"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."

- Seneca

Chapter 20: The Start

The wind whipped tears to Hermione's eyes and she pulled her cloak tighter around her neck. It had begun to snow again, lightly.

Figures, Hermione thought miserably, suppressing a sigh.

Severus sat beside her, upright, the very epitome of self-control. He had been characteristically quiet and somber during the proceedings thus far, even as the Kingsley Shacklebolt offered a lengthy, albeit rather emotionless eulogy.

Are there words fit enough to give Draco's life justice in only a few moments? Hermione thought, bitterly. To say that he lived a troubled, difficult life, but still managed to do the right thing in the end - is such a statement really enough to honor him?

How is that enough?

She felt Severus' hand creep into her own and she closed her eyes.

It will never be enough.

She owed Draco her life.

It was such a strange sensation, the debt she felt toward him, the obligation it created. And as Hermione stared numbly ahead at the cedar casket that housed Draco Malfoy's body, there was no doubt in her mind that if he had not done what he did for her, it would have been her own body in a similar casket, preparing to be lowered into the cold earth.

She shivered, and blinked rapidly to stay the tears that had been threatening to fall all morning.

And Ron, who sat on the other side of her, blue eyes distant and glossy, she knew, would never be the same, either. Ron and Draco, oddly enough, were alike in a surprisingly many ways. Both had been deeply prejudice - Draco with anything that contained tainted blood; and Ron, with anyone who was affiliated with Slytherin House. Draco's long-felt beliefs and paradigms had been rocked before his death, and now Ron, who looked utterly lost beside her, was certainly going through something similar.

The ceremony was small. The mourners few. Aside from herself and Severus, there were only a handful of others that had gathered on the Hogwart's grounds next to Dumbledore's white tomb. Since their return from the forest in Germany, Harry had fought unceasingly against the Ministry on the decision of Draco's final resting place. The majority of the ministry officials had been enraged that the Death Eater turned noble would be lay to rest next to Albus Dumbledore. But Harry refused to relent on the matter, and finally, Shacklebolt, in a moment of true character, agreed to let Draco have that one, final honor.

Shacklebolt had finished speaking, and the Ministry officials moved into position with their wands, preparing to lower Draco's casket deep into the cool earth. Everyone rose, Severus tugging Hermione gently to her feet as they all stood in one last and final respect. There was only one flower arrangement on the casket, a wonderful monster of a thing - too ostentatious, even for Draco Malfoy.

He would have hated it, Hermione thought, her eyes combing over the white roses. And white? Did these people even think about what he might have liked?

But everyone was moving to the casket now, grabbing a handful of earth and letting it fall onto the casket with a resounding finality. Hermione wondered about Narcissa Malfoy - if she even knew her son had been killed, let alone at her husband's hand.

She stood back respectfully as Severus stepped forward, suddenly very aware of the intimacy of the moment. Severus had been Draco's Head of House for six years - and more than that, a family friend and Godfather. For Severus, Hermione blinked back the tears, it was surely like losing a friend, a son. She watched Severus kneel, the thick curtain of his black hair obscuring his face. He reached to the ground, grabbing a fist full of damp dirt, and then stood, muttering quietly to himself with closed eyes as he let the earth trickle out through his fingers and scatter over Draco's casket.

The sound of the dirt hitting the cedar resonated impossibly loud in Hermione's ears.

And then Severus took two careful steps backward and Hermione, swallowing a lump in her throat, moved forward on shaky feet. The dirt felt cool and rough in her already cold hands. She could have easily cast warming charm before the services, but something had moved her not to. No, Draco was dead and cold in the ground, and she, for a few moments, could at least share that with him. Holding her hand out over the hole in the earth, she suddenly felt moved to say something.

"And to think we hated each other all during school," Hermione half-laughed, half-sobbed. And then she instantly grew somber and swallowed thickly."I...I will never forget what you did for me, Draco," she whispered. She knew it was impossible for anyone to hear her small voice over the wind; but she felt compelled to speak aloud, nonetheless. "I promise, there won't be a day that goes by that I won't think about you and remember what you did. And for Ron," she blinked, and a tear fell down her cheek. "Thank you...for saving my friend. You saved him in more ways than one," she swallowed again and felt the knot in her stomach tighten even further. "I will never forget you."

