He went over to where Hermione had left the last yearbook lying on the floor and put it back on the shelf. He had known that she had realized the truth the moment he saw her sitting on the floor, pouring over the book. She was much too intelligent not to figure it out.
Perhaps he had said something about Lily under the influence of the potion? But no, Hermione had seemed genuinely surprised, shocked even. And that was no wonder; the thought of there being any connection between Lily and him must be disturbing.
But why did he feel this strange ache? Probably because he'd have to talk to Hermione now and explain everything. That would be it, yes. He was only glad that Dumbledore hadn't been a witness to the scene. Perhaps he should go and talk to her right away? She must be rather confused, although, come to think about it, her emotional reaction had surprised him a little.
He didn't really know where to look for Hermione, but her room seemed like a logical starting point. And when he arrived at the door, he heard noises which indicated that she was inside.
Snape furrowed his brow. It sounded as if she were laughing. How strange. He had expected all kinds of reactions, but laughter hadn't been high on his list. He carefully stepped closer to check if he had heard right. Now the noises coming from her room sounded like sobs. But surely that was even less likely than laughter. Why should she be crying?
Suddenly the noises stopped. Snape felt rather odd, standing outside her room, trying to pick up what was going on inside. If she was crying shouldn't he go in and comfort her? The odd pain he had felt earlier was back again.
But probably it'd be best to just leave her alone. Snape took a silent step back from the door. Yes, give her time to come to terms with what she had found out. And then answer her questions. That seemed like a good idea. And so Snape turned and went back to his study, trying to ignore the strange ache in his chest.
It was nearly an hour later when Hermione left her room to find Snape. She couldn't keep away too long, couldn't risk that her behaviour seemed strange to him and that he started suspecting what was behind it. He mustn't know that she had any feelings for him or it would ruin the tentative friendship they had built up during the last years.
She found him sitting on a bench in front of the house, reading. To Hermione's surprise, Crookshanks was curled up next to him.
Hermione hesitated in the doorframe, but Snape, who had obviously heard her, turned towards her, put away his book and looked at her expectantly.
"I came to apologize," Hermione said nervously, fervently hoping that her face didn't betray the pain she was still feeling and the unexpected tenderness that had washed over her when she had seen him sitting there with the cat. "It was an accident. I never wanted to pry into your past."
Snape's face looked guarded, but there was no anger in it as Hermione waited anxiously for his reply.
"You don't have to apologize," he said after a few moments. "It was only a matter of time until you would have found out about it. I should have told you. Please, sit down."
Hermione sat down on his left side. She was grateful that Crookshanks was lying between them so she could stroke him and look down on him and didn't have to meet Snape's eyes.
"I suppose now a lot of things suddenly make sense to you," he said in a slightly sardonic tone.
"Yes, they do." Hermione looked up but kept on stroking Crookshanks, whose deep purring was somewhat soothing. "That's why Dumbledore always trusted you, isn't it?"
Hermione hesitated. "And that's why you protected Harry – and yet hated him so much. Because he wasn't your son."
Something flared up in Snape's eyes and he drew in his breath, but he stifled whatever reply had come to his lips. Hermione held his gaze and they stared at each other for several moments. "Perhaps," he finally said.
Now it was his turn to look down on the cat and to start scratching him behind the ears. Crookshanks closed his eyes in ecstasy and his purring increased even more. A quick smile flitted across Snape's face but was gone immediately. Silence descended.
"I met Lily when we were children," Snape eventually said, still looking down on the cat. "I lived close by, and I had noticed her, even though she certainly never noticed me. I had realised that she had the same powers that I had even though her parents were muggles. She was…a sweet girl, friendly and beautiful, and I thought that perhaps we could become friends. And surprisingly enough we did. I told you that my childhood wasn't happy, but Lily…" He paused for a while, and then went on. "Her friendship meant a lot to me. She meant a lot to me. I told her about Hogwarts and when she finally got the letter she was very happy. But probably not as happy as I was."
