Trial and Error
Wearily she went to bed, wearily she arose in four or five hours' time. But with the morning came hope, and a brighter view of things.
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South
In the weeks following his awakening, Hermione watched Severus struggle both to recover and to figure out what his place was among them. At first it was as if he held himself apart and merely tried to tolerate his situation. He was still hard to read, but there were times she could tell he was learning things about them he didn't expect, moments he was nonplussed by the way they treated him as one of their own. Hermione wondered if he'd ever had the benefit of open and honest friendship aside from Lily. She suspected not, and considering how that had turned out, she couldn't blame him for being so wary. It both amused and saddened her to watch him flounder in what appeared to be unfamiliar territory.
Harry and Severus shared a similar temperament regarding being invalided, namely they refused to be so unless it couldn't be helped and even then it was met with rebellion. Hermione had been surprised by how well 'Harry's method' worked with Severus, but there came a point when Severus was determined to get his feet underneath him whether his wounds were completely healed or not.
"Alright," she said one morning when he refused to be put off standing and walking a bit. "But I'm going to walk beside you...don't look at me like that...I won't hold on to you, but I'll be here to grab on to if it feels like you're pulling something open and need to take the strain off, deal? And if Poppy comes to check up on you we pretend it never happened...unless you injure yourself, and then you're on your own...except that I'll be labeled the worst nurse ever."
His smirk at her closing mumble only lasted until weakness caused him to wobble and grab hold of her. She gave him a 'told you so' look but he was determined to make it across the room to the chair, and so they did. That had marked the beginning of his progress toward independence, which both made it easier and harder for him.
It was almost more awkward for him when they moved him into the bedroom adjacent to the first-floor sitting room. His increasing mobility and independence required him to self-determine his location, which meant if he spent time among them instead of holed up in his room, it was by choice. Hermione knew Severus did not wish it to appear that he desired their company, though she sensed he sometimes did, so she took to drawing him out of his room, thereby making it appear he was congregating with them because of her prodding and not by his own will.
By slow process, his uncertainty and frustrations began to lessen as he regained himself. It was uncertain territory for all of them, forging relationships with Severus Snape, but they were figuring it out as they went along. Hermione was almost surprised to note that though he was friendly with Minerva, Poppy, Kingsley and even Arthur, Severus seemed not only to tolerate her, Harry, Ron and George, and they him, but to be as much or more at ease in their company. When she had offered Severus friendship, Hermione had been unsure if the others would sincerely offer the same and then worried that despite their wish to befriend him, Severus would yet find them 'intolerable'. She was pleased by every instance that allayed her fears.
Harry seemed to gravitate toward Severus. Hermione knew that Harry felt a connection with him through his Mum, but the more she watched them together, the more she saw there was more to it than that. It was the burdens they carried, she realized, the weight of long-held secrets and unrelenting duty. It made them like-creatures in a way. She hoped they would help each other in time. Severus needed more of Harry's openness, and Harry needed more of Severus' control over emotions and angst. They both needed to let go of a ton of their baggage.
Ron bonded with Severus over wizard chess. Severus, she knew, didn't tolerate fools and though he had always seemed to revile Ron as such, Ron's thoughtfulness was more evident in his grief, and when they first played, Hermione spotted Severus' surprise. By the readiness and absorption with which they played subsequent games, it was evident they found each other's strategic genius engaging.
The most unexpected thing to Hermione was how well George and Severus were getting along. It came as a surprise to Hermione to learn that Fred and George had escaped the over-associate-the-next-generation-with-the-Marauders paintbrush with which Severus had painted them over the years. There were times when she caught Severus smirking at tales of Fred and George, or at George's much subdued but still-in-existence humor. Once she had even found Severus and George looking through Fred and George's inventions notebook. When she asked Severus about this, he explained of the twins, "More inventive, better targets."
And then there was her own relationship with Severus. It was lightness and terror all at the same time. The wonderful part was that she'd finally found someone equal to her in intellect who shared her bookish nature, someone she could read and discuss things with without dumbing things down or keeping her excitement to herself, someone who was growing to understand her just as she was growing to understand him. Hermione cherished her time sitting beside him reading and talking or even just being, and she didn't think she could ever get on without it again. And that's what terrified her. She realized she was becoming dependent on her friendship with Severus - but what if he got better and decided he was done with them all, with her? Hermione knew she wouldn't cope well if that happened - at all. She sensed it could break her worse than all the breaking that had come before.
