Broken Together

Be Not Afraid

"I have never loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts too much absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love. But do not be afraid of too much expression on my part."

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

Hermione watched Severus as he worked with Harry and Ron on the hallway flooring and woodwork. She never tired of seeing him dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt, or with his shoulder length black hair tied back and wisps of it escaping and getting in his face as he worked. It made his long nose look a little over-large without its usual frame, but it somehow also make him look more down to earth and human. Not that she didn't like his usual long, dark hair and head to toe black boots, trousers and frock coat, because she did - it was just him, but even knowing Severus well as she did, it gave the impression of formidable formality, which, she supposed was the point. The dressed down version was just a nice visual reminder of their friendship and his ease with them. The only downside was the increased temptation to watch him, to note the movement of his wiry muscles on his thin frame - which inevitably led to Hermione getting caught in the act.

Which she had been just now - by the man himself. Severus' onyx eyes regarded her in question for a moment before they softened and he gave her a small smirk - his smile. And to be fair, that right there, the enigma of that look was at least half the impetus behind her thoughts, and it was her thoughts which compelled her eyes to train upon the subject of her deliberation...mostly.

Thoughts of Severus had swirled in Hermione's mind since Christmas night, and having him near at Grimmauld place gave them food and room to grow. Hermione was beginning to find her way out of the emotional swamp that she had been lost and sinking in, and it was Severus that was her guide and often the very dry ground itself. She didn't know if his ability above the others in this regard had more to do with her preference or to his understanding, but so it was.

Given he was the one who had sent her into the tailspin that had landed her in the wasteland and then the swamp, Hermione realized that it was a stupid move on her part to become dependent on him for her stability, but what was she to do but grab the hand of the only one who seemed able to find her and show her the way? Also, he seemed...something...especially since Christmas night, almost tender and caring at times if she dared believe it, and it made him feel that much more like her safe harbor. Perhaps when she reached solid ground again she would be in shape enough to let go his hand and stand on her own two feet.

Not only was Severus the one who consistently trudged out in the swamp to find her and lead her forth, but he was practically forcing her to continue occlumency training so that if she did fall again, she wouldn't accidently occlude herself to the dead zone. The idea of using occlumency again, even to practice with Severus, terrified her at first, but Severus gave her some cliché about getting back on the broom and gave her no other option. Slowly, the fear was lessening as the shields came to feel more under her control. And while this did make her feel somewhat stronger, it also deepened her gratitude and regard for Severus...which made her want to draw closer to him, not back farther away and onto her own possibly there was a flaw in the plan.

It was Ginny, whom the boys had brought as a buffer against her female hysterics, that next caught her watching Severus. Hermione was treated to an expression that clearly said, 'Busted! And we are so going to talk about this later.' Harry, who must not have mentioned her plight to Ginny, merely gave her a grin when he caught on to the visual exchanges. Hermione decided she had best remove herself to one of the home improvement projects that was out of sight.

Having Ginny there was turning out to be both a good thing and a not so good thing as far as Hermione was concerned. Ginny wasn't against wreaking mischief against the boys and she could commiserate with Hermione when the boys were at their idiotic best, but Ginny also wasn't afraid to snap back at her, call her on her crap or tell her to suck it up. Not that it wasn't needed, because sometimes it was, but sometimes it was not, and only Severus seemed to understand the difference. And once again, her thoughts had circled back to Severus. Hermione sighed and tried to occupy herself, exhaust herself if she could, to shut down her brain.

Severus contemplated his changing regard for Hermione. It was a short step really...from beloved friend to beloved something more. Short but profound. All it required was that he not stand in his own way. He now realized more than half that step had already been taken without his consent, and despite his intent to keep her at a safe distance. All he had to do to complete it was trust her and let it happen. But trust had never come easy.

