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A Matter of Honor

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"Why would you want to do an honors project anyway?" Ron asked, rolling his eyes at Harry over a pile of Hermione's books.

She had stacked every textbook she'd ever used at Hogwarts--along with a large number of other weighty tomes, both her own and the library's--on the common room table and had been poring over them since dinner. (The collection even included Gilderoy Lockhart's collected works, Ron had noted with a twinge of jealousy on the first night. "Honestly, Ron," Hermione had said. "Like I could still find that dunderhead remotely attractive.") It had been the same thing every night for at least a week.

Keeping her eyes on the page she was skimming in her upper-level Transfigurations textbook, Hermione sighed, then answered Ron as if reciting for a teacher, "Because, Ron, it will let me really show what I can do. And it will look great on my application to university. Besides, it's a challenge."

She looked straight at him, just in time to see him pulling a face at Harry. "How many times do I have to explain it?"

Harry decided to intercede before the two started their argument--now routine--in earnest.

"It's just that it's going to be our final year, Hermione, and we don't want you to have to spend all of your time in the library. We want you to have some fun. We want to actually see you sometimes, and not just over the dinner table, like this term."

It was almost the truth. Hermione had been working on an independent study with Professor Vector, her Arithmancy professor, this term--the spring term of their sixth year at Hogwarts. She had been so utterly engrossed in the project that she'd barely had time to do anything else but eat, sleep, and, of course, do her homework for their other classes.

Hermione was in her element: not only did she have a natural talent for the subject at hand, which, combined with her easy friendship with Professor Vector, had made the study into more of a reward than a task, she also desperately wanted to prove that Professor McGonagall had made the right choice in allowing her to do an independent study in her sixth year. That privilege ("Torture, more like," Ron had scoffed) was generally reserved for seventh-year students.

Of course Hermione would do well. But doing well wasn't good enough for their friend, Harry told himself. She had to excel, had to prove to herself, to her professors, and to everyone within a ten-kilometer radius that she belonged at Hogwarts. Even after this many years, Hermione Granger was insecure.

Nobody would have believed it of her. Hermione was confident in the classroom, smart, clever, quick with an answer--and downright bossy. Harry realized it, but he wasn't completely sure that Ron did. Even though Ron and Hermione had been "going out" this school year ("And it's about time," thought Harry), Ron still saw Hermione as something of a know-it-all. Someone who liked school too much, worked too hard even when things came easily, and spent too much time trying to win the favor of her professors--and most of them already liked her too well and praised her too often for Ron's taste.

Harry knew that it was hard on Ron, what with Harry getting all of the attention every year for whatever danger the three had weathered and Hermione gaining the dubious rank of teacher's pet with half the faculty.

For her part, Hermione knew that she hadn't been there for her two best friends that term, and, easing the furrow out of her brow, she looked at Harry across the mountain of books.

"I'm sorry, Harry. I know I've been busy this semester. And yes, an honors project will mean the same thing next school year. But…I know you may not understand this, Ron…" she faltered, turning to him, "I have to do this. I just have to." She looked back down at her notes, but didn't pick up her quill.

Ron, abashed, was quiet for a moment. Then he reached over, circumventing the dusty library volumes on Charms, and took her hand.

"Sure you do, Hermione. It's just that…well, we miss you when you're not around. I miss you."

Hermione smiled weakly, not looking up at him. She removed her hand from his grasp and adopted what Harry referred to teasingly as "her best classroom tone."

"Right. Then I'd better get back to it. The deadline for declaring intent is next Friday, so I have to decide what topic I want to propose for the study and make sure the professor is willing to take on an honors project at all. I've already spoken to McGonagall, Vector, and Flitwick--all of them gave me some great suggestions for topics. I'm going to meet with Remus…"

"That's Professor Lupin to you," Harry teased. They were all so friendly with Remus Lupin now that he'd been rehired as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher that they had to remind each other not to call him by his first name. Ron had called him "Remus" in class once, and had lost five points for Gryffindor before he realized what he'd done.

"…Professor Lupin…" Hermione shot Harry a look, "tomorrow, though I don't think I want to do a study in Defense. I still have to arrange a time to meet with Professor Sprout…"

"And Professor Trelawny," Ron added, sniggering.

"…and Professor Snape," Hermione finished, ignoring Ron.

Ron and Harry looked at each other, eyes wide. "Snape?!" Ron exclaimed before Harry had a chance to respond. "You're going to do an honors project with Snape?! You are daft!"

