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Viktor

How are you? I'm well. I've been awarded that grant money I told you I was applying for a few months back. It will enable me to further my research into the theoretical necessity of Dark magic in spell creation.

I see your team has made the semi-finals. Congratulations.

Apologies, I know it's been a bit since my last letter. I was wondering, do you plan on being in the isles at any time in the near future? I'd like to introduce you to a friend. You might remember him: Ron Weasley?

Hope to hear from you soon.

Hermione


The letter's handwriting, which was usually strong, bold and heavily interlocking, was all of those things, but with a slight shakiness to it. She noticed, but didn't feel like working out the spell to clean up the ink without erasing any of it. She soothed her fingers over the feathers of one of Epistula's wings. "Up for a journey, girl?"

Epistula was. Or, if she wasn't, she didn't make any indication otherwise. Then again, Epistula was an amazingly complacent owl. She took off, and within a few minutes, Hermione missed her.

She came back within a week. She was also a brilliantly efficient owl. By far the best gift Tonks had ever given Hermione. Tonks was a fantastic friend, but hit and miss as a gift-giver. Aurors, though, had access to the best and brightest owls. Hermione really, really hoped Tonks hadn't stolen Epistula. She wouldn't put it past her.

Viktor's handwriting was as it always was, scrawled but legible, large but not horribly unruly.

Hermione-

It was good to hear from you. Congratulations on the grant. I have no doubt the information you discover will benefit everyone.

I do remember your Ron. I had believed that the two of you were more than simple friends. Or is that why you wish me to meet him? I will be playing in Scotland in a month. I would love to see you.

Viktor


Hermione smiled at Viktor's tacitly voiced concerns. His English had improved so much since they first began writing that summer after the tournament. Then he would have just come out and asked if everything was all right. A few months ago, it wouldn't have been. Then again, a few months ago Hermione wouldn't have been writing this series of letters.

Viktor-

Lovely. I'll take you to dinner. It's been far too long.

Ron and I were dating, but we have since separated. I suggested that a meeting with you might be beneficial on both your and his end. Unless you have objections?

I could take you to Hogsmeade, for old time's sake.

Hermione


She hoped he would pick up on the implications. He was sometimes good at that, oftentimes awful.

Hermione-

Hogsmeade would be perfect. It has been far too long since I visited.

I am sorry to hear about you and Ron. I would be pleased to renew my acquaintance with him, so long as it does not affect our friendship. That I could not countenance.

Either way, I look forward to seeing you.

Viktor


Hermione sent Epistula off one last time after feeding her more than a few extra scraps.

Ron-

Want to go to a Quidditch game?


*


Severus had stopped counting the things he'd had to do in his life that had been less than pleasant or completely of his choosing when he'd been nine. It had been pointless to keep going. At nearly forty, he found himself tempted to start up again.

It had taken a little over two years for the courts to decide anything in the Malfoy inheritance case--inheritance being the least of anybody's worries in the direct aftermath of Harry Potter's triumphal slaying of Voldemort and a whole handful of Death Eaters on the side. Granted, as far as Severus could make out, the handful had been an unexpected side effect of Potter and his cronies breaking the final horcrux. Severus hadn't really heard anyone complaining.

Draco Malfoy--one of the only two Death Eaters redeemed in the eyes of the Wizengamot--had no heirs and no will, so his estate, and all that he had inherited in turn from his unredeemed father, went to the only person who was alive and semi-related to either the Black or Malfoy line.

Harry Potter. Of course.

Severus hadn't even tried fighting that decision legally. For one thing, he could see where it was actually rather legally sound, if one didn't know any of the characters involved. For another thing, Redeemed Death Eater didn't have quite the same ring as Hero of the Wizarding World and Severus was not a naïve man.

As such, he took the only means available to him of getting what he wanted. He quashed down all lingering pride, refused to think about anything but Draco, and wrote Potter a letter.

Mr. Potter-

I hope this letter finds you well.

I am writing in regard to Draco Malfoy's estate. There are a few items in said inheritance that I should like to acquire. I am willing, of course, to settle upon a fee for the items in question.

Please contact me at your earliest convenience should you be amenable to the proposed business.

Severus Snape


Severus accidentally broke his quill on the first line, and had to begin again, spelling ink away from the parchment's surface.

He had no hope of Potter actually replying, and so was somewhat unsure of what to do when the message that returned almost immediately said,

I don't want his stuff, Snape. For all I care, we could agree upon a price for the whole bloody estate. What are estates going for these days?

If it had been three years previous, and Potter hadn't yet left Hogwarts, Severus would have believed the casual question to be idiocy. But Severus had seen spells fly out of Potter's hands with the barest flick of a finger. He had seen death pour off of the boy. He had seen Potter approach the witness box, and explain how Draco had put his body in between Severus and six Death Eaters so as to allow Severus to lead Potter to Voldemort. Severus had thought he would be screaming that to anyone who would listen. He had thought he would be screaming it unto deaf ears.

Five minutes of quiet testimony, and Draco had his honor back. It didn't do him any good, it didn't even do Severus much good. He still had to live with the image of Draco being hit by four curses at once, even as he managed to ward off two. He still had to live with the knowledge that Draco--who had never much found it in himself to care about politics, just about people--had done that for him, for Severus, not for any grand cause. Still, it was something. And for that, as much as any other deed, Potter deserved some consideration, no matter how much it rankled.

So if Potter was being flippant, he most likely was trying to make a point.

Severus responded,

Mr. Potter-

Estates are well outside my means at the current time. However, I believe we can come to an agreeable amount for the items I spoke of in my earlier letter. A meeting, perhaps, would be appropriate?

I believe you are consulting on Defense education at Durmstrang at the moment? Would you take it amiss were I to stop by for an appointment next Wednesday at three o'clock?

Severus Snape


Potter's owl, magnificent even in her increasing age, looked worn when she delivered his note.

I've the office nearest to the belltower. Can't miss it.

*


"Hermione," Tonks said, calm and relatively toneless, "I am going to have to follow up on my threat to enroll you in classes on how to be mean. Or buy you a book."

Kingsley, with no effort to hide his amusement, snorted into his ale. Hermione shrugged. "They seemed to hit it off well. He gave Ron complimentary tickets to his next match."

Tonks stood by her convictions. "You are not supposed to help men who left you due to their own indeterminate sexual orientation at the time of beginning to date you which they then determined on your time and under your care. You're supposed to throw them to the wolves."

Hermione made a face at Tonks and asked her with an unsuspecting air, "Or the dragons?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Next to her, Kingsley rolled his eyes. Hermione said, "Thank you," and, "How are Remus and Charlie these days?"

"With any luck they've been eaten," Tonks grumbled. It only took a few seconds of waiting for her to say, "Last letter was all about the new hatchlings. You would think those things were their children."

"That's nice," Hermione said. For all her complaining, Tonks had long since gotten past the bright burn left when Remus' had decided once and for all that Sirius hadn't been some fluke: he really was gay. If she hadn't, Kingsley wouldn't have been sitting by her side. He was not the kind to put up with being a rebound.

Tonks shook her head sadly but left off the topic. "How's Harry doing?"

"Still butting heads with the new headmistress. She wants to take Dark Arts completely out of the curriculum, defensive or otherwise."

"Ugh," Kinsley said.

"Indeed," Tonks agreed.

Hermione nodded. "Pretty much Harry's feelings on the issue. But he figures she had to have hired him for a reason, and it's just a matter of time and possibly decibel level, if the last floo I received was any indication."

Tonks reached out to pat Hermione's hand. "No sense of strategy, that one."

"Makes you realize just how lucky we all are, doesn't it?" Hermione quipped.

"He did have you on his side," Kingsley said, not a glimpse of smarminess anywhere on his person. Kingsley could get away with saying things like that.

Hermione smiled at him. He smiled back.

Tonks said, "Don't suppose old Viktor gave you tickets to the next match?"

Hermione drew two of the requested item out of her coat pocket. "Thought you might ask."

Tonks blinked. "You're sure you don't want them?"

"I'm supposed to be in Berlin, working out of their archives that week. It's taken me nearly a year to even get in the door and if anything was going to keep me from going, believe you me, it wouldn't be Quidditch tickets."

"You're too good to me."

"Mm," Hermione said, noncommittally.

*


Potter's office had a bookcase in it, with actual books lining the shelves. It also had Quidditch figurines, the sort that Draco had begged his parents for year after year from the time he was eight to the time he was thirteen. He gave up then, aware that his mother's opinion that such things were tasteless would never change.

They were tasteless. Severus wished he'd smuggled Draco a few. Draco hadn't had the time to grow into understanding taste in his own right. Maybe he never would have. Severus would have continued to take him as he was.

Potter said, "Come in, Professor, take a seat."

Severus was neither Potter's nor anyone's professor anymore, but he took the courtesy as it was intended. He liked to have his fun with Potter as much--or more--as the next person, but in this instance he needed Potter's help, and antagonizing the boy was unlikely to get him anywhere. The seats in Potter's office were cushy and supportive. Thankfully, Potter did not offer him any sweets.

He did say, "Would you mind if we have tea? I'm running a bit late."

It was nearly six, so Potter was running more than a bit late. "Won't that ruin your supper?" Severus asked dryly.

Potter looked like he might spit something back for a moment. Then he smiled. "Probably."

"I like mine well-steeped."

"All right." Potter waved a hand absent-mindedly at the floo and it took Severus a moment to understand.

"I had not heard of your everyday abilities with wandless magic."

"Perhaps because I only do it in front of those unlikely to tell tales," Potter said, looking at Severus with intent.

"I'm not your friend, Potter."

"No, but you did what you had to do to insure that I won a war, so I'm forced to think of you as something less than an enemy. Do you want the estate?"

It was only years of practice, and experience with Voldemort's own brand of madness that kept Severus from blinking at the quicksilver topic change. "No."

"No charge. Money, I have."

"Trade, then?"

"Of a sort. I'm trying to build a reputation in Defense consultation. You are far more knowledgeable in the field, and, what's more, I can't possibly attend all the conferences, read all the journals, do everything I would need to do to keep up constantly on new advances in the field."

"Slave labor for the Malfoy estate? Fitting, I will give you that."

"Hardly. I want you to agree to a partnership."

"And here everyone thought you made it out relatively mentally unscathed."

"You really should quit gathering your news from Witch Weekly."

Severus did blink at that. Potter's responding smile was sharp. "It's a request, really, Professor. If you say no--" Potter took a breath. "I saw what he, that is, I saw what Malfoy did. It wasn't for me. I wouldn't keep you from his inheritance. I simply thought asking couldn't hurt. Also, you seem unlikely to accept anything from me without a price."

"I have a job," Severus said.

"I know, but doesn't this one seem like more fun?" Potter asked, completely unfazed.

"Not everything is about fun."

"No, but I think we deserve some."

"Why?"

"Er," Potter faltered. "Because we won."

Severus imagined that for Potter, it would be that simple. "Some of us did."

Potter winced at that. "He wouldn't have wanted you miserable, not because of what he did."

"You did not know him, Mr. Potter."

"No," Potter said. "No, but I know what being in love feels like."

Severus kept his eyes on Potter. He remembered, vaguely, the way the youngest Weasley had protected him--all inner fire and outer hexes--from those who would use him, presume upon him, try to control him, in the days following Voldemort's fall. Finally, he said, "Tell me more about this partnership. Do not suppose that I will agree."

Potter said, "No, never that."

*


The first time Harry had Apparated himself into Hermione's apartment, past several hundred miles and a solid few layers of wards, it had startled her, and she'd reflexively hexed him. Harry hadn't been expecting that, and hadn't raised a shield or ducked in time, so once Hermione had calmed down, she'd had to reverse the effects. Luckily, Hermione never shot without knowing the way to undo her actions.

Since then, Harry had taken to warning her. A note in the hallway, a spell that made the wards whisper when he passed through them, something to let her know ahead of time that she'd have a visitor sitting on her couch. Possibly two, if Ginny was in town.

Ginny had come into Weasley Wizarding Wheezes with a strong hand and even stronger opinions of what was okay to sell to the general wizarding public. She was somewhat peeved by the twins's carelessness constantly landing either her or Harry, or both, in danger, and so had agreed to research and develop new products and markets for the company so long as she had final word on what actually reached shelves. All the R&D meant a lot of travel for Ginny, as she spent time in other countries figuring out what would sell and bringing back ideas to hybridize for British consumption.

Apparition came easily to Harry, even more easily than other things, and so he regularly just caught up to Ginny, surprising her wherever she was. It was rarer that Ginny was back in town and the two of them could spend an evening at Hermione's place. Harry tried to manage that whenever he could. Ron had been a regular staple at these evenings for quite a while until the break-up.

It had taken a year, but he and Hermione were regaining their status as easy friends. Hermione thought Viktor would help with that. She hoped. She missed having Ron as a lover, but she missed having Ron in her life far, far more.

Tonight it was just Harry, though, which was fine. Even with his Apparition and ward-breaking powers, she didn't get to see Harry nearly enough. School had spoiled her, school and the year of living inside each other's palms trying to find the horcruxes and then the return to school, when nobody but the three of them could understand what they had been through. There was nothing for Hermione to do then but sneak down to the private dormitory the two boys had been given--they weren't, after all, quite seventh years--and sleep curled up with Ron. Harry would eventually slip in when it became apparent he wasn't going to sleep any other way.

He looked up at her from the couch, gestured to the mug he was holding in his hands--the very largest one Hermione owned--and said, unnecessarily, "I made coffee."

"Planning on sleeping in the next week?"

"Don't be daft, the students arrive in three days."

"Then what brings you here?"

"Your level-headedness and general compassion."

Hermione dropped down onto the couch next to him. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Or at least. Well, not wrong, wrong."

"What's on your mind, then?"

"Severus Snape."

Hermione stood up and went to go pour herself some coffee. She could have managed with a bit of concentration and some magic to go along, but she needed the space and the time that physically attending to the task allowed her. When she came back in the room she asked, "What brings him to mind?"

"He owled me."

Hermione said, "Start from the beginning, Harry."

He did, explaining everything up through the meeting and what he'd offered and Snape's refusal to say yes or no. Hermione tapped gently at his forehead. "What's going on in here?"

"I. . .you know that I went in and talked to Professor Dumbledore's portrait before I testified?"

Hermione nodded. Harry had disappeared into the Headmaster's office for hours, and nobody had thought to say anything, not even the acting interval Headmaster who had been in charge while the board attempted to place someone permanent. With McGonagall and Dumbledore both dead, Snape on the stand, Flitwick retiring and Vector and Sinistra unwilling to take the job, the search had necessarily been widened to outside of Hogwarts. It had taken a while to find anyone both crazy and competent enough to take on the shell-shocked denizens of Britain's foremost wizarding school.

Harry shifted slightly, the way he did when he was sure he was about to say something stupid. Hermione appreciated that his trepidation never stopped him from saying these things to her, that he trusted her not to use them against him. He said, "There was one point where Dumbledore was pointing out the way both Snape and I had acted as surrogate sons, in a way, to him. That we were sort of, I don't know, brothers."

Hermione's breath caught. Damn Albus Dumbledore and his manipulation of Harry's need for family. She said, "Ron's your brother, Harry. Even a little bit legally, if you and Ginny ever decide to be traditional and get yourselves married."

"I know," Harry said, and for once, he sounded like he did. "It's just, well. It must have been very lonely to do what he did. I would have wanted--"

Hermione smiled softly, loving Harry and his unintentional compassion with every inch of her being. "A partner?"

"You don't think I'm stupid?"

"Not about this," she said. "I can name a few other things. . ."

Harry made a face at her.

*


The first night that actual ownership of the Malfoy estate transferred under his name, Severus curled up in Draco's bed--the one Draco hadn't slept in since winter holiday of his sixth year--and lay awake all night, trying to figure out what to do with the place. He'd wanted to sell Spinner's End and move on for quite some time, but in his imagination, the place he'd moved onto was always smaller than this monstrosity Draco had always called home.

The most logical thing to do, of course, would be to rearrange the place so that he could live out of Draco's wing and the area on the ground floor with the kitchens, then let the rest of the house to lodgers. It was hardly like he was unused to living in buildings that housed plenty of others. The extra money would make it possible for him to convert Lucius' Dark items storage rooms, all housed underground, into perfect potions laboratories. The rest of the Manor was rather fine how it was. Lucius' tastes may have been a bit on the overly decorous side, but Narcissa had always known how to balance him out. Draco's room was the room of a sixteen-year-old, but Severus was not changing that. Not for a long while, at least.

In the light of day, Severus poked along the wards. He kept the ones that he liked--the ones that seemed to like him--and redesigned ones that he felt could be problematic. He was fairly certain he had found them all. Lucius was a cautious man, but not an adventurous or tolerant one, which meant that no nontraditional or non-British magics would be represented. That made Severus' job regarding the initial reworking of the security much easier.

He went down to meet the house elves. He remembered their eerie silence from previous visits, but it was still somewhat disgusting, the unnatural terror filtered into their subservience. Severus surveyed each of them; there were thirteen in all. He laid thirteen cravats--all plucked in a moment of quiet irony from Lucius' closet--on the nearest countertop. He said, "If you choose to take one, head to Hogwarts. One of the Malfoys' previous elves resides there. You can decide whether to take payment or not. If you are still here on the morrow, I will assume you intend to stay with this household."

He left them to their decision.

Potter's owl flew in the parlor window at a little past the noon hour bearing all sorts of records, paperwork at which Potter had obviously never bothered to look. Severus sorted through Gringotts statements, land contracts and other official documents, trying to get a sense of just how much the estate covered. It was larger than Severus had known, but not any larger than he would have troubled himself to imagine. There was a fair amount of it that he could sell off without any qualms.

He spent the afternoon rearranging two of the rooms in Draco's wing. He made one into an office and library space, and quickly came up with a filing system for all of the recently delivered items. He also altered Draco's recreational area slightly to make for a better practice room. Magic came naturally to wizards, but it performed at its best when maintained daily. In Spinner's End it had been hard to do much without making the Ministry nervous and thereby making his life less pleasant. The Manor's wards and shields could be maintained without raising such a fuss and masked most of the magical activities within its walls.

After that he owled Potter with the simple question, What sort of research did you have in mind to begin with? by way of a thank you that there were no words to verbalize.

The elves had washed Draco's high-thread count cotton sheets far too many times for there to be even the remnant of his scent lingering. It wasn't as though the two of them had ever spent any time in the bed together, either.

It was something, though, being in the space Draco had so often been in. And something was a hell of a lot more than Severus had anymore, these days. He lay in the bed, not sleeping, waiting for Potter's answer, for something he could use to distract himself.

*


In Hermione's experience conferences were either informative, engaging and wonderful, or filled with people who thought a lot about themselves and not much about the field in which they were presenting. Granted, the one she was at couldn't possibly be that horrible by sheer virtue of the fact that it was being hosted in Hawa'ii. Hence, if things became unbearable, there were always ex-leprosy colonies to visit and dormant volcanoes to stand atop.

The conference was looking at integrating new wizarding "technologies"--alternatives to wands and the like--into magical performance. In the two years since her late graduation from Hogwarts, Hermione had been funding her own private research through grants with the hope of publishing. Her research required that she seek out new thought, which invariably presented itself at these conferences, when it chose to present itself at all. Hence, Hermione was stuck going to them at regular two to three month intervals. The topic for this one had great potential, but in Hermione's experience, that simply meant that there was more room for things to go grandly, horrifically wrong.

Despite all her unspoken trepidation, however, things began fairly well. She was becoming a known face in the community, and people whom she could consider acquaintances approached her, greeted her.

She went to the opening keynote, which was solid but otherwise unimpressive, attended the dinner panel and then played hooky for the last presentation of the evening. It was on advances in divination media technologies, and Hermione had better things to be doing with her time. She had come to accept that certain people were able to use divination in productive ways, but she was not one of them, nor did she particularly care to be.

The first full day went fairly well, all things considered. Hermione focused largely on the papers that dealt either with items that could focus and strengthen magical intent, or items that dampened that intent. A wizard out of Prague was doing some interesting work with water-magics and a witch from Canada gave a rather astounding--and controversial--presentation on the possibilities that arose from integration of magic and Muggle technologies.

Hermione networked a bit through the meals and disappeared off to the beach when she could to mull over her notes and be left alone to think.

The second day things went quickly and irrevocably to ruin when Hermione somehow found herself defending one Severus Snape. She hadn't, until that session, even noticed him as among the participants. And it wasn't like she could have simply misrecognized his name or overlooked his appearance. But the moment he spoke up to ask a question--a good one, one that Hermione would have liked to hear the answer to--in a session on seeing patterns in the arithmantical codings of music, she knew to whom she was listening without even needing to turn her head.

She turned it anyway. It was only polite to look in the direction of the speaker.

It was obvious from the very beginning that the presenter identified Snape no slower than Hermione had. His eyes became cold and he cut Snape off in the middle, with a snide, "Yes, thank you," and pointed to someone else's raised hand.

Hermione watched Snape's eyes narrow, but he stayed seated. She imagined he'd learned how to pick his fights. In spite of everything, she still hadn't. It was a fact of which she was occasionally proud. She stood, cutting off the witch who had gone on to ask her question as if nothing had happened. "Excuse me, I'm sorry. I didn't get to hear the end of that man's question, and I was rather intrigued by the principle behind it."

The presenter said calmly--chillingly, to Hermione's ears, "That man does not deserve my attention, let alone my respect or my consideration of his questions."

"Ah." Hermione nodded. "So you would prefer simply to wallow in ignorance of the possible complications in your research? I wish I had known that before, I would have chosen another session, one with someone a bit more dedicated to his work presenting."

And now the rage was upon the man, easily ten years Hermione's senior and sensing that he was being shown up. "That man is a Death Eater and a murderer, and whatever he could ask, it would only be to further his own malicious intentions."

"That man is Harry Potter's partner in trying to elevate the level of Defense curriculums throughout the continent and beyond. So unless you are trying to implicate something about the Savior of the Wizarding World, I suggest you reconsider your take on Severus Snape."

Hermione left then. She did not look back to see whether Snape had followed her example or not. She'd done enough rescuing for one day.

*


Severus made it a point to find Hermione Granger and explain to her, in no uncertain terms, "I am willing to accept Potter's help and perhaps even a type of courteous charity from him because I am indebted to him and must work out that debt as he sees fit. Unquestionably, as he is Potter, he has strange and entirely moronic ideas about how I am to repay him, but nonetheless, I acknowledge the necessity. If you think, however, that extends to overeager, overcurious little girls, then I assure you Miss Granger, you are entirely wrong. Neither my honor nor my intelligence needs defending from you and I will thank you to leave both in my hands. Or rather, I shan't thank you, as doing as one simply should deserves no undue appreciation."

Granger, to his disgust, looked rather bored by his well-planned and smoothly executed diatribe. "Is that all?"

"Why, have you done something else for which I should excoriate you?"

"Not off the top of my head but I'm sure if we put our heads together we could find something. I just think it should be made clear that my defense of you had very little to do with one Severus Snape and everything to do with my proven record for standing against gross stupidity, rudeness and, on two notable occasions, oppression. Additionally, you are partners with a man whom I consider to be no less than a brother, and your reputation is therefore tightly bound with his. In other words, sir? Get over yourself."

Severus, being a detail-oriented man, couldn't help himself. "Two notable occasions? Was there a second Dark Lord about whom you and all your friends forgot to inform the larger wizarding populace?"

"Naturally," Granger said. Though Severus would never, ever have admitted it, there was something graceful in the way she refused to give way to his mockery by not answering the unasked question embedded in it.

He made it more explicit, carefully twisting each word on his tongue, a process of spinning them from gold into bladed steel. "Or would you be speaking of your equally ill-advised and presumptuous campaign to end the unendurable sufferings of the house-elves?"

"You were paying attention." Her words were equally harmful to the touch. It occurred to him that at some point she had stopped being a precocious child. The thought was less than pleasant. "I'm nearly flattered."

"Make sure you do not take the last step on your journey there. Unless you enjoy disappointment, in which case. . ." Severus waved a hand in invitation.

She smiled, seeming genuinely amused and said, "As long as you are connected in any professional way with Harry, I shall not sit back and allow people to malign you. Either accept it, or begin cursing me when the moment takes you."

Telling her not to tempt him seemed clichéd, and not really worthy of the exchange. He needed something that would get underneath that skin of hers, make her cry as he had been able to so easily for so many years. "Or I could just curse random audience members until you learned your place. The new graduates trying to figure their course in life, perhaps?"

"Honestly." She rolled her eyes at him. "Enjoy the rest of the conference. It was lovely seeing you."

Severus watched her walk away. He ignored the strained feeling in his chest that was becoming so familiar, the one that rose up when particular memories of Draco were intent upon resting within him, playing themselves over and over again. Her casual demeanor, her easy saunter from him were grim, vivid reminders of Draco's unwillingness to pay his foul tempers a bit of heed. It was his fate to be surrounded by children who would not take him seriously.

Only, at the end, Draco had not been a child, neither in manner nor in his relation to Severus.

Hermione Granger wasn't acting like much of one any longer, either.

*


There was a note on the door of Hermione's kitchen when she arrived home. I couldn't remember what time you were returning on Sunday, but I thought if it was before six or so that you could join us for dinner. Hope to see you, KS.

It was nearly seven, but Hermione Apparated over. What were friends for if not to put up with other friends' tardiness? She called, "What's for dinner?"

Tonks called back, "You missed it."

By that time Hermione was almost to the kitchen, so she waited on her response, which was simply to pout. Kingsley asked dryly, "Who could resist a face like that?" He pointed to the oven. "Roast's still on warm. Serve yourself some and join us."

Hermione was still following these instructions when Tonks said, "So, as bad as the rest, or worse?"

"The former, I think. At the very least, I made a few contacts out of it. A new enemy, as well, but I'm fairly certain we weren't on speaking terms before the conference, so I'm hard pressed to worry myself."

"Oh?" Kingsley said. Hermione turned to see one of his eyebrows rise faintly.

"I had the temerity to defend the integrity and intelligence of one Severus Snape."

Tonks gasped loudly--too loudly for it to be real--and clapped a hand to her mouth. "How could you?"

Hermione sat down at the table. "He was rather put out by my interference."

"Severus can be a bit proud at times," Kingsley said lightly.

Hermione smirked at the understatement and took a bite of the roast. She turned to Tonks. "How are you always finding men who can and will cook for you?"

"I have the look of someone who would waste away otherwise. Also, my skills in the bedroom are thanks enough for any man."

"Well, almost," Hermione said.

Tonks laughed. "That's enough from you."

Kingsley asked, "What was he saying?"

It took Hermione a moment but she caught up to his thought process. "Snape? He was asking a defense theory question. Really, from anyone else I think it would have sparked some fairly useful conversation."

"So it was the frustrated academic in you defending him?" he asked.

"I think it was the frustrated Hufflepuff, if you want to know the truth."

Tonks looked bemused. "I thought the Hat wanted you in Ravenclaw."

"And I had enough ambition in certain ways to be in Slytherin. There is a little of each house in all of us, certainly you realize that. It's just a matter of which inclinations the Hat feels are most useful to each student. Also, a question of class chemistry. Harry thinks he wasn't placed in Slytherin because he asked the Hat not to put him there, but in truth I think it was simply because placing two personalities as reckless as Harry and Malfoy in one house would have ended in woe, misery, and thousand year old castles tumbling to the ground in ruin.

