"Thank you for meeting with me, Miss Granger," Severus said as he pulled the chair out for Hermione. She sat across from him at the rickety table in the obscure little muggle coffee shop in London that they'd both agreed was an ideal location to meet.
"It's my pleasure, Professor," she said, her eyes alight with interest and a very clear desire to begin her long list of questions for him.
"Severus," he corrected her. "Say it with me: Sev-er-us." He smirked at her timid smile.
"Right," she said just a tad shakily. "Severus. But then, you must call me Hermione. Please."
He found her smile to be enchanting enough to elicit a genuine smile of his own. "Fine. Hermione."
Now she grinned happily. She took in his features, seemingly assessing him. "You look good, Severus," she said honestly. "You look like a free man. I never would have knowingly thought of you as anything otherwise, but now that you've returned, I can see that you are free. It suits you."
Severus inclined his head, somewhat taken aback at her candor. He didn't deserve it from her, but he had already decided to begin whatever this reacquaintance grew into on a positive foundation. Once he'd done that, he could admit his guilt and remorse for having hurt her feelings when she was his student.
"You appear to have blossomed yourself while I was away, Hermione. You are no longer a child. I do know that you haven't been for quite some time, of course... I saw you, on two occasions while you were hunting horcruxes with Harry and Ronald."
"You did?" she was gaping openly at his admission.
"Phineus Nigelis facilitated a peak into your tent on one occasion through his two portraits, and on the other, you were outside of your tent. It was just before I sent Harry the patronus to lead him to the sword," Severus explained.
Hermione's eyes grew moist and she cast her glance to the side while her memories took her back to that day. "Things, were quite challenging out there in that damned forest."
"I'm under the impression from Minerva that Harry believes he owes his success in defeating Voldemort almost entirely to you," Severus commented, drawing her back to the present.
Hermione blinked back the unshed tears and sighed. "Not true," she said adamantly. "Harry will never give himself the credit he is due. Yes, I had some clever ideas and had prepared for our having to go into hiding to some extent. But I was terrified and at times, would have been paralyzed by my fears if I had not had Harry's determination and bravery to follow. It was the same for Ron, while he was with us."
"When I saw you, you were quite thin, as was Harry," Severus told her. "I've been curious to know whether that had been a reaction to the stress of your situation? Or were you three starving out there?"
The sheer hopelessness of the situation was written all over her face. "We were afraid to go into town for food. We knew there was some sort of trace on us, because someone always turned up whenever we ventured into civilization. I was afraid I was starving to death." A grimace distorted her features for the briefest of moments. "Harry told me then that he'd had lots of experience with going days without eating while living with the Dursleys. He said he knew his limits and he'd watch out for me as well, but that we couldn't take any more risk being seen than absolutely necessary." She glanced into her coffee cup. "Since then, I've been grateful for every bite of food I've eaten." She gave him a weak smile and waited to see what his response would be.
He studied her for a long moment, noting that she was not completely comfortable with him as he'd previously concluded. "Hermione," he said gently, feeling his lips curve slightly upward at how easily he said her name, "you, and Ronald, for all that appearances can be relied upon to reveal, seem to have made significant progress in recovering from your experiences. Is that a fair assessment?"
"I believe so, yes," she replied in a quiet voice. "It's not behind us, by any means, but I know I'm much better off now than even a few months ago. I think Ron is too. I still have lots of nightmares. We all do." She frowned sympathetically at his nod of admission to his own affliction. "I know from Ron that Harry has had them all along. He certainly suffered night terrors while we camped." She paused to reflect before adding. "None of our circle is outwardly acknowledging the Failure to Thrive condition with Harry, but of course we all notice it. And of course he'll have nothing of anyone's interference or advice. I believe he's needed to be stuck in the developmental rut that he's in."
Severus steepled his fingers with his elbows on the table, and stared at its surface. "His condition is of great concern to Minerva, Madam Pomfrey, myself and the Malfoys. For once, it should be reliable adult intervention that gets him the help he requires, rather than from his peers, hmmm?"
Now it was her turn to study Severus, which she did, and without making him feel the need to squirm. A point in her favor, indeed. "You're back to help Harry, aren't you?"
He nodded. "Among several other intentions. I… also would like to make an effort to atone for my... cruel ways as a teacher... wherever possible."
