AN: I'm baaaaaaaack! I can't believe this chapter has taken me three years to write. I am sorry for making you all wait so long. For once I actually have a valid reason – my daughter is 18 months old and takes up most of my time when I'm not at work. I hope that the next chapter won't take as long, just as I hope that this update will give my loyal readers some kind of confirmation that this story hasn't been abandoned.

Chapter Sixteen

A visit from the Minister

"Severus, lie back down this instant!"

Severus had to bite the inside of his cheek in order to keep himself from snarling at the person who had been put in charge of looking after him. He took a deep breath as he slowly lowered himself back until he once again was lying on the bed that had been his prison for almost a full day. For a moment he didn't move; he already knew what he would see when he finally decided to raise his eyes up and meet her gaze.

Don't be a coward, Snape, he scolded himself. Look at her. He let out a soft sigh as he glanced up at the woman standing over him.

Hermione had a scowl on her face, which was exactly what he had been expecting. Her crossed arms made it clear that she was expecting him to argue with her, which made him bite back the comment he had been about to hurl at her about being a grown man.

"I have good reason to get up from bed, witch," he said, his voice still a little raspy.

"I understand that you need to use the loo, Severus," she interrupted as she relaxed her arms, letting out a small laugh at his astonished look. "I'm not an idiot, you know. You're only allowed liquids at the moment, and huge amounts of them – of course you have to relieve yourself."

She paused as she sat down next to him on the bed.

"However," she said as she laid a gentle hand on his cheek, "you must remember to ask for my assistance – Poppy's orders, if you recall."

"I have desperately tried to forget," Severus grumbled in return, but his pulse had started racing at her touch.

Her hand retreated and he immediately missed her soft skin on his rough cheek; he hadn't shaved for a week. It was no longer itchy, but rather made her touch more pronounced. His mouth twitched when he noticed her raised eyebrow.

"Not quite, Hermione. You have yet to master that look of pure and utter annoyance; you need to have taught potions at Hogwarts for a decade before it may rival my own."

Hermione rolled her eyes, but couldn't help smiling at him.

"Well, thanks to you, I have gotten some practice and know now what to expect," she mused, winking at him. "I do understand a little more now why you have become the teacher you are – I don't condone it, but some of your students really are dunderheads."

They shared a smirk; Severus was pleased that she could so freely joke about something like that with him. The room grew quiet as neither of them spoke for a moments. Hermione lifted an eyebrow, the corners of her mouth twitching.

"I'm still waiting for you to ask, Severus," she murmured softly. "I will not go easy on you just because you're injured."

Severus briefly wondered why her comment didn't do anything to anger him. Instead he took a deep breath to mentally prepare for something they both knew he was awful at – asking for help.

"Hermione, might you be so kind to assist me to the bathroom?"

He almost winced at how small his voice sounded, but he managed to keep his face neutral. Hermione gave him a glittering smile and got to her feet.

"Of course."

Together they managed to get him into a sitting position and he wanted to curse his broken, weak body. Never during all of his years as a spy during the war had he been so badly hurt. The Dark Lord had only sought to punish him on rare occasions and always in the same manner; he knew very well how to handle the aftermath of the Cruciatus Curse. Poppy had managed to heal him perfectly, but his body was still sore and aching; first, from getting all those extensive injuries and then because of the rapid healing caused by magic. Not to mention the magical depletion he had suffered, which caused his body to heal the soreness without the help of his own magic, meaning that he was recovering very much in the way a muggle would – painfully and slowly.

"Put your weight on me, Severus," Hermione said as they stood, his arms coming around her shoulders. "I can handle it, we're just going to the bathroom."

Choosing not to be difficult as he didn't have the energy to stand on his own, he did put his weight on her before they slowly made their way to the bathroom. As soon as they entered, Hermione was unsure of how to proceed. The man could barely stand; now what?

"Woman, you will let me do this on my own," he growled, as if reading her mind.

Hermione blushed, a picture of him pulling his pants down popping in to her mind.

