Unnoticed just yet due to the commotion in the dungeon, Snape unbound Hermione's wrists and helped her to her feet. He held on to her hand for just a moment too long before releasing it. They were surrounded by Order members rounding up and disarming Death Eaters.
Hermione murmured to herself, "I've survived this day. I won't be a coward now." Snape's eyebrows went up in question, but before he could ask her to explain, she was in his arms, pressing her body close against his, resting her head in the curve of his neck. He went tense and rigid but for a moment, and then he relaxed, allowing the embrace, allowing her to cling to him. Holding her close and tight.
Just then Hermione heard two familiar voices shouting "Hermione! Hermione, are you all right?" She turned her head to see Ron and Harry running towards her.
"They made us wait outside to guard the wards," Ron said. Harry nodded, adding, "Until Dumbledore gave the signal. We would have been here sooner otherwise." He looked around the ruined dungeon for the first time, and his mouth dropped open.
"Hermione… what happened? And…" He stopped mid-sentence, having also now noticed that she was being held in her Potions professor's arms. If his eyebrows had shot any higher, they'd have left his forehead.
"I think we killed Voldemort, Harry," she said. "And Professor Snape saved my life." She let go of him at last, letting her hands trail across the fabric of his robes as she turned away.
Snape regarded the two boys with an evaluating gaze. "Voldemort isn't dead," he said at last. "You know he can't be killed as easily as that. But his body has been destroyed."
Ron had completely lost the power of speech, but Harry managed, "Like he was when I… when he…"
"Precisely, Mr. Potter."
Harry shook his head as though to clear something from his eyes. "I… I thought this was just about Malfoy."
"Malfoy," Hermione said with a start, remembering what had happened to him. "Is he all right?"
Neville came up just then, looking remarkably unruffled under the circumstances. "We just found him," he said. "Professor Dumbledore says that St. Mungo's has a team of healers on the way. But w-why…?" He frowned, not quite able to ask her the rest of the question. But Hermione knew what he intended.
"He might be a Death Eater, Neville, but I think he was made to do some pretty awful things. And he doesn't deserve to die in this dungeon."
Neville nodded, hesitated for a second, and then simply said, "I'm glad you're all right." Ron found his voice then and asked Hermione what had happened that morning, and Dumbledore and McGonagall were approaching, and everyone seemed to want to ask her things all at once. Hermione felt rather as though she were the main course in the lions' cage at the zoo.
Above the clamor, Snape's baritone rang out: "Miss Granger requires rest. I shall escort her back to Hogwarts at this time."
Ron and Harry both looked as though they wanted to protest, but Dumbledore, seeing Hermione's face, agreed. "I believe that is an excellent idea, if Miss Granger does not object."
Hermione, flooded with gratitude, managed a weak smile and said, "Miss Granger does not."
With a sweep of robes, Snape turned and led the way to the outer corridor. Hermione followed, leaving behind Voldemort's ruined throne room and the remains of his twisted, smoldering body, and her friends, still staring at her in wonderment.
The two made their way through the labyrinthine halls and staircases of Malfoy Manor until at last they emerged into the front courtyard. The late-afternoon sun was just taking on tinges of red and orange streaks as it began its descent into evening, and the breeze was scented with wildflowers. Hermione's breath caught in her throat, and she faltered. Snape stopped in concern. "Miss Granger?"
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the clean spring air. "I didn't think I'd see the sun again," she said, opening her eyes to look at him.
He inclined his head slightly and offered her his arm. "Nor I, Miss Granger."
She lifted her eyes to his, raised an eyebrow just a fraction of an inch. He understood at once, the faintest hint of a smile lifting the corner of his mouth.
"…Hermione," he said, and she returned his smile with her own, just as slight but unmistakable.
She curled her arm through his as they set off along a neatly-edged gravel path through the manicured grounds.
"We must walk some distance before we are clear of the anti-Apparition wards," he said to her. "Are you capable?"
She laughed a little and said, "What if I said I wasn't?"
"Then I would carry you," he said. He did not look at her.
"I can manage," she whispered. "For now."
"As you wish."
Hermione knew there was so much more to say to him, and so many questions to ask, but she was content to merely walk with him in silence, feeling the horror of the day slip away more with each step she took from Malfoy Manor.
Snape Apparated himself and Hermione to just outside the gates of Hogwarts. She let go of him after they arrived, and he didn't like admitting to himself how much he'd enjoyed the feel of her body pressed against him as they walked.
"Dumbledore and the Order will likely want to talk to you later this evening," he said into the quiet. Her face twitched; he'd clearly startled her out of some reverie.
"Tonight?" she said, and bit her lip. "I was hoping to wait until tomorrow."
Snape half-shrugged. "I do not know," he said, "but I suspect they will not want to wait."
"Will you be there?" she asked, looking directly into his eyes.
He had the urge to ask her whether she wanted him to be there but dismissed the impulse as foolish and sophomoric. "Yes," he said instead, "I will."
They had reached the great doors of Hogwarts. Inside, she would go up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower, and he would descend into the dungeons, and they would not see each other again alone until… he was not sure when. He found himself reluctant to leave her, reluctant to let her go.
Hermione glanced at the doors and then turned back to Snape with a faint hint of color in her cheeks. He lifted an eyebrow; after today, what could possibly make this girl feel embarrassed or self-conscious?
"I'm sorry that you had to find out the way you did," she said. She met his eyes without faltering.
He didn't need to ask what she was talking about. He could still hear Voldemort's sibilant hiss in his mind.
Hermione waited. Waited for him to say something. To accept her apology, perhaps, or to tell her that her feelings were unrequited and inappropriate—that he was a Hogwarts instructor, after all, and she was a student for still another month. To tell her one of the dozens of reasons that this could never work.
The moments that define us.
"My answer was yes," he said, looking into her eyes and feeling as though he'd just plunged into dark, cold water.
She didn't need to ask him, either. He saw it in her face, saw it light like the sunrise. I've made her look that way, he thought. That's for me.
He could tell she was about to say something, but before she could, he kissed her—just for a moment—hard on the lips, knowing this time that it was a pleasure he would have the chance to savor again. And then he released her and said, "Go. Eat. Get rest. There is a long night ahead."
A secretive smile touched the corner of her lips. "I'll see you tonight then, Severus," she said.
He watched her enter the doors of Hogwarts in her torn and blood-stained robes, her hair wild and marked with acid burns, and he thought, she is lovely.
And then, she is mine.
Author's Note: This work was begun in October 2010, at the same coffeeshop and in fact at the very same table at which it was finished in November 2011. It began as a very simple idea for a short story, which I thought I'd quickly write up and share with the fanfiction community. It obviously turned into something much larger. This is the longest work of fiction I have ever completed, and it is the one I am most proud of. The reviews and positive feedback as I have published it have been more gratifying to me than most of you probably realize.
Alas, I have no plans to write more fanfiction at this time; I have original works waiting in the wings and would like to see if I can get them published someday. I cannot thank you all enough for reading and responding to my "little story."