A/N: Thank you all for such lovely reviews! I'm going out of town for a week so I'm making the next two chapters extra long. Thanks!
Hermione spent most of that afternoon with Professor McGonagall preparing for the small New Year’s Eve gathering that night. After much deliberation, they decided to go ahead with it since there had been no further attacks or even much rowdiness amongst the students. They decorated and chatted over the next couple hours and Hermione was grateful for the distraction from her earlier encounter with Severus. Complete joy and surprised emptiness warred within her, causing tears to threaten. She wouldn’t allow herself to dwell on it until she was alone.
The ten o’clock curfew was still in effect unless the students were at the party. Snape had volunteered to patrol the corridors in order to avoid the party, even though all the professors and students left in the castle would be attending. For the first time, she appreciated his absence. She wasn’t sure if she could handle being near him so soon after the morning’s events. She felt her thoughts being pulled in his direction and quickly began a conversation with a first year. As midnight approached, she became more and more uncomfortable and restless. She had a terrible headache that was beginning to make her nauseated.
“Miss Granger, are you feeling unwell?” the Headmistress asked with concern.
“Sorry, ma’am, I just have a headache.”
“Perhaps you should go lie down. You look pale.” She glanced over Hermione’s shoulder to the door that had just opened. “Professor Snape, could you please escort Miss Granger back to her rooms? She’s feeling unwell.”
“If I must,” he said with a sigh, backing out the door again.
“Happy New Year, Professor, and thank you. I’ll come after breakfast to help you clean up,” Hermione said to the older woman.
“You’ll do no such thing. Take tomorrow to yourself to rest and prepare for the start of term on Monday. Good night, Miss Granger,” she said with a smile.
Hermione slipped into the darkened hallway, her stomach in knots. For the first time in years, she was nervous to be in his presence. She naturally followed slightly behind him, walking quickly to keep up. Neither spoke but as they rounded the next corner she felt his voice in her head.
Minerva said you are unwell. What’s wrong?
I have a terrible headache. My head has a heartbeat.
Do you need a headache potion?
No, thanks. I think it’s just the lack of sleep. Hopefully, this potion will work and I’ll be okay.
It should help with the nightmares. Try to sleep in tomorrow.
Are there any special instructions for this?
No. Just take a capful before you go to sleep. When the nightmare starts you should be able to take control.
Her tension melted away as they continued their easy conversation. She had been afraid they would lose this. They parted ways at her rooms without speaking a word aloud.
The days after Christmas and New Year bled into one another. Though the students had all returned with the brightness that always followed a holiday, she felt herself withdrawing again. She kept busy to the point of exhaustion, seeking any distraction available. It was easier to function if she tried to block anything to remind her of Christmas. Her days were spent soaking up any and all knowledge, leaving no room for him. Inevitably though, her mind would betray her. The most banal thoughts twisted themselves, always coming back to him.
She did the only thing she could to save her sanity and cut off all emotion again. Sometimes she wondered if her friends had noticed the difference since they returned. She still ate with them, went to class, and had even begun seeing them more often in the evenings to fill her time. Could they see it in her eyes? That her perfunctory laughter never reached them. That she stared off into the distance, lost in her own empty thoughts. That her once emotional self never seemed to cry anymore. If they noticed, they didn’t mention it. She wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or worse.
They still used their connection to talk before bed each night. She knew her mental voice was forced and too bright but she refused to tell him the trouble she was having concentrating. She had asked him to limit their mental chatter to bed time because it was too distracting. He had reluctantly agreed. The others may not have noticed something was amiss, but he had. She assured him repeatedly that she was just tired and stressed about NEWTs but that everything was fine.
I just long for summer, she said quietly before bed one night. It was a small admission but it was the most honest she’d felt in weeks.
Just before she drifted off to sleep, she heard, As do I.
They had never spoken the words. It would make it all too real. Sometimes, she could almost convince herself that his regard was only friendly in nature. It made it easier to forget how warm his skin was and how it felt being wrapped in his arms. She could almost believe the two very different kisses they shared were just dreams.
But then there were the actual dreams that haunted her. The nightmares had kept her physically on edge, leaving her exhausted upon waking. These new potion-induced dreams allowed her physical rest again but left her feeling hollowed out and empty emotionally. Though she spent her days in constant internal battle, in sleep, her subconscious refused to be restrained. Every night, her dreams were filled with him. Some were innocuous: walking together by the lake, working in the lab, laughing by the fire. Others were much more corporeal; tearing each other’s clothes off in concupiscence, savage kisses, his tongue sliding up the side of her neck. To her great relief, they never seemed to progress much farther than that. She wasn’t sure she could take it if they did.