Hermione clenched her jaw and raised an eyebrow. Before she could respond, Harry interrupted Ron's tirade. "I thought you were just talking to other professors as a…sort of…courtesy, or, well, just to make sure you hadn't missed anything. I thought for sure you'd wind up doing a project with Vector again."

Hermione chose to answer Harry, rather than dignify Ron's reaction with a response--he was still muttering something that sounded like "Snape" and "dolt" under his breath, and it was better to ignore him.

"But I've already done advanced work with Vector. And though I do have some interesting ideas for a proposal in Arithmancy, I think it's better to go in another direction--to show I can work just as well in another subject. It's not a good idea to specialize too soon, and I've had a couple of great ideas for projects in Charms and Potions, and while Flitwick was excited when I spoke to him, I don't know if Snape will agree…"

"SNAPE?!" Ron couldn't contain himself any longer. "This is Snape we're talking about! Why the hell would you want to work for a whole year with Snape on some stupid, bloody honors project?! Do you really think he'd want to work with you, anyway? He hates us! And it's not like…"

Hermione stood up suddenly, face red with anger. She glared at Ron and then, blinking tears from her eyes, ran to the girls' dormitory. Ron looked at Harry, the anger leaving his face, and then turned to look at the door through which she had left. After a moment, he quietly sat down.

"That probably wasn't the best thing you could have said," Harry noted softly.

Ron knocked Hermione's Advanced Potions textbook to the floor. "Bloody Snape," he muttered.

Chapter Text

"Lavender Brown has had the loveliest idea for an honors project next year," Professor Trelawny was saying to Professor Sprout as Professor McGonagall entered the staff room and took a seat near the fire. "I just can't wait to get started on it. I know that her proposal will be a delight, and…"

"I hardly think 'delightful' is one of the criteria for approving proposals," replied Professor Sprout. McGonagall smiled to herself.

"But isn't it wonderful when a bright student comes up with a remarkable topic that is a pleasure to read?" added Professor Flitwick. "I know the standards are high, and rightfully so, but every so often a student comes along who exceeds all expectations. Why, just yesterday I was speaking to Hermione Granger about a possible study, and her ideas were wonderfully advanced and so well thought out--it would be a delight, as you say, Professor, to work with her."

McGonagall raised an eyebrow slightly. She had recommended that Hermione examine her options carefully, but she had hoped, secretly, that the girl would decide on Transfiguration.

"So has she decided on Charms, then?" asked Professor Sprout, who was clearly interested in working with Hermione herself. "After class this morning she arranged a time to meet with me about some possible topics as well, and said something about considering several subjects."

"I've met with her only this morning," Remus Lupin replied, entering the room and choosing a seat opposite McGonagall. "She hasn't decided yet, but she's also met with Professor McGonagall."

McGonagall smiled and nodded at Professor Flitwick, who seemed surprised by the news and turned to her to confirm it.

Professor Trelawny remarked, "Of course, she hasn't met with me. She hasn't taken a class with me in a few years now. Divination just wasn't her strong suit--not everyone has the gift, you know," she said, confidingly, to Professor Sprout. Remus tried not to smile.

McGonagall replied, "I encouraged her to speak with several professors before settling on a proposal topic. I know Professor Vector was looking forward to working with her again, but she agrees with me that diversity is best."

"Where is Professor Vector?" asked Lupin.

"In London, at a meeting with the Ministry concerning some work she is doing for them," answered McGonagall, in a tone that made it clear she would not explain further.

Professor Snape entered the room as she turned back to face the others. Taking a seat near the door, he nodded a terse greeting to her, then crossed his arms over his chest and prepared to face the ordeal of the weekly faculty meeting.

"Now that we're all here," McGonagall began, seeing that Madam Hooch had arrived just behind Professor Snape, "let's begin. I have only a few notes from Headmaster Dumbledore concerning the end of the term, and I believe that Professor Sprout has a report from the Defense Committee on the preparations for next year--you're reporting for Hagrid as well, Professor?" Sprout nodded. "Then let me begin by reminding you of the guidelines for honors project proposals."

Several of the professors smiled at the mention of their recent conversational topic; Snape sighed deeply, his lips narrowing into an expression of annoyance. He hadn't directed an honors project in ten years, or an independent study in four. Any student brave enough to approach him about the possibility had been scared off by his demands for the proposal, and the only one who had then decided on an independent study had barely made it through to the end of the term. "Idiots," he thought to himself. He couldn't think of a single student in next year's graduating class that was advanced enough to complete an honors project in Potions. And that included, most definitely, the Slytherins, although he was fairly sure Draco Malfoy would ask him about submitting a proposal.

