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January 1997

Hermione had felt fear before. The deep, sickening kind that attaches itself to the spine and digs in with chilled teeth. The fear she felt when Draco didn't come back from the hols was considerably worse than any kind she had ever known before.

She very clearly remembered warning him to come back, linking her fingers in his even as the digits tried to squirm away. She had poked him in the chest with her free hand. "I'll see you soon."

He'd repeated the words of the spell they'd practiced so often together back at her, and gone about his business. He hadn't let go of her fingers until the last second.

The shock of glancing over at the Slytherin table and not seeing Draco at dinner that first night back caused Hermione to choke on a piece of roll. Harry pounded her back, and Ron shouted a Dislodging Charm, and soon enough she was breathing again. Too fast.

Harry said, "Hermione, um-"

Thinking fast, Hermione said, "Forgot about an assignment. Have to," and nearly trampled a concerned Neville in her rush to get out of the Great Hall.

Once in the hallway, Hermione took one last moment to consider whether her emergency plan was actually going to work. She decided it didn't matter, it was the best she had, and it was Draco's life on the line. Currently she was wishing she had thought all of this out more carefully before it came to this but she'd been rather too busy creating The Plan to worry about a Backup. Mind made up, Hermione rushed to the dungeons and stood at Professor Snape's office door, waiting rather impatiently for the man to return.

Luckily for her Snape was an antisocial bastard who made a habit of leaving the Great Hall early on a regular basis. She had only been waiting a half an hour when he strode to the door. He caught sight of her in his peripheral vision. "The Great Brain of Gryffindor comes to ask for help?"

Hermione was worn at the edges and oh-so-very tempted to snap back at him about arrogant, neglectful Potions Masters but she needed the man on her side. Draco's side. "Of a sort. Can we step inside, please?"

Snape sneered but pushed the door open and gestured for her to enter first. Hermione walked in and waited for him to shut the door before saying, "Tell me something to make me believe you care about Draco."

Whatever it was, whether her use of Draco's given name, or the urgency in her voice, or the way she felt tears of panic threatening, Snape didn't immediately return with some comment meant to cut. He watched her carefully for a bit before saying, "Draco's birth was the first and only time I thought of having children."

Given her observations of the man with human young over the years, Hermione accepted this. "He's in trouble."

"It is entirely possible, Miss Granger, that Lucius Malfoy has merely decided to send his son to Durmstrang at semester without sending notice for the sheer purpose of displaying a little flair."

"No, professor, it isn't."

Snape stilled. "What do you know?"

Hermione told him. She told him about Draco's cracks, the way he was waiting for someone to notice, about Draco's odd kindnesses, about the spell the two of them had cooked up (or rather, discovered and doctored) and sent Draco in to do.

He asked, "Who knew? Who knew about this?"

"Draco and I."

"That's it? Not the headmaster, or your little friends?"

Hermione stared him down. "Draco and I. We weren't playing games, professor."

"Perhaps not. Either way, you just lost."

Hermione tried concentrating past the rushing in her ears. "What are you saying, professor?"

"Young Mr. Malfoy has been missing since the day after solstice."

"Missing?" Hermione could hear the sickening hope in her voice but she couldn't stop it.

Strangely, it was at that moment, when Snape most easily could have been cruel that he chose kindness instead. "There is no indication that he is dead."

Hermione knew that meant there was no indication that he wasn't either, but, "We have to look."

"Miss Granger-"

"If you won’t let me help you, I'll merely find a way to do it on my own."

Snape said, "Seeing as how if I were to allow you to do that you would most likely just manage to make an even larger and more unsightly mess than the one we already have on our hands, I'd best include you in my search."

Not wanting to push her luck, Hermione didn't do anything to note her triumph. "How do we start?"

*

Though he tried, Severus couldn't think of a better starting point than Lucius Malfoy. Lucius was a consummate liar but Severus was every bit as good at reading through lies, and he knew Lucius better than most of the people on whom he practiced. Severus made up some excuse, something about wanting one of Lucius' books, and arranged to have dinner at the Manor.

Lucius manners -- at least when dealing with someone he felt was worth the energy of expending them on -- were flawless, always, which made it harder than normal to have a conversation about anything. For a while, Severus gave into Lucius's stream of questions about his students, the weather, the latest Ministry debate on school texts (destined be settled the way it had been every year for the past century, and therefore not terribly controversial). When they had retired for cognac, Severus said, "Tell me you've not sent the only student worth having in Potions to Durmstrang, Lucius."

Lucius looked up from his snifter. "Your contacts failing you, Severus?"

"I hadn't thought to ask them. Assuming it was not a secret was incorrect?"

Lucius' eyes flickered with surprise for all of a second. "Draco's not at Durmstrang."

Severus worked for a bit of casual interest. "Beauxbatons? I'm surprised at you."

"Not there, either, my friend."

Severus had to control the sickening lurch of his stomach that Lucius's possessive phrasing always caused. Not even at his lowest had Severus ever considered himself something of this man's. "It couldn't possibly be America. Far too barbaric."

Lucius smirked but declined to comment.

"You've won, my curiosity is utterly aroused." Severus kept a tight leash on what type of curiosity he displayed. He needed prurient, not desperate.

"Draco has been sent away in displeasure," Lucius's tone was cutting. "He betrayed our Lord whilst He was visiting, something I'm not given toward lenience over."

Severus nodded as if this were not to be questioned, not even in the case of a child. "Understandably. Our Lord did not wish to see the matter properly…disposed of?"

"That was my first impulse, but He evidently felt that lacking in imagination. I must say I quite agreed."

"A shame, all the same. Draco showed promise academically."

"Narcissa is quite infuriated with me, doesn't fancy having another heir gestate inside of her. I can't say as I blame her, I did promise that it would only be once. I suppose some things can't be foretold."

Severus was careful about his next sip of the cognac, all too aware of how close he was to regurgitating it all over the Oriental rug covering the floor of Lucius's study. "I will send some potions to help with the discomfort should she need them."

"Very kind of you, I've no doubt she'll appreciate it."

Severus asked a few unobtrusive questions about the Dark Lord's visit, mostly to stroke Lucius's ego, (after all, being a host to the Dark Lord was nothing to sneer at,) begged off with the excuse of having to teach in the morning, and got himself hence from the Manor before he could do anything foolish.

*

Every evening Hermione would sneak from the library down to Professor Snape's office. If they had something planned that would take a considerable amount of time he would go the extra mile and give her a detention. If she had an idea that was going to take some explaining she would manage to do something to garner a detention.

The first couple of times had been slow, with him quick to denigrate her efforts and her gritting her teeth and thinking about Draco. On the third evening while he was busy saying something about her know-it-all ways, she'd raised her head and asked tiredly, "Look, do you really want to find him? Because I do, and I need to find someone with your type of expertise who does as well."

Snape's cheeks had burned a pallid red for all of a second before he'd regained composure. "I suggest we look into altering a Location Charm."

Locator Charms were keyed to a person's magical signatures. Generally, they only worked on small areas. "To cover more territory?"

"Unless you want to spend our evenings casting one after another. If this doesn't work, we'll need to be thinking ahead."

"Perhaps if we found a way to weave an amplare into it?"

Snape looked thoughtful. "Perhaps, though I doubt it. Most likely that would just cause the magic to interact more violently with whomever it was scanning. I don't fancy the Charm being noticed."

Hermione neither, really, since most of these spells were far more advanced than anything she was supposed to be playing around with, and she couldn't guarantee that Snape would put himself out there to defend her. Also, it would most likely be hazardous to Draco's well being -- assuming there was still a well being to be concerned about, Hermione pushed the thought away -- to get caught looking for him. "Do you have any books that would be useful in learning how to broaden a spell without strengthening it, or should I sneak back to the library?"

"I have some but I rather think Dumbledore would have my ears for a trophy if I allowed your grubby little hands anywhere near them. Scour the library, and only come back here if you have an idea or if I indicate that I've found one."

Hermione didn't trust him to clearly indicate anything of the sort. "Promise you'll actually do so or I plan to place a Monitoring Charm on you."

"Wave your wand anywhere near me and you'll be expelled so fast you won't have time to utter the words."

"That would be an awful lot of explaining to the Headmaster," Hermione said, "Not to mention Professor McGonagall."

It was the last that clinched it, she knew. Snape had no intention of telling McGonagall anything of what was going on, and at that point there would be no avoiding explaining it. Snape was a good liar, but McGonagall had more wits than for which anyone gave her credit. She would be a worthy successor to Albus Dumbledore when that day came.

"You'll be the first to know," Snape said, making it sound like nothing more than a death threat.

Hermione, knowing when to quit, left without a word.

*

Granger eventually found a way to broaden the spell and Severus spent weeks working out the kinks, with and without her. They could set the spell to scan for several hours on end without having to pay close attention to it. The base of the spell was located in Severus' quarters, since they had both felt that was the safest place for it. It was rare that anyone, even Albus, came into his inner sanctum.

He had allowed her in only so that they could set up the spell. It was complicated and the more complex the magic, the less likely she was to allow herself to be left out. If she hadn't been so very Gryffindor -- if she hadn't been Granger, perhaps -- he could have admired it.

Allowing her into his rooms felt like willingly peeling back a layer of his own skin, but when he stood back to let her pass through the door and the temporarily disarmed wards, all she did was to search around for the best place to ground the spell. "What is the area least used by you?"

It was a good question, the last thing they needed was for Severus to trip over the spell base and completely deactivate an entire sweep. He swept his gaze through the room and decided on a corner of the dining area. "That should work."

Granger unrolled the large map she had painstakingly copied from a Muggle geography book she'd had her mum send. Wizarding maps were laid out differently (they were less concerned with the physical layout of places than what was contained therein) and it was Hermione who had suggested they might impede the effectiveness of the spell.

Severus pinned the parchment to the floor with four heavy books, one at each corner. He noticed her surreptitiously checking out the titles, but then, Severus wasn't a complete incompetent, he'd chosen things that it wouldn't be a problem for her to see. She looked over at him. "I think you should do the actual incantation."

He raised an eyebrow.

She shrugged. "Your magic is more controlled than mine and to all evidences, probably more powerful. I want Draco found."

It wasn't the first time she had admitted to a weakness or an inferiority in relation to him. The first time had been so surprising he had literally lost any opportunity to drive the point in with a little humiliation out of the sheer inability to speak. The second time he'd been more ready and had snapped back with a little something designed to drive home her insecurities. At which point she'd turned to him and asked, "What did I do to make you hate me?"

He didn't hate her, though, no more than he hated anyone. It was just…easier for Severus to dislike a person before she decided she didn't like him. "One can hardly be fond of little girls who think they can find the answer to the world in their useless books."

She had smiled at that for some reason. "I read no more or less than you do," and she let the subject drop.

Now, this third time, all he could find it in himself to say was, "All right." He wanted Draco found too. It concerned him that that might not be the only thing he had in common with Granger.

He worked the incantation -- it was a tricky bit of magic, the Locator had to be given a circumference of area to check and the magic behind it was far traveling and extensive -- waited to see that it had actually gone into effect, and then, without any permission from his own brain, said, "Good work."

There was no purpose to saying it. The end result of the research had come about as much from his efforts as hers. She was glowing a little, though wisely holding back a grin. "Thank you, professor. I'll be back tomorrow to see if anything has turned up."

Though he wanted to, really wanted to, he couldn't bring himself to say anything that would dull the look in her eyes. "Keep thinking of ways to look, this may not work," was the closest he could come, and saying that felt more painful to him than he could imagine it feeling to her.

She nodded, "Of course," and let herself out.

*

They found a way to loop the Locator Spell so as to have it constantly searching, then replicated the map and enchanted each map with a spell focused on a different area, so as to tighten the search, all to no avail.

Hermione would come up with an idea that would fail, then Snape, then Hermione, not always in that order. After every possible area of magic had been explored and exploited, Snape asked, "Had he taken the Mark?"

Hermione looked at him, forcing herself to remember that she didn't necessarily trust this man. "Why?"

"If he had, I might be able to…search out my link to him."

Hermione frowned. "Are you insane? Voldemort controls the Mark, he would know in an instant. If he thought you were coming after Draco he'd kill you both."

"And I suppose you've more suggestions hidden up your sleeve that you were waiting for the perfect moment to reveal?"

She said, "He hadn't taken it anyway, not unless they branded him before punishing him. I imagine they could've but it doesn't seem to much of a purpose. I wouldn’t think Binding someone like that would be the easiest process, either. Seems like a lot of effort for not much pay off."

Snape nodded in agreement, and what looked like disappointment. "All right then."

Hermione made herself meet his eyes. "You would've really? For Draco?"

Snape's eyes darkened. "Slytherins have their own code of morals, Miss Granger."

"No doubt, but I hardly think it involves that kind of risk for each other. I'm not even entirely sure Gryffindor's code entails that sort of thing."

"Don't be a twit, Miss-"

"I'm not, and what's more is you know it. That's why I'm still here, working on this with you. So if you please, skip the insults, and just tell me, would you really have done it?"

Snape's fingers shook for a moment, and Hermione contemplated how quickly she could dodge a curse if she needed to, but all he said was, "Tell me, why are you still here?"

Hermione didn't think he was asking for an obvious answer, so she considered what she could tell him without hurting Draco in any way. "Because, well, I suppose it's because he's my friend."

"And how is he your friend? How does it come to happen that the student with one of the purest bloodlines in this school and every spark of the prejudice earned with that heritage is friends with a Muggle-born?"

Despite herself, Hermione appreciated Snape's calculated non-use of the slang term. "He just needed someone to notice him. Him. Not his family or his money or…whatever."

Quietly, Snape said, "I've always noticed."

Hermione put a hand to her chest, as if she could reach through and squeeze free some of the pain that had lodged itself there. "Then why-"

"I did what I could." Snape's eyes shuttered themselves once more.

Hermione knew enough to let it go. "Shall we keep at that, then?"

For a second, Hermione thought she caught a flicker of despair, peeking out from behind his self-inflicted wards.

*

Severus made his way through the castle, up to Albus's office. He gave the password and allowed himself to slump a bit while being carried up; the Dark Lord had not felt particularly forgiving this evening. When he emerged into the office proper he straightened up and waited. Albus would know he was here. He always did.

Soon enough, Albus came in through the door that lead to his quarters. "Good to see you back in one piece. Tea?"

Severus appreciated that when it was just the two of them, when it was three in the morning and Severus was sore and tired, Albus dealt with him as though he were a wizard of some worth and not a child. "Please."

Albus summoned the tea. "Anything interesting?"

Severus shook his head minutely. "My lies can only hold Him off so much longer."

"Another term, Severus. Harry's capacity for Occlumency is much improved. He's…involved. The happiness resultant seems to have helped his focus."

"I suggest we start thinking offensively." The tea appeared and Severus poured the headmaster a cup, his manners no less than Lucius Malfoy's when he put his mind to it. Albus accepted the cup, albeit with a hint of reproof in his eyes. Severus poured himself a cup and took a sip. It was a good blend.

"Is that what you and Miss Granger have been getting up to this past month?"

Severus had the grace to look ashamed but the less people who knew what they were up to the better, so all he said was, "No. That's something else entirely."

Albus looked as though he were going to pursue it for a moment. Instead he said, "Whatever it is, two of the people I trust most intently are working on it. I shall assume it is of utmost importance. If you feel that offense may be our only choice, however, I suggest that you use your collaboration with our young Gryffindor prodigy to help that along as well."

"She's too young for the Order, Albus." Severus bit his tongue. He was not protecting Gryffindors who had no hold over him and no place in the larger scheme of rescuing the world as he knew it. He was not.

"Luckily, this isn't official Order business now, is it?"

"I'm perfectly capable of looking into a solution on my own."

"I've no doubt, but it would seem the two of you work quite well together and time is of the essence, or isn't that what you were trying to tell me?"

It rankled most that Albus was completely right. Although their collaboration had so far failed to garner the results intended, their communication was increasingly good and Severus couldn’t remember a time when it was so easy to bounce ideas off another person. For that matter, he couldn't remember a time when the ideas that bounced back were of a high enough caliber to bother contemplating.

Which didn't mean that he liked Granger or enjoyed having her underfoot. Severus scowled at the direction his thoughts had been taking. "Albus-"

"Humor an old man, Severus. I wouldn't ask more of you if I didn't find it utterly necessary."

Severus took another sip of his tea. "I'll speak with her on the morrow."

Albus nodded. "It's late. It would be best if you were able to get some rest."

Severus's forearm was still aching and there were papers that he hadn't gotten time to mark before heading off to the meeting but he knew what Albus needed to hear. He was very good at discerning those things. "Of course."

Albus sighed. "At breakfast then."

Severus finished his tea slowly after the headmaster left him to himself. It was warmer at that level than it was in the dungeons. Every once in a while, that called to Severus.

*

Hermione listened to Snape summarizing what the headmaster had discussed with him. She said, "I've already… Would you like to see my notes?"

He nodded that he would and she laid out reams upon reams of parchment. He asked, "Is there a good way of going about this?"

Hermione flipped through some of the mess. "Well, you already know about Draco, and that was the latest development as of Yule, so here, start here." She laid out a page in front of him. "If you have questions, you can either consult the earlier notes or just ask me."

She went over to his bookshelf, picked one of the books that she had tangentially decided might be useful to finding Draco, and starting picking through while he read.

She was immersed in thought when he spoke up. "Some of this might be useful with a knowledge of higher level Spell use."

"Good thing you're a professor," Hermione said before she thought about it. She then snapped her mouth shut. Flustered, she tried, "I'm sorry, what I meant-"

"Was that my level of magic is naturally more advanced than yours and it's a good thing the headmaster decided to pair us together as we will certainly get further with my assistance than your blind fumblings have managed up to this point?"

That worked. "Yes, sir."

He didn't say anything for a minute. She suspected she'd surprised him into speechlessness but she could be a gracious victor and let the moment pass without pointing it out. Particularly seeing as how his vengeance generally far outweighed the crime.

"I think you were on the right track with Draco. One of Potter's fears has to be death in the final battle." He paused, she could only assume for confirmation.

"It's something that stays with him, certainly."

"Potter, however, has time and again demonstrated great natural strength in magic, if no interest in putting in any effort to develop said strength."

Hermione sighed. "Haven't you ever been scared by your own surprising capacity to do something? Anything?"

Snape blinked at the interruption both to his speech and his thought pattern. "You give him too much credit. I suspect it is in large part that James Potter's son has never given consideration to the fact that he need work, just like the rest of us."

"Yes, but that is merely supposition on your part, seeing as how you know less about Harry than you do about the current season of Muggle television."

"Miss Granger-"

"Put your personal prejudices aside, professor. We need Harry, that much is prophesized. And he can do this. What's more, you know he can, you've seen him in action. So just assume that whatever we come up with, Harry will make work and get to the meat of your idea."

"Ten points from-"

She didn't even flinch. He hesitated for a moment before giving in. "Potter is going to have to mutate the bond between them if he is to have any chance at surviving. Luckily, mutating a bond often kills one of the partners in that bond."

"We just have to make sure it's the right partner."

Snape inclined his head. "Very sure."

*

July 1997

Severus untied the parchment from the post owl's leg, fed it some crumbs and sent it back into the air. When it was gone, he unrolled the missive.

Snape-

I've had another thought on the matter. Why is it that the wand picks the wizard?


Even though the letter gave nothing away, not even their relationship to one another, she had encrypted it. When he had managed to decode and read it he forcefully pushed back at the thought, "She might be worth something yet."

It was only made more painful by the fact that it wasn't the first time he'd considered the possibility. He grabbed at a piece of parchment, dipped the nearest quill into an inkpot.

The core responds to his magical signature.

Her response came early the next morning.

I've been reading on it. Fascinating topic. Evidently it is possible for a second wand to pick a wizard should that wizard's first wand be lost, broken, etc.

Severus had read Potter's report of what had happened after he was Portkeyed away from the final task in his fourth year. He had puzzled over the reaction of their wands to each other. Severus had dueled with people who carried wands with similar cores to his, but nothing of that ilk had ever occurred in any of those duels. Obviously two feathers from the same Phoenix -- a magical entity in and of itself -- carried an immense amount of power, but he thought that Granger might be onto something. What if it was not just the wands but the connection between the wizards themselves? After all, it wasn't the first time magic had commuted between them. Potter's mastery of parseltongue, if Albus was to be believed, was just such an example.

Still, there were complications to the idea she was presenting.

A change like that can often result in diminished capacity. The second wand isn't always as good as the first.

Her reply was so heavily encrypted he had to skip two meals in order to unravel it.

A phoenix rises from the dead. It also knows truth and light. Different feathers of the same bird, innate to two very different magical entities. My friend, though, has several basic precepts to his magic. Perhaps if we found another one to match a core?

It was an interesting idea. Severus had never really given much thought to exactly how the wand chose the wizard, just that the core of the person and that of the wand matched. What Granger was suggesting was considerably more tangible than anything Severus would have imagined but also entirely plausible.

I will research the cores and send you a key. It will be up to you to determine workable matches.

While certain cores to wands were more usual, there were literally hundreds of different types of wand fillings. Some weren't even manufactured in Britain (or anywhere in Europe for that matter) but this wasn't a question of availability. If they needed a wand with an unusual core, they would procure one, or commission Ollivander to make it.

Severus was a practical man however, so he started by researching the more common ones. What they did, why they did it, the animals they came from, everything. He even went to the point of asking Hagrid for information over the course of delivering a pesticidal potion one afternoon.

He disguised the rather large document that he ended up sending to her as one of her books for the next year. Oddly, he had faith that she would be able to figure out the transfiguration and get to what she needed. The note he sent with it was short and undisguised: This should help with your studies.

