Disclaimer: Do I have to say it again? I don't own them. Never have. Never will. I'm just borrowing them, and I will be returning them at the bottom of the page…
By the time Friday evening came around, Hermione was truly ready to leave Hogwarts. At the end of the night, those whom she had stayed for would also be leaving… and one of them in particular would be leaving with her.
The rest of Thursday afternoon had been spent helping Severus pack up the contents of his sitting room. He insisted it would only take mere minutes if he used magic to shrink and pack everything but the most breakable items, but Hermione insisted he actually look at what he was taking with him… surely he must have accumulated things in the last twenty years he no longer needed?
They argued half-heartedly about whether he should take the unnecessary items out before packing, or simply take it all and sort it later; for every trunk of books he packed, Hermione re-opened it and went through the contents, pulling out duplicate copies, out-dated textbooks and old notebooks full of indecipherable scribble she doubted he had even remembered writing… he certainly wouldn't need them all in the future.
Severus caved in eventually, going through the piles of parchment and books she unpacked; more than half went back into the trunks, much to Hermione's consternation, but it was something… there was still a sizeable pile by the end of the afternoon to be disposed of.
The only trunk she left alone was the one containing items from the cabinet that held some of his most private and personal possessions. As he had withdrawn his small Pensieve, along with a warded rack of phials containing silvery memories, the expression on his face had been unreadable. Hermione didn't comment. For all their time together, for all their trust in one another, they had never discussed what Hermione had seen that night in Dumbledore's Pensieve… it seemed like a lifetime ago. He had never expressed a desire to speak with her about the memories he knew she'd seen, and she found it painful enough to cast her mind back to them… she would never ask him to relive them against his will.
Some things were better forgotten.
Her friends' reactions to the ring she now wore on her finger was better than she had expected. Ron was the first to notice, when Hermione sat with them for dinner in the Great Hall that night, and Hermione wondered at his gaping expression until she realised his eyes were following the movement of her hand as it lifted her fork from her plate to her mouth. After mouthing, "Later," to her stunned friend, Hermione pulled him aside after they'd finished the meal, along with Harry and Ginny, to give them the news.
They were shocked, to say the least, but neither Ron nor Harry attempted to talk her out of what must have seemed to them a sudden and rash decision. Ginny merely smiled at Hermione and hugged her; after their discussion some weeks ago, the youngest Weasley understood how Hermione felt better than the other two ever would.
The closest any of them came to expressing doubt over her decision was Harry's first words after her revelation, "Hermione, are you sure?"
When Hermione simply nodded in response, Harry seemed to accept that, watching her for a time with a curious, contemplative expression on his face. Perhaps he realised that no matter how she tried to explain it, it was unlikely any of them would ever understand how or why she had come to fall in love with their former Potions master. Even she found it difficult to pinpoint exactly where the line had blurred between a silly schoolgirl crush and something far more powerful and enduring.
Nevertheless, it was heartening that her friends accepted her decision; nothing would have changed her mind if they hadn't, but it took a small weight from her shoulders knowing she wouldn't be forced to choose between Severus and her other friends.
Friday morning's Prophet brought more good news; Hogsmeade, which had been in the process of being rebuilt since much of the town had burnt to the ground on Beltane Eve, was officially re-opened. Residents were moving back to the town, shops were open for business again, and a memorial was to be built in the town centre in remembrance to all those who had been lost fighting against Voldemort, both on Beltane Eve and over the course of both wars. The list of names was long, reminding Hermione again how lucky she was still to have Severus and her friends.
Draco's name appeared on the list, much to Hermione's relief, and though Severus' face remained impassive when she showed him, she could tell he was pleased the younger man was receiving some sort of recognition.
Severus spent most of the morning Portkeying between his quarters at Hogwarts and the small house on the outskirts of London, moving all of his possessions in preparation for leaving that night, after the ceremony. He took the contents of the lab and sitting room, and then proceeded to pack clothes and other personal items from the bedroom and bathroom. The furniture all belonged to Hogwarts and would remain for whomever took over the role of Head of Slytherin next year; Hermione had grown fond of curling up in the corner of the couch nearest the fireplace, and she would be sorry to leave it behind.
She offered to help Severus unpack at the other end, but he insisted she remain at Hogwarts and spend the day with her friends, so after retrieving her own trunk from where she'd left it in the Gryffindor common room and bringing it down for him to take to their new home, she went outside in search of her friends.
It was almost lunchtime, and she, Harry and Ron were walking back up to the castle after visiting Hagrid when three important-looking owls swooped down towards them.
"Ministry owls," Ron said, catching the envelope one of the owls dropped in front of him. "It's our NEWTs!"
Hermione almost dropped her own envelope, her hands trembling with a sudden onset of nerves. Glancing up at her two friends, Hermione bit her lip, and Harry laughed at her worried expression.
"Come on, Hermione," he chuckled. "You've got nothing to be worried about. Let's all open them together."
Hermione nodded; taking a deep breath, she broke the official Ministry seal and slid the single piece of parchment from the envelope. Unfolding it, she cast her eyes down the list of results, everything around her narrowing to a single row of letters…
Harry's voice drew her eyes from the parchment; he was looking at her expectantly, a barely concealed grin on his own face. Ron, too, was looking pleased with his own results, and Hermione held hers out for her friends to see.
"Five Outstandings and two Exceeds Expectations!" Harry exclaimed.