He paused again. "The problems started when Lily was sorted into Gryffindor, of course. But she still kept up the contact, in spite of what everyone told her about Slytherins in general and me in particular. She was a very good friend. Later I…developed feelings for her..." His voice was strangely matter of fact but he still didn't look at Hermione and she was grateful for that. "Perhaps I had had them right from the beginning, I don't know. And of course I noticed that there were other boys, especially in Gryffindor, who would have been happy to be her boyfriend. I was very stupid then," he said with a bitter smile, "I was afraid that I couldn't offer her enough. I was nobody, neither rich, powerful nor popular or handsome… I was a freak and no one could understand why she was still talking to me…"
Hermione felt a wave of sadness and tenderness. She wanted to reach out to comfort him, but knew that she couldn't do it.
"I was afraid of losing her," Snape went on, still staring down on the cat, "and finally in my fifth year I thought I had found a way to impress her, to show her that I was as good as Potter who was sneaking around her like a cat around cream. Because suddenly some of the most popular and powerful elder Slytherins were taking an interest in me. How stupid I was… Lily, of course, recognized them for what they were. She was not impressed, on the contrary, she loathed that I was spending more and more time with them. But for me their acquaintance seemed like a great chance. I was flattered that they were interested in me although I was a half-blood. My relationship with Lily deteriorated, until finally I said something I couldn't take back. I called her Mudblood, and for her that was the end of our friendship. I tried to apologize but she wouldn't forgive me. After that I became more and more entangled with Voldemort's pupils. And she got together with Potter."
Snape paused, his hand resting on Crookshanks' back. Suddenly he looked up and met Hermione's eyes. "I didn't see her again after we graduated," he went on in a strangely flat voice. "I joined ranks with Voldemort and tried to prove my worth to him, to finally get into a position of power. But it was hard. I couldn't offer him anything, neither wealth, nor connections or power. Only myself. And that I did. By chance I learned that Dumbledore would interview Trelawney for a teaching post, and I thought that perhaps some kind of information could be gathered…"
He drew in his breath harshly. "Thus it came that I heard the prophecy. How proud I was to have something so valuable to give to my lord!" His bitter laugh chilled Hermione. "It was only later that I found out what people Voldemort thought the prophecy was about. I had delivered Lily to him."
Snape stopped. His eyes were boring into hers, but it was as if he didn't see her. "I pleaded for her," he whispered. "And when that didn't help I went to Dumbledore. I promised him everything he wanted, just as long as he kept Lily safe. But then Pettigrew betrayed them and she died. I only hope she never knew that it was I who told Voldemort the prophecy. But I've never dared to ask Dumbledore."
Snape fell silent. "I am so sorry," Hermione whispered. She felt cold and shocked and very sad.
He looked at her with a curious expression in his eyes, then slowly his faraway look vanished. "You are crying," he said with a hint of surprise, and she noticed that, indeed she was. "You shouldn't cry for me, I don't merit it."
Hermione shrank from the self-loathing in his voice, and suddenly became aware that both of them had stopped stroking Crookshanks and that her hand was lying over his. Like her, Snape looked down at their hands, quickly took his away and turned to look out into the garden.
Hermione felt a sudden stab of pain at this. Her need to comfort him was overwhelming, but she knew that she had to be careful or Snape would recoil from her. "Lily would be proud of you," she finally said.
Snape's head jerked towards her, a mixture of pain and anger in his eyes. "How can you say that," he hissed. "Not only did I betray her, I couldn't even save her son – nor your lover."
Hermione winced and for a second there was a spark of triumph in his eyes, pleasure that he had hurt her. But it vanished immediately and only sadness remained. "I am sorry," he said in a low voice. "You needn't try to make me feel better. There is nothing you can say that will lessen my guilt."
Hermione felt new tears building up behind her eyes, but forced them back. You have lived with your guilt so long now, it's all that you have, isn't it? It's what you are, what made you go on living. Oh Severus. "You saved me," she stated quietly. "Without you I'd be dead."
There was a strange light in his eyes. "Yes," he replied slowly. "And I am glad I did."
Their eyes locked and after what seemed like a long time it was Snape who looked away first. "I think we ought to check on the potion," he said in his normal, dispassionate voice, got up and went into the house.