She was not pleased to hear that McGonagall had decided to have a Valentine’s dance. It wouldn’t be as formal as the Yule Ball, but it was, nevertheless, all the students could speak of in the days leading up to it. By the time it arrived, Hermione just wanted it to be over. She wore a simple black dress in silent opposition to the absurd pink and red decorations that coated the Great Hall. Her hair and makeup were simple. She simply didn’t have the energy for much more. She danced very little that night. A few times with Harry and Ron. Once with Hagrid when he had picked her up and whirled her around the dance floor in attempt to make her laugh.
Her emotions were tumultuous as she watched him approach her. More than anything, she wanted to be back in his arms again but she wasn’t certain her delicate mental and emotional state could handle the interaction. Once again, he didn’t say anything, only offered his hand. She didn’t meet his eyes when he spoke in her mind.
I dislike seeing you this way.
What way is that?
So distant. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.
I do what I have to do.
Hermione. Her eyes flew to his. It was the first time he’d ventured to use her name even in their minds. When this is over...when you graduate...Her heart was pounding in her ears and she couldn’t look away from him. His eyes flickered to hers for a moment before refocusing on something over her head. I don’t want to be without you. Hermione—
“I can’t,” she said, voice filled with panic. “I have to go.” She quickly walked away, her carefully constructed walls crumbling around her. She didn’t look back to see what he’d done or who had seen. She left the Hall, conjured a cloak and rushed out into the cold. Her tears silently fell as she hurried across the grounds. By the time she was at the lake, she was sobbing so hard that she had trouble breathing. Shaking, she collapsed on the shore. She had no idea how long she’d been there when she came back to herself. Trying to clear her mind, she slowly stood and watched the slight movements of the water.
After a few moments, her spine stiffened slightly. She wasn’t alone. She clutched her wand, instinctively knowing she was in danger.
There’s someone here. It’s just like before. It’s him.
Who? Where are you? He demanded. I’ve been calling you.
I’m by the lake. Whoever attacked that girl is here now. I can feel him.
Don’t move. I’m coming.
She stood still until she felt the presence nearing her. His movements were silent but she could feel the low hum of the magic that kept him disillusioned and his footsteps silenced. She spun just as the blue light shot from a wand she couldn’t see.
Her body flew backwards, arcing with the force of the blow. The world seemed to move in slow motion as she sailed through the air. Oh God, was all she had time to mumble before the impact of the icy lake. The pain and shock were disorienting. She tried to swim like Harry had showed her once—pulling water with her hands, kicking her legs—but she had no idea which way was up anymore.
She stopped when the heaviness of her arms and legs and the burning in her chest became overwhelming. Suddenly, it wasn’t so bad. She was surprised at the relief that came from giving in. Fighting only prolonged the inevitable. Instead, she was just floating in the black, in the void. When the darkness began closing in around her, she thought of him.
Severus, she whispered, her voice resigned. I love you.
She was still surrounded by black when she momentarily regained consciousness. It was warm and comforting, not the frigid torture of the lake. It was all around her and it smelled of him. She struggled to open her eyes.
“Sorry I ran,” she whispered. Her voice was hoarse and her throat hurt. He looked down quickly, clearly surprised when she spoke.
“We’ll talk about it later,” he said sharply. “In case you haven’t noticed, you were attacked and almost drowned, Miss Granger.” His tone lead her to believe there were students present as he carried her through the corridor.
Oh yeah. That, she mumbled, slipping back into darkness.
When she woke again, she was in bed. She stared at the cold white ceiling of the infirmary. She tried to move but her body was sluggish and sore.
I know you’re here. Come where I can see you without moving. He moved up beside her bed.
“How are you feeling?”
Say it again, she said, ignoring his question.
Say what again?
What you were saying before I ran away from you. He stiffened slightly when she took his hand.
I don’t think now is the best time to discuss this.
She was silent a moment before continuing aloud. “It hurts...” she tried to speak but her weakened voice faltered.
“I’ll get you a potion,” he said, moving away. Her grip on his hand tightened.
No, not that. It hurts not to be with you. Her voice was still weak so she continued speaking internally. Anyone listening would not have questioned the words they had spoken aloud, still she was relieved when he pulled the curtain around her bed and cast a privacy charm. I had to shut a bit of myself down just to function. He started to protest, but she squeezed his hand. No, just listen to me. That’s why I’ve been so distant and odd lately. It was either that or end up a complete mess all the time. I was about to crack at the dance and I didn’t think you’d want an arm full of sobbing witch in front of the entire castle. So please...say it again. He sighed and pulled a chair over to sit next to her.