"The point being," Hermione said, remembering that there had been one, "he fought for us, he fought hard and dirty for us, and he sacrificed quite a bit for us and all of that deserves a bit of loyalty."

Kingsley tapped his fork gently against the edge of his plate. "I imagine that in his position, I'd find loyalty of any sort a hard thing to swallow."

Tonks nodded a little. Hermione, on the other hand, shook her head. "I--"

"Well, the two people who were most loyal to him in his life are now dead, either as a direct result of his actions, or in a move to protect him. I hardly think I would wish to build more relationships after that," Tonks said.

"He's only forty," Hermione said. "He'll have to let someone in again sooner or later."

"Maybe," Tonks said over Kingsley's, "I suppose."

Hermione acknowledged the sentiment with a twist of her lips.

*


When Severus owled Potter to inform of the small bits of useful information gleaned from his conference attendance and suggest five possible research areas leading to future journal articles which would in turn give their partnership more visibility, Potter responded with a simple, "I prefer the last two to the first three. Between those, it is your choice. Thank you for the update."

Which meant that Potter either had the sense not to bring up the conference's less savory events, or Granger had declined to tell him. Either way, to his disgust, Severus felt a sort of vague gratitude toward them for their discretion.

Severus picked the last research item on the list simply because it caught his eye before the one above it, and mentally began prioritizing what books he would need before he could even begin searching for the ones he did not know of off the top of his head. He wandered down to the kitchen while doing this. All of the cravats were waiting for him, still as neatly folded as they had been when he'd left. A flick of his wand had them Banished.

He had ordered the Malfoy owls not to bring any correspondence to him while at the conference, so there were quite a few answers to his advertisement for lodgers awaiting his perusal. Severus filtered through them and tossed aside the ones that came with mentions of family, certain familiars or careers that might be brought into the Manor in ways he wouldn't enjoy.

He penned a quick request to set up an interview with several of the suitable applicants, copied it for times, and gave each one to a different owl. Severus had rather missed having easy communication at his fingertips. Renting owls from the post office was always such a production, not to mention the fact that one was simply asking for things to go wrong. The Hogwarts owls might not have been personally owned, but they were bred to be the best.

The Malfoy owls were both bred to be the best and personal. A step up from the best, as always. Severus watched as one hopped impatiently upon the table waiting to receive a message. It took a moment for Severus to remember why this particular one looked familiar and then he found himself back in the summer before Draco had come to Hogwarts, when Lucius had finally given him a breeder owl. Breeding pure owl lines was a prestigious past-time for a young man of Draco's stature, and Lucius had wanted to begin him early. Thirteen or fourteen was a far more traditional age.

Draco, despite his youth, had successfully brought the eggs to term, losing only one in the period of learning to fly. The owl hopping about was the single member of the litter that Draco had kept, the rest being sold off or given as gifts, as was expected.

"Corra," Severus said.

Corra hooted, and gave him a doleful look. He'd already given out the letting notices, however, and he refused to communicate with Potter any more than was strictly necessary. There weren't any other letters waiting to be sent. "Next time," he promised.

She flew off in a huff. Draco had never been much good at waiting for things either.

Severus closed his eyes against the memory of Draco's insistent, rough, desperate whine--and it had been a whine, despite any protestations on Draco's part--"I've waited so long."

Waiting behind his eyelids was the memory of being unwilling to torment Draco even a second longer.

*


One of the first things Hermione, Ron and Harry had done in the aftermath of Voldemort's death was to assign themselves names that could be used in situations where they didn't want their celebrity status interfering with the everyday living of life. Hermione always, always used it on her applications to rent flats, although generally this was to keep people from inflating the quality--and the price--of prospective places anymore than they already would. She would have moved into Muggle living quarters, but the thought of having to constantly watch herself, constantly wonder if someone had seen in her windows was even worse than having to deal with the fallout of being celebrated as a hero.

In the case of her request for an interview regarding the letting of rooms in Malfoy Manor, she used it to deflect the current owner refusing her out of hand.

When she had first seen the advert in the Daily Prophet she hadn't given it a second thought, not until later that night when she was having to renew the charms to keep the doxy infestation in her flat at bay. That was when she tried to floo Harry, waited a few hours for her place to decide it actually wanted to connect to the floo network, and asked, "Did you go look at Malfoy Manor before you pawned it off?"

"I made a business trade for it," Harry said, primly.

"So, no?"

Harry hesitated. Hermione tried, "Yes?"

"I was curious."

"And?"

"It's surprisingly normal seeming. I mean, there are dungeons. Real ones, not like Snape's. But the rest of the place has gardens and sofas and the sorts of things most humans have in their house. The Malfoys must have consulted someone."

Hermione smiled. "How large is it?"

"Humongous. There were, er, four wings? Maybe five? Not to mention the actual core of the house with the dining room, that sort of thing."

"Snape is letting rooms."

"How much?"

"Doesn't say. I was thinking of inquiring after an interview."

"I can't say as I recommend living with Snape as a landlord, but on the other hand, anything's better than that dung heap you live in at the moment."

Hermione sighed. "My landlord is a lovely woman."

Harry nodded. They both knew that was why Hermione lived there. It had taken her a while to find someone who validly didn't want to use her residency as a way to attract other tenants. Harry had offered to let her cohabitate the house he'd bought near to the Burrow, but that felt wrong to Hermione on several levels. Also, Harry refused to charge her rent, and Hermione was quite insistent on a certain independence from others.

Having this knowledge, Hermione had sent off a request for an interview under her pseudonym, Melora Parks. She had also garnered recommendations from her current landlady--who seemed sad to see her go, but also silently sympathetic to her desire to do so--and a Muggle friend of the family, neither of whom Snape would know.

When she received a response granting her an interview, she thought, One step down. Three million more to go.

Unsurprisingly, Snape was less than thrilled to see her show up at the door. She had considered a glamour for this first meeting, but really, a small dose of dishonesty was enough and he was eventually going to figure it out anyway. Also, while her glamours were good, solid bits of magic, Snape's magical strength was an unknown quantity, and Hermione did not relish the thought of getting caught in a deception such as that.

Instead, when he snarled, "You are not Melora Parks," she said, "Not most of the time, no, I apologize for misleading you."

"I do not let my living space to liars, Miss Parks."

"Give me a few moments to see if I can change your mind," she said, striving for the utmost air of having no concern over this whatsoever.

"You cannot," he snapped.

"I'm beginning to think your insistence is a sign of fear on your part that I might be able to."

"You always were idiotic without a book to parrot."

"You must admit that you would never have allowed me an interview."

"Of course I wouldn't have, you imbecilic child."

"Then it was only strategic to mislead you slightly in the hopes of getting what I wanted, was it not?"

He opened his mouth, but was silent for a second, glaring at her. "Not very--"

"Gryffindor," she finished for him, tiredly. "I'm not always."

"Why would you even wish to live as my tenant? We do not get along."

"Did you plan on being social with your tenants?"

Snape looked at her. Slowly, he drew back from the door. "I believe you have an interview scheduled."

Hermione stepped inside.

*


Severus did not offer Granger tea. In fact, he did not even offer her a seat. She took one for herself. He said, "The Malfoy title does not offend your sensibilities?"

She said, "There are no longer any Malfoys here."

It would have been enough for Severus to throw her from the house, except that she said it without any triumph. She was looking at him, as though waiting for something. Severus had no intention of giving it to her, but granting her perception its due, he decided not to withdraw his offer of rental quite yet. "The rooms are not cheap, Miss Granger."

"I would doubt they were, as I imagine the facilities are quite nice. I do not make a fortune, but I keep myself well enough financially. Within the next year I should be publishing. The royalties from that will most likely allow you to raise rent and, with any luck, the work I've done will prove useful in the production and implementation of new defensive concepts, thereby increasing my capital worth to you as a tenant."

"You still think rather highly of yourself."

"I do not put forth concepts for publication unless I've proven to myself as well as I can that they are not only valid, and working, but useful. If that is what counts as hubris in your world, then I begin to see why we could never have had a fruitful mentor-mentee relationship."

Her blithe statement of this fact took Severus a bit aback. Certainly he had known that she cultivated that sort of out-of-the-classroom rapport with Minerva and Verity Vector but it had never occurred to him that she might have even thought of such a thing in his case. "Potions was never your greatest strength. I took only the best as my favored pupils."

"Well, the best and the most dysfunctional, although I suppose they were overachievers in underachievement. And it was hardly my weakest area, either."

"You had no natural feel for it."

"No, but I had excellent attention to detail, something overwhelmingly lacking in most of the others."

"Do you want me to let the rooms to you, or would you prefer to argue with me endlessly?"

"Both end with a certain amount of relief on my part, I don't suppose they can be non-mutually exclusive?"

She asked the question with her casual, customary cheek, but something that Severus knew he was not meant to see rose to the surface for just an instant; between the two parts of the sentence, in her pause, had been a small breath, tiny, nothing that someone who hadn't practiced Legilimency for over half his life would have caught. Severus caught it, and the exhaustion, the desire to stop--running, going, being--for just a moment. It was this that convinced Severus to give her a second chance. "Hardly. Which would you prefer?"

"The rooms, I think."

Even having known what she would choose, Severus had wondered if maybe she would change her mind at the last second, bicker with him and leave. He nodded. "Very well."

*


Snape gave her what could have only been Narcissa's wing. Hermione made it a priority to check up on the house elves first thing. Dobby had come from this house, after all, which suggested that the care of the elves might be substandard. Getting the elves to accept freedom and payment was a long way off, but at the very least, she could make sure that they were well-treated within their bondage. With Snape it was unclear whether he was the type to mistreat the elves. He certainly had his students, but students had a chance of fighting back. It was a small chance, but one all the same. She didn't think he was likely to abuse those with absolutely no ability for recourse, but it was worth checking out.

To her relief, the elves seemed perfectly content. She asked them nicely if they could comb through her wing and remove all of the previous owner's personal belongings for safe-keeping. Three scurried off to do just that, a fourth and a fifth bustled around, making her a tea service. She wasn't particularly hungry, but she had books to read and it would most likely take a while for them to entirely sweep the wing, so she took it into the parlor Snape had shown her. She checked to make sure he wasn't there--he had rented her the rooms, but she seriously doubted he would want to see her more than absolutely necessary--and settled in to read.

The chairs in the parlor were well-constructed, perfect for curling up in, and the large windows let light stream in from all directions. Hermione grinned to herself. It wouldn't take that long to unpack once the elves were done, and then she would be settled into fairly livable quarters for the first time since leaving Hogwarts. If she hadn't thought it would cause him to hex her, she would have sent Snape a thank you gift.

Then again, there had to be something he wanted. Hermione put the thought in the back of her mind for later.

*


Severus had thought about putting Granger in Lucius' wing, just for the prurient pleasure of watching her squirm a bit, but she had learned how to be surprisingly (annoyingly) placid in front of him. He had also considered putting her in one of the previously uninhabited wings, but for reasons that he wasn't interested in pursuing, the idea of Narcissa's quarters in the hands of strangers made him uncomfortable. He knew--with the same type of instinctual certainty that had lead him to revise and improve upon potions as a child--that Draco would never have agreed to having his mother's space taken over by some random witch or wizard.

Then again, Severus also knew Draco would likely have killed Granger rather than letting her have those rooms, but Draco had died young, before learning to compromise.

Severus ended up granting Lucius' quarters to a recently-divorced wizard slightly older than Severus with much, much better lineage. He felt it was a good choice both for the occupant and for whatever metaphorical ghosts might be lingering in the space. He didn't need to be losing tenants to Lucius' prejudices even from beyond the grave.

He had watched closely at first to see if his second tenant had a problem with Granger's bloodlines, but if he did either he was sufficiently cowed by her status as Potter's right-hand accomplice, or discreet enough to vent his disgust in unnoticeable ways. Severus wasn't entirely sure why it even mattered to him--Granger had proven herself competent to stand against bigotry throughout her school career. He had begun the project of trying to get Draco to see that the issue of family and inheritance wasn't so black and white as his lover would have had it be, however, and despite Draco's absence, he had since been unable to clear his mind of the notion that the message itself was important.

Severus had once brought up his own mixed-heritage to Draco, kissing him all the while. Draco had pulled back for a second and Severus had lost the ability to breathe, the ability to think. Draco said, "But you were Slytherin. One cancels out the other," and forgiven Severus his birthright with his mouth.

Only Severus, who had lived as a Slytherin for so long knew that nothing cancelled out contamination except the belief that the contamination was irrelevant. He would have made Draco understand that, given enough time.

Time had never once done Severus any favors.

He rented one of the guest wings to a newly married couple on the written agreement that should they even begin to think of conception, they would find new lodgings. As both husband and wife looked equally nonplussed at the idea, Severus wasn't terribly worried about the issue arising.

He rented the last guest wing to Gregory Goyle for a drastically reduced price. Goyle had served a year in Azkaban, largely due to guilt-by-association, even if the official charges had been "aiding and abetting of criminal forces." His application for rental had included a painstakingly written addition, each letter of the note pressed carefully into the parchment, a spell-checking charm evident. Severus remembered that being one of the very few Goyle had never messed up.

It had said:

Dear Professor Snape:

I do not have the money to rent an entire wing of Draco's house. I was hoping you would rent me a single room. Please.

Gregory Goyle


Even if he hadn't added that single please, there would have been no question of Severus refusing. Gregory had always, unfailingly, come to Draco's side when Draco had needed him. Draco had once wondered if that loyalty was just sheer lack of imagination, but Severus had explained that it didn't matter. Loyalty was too precious a commodity to be concerned over its source.

Gregory had also been one of Severus'. His student, his Slytherin, his responsibility.

He would not have it said, not even in his own head, that he did not take care of his own.

*


Hermione took breakfast in her rooms, so as to start work over the first meal of the day. She liked mornings best for working, although afternoons and evenings had their charm as well. Still, the fresh spray of sunshine or even the cold break of mist that rolled in through the bedroom's numerous windows always shook Hermione out of sleep and made her feel up to cracking another book and mining its knowledge.

After about a week of habitation Hermione noticed that the elf who brought her breakfast was always the same elf. While she always greeted the elf with a, "Hello," and reached for the toast or tea or oatmeal with a, "Thank you," on the eighth day she risked, "I'm Hermione Granger, and you are?"

The elf gave a wobbly, "Master says we are to be letting our presence be known! Master says he does not like sneaking elves!"

Hermione imagined not. It also occurred to her to wonder if he hadn't accidentally hexed one or two elves in his time, when he had arrived back at his quarters unexpectedly to them cleaning the place. In addition, in as far as meals went, it was easier to get an immediate correction to a tray if there was a problem with an elf readily standing by. Flooing the kitchens took a bit more effort, and in a private home, unlike Hogwarts, there was no need for the extra step. She said, soothingly, "I much prefer being able to thank you myself. I was simply enquiring as to your name."

"Emmy, mistress."

Hermione was careful not to blink at the relatively human-sounding name. "Emmy. It's lovely to meet you."

Emmy gave an uncertain squeak, and popped from the room. Hermione said, "I'll grow on her," to nobody in particular.

Hermione would work until three, sometimes four in the afternoon, when she found it useful to take a break, her mind needing some time away from her accumulating questions if she was to have any hope of finding answers. To her delight, she discovered that Hyacinth--the newly-married woman living in the wing a floor down from her--took her tea at this time as well, and while Hermione had absolutely nothing in common with her, the two of them managed to find pleasant conversation enough.

Hyacinth was a few years older than Hermione and had never attended Hogwarts. She told Hermione with straight-forwardness with only the tiniest amount of wistfulness underlying it, "My magic wasn't strong enough for acceptance."

Instead she'd attended a non-magical secondary school and her parents had tutored her in the basics. She couldn't do anything so complicated as Apparition, but she was plenty good with all sorts of everyday spells. She worked rather happily as a buyer for Madam Malkin's, read Witch Weekly religiously, and knew more gossip about the people Hermione was friends with than Hermione did. Her husband, Mark, had attended Hogwarts. He'd been a Hufflepuff five years ahead of Hermione. He worked for the Ministry regulating the imports and exports of magical items. He was Muggleborn, and a devoted fan of cricket in his off time.

Hermione was listening with a sort of horrified fascination to Hyancith's weekly report of what it was that Harry was supposedly up to when an all-too-familiar face peaked its way inside the drawing room. Gregory Goyle stared in shock at Hermione, and Hermione returned the favor. He stuttered, "What--what are you doing here?"

"I live here," she replied, trying not to sound indignant. She was merely relaying a fact. She didn't bother asking what he was doing there. There were too many answers to that she preferred not to hear.

"You too?" he asked, and now he seemed less confrontational, more stunned.

She could sympathize. "You live here?"

"East wing, third floor."

There was an awkward silence then, Hermione's cup still three-fourths of the way to her mouth as it had been when he'd stumbled in, Goyle standing stiffly in the doorway, Hyacinth looking back and forth between the two of them. Finally, Hyacinth ventured, "Would you, er, like some tea, Mr. . .?"

His eyes flicked to her. He was obviously a bit surprised by her presence. "I, uh, that is. Goyle. Gregory Goyle. And I don't know--"

Since he hadn't yet called her names or physically threatened her and was in fact standing rather harmlessly in the door looking lost, Hermione said, "Come in and sit down." If he was living here, that meant Snape wanted him here, which was more than she could say for herself. It seemed the safest bet to try and make peace, so long as he was willing. Without Draco, she doubted Goyle was much of a threat anyhow.

She was only mildly taken aback by the fact that he followed her instructions without question or complaint. Hyacinth poured some tea for him, which he took with a mumbled, "Thanks."

Hermione took the sip that had long been waiting for her to swallow it down. She grimaced, and hit the tea with a heating charm. Then she recovered her wits enough to say, "I believe you were in the middle of telling me--"

Hyacinth cut her off, beginning precisely where she had been interrupted.

*


As large as the Manor was, it was still inevitable that Severus would run into Granger every once in a while, seeing as how they both lived there. Predictably, the first time it happened was the very worst moment for it to occur.

Severus did not sleep all that often, and as a result, for the most part, when he did sleep his sleep was intense, black and dreamless. There were times, however, when it was not, times when he awoke to Draco's screams, words that Draco had never uttered echoing in his head. In the nightmares it was always possible for him to reach Draco, to save him. In the nightmares, Severus always walked away.

Severus would get up at those times, call upon an elf for dark coffee, coffee that could nearly up and walk out of the cup by itself. It was one of the few times that he needed to escape Draco's presence, the whisper of his lover's younger self that resided in the bed he slept in, the walls surrounding him, the hallway at his disposure.

The main library wasn't a complete sanctuary--more than once, Severus had seen Draco sneak into the room, reading titles he knew weren't meant for a child's eyes--but it was the closest thing Severus had found to one within the Manor. Public places simply weren't open at two or three or even four in the morning.

It was one of those hours, one of those nights when he walked swiftly out of his wing, coffee mug clutched in hand, arriving at what should have been a safe-haven only to find Granger lying, stomach down, in front of the fire, her nose buried in a book. She was in some sort of night outfit, the loose pants falling down to her knees as she had her knees bent so that her calves rested at a ninety degree angle from her thighs, feet crossed at the ankles. Her hair was everywhere. She kept it pinned back most of the time, which made it seem a reasonable length but now, looking at her in shock, Severus realized--somewhat inanely--that it must fall nearly to the small of her back.

He stopped short of her in shock, but she must have heard something as she twisted her head around, a smile of greeting forming on her face. It arrested itself almost immediately upon seeing him. She said, "Professor," and scrambled to her feet.

"Get out, Miss Granger," Severus said, in his very best do-not-think-before-you-do-so voice.

She thought, damn her. "Ask nicely. I do pay you rent to use this space."

Severus growled, "Get. Out."

She laid back down and began reading again. Severus wanted to haul her up with his bare hands and throw her from the room. He wanted to force-Apparate her back to her rooms. Severus had not physically harmed another human since Voldemort's death--Draco's sacrifice--and he would not start with her. She was not worth that much emotional effort.

Rather, he had the elves extinguish the fire with a blatantly unapologetic, "It felt a bit stuffy in here."

She shrugged, cast a warming charm on herself and went back to her reading. Severus gritted his teeth and went to peruse the shelves. Unable to find anything he turned his restless energy on her. "Have I made it personal, Miss Granger?" he sneered. "If I have, I assure you, you can return to your rooms now without losing face."

"I can't go back there, right at this moment."

The response took Severus off-guard enough for him to actually respond to the idea behind it. "I will assume your fireplace is not malfunctioning, as you seem self-sufficient in that regard."

"You weren't wandering the house in search of a cooler room, either," she said, never once looking up from her book.

Severus re-lit the fire with a non-verbal spell. That caused her to glance up. He turned back to the shelves, though, avoiding the fact that her eyes did not hold any triumph.

*


Hermione tried to stop herself, really she did. It wasn't as if she didn't understand that Snape was not appreciative of interference on her part; she was entirely clear on that issue. It was simply that he'd allowed her the comfort and safety of a home with wards and neighbors who wouldn't bother her--even the ones she was still a bit unbalanced by--and she couldn't return the favor by ignoring the man. Sometimes, Hermione was quite sure she was her own worst enemy.

The problem was, although the memories were old, stale inside her head, Hermione could remember what it was like to sit by oneself in the midst of others, to see groups of two, three, six people laughing and joking while she curled over her egg salad sandwich, pointedly trying not to get caught gazing at anyone else. As a child who didn't know what anything else felt like it had been hard enough. Snape never, ever, ever spoke of Malfoy but Hermione was not a fool. She had seen what Malfoy did for Snape, knew the extent of emotion that was involved in a sacrifice like that. Even if she hadn't, Snape lived out of Draco's wing, and Hermione couldn't imagine that it was the most suited to a grown man's needs. No, certainly that was either Malfoy Senior's or one of the guest wings.

Any way she imagined things, Snape knew what he was missing.

If he had already been in the pub when she walked in with Kingsley and Tonks she might have been able to leave things well enough alone, maybe. But Snape walked in not ten minutes after they did, sat himself at a table for two and did not look expectantly toward the door. Hermione barely had to glance in his direction for Kingsley to ask, with an almost annoying calm, "Would you prefer if I asked?"

She smiled her thanks, but said, "I try not to send others to do my dirty work."

No sooner had she reached his table than Snape said, "Was your evening going so unpleasantly that you felt the need to impose the experience on another?"

"There's a fourth chair sitting empty at our table, Professor. All three of us would be honored if you would consent to sitting with us."

"Tired of being the odd woman among friends, Miss Granger?"

"I make it a point to be friends with people who would never so much as hint that I was."

He looked up at that, his gaze cutting into her. She worked not to flinch, just managing. He said, "If you are thinking that a game of stare will end in victory for your cause--"

"Oh, hardly, I just figure that if I stand here long enough you'll consent simply to stop all of the other clientele from staring."

"Is this revenge?"

"For what crime?" She asked softly, with a deceptive gentleness.

Interestingly--but not shockingly--it was this display of teeth that brought him to his feet and over to her table. Kingsley inclined his head. "Severus."

Tonks grinned. "Professor."

"Explain to me, Nymphadora, why all my imbecilic former students cannot seem to comprehend that that title no longer applies to me?"

"Perhaps we are simply unwilling to consider you as more human than that title would suggest. Besides, you can't seem to remember my last name, so all things said, I think I'm doing pretty well."

Before Snape could start a bar brawl, Hermione asked, "Is there something you would prefer? I always thought 'Snape' sounded rather indecorous. Besides which, I grew up with Harry and Ron as my constant companions. Trust me when I say the word was never said with any sort of respect attached to it."

She could nearly hear him grinding his teeth as he realized he'd backed himself into a corner of his own devising. Finally he said, "As we are all adults--in the biological sense, at least--I imagine my given name will do."

"Think you could manage mine, as well?" Hermione asked him dryly.

"And avoid mine?" Tonks repeated, most likely for emphasis.

Hermione watched as Kingsley gave Snape a blandly sympathetic look. Severus met her gaze squarely and said, "Shall we order, Hermione?"

*


Severus wished, as some sort of penalty for the girl's interference, for her infernal pushiness, that the conversation would stall, become awkward as a direct result of his presence. It did not.

He looked for opportunities to effect this end. When Hermione began a discussion on differentiating power levels in magical objects he insulted her theories once and--when that didn't work--suggested that only a witch with substandard powers would care about such a thing. He even, for good measure, threw in a couple of nasty comments about Aurors and their attachment to ethically questionable magic. As a final, desperate last attempt he insulted Tonks' hair choice.

That gained him an unimpressed look from Kingsley's direction, and if he was being honest with himself, Severus could only agree with the sentiment.

Severus had managed acts of espionage that defied death and a few other fairly severe consequences hundred of times over in his life. He had taken the task of killing his most important friend, his mentor, the man who could make him see reason when nothing else could. He had stood in the face of the Darkest Wizard known in the isles in over fifty years and used his body as a shield to give a boy he didn't even like time, time and the ability to finish the kill.

He had survived the death of his first and only lover. A death that was largely his fault.

Somehow, none of that had seemed quite so terrifying as sitting at a table with three relatively happy people and having a pleasant conversation. Severus knew that he and Draco hadn't started with pleasant conversations, anything but. No, between him and Draco there had been blind Apparitive jumps--trusting to the other's strength and instincts--there had been whispered apologies from Draco and whispered refusals of those apologies from Severus. Nothing pleasant, at least not in this sense.

And yet Severus could sense the danger here. It was unnerving, because although he intrinsically felt it, he was not sure of the source. Dinner and conversation was something Severus had always been able to do with other adults, regardless of what his students might have perceived. He and Minerva had certainly had quite a few worthwhile dining engagements. Occasionally Scientia Sinistra--who was not much of a talker--would bother to throw out an interesting verbal tidbit. Severus himself had learned manners at the behest of his mother, who tiptoed around his father to do so. Only one half his genetic lines were wizard, but that half was pureblood, and Eileen Prince had made certain Severus knew it.

Severus could entertain or play guest. It was simply that Hermione and her friends, their oddly lucky survival rates and tenacious loyalty, all of that was foreign to him. He suspected it was safest if things stayed that way. Severus had known the loss of a mother, but beyond that he had always kept himself safely solitary, befriending just enough that he was never at risk of losing anything, let alone everything.

Until Albus and Draco.

Severus could stand the Unforgivables and a great deal many other unbearable tortures. He could look at death with a fairly mild glance in its direction. He could not bear to rebuild relations and have them broken--severed, maimed beyond recognition--again. Every man had his breaking point.

Severus knew his.

*


The thought came to Hermione a couple of days after convincing Severus to join them that despite his vitriol, she had rather enjoyed the actual content of his conversation. This wouldn't have been so startling except that it was rather rare for her to meet someone who challenged her in the way he had once they'd approached the topic of instinctive magic, and its limits in defensive and offensive capabilities. Most people just let her talk, either working to follow her thoughts or simply assuming whatever she said was right.

He'd argued. And beneath the liberally scattered personal insults to her processing functions, he'd made some excellent points. They were frustrating ones, ones that meant going back in her research and reshaping several of her earlier arguments, but they were nonetheless valid.

Without knowing why, she sent Epistula to Harry with the question I'm thinking of having tea with your professional partner. Would you mind? attached to her leg.

Harry's response was a simple, Is there some reason I should? This was, of course, a completely logical question. Troublingly, Hermione couldn't come up with a reason, but felt, vaguely that there might be one. Unable to put the sentiment into words, she replied in the negative to Harry and sent Severus an invitation.

Severus, naturally, sent back an equally firm, Have you lost what little higher-level reasoning you once possessed?