"Of course, Severus," she mumbled quickly. "But please call me if you need anything."

"If you don't mind, Hermione, I will call a house elf if I require assistance in here. It hurts my pride much less."

Hermione felt disappointment wash over her for a moment at his words, but realized that his comment shouldn't surprise her. He wasn't used to relying on anyone beside himself, let alone exposing himself to another in such a way. She merely nodded and excused herself, carefully closing the door behind her as she exited.

Sitting down on the couch in front on the fireplace, Hermione felt her gaze being drawn to the dancing flames. She let her mind wander to the events of the last week; the terror she had felt when Severus had told her he had to go off chasing Death Eaters – her worry during the days he had been gone and finally, her relief when she had seen him in his bed, transformed back from his Animagus form. It had been an intense week and she hadn't allowed herself too feel. If she had let her emotions in, even for a second, she wouldn't have been able to continue on as normal, let alone teach Potions class.

She took a deep breath and as she exhaled, a week's worth of repressed worry penetrated her mind, senses and her whole being. Leaning forward slightly, she rested her head heavily against the palm of her hands. With her next breath came a sob and then she felt tears streaming down her face. He's safe, he's safe, he's safe. The mantra on repeat in her head did not calm nor comfort her; the fact that his fate could have gone so differently was too fresh in her memory.

"Hermione?"

The sound of Severus' soft voice made her head snap up. Somehow he had managed to get to the couch with or without the help of a house-elf; either way, he managed to do so completely without her noticing. He was watching her intently, his head slightly tilted.

"It's silly," she mumbled, answering his unasked question, wiping away the tears from her eyes.

"If it brings you to tears I cannot imagine that to be true," Severus said gently, patting the cushion next to him as an invitation for her to join him.

Hermione pushed herself off the chair, but instead of joining him, she made her way over to his bookcase and reached for decanter she knew contained his Firewhiskey.

"I know you can't drink right now, Severus, but would you mind terribly if I had some?"

Severus frowned for a moment, suddenly getting concerned; in his opinion, tears and alcohol were never a good mix, but perhaps she just needed something to calm her nerves.

"You are welcome to anything in my quarters, Hermione," he answered her, "you ought to know that by now."

Hermione smiled slightly as she poured some of the amber liquid into a glass.

"Careful, Severus," she chided him gently. "Anything in your quarters? I'll remember that; however, you might regret giving me free reign of your library."

He grimaced, knowing that she had a point, but chose neither to comment nor retract his statement.

Slowly sipping the Firewhiskey, Hermione made her way over the couch as she wondered how she was going to explain her tears without having to admit the true extent of her feelings for him. Their relationship, if that's what it was, was still new – it had barely even begun – and she didn't need him thinking that she was trying to push him in to doing and feeling things he wasn't yet ready for. She sat down and fiddled with her glass as she looked at him through hooded eyes.

"The last couple of days have been difficult," was all she said for a moment. "I have been so worried..."

She let the words hang in the air, hoping that she wouldn't have to explain why she had been so worried. Severus gently cupped her chin with his thumb and index finger.

"I am sorry to have caused you distress. I have always done what's been necessary without question, because I have never had to take anyone else into consideration when making choices in my life."

"Don't think that I hold it against you, Severus, you going after those Death Eaters!" Hermione hurriedly explained, effectively interrupting his apology. "I understand completely! But that doesn't mean that I enjoyed it. You must know that I care for you, Severus, and no matter if I understand why you had to go, I cannot deny that I worried about you... Constantly."

Severus' gaze softened and he let go of her chin, his eyes coming to rest on her mouth. Hermione's breath hitched when she noticed; kisses between them were so rare that she longed for each one as much as the students longed for summer vacation. She leaned forward slightly, silently inviting him to claim her lips. However, Severus stiffened instead and pushed her away from him.

"Guests!" was all he had enough time to say before his fireplace flared green.

