Hermione sat on a stool in a lab off the potions classroom, carefully adding wormwood extract a drop at a time to an infusion of newt toenails and henna. It was an exacting process; add it too quickly, the liquid would turn green and be useless; add it too slowly, the mixture would become unstable and very likely blow up. Severus normally had her do this part, because her hands were much steadier; she hadn't had years of Cruciatus to make them shaky, as his could sometimes be.

As she finished, she saw the base for the anti-Cruciatus potion take on the deep crimson of success. There were still many steps ahead, but the worst was over. Now just time and ingredients would take care of their latest creation, hopefully ready for testing within the next few weeks. Of course, the potion would still be needed, with renegade Death Eaters still around making mischief and hoping that another Dark Lord could rise and lead them. Voldemort had the Kiss administered, and was living out what remained of his mortal life in solitary.

Harry and Sirius had requested that Pettigrew be given life in Azkaban, rather than the Kiss. Everyone thought it was quite generous of the two of them, but as Dumbledore had said, it was important to prove that they were better than those who would have killed them.

Draco had been remanded into his mother's care after a month's stay in Azkaban. Though they had determined that he was not responsible for his actions in the incident with Hermione, he was responsible for not disclosing his father's and Wormtail's actions, which amounted to perjury by omission. Hermione argued for the slap on the wrist rather than the five years they could have given, because as difficult as it was getting over what had been done to her, she could more easily blame it on Wormtail and Voldemort knowing Draco had only been an instrument of their depraved plans. They still could not be in the room with one another without causing each other heartache, but they hoped time would heal the wounds. Hermione intended to stay close to Narcissa, and therefore would need to get along with her son.

Severus had been uncharacteristically quiet with nearly everyone. Some days went by without hearing him utter a single word. Other days, when he did speak, he was curt and could be fairly unpleasant. Lupin and Black had taken to dragging him out of an odd evening to the Three Broomsticks, but they studiously avoided bringing up the recent past, hoping Snape would take a hint and bring it up himself. They'd so far been disappointed.

Hermione and Severus were hard at work on their anti-Unforgivable potions. It had been a month since they had made love together the night before the trial, and neither of them had spoken of it. They were detached and professional with each other and each pretended it hadn't happened. Naturally, it was driving everyone around them up the wall. They were both being extremely stubborn about things.

"Hermione," Harry had said, "You didn't just fall in love because of the circumstances or the God thing or whatever was going on. I know you. You are in love with him, and you're being even more pigheaded than usual about this. Just admit it."

"I don't see him knocking at my door. Come on, Harry, he and I were not meant to be. I was under severe emotional duress and he helped me through, but we both know what it was. He felt sorry for me. I'm content to leave it at that, really. Really! Don't give me that look."

"You're wrong, you know. You're both so bloody stubborn. You're mooning as badly as anyone. You need to just talk to him."

"I need to have some normalcy and safety in my life. I thought he was it, but now I think I was mistaken. I mistook what the Spirit was saying, I'm sure of it."

On the flip side, a few days later, Remus Lupin had been laboring with Severus over drinks at the Three Broomsticks.

"You old idiot. Even I can see that you're in love with her, and she with you, and I wasn't even THERE when this all was happening. Your eyes light when she's in the room, and that's saying a lot for you. You're somewhat less nasty, and…"

"It's the fact that Voldemort is gone, and nothing more."

"That's bullshit, my friend."

"I am not your friend. Or yours, either," Snape said to Sirius Black as he slid into the third seat at the table.

"Have another whisky, Snape. On me." Sirius motioned to Madam Rosmerta, who came over with the drinks and patted Snape on the arm. "Stop being a prat, Professor Snape. Listen to these two boys."

"The last time I listened to these two, I nearly ended up dead."

"Are you still going on about that, then?" Sirius rolled his eyes. "It's been twenty years."

"I hold grudges well."

"You're a bloody stupid git, is what you are. Tell her you love her, no matter what has happened or will happen. The two of you are rationalizing this away as if you could just fall in and out of love like you take off old socks. She's as bad as you are about this; Harry couldn't get her to stop saying the same crap you are spouting."

"Oh, sod off Black," Snape said. Then, before he could think better of it, he said, "Harry talked to her about it?"

"Oh, the iceman cometh," Lupin said. "She's doing the same thing you are. The two of you need to get out of that bloody lab and sit down and TALK about this. She thinks you were just comforting her because she was hurt and that you could never love her, and she's terribly embarrassed about her feelings for you." Sure, he was giving away her secrets, but at this point they'd all do anything to see Hermione happy – even get her together once and for all with this nutter.

"This isn't her fault. Gryffindor of her, always seeing the best in others and the worst in herself."

"You need to explain that to her. I dare you. I just don't want to see you make the same mistake I made with Narcissa years ago, and dare I say it, the same mistake you made with Lily all those years ago, though of course we think it was a brilliant mistake on your part. Joking, joking, don't give me that look. Don't let your pride get in the way of love."

"Sod off." Snape refused to say another word about it, sipping his whisky in silence.

*~*

"Hermione?" Severus stood in the doorway, watching her as she finished putting away the supplies she had used to create the base for the potion.