It was moments like this, when he looked up to find her soft brown eyes gazing at him fondly but as if she were trying to solve a puzzle, that he realized trust was a two way street and she was the bravest of the two of them for trusting him as she did. He had treated her with little but derision for seven years and yet she had saved him; he had tossed her unconscionably away and yet she returned to his arms for comfort. It was a gift so lavish he marveled when he thought about it.

There were times that Severus wondered how he had been so blind as to have missed Hermione's feelings for him: it was in her eyes when she gazed at him, in the desperation of her embrace, and in the trust of her open mind and the flavor of her thoughts. At other times, he almost questioned whether he'd actually seen her love for him or just imagined it: when her look was open yet nothing beyond friendly, when her eyes and tongue broadcast her anger and irritation, or when she became so preoccupied that she barely regarded him at all.

It was the latter which predominated when they returned to Hogwarts. Harry had warned him...once Christmas break was over, Hermione would break out her massive color coordinated study schedule and commence life according to those little blocks of color. Severus had noted during her previous years at Hogwarts that Hermione Granger was likely to be found in the library, accompanied by her miscreants in arms or no. He realized that she spent a great deal of time at study - it's not like he could have missed the fact when she always cited a good ten sources more than necessary and wrote feet beyond the requirement. And yet, he now realized, he'd entirely underestimated the extent of it.

In less than a week, Severus was feeling severely deprived of her company. When he realized that a goodly amount of her fervor was resultant from panic over her required N.E.W.T. level projects, he resolved to solve the issue immediately. It did not go well.

"You are not doing a whole other passel of unnecessary projects when you've already done one that is not only the most brilliant thing that's been produced by a Hogwarts student since Albus Dumbledore himself, but is so massive that it satisfies the requirement of six of your classes. If Muggle Studies educators had half a clue about the science you researched and utilized it would satisfy there also. I forbid it, Hermione."

Hermione looked at him mutinously when he 'forbid' her. They argued back and forth heatedly. He was able to rebut her objections that her work was lost, that it was a gift, that it was incomplete and had neither been tested nor proven effective. The more he chopped away at her excuses, the more agitated she became. It reached a crest when he told her that he'd already submitted it to her professors.

Hermione went pale and still. Severus began to worry when her eyes took on a haunted, tear-filled look, her shaking hand covered her mouth and she squeaked that same desperate sound when she swallowed that she had done that horrible night but few weeks ago.

He went to her unsure what to do. "Hermione, what is it?"

"I can't, Severus...that journal, that brings it all back, that night...I can't," she cried.

Severus closed his eyes for a brief moment, sick once more with the knowledge of what he'd done. He breathed a sigh and cupped her face in his hands. "Hermione, I'll never be able to take back what happened that night, undo what I did, but please don't let it linger over the beauty of what you accomplished and gave. I would undo it, take it back if I could, little it over so you would see and remember the awe in my eyes. Do you see it now? I have rarely seen anything so beautiful. No one but you has ever done anything like that for me, no one has ever given me so much." He wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs then kissed the cheeks he'd just wiped dry. "Remember my gratitude and not my failings, please Hermione?"

She bit her lip and cried, clinging to him as she had done on Christmas night, but more brokenly, the memories she bled in tears this time more painful. But she also nodded her acquiescence. Severus held Hermione tight and bent his face into the soft waves of her light brown hair. He wondered if love was to blame for bringing him such pain with her own. If so, he must acknowledge himself afflicted. For so long he had been alone and aloof. It was Lily that last brought him this level of hurt, but even that had been on his own account and not hers.

Two days later he was abducted. That was perhaps a strong word seeing as how he had allowed himself to be, and only because Hermione had asked it of him.

"Close your eyes, Severus," she called from the fire. He complied, thinking to peek, but she spelled a blindfold over his eyes before he could accomplish it.

"Mippy?" he next heard her call.

"You have corrupted my house elf now?" he asked her sardonically. She ignored him and gave instructions to one of the few elves he'd met with any sense. If Hermione had deprived him of it, Severus would be less than pleased.