McGonagall continued, "Now, any sixth-year student is welcome to submit a proposal for an honors project, to be completed during their seventh year, but few do, and fewer still are up to the task. Honors projects are difficult, university-level work, requiring a serious commitment from student and advising professor alike. Most interested students will ask about independent studies, and those arrangements should be made when classes start again in August. Students who are sincerely interested in proposing an honors project should meet with you before the deadline a week from Friday to finalize a topic, and to confirm both their intention to complete a proposal and your agreement to work with them next year, if you approve the project. Although you may indicate in your letter of intent that they are considering more than one topic at that time, each student should have narrowed their focus by then to no more than two choices. The students may submit only one proposal, but may meet with more than one of you before they make their decision as to a subject. I ask you not to place any undue pressure on a student to follow through; sometimes it is for the best that we allow our favorite student to work with a colleague, both for the good of their education and in the interest of their doing the best project possible."

Professor Lupin interrupted, "Why Professor McGonagall, none of us has favorites, you know that." He smiled at Professor Trelawny. Everyone (but Snape) smiled with him, and Trelawny donned an innocent expression. Remus wondered if she got the joke.

"Of course, Professor," McGonagall smiled, "I'm only relaying the information as Headmaster Dumbledore outlined it." She continued, "Once the student has been approved to write the proposal, they have most of the summer break to complete their work. You may or may not choose to correspond with them during that time. Likewise, you may or may not choose to meet with them in these last days of the term to discuss their project further. Proposals are due two weeks before the start of the school year, and you should have your ruling to Headmaster Dumbledore two days before the students arrive for the fall term. I encourage all of you to review the guidelines for approval before you make any ruling, for both Professor Dumbledore and I will be reading the proposals as well. We will, of course, defer to your decisions wherever possible; our review is simply a safeguard against favoritism--not that there's any of that going around, Professor Lupin--and undue harshness." She most pointedly did not look at Snape.

"The decision is yours, because you will be the one working with the student over the next year. If a student's proposal does not meet with your approval, you may elect to work with them on some version of their proposed topic--or another--as an independent study, which would last only one term. Again, you should review the descriptions of both types of study if you have any doubt as to the merit of a topic or proposal, or have questions as to what would be required of you in either case. Are there any questions for me now?" There were none. "Then let us turn to the committee report before I give the rest of the Headmaster's notes."

The meeting continued for another fifteen minutes, and then it was time to head down to dinner. Remus caught up with Snape as they descended the stairs.

"Professor Snape, you didn't arrive at the meeting early enough to give your input on the subject; I wondered what you thought about honors projects. Someone said that it had been a while since you'd overseen one."

"Yes," Snape replied with a sneer, "a while. It seems that students in recent years haven't been…up to the challenge of an honors project in Potions. The few who have tried have backed out before the proposal deadline--though I did have one Slytherin student who managed a rather weak attempt at an independent study after deciding that the rigors of proposal writing were not to his liking."

"And the last honors project you led? A Slytherin as well, I assume?" Remus asked.

"No, Professor Lupin," Snape snarled, "I am not so completely biased as you might like to imagine. A Ravenclaw girl--highly intelligent. Her project was…satisfactory." Snape eyed Lupin as they rounded a corner, suspicious. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," replied Remus. "The others were talking about the students who might write proposals this year, and I wondered if any of them had spoken to you."

"No," Snape muttered, again fixing his eyes anywhere away from Lupin's face.

"Not even Hermione Granger?" Lupin raised an eyebrow, watching Snape's reaction. There wasn't one that he could see. "She's been talking to several professors about possible topics, and I thought she'd mentioned that she might come to see you."

At this point they arrived at the dining hall, and Snape didn't answer the question as they took their seats--annoyingly to Snape, they were generally seated next to each other, a few places down on Dumbledore's right, with McGonagall, Flitwick, and Hooch in between them and the Headmaster. But as Remus turned to his right to greet Professor Sprout across the corner of the table, Snape's eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch, and his eyes glanced at the Gryffindor table before making their habitual survey of Slytherin House.

Chapter Text

The next evening, Remus was in his office grading papers when Harry knocked softly at the open door. "Come in," he said, smiling.

"I don't want to interrupt…" Harry began, but Remus waved him in.

"Nonsense. I need an excuse to take a break. Term papers from first years aren't the easiest reading there is."

"No, I suppose not," Harry agreed, taking a seat in a comfortable chair.

Remus waited, but Harry didn't say anything further. It was clear he wanted to talk about something, but Remus was willing to let him choose his own time.

"So how do finals look? You were a bit worried about Charms, if I remember correctly from the last time you stopped by. I'm sure…"

"Remus?" Harry interrupted, and Remus wasn't sure the boy even realized he'd been asked a question.