Hermione straightened out her back and shifted away from Severus just as Minerva stepped through the fireplace; she had frantic look about her, but when she saw them sitting on the couch doing nothing in particular, she immediately relaxed. The next moment Harry stepped through, closely followed by Kingsley Shacklebolt.

"Minister, what an unexpected surprise," Severus drawled, inclining his head in greeting before turning to glare at Minerva. "Headmistress, is it customary to simply floo into a teacher's quarters without warning?"

"I do apologize, Severus, but the Minister was quite insistent."

"It is true, it's my fault alone to be bothering you so soon after you were so gravely injured," Kingsley said, "but I must admit that it's nice to see you sitting up and looking so well, Severus."

While he spoke, Harry made a beeline to Hermione and flopped down on the floor by her feet. Hermione smiled gently at him. In many ways her best friend had become a man, but in other ways he had become comfortable enough in himself to act as the carefree young adult he now was; sometimes even bordering on childlike behavior, but Harry obviously didn't care. And if he was happy, then she was happy.

Minerva made her way over to Severus' decanter of Firewhiskey; she caught his eye and he inclined his head in the affirmative. She poured three glasses and then handed one each to Severus and Kingsley.

"Only three, Minerva? My my, you must not think much of your previous students if you do not consider them adults," Severus scolded and tutted gently, as he handed his glass to Hermione.

She accepted the drink, knowing that he couldn't indulge in alcohol while he was recuperating, and hid her smirk behind the glass; the look on Minerva's face was priceless.

"Oh, I'm sorry! It's difficult sometimes to change old habits; Hermione, I see Severus gave you his. Mr Potter, can I get you some Firewhiskey?"

"No, thank you, Professor. However, I would prefer if you'd just call me Harry."

"I would be delighted to, Harry, if you would call me Minerva in return."

They shared a smile and then Kingsley cleared his throat.

"I don't want to bother you longer than necessary, Severus; I know you're still on the mend. I just need to know what happened on your... mission, for lack of a better word. We have three dangerous Death Eaters on the lose, and we need to apprehend them."

"Then why did you send him out on his own?" Hermione demanded before Severus got a chance to say anything, the irritated edge in her voice unmistakable.

Harry started at his best friend's sudden outburst; it wasn't like her to speak out of turn to an authority figure. Severus managed to keep his face straight, but he felt his heart warm. Kingsley seemed unfazed by the interruption, while Minerva hid a smirk behind her hand.

"Before he left, I made it very clear that this was only a recon mission to simply find them; only he would have been able to gain access to their way of thinking," Kingsley explained as he sat down on a chair opposite Hermione. "Death Eaters have also been known to cast wards that only allows fellow Death Eaters to enter, meaning only someone with a Dark Mark could get through them."

He paused as he gave Severus a reproaching look.

"However, his mission was to find them. Once he located them, he was supposed to report back immediately. Somehow, I suspect he didn't quite do as he was told."

Severus grimaced and pointedly avoided looking at Hermione; he did not need to see the look on her face at the moment.

"You are correct, Minister. Things did not go as planned. I located them on the second day; it was easy, finding them. At least from afar. However, a camp fire a few miles away from the Avery mansion was not hard evidence that it indeed was them. I needed confirmation; we also had to know if they had made contact with any of their old allies – I had to know what we would be up against."

At this point, he had to catch his breath. He truly hated the raspy edge of his voice; it made his injuries and weakness obvious to all. When he started speaking again, he almost had to whisper.

"I underestimated them; I will freely admit that I was stupid, running in without thinking as if I was Mr Golden Boy Harry Potter."

"Hey, I'm sitting right here!" Harry scoffed, sitting up a little straighter as he glared at Severus.

He wasn't really offended though. Severus' words had been said without scorn; Minerva and Kingsley looked astonished as they realized, however unthinkable it was, that the surly Potions Master had just attempted to make a joke. Hermione simply beamed at him, and she saw the corners of his mouth lift just a little.

"Apologies, Mr Potter."