"Cooperate, please," she instructed him, apparently having spotted his scowl beneath the blindfold. "I'll be over here with my back turned. Mippy, if you would?"

In the same instant the elf said, "Yes Miss," Severus felt himself de-clothed and re-clothed with a few snaps of Mippy's fingers.

"Hermione!" he bellowed, reaching up to take off the blindfold.

"No, wait!" Hermione called. "It's a Birthday surprise. We're taking you out to celebrate."

"I am not enthused. Nor am I stepping foot anywhere until I have seen what garb you have forced upon me," he replied testily.

"Don't you trust me?" she asked. He could hear the slight tease in her voice. He didn't cave.

"No? Very well then. You have on dark wash jeans and a black button-down shirt, and you look...good." He felt her adjust his collar and place her hand on his chest. "Will that suffice? Will you come with me?"

Feeling himself an idiot, but ruled by the pounding of his heart, Severus gave in to her plea. He signaled his capitulation with nothing more that a put-upon sigh, but Hermione smiled - he could hear it in her voice - thanked him, and kissed him on the cheek. He then suffered himself to be apparated by the elf with Hermione to the point outside the Hogwarts gates, from whence Hermione side-along apparated him to some unknown locale.

"Yes, I do realize how much trust that required on your part," Hermione told him as she reached up and removed his blindfold. Whereupon any retort he'd been formulating fled his brain never to return.

The school uniforms sometimes had the effect of making Hermione appear the young schoolgirl, and though he'd seen her in other modes of dress that made it a bit more obvious that she was no longer a girl, nothing he'd ever seen her in put paid to that so well as the outfit she now wore. Severus felt his mouth go dry. Her jeans were tighter and dressier than what she usually wore - not obscenely so, but perfectly so. Coupled with the heels she wore, they made her legs appear long and slim, and her curves...obvious. The deep green top she wore fit loosely in contrast, but the silky fabric scooped and draped in a way that completely made up for the fact that it wasn't form fitting. Her hair was tamed into smoother, longer waves which made the honey-colored strands within the brown more obvious. Her lips, turned up with her trademark half smirk, were colored with a pale matte pink and her ever-intelligent eyes were brought into prominence by the smoky, dark makeup that surrounded them. She looked grown up and woman - classy but hot, and entirely gorgeous.

It wasn't that she needed all of this to appear beautiful - that wasn't it at all. It was that she could pull this off without it looking the slightest bit like over-effort. With ever increasing frequency, Severus had already noticed the beauty that Hermione had grown into - the arch of her neck, the delicate structure of her face and brows. She was one of those who emerged from the awkward years with a finespun form that her peers had never guessed possible. Hermione little paid heed or even realized the transformation herself, nor realized that if her intelligence were less formidable she would be awash in attention. This Severus had noticed, but seeing her now, he realized he had not, until this moment, fully noticed.

"Is it too much?" she asked after he'd been gawking at her for a few moments. "Ginny played dress-up with me, so I had to pass on the favor."

Severus managed to shake his head no though words were not forthcoming.

It was enough. She smiled and kissed his cheek. Merlin, she even smelled exquisite.

Hermione took him from the apparition point to the posh but hip Muggle restaurant where they met up with the rest of the SevenS and Ginny Weasley, and that was followed up with an equally posh but hip (and thankfully tasteful) club. It had taken until the club before Severus regained aplomb enough to banter normally with Hermione. The others came and went as they danced and mingled.

"I was under the impression the house elves regarded you as a person to be avoided if at all possible. Tell me, when did this change? How did you subvert my elf?" He asked her.

Hermione looked a little chagrined. "I spent a fair bit of time with them the few weeks before Christmas."

Severus nodded. "And?"

She mumbled a nearly unintelligible response which he made her repeat. "I promised never to make another hat or any other garment for the purpose of liberating an elf...and I promised never to speak for them again without first listening to them and getting their permission."