"Hermione, that's bloody brilliant!" Ron added, taking the parchment from Harry and glancing over it himself.
"Thanks," she said, a smile of relief and joy breaking out on her face. A year ago, Hermione might have – no, would have – been disappointed with anything less than straight O's. Her focus had changed in the past year, though; study was still important, but no longer was it the most important thing to her. She had never been top of the class in Defence, one of the subjects she'd received an E for, and as for the other one, Transfiguration… well, looking back, Hermione supposed she had been favouring Charms, Potions and Arithmancy over her Head of House's subject. She was good at it, but it wasn't a subject she hoped to make use of in future study.
Turning her attention back to her friends, Hermione looked over their results, her happiness increasing when she saw how well they'd both done, despite the extenuating circumstances of the year. Harry's marks would have gained him entry to the Auror programme, even without special treatment from the Minister for Magic, and Ron was delighted just to have passed everything, let alone managing to scrape two E's and an O along the way.
They hugged each other and laughed, the nervous tension that had been building as they anticipated their results finally dissipating. It was the end of a journey for the three of them, Hermione reflected. They'd been together in their studies since the first class of their first year… elective subjects had taken them away from one another for a few classes a week, but for the most part, they'd remained a trio.
A smile grew on Hermione's face as she remembered her frustration in trying to convince the other two to get organised, do their essays ahead of time, and those ridiculous revision plans she'd drawn up for them each year.
She shook her head, chuckling to herself. They'd certainly had some fun in their years at the school.
Later that afternoon, Hermione returned to Severus' quarters to shower and dress in preparation for the celebration that night. Severus was there when she arrived, preparing to take the last trunk of his possessions and a rather disgruntled, cage-bound Tonatiuh to the house. With a sudden exclamation, Hermione called out for him to wait a moment and ran up to Gryffindor Tower, finding Crookshanks napping on a chair by the fireplace. If they were leaving straight after the conclusion of tonight's ceremony, it would be easier if he went now, with Severus' familiar. The half-Kneazle and the owl had been left alone in Severus' rooms on occasion, and seemed tolerable enough of one another to be left alone in the new house for the rest of the day.
Returning to Severus' quarters, where he was standing with Tonatiuh's cage and the shrunken trunk in one hand, and his wand and the Portkey in the other, Hermione crossed the room to him, taking a moment to catch her breath before she spoke.
"Crooks," she said. "Can you take him as well?"
Severus frowned at the ginger furball she held out to him.
"Doesn't he have a cage?"
"He has a carrier," she replied, "but I packed that in my trunk, which you've already taken."
With a mock, long-suffering sigh, he took Crookshanks from her, somehow managing to hoist the animal under his arm and still maintain his hold on everything else.
"I have something to tell you when you come back, too," she said, smiling as she held up her NEWT results.
Obviously recognising the Ministry insignia on the parchment, he nodded briskly. "I shan't be long."
Tapping the Portkey with his wand, he disappeared, an indignant squawk from Tonatiuh and a hiss from Crookshanks audible in his wake. Looking down at her t-shirt, Hermione picked a handful of ginger hairs off the garment, wondering whether she should have warned Severus that the half-Kneazle was shedding…
The scowl on his face when he returned, the sleeve and right side of his black shirt covered in cat hair, answered that question, and she drew her wand and cast a charm to vanish the mess before he could complain.
"Well?" He looked at her with a trace of impatience as she avoided his gaze under the pretence of inspecting his shirt for any remaining hairs. "Are you going to tell me your results?"
Trying to remain impassive so as not to give anything away, she handed him the slip of parchment, biting her lip as she waited to see his reaction. If she recalled correctly, his own NEWT results had been exceptional… would he think she could have done better?
Hermione had no cause to worry. His indignancy on her behalf at only receiving an E for Defence was almost worth the lower grade itself.
"You've just helped defeat the Dark Lord himself! What more do they want you to do?" He handed the parchment back to her, a disgusted expression on his face, and Hermione couldn't help but laugh.
"Defeating Voldemort doesn't have anything to do with the NEWTs," she reminded him, setting the missive aside, "and I did mess up my practical exam."
"Still," he grumbled. Glancing at her through hooded eyes, a barely-concealed smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You did quite well this year."
"Quite?" Hermione knew he was teasing her, but she played along. "What do you mean quite?"
Smirking down at her, he put his arms around her waist, pulling her close so she had to tilt her head back to see his face.
"Five Outstandings, two Exceeds Expectations and an Order of Merlin… yes, you've done quite well indeed."
She smiled up at him, but then his face became serious, his eyes losing their shine of mirth.
"You've done wonderfully well," he said. "Those results are outstanding, and even more so given the additional burdens that have been placed on your shoulders this year. Congratulations, Hermione."
He dipped his head to brush his lips lightly across her forehead, then tilted her chin up with one hand and captured her mouth. Hermione parted her lips and felt his tongue slip past, flicking over her teeth and rubbing against her own tongue in a soft but insistent caress.
Severus wrapped an arm around her waist to pull her more firmly against him; she felt the heat radiating from his body and the evidence of his need growing firm against her stomach. Amidst a rush of her own desire also came the realisation they probably didn't have time for this now.
"I have to get ready," she gasped, managing to pull her mouth away from his.
Undeterred by her words, his lips moved to her neck.
"Severus," she protested again, "I can't be late for my own graduation. I need to take a shower."
"How convenient," he murmured, making her shiver as the tip of his tongue flicked over the sensitive skin just behind her ear. "As it happens, so do I."