Severus hoped against hope that it would.

*
September 1997

Hermione returned to Snape's office with the words, "I'm interested in the possibilities that Thestrals, Erumpents, Centaurs and Snidgets present, but I've yet to find any way of testing each before attempting to find a wand with an appropriate core."

Snape looked over the book he was reading at her. "Erumpets?"

"Well, I admit, the hard to provoke part is a little off the mark, but Harry's response once provoked is rather similar to that of Erumpets, wouldn't you say?"

Snape said, "It did take the Dark Lord thirteen years to regain corporeal form."

Hermione smiled. "So you see."

Snape inclined his head. "Thestrals are considered unlucky."

"They're my first choice, actually. Harry's much like a Thestral, invisible to everyone except when others are in grief and then he becomes all too much of a presence. Also, Harry trusts Thestrals, which is really the more significant issue so far as I'm concerned. While Firenze has come to Harry's aid at least once that I know of and probably more, as a race Harry is ambiguous toward Centaurs. Admittedly, some of that is most likely my fault. The Snidgets touch a part of his life that is apart from most of the stuff that he will have to worry about when facing Voldemort, but apart from that it doesn’t have much serious attraction. The Erumpets are a last choice, largely due to the fact that Harry is not at all familiar or comfortable with them and getting a wand commissioned from one of their tail hairs is going to be a royal pain."

"Potter trusts the Thestrals?"

"They've given him no reason not to. When we-" Hermione stopped.

Snape's, "I won’t take points, Miss Granger," was bitter.

"Fifth year, when we went to the Ministry. The Thestrals flew us there."

Snape's eyes darkened. "They did?"

Hermione didn't move. She didn't know how far his promise to steer clear of point deduction extended and she didn't know if Thestrals could be punished, but if they could, she didn't want to be the cause of it.

Slowly, Snape told her, "A Thestral will only approach someone that it knows will not hurt it. Not suspects, not feels strongly, knows."

"Despite what you think, Harry spends a large amount of time merely attempting not to cause harm. Granted, the other portion is spent trying to rescue people and generally causing it all the same, but-" Hermione caught herself. "Use any of what I just said against him and you can figure out a way to work in tandem with either Ron or Harry until Voldemort has been defeated."

Snape didn’t hesitate, "You have my word."

Hermione knew that Slytherins had their own code of behavior, but she was pretty sure a sworn word was a sworn word. "That settled, can you think of a way to test our theory? I mean, we have all the Thestrals one could possibly want sitting in our backyard, there has to be a way to figure out whether Harry's magical signature will correspond to a wand with part of them at the core."

Snape said, "For all intents and purposes, the Thestral needs to be tested as a conduit, rather than a recipient of Potter's magic. I've yet to come up with any way to affect that but I'll keep at my reading. You?"

"I think I'm going to start talking to Harry about it."

"For once I get the better end of the deal."

Hermione rolled her eyes. She was a less surprised than she thought she perhaps should have been when he let it go without a word.

*

Severus wasn't sure how he knew (or why he cared), but Granger was acting off. It wasn't immediately evident. She'd made her report on how things were going with Potter -- better than expected -- and he'd told her what he'd been able to figure out in regards to a testing device -- next to nothing. Then she'd said, "Harry had an idea. Well, he had more of a rogue thought which I then shaped into an idea, but… Places like Stonehenge, they magnify power, yes? And the whole purpose in using a wand is to focus magic so as to magnify it. Two different versions of the same phenomenon."

"You're wondering then if we can place Potter in a location imbued with the magic of whatever conduit we're testing?"

"Something of that nature. It's a pretty as-of-yet unformed idea."

"However, if we are correct in assuming that the Thestrals are the best match for Potter, then it should be easy enough to test. Thestrals are extremely territorial and imbue their space with…an aura, I suppose, for lack of a better word. If Potter is able to actually step inside a Thestral habitat then he should be able to test whether his power is affected by the spot. Assuming he is self-aware enough to notice a difference."

Granger nodded. "Yes, all right. I'll speak with him about it tomorrow."

Which was where Severus had noticed something. Generally when they made progress, even if it was progress that was subject to be completely reversed, there was a spark of enthusiasm, excitement for the next step. This time, she said it as though her mind were elsewhere and she had no interest in calling it back.

Severus needed a partner who was fully mentally present. It was that fact only which made him ask, "Miss Granger, is there something amiss?"

A slight look of guilt flashed behind her eyes before she said, "No, I'm just tired."

Severus knew a lie when he saw one, and she wasn't near to well-trained enough to hide hers. "While I haven't the slightest doubt that you are indeed fatigued," he knew from staff meetings that she had far more on her plate than just their projects together, "you have been such every night so far this term and it has never affected you in this way."

Granger looked down at the book she had open on her lap. "It's nothing, honestly."

"Then explaining the nothing in less vague terms might help to dispel its effect on you." Severus couldn't remember the last time he'd offered to help someone in this way. Part of him didn't believe he was actually doing it now. She seemed smaller than usual, however, her legs dangling at angles from his plush chair, and she was small enough on a normal basis. Couldn't have her disappearing entirely and leaving him to deal with Potter. No, that wouldn't do.

Granger looked up at him. She shrugged. "A year ago yesterday was my sixteenth birthday. Mrs. Weasley'd sent me a cake so we had a bit of a party up in the tower. There's a Muggle tradition of putting candles on a birthday cake, one to represent every year that the person has celebrated. It is also tradition that when the candles are blown out, the person whose birthday it is makes a wish. She can ask for anything she wants, only she can't tell anyone, because then it won't come true.

"Four days before the party, I'd had a bit of a run-in with Draco. You see, like I told you before, over the summer I'd come to the realization that everything between Draco and Harry came down to Harry's initial rejection of Draco. I should've known that at the time but I'll give myself some leeway, having been eleven. Anyhow, with that realization came an idea. The idea was, if I could just get Draco to understand that he was no longer being rejected, Harry might have a valuable resource. It was that way at first, all about Harry. But then, after I'd made an overture to Draco-

"I can't explain it. He was so…scared. Scared in a way that I'd never even seen Neville be. I was sick to my stomach thinking about how he'd every right to be, as I'd been fully intent on using him, even if that wasn't how I'd ever worded in my head."

Granger fell silent. Severus asked, "What did you wish for, then?"

Granger blinked. "Oh, yes. I wished that he would never have any reason to feel scared of me again. I wished that I could help him to get away from whatever had put that expression in his eyes in the first place."

Severus understood all too well. "You think you failed him."

"I can only imagine where he is now. I can only extrapolate on how scared he must be."

Severus couldn't contest that. "If what you told me at the beginning of all this was true, then Draco made the decision to do what he did autonomously."

"Well, yes, but-"

"You gave him a reason to do it, I understand that. I also know that a reason was more than Draco had ever been given before. There are things worth risking great fear for, Miss Granger."

"Perhaps, but I am hardly one of them."

Severus chose his words carefully. "Draco evidently disagreed."

Granger nodded a little helplessly at that. Severus said, "Happy birthday."

She smiled weakly. "Thanks."

*

Hermione settled herself on the floor one evening, three books spread out around her. She looked up at Snape. "How would you classify your knowledge of Ancient Runes?"

"Spotty but I can probably follow whatever it is you're thinking."

"We've been talking about date confluence in the class."

Snape narrowed his eyes. "And?"

"I did a little bit of extra-curricular casting, working with dates that are significant to both Harry and Voldemort, particularly in light of their bond."

"I take it you found something?"

Hermione hesitated. "I'm not sure. See, the ritual with Draco had to be done at solstice, every document describing it was quite clear on that, even if the documents agreed on almost nothing else. In general, magical ritual is very in tune with time, regardless of whether that suggests a specific date or a season, whatever."

"You think the magical sphere of influence might have its own opinions on when Potter can release the Dark Lord from his system?"

"I think that if we want to 'play it safe,' a ridiculous proposition I realize, nonetheless, should we decide to try, then yes, I think we ought to set our own date."

"Setting our own date means ambushing the Dark Lord. We have neither the knowledge necessary to do that nor the Headmaster's approval. And you know he won't allow it."

"No, of course not, and I'm hardly suggesting that we go on the offensive."

Snape caught her eyes. She saw the exact moment when he understood. His lips twitched. "You propose to draw him out."

"I realize it will be rather risky, and have to be planned to a tee, and even then that things are bound to go horribly wrong in one way or another. Still, I think it might be our best bet."

"Potter will have to serve as bait and I will have to feed Him so much false information that it will require whole new levels of Occlumency on my part. How is Potter doing in that area?"

Hermione said, "He won't give you away," but that was all she could promise. "Does that mean you are willing to consider it?"

"It places us with a valid chance of gaining the advantage for the first time in quite some while. As such, it is more than deserving of some consideration. It will have to be presented to the Headmaster, of course."

"After which you'll most likely have to take it to the Order." Hermione tried to keep the bitterness of being used for the planning stages but kept out of all the organizational ones from her voice. She knew she was only mildly successful.

Snape kindly ignored it rather than mocking her. "Keep casting. See if you can find a firm date."

"I think I'm rather close."

"Wednesday night, then?"

"Seven sharp."

*

Severus woke to something that he couldn't identify. It felt as though he were being…tugged. He grabbed the over-robe he kept out for emergencies and set to following the direction of whatever it was that was pulling at him.

Halfway there, he knew where he was going. He considered turning around, ignoring it but the pull itself had been so strong, and Granger would be there. Not that that should mean anything. That should be a reason to turn around. Unless he planned on deducting points. Which, he admitted to himself, he didn't.

He made it to the clearing in the forest where the Thestrals kept hearth and home. Severus stayed safely past the boundaries of what they considered Theirs. Inside those lines, however, was Potter. He was petting one of the Thestrals, others nudging at him with their noses, intent on some attention.

Granger was a few yards away from Severus. He made his way to her as quietly as he could. Severus was used to moving in silence. "I felt him. From the dungeons."

Granger startled a little before regaining composure. "I wouldn't be surprised if the whole school did. It was almost too much standing right here."

"What did he do?"

"Standard Calming Charm. I think he was a bit nervous."

Severus wondered if The Beasts (sometimes referred to as students, although rarely by him) would be more sedate than usual on the morn. If so he would have to seriously contemplate thanking Potter. It was hard deciding which result weighed the other out.

Potter climbed atop the Thestral upon which he'd been lavishing his attention. Granger whispered, "I need you to go back inside now."

Severus barely heard. He'd never seen a Thestral allow someone to ride it. He'd heard, of course, that it was possible, read of flights, even seen pictures of them. Somehow this was different, seeing Potter scramble less than elegantly onto the back of a creature five times his size, seeing that creature allow him to settle before galloping off at its own leisure, taking to the skies with Potter clinging to its neck, seemingly fearless. For the first time in years, Severus stopped to think, "We could win this."

Granger pulled at his sleeve. When she'd gotten him to pay attention, she peered intently at his face. "Why have you stayed with us if you didn't think we could win?"

"What was the point of winning with Him?" Severus asked.

"I'm sure you'd be more qualified to tell me. You saw the appeal in the first place."

"You've never thought you understood something -- knew something -- only to find out how very wrong you were? I thought being with Him meant power, something I'd previously never had and at the time thought of as rather novel. Instead it meant a whole different type of loss of power, one that I couldn't stomach for very long. I don't want that to be the only option."

Granger looked up to where Potter and the Thestral were circling over the forest, coming back to where they'd started. "It won't be."

*

Once Snape had finished explaining the wand-core theory to the Headmaster, and asking that he use any contacts he might have to procure a wand with a Thestral tail hair at its core without alerting others, both men turned to Hermione.

Snape briefly explained that she had been casting runes and come to the conclusion that Voldemort would have to be drawn into a battle at a time of their own choosing. Dumbledore asked, "And do we have a date in mind?"

Hermione said, "January 31st," and hoped with everything she had that her casting had given the right answers. "If you want to double check my work I can give you the backgrounds to what I did."

"I hardly think that will be necessary," Dumbledore said. "After all, a date corollary to both men is probably a requirement. January 31st is Harry's half birthday and the date upon which Tom Riddle was admitted into the orphanage that saw him through his younger years."

Hermione stealthily looked over to where Snape was to see if he agreed with Dumbledore's assessment that her word alone was proof enough. Snape seemed to be considering the import of Dumbledore's words, though, rather than worrying about his offhand acceptance of her work. Whether Snape knew it or not, it was one of the first times that he'd ever approved of something she'd done, tacitly or otherwise. Had the situation been any other than it was, she was pretty sure she would have smiled. As it was, she said, "It was also the date that Slytherin and Gryffindor had their final parting."

Dumbledore nodded thoughtfully. "Mm, I'd forgotten that. Been awhile since I've read any of the school histories, as it were."

It had been a little over six years for Hermione but she liked dates. It was one of the reasons Ancient Runes made her happy. Numbers and symbols imprinted themselves on her easily and for long periods of time.

"The thing now," Snape's balanced tone brought her back to the conversation at hand, "is to figure out how to make Him want the fight to be on that date."

"We'll have to be careful about it but I would imagine the best way to draw Voldemort to us on a date of our choosing is to make that date attractive to him. For example, if information were to trickle down through a student's -- say Harry's -- carelessness that January 31st is the date of a Hogsmeade weekend and that with so many in the school being struck by seasonal ailments which Poppy is scrambling but struggling to fix the trip will most likely have to be cancelled."

Hermione caught on. "But this is Harry, so he would never bother to care that the trip had been cancelled, and he might even be careless to drop hints, several of them in fact, that he was planning on going anyway, with or without chaperone."

Dumbledore smiled. "Precisely Miss Granger. The troublesome part of the plan comes in where Harry will have to be while dropping these hints. It will do no good to have him say them if nobody of note is around to hear. Severus, I will need you to send me a report of places and times where significant Death Eaters will be. You, of course, will need to report something back to Voldemort as well, but I would prefer that it be more than just your word, particularly if anything goes wrong."

Snape said, "You realize you're speaking of sending Potter into places where his safety is nearly guaranteed to be compromised?"

"He will have Order members around him at every turn. We'll make it look natural, of course. An outing with friends, etc., but no, he is never to be left on his own while doing this."

Snape's mouth twisted slightly but he inclined his head, deferring to the headmaster. Hermione knew exactly how he felt. She said, "Could I be allowed to sit in when you explain all this to him, Headmaster? I think he would feel more comfortable."

"I agree completely, my dear girl. I'll send you a note for when the meeting is arranged. For now, though, I'm sending you both to bed. Particularly you, Severus." Dumbledore's eyes were sharp.

Hermione secretly agreed with Dumbledore's admonishment but whereas he could get away with it, she would be a pile of faintly green-glowing dust should she try. She bit back a smile. "Goodnight Professor, Headmaster."

To her surprise they both answered, "Goodnight." Dumbledore's had a more pleasant ring to it but it was Snape's that stayed with her even after her mind had given away to sleep.

*
November 1997

Severus came to the funeral for Arthur Weasley. He stood in the back and thought the fact that everything was now set in place for the Dark Lord's demise should make this better. It didn't.

Granger and Potter were on either side of their Weasley. The rest were all huddled in together, and for once the trademark hair seemed neither a beacon of cheer or even chaos. It was just…overwhelming, in the same way that their grief was.

Severus left before the others, slipping back to his dungeons to grieve on his own. Arthur had been in the Order since Severus had joined and while the man had never been his friend, he was one of the conspicuous ones who had striven not to become Severus's enemy. Severus knew a compromise -- and the stirrings of kindness -- when he saw one.

He had a shot of rum, just one, sipped not downed. Then he sat down to do his markings, to remind himself that dead allies or no, this was just another night and that there would be many more like it after this thanks to the actions of people like Arthur Weasley.

He had finished the fourth year papers and was headed onto the seventh years when Granger slipped past wards that he had finally recalibrated to admit her for the sake of convenience. She asked, "All right?"

Severus said, "I hardly knew the man."

"Better perhaps than I."

He looked up at her and noticed the slight smudging of eye makeup. It was his only clue to the fact that anything was wrong. "Haven't you got people to attend to? Baker's dozens of redheads to calm and coo over?"

"I slipped a quarter liter of Dreamless in the pumpkin juice tureen while the house elves weren't looking. The headmaster figured it out and hastened everyone off to their beds before the Great Hall became host to a slumber party."

Severus stared at her. She shrugged. "They needed the rest. Neither Harry nor Ron has slept since it happened. I can't imagine the rest of the family's doing much better. Mrs. Weasley's an utter wreck."

Granger wrapped her arms around herself, tucking her hands in her armpits and it was only then that Severus noticed the shaking. "Planning on taking any yourself?"

"In a bit, yeah. I'm not much good for anything right now, but I wanted to make sure-"

Severus said into the abrupt silence, "That I had made it back to the castle safely?"

It had the effect of making Granger laugh. "More like that you knew someone considered you capable of grief, I suppose."

Severus leant his head over his papers. "Have I sufficiently robbed you of that notion?"

"Would it make you feel better if I were to say yes?"

Severus grimaced. "Do not mistake me for someone with redeeming qualities, Miss Granger."

"Merlin forbid. No, for the moment I've mistaken you for human," she said lightly.

Which was nearly as bad but Severus sensed there was no back-paddling at this point. "In answer to your question, I'm fine. Arthur Weasley was a valuable member of the Order and his services shall be missed. My regret over that is considerable but I am otherwise untouched. Your efforts would be better served dealing with an all-too-soon to be awakening Potter and Weasley. Ronald."

"I'm quite good at prioritizing on my own, thank you." She smiled softly as she said it. "I do hope your regrets don't keep you up."

"I assure you they won't."

"I'm long past the point where I often believe what you tell me," was what she said as she was slipping back out of his quarters.

Severus considered the still nearly full bottle of rum, safely tucked back into his liquor cabinet. One more shot oughtn't harm anything.

*

Hermione said, "I underestimated you."

Luna looked away from the window she'd been staring out of to face Hermione. "Not unusual by any stretch."

Hermione sat down on the windowsill that Luna was currently occupying. Luna moved over a bit to give her room. When she was settled, Hermione said, "You remember, I mean. When Sirius-"

"It's been better this time, hasn't it?" Luna looked slightly pleased but whether it was with the situation or herself Hermione couldn't determine.

"Harry needs to be with us and I didn't think, after Mr. Weasley, that he could be. You've kept him…calm, though."

"He just wants to know that people still care. He had a rather dry spell of that growing up and all. I was the same way when mum died. Lucky, though, I suppose, to have my dad around for it."

Hermione grimaced. "You have an odd definition of lucky."

"I have an odd definition of a lot of things."

"Well, I suppose that's lucky for us. Harry seems to like it."

Whether she had aimed or not -- Hermione could never tell -- Luna's next comment hit the spot that Hermione had now been avoiding for over a week. "Ron's floundering."

Floundering was a nice word for what Ron was doing. Sleeping with everything that sported a penis and breathed were some others. "I would… If he would have me, I'd ground him."

Luna's foot kicked gently to the side, hitting Hermione's ankle. "Even if you could, it would only be a temporary solution."

"Until he was better, at least."

"And then what would the two of you do? When all possibility was exhausted and still nothing worked the way it was supposed to?"

Hermione frowned. "You seem so sure."

"I was mad for Ron for three years and still I'm quite sure it wouldn't have worked, even without the equipment barrier. You're his friend who's willing to provide benefits to help him heal up completely." Luna left the rest unsaid.

"It must be fixed though. If nothing else, you must see that Harry needs it fixed."

"Unfortunate that Harry is the only one who can fix it, don't you think?"

Hermione didn't say anything. There were some things she was too used to keeping quiet about. "There's another way."

Luna blinked slowly. "Well, I'm sure if anyone can figure it out, it's you."

Hermione tried to smile. Luna said, "It's all right."

*

Severus reviewed exactly what Granger needed to teach Harry in order for his magical signature to shift from one wand to the next and break the connection between him and the Dark Lord. He finished with, "There's a possibility, you realize, that the spell will-"

"Kill him," Granger pre-empted him. "But then, there's a possibility that Voldemort will do that as well."

"I was going to say drive him completely out of his mind, as I thought death was a self-evident possible outcome."

"Oh," Granger said, and it was obvious that no, she hadn't realized that.

"It's never been done before, not so far as I can tell, the forcing of one's magic to realign itself to a pre-existing and yet separate signature. There's just no way to predict the results."

"Oh to have some sort of way of testing it. A control group. Neat little charts."

Severus sympathized, though he didn't say so. "This is what we have, Miss Granger. Let me point out that it is hardly the first time you've risked a life without being perfectly aware of all the eminent contingencies. Or was Draco's life just less important?"

"You will shut your bloody mouth," Granger said, her voice more the warning hiss of a threatened lioness guarding her young than anything human. "At the very least, Draco trusted me to be on the right side, to actually be working with him, which is far more than I can say for you."

Severus paled. Somewhere in the back of his mind it occurred to him to respect the way she never hit falsely. When she went in, it was for the kill. The front of his mind was enraged at her gall. "Not all of us can play the innocent so well. While we lose the advantage of luring those who do not suspect our deceit in, there are other gains to be had from the fall. Or would you suggest that my position has done nothing to further our interests, in the same way that your sacrifice of Draco has failed to do?"

Granger opened her mouth, then closed it. After several deep breaths she said, "I should not have said that. About him trusting you. He wanted to."

Once the words sunk in, though it horrified him, Severus sensed that the only appropriate reaction at this juncture was to reply in kind. "I realize that rather than being less important, Draco was in a more…opportune position to affect the changes you wished wrought. I am aware you did not mean him harm."

