Rating: R. Not sure exactly where this will end up going, but I'm leaving myself room to grow.

Pairing: Hermione Granger/Severus Snape

Disclaimer: Harry Potter and everything about it belong to the awesomeness that is J.K. Rowling. This is, if anything, just an exercise in writing, and hopefully someone might derive some meaning from it.

Feedback: Leave a comment! I plan on trying to reply to every comment.

Notes: I've pretty much doubled the length of the first chapter here. And yes, the title/chapter names come from the Dashboard Confessional album.

A Mark

Breathe in for luck,
breathe in so deep,
this air is blessed,
you share with me.

"Severus Snape, you have a visitor. She will be arriving in five minutes. I thought you might want a little advance notice."

Two heavy eyelids rose slowly, revealing a pair of piercing black eyes. The man moved nothing else … not a muscle twitched, not a word was uttered to signal his acknowledgement. He felt sluggish, not just in body, but in his mind, as well. He had waged a constant mental battle for over twenty years, but now he felt just plain lackadaisical.

He watched the unfamiliar medi-witch leave, and noticed that she glanced back at him, with a look of…awe? He slowly began to take in his surroundings, merely moving his eyes over the confines of the room. His entire body felt as though it was encased in a lead cask, and it seemed that he was incapable of performing even the most basic physical movement. He tried in vain to lift his head, but that mere moment of strain left him exhausted.

His wand hand twitched slightly as he realized that he was in the infirmary at Hogwarts.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry …both his sanctuary and his hell …

While it had once been his only refuge from the world, and the monster that he had become, his last real memories had been of exile from the only place he had ever called home, and the only people who had ever accepted him. At once, a surge of visions accosted him with the force of a thousand Stunning spells.

The Headmaster … He had killed Albus Dumbledore. He had been appointed Headmaster himself. He had dueled McGonagall and Flitwick.

But, what then? he asked himself.

The final battle had taken place – the Horcruxes were destroyed. Potter, that insufferable twit, had been dueling the Dark Lord on the grounds by Albus' tomb, while Snape had been preventing other Death Eaters from interfering.

Confusion swept over him like cold water, and a moment of panic betrayed itself on his face.

Who had won?

For the life of him, Snape couldn't remember anything further. Whoever had won, he must still be in mortal danger. He remembered the threats and the pure hatred on Potter's face when he'd seen Snape at the final battle, not yet having witnessed Snape's memories in the pensive. He also remembered Voldemort's fury when he had realized Snape's duplicity.

That had been the plan all along, he remembered, to reveal himself as a traitor to the Dark Lord at a moment that would give Harry an opening to finish it once and for all. Of course, the Order never knew that, he thought to himself bitterly. Dumbledore's infuriating insistence on secrecy had dug his grave.

Oh yes, he remembered that glorious moment of betrayal vividly. He had sensed that the duel was reaching a stalemate, even though Potter had become quite a powerful duelist. His face sneered slightly at his own admission. Potter had held his own with the Dark Lord, while still refraining from using Dark Magic, much like Albus had refused to do during his life time – mostly to prove a point. The side of the Right could win without defiling itself.

That defilement was reserved for Severus.

Picking his moment carefully, he had firmly stepped into Voldemort's view and torn off his robe and mask, thrown them to the ground, and made a great show of obliterating them with a powerful 'Reducto'.

Yes, that was immensely satisfying, Snape remembered with a smirk.

The Dark Lord had turned, momentarily distracted by the traitor in his midst, and had begun to cast the 'Avada Kedavra' on him, when Harry seized the moment and sent an immensely powerful curse directly at Voldemort's heart. That curse had been the most impressive curse meant for killing, Snape had ever seen. He had felt it 'whoosh' by him, raising every hair on his body, and knocking him to the ground in its wake. But Voldemort had not died, had he? Snape pondered this, his eyebrows furrowing in perplexity.

He remembered raising his wand at Voldemort right when the Dark Lord had turned to make Potter his target once more. He'd fired his own killing curse. And then …

He remembered no more ….

Snape's eyes widened slightly in fear. He did not think Potter would easily forgive Snape's real and perceived sins, assuming the boy had avoided Voldemort's killing curse in the first place. And the Dark Lord was never benevolent with traitors.

