"The world is larger and more beautiful than my little struggle."
In the days that followed Christmas break, Severus watched, almost anxiously, over Hermione. There was something growing quietly and deeply between them, mutually recognized, but whose time, given their circumstances, had not yet come. It was like a tender new plant of the most rare and valuable kind...just as precious and vulnerable, capable of withering from lack of care or growing into something beautiful and vital. But there was something off as well.
Severus' life prior to this year ensured that his existence had been a stressful, angry and lonely one, but he'd survived the cards life dealt and he'd had the strength to choose and walk his own path. He was not the tragic, heroic, broken, love-starved man the damnable Daily Prophet made him out to be - thus ensuring him unwanted solicitation from a plethora of idiotic witches who wanted to bathe him in pity. It was true, however, that his past had groomed him to cling tightly to the few trusted, good things that came into his life, and this he did with Hermione. Perhaps a little too much.
The tell the whole truth, Hermione had helped him and mended more than he'd known was broken. Even before her miraculous cure. This fact made his regret profound when he'd hurt her, made it possible to risk trusting her, and had made it easier to give and reciprocate when it came time to help her. He'd been surprised by the depth that her pain had become his own. In short, she'd completely and irrevocably wormed her way under his skin and into his heart.
Severus could admit that it was gratifying to be needed so much by someone he cared for. It ameliorated the fear, made him feel a little more secure, a little less out on a limb. But enabling Hermione's dependence came at a price. Outwardly, she looked much the same, but to the observant, the evidence was there. It was in the lack of interest sparking in her eyes as she read and learned. It was in the absence of her usual goal-oriented drive. It was in her dearth of opinion and the uncertainty with which she went forward. Those were very un-Hermione things.
Severus sensed over and over that she cared for him, that she loved him. He wished he could find and return whatever part of Hermione had been left behind as she recovered from her mishap with occlumency, but he was at a loss as to how to do it.
It had been encouraging when she'd thrown herself into completing the cure with something close to her old absorption. But it became apparent, after a while, that her interest in completing it was related to her desire to please him and not a return of the fervor that usually drove her through life. And if she could accomplish something like that, approaching mastery level on many counts, when neither potions nor healing were particular passions of hers, and the academic merit hardly figured into her motivation, imagine what she could do when she was in full form. It awed even him.
When Severus heard from Poppy that Hermione had finished the cure and tested it on herself, he had first worried - until hearing Poppy's report and remembering that he'd seen post-cure Hermione only moments before. Severus then immediately talked Poppy into dosing him, After it was done he headed off to find Hermione, understanding immediately why she'd been acting so oddly before fleeing the infirmary.
He'd only meant to surprise Hermione and tell her thank you. But the cure had left him on fire, undermining his control. When he'd found her at the club, Severus' intent to thank her fell to the wayside and the need to have her in his arms and kiss her senseless had come over him - and the audience hadn't even registered. Severus still couldn't believe that he'd acted so rashly, but Hermione's response...it still had him wit wandering when he thought about it.
Severus found himself thinking about her in the midst of everything else he was supposed to be doing and frequently fought back the impulse to grab her close and repeat the night at the club whenever he saw her. His increased youth and energy did nothing to help him in this regard. As much as Severus wished he could take advantage of the time Hermione was so close to hand to just be with her, and most people who knew them and whose opinions mattered at all knew them to be good friends, they both knew it was wisest to wait until she was no longer his student. He wasn't planning on making a public spectacle out of them, Merlin forbid, but Severus had no intention of hiding like a criminal either. He'd had enough subterfuge for a lifetime or two. Why invite more unsavory speculation than was bound to arise in any case?
This is what he told himself. It very nearly wasn't enough, and likely wouldn't have been if it weren't also for the fact that Hermione wasn't fully Hermione at the moment. In his frequent musings, he sought something that might help her.
The only bright idea had arisen between Shacklebolt and himself at a dinner they'd shared as they discussed the matter. Friends though they were, Severus doubted that the Trio realized the extent to which Kingsley watched over them, anxious both for their well-being and for the promise of their futures. Severus, who had always found Kingsley to be one of the most tolerable and sensible Order members, increasingly found a sense of camaraderie with the man over their mutual concerns.