The last several months have been...uncomfortable for me as well. I didn’t think it was possible for me to feel anything. You can imagine my dismay when I realized that I have feelings for you...that I love you. He was silent for a moment as though choosing his words. Even in the dim light of the infirmary she could see his face harden slightly, preparing for the worst. “I want you to marry me.” He made the statement out loud, but there was question and uncertainty in his voice.
“Yes, Severus. Of course, I will.”
He didn’t say anything, just leaned down to kiss the hand that was still wrapped around his. He stayed bent over her bed, forehead resting on her hand until she fell asleep.
Again, she woke with another warm, familiar hand in hers.
“This is becoming a ridiculous habit, Harry,” she said with a sigh. He squeezed her hand.
“I must say that I agree.”
“How long am I in for this time?” She shifted uncomfortably in the narrow bed. Only the hand Harry was holding lay above the blankets. The other hand was tucked beside her.
“You checked out okay. Madam Pomfrey said as soon as the sleeping potion wore off you could go. McGonagall wants to talk to you, too.” He looked hard at her for a few seconds. “Why were you out there anyway?”
“I just needed to get away from all the lovey-dovey nonsense. Not a big deal, Harry,” she said dismissively, though anger surged through her. She railed against her own stupidity. She should not have gone out there alone. She should have had better control and paid more attention. Mad-Eye would be so disappointed. It wasn’t until she clenched her fists that she felt the ring.
He must have put it on while she was sleeping. She was engaged!
Her elation quickly dissipated when she realized she had no one with whom she could share it. She couldn’t even look at the ring until she was alone again.
“Hermione, are you okay?” She mentally shook herself at Harry’s alarmed tone. His eyes were wide.
“Of course. Why?”
“In just under thirty seconds, you went from rage to joy to complete disappointment. Maybe you should stay here and rest after all. I’m worried about you.”
Something inside her broke. As though secrets and love and blindsided attacks weren’t enough, her friends also thought she was crazy. She was finished with all of it. She had tried to abide by the rules but it hadn’t worked. She’d almost died three times by trying to hide and she wasn’t going to do it again. She remembered the lake and how good it felt to just stop fighting.
“Harry, go on down and tell everyone I’m fine,” she said, throwing the blankets off. He backed away from her slowly as though she were an untrustworthy animal.
“Sure, Mione. What are you going to do?” He was still inching to the door, not turning his back on her. His hands were slightly in front of his body, palm out, whether to show he meant no harm or to protect himself, she wasn't sure. The absurdity of the moment made her laugh out loud.
“Honestly, Harry, do you expect me to change while you’re standing there ogling me? If you’re going to stay, I insist you turn around.”
“Oh,” he said, blushing and lowering his arms.
“Now go on,” she urged. “I’m getting dressed and then I must speak with the Headmistress.” After several more assurances, he finally left.
She immediately sat down to inspect her ring. It was clearly rather old and she wondered again if it was also his mother’s.
I was afraid maybe it was a dream.
If you'd prefer something else, we can change it.
No, it's absolutely perfect. I love you.
And I you, he said almost shyly. Until the previous night, they had not spoken the words even in their heads. She had feared that hearing them would make her control much more precarious and cause her to do something irrational. She realized as she made her way to the Headmistress’s office, that her fears had been completely justified. She had calmed considerably since her conversation with Harry. Her resolve had not changed however.
I’m going to McGonagall’s office.
I have to take care of some foolishness with the second years but then I’ll be up to discuss...the incident.
Also the ring...
Don’t worry. I’ve already put on a Notice-Me-Not. I’m not taking it off, Severus.
Good. She smiled at his smugness.
The Headmistress had been expecting her and after calling for tea, the two began to discuss the incident. Hermione tried to move the conversation along so she could say what she needed to before Severus arrived. She quickly explained what happened, but skipped over the parts about why she had fled to the lake and her emotional state while she was there. The older witch looked at her questioningly when she finished.
“Is there something else that you wished to speak with me about, Miss Granger?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, taking a breath to steady herself. “I wish to withdraw from my classes, study independently, and then return for my NEWTs.”
“Miss Granger,” McGonagall said after a moment. “I don’t know what to say. If this is because of your attack, I can assure you—”
“No, Headmistress, it isn’t about the attack...or at least not only about that.”
“Please don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve been so withdrawn of late, Miss Granger. I simply wasn’t sure that my interference would be welcome.” She got up from her desk and moved to sit in the chair next to Hermione. “I feel I must try to dissuade you now though. Why do you feel you must leave? Is it a problem with another student?”