Granger bit at the inside of her right cheek, hollowing it slightly. "He should have come to you. I should've convinced him."

"Not even you were sure of my allegiances. Or was I wrong in detecting a note of concern over that issue when you came to me at last January?"

Granger shook her head. "No, not wrong. Still, the headmaster trusted you. I'm not in the general practice of doubting him."

Severus said softly, "Given everything that has occurred in your past three years, I am hard-pressed to judge your hesitancy on this particular issue, even if I could desire that events had gone differently."

"I won’t give up on finding Draco. No less than I would Harry."

Severus knew this. "Go teach Potter. Draco needs a world that he can come home to."

Granger packed up her things. "I. I'm sorry. For everything." She left before he could respond. He was sickeningly grateful, not being familiar with a single word or phrase that would be useful in this situation.

*
January 1998

Hermione could breathe easier with every Weasley that showed up at the castle. The Order was making its way there, in twos and threes, every once in a while a group of four would sneak in under the cover of darkness. They didn't show up to the Great Hall for meals but Hermione had noticed them around all the same.

The Weasleys were the only members who were regularly visible, as Molly had evidently made it clear at some point that she wasn't going to be near her children and not watch over them. Snape's lips had been as close to twitching as Hermione had ever seen them when he told her this, and Hermione was dying to know what exactly had happened but she knew better than to ask.

The rest were here on "consulting assignments" or as part of a "castle clean-up project" or even "to judge the effectiveness of the Hogwarts staff." Slowly, without much of anyone noticing, the castle filled to the brim with witches and wizards not-so-calmly awaiting January 31st.

The effect of having the twins back was that Ron did calm down some. The effect of having Molly back was that he was far more careful (and therefore less frequent) in his sexual liaisons. Both results were pleasing to Hermione.

Hermione had invited both Luna and Ron in on Harry's lessons so that they could practice with him when she wasn't available. Also, both of them were feeling the need to be involved and Hermione couldn't give them anything more immediate than that. There wasn't anything more immediate.

At three in the morning on January 31st Hermione gave up on sleeping and made her way down to the Common Room. Harry was already there. She sat down so close as to have their skin touching. "You should be asleep," she said. The scold was half-hearted, at best.

He smiled at her. She was surprised at it, at how real the smile was. "Nah, I'd rather be here."

She nodded and sat silently beside him until Ron tumbled down a half-an-hour later. He sat on the other side of Harry and said, "D'you think we'll have to wait all day?"

From everything Hermione had read, magical seizes, though rare, were almost always done at night. Then again, Voldemort wasn't much of a traditionalist. "Can't really say. Sort of depends on if he plans on catching Harry on his 'way out to Hogsmeade' or his way back in."

Ron said, "I don't think I can concentrate a wink on my classes."

For once, Hermione was in complete agreement. Harry shifted slightly and suddenly his hand was fisted in her night robe. She looked over to see that he'd grabbed hold of Ron's pajama top as well. He said, "I don't think I've ever said I love either of you. I've said it to Luna and I haven't even known her as long."

Ron's mouth hung open slightly and it was obvious that he wasn't going to be regaining his verbal abilities any time soon so Hermione said, "It was implied Harry."

"There's every possibility that I'll die tomorrow. I'm not real keen on anything being implied at this moment."

Ron said, "You're not going to die."

Hermione said, "We love you too."

Harry stood up. "Think I'll go get dressed. Don’t really fancy having the big showdown in my pajamas."

Hermione couldn't argue with that logic, so she stood as well and made her way back up to Head Girl's room. It took her forever to decide what to wear. There just wasn't much in her closet that said I-have-an-appointment-to-fight-the-Dark-Lord-and-his-minions-to-the-death-today. In the end, she went with her uniform. It wasn't out of question that classes would be held. Hermione didn't fancy getting points taken for slovenliness.

*

Severus was Called right before sundown. He was caught between not being surprised at the timing and feeling that the Dark Lord was being a bit overconfident. After all, so far as he knew, the ritual that He had decided to enact (a completely separate one from the one they actually planned on, of course) as His final stand against Potter would only work within the confines of January 31st, hence leaving Him with only a few hours once the actual siege began.

Severus sent off a quick coded floo to Dumbledore, who would be in charge of getting Order members in the position, children safe and Potter…well, to where he needed to be.

Severus had to give it to Dumbledore, the Dark Lord had no idea that the wards had been internally compromised rather than falling to His people's work. (While Potter was expected to be outside the wards, the Dark Lord was not keen on the idea of leaving Albus Dumbledore around to continuously spoil His fun.) The Dark Lord was nothing if not a tactical genius, though, and even Severus had to be impressed at all the directions from which Death Eaters and Dark Creatures and other minions poured out.

Severus fought sneakily, watching both sides carefully, switching when it was safe and being ineffectual when it wasn't. Nobody was much paying attention to anyone else unless he or she was the enemy, so Severus was safe to do this for the most part.

The battle'd been raging for nearly an hour when he found Granger. Potter and the Dark Lord still hadn't managed to find each other. She was under one of the Death Eater's wands. She was holding her own for the moment but whoever she was dueling with obviously had more extensive knowledge than she. Severus ran.

He made it just in time, just as her opponent sent a curse that most probably would have killed her. At the very least it would have landed her in a state of unimaginable pain, possibly enough to drive her crazy within seconds. Severus did the only thing he could think of that quickly and threw a diversionary defense, drawing some of the spell's power into himself. The spell had the drawback of landing Severus in a considerable amount of pain but Severus was fairly accustomed to that. Far more accustomed than she was, at any rate. The move had the advantage of leaving no trail, so her opponent had no idea that Severus was coming upon him.

Severus threw a curse which missed -- he was a bit woozy from the pain -- but garnered the Death Eater's attention. He ceased the first spell and immediately cast one after another at Severus, screaming about traitors. Severus had heard it before.

The duel was longer than Severus would have preferred it be. He could only imagine he was dealing with Nott or Rookwood, someone with finesse and knowledge nearly to match his own. Nearly.

Severus finally managed enough breath and concentration for an Avada Kedavra and finished things up. Other Death Eaters were coming at him but Severus was using the moment of victory for all it was worth and using it to spur other Death curses. Even among the Death Eaters, Severus was more given to talent in the Dark Arts. He was more willing to apply himself.

When he had eliminated all immediate threats he rushed to where Granger was still laying and shook her. "Wake up, this is no time for naps."

Even as he said it, though, there was a…shift in the air. Severus looked around. Far away from where they sat, nearly around the other side of the castle, were Potter and the Dark Lord.

It wasn't truly visible what was happening, the sky didn't flare with color nor did any type of light pulsate out from the two of them. All the same, Severus felt it. He asked, "You think-"

She said, "I hope."

Severus made himself stand. He walked with purpose toward where the disturbance -- for lack of a better word -- seemed to be originating. He never made it there. While caught up in another duel the intensity of the magic surrounding the fighting grounds became too overwhelming, and Severus passed out.

*

Hermione awoke before either Ron or Harry. She found Dumbledore, who reassured her that Voldemort was dead, both boys would be fine, and updated her on the fact that Charlie Weasley, Luna, Neville and Hagrid were all dead. The latter information took more cajoling than the former.

Hermione asked, "Where's Professor Snape?"

"He was taken to St. Mungo's along with Harry and some of the more severely injured. Severus took a serious number of curse hits, more than I imagine he even knew during the term of the battle."

"He'll recover, though?"

Dumbledore gave her an assessing look. "Yes, dear girl. He should be back in his own haunts in less than a week. He's rather stubborn about things like this."

Hermione thought he was stubborn about everything but kept that opinion to herself. "Could I be allowed to go visit him and Harry? It…it should be one of us who tells Harry about Luna."

"I quite agree. As soon as you're strong enough to floo-" he held out a hand, stalling her response, "as soon as Madame Pomfrey deems you strong enough to floo, I shall accompany you there."

Ron woke up later that evening and Hermione sat with Bill, Ginny and the twins as Molly told him about Charlie. Hermione defied hospital wing policy and curled up around him when he'd gone rigid. She said, "He died riding his dragons," and, "I'm sorry," and let him be mean to her. When Bill took Molly out to get some fresh air, she let him cry. Ginny curled up on his other side and cried as well. The twins stayed in their chair, silent, twined around each other, waiting for the right moment to say in tandem, "We miss him."

Hermione awoke in the morning, still pressed to Ron's side. She looked up to see Dumbledore above her. He said, "I'm sorry to wake you but Harry has regained consciousness. Madame Pomfrey says you are perfectly able to floo, so I thought it might be best if we left for St. Mungo's."

Hermione rolled off the bed carefully. Once up she stayed still for a second to make sure she hadn't woken Ron. She then crept off behind Dumbledore. They flooed into Mungo's from the infirmary's fire place.

They walked down a considerable hallway and around a few corners before coming to Harry's room. Hermione walked past all the flowers and candies and cards from people who didn't and never would know Harry, and did exactly as she had done the night before with Ron, curling up against Harry's side. For a sick instant she envied Ron for Harry, Ron with his mum and his four siblings still living. With Professor Lupin's death at the hands of Voldemort over a year earlier, the closest thing Harry had to family was her and Ron.

She stroked his hair. "How're you feeling?"

Harry focused his eyes on her. "Different. Everything's different."

"Is it bad?"

"Dunno."

She heard the whisper of fear that he always tried to hide. Its appearance generally meant he was terrified. "If it's bad, we'll fix it. I promise."

"Is Ron… Luna?"

"Ron's fine," Hermione said. "Luna." Hermione tucked her arms firmly around and underneath Harry. "Luna's dead, Harry."

She saw the moment the grief hit; she saw his eyes blank a bit, his chest withdraw an inch or so. He whispered, "Luna."

She didn't say anything. Harry was long past the point where condolences mattered. He said, "Stay with me."

"Always."

*

Granger looked more tired than Severus felt when she walked in to his hospital room. Her smile was rather dredged up but it was a smile all the same, and for some odd reason, Severus found himself appreciating that. The reaction grated on him. It only got worse as she said, "I wanted to thank you."

The disgusting tide of apprehension that had rolled over him at seeing her hold wands with a wizard far above her training came back to him and he said, "You wouldn't be needing to thank me had your competence level been that of a first year. First years at least have the good sense to know when to capitulate and run, would you not agree, Miss Granger?"

The rational part of him knew that even running would not have saved her, not in that melee, not unless she had been able to reach a hiding place Merlin only knew where. The part of him that was still shaking with the aftermath of concerned terror and was less than pleased about that didn't care.

Her face, white with exhaustion, crumbled a bit but it was obvious she'd learnt how to deal with him. "Since you have all the answers, why don’t you explain to me how that would have worked on a field filled with enemies? Please, I'm waiting."

"All that cleverness is for naught if you can't figure a way to get yourself to safety when necessary, which is obviously beyond your abilities."

Granger ran a hand through her hair. "I have more important things to deal with than your petty issues over a battle already won." Her voice cracked on the last word, as though she was unsure of it being the correct one.

"Yes, please go pander to the heroes. That is what Gryffindor's token mind does, after all, isn't it?"

She spun on her heel, only to stop dead. "You are one of those heroes." Slowly, she turned back to face him. "You wanted me to forget that, I suppose. Along with the fact that you saved my life and anything else that much matters to me. Perhaps even that you were part of the team that created the conditions with which it was possible to win at all."

"I assure you, Miss Granger, I have absolutely no problem with taking credit where it is due to me."

Something changed in Granger's eyes, and Severus had just a moment to understand that he should be afraid when she said, "Prove that to me. Let me take you out for dinner. As a thank you."

"That's ridiculous. You're my student."

"Not as of June, I won't be. Meet me outside the gates after commencement."

"I can hardly be expected to remember something that far off."

"On the contrary, you're quite good at remembering most things. If I don't see you there, I shall know you've turned down my offer."

He started to protest but she was out the door before he could get the first word out and he silently cursed her for taking advantage of his infirm state. Then, because it felt good the first time, he cursed her for seeing through his time-honored defense mechanisms, the ones that had worked with everyone else, even Albus on occasion. Finally he cursed her for offering him something that he wanted, something that he had no right at all to take.

As an outlet for his frustration, Severus summoned a Sister and pestered her to release him.

*

It was easier for Hermione to nip down to the Dungeons when she got time for it now that Snape was no longer playing both sides. There was no need for mock detentions or cooked up special projects. Hermione just explained what she had done to Ron and Harry, and how she was trying to make up for it now.

Despite everything that had changed in their world, though, Draco was still nowhere to be found. Hermione's mental energies were drained between needing to take care of a very slowly healing Ron and a neigh mad Harry, and her consistent worry that there was a reason they still couldn't find him.

She fell asleep in Snape's rooms one night, losing consciousness over a chapter on tracing mental pathways. She awoke to a gentle shake. She rubbed at her eyes and took a second to orient herself before saying, "Oh, sorry," and trying to get back to what she'd been doing.

"Miss Granger, I think that was your cue to seek your bed."

Hermione laughed a little but stifled it before it could become hysterical. He asked, "Was there something amusing about that statement?"

"No…no." Hermione shook her head. "Just that you seem to think if I go back to the Tower I can sleep. Ron will probably be up, struggling through some subject to try and make his mum proud, because he can't stand to see her hurt again. Harry will probably be pretending to do the same because he knows it makes the two of us feel better, when in fact, Harry hasn't touched magic since the battle. He says it feels wrong. I suspect it just feels different and that until he starts using it regularly again there's nothing to be done about that but nothing I say can convince him and after a while he just gets angry. Oh, and then there's the letters. Reams after reams of them, some of them thank yous or congratulations, but most of them wanting something from Harry. An interview, an autographed picture, to meet him, to have a daughter or a son join in matrimony with him. Those are the worst. He's barely able to handle the fact that Luna is dead. Most days I think he's in complete denial. He wants out, out of this place, out of this bloody world but I can't in good conscience just let him off on his own at this moment. None of us can."

"Mr. Potter is not-"

"Please don't suggest that he isn't my responsibility. Do you understand? He sits down with books in front of him every night because it makes me feel better. He saved my life at eleven years old and ever since we've been each other's responsibility. I won’t have it any other way. Not even right now, when it would be considerably more convenient."

Snape pursed his lips together. "Are Potter and Weasley suffering from the same lack of sleep you're currently muddling through?"

"If not worse."

"If I were to hand over a little something to aid in that, would you see that the three of you ingested it?"

Hermione heard the implication. Whatever he was about to give her wasn't something generally allowed the students. The irony of Severus Snape breaking the rules for Harry Potter would have made her laugh until tears poured down her face if she hadn't been so acutely aware of the kindness behind the offer -- the impetus behind it. "Yes."

Snape disappeared into his labs for a moment and came back with a green, unlabeled flask. "Nobody else, Miss Granger."

"Understood. The help is appreciated."

"Any more than two concurrent nights and you run the risk of addiction. One night a week or two nights every three weeks is the limit."

"I'll warn them."

"I'll keep your place," Snape motioned toward the book.

Hermione stood. "I'll be back tomorrow evening."

*
March 1998

Granger said, "I've applied for a job here." Her eyes were clear as she told Severus this and he knew she'd waited for a day when she'd taken the potion the night before.

"The Care of Magical Creatures position?" Severus knew Albus was having a devil of a time getting the spot filled. People were starting to spread word that Hogwarts was cursed. "Defense Against the Dark Arts?" The battle had been a little more than the man who had signed on for the year considered himself contracted for, so that position had opened again as well.

"Actually, I petitioned to be given a new spot. Current Events and Recent History. I want to deal specifically with the time period in between Grindelwald and now. The confluence of Magical and Muggle experience, that sort of thing."

"An entirely new class?"

"It's a failing in the curriculum. There are several, not the least of which are the Mind Arts and basic Latin. This is the one I feel best capable of fixing."

Severus wasn't prepared to argue that statement. "And if your petition is turned down?"

"I've also turned one in to the Ministry to become an archivist for the recent War. If all else fails I've been offered positions at the Salem Institute, and on the board of Crup Tails, Inc."

"Both packages must be enticing." Salem because it was in America, and whenever they wanted to seduce someone across the pond they were always willing to spend more. Crup Tails because the owner was an exclusive wanker who only hired the best. The company specialized in creating new spells. It contracted out to several Ministries and larger organizations.

"There are more enticing things than money," was all she said.

"You're not even eighteen, Miss Granger. The war will not haunt you for the rest of your existence."

"No, but it will haunt this world, again and again and again, should I not take the time to force people to remember it. Muggles do this same thing, they push what they don't want to see out of the way. The difference is that at least Muggles try and improve upon the situation. Wizards allow ghosts who aren't aware that the last two hundred years have even occurred to teach what should be an honored subject. They depend on cards that come with treats to teach children a modicum of truth."

"I am merely suggesting-"

"Those positions will always be open," she told him, with a flash of insight and confidence that bordered on stunning, "as I will always be a war hero, always be the girl who helped to create the spell that killed Voldemort. If I find later that I need to move on, that the things that have kept me here are no longer around or no longer an issue, then maybe I will take them up on their offers. Maybe. Right now I can't. I'm not in the correct place for it mentally, and I've no right to do that to them, let alone myself."

Her maturity was thrilling and frightening all at one. He was a bit jealous. Or at least, his seventeen year old self was. "Albus will not turn you down."

"We shall see."

Severus said, "The materials you would have to work with though, at Crup-"

"I don’t need toys. I need our minds. We'll find him. We just have to keep looking."

Severus went back to his book. He would borrow on her faith for a while. She didn't need all of it anyway.

*

She found Harry and Ron hiding in Harry's bed, the curtains drawn all around it. This wasn't an unusual place for them to be nowadays. Ron was actually healing according to normal trajectory when the loss of a father and a brother (two brothers, even if Ron wouldn't admit to being related to Percy) was taken into account.

Harry, so far as she could tell, was still eating as a way to appease them. As he was with sleeping, studying, talking, walking, anything that most seventeen year old boys did.

Ron greeted her with a smile. Harry said, "Why does Snape keep giving you the drug?"

"It's not a drug, Harry, it's a-"

"It makes us sleep and it's addictive. Where I come from- where we come from, that would be called a drug."

"But neither of us is going back to where we came from, so we'll call it a Potion."

Harry shrugged. "Doesn't explain why he keeps giving it to you."

Hermione laid down along the end of the bed and thought about how exactly to explain everything. "Both of you have to promise me that you're going to listen to me."

Harry said, "Promise."

Ron squinted his eyes and thought about it for a second. "All right."

"Promise, Ronald."

"I promise. Sheesh." Ron rolled his eyes.

Hermione knew him better than that. "I made a new friend at the beginning of our first term sixth year. Someone I would never have expected to like. Only, it seemed to me that maybe he needed a friend, so I tried providing one and it just…happened."

Harry asked, "Who?"

Hermione took a deep breath. "It was Draco."

Ron exploded. "You were cavorting about with miniature Death Eaters and you didn't feel the need to mention anything to us?"

"He was not a miniature Death Eater," Hermione hissed. Then she caught herself. "Is not."

"Well, nothing to be miniature to anymore, is there?" Ron asked.

Harry put a hand on his arm. "We promised we'd listen."

Hermione gritted her teeth. "Thanks for that. He was helping us. I'd found a spell that could break the bindings between Voldemort and Harry but it had to be done at winter solstice by one of Voldemort's followers."

"He didn't come back to school," Harry said. Hermione could hear the sick guilt in his voice.

She said, "He's not dead. At least, Professor Snape and I don't think he is. We've been looking for him ever since. The professor talked to Lucius Malfoy about it shortly after and whatever Malfoy said, it lead him to believe that Draco was still alive. That's why we were already working together when the headmaster approached us about working in conjunction to find another spell disabling Voldemort's link with Harry."

"That's why you're still working with him, and why he gives us the Potions?" Ron asked.

Hermione counted to five slowly in her head to give herself some space from the panic that was encroaching at having to say what she planned to say next. "It is why I'm still working with him. The Potion…after the final battle, when he was injured? Right, he was at Mungo's with Harry. So when I went to visit Harry, I nipped down to his rooms and told him that I would be waiting for him outside the Hogwarts' gates after my commencement ceremony if he cared to take me out for a celebratory dinner. I like to think the Potion is his way of saying that he will."

Ron was looking at her in a semi-fearful manner, as though the next moment she was more than likely to whip out her wand and turn him into a lipstick-wearing kangaroo or perpetrate some other random act of senseless violence. Harry's, "But he's awful to you," sounded desperate and lost.

Hermione took one of their hands in each of hers. "When we're alone, he listens to my ideas. He uses them to augment his own, or sometimes, he augments my ideas with those of his. He allows me the use of any book in his collection, even the ones he probably really shouldn't. He laughs at my jokes, well, sort of laughs, in this way that he has and cracks a few back at me. They're always unexpected and sometimes really mean but he says them expecting that I'll get them, which is as much of a compliment as he knows how to give.

"He took on a curse for me, an amplified Cruciatus, he Dampered it, diverting it to himself. It saved my life. And, when he thinks I'm far too involved in my reading, he looks at me. Looks."

Ron sneered. "That's disgusting Hermione. He's old enough to be your dad." He didn’t let go of her hand, though.

Hermione said, "Just barely. He was young for his class. He's nineteen years my senior. It'll matter less and less as I get older. Wizards live for so long that it's not unusual for couples to have up to a thirty year age gap."

Harry, coming out of what looked to be a deep thought, asked, "Does he make you feel like you're the only person in the world? Or at least, the only one who matters? For all the right reasons, not because you've an Order of Merlin or any of that."