Severus smirked.

"I suspect Kreacher may have had a hand in it," she continued. "Mippy was the first who began to speak with me and the rest started to follow after."

"I am impressed," Severus mocked. "I admit, I had thought the situation irrecoverable."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "You know, Mippy holds you in considerable regard." Hermione looked at him for a moment and continued. "Dumbledore once told us that if you want the true measure of someone you should look at how they treat their subordinates and not their superiors. And I've noticed that you treat house elves very well, almost unusually so, despite your vaunted temper. So tease me all you want - I've got your number and I'm glad of it. It's one of the reasons I think so well of you, you know...even though you give me such a hard time."

She gave him a warm smile and Severus smirked back. "I have every reason to treat the house elves well," he told her. "All these years they have treated me well and without suspicion. They were the only thing like allies and companions I had last year aside from one very meddlesome portrait, and given Dumbledore was such a manipulative bugger, I much preferred their company most of the time. Mippy in particular - he's the most reasonable of the bunch.

Hermione placed her arms about him. "You're a fine man, Severus, and I'm glad to know you. Happy Birthday."

"Because of you, Hermione," he told her. "Thank you."

A smile quickly lit her face, but not before Severus caught the other look that had appeared for the briefest of moments in her eyes. He realized that was part of how she had hidden it from him for so long - with a smile and a laugh. "Don't thank me yet," she teased true to form. "We haven't even gotten to the cake."

He allowed it but he also wondered what would happen if he told her she didn't have to hide it.

"I shall just have to thank you again, then, after the cake. That one stands," he answered, amused but also touched.

It was on the forefront of his mind that night, what he'd only barely begun to admit to himself. 'I love you, Hermione,' ghosted across his mind, in his eyes, beneath his words, and with his hands as he held her close.

The thought of her graduating was now a highly conflicting thing. He had been dreading it as it would signal her absence from his side. While this was still true, Severus also began to realize that certain constraints he'd never had occasion to consider would soon be lifted. Anticipation now added itself to the dread.Shape

**I don't own these characters or the stories they belong to**


Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


"What'd yer name 'em again, Hermione?" Hagrid asked.

"Ricky, Lucy, Fred, Ethel, Doris, Rock, Cary, and Reepacheep," Hermione replied, pointing to the rats in question as she went down the line. She shared a smirk with Harry. It was a nod to the old movies and reruns she and her Mum used to watch together - excepting the fine, brave fellow on the end who lacked a tail. He could almost be the great Narnian rat himself.

Hermione knew Hagrid and Poppy would never get the references.

"And you poisoned them?" Poppy asked giving her an assessing look.

"No, but some of them have volunteered," Hermione replied. "Ricky, Lucy, Doris and Rock are regular rats who ate Muggle rat poison." She pointed to the four dead looking rats. "They'd all but been given up for dead at the veterinarian's office. I've got them under stasis. Fred, Ethel, Cary and Reepacheep are magical rats who volunteered to be bitten by a snake."

Poppy looked at her oddly. Hagrid seemed to take this at face value and nodded fondly at the magical rats who nodded back.

"Muggle science has shown that rat neurochemistry is remarkably similar to human, more so by far than any of the other primates, so this should be a good method of testing and refining the cure. I'm fairly certain that it'll work, but I need to work out the dosage, especially relating to the time reversal component. I need to know their baselines, generally regarding overall health, specifically regarding neurologic health, and I need to know their ages and their weight."

As Poppy and Hagrid conducted their assessments, Hermione thought about everything she had done to prepare for this stage of testing. Harry and Ron had found it humorous that on their last Valentine's Day Hogsmeade weekend ever, she'd had them scouring the countryside for half dead rats, rats brave and stupid enough to die, poisonous snakes and all the lab necessities. Severus had been kind enough to let Ginny come with them so she could spend the day with Harry, and they'd both had the good humor to agree that it beat having to hide out from Harry's many admirers who seemed to become thrice as bold on the loathed holiday.