Kingsley almost choked on the sip of Firewhiskey he had just taken; he coughed violently for a few seconds. Not only had Severus Snape just made a joke; he had also just apologized to Harry Potter, one of his least favorite people in the world. Had they not realized the extent of Severus' injuries? Had he hurt his head and gone insane?

Harry's mouth had dropped open in surprise, but quickly found himself. He was adamant about not making a big deal about this.

"Oh, don't worry about it," he said and waved his hand. "Please continue, sir."

Severus inclined his head, pleased at the level of maturity the once rash boy was exhibiting.

"I expected their minds to be muddled and their bodies weak, much like the state of Sirius Black when he escaped. I got too close; I triggered some kind of ward that made them aware of my presence, a feat I didn't think them capable of."

He made a short pause to catch his breath, then winced in pain. He had to wait a moment before he was able to continue.

"Death Eaters are vicious and cruel; protective wards and charms are usually deemed unnecessary by Death Eaters, save for the one that only allows bearers of the Dark Mark to enter. I felt the wards, but since I was in my Animagus form, I didn't immediately flee. Instead, I..."

"I'm sorry," Kingsley swiftly interrupted, "did you say 'your Animagus form', Severus?"

Severus shut his mouth immediately, realization of what he had just said dawning on him. What in Merlin's name was wrong with him? He had never told anyone but Hermione that he was an Animagus, and now he had suddenly announced it to the Minister of Magic of all people. He must have suffered brain damage; normally he would never, ever have just blurted out such important information like that. Cursing under his breath, he lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut, willing the problem to just disappear.

He had no such luck.

"You're an Animagus, sir?" came Harry's voice, the title for once coming without problem.

Severus couldn't help shifting his gaze to the boy; the tone of wonder was not lost on him. He wondered briefly how to proceed without getting in to too much trouble with the Ministry.

"Cool! What animal are you? Please don't say a snake or bat, that would be way too... hilarious. A little cliche perhaps, but hilarious."

"Harry, sch!" Hermione snapped as she bobbed her head towards Kingsley. "I know you're sometimes oblivious to what's going around you, but please refrain from speaking until we know if Professor Snape is in trouble or not."

Harry's eyes bulged; this clearly hadn't even occurred to him as a stray thought. Severus' eyes narrowed ever so slightly at Hermione's formal use of his title and name. He guessed that she was using it as a shield, not wanting to out their friendship and relationship in front of the Minister; maybe even Harry. It annoyed him for some reason, that she was trying to hide how close they were becoming.

"Thank you, Miss Granger, for pointing that out," he drawled, purposely enunciating her name, and he took notice of the flash of surprise and hurt in her eyes at the use of her surname.

There, see how much you like it, came a snide voice inside his head, the snarky side of him roaring in triumph at her hurt. Another part of him wasn't quite as thrilled, but he quenched the feeling of remorse for now. Finally, he turned to Kingsley with a sigh.

"Very well, Minister, I suppose there is no point in me trying to deny it. Yes, I am an Animagus. And yes, obviously I am an unregistered Animagus since everyone would know if Severus Snape possessed the ability to turn into an animal."

He felt slightly relieved when he saw that Kingsley didn't look upset; he mainly looked amused.

"And how long have you been an unregistered Animagus, Severus?" the Minister asked as he folded his arms over his chest.

Severus hesitated; for a second he considered lying. The longer he had kept it a secret, wouldn't that mean more problems? But then again, what good would lying do him now?

"Since my sixth year at Hogwarts," he answered dutifully. "No one knew; not Dumbledore nor the Dark Lord. It's been my most guarded secret for as long as I can remember."

"Then what on earth possessed you to reveal it know?" Kingsley demanded, his eyebrows almost reaching his hairline in surprise.

Severus almost shrugged his shoulders, but he caught himself in time. He was a man of words, not gestures; if he for some reason couldn't find the words, he would not start using body language just because. He glanced at Hermione for a fraction of a second, instinct telling him that she somehow was the culprit for his weakened psyche; or if nothing else, at least partly. He would think about that in greater detail later.