Hermione groaned in frustration, knowing they would never have a chance of making it downstairs in time for the start of the ceremony if they took a shower together. Just the mere thought of his hands lathering soap over her naked body was causing a heated blush to creep up her chest and neck onto her face.
"The ceremony doesn't start for… three hours," he whispered, his eyes flickering briefly to the clock on the mantle. "You don't need that long to get ready, even without magic."
He's right, a voice in the back of her told her, but still she refused to give in so easily. Once Severus wanted something, though, he was nothing if not persistent, and her protests, which had been half-hearted at best to begin with, soon ceased altogether as she allowed him to lead her through the bedroom and into the bathroom, discarding various items of clothing along the way.
They ended up making it downstairs with time to spare anyway. Hermione emerged from the bathroom dressed and ready to go, a pleasant thrum still tingling through her body. She placed her remaining few possessions – the clothes she had worn earlier that day and some toiletries – into an overnight bag and shrunk it to the size of a Knut, tucking it into the pocket of her formal dress robes.
The bedroom was devoid of everything but the furniture, no indication of its soon-to-be-former occupant remaining. Out in the sitting room, Hermione found Severus leaning against the bare desk, lost in thought.
He visibly started at the sound of her voice, and Hermione eyed him with a trace of concern.
"Severus, are you all right?"
He nodded, offering her a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, before glancing around the room again.
"I thought I couldn't wait to leave these rooms, after being confined to them for so long this year… but I will be sorry to leave them behind," he said with a sigh, pushing away from the desk. "Living here for so long, I couldn't help but start to consider it home."
"I consider Hogwarts home," Hermione said, crossing to stand beside him, "and I've lived here for far less time than you. Everyone leaves home at least once in their life… you know, ventures out into the world in search of fortune and glory…"
Severus snorted derisively.
"…or simply a new beginning, a change."
"That sounds more like it," he agreed. Glancing at the clock on the mantle again, he drew a deep breath. "Now we really do have to leave."
Hermione waited while he returned to the bedroom and bathroom one last time, checking for anything he may have left behind. Then he moved across the room to the lab door, checking that room as well.
Standing by the window, Hermione used the brief moment to enjoy the stunning view one last time. It was still a few hours before sunset at this time of year, and a steady stream of people could be seen making their way up the path from the front gates to the castle. From a distance, Hermione recognised some of her classmates arriving in groups or alone. She felt rather than heard Severus approach, and then his hands were on her shoulders, warm through the thin fabric of her dress robes.
"Let's go," he said quietly. His hands left her shoulders as he moved away again, and Hermione followed him across the room, stepping past him out into the corridor.
There was a strange, closed look on his face as he shut the door and turned to her. Choosing not to comment again, Hermione simply tucked her arm in the crook of his elbow as they headed downstairs to the celebration.
The Entrance Hall was packed with witches and wizards, all milling around waiting for the ceremony to begin; the main castle doors were open, a soft breeze filtering inside, and more people were entering all the time.
Numerous pairs of eyes turned to Hermione and Severus as they descended the stairs into the crowded room; Hermione pointedly ignored those curious gazes she didn't recognise, focusing instead on the small group of teachers and Order members a short distance away. Severus guided her through the crowd to join Professors Lupin and McGonagall, Charlie Weasley, Emmeline Vance and Deladus Diggle. The latter three all shook hands with Severus, commending him on the award he was to receive; it seemed the list of who was to receive an Order of Merlin hadn't remained a secret entirely. Vance and Diggle congratulated Hermione with a handshake, too, while Charlie gave her a brief hug, marvelling over her excellent NEWT results, which he'd obviously heard about from his brother.
After unhooking his arm from hers to accept the others' handshakes, Hermione was surprised when Severus put his arm loosely around her again, resting his hand at the small of her back. It was a small gesture, but meant more than Severus probably realised to Hermione. Oblivious, he spoke with Lupin, enquiring as to the health of the other werewolves who had been injured in the battle at Godric's Hollow, while Hermione took a moment to discuss her results with Professor McGonagall.
It was at some stage during that discussion, when Hermione waved her left hand in the midst of explaining something, that McGonagall noticed her ring. Hermione stopped mid-sentence as her Head of House's eyes widened, and followed the older woman's gaze to her own outflung hand.
"Oh, uh…" Hermione faltered, dropping her hand and tucking it self-consciously in the folds of her cloak. The professor's gaze moved to Severus, then back to Hermione, realisation dawning.
"Well," she said, her voice vaguely tight. "That's… unexpected, Miss Granger. I'm… surprised… I hadn't realised things had become quite as serious as the Prophet reported."
Hermione's face fell a little at her teacher's reaction, but she didn't have a chance to think on it or formulate a response; at that moment, Dumbledore's voice rang out across the Entrance Hall, magnified above the chatter of the crowd to call the graduating students to enter the Great Hall.
"I shall see you a bit later," Severus murmured in her ear as she stepped away, joining the throng of students making their way to the doors of the hall. She felt a quick tug on her elbow and turned to see Harry and Ron beside her, both looking extremely smart in their dress robes.
According to the programme parchment they were each handed as they entered the hall, the graduation ceremony would be first, followed by dinner, then the Order of Merlin presentation, and finally the informal celebration party.