It had been a welcome distraction from the way Hermione wished she could have spent the day. It was hard enough when she brought back a box of his favorite Honeyduke's mint, dark chocolate toads to share with him, to not to grasp hold of Severus, press into his firm chest and...something...or everything. After seasons of stress and self-neglect, he was more at peace and taking care of himself...and it showed. Hermione was having trouble keeping her hands and her heart to herself. He was still Severus Snape, snarky, mysterious man extraordinaire, but there was a side of wonderful to him that she'd never imagined, and it only kept getting better.

Unfortunately, that whole standing on her own two feet thing was not going to plan at all. It was a constant problem that she contemplated contemporaneously with the problem of working out the practicalities of the cure over the next month. She was like an addict and Severus was like her drug. And as much as that sounded like a romantic thing to say, it wasn't really a healthy thing, and Hermione knew it. Longing, even a desperate kind, was likely a normal affliction of the love she'd grown to have for Severus, but she had come to a renewal of friendship with him from a rather unhealthy place, and the relationship felt parasitic to her, not symbiotic. He didn't regard her as a parasite, Hermione knew, but she sometimes sensed worry from him that let her know she wasn't the only one who had noticed the imbalance.

They had both allowed it to happen. As she attempted to regain herself, she hadn't really re-discovered her own strength, she had discovered his. She'd done the easy thing and drawn from him completely, and he had allowed her to, until now, steady as she seemed, it was a hollow construct. She was dependent on Severus for her well being and the strength of her stance, without much substance or strength to offer in return. The really painful thing was, the more she came to realize the incongruence, the more she sensed his genuine regard for her. Hermione was afraid to try to fix it, and afraid not to. Afraid that misery of some sort would result for both of them, either way.

One thing she could contribute was the cure, and so she threw herself into finishing it, in addition to her considerable studies and other four, smaller N.E.W.T projects.

The rat trials were going well. By the beginning of April, she had the dosage calculations worked out and had done almost everything she could do short giving Severus the cure and watching to see what would happen.

There was only one thing left to do, and only her determination to test the cure on herself with or without Poppy's help garnered the Mediwitch's assistance. Hermione went to the hospital wing on the Friday afternoon before they were to leave for Easter break.

"It's a very small dose. I'll take just enough to de-age me the seven months you assessed I gained with the time turner, just enough to realign my birthday. Even if it doesn't cure my cruciatus damage completely, it should help the residual tremors and the aches. If it goes wrong, I'll only lose a few months of memory." Hermione could see Poppy cracking, so she tossed in her last, true worry. "He's already been through so much, Poppy. I can't give it to him without knowing with absolute certainty what it will do. I can't give it to him if there's a chance that he'll forget the happiness he's gained. I just can't! I have to do this! With or without your help."

Poppy finally capitulated. "Fine, but if you lose seven months worth of N.E.W.T. prep, I don't want to hear it!" She helped Hermione record detailed diagnostics and clinical information and accepted the just-in-case vial of Hermione's recent favorite memories with Severus and her parents.

"Cheers!" Hermione said as she downed the opalescent white potion with nervous excitement. She was immediately suffused with a comforting warmth and the sensation of pins and needles for a few moments. When it was over, she sat up and took stock. The word 'Mudblood' was now only faintly distinguishable on her arm and she no longer had the aches that she'd begun to take as normal. Only time would tell if the tremors that came when she became fatigued would return. In the midst of her excitement, Hermione suddenly realized that there was one aspect of that suffusing warmth that had very decidedly not gone away. She suppressed a moan and tried to concentrate on answering Poppy's myriad questions and sitting still for the diagnostics and reassessment.

"Those aches are completely gone," Hermione said, trying to be circumspect.