She walked over to Severus then, who was looking at her in quiet wonder. With that deep, bottomless gaze, he wiped a stray tear from her cheek with his thumb and index finger.

"Come," he whispered, taking her small hand in his own. "There will be an infinite amount of time to grieve. There is nothing more that can be done here, and Mr. Weasley needs a moment."

Hermione looked over her shoulder to see Ron and Harry standing where Draco had been lowered into the earth. Finding it strangely difficult to summon her voice, she merely nodded and let Severus take her by the arm and they made their way across the grounds and back towards Hogwarts. Hermione started, once or twice on the long walk back to the castle, to utter her own words of assurance and sympathies to Severus; but there was something fragile about the quiet. Something reverent.

There was the customary meal served in the Great Hall after the services. It was quiet and somber, the few voices that were heard were soft, respectful whispers. Harry and Ron had come and sat next to Hermione and Severus, both drawn and quiet. Hermione wanted to utter words of comfort to Ron, who appeared completely and utterly lost, eyes bright with unshed tears, not even looking at the food on his plate. But she didn't. She could tell he was unreachable now, that he had pulled away. Words or action would either be superfluous or harmful.

Harry, sipping quietly on a tall glass of pumpkin juice, was the first to break the silence. "There was a sighting of Lucius in Poland," he offered simply, causing Severus' black eyes to light up with understanding. "Buckley has Aurors stationed in the area. There's a fairly good chance now, with no where else to go, that someone will recognize him and we'll be able to bring him in."

Severus' face was impassive. "That is an idealistic hope at best, Mr. Potter. I fear you will find his cunning and resourcefulness a formidable opponent, as was the first time, before the Aurors tracked him down."

"We'll find him," Ron said, speaking for what Hermione assumed was the first time that day. His normally jovial voice sounded hard and empty.

Hermione raised her eyebrow quizzically. "We, Ron?"

He blinked, his gaze on his full plate of food. "Yes. I already told Harry I'm helping him in this. It doesn't matter that I'm not an Auror. I'm helping."

"Yeah," Harry confirmed, looking keenly at the silver glass in his hand. "I'm hoping we'll be able to find Narcissa. I think, depending on if she's aware of the...current circumstances, that she would help us, if she could."

Hermione nodded gently in understanding. There would always be rouge Death Eaters on the loose. Always some distant threat on the horizon. Whether it was Lucius or some other nutter, it was a certain fact. That was the world they lived in. To pretend otherwise would be dangerously foolish and naive. And as Hermione looked around from Harry to Ron, and then to Severus, she knew that there would always be people standing guard to watch over and protect the things that were right. That were good.

And despite the incoherent moan of her heart over the loss of Draco, for a brief moment, as she looked at her friends and Severus, she knew with an unshakable certainty that eventually, somehow, things would be right again. She turned to look at Severus, who was already watching her with penetrating eyes, and knew that he, too, was thinking the same thing. Reaching her little hand out to him from under the table, she felt his rough, nimble fingers close around hers, his thumb and forefinger grazing her palm.

She sighed. Enough for now. For now, it was just she and Severus. And that was enough for her.

"Come in! It's open!" Hermione shouted, as the quiet rapping of knuckles sounded on the entrance to her private quarters.

The thick wooden door swung inwards on its hinges, reveling a slightly out-of-sorts Severus Snape.

"Where have you been?" he asked, crossing the expanse of the room in one fluid motion to where she sat at her large oak desk. "You weren't at supper in the Great Hall."

Hermione flicked her wand to sort her essays into three, neatly stacked piles. "I went to leave some flowers for Draco and Dumbledore. The grass down there is finally turning green. I thought it would look nice," she added, with a shrug.

Severus stared at her a moment, and there was a dry twinkle in his black eyes. "And what flowers did you leave for Draco?"

Hermione smiled. "Snapdragons. Tied in a green ribbon."

"Ah," Severus said, advancing until he neared the side of the desk and then reached to pull her from the chair to her feet. "I think he would have been fond of those."

"Yes," Hermione said. "So do I."

The months that followed Draco's murder had been mad, pivotal for the Aurors, and entirely stressful for Hermione as she returned to teaching. Lucius still hadn't been found, though Harry was convinced the Aurors were making headway. Ron had given up his spot on whichever Quidditch team he had currently been playing for, and had been assisting Harry and the Auror Department in any way he could. He had owled Hermione, not a week before, to tell her he would be taking the Auror examinations to become fully inducted into the Department. Reading the letter in Ron's chicken-scratch handwriting, Hermione had nearly cried.