"I have no answer to that, Minister," he answered, then swiftly went back to his story. "As I was saying, I didn't flee right away, because I was in my Animagus form; I thought I could outsmart them."

He was unable to leave the bitterness out of his tone, which even Harry could pick up on.

"I loathe to admit that I cannot fathom what went wrong. I don't think they know it was actually me, but they knew I wasn't a real f... animal."

Blast, he had already told them he could turn into an animal at will – until he was coerced to reveal his inner animal, he would not do it voluntarily!

"They tortured me and finally used a spell I've never heard of to trap me in my Animagus form. Words cannot describe how much I feel this failure, Minister."

Hermione wanted to reach out to him the moment she picked up on his self loathing, but reminded herself of what a private man he was. There is a time and a place, she told herself, and this was certainly not the right time to comfort him.

"Will they have moved on, Severus?" Minerva briskly asked, not allowing anyone to dwell deeper into his melancholy – she would have words with him later, and she guessed Hermione would too.

Severus looked troubled; Hermione was astounded, but she didn't even twitch; she had never seen Severus Snape doubt himself before, and it was not something she wanted to get used to.

"I honestly cannot tell you; they may be Death Eaters, but they are proving to think and act quite out of character. The use of protective wards, not forcing me to reveal my human form, not killing me outright... However much I try, I cannot decipher their motive. What are they after?"

They discussed the matter for a moment or two, but it was pointless. They needed to bring more people in. Kingsley thought they should start by calling in the Order of the Phoenix; in order to keep the public from panicking, it would be best to keep this business out of the Ministry for as long as possible. The more people who were involved, the bigger the chances of this becoming general knowledge.

"Minerva, might we have the meeting here, away from prying eyes?" Kingsley asked he got to his feet, readying himself to go back to the Ministry.

"Of course, Minister. Best not to delay, we should hold the meeting tomorrow or the day after, the sooner we can coordinate, the sooner these Death Eaters will back in Azkaban."

"Hermione? What's wrong?"

Harry's concerned voice made the others pause; Severus turned his attention to the witch in question and noticed that she had gone rigid in her seat. He went over the last minute in his head as he tried to decipher the abrupt change in her mood and realized what was wrong half a second before she uttered it out loud. The Order was meeting at Hogwarts. That meant...

"The Weasley's are coming to Hogwarts," she offered in explanation, her voice so small that they all had to strain to hear her.

Harry's eyes widened and he was at her side in an instant. Minerva and Severus shared a concerned look while the Minister looked on in confusion. Severus whole being was screaming at him to comfort the witch, but he did nothing. Instead he kept watching her intently, wishing he could stroke the back of her hand the way Harry was doing.

"Oh my," Minerva said softly, letting out a tired sigh as she sunk back down in her seat. "I suppose we could try to hold the meeting somewhere else..."

"No!"

Hermione's sudden outburst took them all by surprise. No one said anything; instead they waited patiently for Hermione to explain herself.

"This is more important than my problems," she said, her voice steely with resolve. "I'll manage. We will... we'll figure something out."

At this, she turned to Severus, her eyes imploring him to understand that this was important to her. For a moment he didn't say anything. Then he sighed, knowing there was one thing that needed to be done before the meeting.

"Then we must tell them," he said in a no-nonsense sort of way.

"And he can't come," Harry added, a scowl firmly in place over his features.

"Are you sure this is the best time? A rift between Order members now might put the whole operation in jeopardy," Minerva said, her eyebrows knitted in worry.

"WHAT IN MERLIN'S NAME ARE YOU ALL TALKING ABOUT?!"

Kingsley had apparently reached his breaking point. The others jumped at his outburst; no one seemed to want to answer him at first. Hermione knew it was her story to tell; taking a deep sigh, she contemplated how much she had to tell the Minster.

"Please, Kingsley, speak of this to no one," Hermione finally said.