Poppy, who had seen the data and actual aftermath of the cure on the rats took in Hermione's squirming, flushed face, and dilated pupils. She gave her an infuriatingly knowing look, and after ascertaining that Hermione's memory was completely intact, dismissed her with a verbal prescription for a cold shower as necessary and an admonition to keep track of the data.

Hermione snorted and took her leave of the smirking Mediwitch just as Severus arrived to drop of some recently brewed potions.

"Hello, Hermione," he said. "Miss Weasley, Boy Wonder and the Ginger-haired Menace await you in your common room. They're taking you on an outing to get you 'out of your bloody lab' tonight, as Ron put it. Admirable sentiment. I insist you go and wish you a pleasant evening."

Her nostrils flared when she smelled his familiar scent and she balled her fists at her side so she wouldn't grab hold of the man in front of her. "Sure. Yes. Thank you….Good…leave the lab…blow off steam," she finished in a mumble.

Severus was giving her a funny look now. Hermione turned to leave, ignoring Severus' confusion and Poppy's poor attempt to hide her amusement.

To her friends' surprise, Hermione, instead of putting up a fuss, was raring to go. She let Ginny dress her up in a black top, leather pants, outer corset ,fingerless gloves and boots, hardly paying attention to what she put on. The fidgets gave her away and she had to dish to Ginny about having successfully taken the cure and the resultant 'excess energy.'

Ginny looked at Hermione's arm and congratulated her enthusiastically. She also smirked as she fixed Hermione's hair into large, loose waves and started on her makeup. "Well, it just turns out our plan to get you out of your lab is just more perfect then," she with a wide smile. "We can celebrate and you can work off your 'excess energy.'

Hermione sighed at Ginny's all too correctly insinuating tone.

When the smirking redhead completed whatever effect she'd had in mind for the two of them, she topped it off with two black cloaks for both of them. Hermione took in Ginny's get up and dark eye liner and could only assume that her own appearance was similar. A look in the mirror confirmed it.

"Ginny, where are we going? We look like Muggles trying to be goth fantasy-land Vampire hunters or something," Hermione said.

Ginny smiled. "Exactly! It's a Muggle club that Lee told George about with pretty much that M.O. Fun, huh?"

"As good a place to blow off steam as any," Hermione was saying as they walked out to the living area. She looked at the boys dressed in a similar manner except with dark button front shirts instead of corsets. They all goggled at each other and laughed.

No sooner than they got to the club, Hermione was out on the dance floor. Her friends came and went between their table and where she pretty much stayed letting loose to the music. Just about the time she was beginning to wind down, a tall, dark figure in a soft, grey cloak over black robes arrowed toward her purposefully, his head angled down and his gaze fixed on her. He only stopped when he had grabbed her right hand in his, their shoulders and thighs were flush and he was looking down at her - almost sideways. The eyes under the hood were an intense and glittering, almost black. His smooth, pale face was framed with wisps of layered, long black hair and set with a familiar, long nose.

Hermione's eyes went wide. "Severus?"

It was him. But he was younger, the lines of care gone, and his intensity was almost lethal. Her breath hitched and her heart tripped from the look in his eyes alone. Merlin, he was beautiful. He radiated the power and beauty of night. These people here were trying to emulate him and they didn't even know it. All he had to do was throw on some black robes and a cloak and he was their king.

And if his look was anything to go by, she was his paramour. He tugged on her hand and she followed him, as did many eyes around the room. Hermione had a million questions, but she stayed them. This man may be mystery incarnate, but she knew him, and he was in no mood to talk. And really, of all the things she wondered, at this moment, her most pressing question required no words to answer.

When they reached the back wall, he loomed over her for a moment, just out of reach. Hermione could not withstand the temptation. Neither could he, apparently. As soon as she leaned toward him, he put an arm around her and drew her swiftly against his solid frame. Hermione's heart ran riot in her chest which lifted and relaxed in its own quick rhythm, and fire licked pleasantly through her veins. His depthless eyes grew somehow darker as he looked down at her mouth, and then, finally, he leaned down and brushed his lips across hers. The answer was Severus tasted and felt divine. Her imagination had been wasted effort on that front. His lips were softer and his kisses more teasing, masterful, passionate, sensuous, incendiary….there weren't enough words. And it didn't even matter, because her mind was a glorious jumble.