The House banners adorned the walls of the hall, and the Hogwarts crest, a combination of the four House mascots, hung at the front of the cavernous room, above the raised stage at the far end of the room where the teachers' table usually resided. The hall was currently filled with rows of seats, and the front two rows were left empty; Hermione and the other students were ushered into the rows behind with her classmates, sitting in alphabetical order between Ravenclaw Anthony Goldstein and Slytherin Daphne Greengrass. She pushed away the thought that she would have been sitting between Daphne and another Slytherin, had things been different. As it was, Hermione realised she'd hardly spoken to the Slytherin girl now sitting beside her in seven years at the school together.
She made an effort now, enquiring about the other girl's plans for the future, and was surprised to discover that Daphne, too, intended to pursue a career in Arithmancy, though she meant to travel abroad before settling down to further study. They spoke quietly as the Great Hall filled with people, and Hermione couldn't help but wonder if it was House prejudice that had prevented her from becoming friends with the Slytherin before.
The hall was filling with the other guests as they'd been speaking, and she watched as her teachers filed into the two front rows. Severus was among them, and his eyes flickered her way, the barest hint of a smile curling the corner of his lips before he sat down between Professors McGonagall and Sinistra.
When the last of the guests had entered the Hall, the heavy wooden doors closed with a loud clunk. The Headmaster stepped up to the dais and raised his hands in a call for silence, and the quiet chatter in the hall ceased almost instantly.
"The end of another year at Hogwarts," he began, voice echoing in the cavernous hall even without the benefit of a Sonorus charm. "Another group of fine young witches and wizards are here for one last night before they make their way out into wizarding society. I am firm in my belief that we will see many of this year's graduates go on to excel in their chosen fields. It is especially pleasing to see so many graduates here tonight, given the difficult events of the past few months, and I commend you all on your determination to complete your studies against the odds." Dumbledore paused, a twinkle in his eyes as he gazed along the rows of students.
"And now," he went on, "I'd like to invite the Minister for Magic to say a few words before we begin official proceedings."
Hermione tuned out a little while the Minister droned on about academic excellence, good wishes for the future and employment opportunities the Ministry offered to new graduates. After a good ten minutes, much to the relief of most of the students, who were growing restless with the Minister's monotonous voice, Scrimgeour invited Dumbledore to join him in presenting the parchments. As the Minister called each student's name, they made their way up onto the stage, shook hands with the Minister, then proceeded to where Dumbledore stood waiting to hand over their parchment.
Applause rang in Hermione's ears as she shook Scrimgeour's hand and then made her way over to Dumbledore. Positively beaming, the Headmaster shook her hand firmly as he handed Hermione her graduation parchment.
"Congratulations, Miss Granger."
"Thank you, sir," she murmured.
Maintaining his grasp on her hand for a beat longer, the old wizard winked, adding, "And congratulations to you and Severus, too. I cannot tell you how happy I am for the both of you."
Hermione ducked her head to hide her blush as she hurried to exit the other side of the stage, returning to her seat while the presentation continued. A row in front and half a dozen seats to her left, Hermione saw Severus fold his arms, a vaguely bored expression on his profile that she knew hadn't been there minutes before when she'd been receiving her certificate. He had been clapping just as much as the other teachers… for her, at least. Smiling to herself, she turned her attention back to the stage just in time to hear the Minister announce Harry's name.
The applause was raucous for the young man who had defeated Voldemort, and Hermione's own hands were stinging by the time she stopped clapping. Ever modest, Harry grinned sheepishly as he exited the stage after shaking the Headmaster's hand and sharing a few quiet words.
At the end of the presentation, the Minister read out the names of a handful of students who were not there to receive their parchments for various reasons, Draco among them, and bid the Headmaster accept their certificates on their behalf. There was scattered, hesitant clapping at that announcement, as though the crowd was uncertain whether applause or silence was the most appropriate response.
After a brief pause, Dumbledore announced dinner would be served as soon as the hall was prepared, and asked the crowd to exit to the Entrance Hall in the interim.
Hermione exited with the throng of people, catching up with Harry and Ron at the door. The Entrance Hall was overcrowded, and they stepped outside, standing on the rise of grass a short distance from the castle. After a few minutes, Severus joined them, and Hermione was surprised and pleased when he extended a hand in congratulations to both Harry and Ron. Equally surprised, her two friends accepted his hand, muttering awkward thanks before Remus joined them, providing relief from the slightly uncomfortable moment in which none of them quite knew what to say.
Their group grew larger as they waited, and Hermione found herself separated from Severus as a couple of her Gryffindor classmates pulled her aside. She tried not to grin as she noticed Severus and Harry seemed to have ended up standing next to one another, while Dumbledore spoke to them both. Severus was looking down his nose at the younger man as Harry said something to the Headmaster, and when he looked up and caught Hermione's eye, obviously noticing her amused expression, he fixed a mock scowl on his face, and she rolled her eyes at him. They might be tolerable of one another for her sake, but she could never expect anything more from her best friend and her fiancé.
Fiancé... The word slipped out so easily it was startling. It had barely been a day since Severus had slipped his ring onto her finger, but the idea of being with him was something that had become familiar long before they had made it official. It was a word she hadn't used before, though… she quite liked it.
Focusing on the present again, she realised her gaze was still on Severus, and he was returning the look quizzically. She shook her head minutely, giving him a reassuring smile before looking away again.
