"Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy."
Severus was more reserved and cautious after Australia. Hermione wasn't sure if this was in preparation for his impending encore as Headmaster or if it was driven by something else, but it worried her. Whatever it was, he circumvented questions and never brought it up. She decided that badgering him about it would be the opposite of helpful and opted to act as if everything were normal. Unless he pushed her away outright, she would carry on and hope for the best. It was the only thing she could do. Thankfully, he seemed to thaw a little after the first chill, but she kept a close eye on him.
Severus joined the boys in the Grimmauld Place renovations through the next couple of weeks before he was due at Hogwarts. His mood always seemed a bit better after a day of physical exertion. Time with her either made it better or worse, which was confusing. Minerva met with him frequently, and he seemed ambivalent about returning to Hogwarts as well.
Hermione could admit that she felt the same. She was still trying to reconnect to her old self. Her love of learning and all or nothing nature would likely take over and get her through the school year, but she felt incomplete in a way that had nothing to do with knowledge or books. Probably it had to do with the process of healing and the need for purpose, but she was coming more and more to feel that it had to do with Severus, which given the readjustment of their living status and his recent move toward withdrawal and walling her out, frightened her a great deal. She was glad to be going back to the place that had been like home for so many years, but she had a sense that it would be different in ways that she didn't even understand yet. Only time would tell whether it would feel like a familiar comfort or make her feel out of place.
These thoughts plagued her on the train ride to school. This in itself was all at once familiar and surreal. It reminded her of the second book in the Narnia series, when the Pevensie's, after having grown up in Narnia and fought many battles, returned to England, children once more, and struggled with their new place in the scheme of things. She could tell that feeling was shared by many on the train, and this kept her from feeling too out of place.
The welcoming feast was the same - horrible memories overlapped beloved places in the castle they called home. The weight was augmented by the uncertainty of the students regarding the Headmaster and the feeling of loss when those who should've been sitting beside them were missed. It was lightened by the sight of friends sitting in their familiar places and the normalcy of the staff gazing at them from the high table. The holes were horrible, but Hermione was heartened at the sight of Neville, Luna, Ginny, Minerva, Severus, Hagrid, and the other staff and remaining DA members sitting in their customary places.
During his welcome speech, Severus lifted his goblet and offered a heartfelt remembrance for those who were missing among them. It moved more than the SevenS who recognized the gesture as familiar. He said just enough to let them know to judge his intentions by this year and not last, but remained true to his private self. There were those who retained their angry, suspicious glares, but Hermione was glad to see that many wore a 'we'll see' expression and a few even looked accepting and supportive. Whatever happened this year, she was determined that Severus would not feel alone.
The 8th years had been given a wing of their own. They were situated in groups of three or four rooms to an adjoining small common room, like uni flats – only these had portraits with passwords for an entrance. There was also a larger common room for the wing and each of the 8th years were welcome to go to their house common rooms as well. Severus had taken their input on the set up and they were well pleased with it. He had kept the three of them together in one of the apartments and complied with their request to connect the fireplace in their common room to the Headmaster's office by floo. It was perhaps unusual, but only to those who were unaware of the summer they had shared together with Severus as a housemate. Surprisingly, Minerva had argued for the connection as well. They had worked out a signal system so that they could signal a request and signal back whether the coast was clear before anyone stepped through – thus avoiding any reason for tales of favoritism to be bandied about.
Severus and Minerva had also consulted with them about the Head Boy and Girl positions. As much as Hermione had once had her sights set on Head Girl, she neither wanted to take the opportunity away from the 7th year class nor felt like it was necessary given all that she had already accomplished. All Harry and Ron wanted to do was play one last year of quidditch. The Head positions, therefore, stayed within the 7th years, but two special prefect positions had been created for the 8th years so they could oversee their own year and act as back up to the Heads.
By unanimous vote, the Professors chose Hermione for the 8th year girl special prefect. They tried to choose Harry as her counterpart, but he declined on grounds that the quidditch captaincy he had accepted was enough. Severus nominated Draco Malfoy, feeling that restoration and not ostracism of Slytherin house was necessary to correcting rhetoric and preventing the rise of another dark lord, and while the Professors and the trio agreed to help him with this, in the end, because of his outstanding leadership the year previous, Neville was chosen.