Unhappily, they were interrupted far too soon by Harry who had spotted familiar faces in the crowd, approaching with George. "Sorry guys. Worst timing ever, I imagine, but unless you're ready to stand and make a public announcement, you'd better keep your hood up and scarper Severus," he said.

Severus devoured her a few more moments with his eyes, then, without ever facing the crowd, released her and made his way down the nearby hallway to a back exit.

Hermione heard Harry chuckle after a moment. "Ginny told me about the side effect of the cure. Did you put it in there on purpose? Didn't think you were that desperate yet." he teased with a bright smile.

She gave him a withering look. "Oh, shut up, Harry. Of course, I didn't. Just a left over effect of all the extra circulation and nerve stimulation from the cure I think." She snorted, "I'd thought the rats were just sort of pepped up after….I didn't realize..." Hermione shook her head and looked confused. "I've got about a million questions, but I don't suppose now's a good time to go badgering him about them."

"No, I imagine not," said Harry with a smirk.

They made their own swift departure from the scene of...well...what Hermione was trying to cool off from, and she led them on a brisk walk around town until the others finally convinced her to return to the castle. One look at Hermione and her I-mean-business look and stride had Muggles dodging quickly out of her way before they even registered her three cloaked companions. Hermione finally noticed Ron and Harry sniggering at this. When they started talking about what had happened at the club, Hermione checked Ron's expression closely. To her relief, he looked a little sad but mostly amused about what had happened.

"That wasn't much better than watching Ginny snog someone. Much weirder though…it was Snape!" he said.

Hermione smiled and rolled her eyes. "Did you guys get a good look at him?" she asked, looking at Ginny with a look that said, 'Oh my word, was that man hot!'

It turned out they hadn't really seen him, and they didn't do until he turned up at Grimmauld Place the next day.

"How are you gonna be Headmaster looking like that?" Ron blurted.

"You realize I was only a year older than you when I started teaching potions and took on Head of Slytherin House?" Severus drawled, his rich voice back to its former glory. "I shall manage the same way I did then: intimidate, with extreme prejudice, anyone who mistakes my appearance of youth for either tolerance for foolishness or lack of ability."

Harry and Ron snorted.

"How many years loss did Poppy diagnose?" Hermione asked.

"Seven," Severus answered. The heat in his eyes was banked, but it was still there as he looked at her. She could tell that he wanted to talk to her, but that he would bide his time.

Hermione swallowed and nodded. It was what she expected.

"But you didn't look like this our first year! You look at least fifteen years younger!" Harry exclaimed.

"And let that be a lesson to you who want to be Aurors and She who perpetually takes on too much: chronic stress, lack of sleep, torture, not eating regularly…these things age you quickly and beyond your years," Severus said. "I was…am only thirty nine, you know."

They got him to visit the Burrow with them that day. George had his fun and innuendos at their expense.. He only thought it was funnier that his parents assumed he was ribbing Harry and Ginny. Severus got in a good head-whop before they left.

Hermione didn't get a chance to talk to Severus alone until the two of them went back to Hogwarts that night.

"Hermione," he began and then paused to choose words.

As with the rest of the day, Hermione drank in the sight of him, assessing the changes and similarities. "Don't say you're sorry. Please, Severus?" she begged, putting a finger on his lips.

He thought for a bit and brushed her hair out of her face. "I would. It shouldn't have happened yet, little one. But at the same time I cannot regret it."

Hermione's insides soared at his words. He allowed her embrace and wrapped his arms 'round her in return. "Did Poppy warn you?" she asked.