A few minutes later, a magnified voice called them back into the Great Hall. Instead of the rows of seats, there were now masses of round tables. The decorations in the House colours remained, but they were now accompanied by other banners… the official Ministry seal and the silhouette figure of the wizard on the Order of Merlin. Those individuals due to receive awards after dinner were directed to sit towards the front of the hall, and Hermione saw Harry and Ron moving ahead to join Dumbledore at a table in the front left corner.
She made to join them, but Severus stopped her for a moment.
"Perhaps you'd rather sit with your friends alone," he suggested, nodding towards another table where some other teachers had sat. "I'm happy to join them, instead."
"Don't be stupid, Severus," she said, taking his arm and pulling him with her. "We're sitting together."
As they were speaking, McGonagall, Lupin and Tonks joined the table.
"See?" she prompted. "It's not just a table of silly young students."
He snorted softly but joined Hermione, taking the remaining seat at the table between her and McGonagall.
The meal was superb; a never-ending spread of soup, sumptuous roasts, light summer salads and every dessert imaginable left them full fit to bursting, and the elf-made wine flowed freely, only adding further to the good cheer resonating throughout the room.
Before the presentation began, Dumbledore excused himself from their table and made his way up onto the stage. Though due to receive an award himself, it was a courtesy to him as both Headmaster and Head of the Order that he was taking part in the ceremony as well.
As the last dishes of dessert vanished and the tables were cleared of everything but wine glasses and steaming cups of tea, the Minister for Magic stepped forward and cleared his throat loudly. The crowd quietened instantly, anticipation thick in the air.
"Courage," the Minister began, pacing across the stage rather than remaining behind the dais. "Unity, respect, freedom. These are the virtues the great wizard Merlin sought to uphold in his time… that we might live freely and in unity with all those in our world and respect the differences among us, that we might seek to understand Muggles and co-exist with them while preserving the secrecy of our world, and most importantly, that we might have the courage to stand up those who would seek to oppress our way of life and threaten those values we hold dear."
"It is these virtues that allow us to live today, and those witches and wizards who go above and beyond the call of duty to uphold them are those to whom we award the Order of Merlin, the highest accolade in the wizarding world." The Minister paused, glancing out across the hall. "The Order of Merlin is not awarded lightly; those honoured tonight are the reason we can celebrate freedom and peace, and it is my great privilege to confer these awards on behalf of the Ministry of Magic, and with the gratitude of the whole wizarding world."
A round of applause marked the end of the speech, and the presentation began; progressing in alphabetical order, a handful of Orders of Merlin, third class were awarded to a number of Order members, three Aurors, and the two oldest werewolves in the group Professor Lupin had recruited. Dumbledore spoke briefly about each recipient's contribution to the war while Scrimgeour awarded the medals.
The Minister took over long enough to award the Headmaster another Order of Merlin, first class, and also bestow upon him awards on behalf of some of those who were no longer there to receive their own… Elphias Doge, Alastor Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt. Hermione resisted the urge to turn and see Severus' expression at the second of those names; she had to grudgingly admit the ex-Auror deserved the honour, but still… She wondered at that moment about Draco. Surely if he'd been meant to receive one, it would have been given to Dumbledore? It would be a shocking oversight if he didn't receive one…
Before long, Hermione's name was called and she rose from the table and made her way up onto the stage, standing nervously while Dumbledore summarised her contribution to the war… moral support for Harry, taking over Severus' potion-making duties for the school and assisting him with his own work for the Order, the Wolfsbane, and inexplicably combining her own spell with Harry's to finish Voldemort once and for all. She was stunned, at the conclusion of the speech, to be awarded the Order of Merlin, second class. Compared to most, her contributions to the war had been minimal, and only recent, as well. Almost oblivious to the applause ringing out across the hall, Hermione crossed to the Minister for Magic and bowed her head to accept the ribbon he placed around her neck, hanging from which was the round medal engraved with the likeness of the ancient wizard from whom the award had gained its name.
Returning to her seat, she barely felt the pats on her shoulder from her friends and teachers, but Severus' hand firmly grasping hers beneath the table brought her back to reality, and she smiled weakly, still shocked at her good fortune.
The ceremony continued, and Hermione was surprised and dismayed when Hagrid and Professor Lupin were only given third class awards for their contributions. Harry's exclamation of surprise and Severus' snort of disgust showed she wasn't the only one who didn't agree with the Ministry's decisions; even after victory, it seemed bureaucracy and prejudice were still at foot.
There were no surprises when Professor McGonagall was awarded the Order of Merlin, first class, for her long-standing work with the Order, though after some other members had failed to be properly recognised, her expression as she shook the Minister's hand and accepted her award was distinctly cool.
Harry accepted his Order of Merlin, first class amidst thunderous applause, after a particularly long speech from Dumbledore, and then Severus was summoned up onto the stage.
The Headmaster found it hard to put into words everything Severus had done, and it again became clear to Hermione how much her fiancé meant to the older wizard; even under the bindings of the Vow, the respect and trust between the two men was unmistakeable. There was a murmur throughout the hall as Dumbledore spoke of Severus' near-death at Voldemort's hands, and Severus bowed his head; Hermione could detect the faintest pink tinge across his cheekbones, and she knew he was uncomfortable being the sole object of attention.
Turning to Severus, the Headmaster concluded, "It has been a long, difficult road you have travelled in the name of the Order, and without your tireless efforts, I have no doubt our success would not have been possible. Therefore, it is my great pleasure to award you, Severus Snape, the Order of Merlin, first class."