To ease his panic and protect himself as best he could, given his present condition, he began to go through his once daily preparation to shield his mind, feeling the granite walls of Occlumency erect themselves to hold in his innermost thoughts. He didn't know what was going to happen next, but he was grimly determined to be as prepared as possible for whatever the future might hold for him.

Without thinking, he reached up to scrub nervously at his face, and he noticed that he was slowly beginning to become more mobile. He tried turning his head. And it seemed that, just minutes before, when he had tried to do the same thing, he had somehow loosened the stiffened neck muscles that had, heretofore, kept his head locked in place. He glanced down at his bare chest from which his plain white sheet had slipped slightly. It was then that he saw it.

There, right in the middle of his chest on his sternum was a six inch, jet black symbol. The snake and scull stood out starkly against his pale skin. His face paled. Nervously, he glanced at his forearm, to find clear, white skin.

Trade one for another, I suppose, he thought bitterly.

He looked cautiously about him. The sight of the room where he had seen so many students recuperate was actually somewhat comforting. He hadn't been killed yet, and perhaps that was a positive sign.

Severus Snape thinking positively? Even while I have the Dark Mark mysteriously grafted to my chest?He scoffed only because he was still too weak to spit.

He looked silently around the room again, drinking in the familiar sight. Yes, he was definitely at Hogwarts. The cracks in the ceiling of the infirmary probably held the keys to several great prophecies just waiting to be made only complicate his life even more, if Professor Trelawney ever got around to making another one. That old bump of a witch could probably see the Grim in a butterfly, never mind cracks made by years of intense and prolonged magic being performed. Yes, this was definitely Hogwarts.

And that was definitely Hermione Granger, the insufferable know-it-all, the brains behind the holy trinity, and the one that had undoubtedly kept both of those two reckless boys alive, walking towards him. She wore purple robes, much like the robes he had seen Albus wearing when he'd been Headmaster … only hers were minus the stars.

She was smiling at him and … wait a minute … brown eyes can twinkle?

His face corrected itself into its trademark sneer. He didn't know what was going on, but he did know he sure wasn't going to be happy about it.

Hermione Jane Granger approached the bedside of the withered man with some trepidation. Severus had never been an easy person, and she highly doubted he would be much inclined to be pleasant to her, especially after what he had gone through over the past twenty years, never mind the last four. Still, Hermione, in her "insufferable know-it- all" way, had a plan.

Direct and unabashed honesty, she reasoned, would do the trick.

She had realized several years ago to what extent people had been using the exceedingly pale, beaten man before her. It was high time that someone simply spoke with him without any ulterior motivations. Essentially, she was going to be very Gryffindor.

I'm sure that will be exceedingly appealing to him, she mused.

Regardless of the way she was imminently expecting to be treated, she really couldn't help herself from beaming at him. After so long, he had finally been able to come home. She regarded his trademark scowl with a slightly snarky expression of her own as she closed the final few feet between them.

"Good morning, Severus, I am glad to find you awake."

A look of shock flashed briefly on his face, before it was quickly replaced with a mocking sneer.

"Just because I am in a debilitated state does not mean that you have the right to call me by my first name, Miss Granger." He was pleased that he was able to say that with his usual biting tone full of malice, though its effect was not nearly as devastating as he'd hoped. For all his efforts to be unpleasant, he was rewarded with only a small smirk from the girl in front of him.

How infuriating, he thought. I wake up to find myself with a gap in my memory and this insufferable Gryffindor in front of me. Where's Draco when I need him?

"This is true, Severus, but as the Headmistress of Hogwarts, I generally choose to call individuals by their first name, and ask that they address me in the same manner. Albus instituted that rule when he first took over, and I felt it fitting to carry on his tradition."

While she didn't really mean to agitate him too much, she did enjoy seeing the look on his face when she'd let it drop that she was Headmistress. She had always believed Dumbledore about Snape's loyalty, and had always deeply respected both his talent, as well as his noble spirit, even if it was masked in cruelty.

"I feel… as though I am severely missing something right now…" he said slowly.