Severus snorted. "Obliquely. I…underestimated what she tried to convey."

Hermione chuckled. "What happened?" she asked.

"After prising out of her what had inspired your odd behavior, I...assured her cooperation and took the cure with the intent to surprise you. I was suffused completely with warmth for a time, then rather sharp shooting pains for a few moments, and then I felt back to normal, except better than, and...Insufferable woman wouldn't let me set off to thank you until she had recorded every last sodding detail, including...that."

"Yes, that," Hermione smiled. "You definitely succeeded in surprising me. Ten points to the Headmaster!" she teased.

Severus smiled at her and placed a careful kiss on her forehead. His eyes again conveyed a warmth that far surpassed his careful restraint. Those eyes and his suddenly younger appearance had Hermione much more flustered than her usual around him.

It would be so easy, she thought, to just go forward, to let the cure be enough as far as Hermione-contributions went, to depend on him for the purpose and drive she currently lacked and hope all else would fix itself in time. But it would be so unfair to him.

She and Severus stayed the current course and maintained status quo between them, but as to the outside world, things changed. They had their bit of fun with it though. Severus managed to keep his transformation under wraps until the Monday evening after break. The teachers, healers, professional guild members and even Kingsley, some Department heads and his secretary responded to the invitation for the presentation of what they'd simply been calling "Hermione's cure."

Hermione was grilled methodically and defended her process admirably.

"You surveyed ancient texts, translated the runes and did the arithmantic calculations in order to re-create time-turning sand, which you then linked with a potion?" one Ministry member asked, sounding flabbergasted. It was easy to see why. The art of time sand had been thought lost. No new time turners had been created for hundreds of years. And no one had ever heard of it being linked with a potion.

Hermione answered these and many other questions, laying out her survey of ancient texts, her use of charms and transfiguration on the sand and charms in the potion making process, her use of Muggle chemistry, medicine and science (which went right over their heads), her use of almost unfathomably complicated arithmancy calculations in the creation of a potion with elements of healing, time turning, de-aging, and neural-regeneration, combined carefully so that some de-aging accompanied the healing in proportion to the damage, but no memory loss occurred.

One obnoxious Ministry official, unable to find any holes in her work and doing a poor job of hiding his prejudice against the Muggle components of the cure, finally asked snidely, "Yes, but does it work?"

Hermione told them about her own use of the potion, and as they were listening, Severus glided into the room. Some of the teachers had seen him already, but the Potions guild and Ministry members had not.

"Severus, is that you?" Kingsley asked in a shocked voice.

"Whole and hale, my friend," Severus answered. "Neurological pain and damage from innumerable cruciatus curses, hexes and cursed snakes reversed, with physical healing of all related scars, erasure of several years worth of premature aging and seven years de-aged with memory fully intact."

The healers were amazed and wanted vials of it immediately. The potions guild pretty much patented it on the spot. The Ministry officials deemed it necessary to classify it as a controlled substance and squabbled. Kingsley hugged her and said, "They're all going to be fighting over themselves to woo you to their departments now."

Hermione loved Severus' praise best. That evening in the lab he told her, "You're brilliant, little one. I'm very proud of you. You'll be set for life with this, you know."

"That's not why I did it," she told him. "I did it for you."

Severus cupped her face in his hands and gazed at her with almost the same intensity as he had done the night of his cure. "Hermione...Thank you," he said. This time his kiss was chaste and gentle, but still overwhelming.

Hermione was glad when, over the next month, the cure healed several other people of cruciatus damage inflicted in the last war, but the only thing that came close to the satisfaction she felt anytime she saw the way Severus now ate and moved without pain was when Neville's parents were healed and restored with the cure. They were de-aged almost to their son's age, but their minds were returned and Neville was beginning know his parents for the first time in his life. The day it was given to them, Neville grabbed Hermione into a hug and just sobbed for a while as he tried to voice his appreciation. Hermione couldn't have been happier for him.

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