After everyone was settled, Hermione stepped through the fireplace to Severus' office after use of their signals. He looked tired but fairly content.
"I liked your speech," she said.
His lip lifted a bit at the corner. "I'm glad you think it passed muster."
She smiled brightly at him. "You know it did. I'm quite proud of you," she teased. "We missed you this week. The boys don't seem able to put things together quite as easily without you to help them. It was rather amusing, actually."
Severus snorted and smiled a bit. "I have been far too busy to miss you meddlesome lot…..Did they finish the sitting room flooring and trim?"
Hermione grinned at him. "I know you've been busy, but I don't believe you, you know." She grabbed his hand and tried to coax him out of his chair toward the fireplace. "And yes they did, but only because I helped them figure out what to put where. They'll have to do the trim and moulding later."
His lip lifted in amusement again before a moue of distaste took over. "It is late and I still have much to do."
"So bring it with you…and I'll help. No homework yet," she explained. "You should start as you mean to go on…and we had a deal."
He rolled his eyes but she could tell that he was also pleased. He grabbed a pile of papers off his desk, his ink and his quill and turned to Dumbledore's portrait. "You'll alert me if anyone comes?"
"Yes, dear boy. Good to see you again, Miss Granger. Give my best to Harry and Ronald, won't you? I'll be sure to visit later." the portrait said. Conveniently there was a small portrait in their common room that Dumbledore shared. Severus had planned well.
Hermione smiled and nodded. She could tell that Severus seemed to relax in their common room, even though he was doing "tedious, tiresome paperwork."
When he realized that Hermione had a gift for speeding through mundane paperwork with little need of direction or supervision, he threatened to conscript her for the rest of the year. "Shacklebolt may have been right about you. Keep this up, and I'll be disinclined to give you up or share you, even with Boy Wonder or the Ginger-Haired Menace."
"I've already told them I'm not doing their homework for them this year," she said.
Ron grumbled. "That's just not right. And I still don't get why I'm the Ginger-Haired Menace…what does that make George?"
Harry snorted. "Sounds like a comic book: Boy Wonder and the Ginger-Haired Menace. On the off chance Luna knows what one is, don't let her hear his nicknames for us. Eccentric ideas and access to a printing press - can you imagine?" he asked Hermione.
Hermione laughed, but she Harry and Severus had to explain what a comic book was to Ron.
"That's brilliant!" he exclaimed. "Maybe we should tell her, reckon?"
This time, Harry groaned. "Please, no. I'm sorry I brought it up."
They talked for a little while longer about how they were doing with the move back to Hogwarts and making arrangements to meet up with Severus from time to time. Severus soon ordered them to bed and bid them goodnight.
"Yeah, especially as Little-Miss-Insane, maybe that should be your new nickname, is taking almost every N.E.W.T. class that's offered, and has a VERY BIG day tomorrow. Honestly, Hermione, how do you expect to enjoy your last year here when you've taken on enough to do yourself in? Riddle wasn't enough? You've got to chase death by N.E.W.T. prep now?"
Hermione gave him her half grin and shook her head. Then she turned her grin to Severus. "It is a lot," she teased. "A time turner would make things much easier."
"No time turners!" Severus and Harry said at the same time.
She laughed at this. "Night boys," she said. She walked over to Severus, handed him her pile of parchment and kissed him on the cheek. Quietly she said, "You'd best find something to keep them busy if you don't want them getting into bored mischief or turning into sloths."
"Hey!" Harry and Ron said.
"I have already taken measures," he said sharing a conspiratorial smile with Hermione. The boys looked concerned.
It turned out Severus had made Harry and Ron had aids to Professor Martin, an Australian Auror who came to Hogwarts to be the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. In addition to this, they were heading the DA with Neville, which Severus had made mandatory to help students catch up in DADA. Kingsley also came by from time to time to visit and offer them training. Between this and quidditch they were keeping busy and loving it.