Severus stood still for a moment, shocked. Hermione had spoken with him briefly the day before about the awards they were to receive, and he had been certain it would be a third class, second at best. The Ministry of Magic wouldn't award an ex-Death Eater an Order of Merlin, first class, no matter what the circumstances… or so he had thought.
Seeming to shake himself out of his shock, he crossed the stage and accepted Scrimgeour's outstretched hand, then bowed his head and allowed the Minister to slip the shining medal around his neck.
Dumbledore was the first to begin clapping, followed by all of those at Hermione's table. The applause from the rest of the crowd was tentative at first; perhaps they were just as stunned as Severus… though Hermione was willing to bet they were surprised by all he'd done, not by the award itself. Soon the ovation grew, though, and as he made to leave the stage, Dumbledore had to call out loudly to be heard above the noise.
"Wait a moment, if you will, Severus."
Severus halted, a look of confusion crossing his face as the applause died down. Scrimgeour retrieved a small box from the table that held all the awards.
"Earlier this evening, I accepted awards on behalf of some of those who are no longer here with us," the Headmaster began.
Severus' gaze snapped to the Headmaster, then he glanced at Hermione. She shook her head, uncertain of what was happening. She thought she knew… she hoped she knew…
"There is one who has not yet been duly honoured," the Headmaster went on. "There is one who lost his life, and yet without his assistance, without the choices he made, which resulted in the ultimate sacrifice, we would not have had the opportunity to confront Voldemort and bring about the end of the war. As a former student of Slytherin, who came to consider his Head of House as both confidante and friend, I believe he would wish it this way… Severus, I bid you accept the Order of Merlin, First Class, on behalf of Draco Malfoy, for services above and beyond those expected of any wizard; his sacrifice helped to ensure we shall live in peace."
Scrimgeour handed the box to Severus with another handshake; the applause this time was more subdued… dignified, and Severus nodded briefly in acknowledgement of that fact as he exited the stage and made his way back to the table. He sat down heavily beside Hermione, and before he bowed his head she saw his face was even paler than usual. He still clutched the box in one white-knuckled fist, and unconcerned of the watching eyes of others at the table, Hermione placed her own hand over his.
He jumped, startled at the touch, and glanced sideways at her. She could hardly make out his expression through the curtain of hair falling about his face, but she could see his eyes, glimmering just a bit brighter than usual.
"All right?" she mouthed, the words barely sounded on an exhalation of breath.
He swallowed and nodded, releasing his death-grip on the box and twisting his hand to grasp hers instead. She interlocked her fingers with his, and they remained that way for the rest of the ceremony, Hermione drawing away only to applaud when Ron and Ginny were awarded Orders of Merlin for each member of their family.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Minister and Dumbledore both spoke briefly again, the Headmaster announcing the informal celebration would now begin and guests were welcome to stay, eat, drink, talk and dance for as long as they pleased.
The tables and chairs vanished once all the occupants had risen and moved away, and a long table across one side of the room appeared, laden with refreshments and more food. Music filled the room from some unseen source, and the ceiling above, reflecting the sky outside, was a mass of stars.
Touching her arm briefly, Severus murmured something about needing some fresh air, and disappeared through the crowd before she could question him further.
Congratulations were flowing in from everywhere; people she hardly recognised were coming over to congratulate her on both her NEWTs and her award, then moving on to do the same for Harry and the others nearby. She responded with the same smile, the same words of thanks each time… all the while looking across the hall hoping to see Severus.
Finally, she was able to make her way out of the Great Hall, and after some searching, found Severus outside, around the side of the castle away from the main doors.
His arms were folded and he was leaning against the stones of the ancient castle walls, staring upwards. When she spoke, his head turned slightly in her direction and he exhaled a breath.
"I just had to get away for a moment," he said by way of explanation for his sudden departure.
Hermione nodded and leant against the wall beside him. He was silent, but she knew if she waited long enough, he would speak.
"I never expected that, not for myself."
"Nor did I," she replied softly, fingering the medal hanging around her neck.
"You were deserving of yours," he added.
"And you weren't?" she stared at him incredulously. His silence spoke volumes, and she went on, "Don't be ridiculous, Severus. You've done more in this war than anyone, except perhaps Dumbledore… even more than Harry, though his part in it is more widely known."
He didn't comment, but glanced down at the box that contained Draco's medal still clasped in his hand.
"I'm glad for this," he said. "It's a small consolation after what he did, but it's something."
"I'm glad Professor Dumbledore had it given to you," she said. "Draco respected and trusted you above anyone else."
"Yes, and a lot of good that did him," he said, a hint of bitterness clouding his tone.
"Don't say that," Hermione implored softly, resting her hand on his arm and rubbing lightly. "Not tonight."
"I'm sorry," he said, rubbing one hand quickly over his face. "It's a celebration tonight, I know. I just needed a moment. Shall we rejoin the festivities?"
Nodding, Hermione slipped her hand into his as he pushed away from the wall, and they returned to the castle. They met several Order members preparing to leave on their way back to the Great Hall and spent a few minutes saying brief goodbyes.
Back in the hall, they mingled with the crowd, together at first, then drifting apart as Hermione's former classmates pulled her away from the group of teachers and Ministry officials with whom Severus was deep in conversation.
Word seemed to have spread amongst the newly graduated witches and wizards that she and Severus were now engaged, and Hermione was bombarded with question after question… no one seemed willing to believe the Daily Prophet's account of how they had come to be together.