"Do not ask me why right now, but I do know that you are experiencing a form of amnesia. Let me just simply tell you things as they stand. I will then field any and all questions from you, until you are satisfied. Is that acceptable?" He nodded his agreement, and she summoned a chair to his bed side. She looked down on him, studying his face.

This poor man has been through so much, she thought.

She hesitated for a moment more. "I would like to say one last thing before I commence our discussion. I have accurate knowledge of the way that you have been used by Dumbledore to fight Voldemort covertly. I can't say that I disagree with the results he procured, but I heartily disagree with his means of achieving them. I want you to know that I trust you completely, and that I have no desire to put you to my own use. I only wish to inform you of the events that are missing from your mind."

She stopped once more. She then smoothly removed his wand from her sleeve and placed it in his weak fingers. "This is yours, I believe." she breathed. "Would you like me to continue?"

He felt, rather than saw, the familiar warm glow in his hand as his fingers touched his wand and welcomed it with covert delight. He gave the new Headmistress a curt nod.

Hermione closed her eyes and collected her thoughts.

"The year is 2001. You have been in what the muggles call a "coma" for four years. You entered this state immediately after the fall of Voldemort." She heard his sharp intake of breath. His pitch-black eyes were now hidden behind his eye lids.

"As you know, Harry and the Dark Lord were dueling out on the grounds, while I was entangled in battle with that bitch, Lestrange." Snape smirked at this show of personality, which made Hermione glance at her hands uncomfortably. "You, I believe, were surreptitiously blocking the Death Eaters from aiding their master through the expert use of the Impendio charm. I must honestly say that I've never seen anything like that in my life."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, Headmistress," Snape said, refusing to call her Hermione, and yet maintaining protocol.

"That was not flattery," she answered mildly. "I told you, you will only hear the truth from me. Anyway, everyone could see that Harry's duel was going nowhere. It was like when Dumbledore dueled Voldemort in the Ministry. They were evenly matched. The magic that both of them were using was well beyond anything that we had ever seen. However, they did reach a stalemate. Harry was too quick to be caught by the killing curse, but he also refused to use it. He seemed to think that he could kill Voldemort without such dark magic. I do believe that you noticed the stalemate as well, and you deemed that as the proper time to reveal your true allegiances to the Dark Lord."

"You have surmised correctly," Snape said simply.

"Your display, which I have to say was very … well done …" This earned another smirk from Snape. "created an opening for Harry, which he quickly seized. The curse that he sent was a muscle paralysis curse. He was aiming to stop Voldemort's heart, I believe. But it did not work. An autopsy, andyes we performed an autopsy on the most feared wizard of all time, showed that he did not have a heart. His blood was being circulated by an extremely complex charm. This was why Harry failed to kill the Dark Lord."

A wave of understanding swept over Snape.

"Harry, expecting the spell to work without complication, was caught off guard when Voldemort continued to live. As a result, he was unable to avoid the Killing Curse completely. He did however manage to block it."

"For being the Headmistress of Hogwarts, you show little understanding of Unforgivable Curses. The Killing Curse cannot be blocked, or parried." he spat.

"For having been in such close proximity with Harry Potter, for so many years, you show little understanding of the power he wields, Severus. He is the most powerful wizard of our time." Hermione quipped. Severus snorted at this, and she regarded him with a small smile before continuing.

"The muggles have a theory of opposites attracting. Using this theory, Harry created a spell during his seventh year that was the magical polar opposite of the Avada Kedavra. It requires an immense amount of energy, and the caster must have certain intrinsic qualities to use it successfully. The point is that he had been practicing this spell several times a day, for almost a year, in preparation for a moment when he must be ready to react in a moment to the unexpected."

"The resultant explosion of the two spells meeting was extremely potent. It was difficult in the chaos following to ascertain its immediate effect. However, several of us did see a small blazing orb escape from your wand and seek out Voldemort, not unlike a heat-seeking missile."

"A bit more clarification, please?" Severus ground out. It was obvious he did not like to admit his confusion.

"Oh, right … imagine an object that tracks you down, no matter where you go."

"Ah, perhaps you should endeavour to make yourself clearer, in future." Snape glared pointedly.

"It is not my fault you know nothing about Muggle warfare!" Hermione retorted stubbornly, arms crossed now.

