"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."
Hermione spent what time she could with Severus, but the graduation ceremony came soon enough. Before she knew it, she was sitting up on the stage and Minerva was introducing her as the top student of her year and the next speaker. As she listened for her cue amongst the list of accolades, Hermione spotted something that derailed her attention. Her parents! were sitting in the crowd. How was that even possible? Muggles never came to Hogwarts!
Minerva might as well have been speaking gobbledygook in the background for all Hermione heard after that. So astonished was she that her cue to get up and speak passed by unnoticed until someone jostled her. It was a good thing her speech was memorized so much so as to be delivered by rote. Hermione couldn't account for her parents being there at all, and all she wanted to do was run to them. She did do the moment the ceremony was over.
"Mum!" she cried, throwing herself into Helen's arms. "I mean..." Hermione faltered.
"Yes, poppet, we remember...mostly," her Dad said. "We're so proud of you."
Hermione threw herself, sobbing into her Dad's arms next. "What? How?" she asked, totally at a loss. "You never said anything in your letters."
"Funny thing. Started remembering things after you came and we went to the MLO address you left us for answers. Turns out MLO stands for Muggle Liaison Office of the Australian Ministry of Magic and it all made more sense than it should have. They put us in touch with your Minister who put us in touch with your Headmaster, who as it turns out, was none other than the gentleman who had visited our home with you last summer, except younger looking. Kept it all a surprise, and here we are," he finished.
Hermione looked up at her Mum apprehensively. "So you know what I did?"
Helen gave her a sad smile. "They told us what happened and why. Mr. Snape said you might be able to help us clear up our memories. They're still a bit fuzzy."
"You're not angry with me?" Hermione asked with pleading, anxious eyes.
Her parents looked at each other and then her Mum answered, "We are still trying to come to terms with what you did and all that you didn't tell us about your years here, and we hope that it will never happen again, but..." Hermione held her breath at her mother's pause. "If what they've told us is true, it was amongst the many ways you acted with great bravery and resolve. It's our fault, perhaps, that you became so involved. We raised you to not just say what you think but to do what you believe, did we not? All the fine ideals in the world don't mean a thing if you don't stand up for them. So few people do...but you did, Sweetheart, and we're very proud of you."
Her Dad put his arms around both of them. "Just don't do anything like that again without telling us."
"I promise, Daddy," Hermione said, weeping with blissful relief.
"We missed you, Darling, so much, even though we didn't know it was you we were missing."
Hermione felt her Dad move away. She looked up and saw him shaking hands with Severus.
Hermione stepped out of her mother's arms and went to Severus. After looking up into his eyes for a moment, she wrapped her arms around him, completely overwhelmed and lost for words. She felt him stiffen for a moment, whether because they were in public or because Hermione's parents stood close by, Hermione wasn't sure, but after a moment, she felt him relax and return her embrace.
"Severus, thank you. I don't even know what else to say, but thank you," she told him.
In the two weeks before she left for her assignment, Hermione spent time with her parents, shared more memories with them, and involved Severus whenever she could. They persuaded him to come back to Grimmauld with them. Helen Jean Granger was a perceptive woman and spotted, immediately, the chance to get to know better, someone who obviously meant a great deal to her daughter. She threw her voice into the request her daughter made.
A few days later, her Mum pulled her aside and asked, "You love him, don't you, Hermione?"
"If you mean Severus, then yes," Hermione answered quietly and with a weight of sadness.
A long discussion followed on how that had come about and why Hermione was leaving when the thought obviously tore her up.
"You don't mind that he's older?" Hermione asked when her Mum appeared perfectly accepting.
"Hermione, you've always been more intelligent and mature than your peers. I'm not at all surprised that you would fall in love with an older, obviously intelligent man. Also, mathematically speaking, from what you tell us of your expected life spans and the quickening of the age at which you reach majority, it's not so wide a gap. You're still relatively nineteen, be your lifespan 100 or 160, but the difference renders his age something more like 25 by comparison, does it not? Maybe even closer to 20 by comparison, physically speaking, since the cure you gave him?"
Hermione did the math in her head and nodded. "I'd love him anyway, regardless. I can't believe I'm about to just take off and travel for work for two years, no matter how interesting it sounds," Hermione wailed.
"For what it's worth, I agree with your reasons for doing so," her Mum said. "We can perhaps see it better than you can; the changes in you are sudden to us. You've always been so independent, from the time you were very little. I've never seen you second guess yourself so much, so unsure of your opinions, or so dependent on cues from someone else to let you know if you're right or okay or not. You're not imagining it, Sweetheart."
Hermione dropped her head and sagged into her Mum when she wrapped her arms around her. "I can tell he loves you very much in return, oh so proper though he is," Helen chuckled. "I know this will be hard for both of you, but I'm proud of you for doing what you must for things to be healthier between you in the long run."
"I just kept remembering what you said when I was old enough for the talk and we discussed relationships," Hermione told her. "Amongst all your warnings never to stay with someone who belittled me or tried to use words or physical force to control me, you gave sage advice that no one could make me happy if I wasn't happy with myself first." Hermione sighed, "I think I would grow to be a burden to him like this."