By now Hermione had decided that there was a bit of over-protesting of the Gertrudian sort occurring, and was also beginning to enjoy his ability to maintain almost-constant levels of exasperation and pettiness. Perhaps. Is there a potion for the recovery of that? If so, could you bring it to the tea?

She was unsurprised--and unbothered--when his return owl made it clear that she would have to work a bit harder than that: We aren't having tea, you foolish chit. I can feel my own mental facilities deteriorate when I'm in your presence, there is no reason for me to subject myself to such decline if less than absolutely necessary.

Hermione explained patiently, That so-called 'deterioration' you are experiencing? Most humans, wizard and Muggle alike, refer to that experience as 'fun.' The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'fun' as, among other things, a diversion or amusement. It is understandable how you might have trouble discerning such an event and your reaction to it from the slow erosion of your own genius, but you can change that by simple repetition of placing yourself in enjoyable circumstances.

In the back of her mind, Hermione had to wonder if the next response would be covered in an undetectable poison meant to rot her skin from the hands on up to the skull. Instead it was untouched by potion or curse and said, Twenty minutes of Crucio at the end of the Dark Lord's wand was more 'fun' than three minutes at a table with you.

Between the invocation of Voldemort and the lack of bodily-harming substances, Hermione knew she was getting somewhere. She wrote back, I pick up fresh crumpets from one of my favorite bakeries in London on Thursdays, and the late Mrs. Malfoy kept a lovely sitting area, I'm sure you're familiar. Thursday, my rooms?

Severus' RSVP was a rather flattering, What is incomprehensible about my detestation of you?

Hermione didn't bother to explain. Have it your way. Come for the crumpets.

The first Thursday, he stood her up. Hermione, never one to give up easily, charted out a new campaign of terror. She switched from owls to making sure she knew where he was every time he left his wing. Having figured out the trick to the Marauders Map, that was easy enough. She would not bother him in his wing--after all, it was his home, and he deserved his privacy, but everywhere else was fair game, and she made good sport of it.

By the second Wednesday after his foolish decision to defy her whims, upon meeting her in the library for the second time within as many days, he asked, "Are you trying to get yourself evicted?"

"Do you really think that would help your cause?" she asked.

She saw him break then, and perhaps in the deepest regions of her stomach felt a bit of regret at that--she was finding that what she wanted at tea was all of him, sarcasm and ego and all--but not enough to turn from his quiet, "What is that you want?"

He had, by that point, given her nearly three weeks to come up with this answer. She spoke confidently, smoothly. "Someone to talk to who makes me question myself. Someone who voices the things I censor. Tea, with you."

He stared at her, his eyes cold and unblinking and intent. She kept hers even, unwavering. He said, "You will provide fresh crumpets."

She did not gloat. "Yes, of course."

*


There were many, many things that Severus could find to hate about Hermione, each of them satisfying in its own way, but the way she held her tea cup was very possibly at the top of the list. Hermione was nothing, nothing like Draco, but she drank her tea exactly the same way: one jot of milk, one small spoon of sugar, stirred clockwise, her posture perfect, her fingers dainty on the handle of the cup. It didn't make any sense--Draco had been raised to opulence and wealth and magic, Hermione to a solid middle-class work ethic. She shouldn't drink tea as if she were having an audience with the Muggle Queen.

Only she did. She did it airily, with the ease of long practice. Just, exactly, perfectly like Draco.

Severus' hatred burned inside of him, and if it wasn't as clean, as pure, as much like hatred as he would have ideally had it be, well, he didn't let himself dwell on what might be causing the discrepancy. To add to his everlasting irritation, the crumpets were delicious.

"Harry tells me he's working on a curriculum that will most likely get him fired and banned from ever again stepping foot in Durmstrang territory."

Severus hated to admit it, but he would almost admire the whelp if he could manage the task. "Were you thinking that my employer would be a safe topic of conversation?"

"Your partner. And there are safe topics of conversation between us?" She looked genuinely interested.

Having suggested such, Severus was hardly going to admit that his intellect wasn't up to the task of finding one. "Have you read the latest Ars Animagica?"

She shook her head. "Magical Creatures don't usually intersect with my main interests."

Severus took a minute to revel in the fact that he'd found a non-Potions related academic topic to speak on which he knew more about, if simply by default. He did not allow her genuine interest and lack of concern at his superiority get in the way of his moment of victory. That would have been beneath him. "It had a rather fascinating piece on the wizard-familiar bond, the extents to which it can be used and the dangers of breaking it."

She chewed thoughtfully at a crumpet. "I suppose I haven't much thought about the ways in which familiars are a different sort of magical tool. I mean to say, they're hardly like wands or Pensieves, things that are utterly under our control and yet useful to our focus and such. But they are; well, I mean, Crookshanks has certainly helped me to focus in other ways on more than one occasion. I wonder if there's something there to think about. Familiars tend to be a more benevolent, or at least neutral magical source than humans, I do know that. I can't remember where I read--"

"Farmingham's Guide to Familiars," he said with just an edge of a sneer. His memory was obviously better than hers as well.

"Yes, just. I don't suppose you'd loan me your copy of Animagica? I can't afford to take terribly many journals, and that's one I've never managed to fit in."

Severus considered saying no out of spite, but really, it wasn't as though she didn't have access to a library. Most likely several. And there was a fine line between spite and childishness that he tried not to cross. "I will have Corra deliver it to you."

"Is that the owl you use so often? She's beautiful. And a friendly little thing."

He waited for her to follow the comment up with the inevitable, "Surprising, considering to whom she belongs," or some variation thereof. She sipped at her tea, and didn't continue. He frowned. "She was Draco's."

He certainly hadn't meant to say that, but there was no way to retract the statement so he simply sat in silence and waited.

"Draco always had fine aesthetic taste."

His gaze shot to hers, but her eyes were mild, calm. His, "You didn't know him," was more strained than he could have wished, less caustic.

She said, "This is not a safe topic," and began talking to him about the boggart that she really, really suspected of hiding out somewhere in Goyle's wing.

*


Ron was often the last person in Hermione's life to know what was going on with Hermione. This was not, of course, completely accidental on her part. Which was why, when she received the owl that said, "You're living with Snape? In Malfoy bloody Manor?" along with a few other, rather less appropriate things, the first thing she did was floo Harry.

Harry look apologetic from the first, and said, "I swear, I didn't realize you hadn't said anything. Honestly, Hermione, you have to tell me these things."

He had a point there, so she just sighed. "It's all right. I was going to tell him anyway, I'm certain. Sooner or later." Or, really, later later.

She owled Ron with less of an invitation to tea than a demand to see him there. This was not a conversation she was having through correspondence. Ron didn't filter himself terribly in face to face conversations, but when he didn't have to look the person in the eye his tendency to speak before thinking worsened incalculably.

Ron showed up to tea--she'd chosen Hogsmeade, neutral ground for both of them--and launched on a preemptive strike with, "Snape? Are you out of your too-smart-for-its-own-good mind?"

"When was the last time you saw an article in the Prophet about me that you know I would have preferred not to have published?"

Ron opened his mouth. Stared at her slack-jawed.

"For you it was last week. Or are you going to tell me that you had planned for the wizarding world to know what sort of techniques you and Viktor go in for?"

Ron blushed furiously. "We don't-- That wasn't--"

"For-- Of course it wasn't true, Ronald. I may not bear the right equipment, but for a while I was enough to keep you interested. I know you."

That calmed him down, as most references to their past relationship generally did. Normally she was more discerning in her use of them: for one thing, it wasn't fair, not at all, to blame him for something that he couldn't change. Despite the very real hurt he had caused her, she knew that. For another thing, she knew that any threat used indiscriminately loses its power. In the end, though, she was only as human as he was, and could only consider her words so carefully in the heat of the moment.

He said, "Well."

She said, "Let's order the tea."

When they had, he said, "It's almost as if you've disappeared."

"No, just hidden myself behind a bevy of protective wards."

"I don't suppose he would talk to the press, not even to get at you."

"He's caustic, Ron, not--" She stopped, searching for the word. Evil was too obvious. Ron, even in his obstinancy, knew that. "Malevolent. He doesn't want to hurt me." Any more than you did, she added in her head, but only in her head.

"Hermione." Ron looked at her intently. "Tell me you don't bloody well like the wanker."

"I rather think, Ron, that we've long since passed the time when you had the right to hold any opinions regarding whom I associated with, let alone my feelings for those associates." She said it quietly to lessen the hurt, but with no less of an edge than it needed for full impact.

"I'm still bloody well your friend," he said, not so quietly.

"Yes, and I appreciate the concern, but I am quite able to watch out for myself. Particularly in choosing others to be my friends."

"The words 'Snape' and 'friend' do not belong in the same sentence, and you know it."

"Not for you, certainly."

Ron glared at her. "How can you--"

She waited, but he didn't finish. The tea came, and she poured for both of them. Finally, she asked, "Remember Umbridge's opening speech fifth year?"

"The speech itself? No. I remember that she gave one, though." Ron looked darkly down at the table, as though by cowing it into submission he could overcome the woman who had made Harry's life hell for all of that year.

Hermione had already done that. "You remember that I told the two of you what she had actually said, the things that she hadn't verbalized?"

Ron frowned again, but said, "Well, sure."

"I'm good at that, Ron. At hearing what people don't say."

"Snape says--"

"What he thinks will keep him safest."

"Who does he need to be kept safe from?" Ron asked in a slightly louder voice than Hermione would have strictly preferred.

Those were Snape's secrets, though, and Hermione wasn't taking the duty of having mostly figured them out lightly. "Sadly, I believe he thinks from everyone."

"Reverse the sentiment and you'd be right," Ron grumbled.

Hermione asked, "How often am I wrong? I mean really, dangerously wrong?"

Ron took several angry sips of his tea. "Not very often."

"Then trust me to know what I'm talking about, yes?"

Ron looked to be on the edge of arguing, but when he responded all he said was, "I can't help worrying."

And because she had loved Ron for a significant portion of her life she said, "I appreciate the concern. If I needed help, I wouldn't ever hesitate to ask."

He blinked at that. He said, "Well, all right."

She asked, "So, how's Viktor?"

Ron blushed.

*


Draco was buried in the Malfoy mausoleum in between Lucius and Narcissa. Severus would have chosen a more exalted location, but he knew that Draco would not have. No, Draco would have been insulted by the thought that somewhere else could be more exalted.

Once a week, Severus would go down to the grave and make sure the house elves were taking care of it as befitted their former master's station. Of course, they always were, and Severus was left to stand there, incapable of talking to a stone monument, well aware that his lover wasn't inside, wasn't anywhere near this spot.

The mausoleum lay on the grounds of the Manor, past the small pond and a few hundred yards of well-kept grassy areas. Hermione hadn't been outside when he'd made the walk to the structure. But on his return to the house he noticed her sitting on a blanket, books spread out around her, her kneazle sniffing at a nearby tree.

She must have heard him, as she looked up. Her eyes strayed to the building behind him and she turned her face back down into the book she had been reading. Severus was all too aware of the abundance of mercy shown in the single, unassuming motion. He took it as it was meant and continued on without verbally raking her for her mere presence.

Later, when the cold of the mausoleum had seeped from his bones and fallen free of his robes, when the phantom feel of Draco's lips on his wasn't quite as real, then he would owl her, send her a journal he knew she didn't take. Draco had once told him that he knew how to apologize, he just didn't know he knew.

He thoroughly expected her to take advantage of his moment of weakness, to use his apology as a way to wedge herself further into his life uninvited. When she sent Corra back with a simple, "Unnecessary, but thank you all the same," he was shaken. It was in his nature--and his experience--to assume that she was simply biding her time. It was also in his nature to figure that she had gotten what she wanted from him. Why the first thought should bother him was of no question. Why the second should was far more disconcerting.

Within a week she sent the owl that said, "I would appreciate your presence at tea this afternoon. I will, of course, return the journals either way."

His curiosity and anxiety drove him to respond, "I believe I have the time."

At tea she acted much as she had previously. She argued with him about the articles he had specifically pointed out. They agreed on more than he was strictly comfortable with.

She was silent on the topic of Draco, on her insight into that part of his life. He could remember how Draco would laugh at him when he would use words as a weapon, a barrier, laugh haughtily and raise those patrician eyebrows and say, "I know there's something else to be said, Severus."

And then he would wait, for Severus to say it. For Severus to reward him with conversation that was not hostile, words that weren't sharpened and pointed.

Awkwardly, unsure of why he was extending this part of himself to anyone but Draco, Severus attempted the same reward with Hermione. He said, "I suppose your point about the formal similarities of human magic and creature magic has some merit."

She blinked at him.

"Although I still do not grant you the foolishness of your adjacent argument regarding the strengthening and utilization of those similarities."

"Well, that would have been a lot to ask for in one afternoon," she said slowly, clearly still thrown off by his change in tactics. That, in and of itself, made the attempt worth it. She continued, "Given enough time, I'm sure I can wear you down."

Severus, to his complete and utter shock, smiled sharply at the casually muttered challenge. She smiled back. Unlike his expression, hers was warm and calm. It made him want to stop smiling at her, but he couldn't seem to manage.

*


Ron, for all that he had tried, truly just hadn't been that interested in the female body. When she was able to look at the situation with any sort of objectivity, Hermione could only imagine that sexual relations between them had only been worsened by the fact that Ron--on top of simple disinclination--had also probably had somewhat brotherly feelings for her. Really, it was a miracle that he'd managed to get it up at all. Hermione often wondered what he had been thinking about. She never asked. She didn't need to know.

As such, Hermione knew the mechanics of sex--theoretically and practically--she even knew that they were supposed to result in pleasure. Since that last part had never been proven to her, Hermione didn't spend a lot of time thinking about sex, or missing it.

Sure, there was the occasional bloke who found his way into Flourish & Blotts and poured over a text that made Hermione look twice. Or the presenters at conferences who knew their stuff and gave off a charming air of easy delight with their topic. It wasn't as if she never had her interest peaked.

It had been a long time, however, since Hermione had looked at someone and actively thought, "I wonder what he tastes like."

Or, "I wonder how the tips of his fingers would feel on my shoulders."

Or just, simply, "I wonder."

Severus Snape was quite obviously her one-time professor, her landlord, and still in love with one of her foremost childhood male enemies; therefore Entirely Unsuitable In Every Way to be causing those thoughts. That didn't change the fact that he was causing them.

There was nothing to be done for it, of course, so Hermione considered approaching the next Flourish & Blotts boy, or even seeing if Harry knew any hearty Bulgarian lads to fix her up with, but she knew herself well enough to know that none of that would help. The only thing left to hope for was that the desire would go away of its own.

Of course, by the month mark of being unknowingly taunted by a man she had to live with, Hermione owled Tonks at work with the single line, "If you have any love for me at all, get me pissed."

Tonks was, naturally, more than willing to help in this endeavor, but that meant that after the third drink, when Hermione was breathing slower than she generally did, and speaking with much more drawn out vowels, she got to ask, "What's this about then?"

And Hermione, in turn, was duty bound to be honest. "I want Sev'rus."

Tonks' hair flashed through an electric green and a violet blue before settling back into the cherry-red she was sporting for the evening. "You have awful taste in men."

Hermione nodded mournfully and held out her glass. "More, please."

"Yeah," Tonks agreed, and made sure to take care of that.

Midway into the fourth glass, Hermione said, "'Least I'm over Ron."

Tonks looked uncertain about that sentiment but raised her glass to it anyway. "What are you going to do?"

Hermione tried to twist her mouth up--a wry, ironic sort of expression--but none of her muscles were being particularly cooperative. She said, "Nothin' really to do," and tipped back the glass with determination in her stance.

*


Severus began sensing trouble when Gregory told him about the job he'd managed to land--the job helping with shipments at Willful Flora Nursery. Severus remembered reading about Longbottom coming on as management at the place not six months earlier. It was doubtful that Gregory would have applied to such a place without encouragement--Goyle Senior had regularly reminded his son that he could not keep grass alive, let alone anything more complex. As a result, any interest the boy might have had in the herbological arts had been quickly squashed in fear.

Severus suspected Gregory might like plants quite a bit. Unlike most magics, herbology did not require an enormous amount of quick thinking. More often one needed endless amounts of patience and a willingness to listen. Both things that had been instilled in Gregory by Draco's early tendency to dominate the slower boy.

Longbottom would never have allowed the hiring of his childhood tormenter without a push, and Gregory would never have said anything about enjoying the discipline to Hermione, so the likelihood was that she had not only put all the pieces together, but had intervened on Gregory's behalf with her old housemate.

Which left the question of why.

It was in the answer, Severus suspected, that the danger might lie. No good ever came of Gryffindors helping Slytherins out. Just look at him and Albus.

Nonetheless, he asked. To his surprise, she didn't hedge or deny her involvement. She did frown a bit and ask, "Did he tell you, or did you just--"

"I'm quite good at deducing situations for myself." Severus paused. "He did not say a word."

"I caught him helping the elves with the herb garden."

Severus could just imagine what the elves thought of that.

She said, "He seemed at ends."

"Interfering busybody." Severus did his best to make it an insult.

"Yes," she said, and sounded like she might have taken it that way. She sounded a little dented, truth be told. Severus found it less satisfying than he had the right to--particularly with so little effort on his part to get her there--which was simply more annoying.

"The elves have gotten in the custom of bringing me tea at half past. I don't suppose you'd like to join?" she asked, with an edge of politeness so sharp, Severus nearly stepped aside so as not to get cut.

Feeling equally sharp in response--without understanding precisely why--he curled up his lip. "You would be correct in not supposing."

"If you prefer him not to have the job--"

"Why, Miss Granger?" he repeated.

"Hermione," she said through gritted teeth.

He did not give. "Why?"

She looked frustrated, mute with it almost, but in the end she managed, "Because he needed it, because you obviously care, because it was the right thing to do, because, because, because."

He stared at her.

"Sometimes I just do things because they're there to be done."

"I don't believe you."

Her smile was bitter. "Whatever makes you happy," she said, and brushed past him to stalk to the library. He had no doubt the tea was already out and waiting.

*


If nothing else, Hermione mused, Gregory and Neville were both appreciative. Neville met her for dinner roughly two weeks after his new employee began, and said, "I wouldn't have credited it, but he shows up on time, doesn't become belligerent at being told what to do, and actually seems to like the plants. He's a find, Hermione."

Hermione ordered them each a butterbeer and toasted to unlikely solutions. Later, she toasted to old friendships, largely because Neville was easy to sit with and let her talk about her work without asking about her personal life, and didn't mind when she almost constantly turned the conversation back to him.

Gregory, for his part, just kept her in flowers. She found them in the hallway that led to her wing, and in the library when it was time for her to take tea. She saw him come in from work one evening and said, "I love the flowers, but they're unnecessary."

He shrugged. "I love the job, but it was unnecessary."

Which was fair enough, she supposed, and allowed him to continue spoiling her. If she was going to set her sights on an emotionally dead shell of a not-very-nice-to-begin-with man, she supposed she deserved a little spoiling from other quarters.

Just when Hermione had stewed in her righteous anger long enough to think she could somewhat easily ignore her inexplicable interest in Severus, she ran into him on her way out of the house. She threw a quick nod in his direction. She wasn't running late, but she preferred to be early when meeting with publishers, which was where she was headed.

A moment after she would have expected a reply from him, he called, "Hermione."

Keep walking, keep walking, keep walking. She turned. "Severus."

She thought that if he drew himself up any more stiffly he would splinter and she would be left to clean up the pieces. Somehow, the thought was apropos. He said, "I have spoken with Mr. Goyle."

"And have managed to find a way in which I have unknowingly offended your sensibilities yet again in the last ten days?"

She could see him waver--a quick look at the adjacent hallway, nothing more. "He is pleased with his current employment situation."

Hermione got it then, understood that of the many things this man could do, apologize was probably not one of those skills. "I know. I did ask."

"My assumptions toward and judgments of your motive may have been false."

"Probably were," she said, making each word hard and cold as the Hogwarts lake come February.

"I owe you some consideration."

On so many levels it was nearly indecent to even be discussing the issue. However, Hermione did have motives in all of this, so she let him off easy. "An hour of your time, then."

"For what, precisely?"

"Tea. What else?"

He stared at her as if she had suddenly done something much more incredible and less pedestrian than growing a second head. She smiled sweetly. "I'm glad we talked. If you'll excuse me, I have a meeting to make."

*


Evidently his consideration was to be taken advantage of, as Hermione arranged for the agreed upon tea to take place in her private quarters. Narcissa's private quarters.

It was obvious from the first that she and the elves had conspired to make the wing more homey--a scholar's nook rather than a society wife's retreat. The parlor in the wing--the inner sanctum of the Lady of the House, open only to those friends and family of her choosing--had been cleared out of the posh sofas and opulent art. It now played host to several sturdy oak units of bookshelves, a tea table with four plain but comfortable chairs, and, in the corner between two of the shelving units, an armchair of the sort from which a woman of Hermione's size could sink into and never again emerge.

It was obvious that she could not afford much, but that she had surprisingly good taste within her means. Severus had to forcibly stop himself from approving of her efforts to make the place hers without compromising the integrity of a house that had stood long before her family name so much as came about.

She said, "Good afternoon. Won't you sit?"

To refuse was to be nothing more than contrary, particularly after he had agreed to take tea with her. Severus wasn't opposed to being contrary on occasion, but only when it was going to get him somewhere, and this wasn't one of those times.

"I mentioned that you were to join me, and the elves, well."

Had done as they always did. Severus' favorites were laid out before him in quantities far too grand for him to even consider finishing. "Indeed."

"I rather like those blueberry tarts as well."

He gave her a look that told her exactly how he felt about her attempts at small talk. Annoyingly, she grinned. "Fair's fair. Have you seen the article on 'ethical hexes' in last month's Journal of Magical Practices?"

"Utter rubbish."

"Oh, yes, the author obviously had very little to no practical experience with the use of the hexes she was considering, but I was wondering what you thought of the basic premise?"

"Over-simplified."

"Severus," her gaze was sharp, and--about time--frustrated.

Having garnered his own personal victory, he said, "The concept has merit, particularly in terms of Charms, Transfigurations and Potions, although I would say less so with Arithmancy. Of course all things can be used to their best intentions, the problem lay in of whose intentions we speak. And that is where arguing that hexes, or the magic they are based out of, can be reconstructed as positive magic becomes problematic."

"And, yet, I believe, useful."

"But then, you are Gryffindor, and must therefore assume that your best intentions correspond to everyone else's."

"No, I just feel there has to be some way of at least laying out guidelines for such ideas, even if they are purely in the theory."

"Theory for theory's sake--"

"Is useless, but theory for theory's sake that eventually becomes applicable? How many of the everyday magics that we use now come out of what was once hopeless academic circular grumbling?"

It occurred to Severus that in all the time that she'd lived in his house, he had never once asked her the question he should have from the first. "What is it that you want, Hermione?"

"Sorry?"

"You meet with publishers, you research, you do as you do, but I have yet to find a concrete goal in your meanderings."

"Is one necessary?"

"I have observed it to be so for you."

She looked as though he had given her a compliment. "To set up a wizarding Academe. A real one, one that exists outside of professorships and vocational training. A wizarding university, as it were. Right now I'm just trying to get the type of theory that will get people talking out onto the shelves. Sexy, maybe a bit dangerous, the type of thing that needs more thought."

It was a quixotic plan, foolish and terrible and brilliant all at once. He said, "You are out of your mind."

"It's the post-Voldemort years, have you not noticed? We're all just a bit less sane than we were."

Severus figured they must all be, because he was here, having tea with her. She said, "It's a secret," but without any accusation to the words.

He hadn't a clue who would believe him anyway.

*


Hermione nearly fell from the stool she was perched upon when Corra brought her the single scrap of parchment with an all too formal, "Tea?" in recognizable hand. Then she got up and ran across the house without any thought to dignity whatsoever. That is, at least until she reached the library, where she stopped, caught her breath, applied a few freshening charms to her breath and clothing, and stepped in the door, "Severus?"

He had already started on the tea. He said with dry amusement, "Corra has become even faster than Draco trained her to be."

There was no point to being embarrassed over her eagerness, not when they both knew she'd well been waiting for him to reciprocate an invitation so she just nodded and sat across from him. It did not pass her attention that the tea included quite a few of her favorites. Not exactly a last minute decision, then. At least not so last minute that he'd ordered the tea before summoning her.

She poured herself a cup. "Was there something you desired besides company?"

"You believe I desired company?"

"You have to grant me that it is in the pursuit of company that most people share tea."

"Most people," he said, distinctly unimpressed.

She inclined her head. "All right. What was on your mind, then?"

"Your tendency to tilt at windmills."

"I would not have pegged you as a Cervantes fan."

He flinched. The expression was minute, lasting less than a second, but she caught it. He said, "I have a passing interest in the history of Inquisitions."

That made sense. "Ah. You were saying? The windmills and me?"

"You might have managed, however accidentally, to stumble upon a cause worth pursuing."

"You don't say."

"One that Potter and I would perhaps be wise to support."

"You wouldn't be the first person to try convincing Harry of that."

"Yes, but I would be the first person with a traceable amount of common sense."

"I'll grant you that argument when it comes to my social causes. I think it makes me charming."

"You should rethink that."

She tempted fate. "Did you have another adjective in mind?"

"Witless, daft, asinine, injudicious, pedomorphic, or the ever useful touched. Take your pick."

"Hard choice, you offer me such a sumptuous feast, but I believe I will take injudicious. Really, with the wizarding world's concept of what is judicious, that's rather a compliment, is it not?"

"Not an intended one, I assure you."

"I'm hardly so daft as to believe that."

He chose to sip at his tea rather than respond. Hermione counted his silence as accession. Remembering what had begun the conversation she asked, "What kind of aid?"

"You spoke of publishing for the sake of controversy; stirring the cauldron, as it were."

"As a place to start, yes." She looked at him sideways, trying to figure out where this was going.

"Would not a multi-disciplinary collection accomplish that to even greater lengths?"

Hermione decided at that moment that it was a good thing he was such a misanthrope, because it was inconvenient enough to want to take the man on his very own Merlin-era rug under the watchful portrait eyes of at least three generations of dead scholars, adding an emotional attachment into that would have been reason enough to commit ritual suicide. "I can't imagine a situation in which it wouldn't."

"I have some few contacts. Men and women who prefer to steer clear of politics, and therefore have little pull when it comes to trying to publish, particularly the sorts of things they are interested in saying."

"Sounds to be precisely what I'm looking for."

Severus took a long drag of tea and then looked at her. "Do not imagine that I do this to please you."

"I'm not actually touched, you realize?"

Once again, he didn't say anything. Hermione scored that one up as a victory for him.

*


Draco had been a natural heat source. Even in the dead of the winter, that one last silent, frozen stretch of Draco's life, Severus could pass by him and warm up. Once Severus realized that Draco had seduced him, plainly, thoroughly, and well past the point where any decency could be claimed, he had taken to ordering him to bed first, so that the sheets would be at a perfect temperature when Severus joined him. Draco pouted about it, made noise about not being a child. When Severus would come to him he would prove that he couldn't possibly think of Draco as a child, however, so Draco did as he was bid.

Since Draco's death, Severus had been cold. Chilled. The type of deep-freeze that settled in the bone and radiated its way out. Fires were of no help, nor were his tried and trusted wool robes. He could not shake the feeling of wanting to shiver until his body produced some heat, any.