“No,” she said shaking her head, “Not a student.”
“Ah,” McGonagall answered, eyes narrowing, “a professor then.” If she hadn’t been watching closely, she wouldn’t have noticed the woman’s gaze flicker to Dumbledore’s portrait. “Do you have an issue working with Professor Snape?” Her voice had hardened ever so slightly.
“It isn’t as simple as that—”
“I told you it would not be easy, Miss Granger,” McGonagall interrupted. “I suggest, if this is the problem, that you take it up with him. I will not approve your withdrawal from school for such a reason.” Hermione sat gaping at the Headmistress for a moment, shocked into silence by her harsh tone.
“Professor McGonagall, I do not wish to quit school completely if I have a choice. I would be willing to stay, however I cannot continue in Potions,” she said as politely yet as forcefully as she could. “Last night was the third time I’ve almost died because of his distraction. I absolutely refuse to give up my life when I could simply remove myself from his class.”
“What on earth are you talking about, child?” The Professor’s voice now held confusion and concern. “What does Severus have to do with what happened last night?”
“I didn’t hear whoever attacked me because I was crying—sobbing really—over him,” she said with some disgust. She continued, rising to pace the room, “I was distracted in the fall when he startled me and I ended up almost bleeding to death. I’ve had enough. I won’t fight it anymore.”
“Miss Granger, I’m afraid I really don’t understand. Why did he make you cry? And you said three times, when was the other incident? Why wasn’t I informed?”
“Professor, if you are to hear this story, it must be as my friend. You cannot hear it as my Headmistress, my professor, or a fellow Order member, nor can you repeat it. I won’t go on without your word. I’m taking a risk by telling you at all.” McGonagall’s eyes slid to the portrait again.
“I give you my word, Miss Granger.”
“I was the one who saved Professor Snape in the Shrieking Shack.” She paused to let her absorb the information and then went on to explain how she’d saved him and why she didn’t want her part revealed. The Headmistress had already known how much trouble she’d had over the summer and understood why she wouldn’t want to relive what happened. She recounted the incident in the lab and Poppy’s evaluation of why her blood had spilled so quickly.
“While all of these incidents have involved Professor Snape, I don’t see why this has to affect your schooling, dear.”
“I cannot, in good conscious, remain his student, Headmistress.”
“That’s preposterous, Miss Granger. Do you actually believe that Professor Snape is causing these events?”
“No, of course not.” She turned to face her. “However, I’ve been so distracted by him that it has made me careless.”
“Miss Granger,” she said after a moment. “Are you insinuating that you, Head Girl, war hero and brightest witch of your age, want to drop out of school because you have developed a crush on one of your professors?”
“No, ma’am.” The professor relaxed slightly. With a smirk, she continued, “I’m informing you that I can no longer stay Professor Snape’s student because I’m going to marry him and while I haven’t located it yet, there must be a school rule about such things.”
The impending silence stretched out while the two women stared at each other. It was finally broken by a chuckle from Dumbledore’s portrait. A sharp glare from McGonagall quieted him, though he was still grinning widely.
“Miss Granger, I must say I’m disappointed,” she began. “If I had known that this was the cause of your distress, I could have remedied the situation much sooner.” It was Hermione’s turn to be surprised. “I assume by your forlorn behavior and his unbearable mood that you’ve been avoiding each other since the Christmas holidays.” She nodded in response. “Before I continue, I am sorry, but I must ask. Have you been...intimate with Professor Snape?”
“No, ma’am,” she said quickly, blushing brightly.
“Then no rules have been broken. As such, I must insist that you finish the year in all your classes. While I will not forbid your relationship, I must put restrictions on it.” Hermione sat and listen to the rules closely. Their relationship was to remain a complete secret until after graduation. She couldn’t even allude of it to her friends. It could not under any circumstances affect their school work or duties. Finally, they could not pursue a physical aspect unless they were properly married.
“Of course, ma’am.” Hermione was completely relieved for the first time in months.
“Now, Hermione, I have a confession of my own.” The Headmistress looked down in what appeared to be embarrassment. “Professor Flitwick didn’t really have an emergency. I asked him to leave so you would stay.”
“Tell her the rest, Minerva,” Dumbledore urged from the wall.
“We had a bet,” she said dejectedly.
“You had a bet...on us?” she said in disbelief. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two.
“Minerva thought we could get you two together by graduation. I thought it would be sooner.” Even in a painting, his eyes twinkled.
“I didn’t know she was the one to save him. Of course that changes things,” she said sourly.
“This is too bizarre,” Hermione said, shaking her head. Dumbledore laughed heartily.