Her Mum patted her back and nodded. "Then go, do things you're interested in. Find your purpose and your passion in life again, knowing that it's best for both of you to do so...but enjoy your time with him until you go," she finished in a conspiratorial whisper.
Hermione pulled back and looked at her Mum to see if the same permission was written on her face that she heard in her voice.
"Thanks, Mum," Hermione said. "I love you."
Hermione heeded her mother's wise advise, and spent as much time with Severus as she could. But the closer the date of her departure, the more anxious she became. A few days before she was due to leave, Hermione found herself fingering her charm bracelet as she waited outside the Minister for Magic's office. In short order, an assistant held the door open for Hermione to enter, and Kingsley and a familiar ginger-haired person stood and greeted her with hugs.
"Hello," she said, struggling to observe the niceties. "What are you doing here, George?"
"Discussing some of the security product line," he answered. "What brings you?"
Hermione stood with her arms hugged around her middle and tears gathering in her eyes. Kingsley gave her a knowing and sympathetic look.
"You said it was for the best," he reminded her. "And I agreed, not just for you, but for what I, the Ministry needs as well. You're not backing out are you?" the Minister asked kindly.
Hermione shook her head 'no', but said, "But how am I going to do it, Kingsley? Leave him behind? You know..."
"Yes, I know," he said in his deep, reassuring voice. George looked like he'd cottoned on to Hermione's dilemma.
"Please," she begged. "Please promise me that you'll check up on him and see him as often as you can, that you won't let him be alone. He doesn't trust many people...but you two...and send Harry and Ron no matter how busy Auror training gets...I don't want him to feel abandoned...again." The very thought increased her distress to a level that rendered her unable to speak further.
Kingsley enveloped Hermione in a side hug. "I would do so in any case, but yes, Hermione, we'll watch over Severus for you. I'm more worried about palliating his concerns for you. Going by previous discussions, no matter what escorts and security we arrange, it's likely nothing will satisfy him."
Hermione forged on, somewhat assuaged and ignoring that latter issue altogether. "He can be quite stubborn. If he tries to close himself off, you may have to be stubborn as well," she said..
"We can do that," George said with a smile. "And we can be impressively inventive if necessary also, you know," he added with an air of mischief.
Hermione gave a watery smile. "Thank you."
When she came back to Grimmauld, she spotted her Dad in the entry-way studying the irate but rendered-silent-by-a-specially-invented-silence-shield-charm portrait of Wallburga Black.
"Get everything squared away?" he asked as she closed the door behind her.
Hermione shrugged and nodded at the same time. "I suppose," she said sadly.
"Thatta girl," he said as he enveloped her in a hug. "It'll all work out," he reassured.
Severus approached them then and asked to speak with Hermione. Her Dad gave a kind smile before giving her a parting hug and wink.
Severus nodded at Dr. Granger as he passed. He then turned a questioning and somewhat worried gaze on her.
"You went out?" he asked
"I had a few things to square with Kingsley," Hermione said, instigating an embrace. "How about you? You wanted to speak with me?"
He looked at her quietly for a moment and then asked if she would spend the afternoon and go to dinner with him after her going-away lunch at the Burrow tomorrow. Hermione accepted with a smile, feeling happy, sad, excited, and nervous all at once.
Lunch at the Burrow was wonderful and nostalgic, and Hermione knew she would miss everyone, not just Severus. After making the best of the afternoon, she and Severus dressed in nice but casual attire for their time together. She wore a nice summer dress and Severus wore nice jeans and button down shirt. She smiled at the sight of her friend and love with his familiar long, black hair, impressive nose and dark eyes. It could almost be one of their usual outings as friends, except that her heart was hammering and no one was really fooled by the friend-seeming appearance. Everyone bid them goodbye and agreed to see them tomorrow for Hermione's send off.
Severus took her hand and apparated them to Muggle London, where they'd spent much time before, and where they could move about without being recognized or swamped by reporters. It was almost like one of their past friendly outings. They enjoyed a casual dinner and stroll, and their conversation was much as it ever was, if tinged with something other - hopeful and sad. Severus then apparated them to her special spot and they sat on the tree platform cushions listening to the outdoor music concert. This time, Hermione sat between his legs and leaned her back against his chest, reveling in the feel of him: his warmth, his solid chest, the feel of his heartbeat, the rhythmic movement of his breathing, the rumble of his voice, and the soft curtain of his hair brushing against her as he leaned forward to talk quietly to her from time to time. Hermione held his hands and absorbed the feel of him more than she absorbed the notes that made their way to them. He traced his fingers gently across the remaining strokes of her faint scar and she trembled.
After the concert, they returned to Grimmauld Place. Hermione could tell that Severus was shaken by thoughts of her departure as much as she was. Just as she thought he was about to bid her goodnight and head to his room, Severus grabbed her close and held her tight. When he loosened his hold, Hermione lifted her head and looked up into his eyes. She spotted an unexpected sheen of tears in his eyes.
"Hermione," he said, his voice gruff sounding. He eyes burned into hers with a hint of desperation. "I love you."