The bright idea to tailor a position in the Ministry for Hermione, Severus was afraid, might well be turning into the worst idea, however. The one thing he and Kingsley could discern that still lit her fires, so to speak, other than himself, was her desire to learn more about other cultures, their social strata regarding bloodlines, their magical creatures and how they integrated so that she could learn best how to help on the home front. Severus couldn't blame Hermione for desiring to see more of life than the pages of a book, or to witness worlds that were not as broken and ravaged as their own, but when consequent discussions between she and Kinglsey began to formulate a liaison-ambassador position that would potentially keep her traveling for two years, Severus felt hints of panic and bereavement stirring within his soul.
And then there was the outright odious idea, a plan fully in the works tailor made to ensure his misery. His presence was requested at the Ministry at four of the clock on Saturday afternoon, the eighth of May, for receipt of a special award, the Order of Merlin - First Class, the grand opening of the Wizarding War Memorial wing at the Ministry, and the First Annual Remembrance Ball.
His protestations met deaf ears. Kingsley let Severus know that his invitation read "Your presence is requested" as a nicety only.
"Think more along the lines of 'Your presence is...necessary, insisted upon, demanded, not an option or up for discussion'. All of these are fitting, though less subtle," Kingsley told him. "I am quite serious, my friend. I'm not above resorting to unsavory methods to ensure your attendance either."
He proved this when he brought up Hermione's willingness to do her duty and show up for her award. "You mean you wouldn't like to go with her? Enjoy mutual protection of a sort in each other's company? You would rather leave her at the mercy of her overeager admirers?"
The insufferable man knew exactly which wand to yank. This left Severus no option but to offer himself to Hermione as an escort. He might trust her in the care of the boys, but they had apparently made other plans and he would not countenance the thought of Hermione on anyone else's arm, or on her own, unprotected.
When he asked Hermione to accompany him, her eyes lit up and then turned sympathetic. "You know, I do believe Kingsley had a hand in putting Gabrielle in Ron's path...the random trip to see Fleur during term, coincidental foray to the joke shop when Ron just happened to be there...very school girl of him don't you think? Positively meddlesome."
Severus grunted. "Quite. One could almost suspect..."
They both turned to look at the newest portrait on the Headmaster's wall. The portrait in question avoided their gaze with an entirely too innocent look on his face.
"Albus Dumbledore," they said together. Severus saw Albus grin and wink at Hermione from the corner of his eye as he turned to face her again.
"I would love nothing more than to be by your side the entire night, Severus, and watch you receive well-deserved recognition," Hermione told him. "But I also know how much you loathe the idea and I won't be party to anything that forces you to do something against your will. Don't feel like you have to go with me just because Ron has, for once, what he alone among us sees as a fortune: the spotlight and a sycophant."
Severus looked down at her and realized he would rather be at her side than anywhere else, even if it did come at such a cost. "Don't be ridiculous, Hermione." He cupped her chin and tilted her eyes up to meet his. "You have no idea how much I appreciate you for not trying to manipulate me, but you go too far. Your company is not a burden to me. You know that, surely?"
Hermione gave him a smile that was a bit watery. "Yes, but is it welcome enough to overcome your aversion of 'the epitome of all that is loathsome,' as you put it?" she asked teasingly.
"It is welcome enough to overcome even that, yes," he replied with dry amusement. "The only caveat will be the requirement of your constant presence. If you leave me to my own devices it shall not go well."
The night, as it turned out, went quite well. Not to say that the backdrop of events, congratulations, publicity, and memories weren't odious, but the presence of Hermione at his side and in his arms made up for it.
Hermione had stolen his breath, not just at the first sight of her, but throughout the night. She wore an elegant silk gown somewhere between maroon and deep red. She'd clung to him, but while doing so, held her head high and somehow projected an aura of both formidable intelligence and resolve, and inner warmth and kindness. She maintained a reserve that only relented with her close friends, and she gifted only Neville, Luna, Kingsley, the SevenS and especially him with her open and beautiful smile. Hermione told him she was the envy of the witches in the room as she danced with him, but he snorted, knowing that despite the detestably fawning witches who'd approached him, it was Hermione who incited envy. His scowl was simply more effective at keeping her would-be suiters at bay.
The SevenS shared a table with their dates. The Hogwarts staff and their friends from the Order and the DA sat nearby with their families. In one another's company they actually managed to enjoy the evening. And they shored each other up through the awards and speeches, and as they made their tour through the War Memorial wing.