Her expression grew slightly more guarded and her voice deepened when she responded. "Severus, there is not as much call for that as you may imagine. Harry was very discreet with your pensieved memories, but he revealed enough of your sacrifices to bring about a significant amount of forgiveness. Most of us can understand why you treated us the way you did." She paused to ponder her words for a moment. "I think you've done all that you need to do with Neville, for example."
Severus sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Bloody Longbottom saved my life - Longbottom!" he said incredulously. "Lucius is going to show me his pensieved memories of those moments in the battle later this evening. He said it was spectacular, and that he will forever more see Neville Longbottom as damned near to god status."
Hermione laughed at that, enjoying the bubble of mirth that lightened her mood again as she admitted, "I think Mr. Malfoy has been the only one who has been able to get through to Harry. And Mrs. Malfoy, to be fair. But it is Lucius who originally made the overture, and who has been very diligent in his foster parenting. I believe it's helped Harry a lot. But I'm still very worried about him. For those first couple of months, I feared he was suicidal. He seems better in that regard. More stable. But he's lost. In so many ways, he's still a little boy." Her eyes had wandered away from Severus as she spoke, but she brought them back to hold his gaze. "He told me, on one of those lonely nights in the tent, that I was the only one who'd ever hugged him until he'd gotten closer to the Weasleys. He never, ever cried when we were in school, except after the third task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament." She looked up at Severus again, holding his gaze. "But I know he wanted to, many times, after his encounters with you."
Severus swallowed that down along with the lump in his throat, tapping his finger nervously on the table for a moment. "I hope I can undo some of that damage," he said quietly, but had to clear his throat before he could continue. "Lucius is quite invested in helping him, as well."
"I've only witnessed Harry and Lucius together once. Have they told you about the day of Umbridge's hearing?" she asked. When Severus invited her to recap, she did, and ended by describing the love and terror she'd seen in Lucius' eyes when he'd thought Harry had been hurt. "He is wonderful with Harry. Very fatherly. More so even than I ever saw him be with Draco."
"The war has changed a lot of us for the better," Severus commented.
"I have not responded to the Malfoy's overtures," Hermione admitted. "I'm holding a grudge, and I know it's to my own detriment to do so, but for now it's just the way I need things to be." She watched for his response to her words, and when he simply raised an eyebrow, she smiled her delicate little smile and added, "I'll be the first to admit that I was convinced that they were trying to use Harry to regain their social standing, but then I decided that while I personally was not ready to forgive them for their snobbish prejudices, nor the horrors I experienced as a captive under their roof, I would reserve judgement until I had more information." Again, she paused as if weighing whether to say more or not. Severus continued to give his full attention, so she finally added, "Harry seems calmer and I think he sleeps better on Sunday nights. Lucius even accompanied Harry into muggle London to have his eyes fixed by the Lasik procedure. That meant an awful lot to Harry."
"But he's still suffering," Severus concluded. "And he's still a Failure to Thrive."
"Yes," Hermione agreed. "But I believe he would benefit from your guidance."
"I appreciate your confidence in me, undeserved as it may be," Severus said quietly. She opened her mouth to object but let him continue when he gave her a stern look. "I myself have only a vague memory of what life was like before Tom Riddle brought his evil into our world. I am only just discovering that being open and genuinely kind sets the tone for real friendship. I imagine for Harry the challenge is to define himself without a prophecy and a scar that links him to Voldemort. For him, there is no longer urgency to protect Wizarding Britain from things that he himself was never protected from."
Hermione nodded. "He no longer has the weight of the world on his shoulders to confine him into a singular role. And now he's floundering, needing a new anchor. I just hope he's finding out that he can be grounded on his own accord by his own positive choices moving forward."
Severus regarded the young woman before him with admiration. "Well said," he complimented.
Hermione did not blush from his praise. She knew what Harry was going through and knew it was because he'd needed parenting during the very worst of their times together, and that he'd had to make due with her bossiness and Ron's stalwart loyalty. "His Failure to Thrive Syndrome is as much about the lack he experienced in childhood as it is about the horrific stresses of the years preceding the Final Battle. And in watching him for the past year, I can see that he's slowly acquiring a new foundation for who he is going to be. Without the help he's gotten from the Malfoys, I'm not sure he'd have made it to this point."
Severus listened grimly, but heard the hope in her words nonetheless. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully.
Hermione sighed. "It's confusing to watch, as his friend. He was so brave and driven, and grown up while we were hunting the horcruxes. When the locket's energy got the better of Ron and he left us, Harry was my anchor." She paused thinking. "He's clearly at his best when he's in danger."