Hermione laughed. "This is Snape we're talking about. If I'd walked up to Voldemort and smothered him with a packet of marshmallows I doubt he'd be impressed."

Harry inclined his head. "My question still stands."

Hermione frowned. Her mind sifted through memories of long nights researching and she said, "He makes me feel like I'm the only one in the world that he would allow in as far as he has."

Harry said, "Promise not to leave me behind then."

Hermione dug her fingers into his hand. "Don't even bloody say that."

Ron said, "Neither of us is going anywhere, mate. Not so long as you want us around."

Harry didn't say anything, just laid down, pulling the both of them down with him. Neither of them protested.

*
June 1998

Severus could list at least thirty-seven reasons he shouldn't go down to meet Granger after her commencement. He'd been building the list ever since she'd asked it of him. Number one was that she was Granger. Number thirty seven was that her parents would no doubt wish to take her out afterwards.

There were a few in the middle about age and House and certain friends of hers.

He had two reasons to go down and meet her. Number one was that she was Granger. Number two was see number one.

He met her by the gates. He was still dressed in his academic robes, the ones he had worn at commencement every year for the past eighteen. He had them tailored occasionally, kept fashionable enough, but like everything he owned, he had settled into them and they into him.

She said, "Hogsmeade, then?"

He said, "Hardly, unless you wish to deal with the ravaging hordes that you generally refer to as your classmates."

"Diagon Alley?"

"Hecate's Byway." Edinburgh's version of Diagon, far less congested then the street it modeled itself upon.

"I've only been once."

"I trust you to remember." He found her memory startling at times.

She nodded once and blinked out of existence. He followed. She asked, "Have someplace in particular in mind?"

He took them to a restaurant off the main Byway called Fortune's. When Severus had been a child, Fortune MacNair had still been around to run the place. Unlike most of her spawn, Fortune had been one of the nicest women Severus ever had the pleasure of knowing. She had more often than not undercharged Severus when him and his mother would come in, looking for a place to escape his father for a few hours' time. They couldn't afford to order two meals, so they would order one. Fortune would pile more than enough for two and then charge them half the price, citing specials and all other kinds of nonsense.

Fortune had long since sold the restaurant to one of her protégés and disappeared so as to stay clear of her family's unsavory associations, as she no doubt would have delicately stated the matter. It didn't matter, Severus wanted to take Granger somewhere that housed good memories, and that cut down on his choices considerably.

Granger stepped into the restaurant and ordered them a table for two. The place had changed somewhat, it was brighter than Severus remembered it being and a little bit larger. The menu was the same, though.

Granger ordered a bottle of wine. Severus said, "I hardly think that's appropriate."

She said, "We're already here. I'd say the time for worrying is past. Let's just not, all right?"

Severus poured the wine when it came. He said, "I used to come here as a child."

She smiled. "Did you live in Edinburgh?"

"Outside of it. We had land, for a bit anyway. My father wasn't very good at holding on to what was his. The Ministry took our holdings when he was caught owning items that no wizard in his right mind has any place owning."

"I'm sorry."

"Served him right."

"But not you."

Severus gestured eloquently. "Life rarely pays attention to the young or the weak. The matter is beside the point, as I managed to regain the Manor. Rather, the Dar- Voldemort came into possession of it and offered it as one of many enticements available to me should I join in his cause."

"Was it worth it?" There was no judgment in the question. It was startling in its objectiveness.

"I've avoided the place as much as possible since I switched sides. This was made easier when my mother died, as she was all I really went back for anyway, that and show. Death Eaters are very attached to their holdings. It was seen as rather odd for one us not to be. I thought I was as well until I was given the Manor and it was…well, it wasn't the power or prestige or respect that I thought it was going to be. To come with, I suppose."

"Was switching worth it?"

Severus consciously let go of the breath that was caught in his chest. "Albus will never make me leave Hogwarts. I will always be a allowed a home, a position with a modicum of respect. Respect not based on my power to perpetuate evil."

"I see."

"I," Severus made himself keep her gaze, "I suspect that there is more in my future than I imagined possible, courtesy of my choice. This is of course, presumption on my part."

Her smile was a slow curling of lips and teeth. "Optimism can engender pleasant sensations."

Severus knew how flexible she could be, knew that she hadn't even completely trusted him that night she'd come about Draco. Yet here they were, sitting in his childhood haunt, talking like two people who were just…two people. There was no pupil and teacher, no Slytherin and Gryffindor, no traitor and innocent. Just Severus and Granger.

Severus and Hermione.

Hermione, sensing that whatever he was thinking about needed time to settle, chattered a bit about her NEWTs. The food came and Severus used eating as an excuse to listen rather than speak. When the bill came, he insisted on paying even as she argued, "But I asked you."

He said, "I owe this place of old," knowing instinctively that it was the only argument to which she'd listen. She did.

As they were walking out, Severus reviewed his lists. He went through all thirty seven reasons very, very carefully. He then went through the other two.

He said, "That night at the hospital, the things I…everything you've ever done in this conflict has taken enormous bravery. Bravery not even expected from the most Gryffindor of Godric's House. I should never have suggested otherwise, not even for a second."

The look in her eyes told him that he had altered everything. He added it on to his list as number three.

*

Hermione had promised to spend the summer helping Harry set himself up in St. Andrews. He refused to live in any Muggle city that had an adjunct wizarding component. Equally, Ron and Hermione refused to let him live anywhere that was seriously far from everything magical. St. Andrews was close enough to Hogwarts and far enough from Hecate's that they were all able to compromise on it.

Ron, who would be working at the Ministry and living in a flat over Diagon was less than thrilled but Hermione had assured him, "You're definitely within Apparitive and flooing distance."

She was applying wards that Harry had insisted weren't necessary to the outer edges of the apartment when a small owl flew through the open window. It dropped an envelope on her shoulder and flew away without ever ceasing movement. It was fortuitous - as Harry was not technically living in the apartment yet; there was no food to offer the creature.

She picked the envelope off her shoulder and cracked the seal. She read for a few moments before running into the next room to throw herself at Harry. "I got the job!"

Harry laughed at her antics. "Which job would this be? You've been offered four, or something outrageous like that."

"This coming from a boy who has offers from everyone in the bloody world, literally. I saw that letter from the school in Taiwan. Oh, and the offer to play for Norway. Right, and then there was the private sector magical defense firm in America-"

"Point taken." Harry cut her off with a glare. She backed down. Truth be told, she supported his decision to turn down all of them and take a job at the vid rental store in town. He needed some time away from everyone's Great Expectations.

"The Hogwarts post. The one I petitioned to create. Headmaster Dumbledore," she opened the letter and read, "considered the proposal presented and came to the conclusion that such a topic could be a worthy and valuable addition to Hogwarts's advanced curriculum."

"Advanced?"

"I'll only be teaching third years and up, it's his way of saying it's an elective."

"That's great, Hermione."

She grinned. "Look, you mind if I pop out of here a bit early?"

"Hot date?"

"A girl can hope. I was going to go by the school, tell Severus."

"He'll know. Dumbledore can hardly have made the decision without informing the rest of the staff."

"Oh, I know, but he positively refuses to ask me out so I use every opportunity I get. I think this calls for a bit of celebration, wouldn't you say?"

Harry frowned. "Positively refuses to ask you out?"

"Nutter's afraid of rejection."

"Are you sure that's what it is?"

For a month or so, Hermione hadn't been. In fact, she'd all but given up. Only, she was completely unwilling to go without a kiss for her efforts and when she'd extended on to her tiptoes and initiated her just due…well, the response had convinced her that all of this was still worth a shot. "Not entirely. Mostly, though."

Harry's eyes were worried.

"I can handle myself, love. Promise."

"It's my job to worry about you. Even more than to suggest vids I haven't seen to octogenarian couples and college film buffs. Who should know better than to ask, might I add. Besides, you worry about me all the time, turnabout is most certainly fair play."

"Worry about me then. Just do it with a little faith."

Harry looked at her for a minute. "Fine then, go celebrate."

"Contact the school if you need anything."

"I won’t. Go."

Hermione said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Don’t hurry getting back. Have a good time."

"Yes, mum."

Harry closed the door after her.

*

Severus came to the door of his lab, mildly annoyed at being called from the Binding Potion he was working to strengthen. The best part of summer was the long periods of time he had to spend on his own interests without interruption from outside sources. He pulled back the door the lab, pouring every ounce of his irritation into the act. "Yes?"

Hermione didn't even falter. "I got the job."

"You can hardly believe that I wouldn't have been informed of this before you," Severus said, not really annoyed anymore but still acting on autopilot.

She didn't flinch but she stepped back a bit. "Right. Well, just wanted to share the good news. I'll let you get back to your work."

She was halfway down the hall when he gathered enough nerve to give in to her. "Hermione."

She turned back. "Severus?"

"Did you…would you like to come in?"

"I was hoping for a drink. To celebrate, you know. If that's the best I'm going to get, though, I'll take it."

"Half-an-hour." In that amount of time he could get the Potion simmering with all the right ingredients, or at least, right for this test.

"Sure, I'm off to thank the headmaster until then."

"I'll meet you by the gargoyle."

He made it to the entrance of Albus's office thirty-one minutes later. She was waiting. "Test looking to be successful?"

"The color and smell are right."

"Good luck, then."

"Congratulations," he said.

Her smile was considerably more gracious than it had to be, considering how he had treated the entire situation before. "Thanks."

"The whole staff is rather pleased." Severus wasn't excellent at making amends but he found himself willing to try time and again with her.

"I'm…near to bursting." The expression on her face betrayed with what exactly she was filled.

He laughed softly at her enthusiasm. He rarely laughed at anything if he could avoid it, it gave others insight into how his mind worked. He was relatively sure she wouldn't use it against him. Then again, he preferred to laugh with her. He had spent too much of their acquaintance gaining pleasure from her discomfit, and while she never mentioned or even much acknowledged this, that fact was always in the back of his mind in his dealings with her. This evening, though, she just laughed with him.

They walked into Hogsmeade. The people in the town were slowly becoming used to seeing them together, as Hermione had said, "I won’t be ashamed that I'm seeing you, and I would prefer that you aren't that you're seeing me." She had also pointed out that it was impractical for them to consistently avoid the town, which was the truth.

They grabbed a table for themselves at the Three Broomsticks. Hermione ordered a spiked pumpkin cooler, Severus a Crackling Gin. Severus said, "I'll take the tab. We are celebrating your success, after all."

Hermione rarely let him get away for paying the whole way. As she was always the one to ask, it was often a battle getting her to allow him merely to pay his own way. This evening though, she gave up without a fight, her eyes softening at the offer. "In that case, I'm getting lit."

He snorted. Hermione never lost control of herself, purposely or otherwise. "Go right on ahead. It'll be fascinating to watch. I do call the right to mock you forevermore, however."

"And that would be different from our relationship at this moment because?"

Now that she mentioned it, Severus could see her point. He said, "Because I would have better ammunition."

The drinks came. Hermione sipped at hers.

*
September 1998

"Your class is already quite popular."

Hermione looked up in the direction of the voice. The first week of classes was over and she was hiding out in her rooms, trying to gather all her resources for the second. It wasn't that she didn't like the job. She was actually enjoying it even more than she had been given reason to believe she would. The emotional demands of the subject matter were draining, however, and by the end of a full five days she was more than ready to curl up in the chair that Harry had bought her as a housewarming gift, sip on some indecently caffeine-filled tea, and recoup.

Despite all this, it didn't bother her that Severus had evidently worked up the nerve to use the password she'd freely given him. Which she was pretty sure was as much proof of being completely arse-over-head for the man as she was ever going to get. "The subject is very immediate. Kids like learning about things that they've experienced, makes them feel important. Wait a few years. Then I'll be the Dread Living Binns."

"Or he will be the Dread Dead Granger. One week in and you're already making quite a name for yourself."

Hermione knew exactly what he was referring to. She sighed. "They still see me as one of their classmates."

"Only to be expected, you were not half a year ago."

"Yes, well, it had to be taken care of." With scads of points taken from all Houses and a round of truly nasty detentions with Poppy, Irma, and Severus no less. "Sorry to hand them over to you, I needed-"

"Someone who would grind them beneath the heel of his boot and not even show so much concern as to be amused by their debasement?"

She got up and kissed him. "Glad you understand."

He wrapped an arm loosely around her waist. He never held her tight, as though he wasn't sure he had the right to impede her movement. He said, "Albus is looking the other way."

She took the hand that wasn't hooked over her hipbone and brought it to her lips. "'Course he is. He likes the way you look when you're happy."

"You think you make me happy."

"I flatter myself endlessly." This was dangerous territory, and Hermione was far and away too emotionally worn to be dragged into it, so she changed the subject. "How was your first week?"

She'd talked to him earlier in the week but he hadn't really said much, just commented on how it might be easier to actually work the curriculum that he wanted now that he wasn't playing two sides. Hermione was often amazed by the amount of detail that had gone into Severus's maintaining his cover.

"Horrific, as always. The first years are taking longer to train into terror than ever before and the fifth years are redefining incompetence in ways that I hadn't thought possible."

She twisted out of his arms and lead them to the couch. She sat down on one end and allowed him his space at the other. "How's Ginny Weasley?"

"You expect me to concern myself-"

"Yes, how is she?" There were some games Hermione wouldn't play, not even for him.

"She elected not to take your class?"

"Can you blame her?"

Severus looked away. "Miss Weasley rarely gets things wrongs, has decent penmanship, and has the annoying insolence to laugh when I am at my worst."

"No wonder Gryffindor's getting smashed in the points arena."

"I…haven't yet taken points for that offense."

Hermione found herself hardly able to breathe. "Oh."

"I find other offenses to compensate, worry not."

She squeaked out, "Of course."

His eyes whipped back to hers. "Don't assume anything about me."

"No," she said, "never," and wasn't sure exactly which way he meant it.

*

Severus had his own set of rules when it came to Hermione. He could enter her rooms, after all, a password was tacit permission. He could kiss her: she had kissed him first. He could say yes when she asked him to accompany her places; the time for reticence in that arena was long past, and Severus wouldn't pretend otherwise.

He could not ask her to accompany him. This put him in the position of chancing her saying no, and Severus simply would not allow himself to be in such a spot, not for anyone. He could not, and would not, touch her in any way or place she had not specifically designated as open to his hands or mouth.

He could ask after her so long as he made it clear he was making casual conversation. He could do things neither she (nor anyone else) would be able to trace back to him in order to make her life easier.

He could not intimate in any way the depth of feeling he had for her. Affairs were fleeting, and Severus positively refused to leave a stamp of his one time vulnerability with anyone, even if that state of being were as transitory as the affair itself.

Following these rules to the letter of the law, Severus found himself entering her rooms at nearly three in the morning on the fifth Friday of term. Only to find her awake. She looked up from the scroll she was pouring over. "Oh, um, hello. Finding sleep elusive?"

"I would say I'm not the only one."

She smiled sheepishly. "I drank several glasses of tea at four today. To a purpose."

There was another cup of the substance half drained to the right of one of her hands. "Surely you can't have this much work."

Hermione turned her whole body to face him. "Keep a secret for me? Just until I'm ready to talk about it with others."

Severus was good at keeping secrets. "Tell."

"I've sort of taken on two jobs. On top of trying to find Draco."

"How does one sort of do such a thing?"

"One is hired on for her first choice of jobs but then is offered the other position she attempted to create as a fallback, the one I told you about at the Ministry?"

"Archivist?"

"Yes, they were willing to create the post but only if I were to fill it. Evidently they saw no need to search out someone else interested in such a…sordid pastime as collecting evidence of a conflict."

"Ah."

"I believe in tangible history, Severus."

"You can believe all you want, lack of rest will lead to insanity, and if you think for a second that I plan on courting a woman without all of her mental capabilities in tact you're already experiencing the results of too little sleep."

A small smile played at the corner of Hermione's lips. "Is this how you intend to entice me into my bed?"

"Were you hoping for a moonlight serenade and strewn roses?" Severus didn't even bother to lift an eyebrow. The effort would have been wasted.

"I was hoping you'd join me."

"Hermione-"

"To sleep. I need some. You, despite all your bluster, look like you could use some. I have a very nice bed, really I do."

"Albus-"

"Is still looking the other way. And whistling, on the off chance that he should need to cover any sounds."

Severus fumbled mentally, trying to think of a way to escape but not even his own rules covered this situation, and in the ways they did, he was more than eligible to stay. There was also the fact that sleeping next to her sounded unaccountably…pleasant. "I wouldn't mind a few hours rest."

"Six or so, I should think."

"Perhaps."

She rose, limbs unfolding with a stiffness that bespoke hours in the same position. She headed to her bedroom, throwing a glance over her shoulder once, "Following?"

Severus picked up his feet.

*

Even after a month of stealing nights in each others' beds whenever possible, Hermione still reveled in the feeling of waking up curled practically inside of Severus, or sprawled over him, or tangled in him. He never woke her. She discovered this the morning she slept in reprehensibly due to a faulty Alarm Charm (probably subconscious on her part) and awoke to a Severus who asked, "Would you mind allowing me up?"

She'd managed to pry from him that he'd been awake nearly three hours. All evidence pointed to that he'd needed to use the facilities every one of those one-hundred and eighty minutes. Hermione had very clearly told him, "If you want to get up, do so, I'll either fall back asleep or I won't," but she had yet to awake without him there, and as such had the feeling he was ignoring her permission for one reason or another.

Not that she was complaining. He was the only reason for mornings to happen. Hermione had always suspected there was a reason but until now, it had only been the vague realization that every time of day had to exist to some purpose. She wouldn't have predicted that purpose being the bony chest and surprisingly (even chillingly) strong arms of her one-time professor but Hermione was used to rolling with what life gave her.

He was also almost never still asleep when she awoke. She suspected that he survived on nearly nothing, had for years. Hermione wished she knew his trick, she could have used the extra time, but her body was traitorous and demanded at least five hours a night.

One morning, after over eight hours of rest (largely because she'd only gotten three the night before and had collapsed long before she would have wished) she planted her head on his chest, looked up at him and said, "Stay for breakfast."

It was a Saturday, neither of them would be expected in the Great Hall.

"Students will be swarming by the time I leave."

"My floo is hooked to Albus's office, just like everyone else's. Floo there with the excuse of needing to talk to him about something, there's got to be something you could address, and then walk out of there. Most of the students can't tell the difference in your day to day robes anyway."

Severus looked like he was going to refuse, so Hermione threw in her prize argument. "I'll make cappuccinos."

Hermione's mother had an entire side to her family that lived in Italy and had at one time taken a vacation to England, seemingly to teach the Grangers about the proper brewing techniques of fancy coffee drinks. Oddly, it had been Hermione's father, the man who hadn't allowed soda in the house for all of Hermione's youth for fear of its enamel-damaging properties, who had taken to the practice of steaming milk and brewing espresso.

As a "house-warming gift" when Hermione had moved into her rooms at Hogwarts, her parents had bought her one of the newest cappuccino machines on the market. While Hermione was much more a tea drinker herself, she could appreciate the odd cup of ridiculously strong coffee here and there. She had enchanted the machine to work without a wall plug and thrown a housewarming party, mostly to give the machine a work out before leaving it to lead a life of sporadic use.

Which was how she had discovered that Severus Snape could be convinced to do just about anything if offered a cup of cappuccino to go along with the action.

As predicted, Severus narrowed his eyes at her but relented. "Why is it that I find myself constantly in relationships wherein I am the manipulated, rather than the manipulator?"

Uncomfortable with the comparisons that Hermione could draw off her -- admittedly lacking -- scope of knowledge when it came to him, she said, "It's a cup of coffee, Severus. If you'd really prefer to return to your quarters-"

"Therein lies the problem," he said softly.

She stayed carefully still, waiting for him to make the next move.

He plunged the fingers of one hand in to her hair. "I never find myself preferring that."

"I don’t manipulate. Not my friends, not…you."

"I didn't mean- Well, I didn't mean that."

"I'd just like to have breakfast with you."

"Yes, I'd like that as well," he said, but it was a long while before he let go of her hair.

*

Slytherin won the first Quidditch match of the year. Against Gryffindor.

Severus, not having much faith in his own version of tact, stayed firmly ensconced in his quarters. When he heard the rustle of his door opening, it occurred to him that this had probably been too obvious a location to use as a hiding spot. Hermione came to him in the innermost part of his rooms. She grinned. "Congratulations. Bet you're thrilled Harry isn't around anymore. I mean, more than even before, and don't say anything evil, no matter how much it pains you."

Severus wished desperately that he could think of something evil to say. It should have been easy, an opening like that, Potter being given over with a proverbial target drawn on his forehead. She was congratulating him though. For his team victory. As though she were truly happy that Slytherin had won something.

Her grin faded. "Severus?"

Severus tried to think of a way to explain his non-reaction. She had to have noticed that even the Hufflepuffs were down over this latest victory. Nobody but Slytherins wanted Slytherins to win. This was and had been a rule for at least as long as Severus had haunted the halls of Hogwarts. Slytherins took care of their own (or at least, they had once, Severus was working to reinstate that ethic if not to better their reputation among the other Houses) because nobody else would do it for them.

She had approached him now, her hands reaching out but stopping short of touching him. "Look, I'm sorry. I know you don't mean the stuff you say about Harry, not most of it leastways, I just don't really enjoy it. He is my best friend after all, and he's having a rough patch of it at the moment but it's fine if you want to say something, because I know it's just words and I haven’t any intention of changing you-"

"Stop."

Hermione stopped breathing along with speaking. Her hands fell to her sides.

"Breathe."