Hermione couldn't have known it--he was sure he gave no outward sign--but he thought she knew something, because she never let the tea get so much as lukewarm in their sessions and she consistently ask that the elves bring the biscuits to them straight from the oven.

It was possible, he supposed, that she simply liked her foodstuffs hot. He didn't think so, though. He didn't think she paid that much attention to the details of her own life. Her hair was too messy for that, and her blouses never, never bore the stamp of de-wrinkling charms. Not that he minded. Severus was too busy for those sorts of things as well. It just made him think that she minded the tea for his sake.

Which should have annoyed him, would have not a month past. It should have at least been an act to which he was entirely indifferent. It had been his experience however, that he was never able to be wholly blithe about kindness. It either enraged him or weakened him. He much preferred the former.

In this instance, he couldn't even find the energy to be enraged that he was weakened by it, which was a fairly new experience. Emotion that wasn't grief or loss or fear was harder to reach without Draco there to respond to it, to grin sardonically or roll his eyes or say, "Severus" with a tone that had at least four levels, everyone of them meaning something different each time he used it.

The worst part, the very worst, was that she didn't seem to mind when he didn't say thank you. Draco had, of course, Draco had been raised to believe himself the center of the universe, and had needed Severus to pay due attention to that fact--at least on the surface. In truth the brilliance of Draco was that when he wanted, he could make any person in the world feel like he was Draco's center, Draco's axis, Draco's everything. Severus had never begrudged Draco a "thank you" or a "please." He had pretended to, but that was all it had been: pretense. The only sort of pretense between them, really.

It was nice, that difference, the way she didn't demand much, didn't even really seem to expect much and was always surprised at the simplest things, like the time he said, "Excuse me," after nearly running into her in the hall. She wasn't verbal in her surprise, either, it was always a physical cue--a slow blink, a tilt of her chin, a fluttering of her fingers.

As if all that weren't enough, she even listened differently than Draco had. Draco had listened to him because he was Severus, and that was enough. She listened to him because the things he wanted to say were always what she wanted to hear, because she had her own ideas that she sometimes shared and was sometimes oddly reticent about, preferring to keep them close. Severus suspected she still remembered the worst of his insults, the most incendiary instances of his hate. It frustrated him to realize that he wanted to listen to her, that what she said was nearly always what he wanted to hear, and that she had somewhere decided that that simply couldn't be true.

He didn't have the words to convince her otherwise, and he thought that even if he could find them, he wouldn't have the courage to say them.

The Moment happened when he was trying to find the words, trying to choke them past his throat like a foul-tasting potion taken the wrong way. She narrowed her eyes at him and said, "Severus?" which wasn't what she had been thinking the moment before, clearly.

He started to say, "You should--" but that wasn't what he meant, not really. He couldn't say, "I want," he couldn't say that, but he could touch her hand, resting on the recently warmed tea pot. Her skin was warmed through by the ceramic, not hot, not like Draco, just slightly damp with the condensation, a touch more heated than his own skin.

She said, "Please don't," but it was shaky and wrong. Severus had listened to her when she would speak--and that was often enough, moreso he had thought, but he had been wrong--to know when she was lying. He wasn't sure why she would lie now, but her request was false from first letter to last.

She said, "Your argument is wrong." Her teeth were gritted, but this wasn't a lie. This was what she had been going to say.

"It's not," he said, his hand still covering hers.

"Please," she said again, and this time the request was stronger, but also more ambiguous. Then, "It is. You're discounting the whole Saturnine branch of astronomical theory."

"Perhaps because it is inconsequential."

She shrugged. "All right. More tea?"

It meant having to move his hand. "You think I'm missing something."

She looked at him strangely. "I generally try not to argue a point unless I'm fairly certain. Not with you, at least."

It was a sign of respect, he knew, this caution. He lifted his hand. "Tea, yes. Please."

She poured carefully, as though not giving it her utmost attention might cause folly or possible disaster.

*


Hermione was generally not a stupid or oblivious person. She figured out what Severus' small touches meant almost immediately. It was hard not to when they always came right as she was about to shy off of an argument. Ironically, she had been growing into the confidence to simply go ahead and say what she thought. Now she waited, knowing if she did that he would encourage her with a brush of his fingers, a laying down of his palm.

The bare moments were absolute, utter, unmitigated torture, a promise with no follow-up. They were better than nothing.

She didn't hold back more often than she had, she didn't change anything about herself to encourage the touch, but she did accept it when she could. He was no more foolish than she, and she doubted he would miss the signs of outright manipulation.

As it was, he caught on to her more subtle manipulations fairly quickly. She could tell by the way his willingness to reach out became even more stunted. She was surprised when he did not sneer at her, mock her, but evidently he had no interest in allowing words to be exchanged about any physical attraction between them, no matter how one-sided it might be.

Hermione thought--in that small voice that she didn't like to listen to, because it often sounded irrationally optimistic and Hermione preferred to hope in small, carefully-measured doses--that perhaps it wasn't as one-sided as it by-all-rights should have been. He was halting, awkward in his initial movement to touch her, but he never withdrew as quickly as he could have. And he didn't stop when he caught on to her game.

Then again, the man had control issues, so it was entirely possible that he was using the game--now being aware it was one--to exert his own type of control over her. Hermione was less than pleased at this possibility, which was how the Very Bad Plan formed itself in her mind.

The thing about Very Bad Plans was that they were guilty indulgences, things she thought up that she would never actually do. Slipping Ron an Impotence Potion when he'd finally told her that women just weren't his thing had been a Very Bad Plan. Offing Umbridge by way of Avada Kedavra in the middle of a class had been a Very Bad Plan.

Taking the physical contact up with Severus was a Very Bad Plan on two levels: 1) he was likely to instinctively kill her in reaction and 2) even if he didn't, she really had done enough sleeping with men who only slept with women for sport or hobby or distraction or whatever else she couldn't imagine.

Given that she was entirely confident of the bad nature of the Very Bad Plan, it was something of a surprise when she capitalized on a curling of one of his fingers over the inside of her wrist to lean forward and catch his lips on hers. At the moment of contact, she thought oh, bloody hell but she was quite obviously steeped far enough in her own blood that the only rational thing to do was press on and get a worthwhile kiss out of the deal.

Then, being mostly pretty smart, Hermione said, "I have that work that needs tending to," and walked as quickly as possible from the room.

*


It wasn't as though Severus had never kissed a woman before. Well, all right, it was that way. In truth, Severus had never even thought of kissing a woman before. Luckily, women had never pressed the issue--or really even so much as brought it up--and it had worked out well for everyone.

Of course Hermione Granger would be the person to ruin a perfectly good, perfectly comfortable sexual identity.

It wasn't just that her lips had been fierce and warm against his, or that she left the faint taste of lemon lingering in her retreat. It was that Draco, when he had kissed Severus would draw Severus in, not let him go, hold him down as surely as if he had been larger, stronger. Her kiss had been more of a question, less of a presumption. Her kiss hadn't tried, in any way, to take the place of his. That, more than anything, was why he didn't immediately lick away the tart sweetness of her aftertaste.

It was also why he did not follow her, why he avoided her with all possible caution, why he did not even so much as send mocking owl posts her way. Her subtle differences--unplanned, he was certain, there was no way she could have known--interested him nearly as much as her ideas did. But she had run, and someone who would run the first time would run a second and a third and then when he needed her most.

Draco had been a runner. Severus had always known that. It was simply that until that first/last time, Draco had never run from him. Severus should have expected Draco to make his one time count.

Even more terrifying was Severus' sneaking suspicion that she wasn't a runner, that she wore the clothes of one and even the face, at times, but when it truly mattered she would stick just about anything out. After all, she was still Potter's friend and even more impressively, Weasley's. She didn't give up on much of anything, which was why, Severus remembered, he was in this situation in the first place. He allowed himself a sweet moment of being utterly, strictly annoyed at her.

Then a flare of warmth came over his lips, and everything went back to being wholly less simple than Severus would have preferred.

Severus missed Albus as a matter of course, a constant, pressing sort of grief that settled in his jaw and his temple. He missed Minerva as well, although in a different way, a distant ache that he could never quite locate. He never missed either of them so much as when he wanted someone to listen to him, and possibly, when he was done, say something that formed the world into some semblance of sense.

There was noone for either of those things, now. Not for the listening nor for the advice. He thought, foolishly, that Hermione was probably one of those people, which was all the more frustrating.

Finally, because he wasn't one to hide in his wing indefinitely--not even from tiny war heroes and tenacious ex-students--and because he couldn't sleep, he began spending his evenings in the library, knowing she would have to show her face sooner or later. It was sooner. Tenacious was too light a word for her.

She said, "I apologize. I should have garnered permission for that sort of thing."

"You never were particularly good at waiting to be called upon."

"If I'd waited in your classes I would have lost my arm."

"Perhaps if you'd been generous enough to share the limelight with other students I would have considered your eagerness less grating."

"Perhaps if some of the other students had bothered to read the assignments I would have felt more generosity toward them."

"Draco did," he said, and to his horror, his tone was infinitely more protective than the comment warranted.

Her eyes flashed with something but she merely inclined her head. "We were rivals. Generosity toward a rival is foolhardy, would you not say?"

"He was Potter's rival."

"In some things. The only year Harry did nearly as well in Potions as Draco or I was when he was working off your notes."

Which only confirmed was Severus had long suspected. "Miserable brat."

"I didn't like it either, believe it or not. For one thing, Harry always got to be the best at Quidditch and do all the extraordinary magic and really, it wasn't that much to ask that I be left something. Ron and I always had each other for that, to make ourselves feel like we weren't just 'Harry Potter's friends,' sidekicks without any real identities. But then he began to take mine from me."

Severus wasn't sure what surprised him more: that she ever felt inadequate, or that she was admitting it to him. "Just because the boy can read does not give him your analytic or performance-based abilities."

"You underestimate your ability to speak to him. At least when you're not actually speaking." She smiled a little.

Between the smile and the honesty, Severus was fairly certain he had no idea what he was getting himself into when he said, "I would like it if we were able to resume our teas," only that it was the truth and he was wearied to near death by lies.

"Is that permission?" she asked, a little bit brazen, but not stepping an inch nearer to him.

He said, "No," and the sick tug of his stomach told him it was a lie.

*


She took him at his word, at least for a while, and didn't try anything that seemed like it might lead to kissing. It was worse now than it had been before--which, admittedly, was her own fault, what with having tasted the forbidden and all that. The forbidden evidently tasted of vetiver overlaid with clotted cream.

For all that, things went fairly well until the fourth tea when he dared to show her some of his research and all it took was the first page of reading for her to say, "Trust you to show us all up. You realize this sort of thing--"

"Could get me thrown into Azkaban, just for the thinking of it."

Hermione bit her lip and thought, no. Aloud she said, "Do you think I wouldn't have planned to keep my authors safe from endangerment? I'm putting out a collection meant to raise people's hackles, a collection that does not have the tidy, time-tested reassurance of being marketed to an academic crowd. I want a university, not riots and lynchings."

His words were clipped as he asked, "Did the war not teach you anything about that which is and that which is not under our control?"

"I-- You're right, that was imprecise wording. I meant rather that I have plans in place to keep pockets of the wizarding world, such as say, the Auror community, thinking about the things we're saying, rather than acting upon them blindly."

He considered her for a moment. "Would these plans have anything to do with your Miss Tonks and her bed mate?"

"Please use that exact term to their faces one of these days," she said with a slightly chilled smile.

"It is a mark of respect that they are amongst those to whom I wouldn't."

She could see how in his world that might be true. "They, indeed, plan to help me out. They think the project worthwhile. Plus, Kingsley just likes to argue with people. It's his second favorite past-time."

He looked at her sharply but had the sense not to ask after the first. She flashed him another smile, this one more heated, cunning. Instead, he said, "You do have the Gryffindor gift for manipulating the world to your whims."

He didn't make it sound like a compliment.

She said, "In Gryffindor, we always called that a Slytherin trait."

"And your tendency to lead those who love and trust you into peril without backward glance?"

"One side of loyalty."

"The other side being?"

"When we hare off into death-defying adventures for those same followers." She looked at him as she said it, willing him to actually listen.

"Slytherins do not engage in such rash and foolish behaviors." His voice was suspiciously uneven as he said this.

She did not have the heart to challenge the sentiment. Later, she would wonder exactly what aspect of her silence had drawn him to her, had earned her another taste of the forbidden, this one almost all bitterness, as though he actually drank the tea leaves floating at the bottom of his cup. Just then, she took it as her due.

*


Draco's laughter had always been hard won, Draco all too aware of his own dignity to give it over for just anything. Draco might smirk, or make a sound of cold amusement at another's expense, but it was rare that he allowed himself true, unabated mirth. Severus had enjoyed coaxing it from him, a challenge no less enticing than the other challenges he had embraced in his life. Severus rather liked struggling against the odds in some cases, it made the desired end more worthwhile.

It was odd, then, that Hermione's laughter, husky and strong and freely applied to almost every conversation, was a pleasant experience, something that he waited for, something he found himself seeking. She was harder to predict than Draco had been. Draco had not been as willing to surrender, but there had been a number of subjects that were certain to bring it about. She was mercurial, likely to depend more on context than content, completely dependent upon what she saw in things, rather than what others said about them.

Sometimes, he evidently didn't even follow his own jokes. Luckily, she was always willing to share, willing to explain in ways that didn't belittle him. And she never stopped him from pretending as though he had understood in the first place.

He tried to stop himself, but it seemed inevitable that he kiss her while she was laughing, to compare the breathless wonder of it to Draco's more staid, controlled paroxysms. They were nothing alike, nothing. Severus could feel the effort of her ribs beneath the layers of robes and under-apparel. Draco's had always been a shudder, an achingly sweet loss of control, but hers was simply a bigger form of breathing, her body relaxed and at ease with it.

Not even his kiss seemed to interrupt that.

He pulled back, but she said, "No," right through her laughter--now almost entirely breathless. She brought her hands to his face, still warm from holding her teacup. The fingers of her left hand touched at his ear and he held back a gasp. His hands were still at her ribs.

She said, "I know I'm not-- I haven’t-- But I could be, fun. Erm, good."

"Your persuasiveness has nearly kept me in a state where I might want to listen."

Say what he might, she was no fool. She kissed him again. There were some things that words could not do. Until now, he hadn't been aware a woman's kisses could stand in their stead.

Her hands slipped from his face to the top button of his robes, nestling in the hollow of his throat. One finger dipped beneath the robes into that heated patch of skin. Severus said, "No," into her mouth.

She ignored him, and unbuttoned the button.

He growled at her. She said, "Sorry," and let her fingers do as they would. The back of his neck was at once the coldest and hottest place in this earth, her fingers sweeping aside his curtain of hair, pressing firmly into his skin.

In revenge--and had he been thinking at the time, he would have realized it was ill-conceived--he unhooked the two sturdy clasps at the waist of her robes and slid his hands in, only to meet with skin and soft underside of a cotton bra. He nearly staggered away, but her hands were still at his neck, holding him there. She said, "These robes are rather warm."

There was a patch of too-slick skin wrapping around the right side of her ribs, extending up beneath the scant area her bra protected. He remembered her lying, crawling to Potter after the battle, remembered hating her for it, wishing her still and dead, wishing Draco the one with wounds that could heal.

He remembered that this one barely had. His grip tightened on the scar, almost as if he could feel the rib that must be missing underneath, the one that had punctured straight through skin, shards of it tearing at her lungs. Occasionally, when she laughed too hard, or ran after him too quickly, she would bite her lip in pain. He thought maybe he understood.

Her hands fell away from him and for a moment he thought he had trespassed too far, but all she did was unhook three more clasps, and held her arms so that the robes fell free. Severus was deeply glad the household had learned not to bother them in these teas of theirs. Ever.

There were other scars: a burn mark directly covering her left shoulder, slashes haphazard along her thighs. His hand strayed to the large one again, the one that had nearly killed her. Without being asked, she divested of her bra so that he could see the entirety of it. It ripped its way over her breast, nearly to the aureole, disfiguring the shape somewhat. She had stopped kissing him, even minor pecks and the expression in her eyes was both defiant and reckless.

Severus did something he had never thought to do before, had never run up against the desire to try. He bent his head and brought his tongue all around the outer ridge of the breast, one full circle. Her skin was warm, and had the slightly bitter remnant of the aloe soap he could always smell when she came in a room. She put her hands in his hair, burying them there, bringing him up with the gentle force of a tug.

He smiled sardonically, drew his wand from his pocket and vanished his own robes. He undid the buttons on his shirt without the aid of magic and drew it off his chest. It was an unfair trade, she retaining nothing but a pair of plain cotton panties, he still comfortable in his trousers. She didn't complain. Her eyes raked the somewhat too-thin plane of his torso, peppered liberally with the tell-tale signs of curses not dodged quickly enough, or not dodged at all.

She put her hands to his chest, fingers spread wide, and brought her mouth back to his, the unbearably soft skin of her breasts pressing up against his nipples. "I win," she said. "Mine's uglier."

He laughed.

*


Generally, the thought of handjobs and blowjobs left Hermione aching with memories of Ron's requests when she would give him one or the other, requests that had seemed innocent enough at the time. Looking back, she realized she probably should have caught on to the fact that in his mind it was never her on her knees, never her hand wrapped around his cock.

She liked the sound Severus made when she undid the button on his trousers and let her hand wander down inside. The sharp intake of breath when her fingers wrapped tight around his cock. He was already hard, which was a heartening change.

She said, "You have to look at me."

He frowned in confusion. "Where else would I be looking?"

She squeezed his cock just enough to provide an edge of pain. He hissed at her, but didn't pull away. Didn't look away. She said, "Good," and went about offering enough pleasure to build him up, keep him biting at his lower lip, just barely silent. She didn't mind that it took a while for him to spill over.

He never so much as blinked in another direction.

She pulled her hand free and held it out expectantly. He summoned his wand and had the decency to clean her up first.

He pulled himself together neatly, robe and all. She did not. She watched with interest as a cold fear filled his eyes. He sneered, "Hussy."

Ron had never called her names, but he had used her body as nothing more a package, something to be used and discarded. She was hard to shame. "All the same, I'm owed."

She watched the fear turn deeper, wilder, and thought that she had perhaps taken the wrong course of action. She had rather imagined that dirty sex in the library would have siphoned away any worries he might have about Hermione trying to usurp Draco's place, or even trying to offer anything more sincere than release. She most likely was, of course. She knew him too well not to care in some way, but she could keep that secret well enough until the time came--if it ever came--when he needed her aid.

He said, "Take care of it yourself," and began to stalk off.

She would forever, forever be sure that the only reason she was able to manage catch him in the halting spell was because he was in high dudgeon. Any other time he would have anticipated it, and she knew him to be one of the few people whose defensive magic exceeded her offensive. But she did manage, and he ceased moving with an enraged, "Release me. Or do you plan rape?"

She moved to where she could look in his eyes. "You are many things, Severus Snape, but selfish has never seemed to be one of them."

"Perhaps I have merely always thought you only good for one thing."

"Perhaps." She let him know she didn't think so with the tone of her voice. "But if that were all this was, I think you would hold up to your end of the bargain. After all, there's so much more I could be good for, at least in this, yes?"

"Not for me."

"You're a man."

"And you are a woman." He said each word with a deadly, mocking lilt.

It took her a second, it took leashing her own insecurities and hurts and failures. She said, "And yet, you came watching me."

"Can you not daydream with your eyes open?"

"Watching me. I know the difference." Oh, she knew.

He struggled futilely against the spell. She watched, somewhat amazed that he would even try. She said, "Just tell me why, just. I won't tell anyone. Just tell me why you won't, and I will let you free. I will move."

He stilled. When she thought she was going to have to let him free simply because there was nothing else to do he said, "It is not a question of 'won't.'"

She waited.

"I cannot."

"I don't understand."

"I've never-- Women simply weren't--" He clenched his jaw and glared at her.

She shook her head. "You bloody fool."

"Unless you kill me this instance, I suggest you watch what you call me. Your power is momentary."

"So you haven't any experience. You think I care?"

"As Weasley could not have been any good, even assuming he actually put in the effort, it is not an unreasonable assumption that you might be looking for pleasure rather than effort and a lack of benefit in your next sexual liaison."

"You seem like the type of person who learns quickly."

"This is a bit different--"

"Are you unwilling to try?"

It was a long, terribly long moment before he shook his head slowly. She released the hold on him. "Then we'll just see how that works out for us."

*


They managed, between Severus' fingers and Hermione's words, to even the playing field, leaving her slightly breathless and replete on the floor of his--long since locked--library. Her eyes slipped closed and she murmured, "Thank you."

He thought of how she had felt under his hands, exotic and new and like something he had a hard time believing he had gone so long without wanting. It seemed like the wrong thing for her to say. He snapped, "Don't be ridiculous."

Which only earned him one open eye and an amused smile on her part. He scowled. She said, "I included you in the wards to my wing, you realize? Several weeks past."

"I could have overcome them regardless. By skill or by ownership."

"I was relying on your morals and your sense of propriety," she said dryly.

"And now?"

"I'm relying on your willingness to throw both of those personality aspects aside."

He gave in and smiled sharply at that. In her own way, she had known him a long time. He said, "You are not included in my wards."

"No," she said, carelessly. She was, above all else, a smart girl.

With a look to the side and a flick of his wand, he summoned her robes to him. He held them in his hands for a moment. "You don't seem the type."

She flushed a little at that. "Laundry day."

He blinked. "What?"

"I tend to put off washing my clothes. Molly Weasley taught me all the best spells for it back when I was thirteen and it's not that it's hard, it's just tedious, and so I often procrastinate until I have nearly nothing left. Those robes were a present from my parents, who don’t wear robes and have really very little sense of what a good robe looks and feels like. Those give a nice appearance, shape themselves to what curves I have and all, but they're too heavy for a summer robe and not cut right for the winter, so I end up wearing them in the warmer months without anything beneath. I know it's not all that out of the ordinary for witches to do so, but I prefer not to, so, well, they're laundry day robes. When I have to wear them, it's a sign I've waited too long."

"And I'm supposed to just assume that laundry day corresponded with the day you finally got your way on a carnal score?"

"Or that you have uncannily good timing. I leave it to you to decide."

He took the chance offered to him to disbelieve in her bizarre honesty, in her haphazard way of living her life. "The elves will do the laundry, you realize."

She gave him a disdainful look, if one tempered by obvious amusement. "My mum is disgusted enough that I don't have to use a washer and dryer. If I gave my clothing to someone else to take care of, she'd disown me. It really isn't worth the emotional anguish."

Since his mother was a witch, and washed their clothes with spells, Severus had no reference for a washer and dryer, and very little to say to that. He handed her the robes. She said, "Why, thank you."

She slipped into them and he had to admit that she had a point about the way they fit to her body. He said, "You foolish little girl," with all the malice he could muster.

She nodded knowingly. "Yes."

*


Their teas returned to being hours (sometimes four or five) where they could scour each other's ideas and conclusions, challenge each other into even more dangerous ways of thinking.

Sex was saved for the hours at eleven, twelve, sometimes as late as three in the middle of the night when Severus would slip past her wards, silent and with seeming full willingness to turn around should she so much as hint at desiring such a thing. She hadn't felt the urge to do so yet.

Where he was verbally vicious, cutting at her weakest spots, trying his best to find her breaking point during the day, he was silent at night. Hermione didn't allow him to know that the way to get to her was by neither words nor violence, but simply by not listening to her. He always, always, listened to her.

She thought he knew what her breaking point was. She wasn't entirely sure why he never cut her off or gave her arguments less consideration than they deserved, but it was the one thing he didn't do and she took the gesture as a sign of his continued willingness to be part of whatever it was the two of them were.

He wasn't confident in bed, his fingers often missing the spots she wanted to feel them in, his tongue not quite sure in its quests. He sometimes looked up at her, though, tired and unsure and there was an expression in his eyes, like he thought he was looking at something he'd like to keep in his mind, that crested over Hermione in the same way an orgasm would have.

Eventually she said, "Let's try this," and cast a contraceptive spell and guided him into her.

He said, "I don't know--"

She said, "It's pretty simple."

He said, "I'll hurt you."

She said, "Not this way."

He did, a little bit, but Hermione didn't always mind pain, not with him breathing into her ear, exhalations that sounded almost like her name. He cleaned her gently, afterward, and stayed nearly until morning, and didn't call her names when they met for tea. She said, "I'm fine."

He sneered wordlessly.

As payback, when she slipped down to suck him off that evening--she was good at that, it had been Ron's favorite, unsurprisingly, and Hermione was nothing if not a perfectionist--she pushed one finger, then two, into his ass, pressing ever so insistently on his prostate. He made a sound then, low and shocked and pleased. She pressed again, and swallowed as he grabbed at her hair, far more contact than he'd ever bothered with before when she got onto her knees.

He pulled her up by it and it hurt, it hurt, but his gaze was fierce when she came far enough up to meet it and he said, "You can't--"

She said, "The things you like aren't always evil."

"I have a bad history to be applying that statement to," he said, trying now to untangle his hands, catching snarls as he did so, hurting her further.

"I'm still right," she said, because she was. "Stop."

She moved them backward onto the bed where she could kiss him as she worked his hands free. When she had managed she slithered down and pressed his knees to his shoulders, rimming him leisurely. He wouldn't get hard again, at least not this quickly, but there was sometimes pleasure in the simple granting of such, the warm heat and his troubled breaths. He was looking down at her with the expression she secretly suspected to be her own, bestowed upon nobody but her, three-fourths fury and one-fourth awe.

He pulled her up, this time by her arms--there would be bruises in the morning, but she wouldn't feel them, not really--and said, "You aren't the only one who can provide pleasure."

He must have been practicing--they were alike in that way, never quitting until they had mastered the latest task put to them--because his fingers were long and clever and Hermione said, "Severus, Severus," with a cadence that suggested there were six or seven syllables in his name.

He laughed at her and it was a derisive laugh, but not the one he used when telling her she was stupid. He set his thumb to her clitoris, one deep press and she said, "Yes," and arched and let him work her until she was biting her lips in lieu of screaming. He rose up over her and took her lips back for his own.

*


Every morning when Severus left Hermione's wing, he would promise himself it was the last time. That he would return to his own wing and bury himself in remembrances of things safely dead, and be happy with those things. Or, at least, content in his unhappiness.

Then tea time would come around and she would argue with him about things that everyone, everyone knew to be true, would challenge his beliefs until they weren't his own, until he had come up with new ones that made more sense, and that hadn't been uttered by anyone as of yet. Severus had been so, so sure there was nothing more to be said, not really, not on a grand scale, but she seemed to find those sorts of things without even looking.

It wasn't always tea and raised voices, either, that drove him back. Sometimes he would pass her in the hallway while she was talking to Gregory about his job--he had just received a raise--or brainstorming solutions to household problems with the elves or simply wandering to clear her mind, inviting him to come along, even as she stayed silent and apart. One of these strolls took them to the lake on the property and it was getting quite cool, autumn descending upon them with its usual effusion of color and early frost. She said, out of nowhere, as if it were the only thing she'd been thinking the whole time, "What this house needs is a sauna. One hundred and one million rooms, and house elves to match, and no sauna. What could they have been thinking?"

Severus stared at her for a moment, the image of her flying naked from the heat into the winter air, steam from her body rising up into the air, the snowdrifts around her not even phased by her interruption of their peace. "Perhaps that it was indecorous."

She rolled her eyes. "Most likely. I would almost feel sorry for them, poor mirthless things as they seemed to be."

Severus prickled on the inside. "They had their moments."