Colin Creevy had managed to take an astonishing number of pictures of the last battle before his demise. There were also memory photos that had been obtained of Harry Potter and his comrades breaking out of Gringott's and the Ministry. Those who had been there were forced on a solemn trip down memory lane at the viewing of these and the other depictions and framed verbal accounts. Severus, Dumbledore. the Trio and Neville all had special sections dedicated to them. There were artifacts: Death Eater robes and a mask (Severus' own), Bellatrix and Riddle's wands, and the infamous tent had been recovered. There were also replicas: Hermione's beaded bag among them.
After the viewing, they found a deserted room in which to recover themselves. Severus held Hermione close as she curled into his chest and sniffled. She then heaved a sigh and performed a few spells to set herself to rights again.
"Am I presentable?" she asked him.
Severus brushed his thumb against her cheek and cupped her face in his hand. "More than simply presentable, little one. You live up to your name and your heritage."
"Severus, what are you talking about?" Hermione asked him with amused curiosity.
"Hermione...unique and beautiful name, and fitting for the daughter of the woman whose beauty launched a thousand ships," he replied with a small smile.
"My mother is Helen Jean Granger, not Helen of Troy, oh Smooth-tongued-one. Who knew you were capable of such flattery?" she teased with apparent fondness. "But seriously, is my face blotchy and streaked with makeup?"
"Hmm," Severus deliberated, keeping her wondering, but he hadn't been teasing at all. She was beautiful and he finally gave in, for just a moment, to the impulse that had consumed him all night. Slowly he lowered his face and brushed his lips against hers in a gentle kiss. He looked into her warm brown eyes. "There. Perfect," he said. "You were just a bit pale, but that brought the color back," he smirked.
The longing in her eyes almost did him in, but finally she smirked back and quipped an amused, "Thank you."
The Sevens began to reassemble from various corners around the room in preparation to return to the spotlight. Hermione spotted a done-in George holding hands with Angelina Johnson who looked on in worry. Hermione walked up to George and put her hand on his cheek.
"How are you doing, love?" she asked him quietly.
George just shook his head.
"I know," she said, giving him a hug. "I think we're all done," she said looking around the room and receiving nods. "Why don't we call it a night? Harry and I can stay and bid our goodbyes and you lot can floo home from the Atrium. We'll meet you at the Burrow as soon as we can." She looked meaningfully at Severus who understood and agreed with a return glance and nod to take charge of George and getting them all back. They began walking back down the corridor.
"Did you like my bug spray?" Hermione asked George as they walked down the corridor together. His eyes perked a bit with the light of amusement and mischief.
"Are you finally going to explain the stuff you sprayed us all with before we came, then?" Ron asked. Severus had an inkling, but he was waiting for the explanation as well.
"Just a little something I came up with...an odorless midge repellant," she said with clear amusement.
"Midge repellant?" Ron asked with a flat voice as if still waiting for the punch line.
"Yes," Hermione replied. "Has an effective radius of twenty feet and just happens to repel beetles as well."
Harry was chuckling. Ron laughed too and said, "You didn't?"
"Hmm..." Hermione deliberated then laughed. "Got the idea when George told me about the prank he and Fred played on Minerva with catnip."
Severus laughed heartily as he remembered that particular prank and processed the implications of what Hermione had done. Hermione smiled at him while Ginny and Angelina raised their eyebrows in shock at seeing the formidable Severus Snape succumb to laughter.
"Is that why...she started coughing and gagging every time she tried to come near with her stupid quill? Thought she was going to puke on Harry at one point." Ron asked quietly, looking around for sign of any unwanted listeners. The striking blonde French girl who clung to his arm looked in confusion around the corridor as well.
Hermione merely raised her eyebrows and smiled in answer.
While Harry and George were promising to explain things to Ginny, Angelina and Gabrielle later, Ron said, "Bless you, Hermione! Bloody brilliant, as always."
He hugged her and kissed her on the cheek and thanked her as did Harry, Severus, and George. Severus heard George thank Hermione for ending the night with a memory of Fred he wanted to remember. Severus concurred with that.
When they arrived at the Burrow, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were not far behind, and Molly appeared to have fared no better than George with the evening's events.
"Go take care of Molly, Arthur. Harry and Hermione are bidding our goodbyes at the Ministry. I'll watch over things here and make sure the dates get home before we head back to Harry's," Severus told the man quietly.
Arthur nodded his thanks and clapped him on the back as he passed. "Bill and Fleur left for home just ahead of us so Gabrielle can floo back to Shell Cottage. You're all welcome to stay here...but I know it helps George to stay elsewhere when it's bad. Thank you, Severus."
Severus watched them head up the stairs and settled in, or tried to as he waited impatiently for Hermione.