Hermione's respiration fluttered back into existence brokenly.

"I wasn't mad."

"You were something," she said quietly.

Severus looked for the best word to describe what he had been. "Overwhelmed."

Suddenly, Hermione was the one who looked angry. "Because I was happy for Slytherin." It wasn't a question.

"You have to have noticed-"

"Of course I have. The headmaster and I have been working on ideas for integrating the Houses more, specifically with the intent of helping Slytherin's reputation. We hadn't spoken to you about it yet because it was one of my ideas and I begged him not to say anything until it was even plausible that it might work but obviously you need to hear it now. I love Draco, I wouldn't spend every last second of my free time after my two jobs trying to find him if I bloody well didn't, regardless of what I feel I owe him. More importantly, I'm in love with you. I think that gives me the right to support Slytherin, and what's more to try and see that it gets the support it deserves from the rest of this school. Why other Slytherins haven't seen to it that this happened was beyond me but maybe that's something intrinsic to the House, perhaps you are incapable of asking for outside assistance. Whatever the case, I support Slytherin whether others do or not. They should."

"'Should' is meaningless." Severus was still trying to make his brain move as fast as her words and it was the only semi-coherent response he could latch on to.

"And yet something I strive for. Call me a Gryffindor and give up on me."

Severus looked at her, glowing in righteous indignation and latent amusement at something he couldn't quite understand. "I'd rather take you to bed."

"Not now, Severus, you've gotten me all worked up. I couldn't sleep if I tried. I was going to read some more about that Differentiation Charm that I was thinking about modifying to help with the DP." DP stood for Draco Project. They'd adopted the lingo pretty early into their search. It had been especially easier then, when it really couldn't be spoken of much and definitely not around others.

"I wasn't…" Words rarely failed Severus but nothing in the world frustrated him more than when they did.

Evidently it wasn't such a big deal at this time, since she obviously understood, if the interested flare of her eyes was any indication. "Oh. Ah, I'd rather that too."

Severus reached out and undid the top several buttons that were holding her winter cloak over her shoulders. It was cooler in the dungeons than most of the castle, and wintertime was coming on fast and hard, the cold harsh even then, in mid-October. The cloak fell to the floor and Hermione shivered. Severus didn't think she was chilled.

She reached her hands out as she had earlier only this time they made contact, undoing each button starting with the top one. She was methodical and precise in her movements but there was an eagerness to it all in the flush of her skin, the wild fluttering of the pulse in her neck. When she undid the last button, she pushed back at the top two layers of Severus's daily getup. Severus bent slightly, bunching her robes in his hands and straightened, pulling them over her head.

With both of them down to the last two or so layers of covering, Severus pushed Hermione lightly in the direction of his bedroom, one room out from the study. He spared a moment to flick his wand in the direction of the fireplace and light the waiting logs.

Hermione climbed up into the bed. At some point during her school years she'd gotten longer than Severus had expected her to turn out, almost as long as he was himself, although not quite. It was almost too much for a girl; the result being that she was rather sharp looking. Severus, although he knew himself to be biased, found the results nearly unbearably pleasing.

He climbed into the bed from the side. She was still in an Oxford button down and a nicely cut pair of trousers. Professional and yet casual. Even without the robes off, Severus had suspected that she was wearing something like this. He plucked at the third button on the Oxford, the first one she had buttoned. At the spot where it came undone, he placed a kiss. He repeated the action until the shirt had been completely undone and discarded.

He slipped his hands underneath her, letting them glide along the skin of her back to detach her brassiere. Once that was lying somewhere across the room, he allowed himself the distraction of how really bloody gorgeous her breasts were. They weren't particularly large, just well-shaped with perfectly rounded little nipples. Severus cupped a breast each in his hands, his thumbs brushing over the tips of the nipples. Hermione arched. "Oh, yes, all right. That's-"

Severus was a bit surprised at her incoherency. He would have expected her to maintain her verbose perfection even in the depths of passion. That she didn't nearly made him come right then and there. Hermione was the kind of present he'd always imagined existed but had never actually been given, the type that consists of a multitude of smaller boxes inside one large box, each box bringing its own pleasure once unwrapped. Severus continued unwrapping, setting his tongue ever so gently against the very center of one nipple.

Hermione moaned. "Severus."

Since she'd asked so prettily, Severus took the nub into his mouth, being careful to place his free hand on her shoulder so that she was almost entirely pinned beneath his body and his hands. Her breathy little sounds were nearly as good as having her hands on his body, everywhere, and Severus found himself with his mouth on her other breast without being entirely sure of how it had gotten there.

He lifted up, feeling an impatience of his own that was echoing her whimpers as he pulled away. "Relax," he said. Defying his words, he practically tore at his own clothes, divesting himself of what was left in seconds. Equally quickly, he undid the clasp on Hermione's trousers and stole them off her legs. The panties were quick to follow and Severus's hands were at her thighs, pushing them gently apart. She didn't resist the touch, allowing them to fall to the side of their own accord.

Severus placed his tongue at the bottom of her slit, near to her bottom, and ran it all the way up until it met with her clitoris. Above him, Hermione screamed. Severus took the clitoris into his mouth, soothing his tongue over it before gently suckling at it. He wasn’t sure, he was far too intent on what he was doing to pay complete attention, but he thought Hermione might have sobbed at that.

He suckled and licked and breathed pleasure into her for quite some time before dipping back down into the slit with his tongue, checking to make sure she was ready. She was.

Severus accioed his wand and placed a quick Non-Transmission spell on them, preventing both pregnancy and transmission of anything else harmful. Then he coaxed her onto her side, and, facing her, slid slowly, ever so slowly, completely inside of her.

The slowness was just a personal preference of his, he liked to feel every inch of the way, particularly in someone that he'd never had before. He was made glad of this particular preference when her pelvic bone settled against his, her leg curling too tightly over his thigh, her face an odd milky white. Severus had been looking at that face the entire time. It hadn't started out that color.

"Hermione?"

"Just," deep breath, "hold on a second."

He thought about killing her for not mentioning this little detail but then again, he hadn't asked. Which he probably should have. She was only eighteen, and a teacher's pet at that. Not the type to go with the first guy who offered himself.

So he held on, one arm wrapped tightly about waist, stroking at her back, the other insinuated between them, tweaking at her clitoris. A few more deep breaths and the rose-hue of earlier was beginning to return to her face. "All right. All right."

Severus continued, taking things as slowly as he had before even when she began to yell at him, began to try and escape the hold he had on her waist, speed things up. After all, Severus had his preferences. Severus kept his fingers on her and she came, minutes before Severus. His own orgasm was a rush of heat and pleasure so intense that had he been able to, Severus most likely would have backed off of it. Too much of a good thing could be dangerous.

He immediately pulled out of her and disappeared back into the recesses of her legs, petting and cajoling her with his mouth until she orgasmed a second time. When he'd gotten what he wanted from her, he pulled himself up to the pillows and collapsed. He tugged a bit at one of her arms, and between the two of them they managed to get her to roll over onto him. Severus felt around with the arm that she wasn't on top of for his wand and cast a quick Cleansing Charm.

She giggled hazily at the sensation, mumbled, "Night," and turned into dead weight on top of him. He followed her example.

*

Hermione awoke to a wet heat on the inside of her knee. Somehow it wasn't as startling as it should have been. She glanced down at the nest of tangled black hair swathed over the bottom portion of her leg. "Did you want something?"

Severus's tongue swiped quickly along the soft under-portion of her knee. She tried to hold back a giggle for all of a second before the sensation overtook her. She pulled her leg into her chest. He rose up over her. "Yes."

The look in his eyes was intent; she recognized it from when he was trying to work through a particularly challenging problem in regards to spell mutation or potion creation. It was the look of him wanting to understand something more thoroughly. All he asked, though, was, "Are you sore?"

Hermione'd felt worse. There was a sort of a pull of uncomfortable warmth at her center but nothing she couldn't deal with, nothing she wasn't thrilled to recognize as the result of something she'd been waiting for for quite some time. "A little."

Severus swiped the curls back from her face and her neck, kissing at the spot right under her jaw. "You should have told me."

Hermione didn't even pretend to not know to what he was referring. "To what purpose?"

Severus lifted his head to meet her eyes, obviously annoyed. Hermione used the fact of his odd position to lever herself up and roll on top of him. When she had him pinned she said, "I didn't get a chance to do much of anything last night."

Severus' eyes were slightly wider than normal. He stayed still, the way one might in the company of a hungry bear. Her experience with having someone at her sexual mercy was small, and what she had managed once she got them there even smaller, but he had given her some good ideas the night before. Hermione soothed her fingertips over every spare inch of skin, from the neck over the razor sharp line of his shoulders, down into the damp hollow of his throat. She traced over the sternum and up to the pecs, past the hip bones. She lifted his legs up as she went along them, nuzzling the spot he'd been attacking on her knees earlier in the morning's proceedings. She pressed fingers into pressure points on the feet, eliciting growls and then soft moans of pleasure when she let go.

She rolled him over with the barest command from her hands and continued the game on his back, giving over to the temptation to bite lightly at the skin of his shoulder blades when she'd made it that far. She massaged at his scalp and when she thought he just might be falling into sleep, she turned him over once more and kissed the tip of his cock before taking it as far in her mouth as she could manage.

This Hermione had done before and she knew to wrap her hand around the base of the cock, to rub at the balls that hung down below. She knew to hollow her cheeks and make good use of her tongue and keep her teeth politely to herself.

She hummed softly and held on only until he frantically shoved at her shoulders, at which point she allowed herself to roll off of his cock and watch as all her effort paid off. He was left splayed and panting, a perfect picture of post-coital satisfaction. Decently satisfied herself, Hermione grabbed his wand, (as it was the nearer,) cleaned them up, and pulled the covers back over them before snuggling into his side.

"Much better," she said.

"I'm sleeping," he said but it sounded like tacit agreement to her. It also sounded like a really good idea.

*
November 1998

On weeknights Severus was the more likely to find his way up to Hermione's rooms, discover her still working on grading, or writing letters to people who might be willing to donate items to the archive, or doing more research on whatever technique they were currently using to try and find Draco. That project had been more hers than his for a while now, as he was struggling to assure that the Malfoy assets were safely put under Draco's name.

The Ministry was being less than cooperative, unsurprisingly. Gringotts didn't really care so long as the money stayed with them while it was waiting for whoever would inherit it. Ministry officials, however, were working day and night to find a way to get their hands on the money. Severus had absolutely no intention of letting that happen.

Sometimes when he came up to drag her away from her work (a new and odd experience for him, the lovers that he'd had previously had all complained that he would never leave off his work for them) they would have sex. For the most part, though, they both just crawled into bed and tried to sneak in four of five hours of sleep before the next day crept up on them.

On the weekends, she would bring her work down to his rooms and then there would be breaks -- sometimes frequent -- wherein he would have her on the arm of the sofa or she would take him against the wall. If they were feeling decadent, they might work their way to the bed before taking care of things. Most of the time they didn't bother.

On the Thursday night before mid-year exams Severus snuck up to her quarters at three and pulled both of them into bed. At five he woke up, sick and stunned. He tumbled out of the bed and made his way to what should have been the bathroom only to realize that he wasn't in his quarters. She was right behind him though, guiding him into the correct room, sitting back on her heels and running her hand down his back as he vomited into her toilet.

She Summoned a glass of cool water and held it out to him. He rinsed his mouth three times before bothering to try and swallow any of it. She asked, "Can I get you a potion?"

He shook his head. "Nightmare. Took me by surprise is all." While nightmares had been a fairly common occurrence during his years of service to Voldemort (both the first and second time around) they were rarely ever this virulent. Since Voldemort's death they had lessened considerably.

"Voldemort?"

"No." Severus tried calling up the fading images of the dream so as to tell her. "Draco."

"I have those too."

With anyone else Severus would have suspected them of trying to wean his sympathy from the situation or one up him. With her the statement was just meant as a way of calming him, of reassuring him that this wasn't a weakness.

She said, "I will find him. You will manage to save his inheritance for him."

"In January it will have been two years. Even if he was alive-"

"Say another word and I swear to you I will lay a Tongue Engorging Hex on you." Tongue Engorging Hexes caused the victim to choke to death if not ended in time. They were rather efficient when trying to get someone to shut up.

"He's always sixteen in the dreams."

"Always alone," she said.

"Always hungry."

"Cold."

"In pain."

"Asking me where I am." Hermione put a hand to her stomach.

Severus reached out and pulled it toward him. "You should get some more sleep."

She shook her head. "Let's just get up and have something ridiculous for breakfast. Honey cakes, maybe, or pudding. You…is your stomach all right?"

He pulled the hand even further, placing it against his abdomen. "Yes, fine. Just a reaction. Honey cake sounds about right."

"With black coffee, I think."

Severus had to agree that this was one morning wherein nothing else would do. "Still have that South American blend?"

"Enough for the two of us, yes."

Severus, feeling limp and worn out, said, "That's all we need, then, really."

*
December 1998

Hermione knew that Severus's agreement to join her for Christmas morning at the Weasley's was as much an admission of open love as she was ever likely to receive. She also knew that Ron's reluctant promise to behave was the biggest act of friendship she was ever likely to have pass between them. Bigger even than risking his life at the hands of a mountain troll.

She made her way to the Weasley's in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve. Harry was already there, explaining to George and Fred the concept of National Lampoon films. Ron was running late, as usual, his job holding him up as much as if not more so than Arthur's ever had. Despite the hours (which Hermione suspected would lessen once the immediate aftermath of the war and needing to get things resettled in the wizarding world passed) Ron really did love what he did, which was a relief. It gave him a reason to move forward.

Hermione wasn't sure she was up to handling more than one completely broken friend and a mildly broken lover; not when she was a little shaky on the concept of wholeness herself.

Molly and Ginny were cooing over Linora with Bill watching from the sidelines, still quiet and leaner than Hermione was terribly comfortable seeing.

Bill brought home liquor brewed by some of the wizards out in Egypt for later in the evening. It tasted like lightening in bottle form, and had about the same effect on one's insides. Hermione went light on the stuff, knowing the Severus would keep his promise and show up early the next morning.

Bill, Ron, the twins, Harry and Ginny were another story. Hermione ended up dispensing not a few sobriety charms. Bill held his liquor pretty well, fortunately, as did George, and they were both able to help her out with the spells and moving everyone into their beds.

Hermione stuck Ron and Harry into Ron's room. With a quickly beseeching look at Bill, who was dragging Ginny into her room, she slipped in with the two. Bill just said, "See you in the bright and early." It was good to know that Bill could still be evil, when the situation called for it.

Hermione did a quick Transfiguration to the bed in the room, allowing enough space for all three of them. Ron and Harry crawled in, shockingly sober but less than adept at using their limbs for the moment. Hermione came up from behind them and nudged her way into the middle. Harry curled his arms around her while Ron brought the covers up over them. Ron said, "G'night," the word being swallowed up largely by a yawn.

Hermione giggled. "Happy Christmas."

Harry snuggled in closer.

Hermione awoke to the feel of someone's hand ghosting over her hair. She pulled her hand away from Harry to Summon her wand. The motion forced her to look up. Severus was standing over her. He mouthed the words, "Good morning."

Harry was already up, Hermione knew. The movement of her hand had been far too much for him to sleep through. He had trained himself out of heavy sleep in their sixth year. At her back, Ron was grumbling, which was as good a sign as any of dawning consciousness.

Hermione combed her fingers through Harry's hair. "Lemme up."

Harry obliged by flattening himself and allowing her to roll over him. Hermione crept out of the room with Severus following her. She grabbed her wand on the way out and did a breath-freshening charm so that once in the hallway she could flex up on her toes and beg a kiss off of him without any words.

In a move that surprised but in no way displeased her, Severus held her to him for several seconds longer than necessary and was the first to say, "Happy Christmas."

Hermione nodded against his chest. "Yes, you as well. C'mon."

She went down to the kitchen. Molly was already there. Hermione had expected that. Molly gave them both smiles. "'Morning dears, good holiday to you. Have a seat, I've scones and a hash baking. Done in seconds."

Bill was already seated at the table, feeding Linora a bottle. "There's tea on the stove."

Hermione touched Severus's wrist. "Sit, I'll get us some."

She poured two cups and murmured offers of assistance to Molly which were promptly refused. She sat down, sliding one cup over to Severus.

Severus took a sip. "Is this your own blend, Molly?"

Molly smiled a soft, pleased smile. "I have an herb and fruit garden in the back. It's easy enough to dry it all out and make up a blend."

Severus tilted his head. If anybody knew the difficulties of creating something to be ingested, Hermione thought it was probably him. His expression suggested so, anyway. "It's quite excellent."

Hermione thought about letting him know that she appreciated the kindness but didn't. He could be trusted to be kind without her assistance or surveillance. She would let him know that she was aware of that. Instead she took another sip, and made a sound of contentment. "It really is."

*

Severus had been so sure that he didn't want to go to the Weasley's for Christmas morning. He hadn't exactly been wrong. The boisterousness of the affair was hardly to his liking, and it had taken four retaliations to quell the twins' efforts to practice their new items on him. Hermione said, "It's their way of welcoming you into the fold."

Severus tightened his lips. "I'm quite happy outside of it."

It wasn't exactly a pleasure dealing with Potter's avoidance, and the sharp-eyed looks the boy gave Severus when he thought Hermione wasn't watching. Potter's eyes still had an edge of ringed danger to them that Severus was smart enough to know to avoid. The implicit warning wasn't really necessary, though, and Severus didn't appreciate it.

Then there was Ronald Weasley, who kept watching Severus out of the corner of his eye as though Severus were some sort of new creature Hagrid had brought around, dangerous, unpredictable, and likely to pee on the furniture. Of course, this was an improvement from the sixth Weasley's verbal insolence but not something Severus would have chosen to subject himself to on a holiday morning, all the same.

Despite all of this, it was evident that Bill Weasley had grown into an acceptable human being. His role as both real father and substitute father figure was at once painful and gratifying to watch. Severus had never been close to Arthur Weasley, had never been able to handle his brand of wary but cheerful acceptance. Still, the man had saved Severus's life through one maneuver or another at least twice in their association with the Order, and Severus never liked to think of the ones who were worth something dying before their time. It was nice to know that Arthur's family could heal in the face of their losses.

Molly was over-solicitous as always but also cunningly clever beneath her platitudes, out-thinking the twins on several occasions.

Miss Weasley was still refusing to be intimidated by him. She made fun of her brothers as a way of making conversation with them, and managed every once in awhile to divert things when the subject would stray toward something that would involve Severus speaking up. Severus had to seriously consider giving points to Gryffindor when classes re-started. The thought was ruining the holiday so he put it away for later.

Hermione was of course the reason he had come, because she had asked without begging or without any acknowledgement that he might not exactly fit in with her crowd. She'd just said, "I want you with me for some of the holiday."

He hadn't known how much he'd wanted that as well until he was up at four that morning, reminding himself that he simply could not go until at least seven. It just wouldn't do.

He'd made it to six fifty-three and that saw him practically bounding up the stairs once given directions by Molly (and then again by Ginny, who knew where Hermione had actually stayed.) Hermione was messy this morning not having yet brushed her hair. Her nightclothes were rumpled and her smile was tired. It was all Severus could do not to avail them of one of the beds upstairs, or convince her to come straight back to the school with him.

She handed him the present she'd bought him. He unwrapped it to discover Muggle clothing. They were very nice, the materials soft but sturdy against his fingers, the colors muted. All the same, he wasn't entirely sure what use he would ever have for them. She whispered, "I have plans for them. Places to get away to. Parents to meet."

Severus felt a surge of nausea eat straight through him but when he looked up her eyes were calm, patient. She might as well have been a Stomach Soothing Draught. He risked a quick kiss in front of all the people in the room who would have preferred they not be together. "They're nice."

"You'll like them better once they're on. I went for comfort."

Severus repressed a smile. Being one of the few people who knew what he wore under his robes, Hermione would have known that was a requirement. Severus wouldn't wear anything that caused him to feel less than at home in his skin. He took a small parcel out of the pocket of his robes. "Yours."

She took it in her hands and unwrapped it. Inside was a broken tea cup. Hermione took it out with a puzzled expression. "Portkey?"

"Keyed to Hogwarts, or at least as close to Hogwarts as one can manage to get with a Portkey. It's the easiest way to get two people back somewhere if there's a reason why the second person can't Apparate back on his own. It's so that, well, if we were to find any semi-conclusive evidence, you could go and-"

He didn't finish, as his air supply was near being cut off by her attack. He thought about struggling to break free, or Spelling her off. Then he put his arms around her.

She said, "Thank you. For trusting me with this. And just…thank you."

He could feel everybody's stares. He kept his arms around her.

*

Hermione made her way from the MLE level of the Ministry, where she'd been near well begging for anything unclassified that she could put in the War Archives, up to Ron's office. He'd started in a cubicle at the beginning of the summer but one of the higher-ups had since retired and Ron's status as War Hero had given him the impetus needed to claim the spot so quickly.

Hermione was just glad there was a door she could shut behind her. Ron looked up in surprise when he heard the click of the handle mechanism. "Hullo, what are you doing out this way?"

"I needed a friend." Which was true, if not completely accurate.

Ron pushed aside the scroll he'd been reading. "I can be one of those."

Hermione smiled. "The best."

Ron shook his head slightly. "What's bothering you?"

Hermione bit at her lower lip. Then, in one breath, said, "My parents want to meet Severus."

Ron leaned back in his chair. "How much do they know about the situation?"