Hermione's heart soared at hearing those wonderful words. She leaned her face into the palm of his hand and smiled at him. "I know, Severus. And you know that I love you, don't you?" she questioned with a pleading tone.
Severus closed his eyes and nodded his head. "But you're leaving me," he said. The pain, dejection and disbelief in the words nearly broke her heart.
Hermione shook her head slightly and kept her tear-laden eyes on his. "No, Severus. I'm not leaving you, I would never just leave you. I'm going and I'm coming back again. I love you too much to subject you this right now," she waved her hands up and down in front of her chest, indicating herself.
Severus gave her an angry look.
"No, I'm serious," Hermione said. "My Mum taught me long ago that no one else can make you happy unless you're happy with yourself first - that people can't fix each other, they just help each other along. I don't want to be a burden to you." Severus shook his head, but Hermione continued, "I know you think you don't mind, but you shouldn't have to carry me like that. Walk on eggshells afraid you might hurt my feelings, avoid the truth, afraid I might not take it well, worry over my state of mind when I should be able to stand on my own two feet and help you carry your burdens as well. I won't do that to you, Severus. I need to get my strength back, relearn my purpose and wonder in life. Please tell me you understand," she begged.
Severus sighed and dropped his forehead to rest on hers. "I do, but damnit, Hermione, I don't want you to go," he growled softly.
"I know. Me too" she said with a sigh. After a moment, she voiced her fear. "I'm scared, Severus."
Severus looked down at her and his own tortured gaze softened. He wiped her tears away and pulled her head to his chest again.
"Don't be afraid, little one. Don't be sad. I'm not angry with you. You're one of the most capable people I've ever met. I'm proud of you and I know you'll do great things. In fact, you had better do them. Poor reflection on your school and your Ministry if you don't."
Hermione chuckled and continued cuddling into him. After a moment she said, "I love it when you call me that. It makes me feel loved, protected, and safe."
"That's because you are," he said softly into her hair. "Though you're about to venture beyond my ability to protect you, which I...despise," he growled out. "I expect you to favor common sense and practical defense above idiotic Gryffindor bravado, Hermione. To be vigilant and not trust too readily, but also to listen to the ones you do trust who are there to keep you safe."
"I promise, Severus. The road goes ever on and on and all that, but the road home leads to you, and I fully intend to make it back." Hermione saw that his eyes were now darker and glittering. "I expect you to do your great things as well, you know. You've already done so many of them this year: set up guest lecturers, restructured the combination of houses in classes, equalized and enforced ant-bullying measures, and half a dozen other things to curb house rivalries. I know you have more grand plans...do them...and I'll marvel when I come back."
Severus returned her small smile. Hermione turned serious again and begged one more promise from him. "Severus, tell me you'll not hole yourself up in your office alone. That you'll see Kingsley and the boys when they come by and spend time with them. I can't bear the thought...I won't be able to make myself go if you don't...if I can't..." Hermione stuttered to a stop, tense and distraught.
"Hush, little one. I won't abandon what you've made possible just because you're not here," Severus said. "I won't promise I'll always be pleasant about it, however."
Hermione didn't say anything about the misery he expected, but made a joke instead. She smirked. "You...be pleasant all the time? If I hear that, I'll suspect something's wrong with you."
"Impertinent," he said.
"Yup," she admitted. "But you love me."
He raised an eyebrow at her but then conceded, "I do."
"Severus?" she asked.
"Hermione," he answered.
"I don't expect you to put your life on hold for me. If someone comes along who is better for you, I love you enough to want that for you...I'll understand."
He looked at her almost angrily. "I suppose that makes me selfish is I don't return the sentiment?"
Hermione shook her head with a smile. He must have read her worry at the thought she'd just voiced. "Your self-sacrificial nature amazes me sometimes, Hermione," he said, brushing a strand of hair out of her face. "Sometimes you're cunning and conniving enough to have me almost convinced you'd make a good snake, except that you're too fierce and protective a lioness to be wholly convincing. You're definitely bright and logical enough to be an eagle, but you also almost convince me to laud the badger. I've never been the subject of such love and loyalty to have appreciated their virtue so well as I do now. You're the best of all of us, and I've never met your like in my nearly forty years. It's you I think of as I try to amalgamate the houses into unity, little one. There's no easy cure for my need of you; do not think on it."
"You're not making it any easier to leave," Hermione sniffled. "Are you being so wonderful in an attempt to get me to stay?"
Severus gave a derisive huff. "I was, for once, simply being honest," he admitted.
"I love you," Hermione repeated, smoothing her fingers across his face and lips.
"And I could almost think there was a deity smiling on me for that fact," he said, capturing her hand and kissing it.
"Maybe there is," Hermione said. "Watching over all of us and smiling on us both. I've begun to wonder myself." She couldn't quite read the look on his face though she tried for a few moments. "Kiss me?" she finally asked, breathlessly.
Severus went still. "Will that make it easier or harder tomorrow?"
Hermione deliberated for a moment. "I don't know," she answered finally. "Either way...please?"