When she found herself bailed up near the refreshments table by Lavender Brown and the Patil twins, she caught Severus' eye across the hall and gave him a pleading look for help. There was an amused glimmer in his eyes that showed he wasn't planning on rescuing her any time soon, and she was forced to turn her attention back to the other young women. She answered most of their questions, trying not to let her irritation at repeating herself show, but when those questions began to get too personal for Hermione's liking, she looked around again for Severus.
She couldn't see him anywhere, and her temper was almost ready to snap when Lavender asked in a hushed voice, "Is it true he really did follow Voldemort when he was younger?"
Severus suddenly appeared out of the crowd, and Hermione smiled as she nodded towards him and said, "Why don't you ask Severus yourself, Lavender?"
"Miss Patil, Miss Patil, Miss Brown," Severus greeted, politely but suspiciously, obviously having heard his name in the conversation. "Ask me what?"
"Er, I– I– nothing, sir," Lavender stammered, flushing under Severus' dark gaze.
"Good," he said briskly. "Now, if you've finished questioning Hermione, I'd like to have some time with my fiancée, if you please."
He led her away through the crowd, towards the front of the hall again. Hermione hadn't really paid attention to her surroundings while she'd been talking to her former classmates, but she now realised a large number of people were dancing, the older witches and wizards in pairs, the younger ones mostly milling around the edge in groups. Those students who were dancing in pairs laughed as they tried to get their steps right and avoid bumping into the more serious couples.
Severus turned to Hermione, his eyes glimmering. He held out one hand to her, the other tucked behind him back in a formal pose.
"May I have this dance?"
No one else would have understood the significance of such a simple question. Severus raised an eyebrow at her reaction and waited for her to regain her composure. When she did, she accepted his hand and allowed him to lead her into the midst of the dancing couples.
Keeping hold of her hand and putting his other arm about her waist, he held her close. Hermione couldn't help but continue to smile; if anyone had doubts about Severus' intentions before, the sight of the normally private man dancing with her, holding her, allowing her to rest her head against his shoulder, should have put paid to any lingering suspicions that anything might have been amiss.
Hermione hardly noticed the time as they danced. Ron was brave enough to cut in and steal her away from Severus for a dance. Her red-haired friend was rather uncoordinated, and they spent more time laughing than dancing. She danced with Harry, too, as well as a handful of her other classmates, but nothing compared to the contentment of being in Severus' arms.
The night wore on, but Hermione was hardly aware of the time passing until Dean, Neville and Seamus came over to say goodbye before they left. Glancing at the clock for the first time, Hermione was startled to see it was the early hours of the morning.
People began to leave more steadily then, but Hermione wasn't yet ready to go; Ron seemed to have had rather too much to drink, and was trying to coerce her into dancing with him again. She was laughing and trying to get him to sit down; he was stumbling over his own feet, so he was hardly in any shape to be coordinating his feet with hers. Harry and Ginny were sitting nearby, laughing at Hermione and Ron, and then talking with their heads bowed close together.
Across the room, Severus was deep in conversation with someone Hermione didn't recognise. He seemed content, though, so she turned her attention back to her friends.
The crowd thinned further as more witches and wizards left; Hermione didn't doubt she would never again see some of the former classmates she was saying goodbye to and wishing all the best this night… but she would see the ones who mattered most to her; she would make sure of that.
She tried but failed to escape a farewell hug from Lavender, who, like Ron, had drunk more than her share of Butterbeer. The Gryffindor took Hermione's left hand without asking, examining the ring on her finger with an exclamation of delight.
"Oh, Hermione, whoever would have thought you'd be the first of us to be getting married?" she exclaimed, her words slurring slightly as she swayed on her feet and draped one arm around Hermione's shoulders. "You will invite your old housemates, won't you?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Hermione saw the Patil twins approaching where they stood, and she smiled at Lavender.
"We haven't really talked about a wedding yet," she said. "There's no rush, after all."
Hermione could just imagine Severus' face if he saw their names on a guest list.
She said goodbye to the other Gryffindors without any more awkward questions, and rejoined her friends. Ron had finally sat down, and Hermione lowered herself into the chair next to him, surprising herself by yawning. For the first time that night, she was beginning to feel weary.
No one was dancing anymore; most people were sitting or standing in small groups around the edge of the room, or had moved out into the Entrance Hall in preparation for leaving. When Ron stood up to make for the refreshments table again, Harry and Ginny decided it was time for them all to leave; the three of them were heading back to Grimmauld Place for a few weeks before deciding where to go from there.
Hermione hugged her three friends fiercely, promising she would see them all soon. She walked as far as the Entrance Hall with them after they'd said their goodbyes to the remaining guests and teachers, and stood on the steps, watching them retreat down the path towards the main gates.
She stood there for a few minutes after they'd disappeared beyond the trees lining the path, enjoying the silence and the warm night stirred only by the slightest wisp of a breeze.
Footsteps behind her alerted her to the presence of another, and she recognised it to be Severus even before his arms came around her waist, his chin resting on the top of her head.
"Tired?" he asked.
"Mmm, a little," she murmured, leaning back into him.
"Shall we go inside and say our goodbyes?" he suggested after a while.
Turning in his arms, she looked up at him, his dark eyes almost invisible in the night. She tried and failed to stifle a yawn, and he chuckled softly.
"I'll take that as a yes." He drew away from her. "Come on."