"Well, they know that he was my professor, and that we were working pretty closely for my last two years. They know that I asked him out nearly as soon as I was out, and that we've been together since then. I told them that he was a spy for our side during the war but I imagine they think of him a bit in a James Bond way." Hermione was more troubled by this probable misconception than she wanted to admit.

"James Bond?"

"Muggle film figure. Very dashing spy for Britain."

Ron flinched. "Ah."

"It took me forever to convince them that he wasn't taking advantage of me."

Ron looked like he had his doubts.

"No, I mean, in the Muggle world it's not unusual for authority figures to force themselves on those within their power in exchange for things. Teachers will promise good marks, that sort of nonsense."

Ron's whole face curled in disgust. "Is there no way to stop it?"

"Well, there's nothing like Veritaserum, at least not that can be used in a court of law, so it's very hard to prove those cases. Also, the victims are oftentimes ashamed of what they've allowed to happen."

"Allowed?"

"It's…complicated. Victims of sexual crimes who are willing to stand up for themselves are put through a trial that can at times be no less of a rape than the original act itself, if not more. Our society is not well equipped to deal with such transactions."

Ron's eyes hardened but he shook his head. "Snape might be a lot of things but somehow rape and Compulsion seem beneath him. Like he would never admit that he would need to use either."

"He wouldn't," Hermione said coldly.

Ron held up his hands. "On your side, truly."

"Anyway, this is all besides the point. The real problem as I see it is Severus' teeth."

Ron was silent for a second. "Erm, far be it from me to point out the obvious but it doesn’t seem to me that looks are a big factor for you in a relationship. Are your parents really going to feel that much differently?"

Hermione sighed. "It has nothing to do with his looks, which, by the way, are just fine. My parents are both professional teeth healers, for lack of a better way of putting it. Severus could be a ghoul so long as his teeth were well flossed, and his canines in the correct position."

Ron shrugged. "I don't see what the problem is, tooth repair is practically superficial unless there's decay or some other deep-rooted problem. Just ask him to make an appointment to get it fixed. He doesn't even have to go into Mungo's, there are plenty of free-standing practices for that sort of thing."

Hermione rubbed at her temple. "It's…Ron, he hasn't even ever asked me on a date. Don't get me wrong, I know he cares about me, there's ample evidence of that. I have no space to believe, though, that if I ask this of him he won't decide I'm more trouble than the benefits are worth and forget this whole thing entirely."

Ron closed his eyes. "Merlin, I wish you'd decided to have this conversation with Harry."

"I. I know. Only, Harry-"

"Right, I know. Flying on half a broomstick on the best of days."

"It's better."

"Better," Ron agreed, with clear implication in his voice of all the area that didn't cover. "Look, Hermione. Think of it as a test. If he's not willing to do this, and honestly, it's a pretty simple thing, then he doesn't deserve you. It sounds trite but someone has to be aware of your worth. Evidently you're a little unclear on that principal."

"It's not that. It's," Hermione put a hand to her chest, "it's that I'm ridiculously in love with him, and I'm not sure I care what I deserve."

Ron came around his desk, sitting up in front of her. "He is too."

Hermione brought her gaze up to Ron. It was filled with a quick shot of shock. "You can't know that."

"I don't want to have to say this to you now, and I certainly don’t want to be made to ever repeat it, so listen, and listen closely. Severus Snape is an ugly, pathetic, nasty arsehole, and I hate that he's won my best girl's heart but my best girl has worked her wiles and won his heart right back. It's obvious in the way he touches her, the way he glances at her under cover of his eyelashes when he thinks he's unobserved, the way his voice softens ever so slightly when he's talking to or about her. I know what love looks like, Hermione. I saw it with my parents; I saw it with Harry and Luna; I saw it with Bill and Sorella, I see it starting between Tonks and George. Severus Snape is in love with you. He won't refuse you this request."

Hermione stood and leaned into Ron until he gave in and hugged her. "I love you," she said.

"You'd best."

*

It wasn't that changing his teeth to please this girl who had changed his existence was a big deal to Severus. He certainly didn't care one way or another about how his teeth looked, good or bad. What was more, he was relatively certain that Hermione didn't particularly care either. If she did, they probably wouldn't have been having sex in every accessible spot in both their quarters for months now.

It was that changing his teeth was akin to making a decision that he'd put off for quite a while now, perhaps even since Hermione'd told him to meet her at the gates in that Mungo's room over a year earlier. It was making a choice to commit to her in more ways than good sex and intimate confidences allowed. It was tacitly admitting he wanted her parents approval, which was in turn admitting he suspected they would be a force in his life.

It was saying "I love you" by way of cosmetic repair.

Severus was aware that Hermione knew this. She'd barely talked to him about anything but the DP and problems in the curriculum and other issues that avoided the main one since asking him to come to her parents with his teeth shiny and straight. She'd actually used those words, smiling oddly, as if aware how ridiculous those two words were when applied to him. She hadn't seemed upset by that, though. In fact, it had been as though if anything, she was secretly pleased.

Severus often felt like he was the only one she showed that type of pleasure. It was possible, he supposed, that he was just the only one who knew how to read her for it. Even that suggested a place in herself she had allowed him, of all the people she could have chosen, to learn. Just like she had allowed him her body, when there had to have been other choices, even choices that hadn't yet made themselves known.

Really, when he thought about it, changing his teeth meant showing her the same courage she had shown him. While Severus was hardly a coward, love was something he had long avoided with spectacular amounts of success and it felt odd to now be aware of its gilded claws, scrambling for purchase at the back of his neck, the base of his spine, the tip of his toes. Everywhere.

Then she would say something like, "If the arithmancical formation of a Dispelling Charm were worked backwards, do you think the results would form a completely separate spell or rather reverse the work of the original charm?" and actually figure out a way to do the work backwards when there were absolutely no guidelines for it. Nobody had really ever thought to do it before. Arithmancy was straight-forward to everybody in the world except Hermione. She didn't think like anybody else.

He would answer, "Most likely a reverse, the variation on answers in arithmancy is infinite but the actual equations are surprisingly simple," but what he generally meant was, "loving the way your mind works doesn't feel shameful."

Nothing about loving her felt shameful or weak or even terribly risky. She was just too steady for him to harbor doubts the way he was pretty sure he should have been doing.

She would smile as though she'd understood his version of silent-speak but only say, "That's what I was thinking. I'm going to try and find out. Reverse spelling might work where straight out looking-by-magic hasn't. Couldn't hurt, either way."

She would set to solving the problem because it wasn't her way to give up. Not on Draco, who'd been missing for over two years; not on Harry, who still sometimes flooed in the middle of the night to ask if she'd seen Luna, and had to be walked through the fact that Luna was dead; not on any of her students, despite some of them richly deserving it. She hadn't given up on Severus either, not even after nearly a year of her being the one to initiate almost everything.

Three days after she'd made the request, Severus came to a conclusion and grabbed several books that he had in his collection more for the sake of wholeness than because he used them, ever. He began putting together the potions that would be necessary. Severus didn't believe in healers and cosmeticians, not if he could avoid them.

A day after she had left for home, and a day before he would be expected to follow her there, Severus took the potions, allowing the requisite eight hour and twenty-three minutes necessary for them to work in succession.

Before he left to go pick up the flowers Hermione often kept in her quarters, the ones he had once seen accompanied by a note from her mother, "They're from the garden, I love these ones, don't you?" he looked into a mirror, opening his mouth ever so slightly to survey the results. The teeth that peeked out from under his lips weren't familiar to him in the least.

They were white and clean.

Definitely for Hermione, then.

*

Hermione's father had a fondness for old movies, and when she had been a child he had often dragged her onto the couch to watch them with him on the tele during quiet Saturday afternoons. Watching Severus Snape with her parents felt a little like she was back on that couch seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. For the man in front of her was either a pod person or some odd alternative version of Severus, a version that could have been had the circumstances of his life been drastically altered.

This Severus was charming and offered to help with the dishes. Luckily, Hermione's mum refused the offer, since Hermione wasn't entirely confident that Severus had ever even seen a Muggle kitchen before. Instead her dad took Severus into the living room.

Hermione cast an eavesdropping spell that the twins had created during her seventh year and taught to all the DA members. Hermione was relatively sure that Severus didn't know the spell and therefore wouldn't be able to recognize it for what it was, even if he realized she was casting near him. She planned on telling him she'd heard everything later but Severus had shown up promptly with pansies in hand and teeth that were so perfect they were almost eerie. She wasn't leaving him to the tender mercies of her father without recourse; that just wasn't a viable course of action.

She cleared the table, bringing dishes into her mum as her dad and Severus spoke. She knew that sooner or later her mum would want her for a thorough raking over nice and toasty coals but Hermione kept moving, putting it off so as to be able to hear what the Men Of The House were discussing.

Henry, her father, said, "You're a teacher, then."

Severus said, "Since '79."

"I see you aren't wanting to beat around the bush."

"I'm old enough to be her father."

"You don't seem at all concerned about this."

"Wizards live well into their hundreds as a regular course of life. There are some that live beyond that. A nineteen year gap isn't something of huge import to our kind. There is of course the concern that one day she will look at someone her own age and realize that her options are more considerable than she has given thought to up to that point but as far as being worried over the mere fact of the difference, no, it's not something I think about much."

Henry's reply was a bit long in coming. "Tell me, did she stay at the school for you? I mean, we're given to believe she's quite intelligent, capable of doing most anything she wants in any world. And there is the fact…I mean, we take that paper of yours. She's a hero."

It was hard to understand the emotion beneath Severus's answer without his facial expressions to refer to. "I encouraged her to consider her other options."

"Then why ever didn't she?"

"Because she saw that what she planned to do was more important than the work at any of the other places that made her offers. She's revolutionizing a whole part of the educational system at the school, you realize. A system that has stood for centuries, millennia."

"I suppose it's hard to argue that she'd be better put to use elsewhere in that case."

"She's rather good at knowing what she wants," Severus said, and it wasn't a form of intimation.

Henry laughed. "Oh she is. If she's good at anything, it's that. You should have seen the row we had when her Hogwarts letter came."

"You didn't want her to go?" Hermione could hear the honest perplexity in Severus's question. She smiled to herself.

"Of course not. A boarding school that we'd never heard of that teaches absolutely no skills useful to the only world we've ever known to exist? What kind of logical sense does it make, sending your only daughter there?"

"But…it's an honor, the letter. Not just anyone gets one, you know, not even among wizards. It's selective. Nobody really knows what the selection process entails, it isn't power or family or intelligence but it's something. Perhaps an odd combination of the three. Hermione is possibly the most qualified person to have received that letter in at least a decade or so."

Hermione practically dropped the dishes she was carrying. Henry's easy, "Well of course she is," brought her back into balance. Her father had never been able to help having an overabundance of pride in her. "It's not that we regret sending her. At the time, though… She was eleven. When you have children you'll understand."

Hermione could only imagine the look on Severus's face, and it was all she could do not to laugh aloud. All Severus said was, "Perhaps."

Henry had evidently made all the decisions that would be made in regard to one Severus Snape however, since he said, "Do tell, what is it you use on your teeth? Their color is simply marvelous."

*

Hermione said, "You mixed the potions yourself."

It took Severus a second to understand that she was talking about the teeth-renewing potions. "Eavesdropping? How very impolite."

"Evening, Pot. Nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you. My name, by the by, is Kettle."

"It hardly seemed the type of thing I would want to trust a stranger with."

"It wasn't- I didn't ask because I minded."

Severus tried to follow how that thought had come from the previous one. He already knew this and it seemed foolish that she would feel the need to make a point that her actions had already delineated quite clearly. "Your parents are dentists."

"Right, right but…I would have introduced you with the bad teeth. I would have…defied their conventions of acceptability, I suppose."

That was a lot for Severus to swallow. Hermione had pictures of her family -- immediate and extended -- strewn about her quarters. She had stories to tell for every occasion that related back to them. She would only talk about them once she trusted that whoever was listening would appreciate her stories, give them the weight they deserved, but once they started, they were endless, a catalogue of familial dedication that Severus enjoyed for the sheer novelty if nothing else. "You love them quite enormously, though. Why would I want for you to have to deny that if a few hours and some effort on my part could fix the problem?"

"This isn't about how big or little a deal your brewing the potion was, Severus. It's about the fact-" Hermione bit her own anger off. "Fuck."

Severus went back to her first statement and tentatively poked at his own walls of self-defense, seeing if he had the courage to lay out what she was hesitant to just say. "You would have chosen me?"

"I would have chosen you," she echoed. It was an echo with intent.

One honest turn deserved another, and though it was near to impossible even to form the words, let alone convert them from thoughts into something larger, Severus said, "I'll never ask that of you. Not if any other option is presented."

"Not that, I mean, I think they would've gotten over the teeth thing. They really are good people." She was running, a bit, from what he'd just said, for which he was grateful. She'd come back and worry at it later until it was out in the open, bleeding possibly, but ready to heal when the initial wound reclosed.

Severus smiled wryly at her. "Oh?" She knew enough of his family history by now to know that comment on her part had been less than necessary. He would have figured that out all on his own. He had, too.

"Shut it."

"Anyhow, the teeth seem to work fine for eating but I am rather curious to see how they hold up in other situations."

"Your idea of innuendo is horrendous, Severus Snape." She looked interested regardless.

"Fortunate that you have very little taste then, isn't it?"

"Deeply," she said.

*
May 1999

"I've been thinking of buying myself a place," Hermione said.

"Hogwarts allows faculty to stay over summer term, you do realize?" Severus didn't look up from his reading. She hadn't really expected him to.

"While I admire your ability to settle in a place and stay there indefinitely, it is not among my virtues. I have to get out of here for a bit or I'll go stir crazy, and I'm tired of living off of my friends's generosity."

"There are plenty of people who live in one house or flat all the year 'round, this is not something peculiar to me."

"A house or a flat is one thing. This is a school, and it is neither of the aforementioned." Hermione kept her voice light. She knew that Severus considered Hogwarts to be Home With a Capital H but she wasn't going to allow that to sway her. "I'm not asking you to go with me, I'm just telling you so that you'll know. I didn't want you to find out from someone else."

Severus was giving the conversation his undivided attention now. "Do you have the money?"

"Enough for a down-payment. You know what I make, Severus."

"I'm just pointing out the considerable amount such an investment takes."

"This is the first time in quite a while that you've purposely underestimated my intelligence. Care to tell me why?"

"It merely seems an unreasonable course of action for someone with limited funds and a viable option for not spending them."

Hermione was reasonably sure that there was a lot being lost in the translation between the way she thought and the way Severus thought. As such, all she could manage as a reply was, "We all have our priorities, I suppose."

Severus looked at her then in a way that she knew. It was the way he perused his shelves when he was looking for a particular book, intent on specific knowledge. "What makes this a priority for you?"

Hermione closed her eyes. As having a home was more an emotional need than a physical or mental one it was hard to verbalize the answer to his question. What she came up with was, "I need refuge of my own making."

"And your rooms aren't enough?"

Hermione gambled on the fact that her next question hit the mark of their communicative differences. "Were they for you when you were growing up?"

Severus took a moment, obviously processing the comment. "I hated it there."

"I know, and I rather like it here but the idea is the same. This is my real world. I need some time away from that. Even if it's just in theory."

Slowly, Severus ran his fingers over the words in the book he was reading. "Take the Manor."

Hermione had made up a decent list of possible twists and turns this conversation could take. This hadn't been one of them. "The Manor? Snape Manor?"

"The finances involved will still be significant, I've no doubt. I've let it lie in ruin, after all. The initial purchase fee, however, shall be just right."

"I'm not taking your family home, Severus."

"Afraid of making me too happy?"

"Your sense of humor always manages to come out at the worst times." Hermione rubbed her temples. "I don't need a bloody manor. I need a house, just for me."

"Will it always just be you?"

"There will be other houses on the market. This is nearly a guarantee."

"Do it for me," Severus said. "Take it from me."

There were a million good reasons to take the offer. Even with repairs it most likely wouldn't be as much as a brand new house, particularly if Ginny (who had a gift with household and technical magics) would help out. If she ever found herself wanting to move the resale value on a Manor would probably net her any house she wanted.

She said, "Yes," because he'd asked her to do it for him. "But you're the one who has to visit me there."

Severus nodded, the full weight of the warning evident in the lines on his forehead.

*

Severus hadn't thought he would be able to remember his way through the Manor but when he got there every line of the place was still stored inside his head. Severus stepped boldly from the hallway where they had Apparated (there were only three -- apparently random -- spots in the house that a Family Member and anyone accompanying them could Apparate to) into his father's one-time study, ignoring the urge to run to the hiding place that he instinctively knew was a level up and three rooms down, in a compartment never meant to house little boys.

"Not much for pastels, was your family?"

Hermione asked it so seriously that Severus had no choice but to laugh. "Nor primary colors, as it so happens."

She smiled then; a smile with layers that even in this place Severus was tempted to explore. "I'll be changing that. Well, maybe not with pastels or primaries. Although I'm not counting anything out just yet. Primaries are supposed to be the best thing for a nursery."

"Mine was mahogany."

"Explains things."

Severus didn't suppose that was really fair on her part but it was said with such fondness that he let it go. He found himself doing that far more often than he could strictly approve of; a fact that hadn't yet brought him to a stop. He looked away, through the window that gave a fair overview of the back part of the grounds before saying, "Hermione, there are house elves."

"What, you mean the furniture isn't self-cleaning?"

"I won’t allow you to dismiss them. If that's part of your price then we're at a standstill."

Hermione slid her fingers along the edge of one spotless shelf. "I was there at the end of the war, Severus. I saw the difference between house elves who sought refugee and those who were forced into it. Winky I could ignore as an oddity but not the overwhelming numbers who were ripped out of the bonds they were born into. I'm neither a naïve fourteen year old nor a cruel eighteen year old."

Severus nodded. "There are six floors above ground, two below."

"Dungeons?"

"Mainly. A few cellars, holding areas as well."

"What floor are we on?" she asked.

"The fourth, the one designed for my family's comfort. First is for entertaining, second for guest housing, third for the house elves, fifth for working area and the sixth is an aviary."

Hermione's eyebrows rose.

"My great-grandfather had a thing for birds of prey."

Hermione said, "Sounds like a good lay-out. I shouldn't have to change anything so far as that's concerned."

"Feeling up to the grand tour?"

"No but I wouldn't mind you showing me around."

Aware of which way to turn or no, Severus was glad she was next to him when they disembarked to wind further into the house.

*

Harry stepped into the Manor right alongside Hermione because along with a good portion of his mind, Harry had lost his fear in the same place that he had defeated Voldemort. While his mind was slowly being found in odd places, Harry's fear had yet to make an appearance.

When Hermione looked back at the rest of her hand-picked brainstorming team, they were still standing at the door. She motioned them to step inside. "It's the inner part that I'm worried about more than the outer part."

Ginny shook herself and stepped inside. Unwilling to be bested by their little sister, the twins and Ron followed, if a bit more slowly. Parvati and Lavender came last. Once inside, Lavender said, "Lacking a woman's touch, isn't it?"

Parvati laughed. "Poor Professor Snape, no wonder."

Hermione thought about snapping at them but there was no real mockery in the statement, just a bit of harmless poking. It was probably less than Severus deserved, all truths told. "That's to be your job, then, the woman's touch part. Nothing ostentatious," she warned.

Lavender asked, "Can we add windows, or does it have to be purely cosmetic?"

"Do what you will, I'll go through and figure out how much of it I can afford immediately later. Whatever I like that I can't afford will have to wait but I will eventually make enough to do as I wish."

Parvati walked a little further up the hall. "Meet you here in a few hours, yeah?"

"Have fun." Hermione waved them off. She turned to Ginny. "I need you to assess the basic cost of refitting and well, the other stuff that you deem most likely. Does that work?"

"Sure. You want me to start down here?"

"Whatever you want. And take as long as you like."

Ginny nodded. "I'll be at the top, then."

The twins were jittery, and Hermione had only brought them there so that they could explore some of the house's magical quirks, see if there was anything they wanted to adapt, so she set them free. "Break anything and I'll let Severus have you."

As they were setting down the hall, Fred yelled back, "He likes us."

Hermione snorted. Ron asked, "You actually bring us for something, or just to see?"

For all the things that had gone wrongly between Ron and her, and Hermione needed at least both hands to count them, it was very rarely that she forgot why he was her best friend. "It's a bit much, don't you think?"

Harry looked around himself without answering. Ron said, "I grew up at the Burrow, Hermione."

"Should I tell him no? We haven't even started talking papers yet."

Ron looked to Harry for help. Surprisingly, Harry caught the look and came to his rescue. "Does it feel like home?"

Without thinking, Hermione said, "It doesn't even feel like home to the man who owns it."

"Wasn't what he asked." Ron crossed his arms over his chest.

Hermione looked down the hall. Lavender was pointing at something. She and Parvati disappeared around a corner. Next to Hermione, Harry was still. "It feels like it has possibility."

Harry smiled. Ron shook his head at both of them.

*

Albus Dumbledore was one of the most unfailingly polite people Severus had ever met, and Severus had spent considerable years of his life among the wizarding elite, men and women who prided themselves on their dotted i's and crossed t's. As such, it was a sure sign of unease when Albus committed even a small error in etiquette. For example, pouring Severus tea before enquiring as to whether he actually wanted any.

Happily, Severus had wanted some tea. Caffeinated beverages were always helpful when dealing with something he had no desire to deal with, and anything that could make Albus less than one hundred percent gracious was undoubtedly such an issue. Severus accepted his cup with a nod of his head a took a small sip.

Albus asked, "How are things, Severus?"

