A/N I know, I know. Those of you following Purpose Part II know that I said this story was on hiatus, but what can I say? I got hit with some inspiration :p

I also have a pretty good idea about the upcoming chapters.

Uber thanks to the lovely felena1971 for the awesome beta-ing and encouragement!

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

Chapter 14: Another Step Forward

After two glasses of Firewhiskey, it was much easier to coax Granger into returning to Hogwarts. They'd sat quietly, in the armchairs before the dormant fireplace, sipping their drinks until the half-empty bottle was no more. The girl's head had lolled back against the headrest, her long neck stretching - a creamy temptation that Severus struggled to ignore - as her eyes closed against the world. He'd allowed her that, staring at her profile for an uncomfortably long time until it seemed she'd fallen asleep. A clearing of his throat proved otherwise and he was able to persuade her to leave the house.

And so she'd returned to the castle, where the staff pretended not to know of her absence; she sat quietly at the High Table during meals, took solitary walks about the grounds, and spent her evenings in his chambers.

Severus hadn't invited her back, to be sure. It was a painful sense of trepidation-slash-anticipation that gripped him when the knock had sounded at his door. It could only have been her; no one else disturbed him there. He'd waved the door open from his spot at the desk, saying nothing as she drifted into the room and took her seat on the sofa. He levitated some squares of paper over to her, preparing to abandon his intricate dragon to teach her how to fold a cat or perhaps a phoenix. But she ignored the papers, staring quietly into the crackling flames; and so he returned the favor, ignoring her as he resumed his folding and pinching.

Eventually the girl left as silently as she'd come, giving him no more than a nod as she left his chambers.

Severus did not sleep well that night.

Nevertheless, she'd returned promptly the following evening; that time she'd accepted the paper, following along quietly as he walked her through a cat, then a fox, then an elephant. Her soft voice broke through once or twice, asking about this fold or that method; she rarely looked at him, but when she did, he would be assailed with an unnerving feeling of drowning in those massive eyes.

For the most part though, he left her alone, going through his potions notes or flipping through a text while she practiced various shapes. At times he thought to speak to her, question her about what she'd done for him. But he could never find a way to broach the topic of the Shrieking Shack without bringing to the fore this grief of hers, or the events of the battle. The last thing Severus needed was for her to break down in his chambers.

Minerva continued to hold the girl firmly under her wing; Dumbledore was ensconced in his chambers and rarely seen. It seemed the old wizard had been reduced to nothing more than a symbolic figure at the school. Consequently, McGonagall held reign over the High Table, watching over her charges with the same strictness she'd always shown. But she managed to keep an eye on the girl, sending glances her way when the Gryffindor merely picked at her meals rather than eating them. A happier, more confident, energy rolled off the old witch when, later in the week, the girl began to do more than pick.

Of course, it wasn't of Granger's own volition. Oh, no, she seemed wholly unconcerned with her health. And so Severus had concocted a potion to stimulate her appetite; it was a strengthened version of the brews mothers typically used on their children to fortify them. He'd supplemented it with vitamins and restoratives, and was covertly slipping them to the house-elves with instructions to add the potions to the girl's drinks. Tasteless and odorless, Granger was unaware of the subterfuge, and after taking them at every meal for three days, her appetite began to noticeably improve.

Hermione was feeling better.

And she was trying very hard not to feel guilty about it.

She went through the motions her first few days back at the castle, moving like a ghost through the halls and corridors, enduring the meals in the Great Hall with the cacophonous children, and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible when she invaded Professor Snape's quarters in the evening. She wanted to speak to him; she didn't even know what topic to broach, but she ached to hear his voice. It rooted her to reality in a way nothing at Hogwarts seemed to; the silken drawl would wash over her, filling her with warmth and comfort, even though all he did was explain a fold or crease. It didn't matter; the wizard could read off a Muggle phone book and she would covet it just as intensely.

Her attraction to him was growing stronger each day; he had a quiet strength, a solemn presence that calmed her. She would sit before the fire, practicing her origami, casting sidelong glances at him as he read a book or wrote in one of the myriad journals that littered his desk. She longed to crack them open, take in that scent of parchment and ink, absorb his brilliant words; for how could they be anything but brilliant?

Sometimes she wished he would talk to her instead of at her, wished he would instigate some conversation that didn't start with 'The first fold goes diagonally.' But she was nevertheless grateful for the space he gave her, the quiet solace she was allowed to have in this dimly-lit chamber, awash in his soothing presence.

She had woefully little knowledge of the world outside Hogwarts... Truth be told, she had little knowledge of what went on in Hogwarts. She did not seek out the paper nor did she pay any mind to the chatter of the staff or the snippets of conversation she gleaned from students passing in the hall. She listened to none of it and was blissfully unaware of any developments in Wizarding London.

But her curiosity remained on a certain issue; and one evening, as Professor McGonagall sipped tea in Hermione's room, she mustered the courage to ask the headmistress about the Weasleys.

"Oh, they are in a dreadful mourning," McGonagall replied, leaning back in her seat with a shake of her head.

"Are they still at the Burrow?"

The old witch gave her a kind look and nodded. "They are; they never leave as I heard it. Arthur has returned to work, of course; but Percival and Ginerva remain with their mother."

"And how is Mrs. Weasley?" she asked, eyes locked on the high window of her room.

There was a long pause, but Hermione did not turn to the headmistress. Finally, she said, "She is not coping well, but that is to be expected, of course."

Hermione looked to her lap, tears springing behind her lids. "I wish they knew how sorry I am," she whispered.

"Oh, my dear," McGonagall said. "My dear, sweet girl, of course they know how sorry you are for their loss. Their loss is yours as well after all." The witch shifted to the edge of Hermione's bed, wrapping a comforting arm around her shoulders.

"So many children," she said, shaking her head and burying her face in her palms. "How could so many of their children be taken? Just like that, in one night? It isn't fair," she whimpered petulantly, rocking herself again as a few tears slipped through.

"I know, I know." The headmistress rocked with her, making soft, soothing sounds. "None of this is fair. But it is the reality, and we must soldier on."

"Soldier on?" she said with a snort.

"Yes," McGonagall replied firmly. "We must soldier on with our lives. We owe our friends that much, at the very least."

Hermione was quiet for a long time, simply rocking against her former Head of House, taking some small measure of comfort from the witch's words. She knew she was right; Harry and Ron, Remus and Tonks, Fred and George, Neville and Luna, none of them would want her to wallow in this half-existence forever. She would, she should, honor them and their sacrifice by moving forward, by trying to forge out some small life for herself amid this ruin. Perhaps if she were able to, then Ginny might follow; and if her daughter was able to find happiness again, then perhaps Mrs. Weasley would find the strength to share it.

She rocked, tears slipping quietly down her face as McGonagall kept up a string of comforting words.

"I don't want them to hate me," she admitted after a long silence, burying her face in her palms again.

The headmistress placed a small kiss to her forehead. "They never could, my dear. They never could."