Hermione was glad to see them happy and congratulated Severus on his genius several times. Her own load was heavy, but she was used to doing as much with the addition of whatever research and extracurricular activity that was needed to keep them alive each year. She found she had time both to excel in her studies and ensure they spent time with Severus through the week.
She still had trouble anticipating his level of acceptance, and the stress of his position only made him more mercurial. When his mood allowed it she chatted with him about his day and sometimes even massaged his head and neck. When her overtures didn't budge him from a distant and cross mood, she either sat in a corner and helped him quietly with his paperwork or gave him space. They both missed physical exertion, and she sometimes joined him on his frequent robust patrolling strolls through the castle or outdoor ones on the path round the lake.
One evening mid-October, Hermione bid Severus goodbye after strolling with him a bit through the castle. Such had been witnessed by a couple of 5th year Hufflepuff boys whom she had categorized as members of the antagonistic crowd. It was amazing what a year of torture could turn a Hufflepuff into, any of them really.
"How can you stand to associate with that filth?" they sneered. "We thought you were all right, but we're starting to wonder."
In high dudgeon she answered, "Maybe because I know him better than you do...I know what he did to save my life, all our lives. I was in the Order with him and I know we wouldn't have won the war without him. I was there...were you?" she asked, knowing these two had not been among those who had fought in the final battle.
"We were here last year...you weren't," one of them blustered. "You don't know the torture he put us under."
"You think I don't know torture?" she asked, her voice flat and mocking. She pulled up her sleeve so that the angry, red word MUDBLOOD could be read on her arm, and untucked her shirt so the bottom of an obviously extensive scar could be seen on her stomach. I can assure you from personal experience that Bellatrix Lestrange could out crucio anyone, even the Carrows, perhaps even Riddle himself, according to Harry. Maybe you would have preferred her as Headmaster last year? She could have been you know, if Severus Snape hadn't played his role."
Their eyes were now a bit wide. She advanced on them. "Don't let me hear you discuss Headmaster Snape again until you grow brains. Now get out of here, the both of you!"
She was still fuming with her shirt untucked, her wand in her hand and her hair frizzing out with the static of her anger when she heard a familiar, deep voice behind her.
"Such a fierce little lioness," he said as he materialized from the dark and looked down at her with a mixture of amusement and confusion.
Her anger began to melt as she saw him again.
"Why is it that you are such a fierce and dangerous predator when someone else is maligned and only a miffed little kitten when you are the subject of unflattering speech?" he asked.
Hermione answered him, "Because I'm used to it and I can handle it."
"As can I," Severus assured her.
"And because I care about you," she admitted. "I can't change everyone's mind, but I'm not about to stand by and accept what I can confront."
A serious moment passed between them. His eyes darkened as he gazed at her. After a moment he looked away and small grimace of pain crossed his features with the movement of his neck.
"I thought the numbing salve was working," Hermione said with concern. It had been hard for him to adjust to his collars and frock coat again with the pain and sensitivity that remained in his neck.
"It does for the most part...It requires reapplication during the day and I have been remiss," he explained.
She looked up at him wishing there was something she could do to help him.
His gaze softened as he looked down at her. "You would battle that too if being a lioness would help anything, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," she answered quietly. Concern turned to a fluttering sensation in her stomach as their eyes held. Hermione covered it with a bright smile.
"Off with you then. Go take care of yourself before I get all overprotective," she teased.
"I'll thank you to remember I am no longer your patient," Severus quipped.
She quirked an eyebrow at him as if to say, 'Keep telling yourself that if you think it'll change anything."
Severus ignored this. "Goodnight, Hermione. Heed your own advice and take care of yourself. I'll see you tomorrow."
Hermione watched him walk away, silently as ever, and tried to calm her heart. What was wrong with her? As denial gave way, she knew what it was - her feelings for Severus had crossed a line. A line she now realized they had been skirting for a while, and she couldn't help but feel hopeless. Hermione knew she was something like a niece to him and he was already withdrawn from her half the time as it was. She hadn't backed away soon enough, and now there was no way this was going to end well for her. The only possible good outcome hinged on Severus coming to feel the same way she did and that only made her snort derisively at herself. "You. Are. An. Idiot, Hermione Granger," she told herself as shuffled back toward her apartment.