Severus knew how this game was played, though, and while he would play a milder form of it for Albus's sake, that was as far as he was willing to go. "What things, Albus?"

Albus took a sip of his own tea. "Hm. Quite nice, this brew."

Severus waited. Albus said, "I know how your classes are going, and young Mr. Malfoy hasn't yet appeared on the scene, so let us both assume that I am referring to your personal life."

Severus smirked. "Come now, no doubt you have adequate information on that quadrant as well."

Albus's smile was scolding but only in the most peremptory of ways. "It is more than rumored that you plan on signing over Snape Manor to Miss Granger."

"A better fate than it deserves."

"Family holdings often have strong allegiance to that Family in our world, Severus. How is the house handling being put in the hands of a…usurper, shall we say?"

Severus had warned Hermione of such a thing. It wasn't unusual for houses long owned by wizarding families, particularly those built and designed by said family, to be troublesome toward a new owner. He had faith in her ability to handle any such quirks however, and as of yet, none had occurred. Severus silently cursed Albus for making him consider what that probably meant. "No problems as of yet. In fact, the Manor seems rather pleased that someone has taken the time to make it over."

Albus set his empty tea cup in its saucer. "Interesting."

"Sometimes a house is just a house."

"Rarely ever," Albus muttered. "Tell me, if the Manor is just a house, why have you so long been set on getting rid of it?"

"Even Muggles have associative memories to their place of raising, Albus. It isn't about the Manor so much as it is about me."

"And yet, despite your long-time readiness to hand it over to the first prospective buyer, papers haven't been signed. I know you see her often enough."

Severus poured himself another cup of tea without even so much as glancing at Albus for permission. "There have been other things on my mind."

"I sincerely doubt it."

Severus glared at Albus. "What is it you want to hear? Tell me so that I can appease you and we can be done with this subject."

"Your desire to offload that property is well-known amongst those in the community who can afford such a place. Yet every offer you've been given has been turned down for one reason or another. Now you give it to her for free but you dawdle at the signing of the papers. Snape Manor is meant to be a Snape holding; you know this as well as anyone, regardless of your personal emotions in the situation. I think what you're waiting for is not the proper amount of concentration for transferring the house but for signing a different sort of document altogether."

The aftertaste of the tea suddenly lay heavy in Severus's throat. "You're saying I ought to wed her."

"I'm saying I think you've already come to that conclusion and just needed someone to point it out. As she and I are two of the only people willing to jump up to the post of pointer-outer with you, and this is hardly an area that she can interfere in, I felt that job was probably best left to me."

"I hadn't… We've barely been together a year. And Hermione's perfectly capable of asking me to marry her. She carried this- our relationship for close to a year with only small amounts of input from my side of things."

Albus poured himself another cup of tea. "Would you like me to top yours off?"

Severus made a vague negating gesture. "She's barely- There are things she hasn't yet experienced."

"If she feels the need to do so without you, she'll tell you when you ask. I find it hard to believe, though. Miss Granger did not accept the offer of your house as lightly -- or for most of the reasons -- that you seem to think, this much I know. So far as the issue of her proposing is concerned, I suspect she feels that it is time you did a little bit of the work between the two of you."

"I am not-"

"I'm not entirely sure I want to hear the end of that sentence. Whatever its conclusion, you probably are. You are fit to be a husband, to her or anyone else you would have chosen; you are in love with her; you are ready to take this step; and you are worthy."

Severus picked up his cooling tea. "I shall think on what you've said."

"Excellent." Albus grinned, and leaned back in his chair. "So, have you heard the latest Ministry rumors?"

*

Hermione had begun work on the first, fourth, and fifth floors immediately upon being given free reign to do as she wished with the place, papers or no. Lavender and Parvati had not only come up with excellent plans for opening up and modernizing the living and entertaining areas of the house, they'd found her a wizarding remodeling company willing to contract with her to use the house as a work-site for their apprentices. In other words, if Hermione was willing to put up with a little trial and error she could have the work done for free.

Hermione suspected that Parvati had thrown around their status as war heroes, and Lavender was very possibly sleeping with the woman who ran the training division, but Hermione wasn't one to quibble. Especially not when the Manor was coming along beautifully, if slowly and -- at times -- painfully.

Since she'd received both the house and the labor free, Hermione had some cash to throw at the actual furnishings. She chose to put the money toward the updating of the fifth floor. The floor housed everything from Charms Laboratories to fully-stocked libraries. While the redecorators reworked the floor plans and set up of the rooms, Hermione worked to update the libraries and restock the Potions stores.

She was working out a cataloguing system for the books, trying to clear her mind of everything for a while to see if any solutions to the space issue she was having with the Ministry archives presented itself when Severus walked around the corner and said, "Good morning."

Hermione jumped a good foot into the air, banging her hip into a nearby set of empty shelves. She settled, rubbed at the hip, summoned up a smile, and said, "Didn't hear you coming."

There was a slight scold to it, as they had spoken on the issue of his not making noise when he moved. If he wasn't wearing his robes he could walk without a sound, and never failed to startle her. "I forgot I wasn't wearing the robes. I took them off right before I left."

She forgave him then, moving close enough to lean up for a kiss. "What brings you here?"

"Have you already eaten?"

"I've been in a house with a not-overwhelming but nonetheless considerable cadre of house elves for an hour. What do you think?"

Severus tilted his head in acknowledgment.

"You'll just have to discuss whatever you wanted to discuss without the niceties of distraction."

Hermione carefully didn't gloat when the spark of having been challenged fired in his eyes. He asked, "Have you plans for early August already?"

"Some house stuff is scheduled but I can either reschedule or have someone take care of it for me. Why?"

"I've planned a trip to Jamaica. I've a few colleagues there that I've been remiss in visiting. I thought you might enjoy coming along."

Hermione leaned against the shelves that had so recently attacked her hip. "I might enjoy it, eh?"

To his credit, he didn't blink. He did say, "I would…like you to be there."

"Jamaica sounds lovely. I'll just tweak whatever it was I had to do. How long are we going to be gone?"

He looked so relieved to be let off the hook that she was hard-pressed not to show her awareness (and her amusement) at the fact. "A week."

"Thanks for asking me," she said. She, after all, had manners.

Severus saw a book to his left and picked it up. "The Backdoor Brewer's Book of Bedlam in a Bottle? Where'd you find this? I've been looking forever."

Despite herself, Hermione really was in love with him.

*

Severus had no interest in either being or claiming to be an expert on women. For the most part he found them vaguely fascinating, like potions for which he couldn't determine the exact ingredients. Poisonous, healing, or otherwise, women all had something hidden in them that couldn't be found by melting them down or boiling them off.

Until now it had been a fairly good reason to avoid them for longer than it took for an engaging sexual liaison or keeping them at the arm's length that the term professional colleague suggested. It was somewhat throwing that he didn't mind not having Hermione completely figured out, rather enjoyed it at times when she would surprise him with questions that he'd never begun to suspect existed.

So long as he'd known himself (and that amount of time was getting longer by the year) Severus Snape had never liked the unknown. This turn of events was, in and of itself, a good reason to marry the girl and be done with worrying that he'd have to wake up one day to a world devoid of Hermione-induced surprises. Not that marriage was a guarantee of anything, but Hermione was a Gryffindor, and that kind seemed to take to their oaths better than most.

Severus was willing to hedge his bets. Since the whole joining-the-Death-Eaters fiasco his sense of which was the winning side had improved considerably.

To get Hermione to keep her oath, though, he had to get her to agree to take it. Severus knew a little something about proposals. Sammaelle Sprout had told him her engagement story a thousand times if she'd told it to him once. He'd had to advise ex-students of his in the process despite being completely unqualified. Most of them had managed to make it to the altar anyway.

It was his role as some time advisor that made him painfully aware he needed help when it came to his next step. The thought of going to either Weasley or Potter was neigh untenable regardless of the fact that they were probably his best choices. Severus ended up settling on Prosperina Vector since Hermione regularly took tea with the woman and as things went, Severus had never known Prosperina to be anything less than circumspect.

Prosperina stayed with her eldest son over the summers, so Severus owled her and set up a time when he could come for a sit down. On the appointed day he Apparated out to the flat in Cardiff that her son kept. She was waiting for him at the agreed upon coordinates in the middle of the living room. "Sev'rus."

"Prosper."

"Tea? Not for the faint of heart, my son's brew, fair warning."

"I'll take some."

Severus followed her into the kitchen where she poured them each a cup. She handed one to him. "Summer visits aren't usually your thing."

Since he had never once come to see her over the fifteen summers they had worked together, he couldn't debate this fact. "I've decided to propose to Hermione."

She didn't look all that surprised. "Definitely a keeper, that girl. Too smart by half but I think you'd know a bit about that."

"I was hoping for some advice on the custom of the ring."

Prosperina stared at him for a moment. "Ah."

Severus wasn't sure of how to explain himself. There were a million things to explain, his need to make Hermione understand the significance of his asking, how incredible she was to have incurred such an event on her behalf, the necessity of honoring not only her but the actual rite of proposing, even the latent need in him to stand in good stead of what had once been a respected family name. Unsure of how to phrase any of that, he waited to see if Prosperina would have something more to say.

She did. "She doesn't seem like the type to be very high-maintenance, Sev'rus. Get her something pretty."

"Something pretty."

Prosperina laughed. "You were wanting something more? Oi, Sev'rus, if you're at the point where you're doing the asking she's probably at the point where she's ready to answer. It usually works that way. If someone is needing the ceremonial trinket to be fancy, it's probably you. In which case, pick something that works for you. She'll most likely get more out of seeing what you see in her than what you think she would want for herself. Hermione has always…lived a sort of compassion that leant itself well to being happy just by dint of others's happiness."

"Jewelry doesn't mean anything to me."

"But she does."

Severus couldn't argue there. "She does."

"What does she mean then?"

Severus considered saying that she meant baking-soda flavored kisses, and experimental charms gone wrong in his living room, and creative insults, and ticklish wrists. What he actually said was, "She means looking at life in a different way."

"Putting things in a different light?"

Severus nodded. "Most of the time it's better."

"Some type of prism rock? Something that diffuses and reforms light into color?"

As was Severus wont, he let one thought lead to another, and then to another until he was saying, "Centaurian Sapphires."

Prosperina whistled. "The very light of the stars, fallen from the sky. I suppose nobody has ever accused you of skimping on sentiment."

Severus looked at her.

She smiled wryly. "If she doesn't marry you, come back here and try your luck with an old widow, yeah?"

Politely, Severus said, "Thanks for the tea."

*
August 1999

The heat of Jamaica settled into Hermione from the bones of her feet on up. It was terribly hot, close to sweltering even, but the air smelled like salt and burnt sugar and fish, and the heat made sense. Next to her, Severus was in pants that settled against his skin lightly, and a shirt that allowed her to see more skin than not if she caught him at the right angle.

There wasn't enough heat in the world to make Hermione complain about that.

The man they were staying with – Jovan – a colleague that Severus had evidently met whilst acquiring his Masters certification, was a giant. He stood nearly two feet taller than Hermione's five feet eight inches and was at least twice her weight. At least. His hair would have well-rivaled hers as well, she knew, were he ever to take it out of the neatly weaved braids that fell down his back.

His accent was light compared to most of the people she'd met on their adventure into town. He lived outside of Negril at the tip of Long Bay, and avoided the town for the most part, content never to see the tourists that evidently flocked to that area from the Americas. Every once in a while a supply run was necessary, however, as it was the closest large town.

Jovan's wife, Tya, was shorter than Hermione, and nearly as wide as her husband. She wore colorful dresses and practically sang when she spoke, her voice was pitched so high. She was also brilliant at weather magics and stone casting. Hermione took to her immediately.

Jovan's specialty was in Potions, which Tya made fun of him for relentlessly – evidently Potions were considered something of a British specialty, at least the type that Severus and Jovan practiced. Tya was born and raised in a magical community at the foot of the Blue Mountain. Jovan was Muggle-born, raised in Kingston by two small-business owners who exported coffee. He spent a lot of his youth dealing with foreign traders, particularly the English.

Both Tya and Jovan were thrilled to have Severus with them, as he evidently, "Doesn't make it out to our side of the world near to enough," according to Jovan.

Despite their interest in spending time with Severus and getting to know Hermione, their hosts allowed her and Severus plenty of time to themselves, seemingly aware that this was just about the only chance they had to get away from the problems that never stopped and never truly lessened back at home. Dinners were always spent with the four of them around the table, speaking and drinking coffee so rich Hermione was pretty sure she could feel it slide through her veins.

Days, though -- with the exception of the day Jovan had taken them all into Negril for foodstuffs, and potion components, and new stones for Tya, and a visit to some other friends who were willing to brave the constant stream of outsiders for the sense of civilization -- days were for Hermione and Severus.

Hermione had promised herself a week away from the world, and as such had brought nothing along that could be used to work on any of her jobs. Even Draco was as forgotten as she could ever get him to be for a week. Her brain, which she trusted implicitly, needed a bit of time off if it wasn't to fail her completely. Hermione didn’t think she could handle that eventuality, and was willing to compromise on a week completely free of concerns.

Instead she drew pictures in the sand with her toes, and contemplated the different bugs that made their way up the side of the house, and kissed Severus with intent underneath trees that sometimes pitched rotting fruit at their heads. She pushed his hair back from his face, stuck there with sweat and residue from the sea and the moisture of threatening rain in the air. "Thank you."

She bit into the hollow of his neck, easily accessible in his vacation clothes. He tasted of burnt sugar, and Hermione wondered if he'd already had some of Tya's rum that day. It was only early afternoon but Tya was never stingy with the stuff, not even first thing in the morning.

He cupped his hand along the back of her neck, and pulled her back a bit so as to look into her eyes. "Thank you," he agreed.

*

Severus had often found that no matter how carefully one planned things, they were bound to go awry. For example, he had a ring with a stone that few people could afford and even fewer knew how to acquire all set and ready for the actual proposing. He had the geography of a rather breathtaking country three feet and one push of the door away. He had a speech wherein he didn't embarrass himself but at the same time managed to emphasize the importance of Hermione's saying yes to his proposal.

Instead of actually utilizing any of these things, however, he found himself asking, "When was it that you first came to-"

Hermione was sprawled over the bed, stretching herself over as much space as possible to disseminate the night-time heat that had built in the room despite all the windows. "To?"

Severus considered several ways of asking what he needed to know, discarded them all as too clinical, and settled on the clichéd but effective, "Care for me."

Hermione rolled over onto her back. She tilted her head a ways to look up at where he was sitting, propped against the headboard. "Having trouble sleeping?"

Severus was, he didn't do well in the heat, but this conversation wasn't happening merely for distraction's sake. "The first time."

"Sure," she said, her head relaxing back into a more natural position. "I suppose it depends on how you're defining 'care.' As for the most basic sense of it…probably when you woke me up at five that one morning so that nobody would notice I'd been missing from Head Girl's room, and I was on your sofa, covered in a blanket. Because I'd most certainly fallen asleep at your table, over a tome on locator spell theory."

"And if I meant something a little less basic?"

"Ah. Well, if you'd meant that it would be our first date. The one at Fortune's after commencement."

Severus remembered their first date. He also remembered every date since that one. "I was-"

"A bit raw and a bit charming."

"Unprepared for the complication of another human being."

"I know, but I wasn't." Hermione ran a hand up the inside of his thigh. "And you?"

Severus wanted to stall but with her it would only delay the inevitable, and that seemed pointless to him. "The day you told me what engendered your friendship to Draco and the moment I saw you out on the battlefield, respectively."

"Didn't have to think that one over much."

"It's been quite some time since I've had to in anything wherein you're somehow involved."

"Severus-"

"I'm trying to tell you that I would like very much if you would consent to marrying me."

"Up until now I was a bit lost."

Severus sighed into the dark and deliberately didn't push for an answer. He was aware it was ridiculous to assume that if he didn't call attention to the previous moment it wouldn't have happened but at the same time it seemed the only plausible way to handle things.

"You're absolutely the least romantic man I've ever met."

Severus made a sound of protest. He had, after all, gotten her to Jamaica. Granted, a bed in a dark (and sweltering) hut probably wasn't the best place in the country to have taken advantage of being positioned as such.

"But I'm quite keen on the idea of spending the rest of my given life with you, so I'll just have to forgive you that."

Just to make sure that really meant yes, Severus said, "I have a ring."

"You can put it on me in the morning. I don’t plan on moving right now, newly engaged or no."

Satisfied, Severus huffed. "Lazy girl."

"Careful, you might give the impression you like me that way."

*

Hermione went over to Harry's the night she got back in town. Ron was already there, waiting, the boy he'd taken up at the Ministry not at his side. Hermione mouthed to Harry, "Marcus?"

Harry shook his head slightly. Hermione figured she'd get the whole story later from Ron if it seemed like he needed to talk about it. Harry grabbed her hand, the one that was feeling a little heavier these days, and examined it thoroughly. "I didn't know you liked jewelry."

Hermione said, "Harry-" but he looked up, his eyes wry. "So, he get down on his knees?"

"We don't actually need to know that," Ron said. "That's quite a ring."

Hermione needed something from Ron, even if it was anger. Harry, Harry loved unconditionally in the way that only people who never took love for granted could. Ron was another story altogether. "Perhaps he feels I'm worth it."

The edge of Ron's eyes smoldered. "He'd best."

"We traded. The both of you as groomsmen if I accepted Prosper and Minerva as my bridesmaids."

Harry laughed. "That must have been some conversation."

Hermione refrained from saying anything. Actually, there had been very little talking involved. Ron seemed to get this, as he sighed. "Tell me he at least did things right."

Hermione knew that Ron wouldn't think so if she recounted the proposal but Severus had done things right. She wasn't in the habit of defining their relationship by conventional standards, and despite their impending marriage, now didn't seem the time to start. "I said yes, didn't I?"

Harry straightened his face so much it looked like he'd taken an iron to it. "You're young and impressionable."

Although it was obvious he really didn't want to, Ron smiled. "I suppose you're going to want something horridly extravagant as a gift?"

Hermione scowled. "When have I ever asked for anything horridly extravagant in my life, Ronald Weasley?"

Ron didn't even have to think. "When you asked me to accept that you were in love with the man who made our school lives a living hell for seven years."

Hermione snapped back, "Six." They both looked at Harry for the deciding vote.

Harry slid his eyes back and forth between them. "Uh. Well, there was bad blood between us. My vote is skewed."

"I win," Ron said.

"We tie, the win is forfeited," Hermione said. "Or don't you know how majority rule works?"

"We use it so very rarely in the Ministry, I forget."

That, Hermione could believe. "You will have to wear formal robes. Black ones. Severus was rather insistent on that."

"Excuse me while I die quietly of shock in this corner," Harry, who was not in a corner, said.

"Do they have to be new?" Ron asked. Ron made more than enough to support himself with disposable income but hadn't yet gotten used to the idea and was generally pretty thrifty when he could be.

"So long as they fit they could be family heirlooms for all we care."

"Although, in your case, it's probably a good thing they're not," Harry said. It was less tactful than Harry was when he was at his best but also more aware and acknowledging of his life up to this point than most of his conversation since the Final Battle had been. A look of understanding sizzling with an undercurrent of relief passed through Ron to Hermione and back.

"Thanks for the reminder, mate." Ron threw the closest soft object -- a house slipper -- at Harry's head. It was Hermione's cue to give up on getting any more useful conversation out of either of them for the rest of the night. She did so gracefully by throwing the other slipper, closer to her, at Ron's head.

*

"I would consider it a great honor should you consent to being my best man." Severus only managed the request after two cups of a black tea strong enough to qualify as coffee and several slices of the rum cake one of the house elves had made up. Severus wasn't sure who exactly had leaked his weakness for spongy, cooked-down alcoholic baked delights to the creatures but when he found out, it would be a day of reckoning. Severus personally didn't seek out the answer too diligently, as he feared the answer lay in the woman he had just asked to marry him.

Killing a coworker was one thing; people expected that sort of behavior from him. A wife was something completely different.

Across from him, working his way to meet Severus halfway through the rum cake from his side, Albus grinned. "The honor's all mine, Severus."

Severus threw caution to the wind and poured himself another cup of tea. "You're just excited to have yet again gotten your way. Doesn't that get old after the first one hundred years or so?"

"How old, exactly, do you think I am?"

"Old enough to know when to evade a question."

"I learned that particular wisdom at a very young age."

Severus raised an eyebrow.

"Well, seventy-eight feels young at this point. It's all perspective, you know."

Severus concentrated on the cake. The cake was not wily. "You'll have to stand next to Potter and Weasley, which I realize is a deterrent, but I ask that you make this sacrifice for me regardless, as you are the closest thing I've had to family in this life, and it seems both impetuous and cowardly to ask this of someone else."

Albus was silent for a long time after that, long enough that Severus finally looked up, determined to find out if his words had somehow disgusted this man who had met the eyes of a nineteen year old Death Eater, blood still literally on his hands, and said, "Welcome home."

"Albus, I-"

"It's startling, to find someone you thought too broken in certain ways to ever truly mend suddenly straight and whole again. It's also hard to accept that despite your best efforts it was none of your work that managed such a miracle, rather the unsuspecting efforts of a child not even a fifth of your age. I don't begrudge you your happiness, Severus, rather, I revel in it. Nonetheless there are moments that I find myself…feeling a distance that never used to characterize our relationship."

"Your logic is faulty." It was not the first time Severus had ever seen his mentor falter but it was the only time he had seen it in relation to himself. Albus's honesty was in its own way more painful than Severus's tentative admission had been. "If she is the one who is responsible for the mending, then you are the one responsible for giving her the chance. I surely did not find the will or the courage to do such on my own."