"Yes, Harry," Remus answered, then waited for Harry to continue.

"You have to spend time with Professor Snape, right? I mean, you sit next to him at meals, and he makes the potion for you and all…"

Harry broke off. He hadn't asked about Professor Lupin's condition since his return; he knew only what Dumbledore had told the school at the beginning of the year--that because of "certain developments," the board had agreed to re-hire Lupin for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, which had been left vacant, as usual, at the end of Harry's fifth year. He was sure Dumbledore wanted to keep Lupin close, and not only because he was a great teacher; Remus Lupin was also friends with Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. Having him at Hogwarts would make it easier to communicate with Sirius, and would let Sirius breathe easier where Harry's safety was concerned. He wasn't sure what Sirius and Remus were doing for Dumbledore--or maybe they were even working for the Ministry of Magic, Harry thought suddenly, with a glint of pride at the idea of his godfather being cleared from the charges that shadowed him--but he knew that Dumbledore trusted Remus completely, and had fought long and hard to have him reinstated, despite the fact that he was a Werewolf. "I'll bet Snape was thrilled," Harry thought to himself.

That reminded him of his question. He glanced at Remus, who was patiently waiting for him to finish his thought. "I mean, he's not completely awful, is he?" Harry asked, weakly.

Remus smiled. "No, Harry, Severus Snape is not completely awful. With other professors, he can even be civil, every once in a while." Harry looked relieved. "And yes, he does make my potion for me."

Harry started, but Remus continued before he could interrupt. "It's all right Harry. I don't mind telling you. Dumbledore asked Snape to work on perfecting the Wolfsbane Potion after I left Hogwarts, hoping that some way could be found to allay people's fears so that I might return. Snape did--grudgingly, I'm sure--and has managed to refine the potion to the point that I only have to take it once a month, at the full moon." Harry looked surprised.

"So no, Severus Snape isn't all bad. Though he certainly does a good impression of it." Remus smiled at Harry's surprised reaction.

"That's…that's good…" Harry faltered. "I mean, well…"

Remus tilted his head, and then gently asked, "Harry, is this about Hermione?" Harry looked at him, surprised again. "I thought so," Remus continued. "The teachers were discussing honors projects before the weekly staff meeting, and several of them had already met with her. I believe she's going to meet with Snape, as well?"

Harry nodded. "She doesn't seem to be able to make up her mind. I know how much this means to her, and that she wants to choose the best possible topic. Ron doesn't help, though. As much as he cares about her, he can't believe she wants to do a project at all, much less with Snape."

Remus offered, "Perhaps she'll choose Charms or Transfiguration. She told me that she was very excited about her potential Charms topic."

Harry nodded, then quietly said, "But she said the same thing about her Potions topic. I haven't talked with her much about it; any time one of us mentions it, Ron goes ballistic."

Remus smiled, "I can well imagine."

Finally, Harry resolved to ask the real question that had been bothering him since Hermione had mentioned Snape as a possibility. "Remus? If Hermione decides to write a proposal for Snape, do you think he'll reject it just because she's a Gryffindor? Just because she's…friends with me? She can only propose one project, and if she isn't approved…"

Remus finished the thought for him, "…you couldn't bear to be the reason she doesn't get to do an honors project at all?" Harry nodded meekly. "Harry, why do you think that Hermione will decide to propose a project with Snape? You seem awfully certain of it. Don't you think you might be borrowing trouble? When I spoke with her, she didn't seem to have decided…" he stopped when he noticed the expression on Harry's face.

"Because," Harry said, "it's the biggest challenge of all."

********

The next day at breakfast, Remus kept an eye on the Gryffindor table, timing his own departure so that he could "happen" to run into Hermione on her way to the tower to retrieve her books before class. She didn't see him at first; she walked quickly, clearly determined and more than a bit worried. He had a pretty good guess as to what it was that occupied her so completely.

"Good morning, Hermione," he called after her before she was too far away.

"Oh, Professor…" Hermione looked at him as if coming out of a daze. "I didn't see you."

"Or hear me, from the looks of it." Remus smiled at her. "I'm sorry if I'm interrupting."

"Oh, no, Professor Lupin. I was just…well, I was going to try to catch one of my professors before the first class. I have one last meeting to arrange about the honors project topics, and the deadline's only a week away."

"Professor Snape left breakfast early; he said something about preparing a solution for his first class." Hermione looked at him, mouth agape. Remus added, "I expect he will be in the classroom still."

Hermione managed to ask, "How did you know…?"