“What’s so amusing, old man?” All eyes turned to find Severus standing in the doorway, arms crossed ominously.
“Oh...um…Hello, Professor,” Hermione stammered when he turned to her. His expression hardened in a heartbeat.
What did you do?
Before she could answer, McGonagall spoke.
“Professor Snape, please have a seat. There is much we must discuss.” She waited until he was seated and had sternly declined tea before continuing. “Miss Granger has requested to withdraw from all her classes and study independently before returning to sit her NEWTs in June.”
What?! He mentally roared, showing no outward signs of emotion.
I didn’t know what else to do. I can’t go on like this. I can’t and I won’t.
“Fortunately, this will be unnecessary.” His eyes slid back to the older woman. “I am aware of your situation.” He jerked his head to glare at her. “Oh, Severus, stop being so dramatic,” McGonagall admonished. “I’ve been trying to set you up since September. Leave the poor girl alone.”
“Bloody hell, Minerva,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You’re as bad as that meddling old fool ever was.” Hermione visibly relaxed with the change in his demeanor. “What is to be done then?” His voice was serious again.
McGonagall explained the same rules to him. Hermione was still tense and did not meet his eyes, especially when they got back to the sex part.
You’re blushing. You aren’t embarrassed, are you?
Mortified is what I am.
She was relieved when the topic changed to the previous night’s events. They spent a few moments going over the details of her attack before wrapping up their impromptu meeting. McGonagall sent them to Severus’s office to Pensieve her memory of the attack along with the others he’d gathered after the first attack.
He stood close to her in the revolving stairwell, hand resting on her lower back. Just before the bottom, he placed a small kiss on her temple. As the wall slid back, his face fell into its usual sneer. He quickly strode from the vestibule, robes billowing behind him. She followed him through the halls until they reached his office. He locked and warded the door before turning back to face her.
She was on him in an instant. She pressed him against the door and dragged his face down to hers. The minutes stretched out, their mouths insistent. She pressed her body to him, smiling at his groan. She gasped when his hands slid down her hips, pulling her in even closer. He took that opportunity to begin an assault on her neck. She whispered his name when he licked and nibbled over her pulse point. Somehow they ended up on the sofa in his office though she had no clear memory of how. She whimpered when he finally pulled away from her.
“Right, sorry about that,” she said, sitting up and trying to retain control. “Back to the problem at hand.”
They watched the memory several times in the Pensieve but with no further clues. After discussing it for a few more moments, they made their way up to the Great Hall for dinner. They entered at the same time but kept their eyes straight ahead and did not touch or speak to each other. She joined the Gryffindors while he continued on to the Head Table. Her classmates gathered around her as soon as she was seated.
“Hermione, are you okay?” Ginny asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
“Why were you with Snape?” Neville demanded. Even knowing that he had been on their side through the war, Neville had never gotten over the way Severus had treated them during his short tenure as Headmaster.
“He’s in charge of the investigation, Neville,” she said, trying not to sound condescending. “I had to Pensieve my memories for him. No detention, no yelling. I promise.” Appeased, he continued eating.
“How are you feeling, love?” Ron asked, putting his arm around her. She rested her head on his shoulder and smiled slightly at Harry and Ginny’s mirrored positions across the table from them.
“Like someone tried to kill me, I suppose,” she said with a shrug and a sigh. Ron kissed the top of her head and squeezed her a little tighter. She sat up guiltily at the snarl in her head.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Mione,” Harry said, leaning forward. “You see, all these trips to the infirmary are beginning to infringe on my retirement.” Her laughter seemed loud and abrupt even to her, but it felt so good that she didn’t care. It had been ages since she really laughed. It could’ve been her imagination, but it seemed like all those around her relaxed a little at the sound.
“Sorry, Harry,” she said with an eye roll. “Honestly, you’d think after spending seven years with people trying to kill you, you might be willing to let someone else have a go. Some people are never satisfied.”
“Says the woman who probably only returned to Hogwarts this year because she hasn’t read all the books in the Restricted Section yet,” Harry laughed.
“That’s ridiculous, Harry,” she said with exasperation. “Of course I’ve read all the books in the Restricted Section already,” she added after a moment. Smiling, she tucked in to her dinner. When she risked a glance to the front of the room, she saw amusement in Severus’s eyes.
She spent the rest of the evening with her friends in the common room. She and Ginny chatted in front of the fire while Ron and Harry played wizard’s chess.
“I’m glad you’re back, Hermione,” Ginny said softly. “I’m not sure where you’ve been for the last couple months, but I’m happy that you’re better.”