Back inside, saying goodbye to those remaining took little time; most people had already gone. Hermione farewelled all her teachers, thanking them for all their time and guidance over the years, and said brief goodbyes to the few students who remained gathered in a corner of the room. When she found herself standing before Dumbledore, she was suddenly lost for words. There were far too many things she needed to thank the old wizard for and far too few words in which to do so.
After trying and failing to articulate her thanks, she was relieved when Dumbledore grasped one of her hands in both of his.
"There is no need for thanks, my dear," he said earnestly, his eyes alight with happiness. "It has been a joy and an honour to have you as a student at this school, and your presence will be sorely missed by all, of that I'm certain."
"Thank you, sir, I'll miss Hogwarts, too," she said. Hesitating for a moment, she added softly, "Thank you for everything this year, too… without your trust in me, I'd never have… well, things would be different, and I couldn't be happier than I am now."
"Nor could I, my dear," Dumbledore said with a smile. "I wish you all the best, and you will always be welcome here, should you choose to return."
Hermione wandered out into the Entrance Hall again while Severus spoke briefly with Dumbledore. It was a moment between the two men that she didn't want to intrude upon; it wasn't as though they were saying goodbye for good, but they had been friends and colleagues for a long time, and she felt they deserved a private moment to speak alone.
Severus exited the Great Hall after a few minutes; his face was carefully blank, but his lips curled up in a half-smile when he saw her.
Without a word spoken between them, they walked through the main castle doors, down the steps and onto the path. Hermione stopped for a moment and turned, gazing up at the castle, towering over them in the night. The windows of the Great Hall were still bright with the lights from within, but the higher levels of the castle were all dark and silent. The people who had occupied those rooms were gone; they'd left for the summer… or left Hogwarts for good.
Severus' soft prompt drew her from her thoughts, and she favoured him with a smile, albeit one tinged with a trace of sadness. Picking up on her thoughts, he put an arm around her shoulders.
"We can always come back to visit," he said.
"I know," she replied. "It strange to be leaving after so long… even strange for you, I'd imagine… but you're right. It's time to go."
They meandered unhurriedly along the path towards the front gates. The light from the castle grew fainter the further they went, the stillness of the June night closing in. It was still a few hours until sunrise, and a faint chill drifted on the light breeze coming up from the lake.
On one side of the path, the forest loomed dark and dense; Hermione could hear the rustling of unseen creatures in amongst the trees. Peering in through the dark boughs, she thought she could see something moving, keeping pace with them as they continued along the path. She glanced back at Severus to see whether he had noticed, but he was looking in the opposite direction, out across the wide expanse of lawns leading down to the Quidditch pitch.
Turning her attention back to the trees, she watched more intently for any sign of movement, her scrutiny made easier now the trees were growing further apart and the faint moonlight filtered down to the forest floor. It was in that light Hermione suddenly caught a glimpse of silvery mane and heard the soft clip of hoof on rock.
She realised the moonfilly was trailing them, not daring to venture beyond the edge of the forest to meet them, but curious as to where her most recent acquaintance and the man whose life her blood had saved were going in the middle of the night. Hermione felt a rush of gratitude towards the hidden creature, followed by a pang of sadness that they might never see her again.
Hermione looked to Severus again, but he was still unaware. Sensing her eyes upon him, though, he glanced down at her and smiled.
She returned his smile, uncertain of whether to say anything or not. The path was beginning to curve away from the forest, and when she glanced back into the trees, there was no sign or sound to indicate the tiny creature had even been there. Sighing softly to herself, she shook her head and walked on.
Finally slipping through the open gates of the school, they halted, both turning for one last look at the castle that had been their home for much of their lives.
"Shall we go?" Severus turned to face her, taking her hands in his own. The tips of his fingers brushed over the ring on her left hand, and she smiled, entwining her fingers through his.
"Yes," she said. "Let's go home."
Tightening his grip on her hands, Severus Apparated them away from Hogwarts.
Author's Note: It's finished! There were times when I wondered whether I'd ever finish this story… it just kept getting longer!
But now it's over. Hermione and Severus didn't exactly ride off into the sunset… life won't be perfect, but it will be good, and who could complain about that?
Those who've mentioned a sequel… I can't see myself writing one at the moment. In this particular 'universe', I've said everything I wanted to say. Time to work on some of the other stories I've had brewing (haha) for a while now. It will be both good and scary to delve into the world of HBP-compliant fic.
I must take a moment to thank a few people, and first and foremost, my beta, webmistress and great friend, Potion Mistress. Without her tireless beta work and constant, gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) prodding, I have no doubt this story would have been languishing abandoned in the Archives of Azkaban long ago. Many thanks also to everyone else who has helped me at some stage along the way… Indigofeathers, my walking thesaurus, who is always on IM when I can't think of the right word; Keladry Lupin, who listened to me prattle on about various plot points and never once told me to shut up, and anyone who picked out dodgy typos, especially during the time I stubbornly floundered beta-less for the first twenty-something chapters; emlouise, who came on board very late in the story, but I still have to thank her because discussing this story with someone face-to-face is just weird and awesome and I love it.
Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed somewhere along the way. Some of you have been here since the beginning, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that you've stuck with the story and have let me know what you're thinking. I write as a bit of a creative outlet and an escape from the mundaneness of real life work, but I wouldn't be half as motivated without all the comments I've received. Every single one, whether it was a few words or a few paragraphs, has helped make this story better.
Thanks for reading!