Remus replied, "You had mentioned that you were going to speak with him, and I assumed he'd be the one you'd put off until last."

Hermione accepted his explanation and put a matter-of-fact expression on her face. "Actually, I tried to meet with him on Tuesday after the last class period, but he was busy with a second year who had apparently melted his cauldron to the floor. I thought I'd wait for a better time, and I've been busy, what with studying for finals and all."

Remus nodded, "Of course." The girl looked worried again. He continued, "Hermione, you know that you don't have to agree to do a project for Snape only because you think it's the biggest challenge you could set for yourself. You should write your proposal based on your interest in the topic, rather than choose a subject because of, or despite, the professor that comes with it."

Hermione thought for a moment, and then met his gaze. "The trouble is, Professor, that the more I think about my options, the more I realize that the topic I most want to do is in…Potions."

Remus smiled. "So your dilemma is that you've made up your mind about the topic, but can't make up your mind about the professor?" Hermione looked down again. Remus still smiled, though she couldn't see it. "Then I will only say, child, that Severus Snape is not completely awful."

He could see the corner of her mouth twitch upwards. "You may be right," Hermione said softly, "but how will I ever convince Ron?"

********

Armed with the books for her morning classes, Hermione made her way down to the dungeons. She thought that it might be better to wait until later in the day, since Remus had said that Professor Snape was preparing for class…no. She wasn't going to put this off any longer. All she wanted was to arrange a time to meet with him later; surely he couldn't deduct points for that, even if he was in the middle of something. And if he looked too busy, she could always leave and come back after class….

She timidly glanced into the Potions classroom, but Snape wasn't there. He must have finished his preparations--maybe he was in his office. She walked quietly down the hallway to the next door, took a deep breath, and knocked softly. There was no answer. She turned to leave, but the door opened behind her and a deceptively low and slightly mocking voice said, "Miss Granger, were you planning to knock and run away, or did you want to see me about something?"

She turned back to face him, his stern look causing her to doubt her resolve.

But only for a moment. Mustering her courage and hoping her voice wouldn't break, she replied, "Yes Professor. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to arrange a time to speak with you about a possible honors project. I…I'm very interested in writing a proposal for Potions."

She braced herself for the sneer, for the cutting remark about the difficulty of such a project and her clear lack of ability. Instead, Snape's eyes narrowed for a moment, and then he said, "Fine. You may meet me in the classroom after the end of the last period. Don't be late."

As he shut the door, she realized that she'd been holding her breath, and let it out in a relieved sigh.

********
At lunch, she sat down in her usual place across from Harry and Ron. The boys had arrived only a few minutes earlier; on Fridays the trio split up for the class just before lunch, with Harry and Ron in Advanced Care of Magical Creatures (Ron was thinking about working with his brother Charlie after graduation) and Hermione in Advanced Arithmancy.

They were all silent for a moment after she sat down, and then Harry began, hesitantly, "How was class, Hermione?"

"Fine," she replied, almost curtly. Then, in her usual tone, she asked, "How was yours? Did Hagrid help out again?"

Hagrid still taught some of the lower-level classes, but a new faculty member, Professor Hollywell, taught the upper. Harry and Ron liked him well enough, and were pleased that he let Hagrid help out with the lessons whenever possible.

Harry began to tell Hermione about their lesson--it had been on dragon breeding, and somehow Ron had managed to bring up the fact that Harry had faced down a mother dragon during the Triwizard Tournament a couple of years before, leading Professor Hollywell to ask for Harry's impressions on the defense tactics of Norwegian Ridgebacks. Harry owed Ron for that one, he thought to himself.

But before he could say as much to Ron, Ron burst out, "Come on, Hermione, don't pretend nothing's going on. Spill it. How was your meeting with Snape?"

Hermione glared at him, and before Harry could intervene, she snapped, "I've arranged to meet with him after classes today, Ron. Thanks for asking." She stared at her plate and began to eat, clearly determined not to speak to Ron for the rest of the meal.

"Good luck, then. And tell ol' Snape-y we said 'hi,' why don't you, since you're such chums with him now." Ron fairly spat out the words before getting up and storming out of the hall.

Harry waited a minute, then spoke. "I'm sorry, Hermione. I don't understand why this bothers him so much." Another pause. "I do hope that your meeting with Snape goes well." He stopped, not knowing what else to say.

After a moment, Hermione looked up at him and smiled. "I'm sorry you have to be in the middle of this, Harry. It can't be much fun to put up with the two of us." Harry smiled back. "And thank you," she added, softly.