He would have thought his tone would have been enough warning, but this was Hermione, and she would do as she willed. "What was Draco's wing like when you moved in? Were there Quidditch posters? Or pictures of the Weird Sisters? Or any of the latest gizmos from Zonko's? Or books that he didn't need for school and that he couldn't get from his father's library?"

"Not everyone needs--"

She cut him off. "You must have been the most amazing thing he ever had for himself."

Startled by the observation, he growled, "This is none of your business, you incorrigible busybody."

"No. Not really. Only that I like it when your shoulders loosen a little, when your invectives have less fury, and it occurs to me that realizing that Draco did what he did for a reason, that you may have deserved that type of loyalty and sacrifice as much as Professor Dumbledore did of you, well, I was simply hoping it might help."

He hated her in that moment, hated her with everything he had, felt his hand go to his wand, but she just stood there, her eyes flickering out to the lake, her hands behind her back, her expression earnest and a bit pained.

When it became clear that he was not going to be able to force anything other than violence past his lips he gave it a moment's consideration. Then she said, "I'm sorry. I guess. Well, I can't imagine why I thought that would help. I'm sorry."

"I didn't deserve him. Not like that. Not at all."

She shook her head. "You loved him. Don't you see? Why can't you-- You loved him."

She was many things, but she was never, never less than eloquent. "You're repeating yourself."

"And you aren't listening." She sounded sad. He couldn't tell if it was for herself or him or some combination thereof.

"I am, you are simply wrong."

She shook her head again. "You were one of Albus Dumbledore's foremost weapons. You know I'm not."

She was right, as she so often was when things mattered. It made him want to hit her, want to punish her for her insight. It made him want to run to the safety of Draco's rooms, which were opulent in the way an adult's rooms should be, not a young man's. It made him want to bury himself in her, burrow so far in that she couldn't replace him with anything, anyone. He kissed her instead and it was a little bit harsh, a little bit tender, a little bit of everything he wanted to give her, to impart upon her. He could feel the sun on his head. They were standing directly where anyone who looked out the windows of the Manor would be able to see them, particularly with an adequate zooming charm.

She didn't push away. She brought her hands up and pressed them against his back and took what he offered.

*


"Gregory saw us," Hermione said as she poured the tea.

"He will not say anything," Severus told her.

"No. He won't even say anything to me. He just glances at me in a sideways fashion whenever we're in the same room and seems to have forgotten how to speak English."

"He was never that accomplished at it anyway."

She smiled at that. "Mean."

He looked at her, clearly unimpressed by her ability to state the obvious. "I am Severus Snape, scourge of young potions students."

And if you don't like it, she finished for him, You can find someone else to thoroughly debauch. Having accomplished the task of letting him know others knew--at least one other--she left aside the topic. "I sent my essay and Sackvie's in to the publisher."

"The Estonian transfigurations expert?"

"Mm, arguing about non-sentient human transfigurance."

"Relatively non-confrontational."

"His? Yes, I suppose so."

"You suppose nothing. As yours is the type to send blood running in the streets, giving the publisher something to calm themselves with is only practical."

"I would nearly believe you were calling me practical."

"You always were prone to flights of fancy."

"A characteristic which has served you well, I believe."

He admitted to nothing, but his lips curved up, and his eyes were amused. It was enough. He had come to her rooms earlier each evening. He stayed no later, nearly fleeing when they were done, and she still had not stepped foot in his wing, but his willingness to show up before the absolute dead of night was a sign of something, so far as she was concerned. She hadn't really any idea of what, but something. Something that had to do with the kiss by the lake and the fact that he was unbothered by Gregory having seen them.

She thought Harry knew, and she knew Tonks and Kingsley knew. For that matter, if Harry did know, then Ron would be aware as well. And Viktor, for that matter. None of them had said a word, but Hermione made her living (and staked her reputation) on reading between lines, between words, between syllables. She wouldn't have minded telling them, only that she wasn't sure what there was to tell. She wouldn't have minded telling them except that Severus still left her at least an hour before the sun rose and she didn't think her friends would be as accepting of that as she was. Or that they would get how she could accept it.

Well, Tonks, maybe. Tonks understood a lot about acceptance. Harry and Ron would be endless bundles of righteous anger, though, and Hermione had bigger problems to tackle at the moment.

He asked, "When will you need the rest of the collection?"

"I told them they would have the rest over a period of three months."

"Would you prefer I waited until the end of that?"

"Your article is not on the list of those I'm willing to exempt. I will turn it over to them when I receive it."

"Your loyalty is nothing other than foolish."

"This has nothing to do with loyalty. Your work is brilliant. Better than mine. And even were you not partners with my best friend, even were we not extending special favors to one another, it would still be the most likely provoke explosive reactions. Your article stays."

"I can't tell if you lie to yourself with incredible proficiency, or if your truths are just radically different from the rest of the world's."

"Does it matter?" she asked, absolutely no inflection to the question.

The gaze he fixed her with was sharp, nearly too sharp. "No," he said.

She found that she could read beneath his lies.

*


On the day Severus handed Hermione his article, she said, "Pour your own tea," and curled up to read it in its entirety without once--so far as he could tell--blinking. When she finished and stacked it all up, and began to read it again, he put a hand over hers.

From the look on her face, she had clearly forgotten he was there. She frowned at his hand. "Oh. Oh, you know it's brilliant, now give me some time with it."

"I've given you well over an hour."

"Look," her voice took on a definite note of impatience, "go away for now, and I will make it well worth your while later."

"Why should I believe you? You've clearly gotten what you wanted."

She laughed at that, despite the determinedly nasty tone he had adopted. He had always found that nastiness worked better than any other emotion to cover a plethora of others, including confusion, anxiety and any number of feelings that might relate his own vulnerability. She said, "Yes, yes, I only want you for your brain. Now seriously, leave me to puzzle out all the details of this so that I can argue violently with you and spend several hours making it up."

It was the flippancy that arrested him. Her absolute willingness to say the things he only thought in his mind, that he never, ever gave voice to--wouldn't know how to give voice to even if were willing; after all, why should it matter if that was all she wanted? "Later."

"Severus, it's a forty page essay, and I've only barely scratched the surface. You're making arguments that involve theory within theory. You're probably going to have to annotate this before actual publication. I want to understand all of it."

"You've assisted in the--"

She waved him off. "You've given me insights into what you were doing and I responded by telling you my thoughts in response. This is. . ." she drifted off and then smiled, "this is like Christmas. Go away and let me enjoy my present for a bit. Then I'll show you the present I got for you."

"I've read your essay."

"Different present," she said, completely unmoved by his attitude.

Severus scowled, but seeing that she was determined, he left to go spend some time in his wing, safely confined by the artifacts of Draco, which never confused him. Not anymore.

She had called his essay a present. She had, for all intents and purposes, called herself stupid compared to him. She never gave in a fight--oh, she would admit that he had a point and craft her arguments around her new way of seeing things, but she never collapsed to his reasoning--she never paid any heed to his insults, but then, there she had easily let him know that his essay was going to take her some time and patience to fully appreciate. Hers had taken him several days. He had just covered his tracks better.

She had called his essay a present and she had sent him off, but she had promised reparation later. In fact, it had been the first time she'd validly reminded him of Draco, who cajoled and bribed at his own leisure to get what he wanted. Only she didn't insinuate, didn't curl sensually in on herself and then undulate outward to get his attention, to make him believe.

Draco knew how to make things look enticing.

Draco had been enticing.

Severus didn't want to be enticed by her gifts, didn't want to care that she had left an open invitation for him. But she had left her hair down today. It was impossibly long--uneven in its length, some of it going so far as her wrists when it fanned out around her. It would brush along his skin, soft and smelling of grapefruit and mint stem.

Draco's hair had smelled of spices, cinnamon and heat. It had been silk on Severus' fingers, slippery and cool.

Like Draco she had beautiful, perfect teeth, but that was where the similarities ended. She was sturdy where he had been soft, and soft where he had been sturdy. She was scarred, imperfect, her eyes brown and everyday--at least when she wasn't smiling, or thinking, or sad--she was ordinary where Draco had never been ordinary.

At least, she was ordinary until she used her fingers in clever ways to illustrate her points, or flushed with frustration, or straightened her posture a bit to ready for a fight.

Severus thought that it was more that she should have been ordinary. It was insulting, angering that she didn't know that, couldn't conform to that.

Insulting, angering, terrifying.

Severus wished she'd finish with his bloody essay.

*


Hermione was no blushing flower, not in the demure sense nor in the inexperienced one, but there were certainly plenty of things she hadn't done. In the heat of the moment, fresh off of enacting a bit of revenge by making Ron explain the secrets of gay sex that books just couldn't quite cover in the ways she needed, it had seemed like a good idea. And the store clerks had been lovely and discreet and helpful.

It was dark now, though, and quiet, and she was waiting for Severus to come--if he would; he'd seemed a bit put out. (Not that she regretted expelling him. Her and the paper had managed a gorgeous afternoon on their own.) They had good chemistry, she knew that much. He made her want to lie down in the middle of hallways merely upon seeing him and let him have her as he would. And he never, never took his time getting her clothes off when he came to the room. He didn't avoid looking at her, hadn't for weeks.

Physically, even if she wasn't male, wasn't Draco, they worked.

But she hadn't before tried making either of those points apparent, hadn't tried playing around with his sexual past, pushing the boundaries of hers. She wasn't unused to new ideas, new plans, frightening her. Newness was, in general, scary. That was the brilliance of it.

She didn't know that she could stand to hear him berate her for this, not truly, not the way he did when he was actually mad. She certainly didn't know that she could watch him walk out, which was somewhat annoying, since really, he was only supposed to be the sort of itch that once scratched didn't get, well, itchier.

It was also somewhat devastating, as she knew herself, knew she'd gotten in too deep. She wanted to blame him, him and his hard-to-get ways, but since he was only validly hard-to-get, rather than coy, that seemed unfair. Hermione wished she didn't care about being fair, but unsurprisingly--to anyone, let alone her--she did.

She startled when he slipped in her door. He was nearly silent, as always, but her nerves had her on edge, hyper-aware of everything down to the dust motes floating about. She looked at him for a moment, unsmiling. He said--no doubt in reaction to the odd greeting--"I've come for my gift," in a flippant, cold tone.

There were two options. There was apologizing, admitting that perhaps she should have thought this out more thoroughly and letting him see her insecurities. Or there was bluster.

She ended up falling somewhere between with a, "To be entirely honest, I'm not wholly sure you'll like it. Certainly not so much as I did your paper."

For the brash portion of the evening, she undressed him with barely a murmur and said, "It's a present like this." Another murmur and she was undressed. A third murmur and she had his present, was fastening the strap-on over her hips with the harness, as the women at the store had shown her. She let her hair fall into her eyes--another accession to her own vulnerabilities--and said, "We don't have to try this. What we do, it's--"

His hand wrapped firmly around her neck, shocking her into looking straight into his eyes. They were mercurial, impossible to read. He asked, "Did you. . .did you read about this?"

"I did my research." She held his gaze.

"Of course you did." His tone was amused. Cutting and sardonic, but amused.

"Look--" she shifted in his grasp, trying to free herself. He tightened his hold.

"Yes," he said.

She stilled. "To the--"

He kissed her and whispered, "Smart girl."

She knew she'd heard it. She knew, but it took a second for her to understand it. For a second she hated him, wanted to score him with her nails, her magic, erase the kindness that would only pull her further down to the places she didn't want to find herself. Then the second passed, and there was nothing to do but kiss him back.

*


Hermione had spent weeks, weeks and weeks, getting to know Severus' body, the points of muscle that made him arch when gently pressed, the stretches of skin that could make his eyes roll backward when licked. He wasn't fool enough to think that she hadn't been researching him as she researched everything else.

He evidently was fool enough to believe that she wouldn't have managed such a thorough study.

It took her minutes, mere minutes, her mouth on his cock, her fingers long and insistent inside his ass, to get him on his hands and knees. It was odd being in that position, unfamiliar. When they had done this it had always been Draco bent over, the long, white curve of his back perfect and eternal in front of Severus, or his legs pressed to his shoulders, muscled and languid under Severus' palms, their chests bent together, intimate and heated.

But she was good at this, even as he could hear her breath coming faster, nervous and concentrated. Good at kneading her hands down the whipcord-thin length of his back, releasing tensions he hadn't known he'd held to him. Good at bending low, her mouth warm, her tongue insistent, readying.

She was even good at sliding home, the strap-on hard and smooth and something he hadn't even realized he'd missed. The pain, the sting of it was in perfect counterpoint with her anchoring grip on his hips. The mind-altering brush of her cock up against his prostate left him barely able to balance on his hands.

She asked, "Yes?"

He said, "Bloody well move."

Her breath came in muted, surprised gasps then, and he wouldn't have heard, have noticed, not in the midst of his own pleasure, except that it tangled with his, cacophonic and beautiful.

Her hand wrapped around his cock, not gently, not at all, and he pumped himself into it, even as he moved backward, nudging her in deeper, deeper than she could realistically go. She said, "Severus--" and it sounded like there was more, but he was glad enough to have it left at that.

Moments flew together, melded into a string of "yes" and "yes" and perhaps "yes" until he was spilling himself onto her, onto her bed, still moving into her hectic tempo of thrust and retreat. They toppled onto the bed sideways, he nearly on top of her.

It took a moment--most likely a few--for the world to begin taking on its normal hue, for sounds to make sense in the order his brain received them. Then Severus found the straps on her harness with shaking fingers and threw the contraption aside so as to plunge his fingers into her, three at once and she arched into them, just as he had into her, said, "Please, just. Please."

He granted her request.

*


She spent the next few days living off the fuel of memories and the occasional coffee as she bullied her publisher into accepting what was by far the best piece in the collection. The frustrating part was knowing that her publisher was aware it was the best, and still expressing reservations due both to the nature of the paper and the author's name being one Severus Snape.

When the publisher rolled over enough to say that he would include the article in the test copies, the ones sent out to professors and other professionals who could give some insight into the larger marketability of a product, Hermione gave up for the moment. She was entirely certain others would want the essay included. And she was more than willing to fight some more if she was wrong on that score. Later.

Severus hadn't come to her room since the night with the strap-on, and despite the undeniable quality of the sex, she couldn't help but wonder if he'd gotten what he'd wanted at that point and rather than say something, he had just moved on with his life. She sent him an invitation to tea, because it seemed only fair that he face her if that was the case.

He didn't respond to her invitation but he showed up for the tea. She'd asked the elves for all his favorites, on the off chance that he joined her. She tried to expect the unexpected, particularly with him.

He sat down, poured himself some tea--and then her, without asking--and said, "You look abysmal."

The comment stung, which was an unpleasant surprise, as she almost never felt anything at his insults. They were more like a foreign language, one that someone had to learn carefully and decode thoroughly, than actual insults. She reminded herself of this firmly, and allowed herself a moment of self-annoyance that she was at all caught up in what he thought of her. She had been that way as a student, of course, but then he had been her teacher. She could accept that. As anything else, friend, colleague, or otherwise, his opinion might be important, but not something that she let prey on her.

Only, evidently, she did.

She waved a hand as airily as she could, "Nevermind that. Your essay is going in the advance copy."

"To be excised as soon as you are looking the other way, I would imagine."

"Your imagination is horribly macabre."

"And yours lurid." He raised an eyebrow and swept his gaze over her pelvis.

She managed to control the flush that wanted to come over her cheeks. "I won't look the other way."

He made a sound maddening similar to a snort. "You will, at one point or another, have to sleep."

"There are potions to alleviate that problem," she said.

His gaze became suddenly sharp, bladed. She shook her head. "No, I don't-- I was the one who paid attention when you were speaking."

He didn't smile at the admission, but he left off glaring, so she figured she had gotten him to believe her. She was tired enough to tickle semi-sleeping dragons, so with the immediate threat dampened she said, "My lurid imagination can't quite conjure a reason why you'd care. You don't suppose I much have a brain to be turned into liquid manticore intestines or whatever it was you told us. It was vivid imagery, that much I remember. Crabbe and Goyle both turned green. Then again, that could have been from gorging themselves. Lunch was the period before."

"I have no interest in going through the letting process once again. You pay your rent in a timely fashion."

"Ah," she said, a silent laugh stealing over her face.

He poured her some more tea--she had barely finished her last. She said, "If what I did, if that was foolish--"

He looked up at her, his expression vaguely confused.

"You haven't returned."

"You've seemed," he stopped. "That is to say, we haven't had tea and I supposed that was due to your schedule being rather demanding. I thought some rest might be in order."

Her breath caught. That statement was the nearest thing to concern she'd ever heard him utter. And it had been for her. "You can always. . .my door will always be open to you."

"Just because one has privileges does not give him the right to abuse those."

"Privileges," she said softly, uncertain of how she felt at the word. On the one hand, it deemed her something that must be earned, something of value. On the other hand, it made her sound like services rendered for good behavior.

He gave her a scathing look, but she thought she recognized something like shame hidden shallowly beneath the heat of the glance.

"What we do isn't wrong," she said, and she sounded sure of that. She felt sure of that. It was complicated and would probably end disastrously, but it wasn't wrong.

"Maybe not for you," he said, and the shame surfaced for all to see.

She pulled back instinctively from the wound inflicted, gave herself enough room to think rationally about the comment. "You're not betraying Malfoy."

"What could you possibly know of it?"

"Nowhere near as much as you--a general state of being between us--but I have some idea of what death means, of what letting go necessitates."

"He--"

"He gave himself over so that you could live. Live. Not survive, not hide inside yourself, not do all the things he labored to quit you of in the first place." She kept her voice quiet and firm.

His hand came over her wrist and clamped, hard enough to hurt. She took the pain without a sound, it was far less than some of the things she had lived through. It was nothing so long as the connection between them wasn't broken. The bones shifted and his palm flew open. He said, "You still have no right to come into my wing."

"I had assumed."

He nodded once and then stalked off, leaving her with a mostly empty teapot, and scores of blackberry tarts.

*


Severus did slip up to her room that night. Hermione had the lights doused, which was normal, but she started at his entrance, which was not. He frowned, and lit up the tip of his wand nearly without even thinking. She blinked at the sudden light. He said, "I woke you."

She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and then opened them. "Mm, sorry, hadn't meant to fall asleep."

He turned around, intent on leaving. He didn't like his partners unconscious, or even nearly so. She said, "Severus, we can-- I'm up anyhow."

When he looked over his shoulder, she was rubbing at her face. "A state of being I'm completely certain you can manage to correct within a few minutes time."

"I'd prefer to drag the correction part out." She was quiet for a second. "It's been nearly a week."

Very nearly. Without their regular teas, however, Severus hadn't been certain of his welcome, despite her repeated reminders that it was an unrestricted one. All the same, the skin around her eyes was thin and dark with fatigue. "A blessedly peaceful one."

She was slow to reply, "I can't tell if you've suddenly turned coward, or if you simply have no idea what you want."

Both. Neither. He looked at her full on. "I believe I've experimented enough to know what I don't want."

She glanced down at herself and then brought her gaze back up at him. "There's always polyjuice. This is just a body."

It was hard to read her tone. He thought there was a fair amount of hope in it. "Always chasing after men who want better, Hermione?"

She shrugged, the motion making her exhaustion that much more evident. "Nothing's perfect, you must know that. I know what I want. If I have to make compromises to get it? There are worse things."

Draco had never compromised, not in the ways that mattered. And for all the times that Severus had been denied what he'd wanted, had been shut out of perfection, that had been exactly what the two of them made. He wasn't entirely sure how it was possible, not with himself as part of the equation, but it was true, all the same. Despite himself, he felt compassion that she'd never experienced anything similar. Cruelty was one thing, but poking at that wound seemed a step beyond. Particularly when he wouldn't have been surprised if she'd offered the same to Weasley and he had accepted. And it still hadn't saved them.

"No polyjuice."

"I realize I couldn't be Malfoy and anything else--"

"No polyjuice."

She sighed. "It was worth offering."

There were other potions, potions that would allow for them to do what they had done with plastic and leather with warm, living flesh. He would bring them to her, eventually, he thought. Not tonight.

"Goodnight then," she said. She sounded insistent, and maybe a little worried, like he wouldn't heed her words.

He didn't. "You seem utterly finished. And I woke you."

She tilted her head. "Most of the time I understand it when you speak in code, but sometimes you have to just say things. Or at least, enough of them that I can decipher the rest."

"If I stay, what would you have us do?"

She spread her hands wide.

He said, "I will do the work."

She nodded. "Fine."

There wasn't much work in it, not kissing her a bit and settling her beneath him and sinking into her. She was warm and wet and welcoming, and she slipped into sleep barely moments after biting his shoulder at the crest of her pleasure. He was quite certain he should leave her, but she looked a bit crumpled, even in sleep and it seemed ungentlemanly, like something his father would have done.

Severus had inherited several things he would rather have not from his father, but words aside, he wouldn't have his treatment of women be one of them. He resituated the pillows, and fell asleep at her side.

*


Hermione woke to a hand on her stomach. She tensed instinctively before remembering. Then she settled back against the mattress, very carefully avoiding looking at the clock on her nightstand. She felt well-rested, which meant she'd forgotten to cast a waking charm before sleeping. She wasn't surprised, given just how exhausted she'd been. There was work to be done today, but while waiting for the reactions of advanced readers, none of the work could be called urgent.

She couldn't quite credit Severus still being here, let alone Severus still being asleep. But it was vividly evident that he was, in fact, both of those things. She allowed herself to look for a moment. He wasn't any softer in his sleep, the lines didn't fade or even mellow. She appreciated the sharpness--it was honest. He looked older than Hermione knew he was, and a little bit more frail than she thought he would have preferred.

His eyes flew open, dark and immediately focused. She said, "Good morning."

He snatched his hand back. "What time is it?"

She threw a glance over her shoulder. "Half past ten. Did you have somewhere to be?"

"Not here."

She sighed, less than thrilled that they were back where they had been the night before, but that was him. There were certain things a person learned to accept or chose to move on from, but that decision was hers. She wasn't going to ask him to change--not in the big things, nor the little. "You know where the door is."

He didn't move. She said, "I could see if the elves brought breakfast. I'm usually up waiting for it, so I don't know that they would have left it, but if not I could always ask for something."

"I don't eat breakfast."

"I'm less than shocked, but you should know that the heroin-chic look has had its day."

He stared at her. "What have Muggle psychotropics to do with anything?"

"Don't suppose you keep atop Muggle runway fashion?"

He gave her the clear look of have you lost every ounce of sense you once possessed?

"Oh relax, I have a cousin who likes that sort of thing. Heroin-chic was a fad, emaciated models all over the place."

"I'm far from emaciated."

"The adjective far might be stretching things a bit much, don't you think?"

He scowled.

She smiled. "There must be something you like. Banana muffins? Orange marmalade on wheat toast? Boiled eggs? Black coffee? A veritable world of choices."

"You're not my mum, you realize? Or has the stress finally taken what little sense of reality you once possessed?"

"Given our indulgences, I'd hope I wasn't hallucinating myself as your mum. I suppose that works for some, but it's not really my thing. Of course, if you like we could always--"

"Cranberry muffins," he interjected, sounding mildly alarmed.

She let him off the hook. "Juice, tea?"

"A Darjeeling."

"Indeed, I might have to join you in that."

"This will not become a regular occurrence."

"All the more reason for me to make it just a little bit special," she said, adding a bit of bite that she didn't necessarily feel, but was fairly certain would make him feel better.

He did, indeed, relax slightly. She stole a kiss in an unguarded moment, and walked off to call herself an elf.

*


Despite his words, after the third time Severus fell asleep by trick of sheer momentum and woke up next to her, he tried to give into shared breakfasts gracefully. It was a little hard to do retroactively, but he managed. He suspected she may have let him manage, just a bit, but if he was to be honest--and only, only to himself, never to her--her general acceptance of him was part of what made him return night after night.

That and the way she could twist her tongue while in his mouth. Among other things.

She was slightly different in the mornings than she was in the afternoons or at night. It annoyed him that he noticed, but her small shifts were somewhat interesting. She was brighter in the morning, not quite so razor-edged. She smiled more.

She had a nice smile, miles away from Draco's luxurious sprawl of teeth and offering of mirth--or something else. Hers, when it was real, was unrefrained, uncalculated. It should have been terrifying, but somehow, it never was, as though that particular emotion simply couldn't relate to her expression.

Which was how he knew something was wrong roughly a month into their breakfasts, when they'd started being more of a normal occurrence than not. He didn't want to ask, it was clearly her issue, and she was more than welcome to it. Only she pulled her hair back tightly, and held herself upright in her chair and couldn't seem to decide on any of the foods the elves had brought.

"Attempting a diet?"

"No, that will come later," she muttered, obviously not even really paying attention to him.

"Would you prefer I leave so that you can have your snit in private?"

Her gaze shot to him, then. "Why don't I tell you what it's over and then you can decide?"

There was something in the way her jaw moved that told him to be cautious, to refuse. There was also something in it that told him that refusing would just prolong his pain, that they would return to this--whatever this was--eventually. "If you insist."

"I think- We must have forgotten a contraceptive spell along the way. Or one of us cast it faultily. I don't know, as I understand it these things happen."

It took Severus a second. It wouldn't have, not normally, except that she was sitting there, across from him and the implication were just too overwhelming to immediately process. "You cast a faulty Contraceptus?"

Ironically, it didn't take Severus a whole second to realize that accusing her had been a really, truly, deeply stupid move on his part. Which was a sign of how thrown he was.

"I suppose you think I'm telling you this because I want something of you?" Her eyes were cold, somehow green-tinted, despite their normally chocolate hue.

Unsure of how to change the course of his own actions, Severus went along with the tide. "What other reason could there possibly be?"

"That I thought you deserved to know. Not that I believe it truly makes one iota of difference to you, but whatever decision I make regarding the inseminated egg is mine and mine alone, as the body that carries it is. I simply respect you enough that I am willing to listen to whatever opinion you might have. Now that I'm saying this aloud, I realize the foolhardiness of my sentiments."

"You are thinking--"

"Also, you are my brewer of choice, and should I decide to purchase an emergency contraceptive potion I would feel imminently more secure doing so from you. And the likelihood that you were going to believe I was entertaining either before you came or after you left seemed small to me."

"I would hardly make you purchase such."

"Generous of you."

Severus, who didn't like children, found them to be loud and impulsive and a general nuisance, felt something cold like fury at the thought of her simply drinking down one of his concoctions, bleeding out something between the two of them. It wasn't fury, not even close, but he had never known anything like it, and had no words to describe it, not even instinctive ones. He harnessed the sensation of fury and injected as much of it as he could into his voice. "Is the thought of my issue growing inside you so utterly repulsive?"

She snarled. "For a second, imagine that this isn't about you."

Somewhat mollified despite himself, he said more mildly, "My imagination works best when it has something with which to work."

"I am barely twenty years old, Severus. I hadn't even imagined myself a mother, not even when with Ron, let alone in the next ten years. I have a bloody book to fight for, a university. Those are my children."

"I don't imagine that giving the child to me was at all a consideration." He didn't know he was going to say it until he said the words. There was no recourse for children without parent or guardian within the wizarding community. Family took care of family, and the children without family were, for lack of a better word, exempt from that care. It limited her options, certainly, and he couldn't much say why it mattered whether she simply swallowed her concerns away, only that it somehow did. This house had already lost one scion, and Severus was loath to let go of another.

Additionally, the thought of having made something between the two of them, made something only to discard it was surprisingly unnerving, unsettling in the deepest corners of his mind.