She had never been more proud of him.

"I was worried about you," Severus said with a little half-smile.

Rolling her eyes, Hermione replied, "When don't you worry about me?"

"When I sleep," Severus offered, truthfully. "But even then, nightmares can almost be worse than reality."

Sighing, Hermione put her hands on her hips, "Merlin, Severus. You're worse than Harry and Ron. And that's saying something."

He stared at her a long moment, finally breaking the silence with a mock-scowl on his face. "If Gryffindors weren't inherently magnets for disasters and idiotic decisions, then perhaps I wouldn't have to keep an eye on you all of the time."

"Please," Hermione said mildly, "Don't make me slap you like I did Ron and Harry. I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself."

Severus almost did smile then, his eyes lighting up with intrigue. "It is most unfortunate that I missed either one of those occasions." And then his face darkened. "And what would prompt you to strike Mr. Potter or Mr. Weasley? What did they - "

Hermione laughed, "Oh, Severus, honestly. They didn't do anything to me. They were merely being prats and deserved what they got. And if you don't stop clucking over me like a mother hen, then I'll do that and worse to you."

Severus raised one brow. "Worse?"

Hermione smiled and pulled on the neck of his robe, bringing his face downward until his lips were on hers, tugging at them gently. She felt one of his hands on the side of her face, working its way into her thick hair, the other, pulling her waist as close to him as was humanly possible. And then, Oh, Merlin, he was moving her toward the little archway that led to her bedchamber. And just as they were about to tumble onto the soft bed, Hermione pulled back.

"Severus, wait."

He stopped immediately, pulling back to look down at her, his eyes raw and unprotected.

"What is it?"

Hermione bit her lip, her eyes immediately dropping to the floor. "You don't still think about her, do you? I mean...when we're...together - "

He appeared genuinely startled by the question, but still managed to bring one finger to her lips to silence her before she could continue any further.

"Is that what you think?" he asked, very softly.

Hermione shook her head, her cheeks red with embarrassment. "I don't know. I know I shouldn't think about it, that it's something in your past. But sometimes, irrationally, I know, I can't help but wonder...," she trailed off, looking at a small crack in the stone floor.

Kobic hooted loudly in the silence.

She felt his finger on her chin, tilting her head until her eyes were locked firmly with his. "Why," he asked gently, "Did you not tell me sooner that you were having these fears?"

She dropped her eyes again. "I was ashamed."

Again, he tilted her head upward, forcing her to meet his eyes. "Hermione," he said softly, "You think that I don't trust your heart." He shook his head. "There's nothing I trust more. Lily was in my life for one reason; to keep my soul in tact. And while, yes, I loved her for a time, so very long ago, I lost those sentiments the moment I saw you in Grimmauld Place."

Hermione swallowed and looked away again. "I'm sorry. Merlin, I must sound like a possessive teenager," she chuckled. "I just, I couldn't help but wonder...,"

He looked down at her fondly, with that same quiet wonder that nearly stole her breath away. "It is you I love, Hermione. For the rest of my life, I will love you and no other."

Her eyes met his again, levelly, and she held his gaze. Something massive stirred there, something raw and real.

Reaching up to touch his cheek, she whispered, "And I, you."

Severus smiled softly and rested his forehead against hers. And Hermione knew, as they stood there together in her little bedchamber, that this was the start or something new, something extraordinary. And even more, something that was hers.

Spring blossomed into summer and once again, Hermione Granger found herself in one of the courtrooms of the Ministry of Magic, sitting before a panel of Aurors for her annual performance review.

"Miss Granger, please understand that we must ask you a few questions to first ascertain the effects of the Veritaserum," William Buckley said, returning to his chair.

"Of course, sir."

"Do you, Hermione Granger, believe in love?"

A broad smile appeared on Hermione's face and she felt her stomach flutter.

"Yes, sir. I do."

A/N: Wow! Talk about a labor of love! Well, there you have it. At long last - finished! I can't tell you how enjoyable this was to write, and how deeply grateful I am for the wonderful thoughts of encouragement and comments on each and every chapter. Thank you so much for all your support. I plan to, hopefully sooner rather than later, start a new HG/SS fic, so keep your eyes peeled for that one. Thank you again; I adore you all!