It left her not knowing if she should dive deeper, enjoy it while she could, and try to win him over or if she should get a little distance and try to protect herself. It was a sort of dance, and he was dancing it too.
This morning Hermione sensed that Severus needed a bit of space…cue dance step back. She wasn't sure how much of that need was in reaction to her or how much was driven by his own inner demons, but she had her own mix of the two going on as well, so she made plans to decamp to a public library for a few hours. Harry was gone until the evening to funerals and the first of the trials, and she didn't want to leave Severus alone, so that left Ron and George. She wasn't surprised when they insisted that one of them go with her. Greyback was still at large, and truth be told, even if this were not the case, after all that had happened, Hermione was wary of being alone, even in a secure place, let alone out in public. What did surprise her was Ron wanting to go to the library.
Before leaving, she changed Severus' dressings and told him she was heading to the library.
"I've read almost everything here and I'm in a mood for something different anyhow. How about you? Any special requests?" she asked him.
Severus shrugged. "Surprise me…but nothing…unpleasant."
"So no romance novels, sappy poetry or badly written tripe?" she teased. "Got it," she laughed when he gave her a withering, exasperated look.
Hermione turned to Ron and George. "A trip to a Muggle library isn't likely to invite trouble. I can handle a trip to my native habitat alone," she offered. "I mean, it's the library Ron. Are you sure you can handle it?"
All three of them had been giving her quite the look before her last quip, but then snorted, even Ron.
"I'll live," he said. "Come on then, let's go."
Hermione surprised Severus when she kissed him farewell on the cheek, same as she did George, but not as much as when she gave him a grin and said, "Don't miss me too much."
After a brief moment of shock, he gave her a look that said, 'No worries there,' and returned to his book. When she looked back before departing the room, she found his dark eyes upon her. It almost gave her hope that he was feeling the same conflict that gripped her: the need for space giving way to the opposite as soon as distance is embarked upon.
Hermione let go Ron's hand as soon as they'd apparated to a spot a few blocks from the public library. Both of them inconspicuously grasped their wands as they took a hyper vigilant look about them. Even as they stowed their wands and began walking they maintained their vigilance.
"You really didn't have to come with me, Ron." Hermione said. "But thank you."
Ron put his arm around her shoulders. "Yes, I did. We've gone over this. Not gonna...er, send you off to wander on your own with Greyback still on the loose...maybe even if he weren't. Even Snape agreed."
"Well, if Severus said so," she teased. Ron dropped his arm a bit awkwardly.
Hermione sighed, hating the weirdness that was between them lately. "We're going to have to talk about this aren't we?"
Ron grabbed the back of his neck. "Suppose so."
When he didn't offer anything else, Hermione hedged, "Is it completely me…or was it a bit like…kissing a sibling?" Spotting Ron's dark look, she went on nervously. "Maybe it was just…the timing. Don't be mad, Ron, please. If it's too soon, we can talk about it later. Maybe, with more time…?"
Ron sighed and deflated a bit. "It wasn't just you," he admitted. "It's just all that time…"
"I know," Hermione said. "All that time we spent wanting each other, and then..."
Ron shook his head. "Yeah. I never expected that."
Hermione said, "I think we could even make ourselves…and maybe if we both tried really hard it would turn out okay, but it could also end badly, couldn't it? Really badly. I mean, what would we talk about? Bore each other over books and quidditch? Or would we just quit talking to each other? And Ron, I love you. I can't lose you, either way. Promise me," she said desperately.
"I promise, Hermione. Always family, always friends…even if nothing else ever happens…always," he promised and he grabbed her up into a genuine, un-awkward hug. He rested his chin on the top of her head. "I've already messed up so many times. I don't ever want to be the one who messes up and walks away again, even if it doesn't turn out the way I'd hoped."
Hermione gave him a watery smile as she threaded her arm through his and resumed their walk. "Part of me wants to go ahead and try just so I don't end up as a lonely old cat lady with too many books, but that's no good is it? I'm so messed up right now….The timing isn't good for either one of us. You're okay to go on as friends, figure it out ...later maybe?"
Ron gave her a small grin. "Yeah, best friends."
She beamed at him and nodded in relief. "So what prompted you to volunteer for library time, really?"
Ron put his hands in his pockets as he walked.
"Well, you went and read every book in Grimmauld Place and I thought I'd spare everyone having to face you without your fix," he grinned at her. "Besides, you said there'd be some books on chess strategy here."