She looked at him, some of the hostility leeched from her face. "The thought that you might tolerate something of mine, let alone a child, for more than a tea, more than the few hours it takes us to satisfactorily find release in each other? No, I hadn't considered that."

She deserved an apology. He wouldn't--couldn't--give her one. She would have to understand his actions, the things he never said, if this was going to work at all. "I would prefer not to brew that particular potion for you. There are others. I can make you more comfortable, certainly."

She sighed. "It's not that simple. I hadn't decided upon that course of action to begin with. I was simply considering the possibility." She finally picked up a piece of toast, and absent-mindedly chewed off a corner. "Perhaps it is that I've seen too much death, that it seems such a waste. Or, I don't know, some part of me would rather like to hear the ideas that would come out of any child of ours. I can't explain it, it's entirely selfish, this pull to actually carry this through and I'm terrified that I'll be horrid at it. My parents were always there and supportive, and I have no idea if I have that sort of behavior in me. I disappear into myself for hours at a time. Harry and Ron learned to put up with it, and you prefer it, but I can't imagine that being good for a child.

"Then there's the fact that now, knowing you would want to have some contact with the child, bearing it would occasion something more formal than us. We would have to think about the consequences of, well, our liaison. I won't have the child's parents speaking ill of each other. We must be more careful about our relations."

Severus knew something of honor. More than he preferred to admit to aloud. "If it was your wish, I would of course marry you. You would not be required to move into my quarters. You would not have to change anything about your lifestyle. Rather it would just formalize my financial responsibility to you and keep your name unsullied."

She smiled. It was a tired smile, a little bit crumbly around the edges. "That's rather Victorian, isn't it?"

"You have lived among wizards since you were eleven, yes?"

Her smile crumpled just a bit more. "Nonetheless. I thank you for the offer; it is quite kind of you. But I would prefer if we were to negotiate that which is between us in smaller steps. There is no guarantee that you should wish to continue our arrangement indefinitely and I would not like for titles and words to become an issue in that particular case."

Frustration caused him to make his tone overly gracious, mockingly so. "Allow me, at least to lower your rent."

"It's already quite reasonable. Brew the potions for me charge-free. That will be enough."

He thought about pressing. Her shoulders were hunched around her, and she was still pecking slowly at her single piece of bread. He could garner himself some easy admissions, or rather, easier than they normally would be. Instead he said, "We will revisit this issue."

A short puff of breath exhaled through her nose was her only response.

Feeling inexplicably wounded at her fragility he said, "Sometimes these things do happen. Contraceptus failing. My father once told me that."

A sudden emotion much stronger than any other she had displayed at any point that morning came over her face. Her voice sounded of rage. "Your father told you that?"

He frowned at her. "You have seen pictures of my mother, I know. Potter said something, once, accidentally. You imagined my father married her for any other reason than my accidental whelping?"

"I could care less what kind of monster your father was to tell his child that. I care that you had to hear it. I care that you know that there is no excuse for telling a child that. None at all."

He wanted to scream at her. He wanted to, only that she hadn't directly accused him, if anything she had defended him. And so it was that all he could say was a quiet, "I would never hurt our child. Not purposely."

"If I thought you would so much think of it, I would never have mentioned it to you. Never."

He looked at the food in front of them, rapidly cooling. "I could use a heating charm. You really should eat."

"I suppose you have the right of suggesting it."

"You do so without right as a regular occurrence."

She smiled, and while it was still a bit lopsided, it was real, something more than a forced representation of the things she wished she felt. "You listen sometimes."

He realized, all of a sudden, that he actually did.

*


The kid--which was not so much a kid as a very tiny ball of forming cells--was so quiet inside Hermione that it wasn't until Tonks flooed with the offer to buy her a butterbeer, "Because you've been hiding away like no sort of friend," that she considered possibly having to mention the situation to a few other people.

Hermione said, "Make it a cherry fizz and you've bought yourself a night out."

"You have a wild night and swear off butterbeer for the good of mankind and nature?"

Hermione thought about it. "Something like that."

"Without telling me? Before I thought you were just being you, with your general passion for working and forgetting about the existence of the rest of the world. Now I'm starting to be genuinely hurt."

Tonks didn't sound hurt, just a little puzzled with possibly a dose of worried added in. Unlike Ron, Remus had been older and wiser, and pretty honest about himself with Tonks, not leaving her with a lot of the trust violation issues that Hermione held close.

"Get me that fizz, I'll give you your story. You'll be, well, the second to hear it, at any rate."

"Always after Harry," Tonks mock-pouted.

"Er," Hermione made a face. "You're going have to promise to wait and let me tell Harry this myself."

"Hermione," and now Tonks sounded truly worried.

"Half seven this evening?"

"Why don't we make it dinner for six?"

"Sure, love. Don't fret, I'm all sorts of fine."

"You're all sorts of cryptic," Tonks said. She was bad at leaving things alone--called it an occupational hazard--but she cut the connection after that, and left Hermione to work until she lost all concentration and made her way to the wards outside Severus' wing. She threw a light interruptus at the wards to get his attention.

He came, looking disgruntled, but she saw the way his eyes stole to her midsection in a vaguely diagnostic way. She almost smiled. She had gotten herself a Healer for that. Instead she said, "I don't want in, I just wanted to have this conversation face to face."

"This conversation?"

"I'm going out with Tonks this evening. She might bring Kingsley, I don't know. Maybe not, she knows I have something to tell her."

"I see. So rather than using your own powers to keep me from this child, you will simply fall back on your support network, the tragically wronged--"

"Do you ever listen to yourself?"

"If you think your friends are going to politely accept your choices regarding my ill-gotten get--"

"They will, Severus. Because I will ask them to, and they are my friends, and that is the essence of friendship." She didn't even have to think about that. Ron would fuss, oh he would, but Viktor would smile good-naturedly and nudge Ron into backing off. And when the child was born, Ron would fall all over it in the exact same way he had every single one of his nieces and nephews. "And don't call our child ill-gotten anything. Not even where it can't hear. I could give two bloody figs that we aren't the fairy-tale, we aren't the dish-patterns and curtain fabrics before the honeymoon, and lunchboxes with schedules on the refrigerator afterward. We're nothing to look away in shame from, either. We're two people enjoying each other. I won't avert my eyes in public places, and if you're going to, well, maybe there are other conversations we should be having. I don't want this child thinking it's the product of something ugly."

He stepped outside the wards. "Other people will tell the child, Hermione."

"And we'll be there to give lie to those words. Children told me I was ugly and a freak, and it hurt, but my parents always reminded me that what is different, is not always welcome. It doesn't make it wrong, or lesser. And they were my parents. Was I to think they were feeding me falsehoods?"

He looked at her, and in his gaze was his father's words, the ones he had betrayed to her on the day she had related her pregnancy. She saw other words, more of the same, only different, each one hitting its intended target. She said, "You would be amazed, the difference even just a little bit of love can make."

One of his hands went to the wall behind him, smooth solid wood, hundreds of years of history in it. She knew there were only sixteen years that mattered to him. He said, "I would not be. Amazed."

She could hear the terror underneath the exhaustion in his voice. She knew she was supposed to hear neither. She knew that four, maybe five months earlier, all she would have heard was the blank mildness he implemented when he was feeling merciful enough not to use nastiness to cover his weaknesses. "I'm telling Tonks and Kingsley. And Harry and Ginny and Ron and Viktor. And if you have persons whom you would like to tell, you should talk with them as well. That way, when people tell our child things that aren't true, we'll have a whole community of people to remind it that they're wrong."

"You will."

It was a betrayal of Tonks in some ways, but Hermione didn't even give it a moment's thought. If it was between Tonks and Severus, she knew who needed to be given a little bit more reason to believe in her. "Come to dinner."

"I won't be your charity case."

"No, you'll be the father of my child. Can you see how I might want you to share in the people who are important to me, even if it's not about the two of us?"

"No," he said, simple and cold.

"Come to dinner," she said, equally implacable. "You're a smart man, I trust you'll reason things out. Eventually."

"You are a foolishly trusting child."

She looked at him. He knew better. "Dinner?"

"Leave so that I can accomplish something before being dragged off to participate in your frivolous pursuits." His expression reminded her of the time her father had accidentally taken a sip of curdled milk.

"Certainly," she said, and went back to accomplishing her own things.

*


Nymphadora Tonks was wearing her hair long and icicle-white, braided into pigtails. Severus remembered when she had been a young girl, unable to control the rapid-fire transfigurations of her body, less so even when excited or scared. She looked up at him with a politely puzzled smile and he knew that those days were long past.

"Nice to have you join us, Severus."

Despite the fact that she sounded as though she were being honest, he sneered at her and declined to reply, instead taking a seat. She didn't seem terribly phased by this. Instead she pushed a disgustingly red, fizzing drink at Hermione. "One cherry-fizz, as requested. Now, pay up."

Hermione said, rather too-innocently, "I thought the drink was on you."

Tonks rolled her eyes fluidly, and with the ease of long practice. "You know how it works, story for drink. What exactly did you get yourself into that you've sworn off butterbeer? I mean, I know you're not what one would call a heavy drinker, but honestly, even for you it would take six or seven--"

"I believe she's swearing off all alcohol at the moment." Severus looked at Hermione. Muggles were particularly paranoid about what a mother could and couldn't ingest during pregnancy. He knew this from Muggleborn students who had come to him for potions after accidentally conceiving. They were few and far between, with Slytherin not having anything less wizarding blooded than half, and not many of the other students trusted him with such a delicate problem. But there had been enough. More than enough. They always talked incessantly and foolishly, but Severus had learned that sometimes listening to the most inane of blather would inform a person far more than he would suspect.

Still, even the conventional wizarding wisdom on the topic of alcohol and pregnancy was that one during the other could cause all sorts of havoc to be wrought upon the child. It was a little thing, and it shouldn't have mattered--after all, the child was hers as well--but it curled nicely inside his stomach that she was already taking protective measures against the harming of his offspring.

Tonks laughed a bit, her braids hitting at her back lightly. "Merlin's sake, Hermione, you must have--"

Severus could see the moment her Auror training kicked in and, could practically hear the clicking of clues as they fell together. She tilted her head, the braids sliding sideways. "Erm. There wouldn't be a reason, that is, beyond us liking your company, that you were joining us this evening, would there, Severus?"

Proving the Sorting Hat right once again, Hermione squared her shoulders, looked her friend in the eye and said, "I'm pregnant, Tonks. With Severus' child."

Tonks looked at the bottle in front of her. Butterbeer. "Would you excuse me for a moment?"

They did and she, to her credit, walked to the bar at a normal pace. Hermione took a sip of her cherry-thing and said, "She's good. Her nose would have changed shape if she was really upset. I think mostly she's just wishing I'd trusted her to tell her I was sleeping with you."

Severus had wondered if she had whispered about him behind his back. Evidently not.

"I wanted to, I rarely ever omit anything between us," she was saying, "but I didn't think it was something you wanted known."

Too late for that, Severus thought as Tonks returned with two shots of Ogden's and an apologetic look in Hermione's direction. She slid the second shot toward him. He nearly thanked her. He took the shot instead.

She didn't even flinch as she swallowed hers, which was a bit annoying. Severus didn't flinch either, but it seemed like that should have been a privilege of age and hard use. Tonks didn't have a mark on her. Not where he could see. He reminded himself that he knew better. The worst ones were always invisible.

She set the glass down gently. "Well then. Congratulations."

Severus peered at her suspiciously. She seemed sincere.

"When's it due?"

Hermione took another sip of her own drink. She didn't seem to mind being left out of the shot-shooting. "Six months. The Healer says the last week of April, or so."

"Can I tell Kingsley, or--"

"I'm all right with that." Hermione looked at Severus.

Severus got up to get them another round of Ogden's. When they were done with that, it was infinitely easier to say, "I suppose it would be entirely too much to expect one such as you to keep her mouth shut."

"Actually, all you'd have to do is ask." She was far too sharp for someone who'd had two shots and half a bottle of butterbeer.

Severus didn't ask. She grinned. "Excellent. 'Nother round?"

Severus simply looked in the direction of the bar.

*


Harry and Ron don't take the news quite so well. Not that Hermione really expected it of them, but she wouldn't have minded terribly if they could have defied her painstakingly gathered knowledge of the two of them, just this once.

In fairness to Harry, his reaction was more complete, utter, dumbfounded shock than anger, which was sort of what Hermione had been counting on. He would come out of it--life had pushed a lot of bounce-back onto him--and then most likely help her calm down Ron.

Ron, on the other hand, didn't waste time allowing the blood to rush into his cheeks and tips of his ears before yelling, "Are you out of your bloody mind?"

"Ronald."

"Don't 'Ronald' me, I'm not the one who's spreading it for Albus Dumbledore's murderer."

Harry was still clearly working his way through the mire of "what?" that had embroiled his brain, but Ron's crudeness was intense enough to startle a, "Stop it, Ron," out of him.

Hermione asked, "Do you really want to get into an argument about who is spreading their legs for whom, and the appropriateness of said actions?"

Ron was thinking about it, she could tell. Or, well, less thinking about it than willing to fling himself head first into the situation without much consideration. He probably would have, only Harry said, in a quiet, terrified voice, "He's more than just a murderer. You were there."

"He's not exactly less than one, either, is he?" Ron snapped, but the intent viciousness of his comments the moment before was missing.

Harry frowned, looking down at the table. "Is that what you think of me? Seeing as how I've killed for the exact same reasons he has. Or near enough."

"Don't be ridiculous, mate." Ron looked torn between anger and resignation.

"Then don't be treating my best friend and your best friend like some gutter-whore."

Ron's flush at that was finer, less angry. He muttered, "Sorry, Hermione."

Despite having been prepared for it, she was still a little bit too hurt to immediately forgive him. She stared down at the table.

"I didn't even--neither of you said anything," Harry said, sounding confused.

"It wasn't." Hermione stopped. She sighed. "You and Ginny are, for all intents and purposes, childhood sweethearts. And Ron and Viktor practically had a chaperone for their first meeting. Just because the two of you do things by the book doesn't mean that's my way of going about things."

Harry widened his eyes for a moment. "There's a change of pace for everyone involved."

Hermione smiled a little in acknowledgment. "We weren't going to tell anyone. It wasn't. It wasn't the sort of thing you tell people about. It wasn't exactly the sort of thing you don't tell people about, but, well. Severus has privacy issues."

Ron snorted, but wisely kept silent.

Harry was still staring at her, like maybe if he looked intently enough he would see straight through her to the things he had never known. "I didn't think you wanted children."

"I didn't know I did. Sometimes life gives us reason to re-evaluate our previously held assumptions." She put a bit of emphasis on this last. Ron grumbled beneath his breath.

"Wow," Harry said. "A baby." Harry, who dreamed of family and home and hearth and normal things that weren't really as normal as people liked to pretend, sounded a little envious.


"I want you in its life. Both of you. As positive presences." She gave Ron a meaningful look.

"I'll see what I can do." He didn't sound happy, but once Ron told her something, he kept to it.

Harry grinned. "A baby."

*


Right as Severus had begun to think that Hermione was going to sail right through the period of pregnancy wherein morning sickness would have been a problem, he woke up to the sharp twist of her body from his, the sound of her flight to the water closet. He laid in the bed, trying not to hear her catches of breath, the violence of the retching, not to feel somewhat guilty. Finally he got to his feet and joined her, sinking down beside her and placing his hands on her back. She startled slightly. He whispered, "Sorry."

She might have whispered back, but she was busy vomiting.

He'd never witnessed a woman's morning sickness before, but he'd nursed Draco through a truly vicious hangover once, and seen his mother fall prey to a particularly diabolic bout of influenza, one she had just barely survived. They hadn't had the money for her to go to St. Mungo's, so she'd had to depend on the help of Healers who weren't quite good enough to find positions with legitimate practices. Most of the potions they'd given her had only made things worse.

It was the first time Severus ever knew that he was going to learn to brew, and learn well.

Hermione didn't whine, the way Draco had, and her breathing was stronger than his mother's had been, even if her skin went the same grayish-white. Severus called an elf and asked for cool, damp flannels and some weak tea at the ready. When he settled the first of the flannels over her neck she actually managed, "thanks," before she started up again.

When she was done, she collapsed onto the side of the basin. He banished the results of her sickness, and tidied her up as best he could. She said, her eyes closed, her lips looking as though it was tremendous effort just to form the words, "For the love of anything you consider holy, tell me there's a potion for that."

He wanted to touch her, to soothe back the wild strands of hair lying pell-mell across her cheeks and nose. It should have been easy. He had touched her so many times, in far more presumptive ways. His hand wouldn't move. "Yes, of course. I'll have some for you by this afternoon. You take it in the evenings."

"If I were looking at you, I'm entirely certain there would be no more beautiful visage upon this earth."

"And I'm entirely certain that is the dehydration speaking."

She opened her eyes then, and managed a smile. He gathered her to him and lifted her up. She gasped, "I can walk," but her limbs felt liquid in his arms, so he ignored her. He deposited her gently back onto the bed, and tucked the covers up around her as her exertions had left her slightly chilled. He kept his movements brisk and impersonal, lest she should read some sort of concern or tenderness into them.

She looked up at him, obviously struggling to keep her eyes from drooping. He said, "Sleep," in his most authoritative tone.

She nodded a bit. "Going to brew?"

"I'll set the elves to watching you, should you need anything."

She yawned. "I'll be fine."

He believed her, he did. Only she looked small under the covers, not inviting and relaxed and slightly enigmatic, the way he had grown used to her appearing. "It is one of their only true privileges," he said.

She chuckled a bit. "Oh sure, apply to my better angels."

Her "worse" ones, the ones that allowed her to argue and stand straight and do what needed to be done, would be back shortly enough, he knew. He didn't reassure her. "Sleep."

She wiggled even further down onto the bed. "Yes, all right, if you insist."

Without knowing why, Severus found himself unable to leave until her breathing had evened the tiniest amount, signaling that she was no longer with him.

*


Hermione had been hiding the list for weeks by the time she felt steady enough in her emotions to talk it over with Severus. It was frustrating, knowing that half the time when she wanted to say hideous, flaying things to him that her anger, her sadness, none of it was real. The early part of the fifth month came with the beginnings of an obvious tummy and a relative calm compared to the previous month, by which Hermione was far too relieved for words to suffice. She knew it would come back, the pregnancy books she'd gorged herself on and sheer knowledge of pop culture made her aware of that, so she seized the moment, arranged for a tea with Severus, and laid out the list.

He looked at it. "Names? You're already thinking of names?"

"You would prefer to do it while I'm screaming at some poor, entirely innocent Healer and you're waiting to find out if your child has all its toes?"

"We have four months."

"Assuming all goes perfectly well. Again I ask, would you prefer while I'm huge and uncomfortable and not in the best frame of mind to be generous?"

Severus glanced down at the parchment in front of him. "Very well."

She wasn't surprised. He had his big, blind, irrational spots, but for the most part, he was a reasonable man. She watched as, after a minute or so, his face crinkled into a moue of confusion. He read, "Helena, Helene, Elinor, Elani, Ellie. Are you really so obsessed with having been on the side of the 'light'?"

She could hear the mock quotes in his question. She blinked. "I hadn't really thought of it in those terms."

"What other terms--" His eyes scanned down the rest of the page. "Perin. Wolfe. Dore, Doria, Dorian, Dorinda. Drake. Malcom, Malory, Malise, Malia, Malachi."

She waited for him to figure it out, her shoulders squared, her tea going cold. Slowly he said, "They're all derivatives."

"Yes."

"Eileen. Percival. Wulfric. Dumbledore. Draco. Malfoy."

"Yes."

"None of your dead." Despite the bite filtered into the statement, he said it quietly, questioningly.

She responded with a gentle, "I would argue that we perhaps share Professor Dumbledore, at least a bit. Regardless, I have the privilege of owning not quite so many, and as it is one that I would not trade for all the name choices in the world, I thought it was only fair that the namesakes be largely yours. You will notice I was careful to pick out derivatives that I like. Now it is just for you to narrow this list."

"Strike Elani, Perin, Wolfe and Dorinda."

A point of her wand, and all four had lines through them.

"I leave the rest to you."

She took a sip of her tea and grimaced at the lukewarm slide of liquid over her tongue. "Sorry?"

"It seems kindness sometimes does carry its own rewards," he said dryly.

"You do realize you'll have to call the child by whatever name I choose? Or something near-to, at the very least?"

"Oh, that's how this works?"

She glared. Her patience wasn't quite so dependable as she remembered it once being. Then again, neither was her memory.

He glanced at her abdomen. "The rest of the names are acceptable to me. Whichever you choose, I shall go along willingly."

"That will be a change of pace."

"I suppose one might see it this way: if you have the privilege of living friends, I have the privilege of not carrying a rapidly growing, kicking weight in my midsection."

"Surprisingly intuitive point." It wasn't really so much his intuition that was a surprise as the fact that he was willing to admit she deserved some sort of leeway.

He slid the list back toward her even as he took care of reheating her tea.

*


Epistula smacked into Severus. He swore, "Bloody obnoxious bird," and reached out to take the note she was carrying. Only she wasn't carrying a note. And Epistula was not a clumsy bird. Rather, for the most part she was inordinately fast and good at evasive flying.

He Apparated, never so glad that she'd included him in the wards to her wing. "Hermione?"

There was a few moments of silence before he heard a weak, "Loo," and made with all haste toward the indicated location.

She was bent awkwardly over the toilet basin, nearly six months worth of growing child inhibiting her ability to fully curl around it. Despite it being early afternoon he would have suspected a return of the somewhat-inaptly named "morning sickness" except that her body was taut with panic. "I'm here," he said, working for it to sound solid, if not entirely reassuring.

"Emergency contact list by floo." She managed to say this in between heaves. "Healer."

Severus didn't ask for more information, just rushed to her fireplace. The list was neat and thorough, as he'd come to expect from her, and the Healer was third on it. He sent the floo through with an emergency beacon, a flare of fluorescent red flame preceding the green.

The Healer popped her head into the flames. "Nature of emergency?"

"Hermione is vomiting. Uncontrollably."

"Sometimes morning sickness--"

"This isn't that." Severus didn't know how Hermione knew that it wasn't, only that she clearly did, and he trusted her instincts in this particular instance.

"Can I step through the floo, or will I get caught in warding?"

Severus' glance flickered to where the Healer's name was written in a soft blue--Hermione's code for people who were included in the emergency floo wards. "Step through."

The Healer did so, and Severus spent the next thirty-five minutes standing directly outside Hermione's bath area, waiting to be called upon, hoping to be called upon, to be doing anything but waiting, waiting, waiting to see if the baby was all right. If Hermione was all right.

It took the longest fifteen minutes of Severus' life for the Healer to staunch the heaving. The next twenty were devoted to cleaning her up and trying to ascertain what had caused it. Then the Healer popped her head out at Severus. "Help me get her to the bed, yes?"

Severus didn't waste time in supporting Hermione to her feet. He picked her straight up from the floor and carried her into the room. She was heavy, weighted down with the bodies of not one, but two people. Severus didn't notice. He had a hard time letting her down once they were at the bed, but he forced his fingers to unfurl, his arms to unlock. She was shivering, cool against him and he pulled the covers up over her, warming them slightly with a charm.

The Healer said, "Walk me to the floo."

The floo was not out of hearing range for Hermione, but that was all right. Had he been in her position, he would have wanted to hear all the information available. In that way, they were far too much alike for him to suppose that she wouldn't eavesdrop. The Healer said quietly, "It's a touch of the flu. I'm going to owl you a list of potions to help with the symptoms that won't be detrimental to the child. Other than that, she just needs to rest and hope that it passes quickly."

"So the child is--"

"Fine for the moment. Probably less than thrilled with the ride she's been giving it, but otherwise, none of my diagnostic spells showed anything wrong."

Severus discovered it had been an interminably long time since his last breath. "Get that list to me shortly."

"Certainly," she said, pinching some floo powder from the box on the mantle and tossing it before stepping into the grate. Severus watched the flame die out before returning to the bed. He climbed carefully onto the other side, not wanting to jostle her.

She mumbled, "Might be contagious."

She was still trembling, even bundled in the covers, and he recognized it for shock, rather than cold. "Hermione," he said.

"I'm fine. I'm fine."

Severus knew the difference between truth and saying something aloud to make oneself believe it. Reassurance was not Severus' strong suit, though, particularly not through words. He remembered waking to a shaking, pale Draco more than once, however. He remembered pulling his lover's body to his, letting his skin do the comforting. She wasn't Draco.

He put his hand on her cheek.

It seemed the wrong thing, as she burst in to tears. Hurriedly she said, "Fuck, no, don't," when he tried to pull his hand away, and "Sorry, sorry," when he put it back, unsure of what else to do. She said, "I was so--it hurt. And I thought I'd lost--"

Lost the baby. She, like him, had seen visions of blood, of an almost-human shape flooding out of her body. "I'm going to brew--the baby will be fine."

She nodded a little, but the tears didn't stop. He stroked at her cheek. She brought her hand up and cupped it over his so tightly as to hint at pain. He didn't say a word. It was somewhat reassuring to him that she had the strength to grip onto him so firmly. She said, "Please, just. Stay, for a bit."

"Yes," he said, and settled down for as long as a "bit"--or maybe, if he had his way, more--lasted.

*


Hermione woke up to overwhelming, oppressive heat. For a moment it was panic inducing until she remembered, "Sick."

"Very," a familiar voice agreed.

She really couldn't be bothered with trying to place the voice. "Water? Please? Ice?" Lots and lots of it, enough to cover her whole body wouldn't likely be enough, she didn't imagine.

"Potion first," Voice said, and hands that must have belonged to the same person helped her to sit up. They were familiar too, warm and dry and deceptively sturdy.

She opened her eyes as an experiment and said, "Right, Severus."

"You were expecting someone else?" He tipped a cup to her lips and she drank, grateful that it tasted of nothing more than a faint bitterness. Her stomach was still less than thrilled with being a stomach at the moment.

"Feeling a bit hazy on the details," she admitted.

"You have the flu," he said. "The baby is fine."

"Oh, fever."

"You're warm?"

She nodded, not wanting to explain that "warm" was really an injustice to the kind of heat strangling her. She didn't mind his underestimation so much when a few moments later there was a cool rag wrapped around her throat and the back of her neck, a glass of water at her lips. She drank slowly.

When she didn't want anymore, she drew back and said, "Baby's fine," not knowing if it was a question, or a reassurance to him, or to herself, or all three.

"Yes," he said.

He seemed stiff and tired. She thought that nursemaiding couldn't possibly suit him. "You could call Tonks. She would help. Both her and Kingsley. Harry even."

"My care not to your taste?"

The question seemed unreasonably defensive to her ears. "Imagined you would have better things--"

"That is my child you're exposing to all sorts of viral nonsense, and you are my. . .tenant," he finished lamely. Hermione doubted he expended this sort of care on Gregory.

Not up to arguing with his peculiar sort of anti-logic, she said, "Thanks, I suppose."

He eyed her distrustfully.

"Sorry I scared you."

"You didn't."

"I scared myself bloody mindless."

"You scare easily."

"And yet, I'm still here."

"You need sleep," he said and helped her back to a prone position.

She smiled up at him, then closed her eyes. "I win."

He snorted, but he didn't argue.

*


Even the house elves were a bit awed by Hermione's appetite when it returned. Severus had never seen anything quite like it. On the morning that she awoke, fever broken and pouring off of her, she waited until she was on her third helping of breakfast, pecking slowly and methodically away, to say, "Before I fell delirious and otherwise useless, I was going to ask if you might accompany me to the publication event for the book."