"Yes?" Damn him for being so sexy. If only she could get him out of her system once and for all! Her Spirit had been rather quiet on the topic. She had written to the Mother Superior in frustration about this, and the Mother had written her that the Spirit's power within her had been so deeply used in reviving Narcissa, that it would be weeks of regeneration before she could expect to hear its words in her everyday life. She wasn't necessarily on her own, but the Spirit's guidance was meager at best right now. After all that had happened, she did not trust herself or her emotions anymore. She couldn't sort out the difference between pain, anger, and love, and her simple exhaustion with the entire process wasn't helping her at all.

"I…need…can we walk to the lake? I need to get a few ingredients that are currently in season that we're a bit low on."

She knew this was just a flat lie as they weren't close to out of anything in the stores that were her responsibility to keep well-stocked.

Dare she hope? No, no, no. She couldn't go there again. The pain was too great to bear as it was.

"Certainly, let me just wash up and change. I'll meet you at the door." With butterflies stubbornly taking up residence in her stomach, she changed into a short sundress and brushed her hair out of the clip that had been holding it all day. Meeting him at the door, they walked out into the fading sunlight of late afternoon and towards the lake in silence.

This was almost more difficult than watching her take on Voldemort. "Hermione," he began, "can we sit down here for a second. I need to talk to you." She nodded, and looked at him expectantly after they were seated on a fallen tree near the edge of the water.

"I have reason to believe that you think that I…that we were together…that night because I felt sorry for you."

"Yes." She was going to throttle Harry, but there was no point in lying to Severus. She owed him the truth.

"Do you really believe that? Knowing me as you do, don't you think you're ascribing a Gryffindor sensibility to me that simply cannot exist? You are clearly mistaking me for a sentimental, foolish man who would fall for the 'knight in shining armor' routine. You should know me better than that, if nothing else."

She was taken aback, and her temper flared. "Oh, yes, I have it all wrong. You're a Slytherin, and therefore were only in this for yourself. You didn't care at all, just saw an opportunity and used it to your advantage. Am I close?"

His anger was rising as well, because she had deliberately misunderstood him, and was forcing his hand. Perhaps she was a Slytherin at heart after all. "You are not even in the same country, you're so far away. You can throw me away like rubbish, but you will hear me out before we go back to the dungeons and the rest of our lives. You and I have been through too much in too short a time, and we're both shellshocked and angry and scared and we both refuse to lay ourselves bare again. Is any of this sounding familiar? I am going to say this only once, and then you are perfectly within your rights to walk away and pretend that I am simply your Potions Master and you are my apprentice and that's the end of it. But I am going to say it, if only so those idiotic friends of yours will get off my back about this.

I love you, Hermione Granger. I will never stop loving you, no matter what you say or do to try and change my mind. Now, you have no clue how much that admission has cost me, so stop gaping and either say something or let me go and gather my ingredients and live the rest of my life in peace."

She couldn't stop gaping. This wasn't quite what she anticipated.

Suddenly, she heard a voice as if from far away. Her Spirit was mustering energy to speak to her, and she only had one thing to say.

Kiss him, damn you, and don't you dare drive him away.

Who was she to question God? She took his hands, staring at them as if she had never seen them before, and kissed both his palms. His eyes closed, savoring the feel of her lips on his skin. She leaned in close, taking him into her arms, and kissed him. As their kiss deepened and became more passionate, she realized something that she hadn't quite had a handle on when they were together before.

She loved him.

How had she not grasped this before? Perhaps, she mused, she'd been so dependent on her Spirit to guide her, that she hadn't heard her own voice.

She broke the kiss, and looked searchingly into his eyes. He returned her gaze. "Severus, I…I have been really, really stupid and stubborn and I am so, so sorry. I was trying very hard to give you an out of our relationship; I assumed you wanted that, and I couldn't muddle through what…"

"Don't apologize. I've been an idiot, too, and don't have an excuse. I'm not used to caring about anyone, Hermione, and I've been quite stupid about it. I had a life where I cared about no one, felt a lot of pain and not much joy. I've spent an entire lifetime convincing myself that I deserve nothing more. It may take some doing to wake up in the morning and know that this is real."

"You'll find this quite insultingly Gryffindor, I'm certain, but you deserve the best of everything."

"And you're the best of everything, then?" A teasing tone that had been missing for a month was back in his voice, as he laced his hands in hers.

"Of course. Now I think we should go back to the dungeons and…um…talk some more, don't you?"

Standing at a window high in the castle, Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore watched the two walk back hand-in-hand. "Ah, young love…" Albus said, "I think we have a few owls to send, Minerva."

*~*

TO BE CONTINUED…

A/N Thanks to everyone who reviewed and emailed, you're the best! I've had a request for a more expanded version of Sev and Hermione's first love scene. I've never written "juicy parts" before, but I'll give it a shot and post the addendum somewhere other than ff.net.

A/N 2 Real life is about to get very busy, but I intend to write a sequel to this fic soon! There's a lot more to the story with the Spirit and her wacky influences in the lives of our characters, and don't for a moment think that just because Moldy Voldy's been Kissed, that evil is defeated in the WW. :::cackles:::