EWE, AU in that Snape lives, etc., etc.

The Case of the Impatient Patient

OR, The Case of the Irremovable Mark, Part 3

Prompt: patience

The same pattern continued for several more weeks: Severus would arrive at Hermione's office, complain about something or other, and then pretend not to study her as she worked on his arm. To his surprise, he found these visits growing ever more companionable; perhaps to his greater surprise, Hermione seemed to as well. Once he was seated and her wand was placed on his mark, she'd begin to regale him with her plans for the treatment of his neck, or the latest medical research she'd read, or—on the best visits—they'd argue about a contentious subject like politics or the debatable thirteenth use of dragon blood.

He'd known she was intelligent, certainly; what he hadn't known while she was in school was the way her face would light up when she was talking about something that interested her or the way she would listen, actually listen, when he gave his opinion. She never seemed to judge him and that alone seemed enough to endear her to him, a state that left him both bewildered and terrified.

Six weeks in, however, Severus began to grow irritated with what he perceived as a distinct lack of progress.

"I told you it might take several sessions—"

"And enjoyable as it may seem to be trapped in your company for an hour each week, I assure you that I have other endeavors which would be a more valuable use of my time—"

"Oh, you have endeavors, well then, please—why don't you go take care of those and I'll just leave your Dark Mark partially visible, shall I?" When Severus made no move to stand, a smug grin broke out on Hermione's face. It was a testament to how far he'd come in this strange relationship that he didn't hex it off her pretty features. He supposed it was also a testament to Hermione's own gentleness when she managed to remove all hints of conceit and smile softly at him. "We've come a long way, you know. It's more gray than black now and about thirty percent of it is gone completely."

Severus harrumphed. "I suppose you think you've won," he muttered, scowling at the far wall.

"Oh, I have," she chirped good-naturedly. He started and swiveled his gaze to hers. "You referred to spending time with me as 'enjoyable'," she pointed out.

He opened his mouth to refute her or explain that he'd been sarcastic, but bloody hell if she didn't have the right of it. Still annoyed that she held the upper hand, Severus clamped his jaw shut again and merely shrugged. Hermione's delighted laughter filled the room and made him want to smile as well, but he kept his reaction under control. It wouldn't do to have her thinking that there was anything more here than a friendly doctor-patient relationship—even if he was starting suspect that he wished there were.

"I know it's frustrating," she consoled him. "But just a little more patience, Severus, and then you'll be free of this horrid thing. Do you know—well, nevermind."

She busied herself with her notepad and Severus noted that she was assiduously avoiding his gaze. "You know you won't be able to keep it to yourself for long," was all he said.

"Oh—son of a bludger, you're right." She sighed and still would not meet his eyes. "There have been a few people—teenage wizards mostly—coming through here asking for Dark Mark tattoos since the end of the war. I refuse to do them, of course, but I feel certain there's a parlor out there somewhere that does. It's disgusting."

Severus felt himself withdraw into the remote space that he had tried not to occupy since realizing that he would heal and have his life ahead of him. The thought of someone purposefully putting that mark on their bodies—regardless of the reason—made him feel distinctly ill. Didn't those fools know what the mark represented? Didn't they care that people like Severus had fought long and hard to eradicate such vileness? Apparently not.

Hermione's gentle brush of his jaw snapped him out of his thoughts and he looked at her in surprise. She quickly removed her hand, but the flush on her cheeks told him she wasn't unaffected. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up."

"It's fine," he managed.

"No, not really," she returned, her usual cheerfulness returning. "If they had any idea what you'd been through, they wouldn't dare."

"And I suppose you are an expert on the subject?" he snapped before he could stop himself. To her credit, her only reaction was a slight widening of her eyes.

"Oh, no, not even close," she said. "But I am smart enough to recognize that I can't even begin to imagine what you've been through, and I would never presume to trivialize your sacrifice in such a way."

He was speechless. At long last, he thought he might have seen what exactly made Hermione Granger so adored by her friends and teachers. What made her her. And it was her unflinching devotion to the idea that every single person was worthy, in some way, of her regard. The sense that he could never look at her the same way again made him want to flee the room in terror...or pull her closer and never let her go.

Unfortunately her wand was still pressed to his arm and he felt a paralyzing sense of being able to do neither. So he did something he'd never done before: he grabbed her free hand with his own, brought it to his lips, and whispered, "Thank you," as he placed a kiss to her knuckles.

Hermione's face flushed a red that he'd only ever witnessed on a Weasley before. She opened and closed her mouth several times, then apparently gave up and just nodded at him. But she didn't withdraw her hand, and that alone spoke volumes to Severus.

After a few moments, she cleared her throat delicately and removed her wand. Severus released her other hand and she bustled over to make notes in his file, no doubt trying to regain her footing in this strange new place they found themselves.

"I think that should do it for today," she finally managed, and the slight hitch in her voice gave Severus a distinct feeling of satisfaction. "And perhaps next week we can begin on your neck. I believe I've managed to adjust the standard healing salve to suit our purposes, although of course I understand if you don't wish to give me free rein to apply an ointment that I concocted myself—"

Severus stood and strode over to stand directly behind her, brushing her hair out of the way and angling his head down to speak near her ear. "You are babbling," he said slowly, "but I trust you with my treatment nonetheless."

Hermione spun to face him, one hand pressed to her chest, and Severus allowed a small quirk of his lips. He placed one finger beneath her chin and gently pressed her jaw closed before turning and exiting the room with his usual purposeful step.

A/N: I really seem to struggle with writing actual one-shots, don't I? Oh well, more to come. Not JK Rowling.