Severus set his cup down abruptly, his face showing his displeasure at her last insight.
"Or at least that's all he truly knows of himself," she added quickly with a nervous giggle. "I've never said as much to him, mind you. Imagine what must be going on in his mind, now that he has nothing that must be done to save humankind? ...His instincts could drive him to find a crisis to resolve."
"I think you mean a crisis to create," Severus smirked. But it was clear Hermione knew he was mostly teasing. Mostly.
"It's been good to talk like this," Hermione told Severus as they returned to their little table with second cups of coffee. "No one, other than Professor Dumbledore, really knew what the three of us were going through for most of our last years at school. I knew the level of peril was extreme, and way beyond my own comprehension. I could only do what I always do: research."
"You took the time to prepare yourself," Severus prompted.
Hermione nodded, remembering. "I learned hundreds of practical charms, and they did indeed come in handy."
"Phineus Nigelis' portrait informed me that you carried everything for your journey in a small beaded bag," Severus said. "For most of that year, I only knew that you three were on a quest of sorts, at Dumbledore's behest. But I stayed to watch Harry and Ronald use the sword to destroy the curse in that locket, and only then did I realize what you had taken on. It was difficult to… I had very little hope that you could possibly succeed, or that I could hold onto the school for long enough to endure a battle."
"I never considered giving up, and neither did Harry. Nor Ron. Ron did leave us, but he was under the influence of the horcrux and as soon as he was free of it, he regretted leaving. He spent a lot of time with a lot of others out there, helping to defy the snatchers while he searched for us. When he found us, things seemed to fall into place and we literally fell into situations that both offered clues and created opportunity."
"Like having a ride on a dragon," Severus supplied with a flippant tone.
Hermione laughed softly, her eyes shining with a mixture of mirth and remembered terror. But she sobered instantly, holding Severus' gaze with her intensity. "And there in itself lies the basis of Harry's current difficulties. We spent ten months living on adrenaline, fear, and mortal peril. When it was over, Ron and I could return to our parents for help with reclaiming ourselves. We had each only lost that previous year. There was a home base, a family history waiting for us. Harry had nothing to return to, not even memories of that kind of caring to hold onto. How in the world was he ever supposed to find his way?"
"Indeed," Severus murmured. He stared at her for a long moment. "You mentioned that you cannot forgive the atrocities you experienced at Malfoy Manor." He waited for her nod of acknowledgement. "Harry was there too. Why do you think he was able to move past them?"
"That's just Harry, Severus," Hermione said. "He can see the goodness in people who deserve a second chance. If Lucius had turned out to be simply attempting to use Harry to get back into the good graces of the Wizarding world, Harry would have known it."
They sipped their coffees in silence for a while longer. "Lucius and Narcissa are making every effort to convince Harry to return to Hogwarts in the fall for his seventh year, but he is quite reluctant," Severus said. Hermione nodded. "Will you be returning?" Now it was her turn to give him a raised eyebrow that suggested he'd asked a very silly question. "And Ronald?"
"I don't know about Ron's plans. He's not convinced he could stick it out, and is feeling like he'd be better at helping George with the business. His parents are of course pushing for him to finish his education. I am too. It's a touchy subject."
Severus nodded. "Can you think of any means by which we could make the idea more appealing?"
"I think he could be convinced to return if the curriculum was set up to be more like a university. As in an open campus educational experience. Having a curfew and restrictions on when he could go home would be his largest bone of contention."
"That's a very wise suggestion," Severus said. "Would you prefer that sort of arrangement as well?"
"Yes," she responded. "I've been taking a few random courses at a muggle college and it's made me realize that I want to study a broader scope than what's covered on my NEWTS, but having to postpone those additional studies in order to be confined to a boarding school is not sitting well with me, either. I'll do it, but not happily." She looked up from her coffee cup and found Severus smiling at her in a way that made her tummy flipflop.
"I suggest you propose your ideas to Minerva," he said smoothly, not missing the flutter of her lashes in reaction to him.
She sucked in her breath and seemed to reclaim her senses as she breathed, "I will," and set her empty cup down.
Severus sensed that they should conclude their visit, but he was quite reluctant to do so. "I'd like to do this again, Hermione, and on that occasion, I should like to spend more time hearing about your individual experience."
"And I yours," she said firmly.
They both stood and Severus took her hand, giving it a squeeze. "Soon, then."
Her smile was warm and captivating. "Soon," she agreed.