Disclaimer: These characters belong to J.K. Rowling, not to me. I'm just having a bit of fun with them, and I'm not making any money from it.
There was nothing more boring than being a portrait.
Severus was surrounded by pompous old farts who called him 'Boy' and were more interested in dozing than debating. The living made better conversation, but the new Headmaster generally ignored him, and he had no visitors. Regrettably, he had no alternate portrait outside Hogwarts, so that he might visit others.
In desperation, Severus tried suicide, only to discover that he couldn't drown in painted rivers or be burned by painted fire.
His last hope of escape extinguished, he resigned himself to an eternity without intellectual stimulation… until the day she returned.
Hermione Granger had grown up.
Severus watched her sitting before the Headmaster, ignoring Severus as every other visitor did. Youthful eagerness had dimmed to a quiet, mature sense of confidence, obvious in the way she held herself. She radiated stern authority; it would serve her well in teaching.
She had the careworn, brittle look of the grieving, too—a look Severus recognised too well. In a flash, he thought he glimpsed a kindred spirit, deep in mourning and seeking sanctuary in Hogwarts. Who had she lost, he wondered.
For the first time in years, something in the outside world intrigued him.
Severus started looking forward to Granger's visits.
He observed each time she visited the Headmaster's office, noting the tension in her posture, the brightness of her eyes. He heard the occasional tremble in her voice and the way she covered her lapses smoothly, stronger than ever. He listened and learned that her husband had died.
Though Severus had always thought Ronald Weasley to be witless and unworthy of Miss Granger, he was stunned to feel sympathy for her loss. Whatever Weasley's faults, he'd been the love of her life; no loss could hurt more.
This much, Severus knew from experience.
Eventually, Severus grew frustrated with the distance imposed by the office.
He struck out determinedly on his own and discovered the landscape that hung in Granger's quarters. He hid in the bushes and watched—silently, secretly learning her strange beauty.
He noticed her silvering hair and laugh lines. He saw her hug her children, curse her students and, occasionally, cry as though her soul ached. On those nights, he felt entirely useless, incapable of offering comforting words or even a reassuring embrace.
He understood her pain, though, in a way few could. Shrouded by shadow and painted leaves, he shared it.
After some time, she stunned him.
"You can come out, you know," Hermione said, her gaze resting on Severus' concealing shrubbery. "I can't believe you're still hiding in bushes, Headmaster."
Severus froze, a hot blush blooming across his face. Even now, he retained the ability to be humiliated.
"I don't mind the company," she added. "It's rather comforting."
His blush intensified, for different reasons. He nearly smiled.
"Only I'd love to hear what you'd make of Vincy's latest idiocy in Transfiguration Today," she continued, eyes gleaming mischievously. "Shall I read it aloud?"
Cautiously, Severus revealed himself and prepared to listen.
Severus spent most of his time in Hermione's quarters. He much preferred the company, and his absence wasn't missed in the Headmaster's office.
It wasn't as though anybody had ever wanted his advice, anyway.
Except, that was, for Hermione. She always solicited his opinion, reading out passages from execrable essays or insightful articles. After he gruffly mentioned that he wasn't averse to novels, she began to read aloud from a varied selection.
Severus closed his painted eyes, appreciating the way her voice caressed the words.
He couldn't say which pleasure was more exquisite: the novel or the recital of it.
Severus couldn't pinpoint exactly when the lines blurred and their talk shifted from the professional to the personal.
Possibly it happened on the day when her father died. Faced with her grief, Severus haltingly shared his own memories of his father's death.
Perhaps it happened when Hermione expressed disgust with Valentine's Day, and Severus admitted that he'd never received a valentine.
It probably happened when Hermione woke from a dream of Ron and quietly sobbed in the dark. Never had Severus felt so inadequate, unable to reach across the barrier that separated them.
"I'm sorry," he said helplessly. "I understand."
Hermione looked up, shocked.
"Oh, Severus! I'm sorry to wake you. I just—"
"I know. I understand," he repeated.
"Yes, you would, wouldn't you?" She sniffled wetly, wiping her face on her nightdress. "I appreciate that. Tell me, does it ever stop hurting?"
"No," he admitted. "Never. However…" He paused, surveying her damp face and reddened nose, her frizzy hair standing out in every direction. Though it was physically impossible, he felt his heart pounding.
"In time," he continued, "I have found… not a replacement, no, but a… vastly superior successor."
Hermione's smile gleamed in the moonlight. "So have I."
Severus returned to his portrait when the Headmaster's office became the Headmistress' office, and Hermione took her place behind a desk that had briefly been his.
He found the office's atmosphere no longer intolerable; somehow, it was easier to abide the blathering of others when it was he whom Hermione asked for guidance first, his word that was valued most.
She ruled Hogwarts well and wisely for decades, and his pride in her success was keen. He visited her quarters each day, watching her sleep and wake.
One morning, she did not rise, no matter how loudly he called her.
Time ground to a halt for Severus, although the world outside his frame continued to move. Though he heard the whispers of the other portraits, he couldn't bring himself to care.
"…hasn't moved in days, poor sod…"
"…don't think his frame's been hexed, do you…"
"…he just misses her, that's all." That was Longbottom, the new ruler of Hogwarts. Severus dimly recognised his voice.
"She'll be coming, sir," Longbottom added. "It takes a while, sometimes. Have faith."
Severus remained still and silent, but he clung to Longbottom's reassurance.
It was all that anchored him to the world.
"I hear there's a mopey wizard in this frame. I've been sent to deal with him."
At the sound of her voice, Severus' heart filled to bursting.
Hermione stood before him, finally within reach. For the first time, he noticed the whiteness of her hair and the number of her wrinkles.
It didn't matter. Her smile was genuine, and therefore lovely.
"You're here," he marvelled.
She wrapped him in a fierce embrace, solid, warm and real.
"I've been waiting to do this for decades!" she declared. "And this."
To the applause of the other portraits, they shared their first kiss.