. Holy hell. His eyelids drooped in pleasure. Ever so slightly cakey, the gingerbread gave beneath his crooked teeth, and spices rolled over his taste buds in a pleasurable wave.

"Well?" she asked him, her eyes shining.

"It's not terrible," he said after swallowing. He cleared his throat. "I'm not gagging on it or anything."

She laughed. "That's a relief."

Granger watched him, her mouth pursed, and Snape shifted in discomfort. He took a moment to study the carefully-piped green icing bow tie with white spots and the shiny, candy eyes. "I feel a bit guilty. I'm clearly eating a domesticated bear. He looks like he's on his way to his job as a loan officer at Gringotts."

"Then don't feel bad. If he works for a bank, he's probably done something to deserve having his head bitten off." Hermione turned away from him to place the biscuits on his worktop, and Snape allowed his mouth to curl into an amused smile.

"Probably," he said. "Can I offer you a cup of tea?

"I have to run and meet Victor in an hour, but I'd love a quick cuppa." She winked. "I also plan on eating some of your biscuits."

"How I hope that's a euphemism. Sit down." Snape gestured to the small table nestled in his bay window, and then moved to pick up the kettle from his cooker and fill it with water. He shoved it under the faucet, and as he listened to the round sound of the water sloshing in the belly, he worried at his magic like a sore tooth.

"Stop that," Granger said. "I can feel you do that, you know."

"Mind your business." He slipped the kettle onto the burner and turned up the heat.

"I'm your healer. It is my business."

"Ah, ah, ah. Healer-in-training. Lofgren is my healer."

"And Lofgren is my mentor. I'm telling you that if you don't leave it alone, your magic might never recuperate. You don't poke and prod at a gaping wound, do you?" Her tone was prim.

Snape growled, "Gods, you're an insufferable know-it-all."

"That one lost its sting years ago, Professor."

He rolled his eyes, picked up the plate of gingerbread, and moved to sit with her at the table. He sighed with relief and took several deep breaths, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Granger watched him out of the corner of her eye.

"How are you feeling?" Her voice was business-like, but brittle, and Snape knew better.

He looked at her. "Stop that."

"Does the new medication seem to be steadying your… your heart at all?" Her eyes glossed over with what he suspected were tears.

"Granger, you've got to stop. It's enough. What you've done is enough." He hesitated for a moment before reaching out to cover her hand with his. "I'm getting better."

"Well, whatever I can do to help…" The words cracked in the back of her throat, and she blinked rapidly.

He sighed. "Please, Gra—Hermione. We don't need to go over this again. I'm alive. I'm getting better. You didn't know. You were just a child."

A tear spilled down her cheek. And then another.

Snape stood and walked toward the cooktop where the kettle was hissing. He'd prepare the tea and give her time to collect herself. He stretched the ritual out, carefully swirling hot water in the teapot to heat the translucent blue glass, before dumping it out into the sink. He poured in fresh hot water, and eased in a tea flower. It unfurled its petals one by one, blossoming and drowning all at once.

"It was unforgivable, what I did. I was so sure Nagini was a mamba."

"You saw her for just a second at Godric's Hollow. And it's not like you had access to a Pensieve while you were on the run. It's an understandable mistake." He didn't turn around. He took his time, placing the teapot in the center of a tray with two china cups.

"And then I didn't trust you to have a back up plan. You, the premier Potions master in Scotland." It sounded as if she was still crying.

Snape turned and walked to the table. "Please, Hermione. Premier Potions master in the entire UK." The china clinked lightly as he set the tea service in front of her.

She hiccoughed and laughed for just a second. "Okay. In the entire UK. Maybe in all of Europe."

"That's more like it." He poured her a cup and handed it to her. Snape saw her shiver when their fingers brushed.

"I didn't bother to check your vitals. I thought I knew better than you. I poured that Blood Coagulant Potion down your throat, and immediately realized my mistake. I can't stop thinking about how you looked when you began to seize. How your breathing slowed. How your pulse faded. How your arms and legs… Well." She stuttered to a stop, sounding as if her throat had closed and choked off the words.

"If Nagini had been a mamba, you likely would have saved my life. I would have bled out before I made it to St. Mungos."

"Don't try to placate me. If Nagini had been a mamba, then you would have taken the steps necessary to counteract that venom. But she wasn't. She was a viper." She crossed her arms over her chest and stood up to pace in the small confines of his kitchen. "I read Healer Pelham's report you know. The coagulant turned your blood to jelly in your veins. I nearly killed you, Snape."

"Drink your tea, Granger." He sighed. "And come sit down. You're exhausting me." Snape didn't pick up his own cup. Instead, he gripped the edge of the table to hide his shaking hands.

She plopped in her chair, and together they stared out his window.

The view was nothing special, just the back of the main house—Hermione's house, but Snape loved it. He'd loved it right from the beginning, when he was too sick to do more than just sit and snooze for hours at a time. After decades in the dank hell of the dungeons, the windows of his old quarters offering nothing more than the darkness at the bottom of the lake and quick glimpses of bone white fish with lamp-like eyes, the sun that streamed in his kitchen windows was a benediction. He was so close to the world outside. He was present. Both of his masters were dead, and he was in the light, and he was free. In his first week home, he was a trembling wreck of a man, but he was free.

He was transformed.

"Hermione," he said and then stopped. "Hermione, did you know you were the only person to come back to the Shrieking Shack to look for me?" He took a nervous sip of his tea. "Everyone else left me for dead. I laid there for hours. If you hadn't come, I wouldn't have made it until St. Mungo's. My Stasis Spell was already flickering. I was dying."

She took a trembling breath and turned to look at him.

"And do you know how many people came to visit me in St. Mungo's? You. Just you. But you came every day after your classes."

She wiped her eyes on a serviette he'd intended for their tea.

"When I heard my home had been destroyed, and the Ministry had seized my Gringotts account, who gave me a place to live?"

"I did," she whispered.

"And who brought me Christmas biscuits that I do not hate at all?"

She smiled at last, and Snape breathed a sigh of relief, feeling a knot uncoil in his stomach as he saw the lines around her eyes ease.

"I cannot absolve you of making a mistake. But I can be grateful that you cared enough to make that mistake. If you hadn't, I would have died in a pool of my own worst memories." He felt the edges of his mouth curl in his best not-quite-a-smile.

Reaching forward, Hermione grabbed his right hand and pulled it to her lips. She placed one kiss in the center of his palm, and Snape felt the tips of his fingers catch the tears still leaking from the corners of her eyes. His world narrowed to the places they touched: their hands, his right knee and her left, her eyelashes and his fingers.

"Thank you." She pressed one more kiss to his palm, before letting go and standing up. Swiping at her eyes one more time, she picked up her scarf and wrapped it around her neck before sliding into her jacket. "Thank you for listening to me and letting me cry all over you."

"Let's not make a habit of it, Granger." He looked her up and down. "Run home and wash your face before you meet up with Mr. Krum. You look like you've been at a funeral."

"I'll be by later, all right?"

He nodded, but did not watch her leave. The door closed behind her, and Snape just sat at his kitchen table, his right hand curled in his lap. He ate a biscuit and drank his tea.

A/N: Like it, love it, hate it, review it.