Harry decided to risk asking her, "Hermione? Do you think…I mean, have you decided to write your proposal in Potions?"

Hermione started, looking at him sharply. "Why do you say that?"

Harry considered for a moment, and then said, "Because I know you're really interested in that Potions topic you were talking about, and I didn't figure you'd go through all of this trouble with Snape--and Ron--if you weren't serious about it."

Hermione looked at him for a moment, as if weighing her answer--or preparing for his response. "Yes. I've all but decided on Potions. It all depends, though, on what Snape says this afternoon when he hears my idea." Hermione looked down again, and the pair was silent.

When she glanced back up at Harry, surprised, perhaps, that he hadn't begun to rant about Snape, he smiled at her. "Then good luck, Hermione. As if you ever needed luck." She smiled back.

********
At the end of Advanced Transfiguration, Professor McGonagall called Hermione aside to ask about her progress. Ron took the opportunity to leave quickly, so as not to have to hear anything about her meeting with Snape, or pretend to tolerate the fact that she was having one at all. Harry waited for her at the door, chatting for a moment with Dean.

When Hermione joined him, Harry simply said, "We'll see you at dinner, right?"

"Right," Hermione said. Harry then held up his crossed fingers and she smiled.

She concentrated on the meeting as she walked down the several flights of stairs to the Potions classroom. It was a good thing that they hadn't had Advanced Potions today; she didn't think she would have been able to manage even the weakest formula under Snape's gaze. It was all up to him now, she thought, but quickly pushed him from her mind, trying to focus instead on how she was going to describe her topic.

Professor McGonagall had seemed surprised when Hermione told her that she was seriously considering a Potions project, but Hermione knew that if there were any chance Snape would treat her unfairly, McGonagall would have said something, or at least steered her in another direction. As it was, both McGonagall and Dumbledore would be reading her proposal as well as Snape. "Besides," she thought, "if he turns me down flat, I still have next week to work with Flitwick on the Charms topic before the deadline."

But she didn't want to study Charms. She wanted to study Potions. She knew that Remus had been right; she was doing this in large part because she wanted to prove she could--because Professor Snape was her last challenge. He'd never been impressed with anything she'd done. Frankly, she wondered if he would even know who she was if it weren't for all the times he'd caught her trying to help Neville over the years. If it weren't for her friendship with Harry.

But it was more than that--more than a desire to impress the unimpressible teacher. She knew her idea was good; she just knew it. Professor Vector agreed, and she wasn't saying so only because Hermione was her favorite student. When Hermione, in the course of her independent study, had first developed the idea for the potion she was now contemplating, Vector had been undeniably thrilled with the possibility. It was the main reason she hadn't pressured Hermione towards an honors project in Arithmancy; she knew that Hermione couldn't do everything she wanted to do if she focused on a single subject. She had told Hermione that a strong witch with a broad base in several subjects was often of more use than a specialist. And Hermione was, Vector had said, a strong witch.

With these thoughts in her mind, Hermione arrived at the Potions classroom. The students had gone--rarely did anybody stay long after Snape's classes. She glanced in, and, seeing Professor Snape standing at the front sorting through homework parchments, stepped inside. When he did not respond, she cleared her throat, not wanting to disturb him.

Without looking up, Snape said, "Well, Miss Granger, are you going to come in and talk to me about your dreams for a honors project in Potions, or are you simply going to stand there and cough?"

Hermione squared her shoulders and walked to the front row of desks. Taking a seat, she replied, a little more loudly than she had intended, "I'm here to talk about a proposal, Professor Snape. On time, as requested."

At this, he looked up, with a glint in his eye that she couldn't quite place. "So I see. Now, tell me what you have been considering, and I'll tell you if it's any good or not."

Hermione clinched her fists under the desk, desperately wishing she hadn't set her book bag down so far away--she would have liked to hold on to something. She swallowed once, breathed deeply, and began. She outlined her idea in clear terms and neat but involving prose. She noted that she had first thought of the topic as she tried to work out a problem in her Arithmancy study; Snape snorted. But as she explained that the equations she had been working on would not let her affect the change she desired--she had been attempting nothing short of lessening the effect of the Cruciatus curse by developing a counter curse that could reconfigure the angle between the caster and the victim on the fly, so that, with what amounted to a virtual side-step, the victim could avoid the full brunt of the pain--Snape remained silent, almost motionless. She had shelved the idea, determined to look at it later from a different perspective, because any equation that would get her close to the outcome she wanted would be too advanced for the average witch or wizard. And with the threat of Voldemort (Snape didn't flinch when she said the name) increasing every day, anything that she developed needed to be simple.