"That's probably the first time in all the years I've known you to sound even marginally excited about going to the library...and I only skimmed the dark ones...which is about half of them." Hermione said. She thought about the wizard chess games Ron and Severus had been playing. "He really gives you a challenge, doesn't he?"
Ron grunted. "Maybe the only one who ever really has."
"I know what you mean," she said.
Ron grunted again. "Yeah. We always knew you were brilliant, but the way you two go on...well, the way you go on and he actually gets it and says a few words...Harry and I reckon you're about twice as brilliant as we ever figured. It's part of what made me realize…" Ron grabbed the back of his neck again. "It's odd how well you two get on...how well he gets on with all of us really. Whod've thought?"
Hermione grinned. "I know. Especially with Harry."
"We've always hated him...well maybe not you so much, huh?" he questioned. She shook her head and he continued, "Definitely Harry though, and now..." Ron thought for a minute. "They kind of get each other in a weird way...never thought that'd happen."
After spending a couple of hours at the library, Hermione checked out two huge piles of books which Ron helped her carry to a spot that was inconspicuous enough to stow them into the impossibly small beaded bag. They ran a few other errands and when they returned to Grimmauld Place that afternoon, they found Ginny and Kingsley there.
Hermione read at once that Kingsley and Severus were comfortable in each other's company, but this was not so much the case with Ginny and Severus. She knew it was one thing to hear that Severus was actually one of them, but another to accept the reality of it. While Hermione understood this, it upset her for Severus' sake. She greeted Ginny and Kingsley with hugs and chatted with them a bit before turning her attention to Severus. She was genuinely glad and relieved to see him again, but she also wanted to show her solidarity. She walked over and grinned at him.
"Did you miss me?" she teased.
Severus grunted, but she could tell by the look in his eyes that he had.
This made her answering smile warm and brilliant. It said, 'me too,' and she knew he saw it.
"In that case, I bring gifts." She started withdrawing piles of books. "And a project," she added, now withdrawing boxes that contained a stereo / CD player and speakers and a pile of CD cases. "If anyone can help me figure out how to get this to work here it'd be you and George. I've been thinking for a while now that music might help." She didn't qualify how. She didn't have to with her 7S housemates.
She sat beside him as he thumbed through the books and the CD's. "You approve?" she asked.
He gave her a wry grin and nodded. His dark eyes found hers. "Thank you," he said. She had a feeling he meant it for more than the books.
She smiled at him again. "Ron's hoarding a few books in his pockets. You might want to try to sneak them. He's been reading up on chess strategy."
Severus gave Ron an amused look. Ron just shook his head and looked at Hermione. "Traitor," he mouthed at her. Hermione was glad to see the grin he gave her was mostly back to normal.
Hermione saw that Ginny had relaxed somewhat with these interchanges, though she looked a little confused. This continued as they kept up the easy banter that included her and Kingsley in the mix, especially when Harry returned and George came down from his room. Ginny and Kingsley were treated as something like a second tier; they were never told the secrets of 7S but they were included in the practice of the Rules of Being Real. Ginny seemed somewhat surprised by the difference, but they could tell she found it refreshing.
Kingsley and Harry brought news that the Malfoy trials were starting tomorrow. Severus looked concerned and then stunned (for him) when she and Harry and then Ron stated their intent to go testify on their behalf...well, on behalf of Draco and Narcissa at least.
Hermione knew Severus was thinking of her Malfoy 'issues' when he gave her, in particular, a look that asked, 'You would do this?'
She grasped his arm and gave him a reassuring smile. "You'd like to be there, wouldn't you? We'll make sure it happens, but they haven't cleared you yet...so it wouldn't help matters," she said honestly. "We'll do what we can for them in your place. We saw enough to tell truths that will help them."
Severus sighed and nodded.
Hermione asked Kingsley when they would hold Severus' own trial. He said he could arrange it for after the Malfoys if they were ready. "We can hold it posthumously or with you in attendance. Your memories, the letter Dumbledore left and everything Harry's been working hard to get together should make it pretty straightforward. Have you decided if you're going to fade quietly away or make a shocking reappearance yet?" Kingsley asked him.
Severus looked down in thought. Harry and Hermione shared a look as he deliberated. Unable to bear the possibility that he could choose to leave everyone, even them, behind, Hermione grabbed his hands now. "We'll be there, all of us, right beside you, either way," she said.
He let her see the swirls of emotion in his eyes. Fear. Worry. Awe. Hope. "I'll be there," he said finally, "I'll come back."