"Your book?"

"I suppose. The book I edited. You should be receiving an invitation as a contributor any day now."

It was possible he already had, he'd been having Corra deliver all his correspondence to his office, rather than Hermione's wing.

"I figured you to not show up, if you want the truth. And that's still certainly open to you, as is coming apart from me, but I'd much prefer to attend with you."

"Why?"

Hermione stopped in her slow path of devouring everything in sight. "Why?"

"Yes. Do I need elaborate?"

"Of a sort. I asked you to accompany me to an event where we will be amongst our colleagues. I don't understand that there has to be a why."

"Because I am Severus Snape. And if you don't know all the epitaphs that commonly accompany that name, I will not be the one to inform you of them." Even as he said the words, he felt surprisingly calm. It was such a good reason, one that not even she, with her ideals even wilder than her hair--which had not been brushed in over three days and furled around her head like the tendrils of a spell gone rogue--could dispute.

Only she did. Her voice, when she spoke again, was low, intent, and there was just the barest hint of fury underneath it. "You're the father of my child. You just took care of me for three days while I could barely move. You're one of the most brilliant contributors to my collection. I don't care what random, uninformed fools say."

The proper answer, the safe answer was of course "no." It was, "I do not plan to attend," or "I shan't be seen as the editor's kept contributor." She was no longer sick, he could walk quickly back to his wing without a second look and she would be fine. He could miss seeing her amongst their peers, the as-of-yet unrecognized leader of the next generation of scholars, the War Hero Who Would Transform the World Into a Learned Place. Hermione.

"You're allowing your personal sentiments to get in the way of your larger goals," he told her.

"Sometimes the bigger picture isn't worth anything if the smaller ones that construct it are shoddily painted." She lined her fork and knife up neatly with her plate.

"You are a woman, young, unmarried, and pregnant. The last thing you need is a man at your side. You have enough obstacles to overcome to establish your name within academic circles."

"Only, all these people have already contributed on the strength of my previous publications and my arguments to them, alone. And I am, if nothing else, Hermione Granger." Her lips curved into a small smile. "If you don't know all the epitaphs that commonly accompany that name, I will not be the one to inform you of them."

She had shadows around her eyes, great rings of shiny blue-green skin that spilled over her bones, nearly onto her cheeks. The lines of those cheeks were clearer, sharper than they had been days earlier, and her lips were red with chapping. He wanted to press his hand to the place where his child occasionally let its presence be known, butting against its temporary home. He wanted to comb a Detangling Potion through her hair. He wanted to kiss her. It--she--was wrong, illogical, not what he had bargained upon. "It's a bad idea."

"But it's my bad idea, and you can always yell at me or mock me for it later."

The disheartening part being that he never really wanted to these days. Not unless he knew she would return either sentiment with her own version of spit and polish, varnish and fire. "In that case, then."

"Yes?" she asked.

He nodded once. That was all she would get from him.

*


There were very few times when Hermione worried about how she looked. For the most part, her appearance was what it was, neither hideous nor stunning. But even putting aside that the publication premiere of the book she'd worked on for no less than three years was something of an event for her, and that she had never met several of the contributors with whom she'd corresponded all that time in person, she was attending with Severus. It seemed that once, if only once, it would be rather nice for him to look at her while she was fully-clothed the way he looked at her when they were in bed.

Being nearly seven months pregnant was not helping her cause. Still, Hyacinth had helped her to find a perfect robe--one that hadn't yet been released into stores--and she had brewed enough Hair Slicking Potion to cover every inch of her tresses, so that full-bodied, sleek curls fell all the way past her waist. The only accessory she'd acceded to was a single jeweled clip, pinning back the curls that wanted to fall into her eyes.

Flooing and Apparating were getting to be trials, each in their own way, so she'd arranged for a portkey for the two of them. She made her way to the library, where Severus had said he would meet her.

When she entered, his eyes swept over her. There was none of the heat that she had hoped to see. She gritted her teeth and did her best to return the plain coldness of the look. He was in gorgeously cut robes, the dark blue of them matching splendidly with the pure black of his hair and eyes. For a second she really, truly hated him.

Then she remembered that she was one of the few women who found him attractive, and was cheered in some small part. It was petty, but lately she was willing to take reassurance from wherever it came. Tonight, twice the size she usually was, and up against one of the toughest moments of her career to date, was not going to be the moment when she got noble on herself. He asked, "You have the portkey?"

She held out the item in question so that he could grab onto it. He slid his fingers over the back of her hand and peered at her from underneath drooping eyelashes. It was enough. She smiled in the second before the 'key whisked them from the room.

Portkeying was never one of her favorite ways to travel, but with the baby making a fuss about it, it was even less pleasant. She had to stand still, work on breathing at the other end of their travels. Severus' hand stayed on hers. "All right?"

"The baby thinks we should get a car."

"No child of mine would dream up a plan anywhere near so moronic."

"Half its genetic material does originate in me, you realize? I'm not just some incubating chamber."

He glanced down at her. "Nervous?"

"Annoyed," she snapped back.

"Hard to make a good first impression in that state." His voice was as mild as milk and twice as smooth.

"These people already respect me."

His smile at that was sharp, and she thought she caught a hint of relief in his eyes. Which only annoyed her further. She was no longer some student of his to be either terrorized or manipulated into acting out his bidding. She snatched her hand from his. "I will be socializing. Have fun figuring out which corner is the darkest and has the best brood-supporting features."

She could feel his gaze on her as she attempted to stalk off, hindered somewhat by her size. It almost made up for his appalling lack of real interest in her. Almost.

*


Severus had to work not to gape at Hermione, which was, among other things, uncharacteristic of him, and like to give her far too much power in the situation. It was simply that despite the fact that he had never found a woman alluring, much less one in the latter stages of pregnancy, all she had to do was look at him to make him want to eschew his books, his work, the comfort of his loneliness and come to her side. Had he allowed himself to gape at her, he would never have stopped there. They would have missed the party. And while Severus would not have regretted that for a second, not for himself at least, she deserved this chance to be among her peers, to prove herself as the reckoning force that she was.

He wouldn't be the one to take that from her. He wouldn't be the one to change all the things that he secretly--and only to himself--admitted to liking in her.

Her anger was easier to deal with than her wicked, unexpected--although it shouldn't have been--poise. Her anger was familiar, safe territory. Yet somehow, when she walked off, he was left still feeling lonely in her absence. A feeling he looked on with fond remembrance a moment later, Potter having sidled up to him to observe, "She's going to eat him alive, wouldn't you say?"

The man with whom Hermione was conversing was only slightly larger than she, but Potter didn't sound as if he meant it literally--or carnally, for that matter--so Severus asked, "Should I know him?" with as much disinterest as he could possibly generate.

Potter snorted. "Probably not. Name's Howard, Reuben Howard. He works for the publisher and has done everything in his considerable power to keep the book from going to press."

Severus swiped something red and housed in a fluted glass off the nearest floating tray. He paid just enough attention to notice something vaguely Cabernet-ish about it. "Why would he attend?"

"His pleasure lies in making others miserable." Potter glanced sideways at Severus as he said it.

Severus sneered back. "If you have something to say to me, Potter, say it."

"She's too good for you."

"Perhaps you just do not know her as well as you thought you did."

"I know she was better than Ron deserved. And Ron's the nearest thing to a brother I'll ever enjoy."

"Mr. Weasley treated her as if she were his very favorite robes--comfortable and always there at the end of the day."

"And you treat her as a pair of clubbing pants--sexy to slip into when the timing fits to your schedule and desire."

"I offered her marriage."

"She said. But if you knew her at all, you would have known that marriage is nothing, worth no more than the parchment it's decreed upon. Maybe not even that."

"I have nothing else."

Potter tilted his head. "I think she believes you do."

"Regardless of the percentage of the time which Hermione is right in comparison to you and those with whom you surround yourself, she is not always so."

"Occasionally I like to tell myself that, but when it matters, she always is."

"There's a first--"

"Look at her," Potter growled, and for the first time in a long time there was a hint of the boy Severus had taught in him, but it was no more than a hint and it was grown and morphed and far more powerful than even he had envisioned. It was nothing like James. Harry repeated, "Look at her," with no less emphasis than the first uttering.

Severus looked. She had moved on from Howard and was now speaking with a tall witch of Indian descent, the woman's shortly cut black hair and long limbs combining to make a stunning picture. He spared her no more than a glance. Hermione was saying something, agreeing--if the way her hair shook, ringlets bobbing every which way, and her mouth curved eagerly, was any indication. The robes swayed around her, hinting at the ripe swell of overburdened flesh at her center. Severus had a momentary flash of its smoothness beneath his fingers, of the tiny but resounding punch his child packed when acting up. Of how Hermione bore up under the resistance.

"That's what I thought," Potter said, and he didn't sound triumphant or as though he was gloating. He sounded relieved.

"You're wrong, Potter."

Potter took Severus' glass of wine and exchanged it out for another. "Prove it."

*


Hermione was pretty sure her ankles were each, separately, the size of her head by the end of the evening. Barring that minor inconvenience, and the fifteen minutes she'd had to interact with Reuben Howard, she was rather pleased with how the evening had progressed. She had even caught Severus glancing her way once, and while he was probably only worried for the cargo she was carrying, it was still somewhat mollifying.

She had enjoyed meeting several of the contacts with whom she'd spent years corresponding in order to get the book assembled to the best of her ability. Mariko Shimane had invited her out to his school outside of Saitama. Lucjan Drabczak had spoken to her of the possibility of co-publishing an article when she was ready to write again.

Dipti Priyadarshi had asked about helping out with the push for a university, and Margaret Kent had agreed to support her in any way necessary. By the end of the night, even Valerius Rusbridge, who had been less a fence-sitter than an avid doubter of Hermione's aims, was willing to listen.

All the same, she was more glad than she was willing to let on when Severus caught her eye and looked at her in a pointedly disgruntled manner. She nodded at him and made her goodbyes.

The experience of portkeying back home was even more jolting than going there, her body hours more tired. She stumbled a bit upon landing. Severus' hands were there, at her elbows, studying her. She said, "Thanks," and tried to pull away, wanting to stand on her own, to not owe him anything.

He said, "Still yourself."

"Please let go," she said, keeping her voice even, polite.

"You stood by yourself all evening long."

"I can do so a bit longer."

"I would prefer that you didn't."

"I'm tired, Severus, not infirm. And your child is fine. Relax."

"I know my child is fine."

It took Hermione a second to sort through all the things he wasn't saying, never said, possibly couldn't say. "Your concern is appreciated." It was too, but she would have preferred quite a few other emotions accompany it.

"You accomplished quite a bit this evening."

"Most of it was done before I ever stepped foot into the party."

"Yes," he said.

She smiled. "Nearly complimentary. I suppose I'd best thank you for accompanying me and head off to bed while I'm ahead."

"I could walk you there."

"You could. You could even stay, but I thought we'd worked all that out."

"Draco never needed me to say--"

"And do what I will for us, or this--I suppose--I'm not Draco. I wouldn't choose to be if I could. So you can come to my bed, with me or later, but I'd really much prefer if you bothered to notice whose bed it was."

"You think I do not."

"I think you work your very hardest not to. The baby was inconvenient in more than one way." She turned then. She couldn't stomp or run or do anything other than waddle off, but with him that was generally good enough.

Not this evening. He stopped her with, "I don't find the baby inconvenient."

And whether or not she was Draco, she really didn't need a lot of words either. She waited for him to catch up.

*


Severus woke up with one hand tangled in Hermione's hair, the other laid possessively over her abdomen. He thought, I don't want you to be Draco, immediately before slipping out of her wing and down to his, where she would not be able to follow him. Draco's wing.

He had no more entered the wing when he turned out of it and made his way to another area of the house to which he knew she would never follow. The house, when Potter had given it over to him, had been filled with Malfoys. A few Blacks had scattered the walls here and there, but overwhelmingly, each hall, each room, each sitting area, had contained one or more portraits of Venerable Ancestors.

There weren't any portraits of Draco by himself, he hadn't been old enough to merit one. But there was a family portrait. Severus had stored them all on the same levels that played home to the house elves. He had sectioned off an area, and other than to dust, the elves left the portraits alone.

Severus walked the lengthy area until he came to the picture of Draco standing in front of his two parents. Narcissa was fawning over him. Lucius was, for the most part, ignoring him. Business as usual.

Draco was fourteen in the portrait, but Severus had long since determined that either the real version had kept his paint counterpart up to date, or Lucius had somehow spelled the portraits to be imbued with later facts of their likeness' consciousness. Either way, Draco always smiled that dry, heavily pleased smile Severus had liked so much when he snuck down to talk to the portrait. He tried to keep himself from it--he knew how very far away a portrait was from flesh and bone and blood--but there were times when he simply couldn't help needing to see Draco again. To hear him again.

Lucius, of course, snickered. Severus sneered right back. He was the one still living.

Draco said, "I've missed you."

The words took Severus' breath away for a moment. When it came back it was choked and painful and surprising. Portrait-sized Draco really, really had no idea.

Narcissa said, "Severus, dear."

He smiled at her, because Draco liked it when Severus was gracious to his mother. Lucius turned his back on the entire scene. It was nearly kind of him. Severus said, "Draco."

"You sound worried."

Severus closed his eyes against the familiarity, both Draco's of him, and the echo of his own for Draco. "I'm having a child."

Draco blinked. "I stop being around to remind you not to experiment with your own potions and this is what happens?"

"With a woman," Severus clarified.

"Now I know you're lying."

Severus didn't bother telling him who. It would only encourage him in his disbelief. "She won't let me marry her."

"You wait forty years to sleep with a woman and manage to find yourself a radical? That is so. . .you."

"Draco--"

"And you love her." Draco's voice went soft, hard to read.

It was Severus' turn to blink. "What would make you say that?"

"You're down here, aren't you?"

"I didn't want you to worry. I thought if I kept visiting--"

"I would have. I do anyway. But you come down here when you really need me, and I know you, Severus. I know your voice and your body language and, well, I know you."

"I--we--haven't discussed it."

"No, you don't discuss these sorts of things."

"If you had ever said--"

"I didn't need to. I knew. Girls aren't quite as easy."

"You were always anything but easy."

Draco grinned, pure invitation. For a second, just a second, Severus could see his Draco, older, with sharper, darker eyes, and scars at the whim of a second Potter. "You liked me that way."

Severus had. It was different with Hermione, wildly, bizarrely different, but it felt right--as Draco had--all the same. "She's not you."

"Nobody is," Draco said, and there was knowledge in his eyes, juxtaposed against the young face. "Nobody will be."

Severus said, "I love you."

Draco said, "I already knew you could say it."

Severus nodded and didn't walk away for a long, long time.

*


Somewhere in the eighth month, prolonged, insistent discomfort turned into aching, wild, inescapable discomfort. Hermione did her best to focus through it, to answer all of her correspondence. With the early response to the book already simmering, a level five hurricane in the brewing, she needed to be sharp every moment of every day.

Most moments she felt like a misshapen cushion.

She continued to have tea with Severus, but she said, "Don't come at night. I can't--"

He said, "If not for that, I'm unwelcome?"

She said, "I'm feeling a bit lousy, so would you mind skipping the righteous indignation?"

He said, "You're not feeling well."

"I'm eight months pregnant."

"Perhaps I could brew you something."

"I wouldn't turn it down, thank you."

Severus set his tea down and stood. "Come with me."

"Severus, I really have very little interest in moving just now."

He was at her side then, raising her up gently. "I know."

"Couldn't you just--"

"I need you to tell me the symptoms. And it will be easier if you tell me while I work."

"Severus, your brewing area is an extension of your wing."

"I'm not the one having trouble mobilizing my own limbs. I can remember simple facts."

"All right. Then I will assume you remember that I'm not allowed in that part of the house. Because I, with my limb issue, have managed to recall that."

"I seem to recall once or twice when you have changed your mind about something. Or is that something only you are allowed?"

She was too drained to argue over getting something she'd never realized she'd wanted quite so much. "I wouldn't want to rob you of something at which you are so infinitely talented."

"The mother of my child is endlessly magnanimous."

"Only with you," she said, doing her best at sickeningly sugar-sweet.

He laughed. It was short, and sword-sharp, but it was real laughter. She had learned, somehow, to tell. She couldn't remember hearing anything that real before, but she knew all the same that it was.

She said, quietly, "Thank you."

He said, even more quietly, "I should have--"

She didn't need to know the end of the statement. She only needed him to take her with him.

*


Despite having led Hermione as far as the laboratory inside his sanctuary, it took Severus a week to relent enough to say to her, "You could sleep in my bed. If you wished it."

"I'd prefer to be doing something else in your bed," she grumbled discontentedly. "But for the moment, I appreciate the offer of sleep. Your wing's closer to the library."

Severus hadn't thought about Narcissa's disinterest in scholarly pursuits when he'd situated Hermione in her wing. He knew, truthfully, that he wouldn't have cared even if he had thought of it, then. "Are you tired?"

"No, I slept an inhuman amount last evening. It's helping to hold off the immediate need to lie unconscious."

"Have you spoken to a healer?"

"I mentioned the problem. She laughed and said it was retribution for all my years of denying my body any reasonable amount of rest. Cow."

Severus watched her pout. It wasn't a calculated expression. She wasn't even looking at him; she was answering an owl regarding possible sales of her book in an American market. And while she no doubt did appreciate the offer of his bed--what with its relative proximity--and the relief his potions granted her, she didn't really need anything of him. She never asked for anything, not really--not outside of the bed, where he was all but verbally offering.

Her independence should have been refreshing, reassuring. He could remember clearly when it had been, when the thought of her asking something of him had been a constant fear, the only detraction from an otherwise perfect casual sexual liaison.

Annoyed at the train of his thoughts, he crossed the room silently, bending over the back of her chair and commanding, "Don't move."

He swept aside the long, thick braid she had tortured her hair into, and captured a swath of her neck in between his teeth. She hissed and said, "Tease."

But Severus hadn't locked the library door for nothing. He had every intention of laying her out on the floor and exploring every inch of her with his mouth. Every inch.

She let him have his way. At some point there was a, "Severus," and a, "Here, let me," followed by a dedicated handjob, wildly pleasurable after all his waiting. When he had cleaned them both, she raked him over with her eyes. "That was impressive."

Severus was hardly going to admit he'd asked Narcissa--the lone portrait, not the family. Narcissa could be rather discreet when called upon to do so. "Think of it as a thank-you-for-being-the-one-to-swell-roughly-to-the-proportions-of-Hogwarts gift, if you will."

"That was practically sweet."

"The sex, or the reasoning behind it?"

She smirked. "The way you avoided the real intent behind my comment."

"If I help you off the floor, are you going to accuse me of sweetness once more?"

"I wouldn't think of it."

She would, but now that he had her word that she wouldn't do much more than think of it, he was willing to assist in her ascent. Once up she yawned. He said, "Perhaps the sleep wasn't so much as you believed."

"Oh, it was, I'm simply a walking zombie."

"Zombies don't--"

"Muggle expression."

"Ah. Father never used that one."

"Your knowledge of Muggle culture makes me suspect that 'Father' didn't do much of anything." She ended the statement with a light kiss to the corner of his mouth and asked, "Would you mind walking me to your room? I'm fairly certain I know where it is, but--"

And she was asking, even though she didn't really need the help, so Severus didn't hesitate to say, "I have some time to lie down with you, if you'd like."

She looked at him, her eyes assessing, but not in the same sharp, well-pleased way they had after the sex. "I would like that."

Severus could get used to lying about in the middle of the afternoon, if she would let him. Which she wouldn't. It was a nice thought, all the same.

*


Hermione asked the question that had been on her mind for months when they were in her bed, because Severus had never quite gone to the length of kicking her out of her own wing. "Is there someone you wish to name guardian of the child?"

"Don't ask stupid questions."

"Don't assume that I assume that simply because you haven't told me about something means that it doesn't exist. You're not much of a communicator."

"Everyone I have cared for is dead."

"Not this baby," she said, because she couldn't say, "oh, thank you." She couldn't let him know that it mattered, not when she had experienced his ability to use her weaknesses against her. There was only so much she could take at the moment.

"It can't very well guard itself."

"I thought you wouldn't want it to be my parents, because they wouldn't have the ability to introduce the child properly to the wizarding world. And I knew you wouldn't want it to be Harry or Ron, although Harry would be positively thrilled. Ginny, less so, and that's enough for me not to argue the case with you. Instead I would like you to consider asking Kingsley and Tonks."

He looked at her suspiciously. "You're not going to ask Potter or Weasley at all?"

"Assuming the worst, that the guardianship was necessary, Ron wouldn't tell the baby good things about you, and Viktor--if they were even still together--doesn't know you well enough to counteract that. And Ginny's unsure of whether she even wants children, let alone someone else's child. While Harry will undoubtedly have to cross that bridge when he realizes that he truly does want them, I would prefer it not be over my child. Harry's had to fight enough of his own battles without adding mine to them. Besides which, Tonks and Kingsley have a solid relationship, they both like children, they both like us--"

"You."

"Us. They were both instrumental in the plea-bargaining that settled you with freedom after all was said and done. And you know it, so give a little credit where it's due."

He glared at her, but it wasn't his serious glare, not the one that could still make her feel eleven. She paid it just enough heed to ask, "Have you a better idea?"

"Not dying on the child."

"You set to working on how to make that plausible, and I'll speak with Tonks and Kingsley, yes?"

"You admit, then, that they would respond better to a personal plea."

"Beyond the fact that you're being an utter git, I admit nothing. Of course I would prefer that you ask with me. You seemed rather disenchanted by the idea."

"I become testy at the thought of my own demise."

"As opposed to. . .when, exactly?"

"When I'm all by myself I'm known to be a rather pleasant individual."

"Useful knowledge to have."

"When I was with Draco."

She didn't believe that. "No. He just loved you for it all the same."

"Is there a difference?"

"Maybe," she said, and declined to admit to anything more. "You'll accompany me, then? To ask?"

"I suppose that will verify the strength of their commitment to the request."

She smiled at his capitulation. He said, "Gloating is horrifically unattractive."

"Maybe that's what's kept people from you for so long," she said, right before kissing him. "Their loss."

*


Tonks' hair was blue and wavy and nowhere near as pretty as Hermione's mass of curls. Severus hadn't managed to find anything that surpassed it. He wasn't entirely sure even Tonks could come up with something that would. Hermione wasn't a pretty woman, he didn't think, not in the way of the witches that he saw on the cover of witch-oriented magazines while shopping in Hogsmeade or Diagon. By those standards, he supposed she was rather plain.

He often had trouble looking away from her.

When Kingsley kissed her cheek, it was all he could do not to growl, not to pull out his wand. Jealousy was an ugly emotion, but no uglier than grief or anger or malicious glee, so Severus didn't take much time scolding himself.

He allowed Hermione to make the proposal. It was her idea, and they were her friends, and Severus didn't see why he should have to do any of the work. The child being half his was entirely beside the point in this instance.

Until, of course, Kingsley looked straight at him and asked, "And this is all right with you, Severus?"

He couldn't help the, "It is certainly a lesser of the evils," that slipped out of his mouth. Or perhaps he could have. He didn't really much try.

Tonks laughed. "Encouraging, that."

"You expect me to have, what? Suggested this myself?" Severus sneered at her for all he was worth.

Tonks shot Kingsley a look which he returned full force. She said, without looking at Severus, "We expect you to be truly all right with the decision, else our answer is no. We won't take on the responsibility of possibly raising a child with one parent vehemently opposed, regardless of you thinking we are Hermione's friend and only her friend. You can be as stubborn and hard-headedly ignorant as you choose, but there will, sooner or later, be consequences."

She broke off her shared look with Kingsley to give Hermione one of apology. Hermione shook her head slightly, less acceptance than no, I don't need that from you. He wanted to tell her that she did, that friends that would hurt her over the issue of his own concerns and feelings were no friends at all. Except that he wasn't sure that was true. He wasn't sure that Tonks and Kingsley weren't looking out for her in a way that was larger than he could comprehend. It made his eyes burn with internal exhaustion, the endless frustration of suddenly having to try and figure out people's more benevolent motives at an age well-past when he had given up on them ever truly having some.

"I believe that you would not participate in a campaign of slander against me to my child. That is more than I could hope for out of most people, certainly."

Tonks' skin tone faded to a shade just a hint lighter. It wasn't a loss of blood, it was an actual shift. Hermione had mentioned that one could read her mood through her morphings at times, at least, in the presence of people she trusted enough to give up that much control around. Severus didn't know her well enough to understand the difference, only to know that it portended something. It was Kingsley who spoke, though. "I should hope we could do better than that, if it ever became necessary, but you always were something of a pessimist."

It was said lightly, and without judgment, as though this were merely a fact of Severus being Severus.

It was said in the way Hermione sometimes said things about him, as though she just accepted them. As though she maybe even liked them for what they were.

"Would you--" Severus drew himself up so that he was sitting as straight as he possibly could, he made his eyes keep contact with the two people across from him, "would you love the child?"

"Yes," was the answer, immediate and unyielding and spoken from two mouths at one time. Tonks said, "With everything we had."

Kingsley asked, "How could we do anything less?"

Severus knew how much, much less could be done, even by parents who were "obligated" by blood to love their child. He knew that Kingsley and Tonks, in their roles as Aurors, knew as well. And now he knew that all that knowledge counted for nothing. That there were no other options where these two were concerned. That Hermione had made the right choice.

He was less surprised than he wanted to be at that last.

He nodded. "Then I am in agreement that this is for the best."

*


The pain of contractions, when they came, was intense in its unexpected nature, but nothing too scary. Hermione had felt worse. All the same, when the intervals between pain narrowed down to about half an hour she flooed Severus and said, "Look, I'm going to ready myself for Mungo's."

Severus, who was pasty on a good day, went the color of bleached parchment. "You're--"

"Going into labor. This had to happen sooner or later, given the circumstances."

"Would you prefer I accompanied you?"

"Really, I would prefer you do whatever it is you please, as having you there unwillingly sounds very close to the last thing I need at this moment." Hermione didn't particularly want to fight with him, either, which that comment had the possibility of provoking, but the contractions had started at least twelve hours ago. She was running short on sleep, and, as a result, patience.

"I meant-- I meant to inquire if you desired my presence?"

Anger furled inside of her, as insistent as the pain, without the convenience of coming and going. She spit out, "How is it possible that you imagine I wouldn't?"

"We are not, that is, I am not--"

"Not what?" she hissed. "Not my friend? Not my lover? Not willing to take any emotional responsibility in reference to me whatsoever?"

"Not the person you would wish at your side."

She took a page from his book. "You bloody idiotic fool."

He bristled. "I could call Potter for you."

She disconnected the floo. By her estimation she had another ten minutes before the next contraction hit. Some well-focused accio spells and she had a bag with personal nightclothes, a toothbrush and a few other essentials. She had grabbed the Portkey she had just for this occasion when she felt the flicker in her wards that always heralded Severus' arrival.

"I can't do this right now," she said.

"I simply meant--"

"I know what you meant! And in your own way it's almost sweet. But for once I wish you'd stop underestimating me, if just for a moment or so. Just long enough to consider that I probably haven't chosen to have a baby with and live in the same place with and collaborate on the most important professional endeavor of my life to date with someone I don't care about, perhaps even deeply."

"Every decision you make, it's so very much your own."

