Title: A Quiet Embrace
Author: Sare Liz
Rating: PG-13, for vague references to adult situations
Warnings: Resolved angst. Hermione's age could be in dispute. Let's say she's of the age of consent, shall we?
Disclaimer: Well, no, I didn't create the characters. Were you confused?
Series: none
Continuity: OotP only. Pre-war.
A/N: This story is a departure from my normal, if I've got one. And it makes much more sense if you have "Get Me Through December" by Natalie McMaster playing softly in the background while you read.

***

It was very quiet. The dungeons – his dungeons, really – were actually quite quiet without the hissing flame underneath the bubbling cauldrons and the turning of pages, the clink of glass bottles, the quiet murmur of voices repeating recipes, and the under girding and somehow palpable sound of resentment, annoyance, fear or conceit, depending on your house affiliation. Somehow she'd never noticed before, not that she was considering it too deeply at the moment.

It was just that it was so quiet. Her ears ached for a moment, ached for something to break the soundlessness, and it made her shiver.

And then there was sound. Blessed, soft, real sound. The shifting of cloth, a coat jacket sleeve against robes, fingers gently buttoning her shirt back up. She felt completely immobilized, though not numb. Or perhaps she had been so over stimulated that she'd circled back around to numb. She shivered as her tie was straightened. She could hear the sound of her own almost gasping breath as she started to breathe again. It had never dawned on her that she'd been holding it all inside.

Soft hands pushed her gently into the large chair behind the desk, and it was then that she seemed to wake. Blinking, she came back to herself and looked at her companion for the first time since they had separated. He did not meet her eye, but buttoned his own collar, the inner shirt first, and then the outer coat.

For the first time, she keenly smelled the acridic scent of the snuffed candles of the ritual that was even now finishing in a different part of the castle. He had done that too, when she hadn't the presence of mind to help him.

She licked her lips, sucking in the bottom one, considering the situation from an angle she hadn't, while planning. For the first time, she thought about her partner as a potentially vulnerable individual also needing care.

She stood up, thinking that it was cold, being away from him, even for this small amount of time. Her movement caught his eye, and their gaze was riveted together for a moment.

"Our part of the ritual is over?"

The moment was lost with her words, and a hard mask came back over his eyes with his clipped positive response.

In turn she reached out and took his hand, pulling him over to sit in the chair she had vacated. He seemed slightly confused by her actions, his own movements momentarily clumsy as if he wasn't sure where his body was supposed to be going, even with her guidance. Nevertheless he complied without comment and when she sat with him, perched sideways across his lap, his arms fit around her comfortably and instinctively, holding her.

She sighed, her head resting on his shoulder, eyelevel with a part of his neck that, beneath many layers of fabric, held a mark that matched her mouth.

"Thank you," she said.

"We should be thanking you," he said quietly, with neither venom nor reverence, but with a sort of hollow numbness himself. "Every member of the Order should be on their knees thanking you, Hermione. You were the only who could do it, and you should have never had to."

She picked her head up from its comfortable spot and looked at him more clearly.

"Yes, and it might have been awful. Really, it should have been awful, I'm surprised the ceremony wasn't compromised. I thought it was going to be unbearable, and really, it… it was beautiful."

Her head sunk back down to its home. There was just something so right about how she was right now. She was in the perfect position with the perfect man, and it just felt so physically right she might not want to move for days. If only…

"So, thank you, Severus." Her hand clutched at his robes almost spasmodically. "Please, please let me call you Severus, if only for right now."

She felt his cheek rest on the top of her head as one of his hands rubbed calming circles on her back. "Hush. You will call me Severus when you need to." A moment passed before he spoke again. "I trust you with that, Hermione.

"I will understand if you choose to leave the class and have a potions tutor. The Headmaster did not suggest it before, I'm sure, in order to keep the ritual pure, but he will. I would think it wise if you did so."

"But I…" her head shot up so she could meet his eyes, and his hands stilled on her back, but kept their tight hold on her. She wasn't sure what she expected to see in his eyes. Dismissal, perhaps, but there was only compassion, and perhaps pain. "I don't want to."

His smile was small, and his eyes did not change. "It's up to you."

Truer words had yet to be spoken.

Of all of the choices before her, the only one she knew a definitive answer to was where she wanted to be for the next half hour, and so she stayed in his arms, so warm and comforting. She sat mostly in silence, not worrying whether or not she would feel this sort of comfort again from him, of if she wanted to, or if the entire event had scarred her for life, or what this meant about anything, if it meant anything at all. These were all things she would ponder later, in the coming days, in the aftermath of the downfall of Voldemort, when all emotions were high regardless of their source.

It would be a hundred little things and a handful of big ones that would convince her by the end of the year what the general course of the next would take. As would be the way with so many others, she would, in that long series of life-savoring moments, step out and do precisely what her heart most fondly desired, happily and joyously bucking any convention that dared infer she ought not so to do. In that long series of life-savoring moments that inevitably follows when death and freedom are mingled so closely in a life, she would indeed live to the fullest the life given her.

The End.