"Please proceed, Miss – Headmistress." He caught himself, giving her a sly smile.

"Fine then," she said, making an obvious attempt to reign in her temper. "You produced some sort of magical orb that killed Voldemort. No one knows what it was, but once the orb touched him, he instantaneously fell to the ground and the orb disappeared. It is safe to say that you did, indeed, kill Voldemort, though no one besides you knows what spell you used.

"Unfortunately, when it was all over you had fallen to the ground along with the enemy. At first we thought you, too, were dead, but upon further examination, we found you merely unconscious. And, curiously, the Dark Mark had moved from your arm to your chest." Hermione waved her hand between the two body parts for illustration.

Snape suddenly realised his chest was still bare. "Excuse me," he said in clipped, low tones. He looked away from her, as his sallow cheeks colored slightly.

"Oh please, it's not like I haven't seen it all before." she grinned mischievously.

Snape…just blushed! she gasped internally. She just barely managed to check the giggle she felt pressing to get out.

Not to be made a spectacle of, Severus attempted to move his sluggish arms to defensively pull the covers up.

"Oh fine …" Hermione muttered, mildly teasing. She reached over and gently pulled the sheet up a few more inches over his pale chest. Her eyes flicked over him briefly as she did it. And two spots of pale pink appeared on her own cheeks.

Snape, always prescient, did not miss this evidence of her discomfort? Embarrassment?

Interesting, he mused. He regarded her with fathomless eyes, giving away nothing of his thoughts. His scrutiny only made her colour more deeply.

She cleared her throat officiously in an attempt to regain control of the situation. "In regards to my appointment as Headmistress, I can only say that I was really the only good choice left after the battle. To be perfectly honest, the entire Order was destroyed in that battle. While we had assumed that Voldemort had been trying to take over the school, the truth of the matter is that he had finally found out that most of the professors were active Order members. He was coming to Hogwarts to finish the Order, once and for all.

"Unfortunately, he was quite successful in his campaign," she said grimly. "I commissioned portraits of every professor killed that day, and I often seek their advice as I go about my duties." Snape was silent with shock, but he did not miss Hermione's very real grief at these losses.

As it stands right now, Harry is teaching Defense against the Dark Arts, Neville is teaching Herbology and is head of Gryffindor, Luna Lovegood is teaching Divination and is head of Ravenclaw, Draco Malfoy is teaching Potions and is head of Slytherin. Zacharias Smith is teaching Transfiguration and head of Hufflepuff, Ginny Weasley is teaching Charms, and her brother Charley is teaching Ancient Runes. I fill in wherever there is a vacancy, because I am qualified to teach all the classes." She said this with no sense of pride or accomplishment, but yet she eyed Snape warily, as though expecting him to cut her down at any moment for such a bold statement. She still felt she must be careful when speaking of her academic achievements, just as she had been forced to do while still a student.

Surprisingly, he did not take the obvious opportunity. He appraised her for a moment before speaking. "I would have expected nothing less, Headmistress. You were always, of course, brilliant."

For a moment, Hermione felt she might burst into uncharacteristic tears at his unlooked for praise, but she kept her face guarded and disclosed nothing. She had done her best to never let him see her distress over his cruel comments during her school days, and she would be damned if she let herself be visibly pleased by one kind comment now either.

"Thank you." She offered tentatively. He nodded curtly, and the moment passed.

"In regards to your status in the wizarding world, you have been completely cleared of any and all charges brought against you. In fact, the Ministry has awarded you the Order of Merlin First Class for your achievements."

Snape looked non-plussed. "How can this be? I thought surely some form of punishment …"

But Hermione held up her hand to stop his protestations, with a smile. "Harry testified on your behalf, and showed the Wizengamot a slightly edited version of the memories that you had given him before the battle. You know the Ministry as well as anyone else. There were those few who still thought punishment was in order, but seeing the memories provided irrefutable proof that you were indeed noble in your actions."

The young Headmistress carried on without pause. Her composure was impeccable. "In regards to your relationship to Lily Potter, that was left out of the public spotlight. Harry decided that while it was important that enough of the memories should be shown to make your innocence certain, there were certain points that should be kept private."