In Potions class one day, Professor Snape had been describing the effects of certain exotic elements that he was using to develop medicinal potions--and Hermione had made the connection. While he had been discussing speedier bone regeneration and his work on a cure for lycanthropy, Hermione's brain had been spinning with the realization that she hadn't seen the forest for the trees. She didn't need an equation, a charm, or a spell. She needed a potion.

She outlined the reading and rudimentary experiments she had done in the past few weeks while trying to decide if her idea had merit. She noted that Professor Vector had found it promising, and Snape merely nodded for her to continue. She explained the scope of the project as she understood it, and added that she would, of course, be willing to work any number of hours to complete it, if it were approved. At that, she came to a stop, amazed that she had talked for so long. Amazed that Snape had listened so intently.

If she had any doubts that she had presented her case well, the piercing gaze Snape still fixed on her didn't immediately put them to rest. "Not that he'd ever intend to put me at ease, after all," she thought to herself.

Snape regarded her silently for a long moment, and then moved to sit in the chair next to hers.

"Miss Granger, your topic is not entirely an original one, though I certainly believe that you came to your epiphany in exactly the way you describe. I have a couple of articles on the subject that I believe you will find interesting."

"Great," Hermione thought, "but at least he didn't say there were any books on the subject." She mentally chastised herself for not having done a more thorough search of the library.

As if reading her thoughts, Snape continued, "I don't expect you would have had a chance to read them yet; both are newly published, and one is in German, not carried by our library. I have translated the piece, however, and will loan you that along with the two originals."

Hermione managed to meet his gaze; he still hadn't said "no."

"Now, as for the project as you have outlined it, I have a problem with the scope."

"Here it comes," she thought.

"I have seen your dedication, the tireless hours you put into your work. I believe Professor McGonagall said that you turned down the position of Prefect because you wanted to focus on your studies?"

Hermione nodded, wondering that he knew so much about her.

"While I would never encourage a student to focus on one subject--or on an honors project--to the detriment of his or her other work, I think that you have the dedication that would allow you to…broaden…your proposal."

He paused, and Hermione could only stare at him blankly.

"While I think that you are smart to focus on the Cruciatus curse as a start, I would not be surprised if you were to find that work on the other Unforgivable Curses would come naturally out of the primary work, once completed. So, while I would outline the project in your proposal just as you have done for me here today, I would suggest that you add a section that discusses the probable expansion of your subject matter to at least one of the other Curses."

Hermione blinked, in stunned silence.

"Miss Granger?" Snape spoke her name softly, but with that ever-present hint of sarcasm.

She drew her wits about her enough to ask, "Do you mean that you are agreeing to let me do an honors project in Potions?"

Snape's lip curled, not exactly a sneer.

"You're getting ahead of yourself, Miss Granger. I am simply agreeing to read your proposal. The rest is up to you."

Chapter Text

When Professor Snape finally noted that they would be late for dinner, Hermione was shocked that they had been talking about her proposal for so long. (She was also surprised that his requirements had been so reasonable; she had expected some untold terror, from the rumors about past students. He'd actually remarked, "save something for the actual project, Miss Granger," when she suggested an expanded literature review on the Cruciatus curse.) She quickly grabbed her book bag and left the classroom, only nodding when Professor Snape reminded her not to be late for their next meeting, set for the following Wednesday.

Her mind was racing with plans--the articles he'd given her, the library work she needed to do--and she had to remind herself, just as Snape had, that she needed to focus on her finals before she turned to her proposal. She had all summer to write her proposal--but it would be a summer without the Hogwarts library!

As she arrived on the ground floor, she broke into a run and a smile. She couldn't wait to tell Harry that things had gone so well! Of course…Ron would be there too. But she refused to let his certain reaction ruin her mood; this was what she wanted more than anything in the world, and it looked like it just might happen.

She slowed to a quick walk as she entered the hall, and as she took her place at the table she saw Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore lean towards each other, watching her. She smiled at her Head of House, who looked pleased (and relieved?), glanced at Remus, who was smiling at her as well, and turned to Harry and Ron.

The look on her face said it all. She was about to burst with the news, and as Harry started to ask her to just go ahead and tell them everything, Ron threw his fork down and shoved away from the table. Harry followed his gaze to see Snape arriving at the head table, but Hermione was watching Ron as he left the hall.

Harry said with a sigh, "I'd better go get him…" but Hermione interrupted him by standing.

"No Harry, this is something the two of us have to figure out. Finish your dinner and I'll see you later."