The Minister gave a short nod and then Hermione told him a short version of her past couple of years with Ronald Weasley and what she really was doing at Hogwarts. Kingsley looked appalled while she spoke and was rendered speechless by the end of her tale.

"Why haven't you come forward with this?" was his first question after he found his voice again, the cold fury in his tone evident. "He should be put in Azkaban because of this."

Hermione turned to Severus, her eyes pleading with him to tell the Minister the rest; her body and mind was suddenly devoid of energy. Severus told Kingsley his reasoning about the Weasleys needing some kind of proof before they would believe Hermione's story, seeing as it would not paint a pretty picture of their son and brother. When Harry heard the weary in the Professor's voice, he didn't hesitate to take over; he mentioned that Veritaserum was prohibited in trials and memories could be tampered with.

"We were hoping that her magic would return before speaking to the Weasleys," Minerva added when Harry was finished. "But you're right, Severus," we must tell them. I'll figure out to make sure that Ronald cannot make the trip over here."

"And I will contact the rest of the Order," Kingsley said before he gave Hermione a gentle smile. "Worry not, Hermione. Your secret is safe with me."

Hermione returned his smile with a tired one of her own. Severus watched as she and Harry shared a few words before saying goodbye to each other with a long hug.

"I'll come by tomorrow before the Weasleys get here. I got your back, sis."

"Oh, Harry, I love you," Hermione laughed as she ruffled his hair. "See you tomorrow."

Shortly thereafter, Severus and Hermione were once again left alone. Neither one of them said anything for a moment.

"Miss Granger?" Hermione finally said, lifting her eyebrows in a challenging way.

"Professor Snape?" Severus countered as he folded his arms over his chest.

"I was being respectful in front of the Minister of Magic!" Hermione growled, her nostrils flaring. "You called me 'Miss Granger' out of spite!"

Severus winced ever so slightly, knowing there was truth in her words. For a brief moment he considered being a jerk and picking a fight with her, but he found that he didn't have the energy to do something so... pointless. It wasn't her fault that he was feeling insecure. And that was the true essence of the problem; his own insecurities. Why would someone so pure and goodhearted and beautiful be genuinely interested in someone like him?

"You're right," he said softly. "Forgive me."

Hermione's jaw dropped in shock; she hadn't expected to get a confession out of him, let alone an apology. Severus took advantaged of her speechless state and hurried to offer some kind of explanation.

"I didn't like it, hearing you call me Professor Snape; it somehow felt as though you were ashamed to admit our new state of closeness. Rationally, I know you were showing me respect; you know how private I am and had you called me Severus in front of Kingsley and Harry, that would have raised more questions that either of us had been prepared to answer."

Hermione slowly nodded in confirmation, but said nothing; knowing him, there would be more to say still.

"I am a petty and vindictive man, Hermione. As I have told you before, I am not a nice man. Had I only called you Miss Granger, you wouldn't be cross with me now, nor would you have thought it strange. But the tone used was, as you said, simply to spite and hurt you, so that I wouldn't be alone in my feelings. And for that, I am sorry, Hermione."

The witch in question watched him with a solemn expression for another few moments. Then she placed her hand on his cheek and stroke her thumb over the stubbled skin.

"Thank you for explaining, Severus," she said softly. "I don't ever want you to think I'm ashamed of you. When the time is right and when we know what we'll even say, we'll let people know. But for now, I'd rather just keep this between us."

Severus gave her the tiniest of smiles.

"I know. And I concur; until then, this will stay between us. But, I'd rather not treat you as if I despise you. May I call you Hermione in public?"

Hermione's heart swelled with happiness.

"Yes, you may," she answered, "but only if you allow me to call you Severus. We can always explain it with the apprenticeship, should we be asked questions."

"Very well," Severus agreed. "Now might we rest for a while? I am weary and would very much like to spend some time in my bed."

Not even fifteen minutes later were they both sleeping soundly, Hermione's head resting heavily on Severus's shoulder.