"And yet for months I have included you in the most significant of those. You imagine I do that with just anyone?"

"The child is a shared--"

"But for these nine months it has inhabited my body, and I doubt that either of us believes that should I wish to pursue full legal rights to it, I would fail in that endeavor. I listened to what you wanted because it was you."

"I don't want to call Potter."

She stared at him for a second. "Is that truly the best you can do?" A second later it occurred to her what she had asked. She wasn't at her best. She waved a hand. "You know what? Nevermind, I'll take it. Just grab on to the Portkey."

He grabbed on to her, his fingers just brushing the 'key.

*


When Severus had suggested that Hermione carry the child to term, he hadn't really thought about the fact that at some point there would probably be pain and screaming. Or, more accurately, he had been quite sure that when that time came, he could sit comfortably at home and wait for an owl to bring him news of his offspring's appearance into the world.

Severus really, really hated being wrong.

No more, evidently, than Hermione hated him at this moment. It was irritating that of all the opportunities she'd had to hate him, all the times when she could have indulged in it and given him all the reason he needed to turn his back on her, this was the one time that he quite possibly deserved her ire.

She hadn't said the words, not "I hate you," nor "Don't touch me," or even, "Greasy, disgusting bastard git," but she'd glared at him hard enough that it hadn't even taken a conscious bought of Legilimens to figure out what was happening inside her mind.

When she finished off another round of, "Ow, ow, ow, ouch, fucking bloody OW," and subsided into sullen, drained silence, he said, "You can yell at me."

She stared at him. "What?"

"Say the things--"

Her look of shock, of completely blindsided betrayal was ten times as discomforting as hearing her yell from repeated agony. "You Legilimized me?

He stiffened. "You were practically yelling those thoughts into my head."

"Get out," she said, without any of the melodrama that had accompanied her semi-private thoughts.

"Hermione--"

"I said--" she ended the sentence with an incoherent howl. Severus tightened his grip on her. The Healer glared at him and prodded Hermione with a, "Breathe, Hermione. And push."

As the worst of the contraction dwindled down, Hermione said, "Get your bloody hands off of me and get out."

"I didn't mean--"

"I don't care!"

But it was all he had, so he repeated, "I didn't mean it."

She said, "I try so bloody hard--" and somewhere in between "try" and "so" she was sobbing.

He said, "I'm sorry," when it occurred to him that maybe that was a bit better than disclaiming responsibility.

She didn't say anything, turning her head from him to cry. The Healer stressed, "Breathe," again and he frowned watching her try, try to get hold of the hysterics and force her breaths into regulated patterns. He consciously performed Legilimens then, not going anywhere near her thoughts, but pressing gently with a, "May I?"

He could feel her resignation. It was heavy and dank and a lot like blood, welling up over his hands. He used the connection to support her breathing, to untangle the mass of counting over which she had long since lost control, to send a stream of soft, "Shh" sounds into her mind. Slowly, her sobs subsided and she caught the pattern of breathing that he was supporting.

He whispered, without his mouth, "I really didn't mean--"

In equal silence she responded, "Just the way I didn't mean those things that you weren't supposed to hear."

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. She didn't jerk away.

*


When the first child appeared--four pounds, six ounces, all her fingers and toes in the right place, too much hair for any proper newborn--and the pain didn't so much as budge, the Healer said, "There's another one."

"Another what?" Severus asked.

Hermione snapped, "Child, have you completely misplaced your brain?"

"Another child?"

The Healer said, "Push," which shoved any thought Hermione had of replying back until the Healer said, "All right, ease up."

She said, "Twins runs in my family. My mum is one, so are two sets of cousins, one on each side. The possibility was nearly inescapable."

"And this somehow slipped your mind every single time we spoke for nearly eight months?"

"Of course not." Hermione's eyes slipped shut in exhaustion. "You just didn't seem as though you needed something else to stress out about."

"This isn't something else, this is--"

Whatever else he would have said was lost in the rushing sound that filled her ears at the return of what had long become familiar pain. She could hear the Healer's, "Push," but just barely. She knew what to do anyhow, she'd been at it for a while now.

The second child was larger--and louder--than the first. Other than that, the two girls--placed in Hermione's arms once the proper Cleaning spells had been applied and the umbilical cord cut--looked exactly alike. She said, "Huh."

"Huh?" Severus' voice was oddly high-pitched with what Hermione imagined was panic. She thought about helping him out, but she was really very tired.

Instead she answered, "We've never had identical twins in my family. Hrm, except maybe, I think my great-grandfather might have been."

"They're identical? But the first one is smaller."

"That happens. Won't necessarily stay that way. And her name is Dore."

"The smaller one?"

Hermione nodded. "Dore Malise Snape-Granger."

"And the larger one?"

Hermione thought it pleasant of him not to argue with her over the order of the hyphenate just yet. Even if it was only because he was shocked entirely out of his ability to consider it. She had planned this well. She would thank the girls for coming through for her when they were much, much older. "Elinor Drake Snape-Granger."

Severus touched one finger to the black curls topping Elinor's head. Hermione made herself offer, "Take her," despite wanting to hold on to her forever. She figured she might as well take the first step to letting her go now. Besides, Severus was right next to her.

He didn't protest or back away from the challenge, picking her up awkwardly but with the right amount of caution and strength. Just like a father.

In Hermione's arms, Dore smacked her lips and stretched out a bit, luxuriating in having more space. Her head drooped to the side and she got to work on the business of falling asleep. Hermione looked up to where Severus was inspecting the minute details of his unexpected issue. She said, "Severus?"

He said, "She's not very good at keeping her eyes open."

"She's sleepy," Hermione told him.

"She just got here," he said.

"Severus?"

"Yes, what is it?"

"Take Dore."

"Both of them at once? I haven't a bed to assist me, you realize."

"I'm not very good at keeping my eyes open at the moment, either."

"Oh."

She didn't point out that after nearly twenty-seven hours of labor, that should have been evident, even though, had she delivered it correctly, it would have been a comeback worthy of him. And in response to an "oh," at that.

The Healer came back into the room at that moment and smiled at Hermione. "Ready to give her up?"

"No," Hermione said, but Severus was there, and he would keep them safe, watch over them when she couldn't, so she let go anyway.

*


The spell wasn't tricky. It was simply a variation on a tracking spell, altered slightly to make it so that the print of the spell would always be visible to Severus, and would color itself differently for each child. A nice Slytherin green for Dore, and a deep Ravenclaw blue for Elinor. He'd tried a burgundy, but at the last minute had recognized his limits, and figured that the house he'd nearly landed in would have to do. It was no more than a small pulse at the center of their foreheads, and if he had managed the correct level of intensity, Hermione would never even sense the magic's presence.

Severus needed sleep. Quite a bit of it, actually. He couldn't make himself return to the Manor.

The Healer had assured him that Hermione and the girls were perfectly fine, perfectly safe. He couldn't leave them.

It wasn't so much that he thought he could keep them safe simply by being there. To the contrary, Severus had long since proved--over and over--that his presence was often more hazardous to the people he cared for than anything else. All the same, if anything were to threaten them, Severus couldn't stomach the thought of being elsewhere.

For Hermione, he supposed, that made some sense. He had, after all, known her for nearly a decade. And they did have something between them. Two things, evidently.

It was the children that made no sense. The children that he had only met hours before and who held nothing of him except some genetic material. And yet, Severus knew without question that he would turn his wand and the most arcane, most vicious levels of his knowledge upon any person daring to so much as pull a hair from their heads.

He wished Draco were with him, if only just to laugh at him, to call him sentimental or traditional, or all of the things that Draco himself had been without ever admitting to any of them. He wished Draco were there, but it was nice that for once, there wasn't the deep, cold pain of needing Draco to be at his side, needing to hear what Draco would have said.

Instead, he found himself needing Hermione to wake up. Not so much that he would affect such an event, hardly. The last time he had checked on her, her skin had still held a vaguely translucent tinge, and there were bruises all along her arm where he had gripped at her, attempting to keep them both anchored outside of the pain.

He had failed at that with the same ease that he always failed at the most important tasks, but she had still smiled at him and let him hold Elinor when it was all through. She would have given him Dore had the Healer not come and taken her first. Hermione accepted the hurt, doled out responsibility for it, and then let it be. She recognized that it was part of him, part of what they were together, recognized, and didn't seem to mind. She seemed, even, to value it at times.

She seemed to value him.

It was too much to let himself wonder if her estimation of him equaled his of her. Severus wouldn't allow it. Rather, he would stay at Mungo's, watching over the children. Without having any idea as to how--he had tried Legilimency, just once, shortly, but their thought patterns were indecipherable, nothing like another adult's, or even a school-aged child's--Severus knew that they loved him back.

*


Mungo's released Hermione and the children two days afterward. Severus took them home. Luckily the elves had been alerted to the presence of two children, not just the one, and had arranged for another crib in the nursery. Hermione said, "You checked the alarm spells, yes?"

"I made a few variations. We'll be alerted to all noises, but only crying will sound urgent."

"Oh, better."

He then herded her into his bed. Before settling into the exhausted sleep brought on by the rousing combination of portkeying and walking a few extra feet, she said, "I'll move to my wing when I wake."

"I would not have placed you here were you not welcome to stay."

"That's generous, but while I may be welcome, many of the people who will want to come and see our children are not. I am not turning them away at the door. You may not wish to show the fruits of my labor off, but I plan on taking quite a bit of pride in what we have accomplished."

Severus stiffened. "It would be beyond them to give you a few days in your recovery?"

"They have given me a few days. Or, more accurately, they have given you a few days, at my request, choosing to send flowers and cards rather than converge upon us at Mungo's. I shan't ask that they stay away any longer. They are trying to be my friends, and it is a poor friend who disallows that."

"I am not frightened by the pack of badly-groomed mongrels you refer to as 'friends.'"

"I wasn't suggesting that you were. You're something of a private person, and the birth of your first two children was bound to be a relatively private moment. I was hoping to allow for you to have that. But I am not quite so private as you and I rather look forward to the company of my friends."

"If you prefer your rooms, I shall hardly keep you captive."

"My rooms have quite a bit more of me, and as yours have nothing of you--or rather, nothing any longer living--yes, I prefer them. It's inconvenient, really, as I like the possibility of your company being at my fingertips, but both the décor and the freedom to do as I please sometimes overwhelm that desire."

"Draco had excellent taste."

"And as superb as it was, it wasn't yours."

"If you think I will just allow you to come into these rooms--"

"I don't imagine you will allow me to so much as touch the wall, but I live in the hopes that eventually you might bring yourself to."

"The walls are--"

"The walls of a child, not even the person you consider part of you." This was said gently, and with the compassion that she'd been afraid to let on during the rest of the conversation. Dealing with Severus was tricky at the best of times, but when it came to his relationship with Draco, there was not enough sympathy--nor enough implacability--in the world to get past the barriers he'd erected.

"You do not have to rely on remnants of the people you loved."

"Neither do you. For one thing, Dumbledore left Pensieves, loads of them. And I know one was designated specifically for you. If you think I don't know about the portrait downstairs then you're once again attributing far more stupidity to me than I actually deserve. Not to mention I imagine that you have memories far more interesting and relevant than anything this wing holds."

"Your imagination is a small and deceitful thing."

"Then perhaps I ought to argue that I know you could choose to live with the people who love you, rather than rely on the remnants of those gone."

Hermione thought it took him the full second that it took her to realize what she had said. She had to clamp her lips shut to keep herself from taking it back.

Finally he said, "Perhaps we could entertain your friends in the library."

She smiled, working hard to keep any bitterness from the expression. Of course he wouldn't feel the same way; she wasn't sure how, in the space of his silence, she had come to think he might. "That will be lovely, I'm sure."

"I would not keep you from them."

"Your imagination is a blooming, overripe thing if you believe you have that sort of power."

"I meant only that you need not have asked them to stay away from the hospital."

"I evaluated my priorities. I have no regrets." Well, one, but what was said could not be unsaid. She turned to her side, intent on getting some sleep.

If he left, she never heard a sound.

*


They all came as one. Severus couldn't decide if this was better or worse. On the one hand, it meant the invasion of his home and privacy was contained into a single instance, at least that first time.

On the other hand, it meant one Weasley, one Potter, one Krum, one Tonks and one Kingsley in his house as a group.

Granted, Weasley was the one who really rankled. Tonks and Kingsley smiled at him as they came in, Kingsley even managing to do so without a hint of insipidness. Potter and Severus had more-than-occasional spats when they were corresponding professionally, but somewhere along the line he had learned, if not to respect Potter, then to at least be validly appreciative of his actions in regard to the Manor. It helped that Potter seemed to have found ways not to openly hate Severus, either. Krum nodded politely when he came in and even asked, "How are you, professor?" But then, Krum had always had manners.

Weasley had traipsed in on his boyfriends coattail's, pointedly ignoring Severus' presence. In retribution, Severus pulled out his very favorite you-are-tardy tone, and said, "Good evening, Mr. Weasley."

Weasley said, "Snape." There wasn't invective in it. There wasn't anything kinder, either.

Krum, wisely, pushed his boyfriend in front of him, keeping his body between the two. When they were out of sight, Severus smirked a bit. Hermione could hardly blame him for having a little fun.

To Severus' disgust, Dore took an immediate liking to Potter. Happily, Elinor decided Tonks' hair was the best toy ever laid in reach of her tiny, uncoordinated fingers, and pulled it every chance she got. Tonks winced a bit but didn't yell or really even move away, just said, "No, sweets, no," and called upon Kingsley to help untangle her.

Elinor was clearly enamored with Kingsley. Severus couldn't exactly fault his daughter, but it felt a bit like betrayal, all the same. It would have felt worse had she not begun crying in the middle of the afternoon and only stopped when he scooped her up and said firmly, "That's enough."

Then she gurgled, laid her head against his chest, and fell asleep. Weasley was staring at him wide-eyed, and Potter looking foolishly, annoyingly pleased. Severus turned away from both of them, catching Hermione's gaze as he did. She looked vindicated.

He understood, but it was nice realizing how very much she stood by him, behind him. He said, "Perhaps I should put her down."

She said, "Stay with us for a few more minutes."

He heard, "Stay with me for a few more minutes." There was space next to her on the couch. He sat down and she reached out, tucking a cloth between where Elinor had already begun to dribble on his robes and the offended garment. Her hand lingered at his chest.

He asked, "Are you tired?"

She shook her head.

"We could be going," Kingsley said. Potter looked disappointed at the thought of having to give Dore up, but he nodded in reluctant agreement. Weasley's agreement was far less reluctant. For Hermione's sake, Severus wished it weren't.

"Really, I'm--"

"Exhausted," Tonks finished for her, with a knowing laugh. "We'll come back, you realize? All you had to do was ask."

Which was how Severus found out that she hadn't, not once in the time she'd been living at the Manor--over a year now--invited her friends over. He didn't have to ask why. She had told him when she'd admitted to loving him. Love didn't come from nowhere, Severus knew. There were things that preceded it: respect and affinity, at the very least.

Hermione looked up at him and he didn't nod, but he imagined the expression on his face to be enough. She said, "Consider the invitation extended. To all of you." A hard look at Weasley followed this pronouncement.

"Been busy," Weasley said with an unwonted amount of righteous indignation. Krum glanced at him out of the corned of his eyes, but didn't say anything.

"You were always pants at excuses, Ronald."

He blushed. She gave in, easy to forgive everything but the offenses that weren't aimed at her. "Go on, I probably should nap a bit."

Tonks and Kingsley both kissed Hermione's forehead and nodded at Severus before slipping out. Krum said, "It was a pleasure seeing both of you," with emphasis on the last part of the sentence.

Weasley said, "Er, yeah."

Potter was the last to leave. He handed Dore over to Hermione with the care one would show a Pensieve constructed of fine-blown glass. Severus reluctantly approved. Potter's, "She's beautiful," was wistful, and maybe a bit painful for how familiar his longing was to Severus, even if Severus hadn't known what he was longing for at the time. Potter said, "They both are."

Hermione said, "You are welcome any time, Harry."

It helped that Potter looked at him, looked at him with slightly unsure eyes, holding himself with a stiff posture that Severus knew only too well. Severus said, "Do not act as if I would set the terms of her habitation of this place," even though he had, all too often. That was between him and Hermione. And in this instance, she would have what she wanted.

He suspected that would be happening with far more regularity. The realization didn't bother him half so much as he wished it would.

Potter said, "Next week, sometime?"

Severus wasn't going so far as to admit that in this instance, Potter just might be possessing of some grace, some tact.

*


Dore was a fairly sedate child, but Elinor liked to make her presence known. Even so, either one of them would have been enough on their own. Hermione had read books on child rearing until her eyes couldn't recognize the words and somehow still managed not to understand exactly how exhausting the entire experience felt. She was worn ragged by the twins' constant needs.

Severus woke in the middle of the night to help her, even when she wasn't in his room to begin with, but particularly when he was. He would change the girls, hold them, but there was very little he could do in the way of feeding, so she often shooed him back to bed while she stayed up, seeing to their needs. He would try and get her to lie-in in the mornings, even going so far as to yell at her about the declining quality of her work on occasion. Too tired to come up with snappy retorts, and not in the mood for the raging fight that would no doubt be caused by insulting his ancestry, she generally just retreated to her wing for days on end after those mornings, certain that he knew he wasn't welcome. Or rather, he was welcome, but only if he was going to be nice.

Severus wasn't a particularly nice person.

She accepted as an apology that when she made her way back to his wing, he would let her in and leave off insisting that she forego work for sleep. She thought about trying to explain what capitulating to the exhaustion would mean, what admitting that her work was less important than her children would signal for the woman she had always believed herself to be, but whenever she tried to begin the words seemed silly all put together, and she couldn't force herself to say them to him. He would sneer all her truths away, like they were his to throw out, and she simply couldn't have that.

Instead she substituted strongly-caffeinated tea for sleep, often shaking with the combination of exhaustion and falsely-induced energy.

He watched her and she knew he could have offered her potions that would keep her awake more effectively.

He didn't.

She didn't ask him to, an acknowledgment both that she knew she was acting foolishly, and that she knew he wouldn't do it for her even were she to humble herself.

Since she couldn't accede on the issues that mattered, and couldn't seem to talk about her reasoning, she reached for the only thing that did work without much effort or give on either of their parts and reinitiated the sexual aspect of their relationship. She was insistent and creative and tender, trying to get across in actions what would be insipid in words. He listened, in his own way. He never told her she should sleep while she was kissing him, or licking him, or driving into him. He never suggested it while she was sliding over him, above him, onto him.

Early in the morning she would usually slip from his bed, first to check on the girls and then to catch up on work that never seemed willing to be caught. No matter how quiet she was he always woke up, but unless he was going to fight with her over the sleeping issue, he never acknowledged his wakened state.

Not until the morning he caught her hand and said, "Stay with me."

She opened her mouth to say, "Could we not fight about this?" Elinor had been more irritable than usual the night before, going so far as to infect Dore with her attitude, and Hermione was dead on her feet, unsure of how she was going to manage even the simplest of correspondences.

She shut it, hearing just a moment before it was too late the change in words. She didn't know Severus, not so well as she could have wished. But she knew him well enough to know that it was the words that were hidden behind his words that mattered, and that even the most basic change in phrasing often meant something. "Stay with you?"

"Just. For a bit."

She caught on then, hearing the hesitation between the "just" and the period of time requested. Stay with me, he'd said, and suddenly she could hear the things that he hadn't said all those times when he'd yelled at her about the sleep. She'd known it was concern, of course it was, it wasn't as though they were strangers. It wasn't as though there was someone else to feed his children, at least not handy.

She hadn't realized that there was more there. She hadn't realized that his silence in response to her declaration of caring was anything more than the surprisingly kind action of a man who, for his own reasons, had no wish to break her.

He hadn't said, "Go back to sleep," or, "you're going to accidentally kill one of my children," or, "the last post you wrote had 'the' spelled incorrectly"--it hadn't, but Hermione had no doubt there were other issues--he said, "Stay with me."

She said, "I can't."

"You could bring your work--"

"Not so long as I'm competing--and losing to--a portrait stored in the dungeons. The fantasy of a remembered scent in these sheets. Words that only you hear and that will always sound wittier than mine. I said I loved you; I didn't say I was willing to give both self and pride over to your need to be loved."

She said the words quietly, without rancor. She didn't begrudge Severus the things he carried. She couldn't, not when she suspected he'd so long been denied the pleasure of those things. But she wouldn't be thrown into his hands along with those things, taken out only when he felt giving.

"Hermione," he said.

"It's not that I don't know how to be second best. I'm really somewhat brilliant at it, as I was always Harry's second choice of a friend, and I was always Ron's second choice of gender. But it seems I'm tired of all sorts of things, and cranky and well, unfortunately for you, I've chosen this moment to exert my rights."

She pushed hair that was in her way out of her face. "This, whatever this is, this having children together and liking the way we feel against each other, and all of that, it's fine. I like the way you think, and you seem pretty content with who I am, and it works. But if you want something else, something more, then you have to recognize that you have a part in all of this, a part that's not entirely passive." She stood, "So no, I'm sorry, I can't stay. Not this morning, nor any other."

She began walking. She got as far as the door--nearly out of it--when he said, "I do. Recognize that."

She squeezed her eyes shut. "Severus--"

"If you have ever believed yourself second best, you have been wrong. If I have ever believed you to be that, I have been wrong as well."

She didn't seem able to pry her hand from the doorknob, let alone turn around.

"Stay with me, Hermione."

She closed the door again, the click soft even in the silence of the room.

*


Severus stole the twins on one of the rare occasions when Hermione wasn't paying attention. Naturally, she had left them in the care of the elves, but the elves weren't about to keep him from his own offspring.

Elinor was already slightly clingy, having mastered basic grabbing quicker than Dore, who mostly liked to pet people's faces and make soft noises of awe.

Severus held them close to him, going so far as to cast a small holding charm so that even if he accidentally let go, they would stay at his side. He would not let go, but one couldn't leave the lack of damaging of one's offspring to the whimsies of fate. Or rather, one could, but would end up with a Neville Longbottom for the trouble.

The walk was slightly longer than he remembered with two infants in his arms, but they were there soon enough and Severus wordlessly silencioed the portrait version of Lucius before he could get a word in about Severus' children. Whatever the word was, Severus didn't want to hear it. Severus had since told Draco who was their mother, so Lucius could very well begin by pointing out that the children had more Muggle ancestry than wizard. He could move to spitting that the children were the children of a traitor. Severus couldn't be bothered to hear it. The children were his and perfect and he didn't give a flying fuck what dead men had to say about it.

With the exception of one dead man.

That, he found, he still cared very much about.

Lucius figured out what had been done fairly quickly, made an obscene gesture with all the grace and upper-class manners he possibly could, and stalked off to the area of the portrait that Severus had come to think of as "his corner." Narcissa tilted her head and said, in a rather puzzled tone of voice, "They look so much like wizard babies."

"They are wizard babies," Severus said patiently. He knew, in Narcissa's head, it was a compliment.

A small smile formed at the corner of Draco's mouth. "Mother, could you calm Father? It will hardly do to have him like this for the rest of the day."

Narcissa looked up from her close assessment of the newest things Severus had brought to amuse her. "What? Oh, yes dear. Of course."

Narcissa floated off to comfort conveniently mute Lucius. Draco said, "Hello, Severus."

Severus shifted slightly to his right. "This is Dore Malise," then to his left, "and this, Elinor Drake."

Draco's brow furrowed slightly. "Granger let you choose those names?"

"Hermione named the children."

Draco reached out to the limits of the portrait, his fingernails pressing at the wrong side of its surface. "All these times, and you never once thought to mention that she loved you?"

"She had neglected to say."

"Since when are you a brainless, dithering dunderhead? Have the masses finally infected you?"

"Stop pretending to be me."

"Stop pretending."

Severus was glad for how closely Elinor held to him as he made himself say, "I wanted it to be someone of whom you would approve, if anyone at all."

"When you weren't busy overestimating me, you always had a brilliance for underestimating me. I wanted it to be someone, Severus. And yes, were she to come down here I would absolutely say things to her no Malfoy would ever so much as mutter in polite company. Because I wanted it to be nobody, too. Especially not some flippant, too-smart-for-her-own-good, showoff, Potter-loving Mudblood."

"Draco--"

"I had to say it."

"Don't. Not ever again."

"You plan on returning, then?"

"What did you think this was?"

"Perhaps a courtesy call. To tell me you had moved on. You were always so careful to follow all the protocols with me."

"You noticed when people didn't."

"Unlike others, I forgave you."

"I didn't want there to be anything to forgive."

Draco smiled. "Then you shouldn't have fallen in love."

"Perhaps not," Severus said softly, unapologetically. Without regret.

Draco said, "Malise and Drake."

"Yes."

"They are pretty girls."

A whispered, fervent, "Yes."

"I'd like to see them, from time to time. First words, first magic, that sort of thing."

Severus pressed his lips gently to the forehead of each of the girls, in lieu of doing so to Draco. "Yes."

*


Hermione wasn't the one to find the spell. She felt a little foolish about it--and a little scared; after all, what else might she not have found?--but it did her no good to dwell on her oversight, so she didn't.

Instead, when Harry--who, with his ever-rising levels of paranoia had decided that a monthly check for any unfriendly magics put upon the girls was in order--laughed and asked, "You put an identifying charm on them?" Hermione smiled at him like he was slightly barmy and said, "No."

"Well, someone did."

"Huh." Hermione shrugged. "Maybe the elves."

Harry shook his head slightly. "I don't-- Elf-magic is-- I don't think it was the elves."

Hermione waited, but Harry didn't say anything else, which meant that regardless of what he thought, he didn't see any harm in the spell. She asked, "How's Ginny?" and he let it go as quickly as she suspected he would.

She probed at the twins later. Knowing what to look for, the spell was easy enough to detect. She wasn't surprised she had missed it. The magic was subtle, elegant in its simplicity--reminiscent of only one person. When Severus came to her study, looking for her she glanced up and asked, "You placed an identifier on the children?"

He stiffened just barely, answering with what was for him a breezy, "It was the only sensible course of action."

"I see."

"What if the elves lose track of which is which? Or you, for that matter?"

Hermione kept her voice as serious as she could. "Right. It would be hard-- That is, the sounds they make upon waking are very similar. As are their preferences for being held, and the way they like to show affection--"

"Stop being inane. You know perfectly well Dore cries when she wakes up, and Elinor makes that inelegant gurgling noise that we must do something about. Not to mention Elinor likes to be held facing the chest so that she can cling, but Dore likes to watch the world. And Dore kisses people, slobbers over them really, while Elinor prefers to grab their noses or their hair."

Hermione tucked a curl behind her ear. "Is that so?"

She watched as he thought about the things he'd just told her. He came and sat down next to her. "I take your point."

She leaned into him until her shoulder was touching his. "You're going to make mistakes with them. We both are."

"Is this your idea of reassurance?"

"Parents make mistakes, Severus. But you're not the type of parent who walks away from his child and doesn't know her when he next returns. You pay attention, particularly to the things that matter."

He peered down at her. "I do?"

She smiled, irony twisting at her mouth. "Sometimes it takes you a bit to figure out what those things are."

"You trust that it will never take me too long with the children?"

"I trust."

"Did you remove the spell?"

She shook her head. "The colors were pretty. And it was yours to remove."

"You had the right."

She tilted her face up to meet his gaze. "Careful the rights you extend me."

For a brief second, Severus opened his hands, palms upward and facing her. Moment over, he buried them in her hair.


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