She paused slightly.

"I believe he hoped that you would appreciate the sentiment. He no longer wishes you any ill will, and he has even gone so far to say that both he and his father made mistakes in their relationships with you. I do not believe that this was easy for him to admit – you know his reverence for his father. I also do not believe him to be ungrateful to you for all you have done. In the past, perhaps, but not now."

She studied Snape closely. For all those years that everyone had hated him, he should have just as much thanks.

"I am sure that my opinion of you is of very little importance to you. And I've no desire whatever to judge you for good or ill. But I do feel the need to extend my thanks for all that you have done for me and those I care about, over the years." She smiled almost shyly. Snape could not miss her sincerity. It made him feel warm, but at the same time made him uncomfortable, as well. He inclined his head in acknowledgement, but said nothing. She seemed to expect nothing more.

"With that being said, I am not exactly sure of your true personality, per se. I'm aware that you were living a double life, and that leads to some ambiguity regarding what was an act and what was real."

Snape looked up questioningly.

"What I am trying to ask is have you always been a cranky, snappy, bitter man, or was that just your act." She said this with a mirthful expression.

"Is that what I have been? I was rather going for the 'cruel monster' persona, but I suppose cranky, snappy, and bitter must have sufficed. I will cede future interpretations of my personality to you, of course, Headmistress, as it seems that I have been inaccurate in my own evaluation all along." There was humour in his words.

"I see," Hermione chortled. "In any event, regardless of your civility towards any of us from here on forward, we all owe you a debt of gratitude. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say we respect the hardships you endured."

"That is… appreciated," replied Severus tightly, as he looked down and fumbled with the corner of his bed sheet.

Hermione hurried on to the next subject. "I feel there are two final issues to address. They would be your disposition of the last four years and the mark upon your chest. But, before I begin, would you mind if I asked you one or two rather important questions?"

"Why do I have the feeling that I don't have much of a choice in this matter?." snarked Snape, eyeing her warily.

"Mostly, because you don't. Now, let me ask you, what is the nature and extent of your expertise in Occlumency and Legilimency? Do you need to use your wand?"

"I believe that the term 'virtuoso', might be putting it mildly. I do not say that idly, however. There are plenty of magical skills over which I have not attained complete mastery. You could ask Minerva" he said pointedly "to attest to my skills, or lack thereof, at transfiguration. However, even Dumbledore did not trust himself to be able to perform Legilimens on me successfully, and he was highly accomplished. Hence the Unbreakable Vow that he subjected me to. I believe that in and of itself says much." He paused thoughtfully. "Voldemort was indeed the most accomplished Legilimens of our time, though I might be close to him, but my skills in Occlumency were more than sufficient to hide my thoughts from him. This leads me to believe that my skills in Occlumency were slightly better than my proficiency in Legilimens. I can perform both wandlessly, and without speaking the incantation." He finished with a slight shrug and a pointed glance in her direction.

"Now that I have answered your question, I would be most interested in hearing why you think any of this is relevant."

"I only ask because I believe that you have not been completely alone over the past four years. I think you have been doing some sort of battle with that mark on your chest."

The mention of the mark disturbed him, and he was about to say something when she interrupted him with a raised hand. Moving to sit beside him on his bed, she leaned in to capture his eyes fully with her own.

"Severus, I think that there might be an easier way to do this. I have nothing to hide from you. And the healers have assured me that while you are physically weakened; your magic is fully functional. Use your skills on me. I will not resist, and I feel this will be a far quicker way to impart what I am trying to tell you, one that will allow you to experience some of the more important events that have happened since you've been asleep."

Snape nodded slightly, and piercing her with his obsidian gaze, he entered her mind.

A/N Cracks in the ceiling is a tribute to "The Buried Life", the first fan fic I ever read, and I still think the best. That fic changed my world in a lot of ways, and while I can't even imagine having a similar amount of influence as Kalina Lea's story, in a lot of ways it's why I started writing. My beta, hermionestargazer, pretty much co-wrote this chapter with me. This being my first fic, there was a lot of work to be done on it. She did more then correct grammatical errors. She made this fic what it is right now. I'm deeply indebted.