Albus took a large forkful of the cake into his mouth and chewed slowly. "I don't imagine you'd allow me my purple robes in such a roll?"

Severus had to think for a moment to remember what had started the conversation. "Under no circumstances. Any day but that one, Albus. This wedding will be perfect, as it shall be our only one."

"Has she asked this of you?"

"If she knew what perfection was, she wouldn't have agreed to marry me," Severus said, his mouth giving a wry twist.

"Or perhaps she merely recognizes a different type of perfection."

"Whatever type it is, it does not allow for purple."

Albus sighed.

"There can be a silver trim to the best man's robes."

"What is this my ears hear? Severus Snape compromising?"

"Willing to take what you can get?"

"From you, Severus?" Albus stole the last of the cake. "Always."

*
October 1999

Hermione creased her brow, straightening it before turning to the rather hopeful gaze of the young sales associate at Madam Malkin's. "These are quite lovely," and some of the new fall robes that Hermione was gesturing at were, "but it's…well, my fiancé is a bit on the traditional side, you see."

Ginny snorted. Lavender had the good breeding to titter behind her hand. Parvati said, "The groom's party will be done entirely in Arthurian Court formal black."

The sales associate met Parvati's eyes. "Ah." She turned to Hermione. "Are you looking for something to match that, or complement it while allowing yourself a bit of…modernity?"

"The latter." While Arthurian Court dress was more a saying, (the men's black full length button-up really only went back three centuries or so,) and Hermione did want to see Severus as happy as he was obviously trying to make her, there were only so many concessions she was willing to make on her wedding day.

"Will something that isn't black do?" the sales associate asked, a preoccupied look on her face.

"I'd rather prefer it. Non-magic folk find black somewhat disconcerting on a bride."

The girl was visibly thrown by this, so Ginny supplied, "Hermione's parents are Muggles."

Suddenly the sales associate grinned. "I've something perfect. One moment."

Hermione watched, slightly perplexed, as the girl disappeared into the back. Moments later she reappeared, bundle of folded cloth in hand. "About ten years back there was a bit of a Muggle-chic trend. It wasn't, really, as it dealt mainly in robes and as I understand it, the only time Muggles go for those is after a bath. It was based more on cultural precepts, you might say."

Carefully, the girl unfolded the bundle into one long, elegantly cut, white robe. It had a somewhat low-cut trim to the chest lined in small pearls, and the length of it was cut so as to flair slightly while whatever girl wore it made her way down the aisle. There was nothing ostentatious or terribly modern about it, even given the scoop in neckline. In short, "How much for alterations?"

"Depends on what you need done. I can't see you needing anything let out, which is good, as that's considerably more than things being taken in. Hemming is fairly cheap, waist and torso cuts somewhat less so. Let's get you in it and see."

She lead Hermione to a dressing room. Hermione went in, not without noticing Ginny, Lavender and Parvati all coming to huddle around the door. Hermione shut herself in, undid her current ensemble, (chosen for the ease with which she could divest it,) and slipped into the robe. Looking at herself in the mirror, she couldn't help but laugh. To Hermione it sounded like an easy, pleased laugh, but Ginny called, "That bad?"

"Actually, I was thinking that with longer legs and enough hair gel to cover a small continent, I wouldn't make a half bad Rita Hayworth."

"Who?" all three girls asked.

Hermione shook her head. Curls limp and frizzy from the heat fell out of the band she'd used to pull her hair back. That had never happened to Rita. "Nevermind."

"You gonna let us see?" Ginny asked.

Hermione pulled the door aside and stepped into the semi-circle of her friends. Parvati looked her up and down and nodded with satisfaction. Hermione had been hoping to get a little more from her on this trip. Lavender had confided that the anniversary of Padma's death hadn't gone easily for her friend this year -- the emotion that Parvati had put off for nearly twelve months while Death Eaters were still on the loose and the Ministry still in disarray and her own life at a questionable place coming back to demand that it be dealt with -- and Hermione could see the aftereffects, the shadows under her cheekbones that spoke of a disinterest in things as basic as food. Still, she had come and as much as offered an opinion, and Hermione knew when to let things lie.

To make up for the obvious change in their longtime friend, Lavender smiled sweetly and said, "You look positively a picture, Hermione."

Hermione had seen some pretty ugly pictures in her time. Contextually, she had the feeling Lavender meant this in a good way. She turned to Ginny for the final (and perhaps most significant) opinion outside her own, Harry's and Ron's. Ron was working overtime at the moment or she would have made him come. Harry, however, she had a rule about never dragging into public wizarding spaces, so he would just have to wait until she got home.

Ginny said, "You look perfect, is what you look. I'd still suggest different shoes."

Hermione looked down at the utilitarian loafers she hadn't bothered to toe off. "I suppose it's something to think about."

*

Severus was glad she brought the whole topic up, because he'd been stewing over how to approach it for a little more than a week.

"I realize," she said, "that your house holds some rather unsavory associations for you but I've been working rather hard at fixing it up, making it mine, as it were, and I'm somewhat set on continuing to do so. Within certain boundaries of course, seeing as how it is no longer to be mine in the singular sense of the word."

Severus put the quill he'd been writing with in the inkpot and leaned back in his chair. "I hadn't imagined you would feel differently."

"I'm aware that you know me better than any other person ought to have the right to. I'm asking you what you're feeling."

"As there was no interrogatory sentence in your previous address of me-"

"So help me Merlin-"

"I considered this consequence before I proposed."

Hermione brought the hand with her ring finger to her chest, an action he couldn't imagine her doing on a conscious level. "I'll choose to believe that the proposal was in spite of, rather than due to that fact."

"You didn't flinch or run or scream in terror when I offered you the Manor. You did some other things, mostly in the bent of making sure I was really getting what I wanted and/or needed out of the transaction, but you didn't react in fear or disgust or pity or even apathy."

Hermione tilted her head. "No, I'm sorry, I don't get it. If the Manor is really something that you wanted to shed, why would my reaction to it, outside of the not immediately refusing you part, matter?"

Severus wondered how it was that she always managed to find the one question that would get him to say things he had no interest in saying. It seemed a bit foolish that he had willingly decided to legally bind himself to a woman who was so intrinsically aware of where the spyholes in his brick wall of mental defense could be found. Evidently, he had been waiting this long to pass into the rite of being foolish. "Because you seemed to believe you could make it a home."

Hermione's lips parted slightly but she seemed at a loss for anything to say.

Though Severus had never found silence hard to wait out before he gave just a little bit extra to have her react verbally. "Because I believed that you could."

The area directly beneath her eyes flushed, the way it did whenever she was flustered. "You can't leave it all up to me anymore, I'm going to need some input."

"You're not listening to me."

"I am, it's just…all this time I didn't have in mind-"

"You had in mind that the place you were transforming was once a part of my family, and by extension, me. Somewhere along the way of all this, I figured into the equation."

"Besides, I thought you liked staying at Hogwarts over the summer."

"Hogwarts was the place where I had people to go home to."

"It still is."

"Yes, but the Manor will be the place where I have you to go home to."

Something about his emphasis penetrated, because the flush spread, paling but still apparent, down the line of her cheeks and trailing onto her throat. "For all the times you've know the exact wrong thing to say to me, you're the only person in the world who can make the exact right thing that much more powerful."

Severus touched the spot where the line of heated skin trailed into her robes, his fingers relatively cool and completely steady at the base of her throat.

*
December 1999

Two nights before the wedding, Hermione woke up, unsure if she was breathing and unable to determine if that was really of any significance just then. Severus's hand curving strongly over her hip to pull her toward him shocked her into exhaling. Her hands fell into place on his chest, not really of her own accord but largely out of a driving desire to recognize his presence on some level.

"Cold feet?" Severus asked, when the blood rushing through Hermione's head had calmed just enough for her to hear and make sense of the words.

"No. Er, at least not in the traditional sense."

"Of course not. It would be inconvenient for you to suddenly change your way of doing things right when I think I've got enough of a handle on them to enter into matrimony with you."

Hermione allowed a small laugh to bubble nicely in her chest. "It was a bit of a Draco thing."

Severus's hand made its way up to her shoulder blades where it caressed at the skin. "Been some time."

Though neither of them had stopped looking for him -- Severus had taken a break to deal with the legalities of arranging Draco's inheritance should he reappear but had not stopped -- the frequency of the nightmares, which were still going strong when the two of them had begun sleeping together, and which Hermione had experienced since that first day back from her sixth year holiday break, had lessened dramatically of late. Hermione put this down to several things, among them: her body recognizing the counter-productiveness of such a measure, Severus's constant presence in her bed, and the fact that one could only survive in a state of emergency for so long. The nightmare she'd just woken from, however, hadn't been the normal one. "You were there."

"In the nightmare?"

"You were lost. With him. So not really in it so much as not in it in a rather conspicuous sort of way."

"You didn't have any of these dreams before Draco disappeared, did you?"

"They're not precognitive."

"I thought you might need to solidify that fact aloud."

Hermione couldn't argue that it had been a bad idea. "I wish he was going to be there."

Severus swallowed, the convulsive movements of his throat reassuring against the top of her head. "Somehow I'm quite sure he does as well."

"He probably hates me at this point. I got him into all of this."

"We get ourselves into things. I joined the Death Eaters for notions of Family in the old sense, among other things. That doesn’t mean my ancestors were to blame."

"Although had their ideology not run in that particular vein-"

"My father still would have been a bastard who ran our family -- in the current sense -- into the ground, and I still would have had to act in order to spite him. My spite may have been caused by my father but it would be irresponsible of me to lay all of my actions due to it at his feet."

"It would be nice, though, if we could." Hermione felt petty even thinking it but there it was, and she had never known Severus to judge her for weakness. Foolishness, childishness, Gryffindorishness, of course, but not weakness.

"It would, wouldn't it?"

"Perhaps I shall go about blaming you for my deeply-rooted issues regarding my looks and intelligence."

"What deeply-rooted issues?"

"I could make some up. It would be fun. I'm not a terribly big fan of my hair. It's messy and hard to deal with."

"Why don’t you cut it?"

"Tried as a child. It didn't go well. I looked like someone had run an electrical current through me on a regular basis."

"Electrical current?"

"Just trust me, it's not a good look."

Severus was silent for a bit. "I would take responsibility for your issues, if I thought it would help."

"I know. I think that's why I'm here. In the more general, overarching idea of here, of what we’re going to do in a couple of days."

"That's what love is to you."

"It's definitely part of it. Why, not for you?"

Severus rolled onto his back, taking her partly with him. They took a few minutes to resituate before he said, "Maybe a little bit. I revel more in your forgiveness than your willingness to take on my demons. Although now that I say it, I think they might be part and parcel."

"Definitely interwoven, at the very least."

"Interwoven," Severus echoed. He braided his fingers into her hair, all the more unruly for it being bed-tossed. "Appropriate."

Hermione was nearly asleep again, the feel of his fingers rubbing over her scalp lulling, but she heard. "Mm, that it is."

*

All the things that Severus was pretty sure were supposed to happen at a wedding, things like the bride looking positively stunning, and the mother of said bride sniffling a bit through the vows, and the cake being far too decadent and girded with criminal amounts of icing, all of those things happened at his wedding. For Hermione's sake, Severus was glad things had gone as planned, right down to him and Potter and Weasley not killing each other in the wait for her to make it down the aisle. For his sake, Severus was glad it was over.

Albus Dumbledore grinning at a person like he'd just managed to save the world with a bit of pumpkin juice and some spellotape was disconcerting enough when said person wasn't doing something that was a Serious Life Decision, let alone when he was.

As Severus had managed most of the actual wedding plans, right down to choosing a legal ceremony officiated over by Amelia Bones rather than a spiritually-allied one, Hermione had been the one to plan the honeymoon. The wedding took place two days after Christmas so the couple had until the fourth of the year to be back at the school. It wasn't a long time but Hermione hadn't seemed disappointed in the least by it and neither of them had felt the need to postpone the nuptials for the sake of the away-from-home shag-fest that was an ordained postscript to said event.

Amid a flurry of rose petals -- magically tinted blue, Hermione liked blue -- Hermione pulled Severus into one of Hogwart's carriages and knocked at the cab, urging it to go. Severus said, "Not feeling up to walking to the edge of the premises in those shoes?"

Hermione looked down in distaste at her white high heels which were fashionable but less than serviceable. She took them off. "I thought we could make use of the carriage ride, actually."

"It's ten minutes to the edge of the grounds. If that."

"You seem to be pretty set on this assumption that we're only going to the edge of the grounds."

Severus cocked his head. "You arranged for a honeymoon somewhere that can be reached by carriage?"

"Well, it’s a bit of a haul, we probably won't be there until morning." Hermione settled back into cushions that were far more expansive and plush than Severus remembered them being in his school days.

"You had a carriage outfitted?"

Hermione looked at him expectantly. "It is my wedding night, Severus."

Hyper-aware of the ground traveling rapidly beneath them despite the fact that she'd obviously spelled the carriage to travel practically without bumps or skips, Severus sat back on his own cushions. "I distinctly remember when you were virginal."

"Is that what you'd prefer?" Hermione plunged herself into his space. "I can do blushing bride."

"Not practically astride me, you can't." Despite the complaint, the tiny jolts that she hadn't been able to rid the carriage of felt quite nice with her flush up against him as she was.

"Well, I can do blushing anxious bride." Hermione bit at the lobe of his right ear. "Or I can just get to work."

Suddenly, the fact that they were traveling by way of relatively unprotected vehicle didn't seem to be such a big obstacle to what she was proposing. "Second option I think would be best."

"Yes, I'm a bit impatient. Maybe we'll save the role play for later." She kissed him, tasting of too much sugar, and not a little bit of bubbly alcoholic beverages. Severus took the opportunity to allow himself to get used to it.

*

Hermione was well aware that this could be her Worst Idea Ever. Unfortunately, an awareness of that (one that had been there right when she had started making the plans) hadn't changed the fact that it was necessary. For some people, a honeymoon was about getting away from home for a bit, for her, at this point in her life, it had needs been about going home.

As such, she pushed back the door to the carriage at its final stop, the sun early-morning bright and not just a little painful. She pulled Severus out behind her and stopped, knowing that he would. She looked back to see him considering the Manor with an air of resignation. "I think I knew somewhere around three this morning."

"What gave it away?"

"You had none of the anticipation of going somewhere new, and all of the relaxed familiarity of going somewhere you trusted implicitly."

"I think that was more the being-with-you thing than anything."

"Flattery will get you nowhere after what you've put me through this night."

"But at a later point in time, perhaps?"

"We'll reevaluate when we reach that juncture." Severus walked past her. "Well, aren't you going to show me what you've done with the place?"

Hermione found her wand in a pocket that she didn't normally keep it in and hastily undid all the wards that she'd had Harry put up when they'd finally managed to get all the old ones down. Harry was right brilliant at defensive magics and Hermione had felt a bit torn between dragging him back to a position that he was desperately fleeing -- with good cause -- and helping him to reassemble all the parts of himself, not just those he chose to acknowledge. "Not really me so much as everyone who agreed to help out."

"Not even Arthur ran the kingdom by himself, brazen overachiever."

"You're perilously close to missing out on the tour in exchange for immediate Apparition to our bedroom."

"So long as you don’t actually need me to do anything, I'm fine with that. You'd best have found us a good bed, though."

Hermione ignored him. "The wards are triple-layered. The password for the first layer, besides a basic alohamora variant, based in fire magics rather than metal, is Draco. Simple enough, the twist, but brilliant, really. Harry thought it up. I wish like mad I could convince him to pursue something in defensive creations but as things are it was like pulling impounded wisdom teeth to get him to even do this. I had to appeal to his savior complex which is something I would soon enough never do again, thank you very much."

Severus practiced the anti-ward spell. When it was obvious that it wouldn't be a problem she showed him the passwords and spells for getting at the deeper levels. The second, a ward based in inverse Dark Magics, was spelled open with a "twenty-seven" and the third, a complex Charm-based spell with infusions of instinctive rune-magic, the likes of which Hermione had never seen, and would have to spend considerably more time with to understand, answered to a "pantheon."

"Home of the gods?" Severus raised an eyebrow.

Hermione smiled. "Who are you to argue?"

She took him through the house, starting with the first floor. "I had everything below ground converted to wine and food cellars and storage space. It's not terribly interesting but far more useful than I personally would have found a dungeon. Hope that's not an issue for you."

The Manor, which had been a dusty representation of Victorian Gothic style (oddly enough, since Hermione had looked up its history and it was considerably older than the late nineteenth century décor/architecture would have suggested) was now host to hundreds of windows, light mahogany and cherry wood floors and piping, comfortable and simple looking furniture, and, "It's more spacious than I remember. I mean, from when I was growing up. When I was smaller."

Hermione nodded. "Lavender and Parvati thought the windows and the wood stripping would do that. Would you believe that was the original wood? It had just been so lacquered that nobody could tell."

Hermione introduced him to Vizja, the head house elf. Severus thought he remembered her but if anything she would have been a mere infant when he had stopped regularly coming around. Regardless of whether she actually remembered him or not, it was obviously a thing of rapture that, "Master has returned!"

The fifth floor, when they got there, had Severus stopping, staring at her in disbelief. "You must have spent a fortune."

She had invested considerably more in this area of the house than any other, wanting each of them to have the best of work stuffs, as much if not more ability to work out of the house as they had to do so at Hogwarts. She shrugged, "I didn't spend more than I could." Which wasn't technically true, there had been a bit of debt involved but it had been debt that she knew she could pay off and felt quite comfortable taking on herself.

He complimented her on her revival of the aviary, at one time more a repository for dangerous creatures than anything else. Then he pulled her back down two floors and into the room that she had mentioned as being theirs. It was a masterpiece of clean lines, huge windows with rich velvet drapes, a poster bed carved from oak, beautiful in its roughness. Severus lifted Hermione and slid her onto the elevated mattress. She bent her forehead to his. "Do you like it?"

Severus hesitated for a moment and Hermione was glad for it, knowing that in his silence was always the search for truth. It was the quick answers that she had to consider carefully.

He hoisted himself up on the bed, next to her, and said, "Welcome home, wife."

*
January 2000

On the morning of the first day of the year, Severus awoke long before his wife. He thought about slipping up to the labs that she had assembled for him, and like a child with his first wand, feeling things out. It was tempting. Despite having been in the house (the house that he'd once thought of as the Snape House, striving not to implicate himself if at all possible) for four days, he'd seen very little of it, and none of it without her there. Severus had been long used to solitude when she'd interrupted his impeccably stylish party of one.

It wasn't that the bed was warm and perfect that kept him back. Although the bed was warm and perfect. Hermione had managed to find just the right amount of blankets with just the right weight. She was nearly always warm to the touch but not so warm as to send things into stifling under the human cocoon she'd chosen as a centerpiece for their bedroom. Still, Severus was quite positive Hermione would have prepared the lab to take on any temperature he preferred. That was important not only for the comfort of the person making the potion but also for the development of the potion. It wouldn’t be like Hermione to miss such a detail.

It wasn't that Severus was tired. Despite the exertions of the past few days, the two had spent more than their fair share of time sprawled over each other, deep in meditative unconsciousness.

It certainly wasn't that Severus was hungry, as Vizja was a pushy little thing with too much time to make lavish onion quiches and crumpets that couldn't be bettered, even by the addition of butter or honey. They had experimented. Even if he was hungry, Vizja wouldn't so much as blink at bringing him a meal in the labs. House elves blinked a lot.

Hermione rolled over at around ten and asked, "How long've you been laying there?"

"All night."

"Awake."

"Few hours."

She propped her head up on one hand. "For what it's worth, I wouldn't have begrudged your getting up to do something."

It was fairly obvious that she didn't think that was the issue and that she was largely just looking for any information he was willing to give out. Severus wasn't feeling so intent on holding anything back as he was unsure of what the answer to her unasked question was. She seemed to catch on, as she said, "I think I dreamt last night."

"You did," Severus said, because he remembered pulling her close, almost as asleep as she still was, and whispering, "we'll find him," even though he hadn't known what that meant at the time. Now, awake, he knew.

"I wake you?"

"Not really. Not in any meaningful sense."

"I could take Dreamless."

"I won't have a potion junkie for a wife, dear." Severus edged the endearment.

"I was thinking more sporadically than regularly but if it's not bothering you this way then I'd just as soon not."

It was only then that the answer to Hermione's earlier "question" came to him. "I think it's more than a matter of 'not bothering me.'"

"Mm?"

Severus, who'd had to trust the English language, as well as some other things, to keep him alive for a very long time, was well aware of all its inherent dangers and traps. "There's no well-worded way to explain."

"Then make it sloppy."

"You stopped dreaming when I talked to you. I just thought I'd stay. In case."

Hermione collapsed lightly on top of his chest. "Severus Snape likes that I need him. Seven years of being his student, looking to him for every grade, every answer to every question that couldn't be answered by searching a text, help in the most dangerous gambits of my life, a good ninety percent of the things I have considered significant in my past experiences, and ten minutes in a down bed prove the point?"

Severus thought she ought not to put it that way if she wanted to consider herself married to a man of any intelligence at all. "You're different when you sleep."

Hermione laughed -- not at him, just to laugh. "Evidently. I'd ask who I am exactly but I'd be afraid of the answer."

"Also, I like that."

Hermione turned her face up to him. "That what?"

Severus wasn't giving an inch, though. "That."

"That me?"

Severus just settled more comfortably against the pillows.

Hermione said, "I like that you. I need that you but I like that you more."

Severus's arm curled over her back and tightened reflexively. "I like that."


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