As she left, Harry looked back towards the head table. Professor Snape was talking to Madam Hooch and Professor Flitwick ("Probably can't wait to tell him that Hermione's going to do Potions," Harry thought), but Remus caught his eye with a concerned look. Harry shrugged, and then returned to his dinner and Quidditch talk with Seamus and Neville, who were trying their best not to ask for the gory details about Ron and Hermione.

********
Hermione searched everywhere for Ron, and finally found him in the first place she should have tried--Hagrid's. Maybe she had saved it for last so she could have some time to figure out what she was going to say--or maybe she was afraid of what she was going to say, what Ron was going to say….

Hagrid was sitting outside by a fire, carving something out of wood. Hermione greeted him, "Hullo, Hagrid."

"Hullo yerself, 'Mione. You lookin' for Ron, I 'spect?" he asked, sadly. Hermione nodded. "He'll be inside, I reckon."

"Thanks, Hagrid." She moved to the door.

"He loves yeh, yeh know…" said Hagrid, softly.

"I know," she said. "I love him too."

She opened the door and went inside. Ron was huddled in one of Hagrid's big chairs, looking more like the first-year boy she'd met on a train than she'd seen him look in ages. He didn't look at her as she entered; he merely muttered, "Hello, Hermione," and then sat staring into the fire.

She took a seat opposite, knowing that he wouldn't want her to take his hand. Knowing that he wouldn't want her close. Hoping that she was wrong, but knowing, somehow knowing, that it was over.

"Ron, I'm sorry that you don't approve of my choice. I wish I could explain it to you--make it right. I'm not sure what I can say…" she faltered. He still didn't speak. "Ron, I care about you, and…but…I can't…well, I can't do this anymore. I hate feeling like I have to defend myself to you all the time. I just wish…" He looked her in the eye and she stopped.

After a minute, during which his eyes never left her face but hers dropped to the ground--she hadn't meant to accuse him of anything--he said, with quiet anger, "What about me, Hermione? What about my feeling like I can't do anything right? Like I'm just the stupid git you hold hands with during Quidditch matches? Like there's no way I can understand what you're on about when you talk about your work? I may not be as smart as you, Hermione, but I've always tried to understand, to at least support you. But it seems that isn't good enough anymore."

Hermione flushed, then raised her voice. "Support me? You call screaming in my face about Snape, telling me that he wouldn't want to work with me on a…what was it…'stupid, bloody honors project' supporting me?"

Ron turned back to the fire, lips pressed together, face as red as his hair. She hesitated, seeing the pain in his eyes. "Ron…I'm sorry, Ron. I just…I just don't understand. I honestly don't understand why this bothers you so much. I know you hate Snape, but why does it matter…"

Ron started, turning to look at her again. He spoke softly, all anger gone from his voice. "You used to hate Snape too, Hermione." He rested his head on the back of the chair. "I never understood how you could love homework so much--love school so much. I never understood how you could want to be so chummy with all of our professors. But through all of the classes, all of the teachers, all of the homework and lessons and books and…" he trailed off, and she waited for him to finish.

"Through it all," he continued, plaintively, glancing over at her again, "there were things that we agreed on--all three of us. Dumbledore was good, Snape was bad, and we always cheered for anybody playing Slytherin at Quidditch."

Hermione smiled meekly and waited, but he didn't continue. She asked, still not sure what he meant, "So you're angry that I tolerate Snape now? Is that it?"

Ron shifted in the chair, leaning towards her. "I'm angry, Hermione, because you are the most important thing in my life. Or at least…I want you to be. But somehow I've always known that I'm not the most important thing in yours. School was always more important. I could understand that…sort of…I could tell myself that once school was over…" he paused to frame his next words carefully. "But Hermione, this honors project means more to you than anything--or anybody--right now. And the fact that you're going to be working with Snape…well, that makes me feel like even Snape is more important to you than I am."

He looked away, embarrassed. "I know it's silly. I know you don't like Snape, that you're excited about the Potions project, not about working with him, exactly." He glanced at her. "Are you?"

Hermione was silent for a moment. She had to be honest, but she wished that the truth wasn't so difficult. "He is a great Potions Master, Ron. And while I may not like him as a person, of course I'm looking forward to learning more from him than I ever could in class. The potion I'm working on…" but she stopped when she saw the expression on his face. She could feel the tears welling up in her own eyes, and swallowed hard.

"I'm sorry, Ron," she whispered.

"I'm sorry too, Hermione," he answered.

He stood, crossed to her side, and bent down to kiss her on the cheek. Then he left, closing the door softly behind him. Hermione turned towards the fire and wept.

Chapter Text

Monday evening, with two of his finals safely behind him, Harry knocked again at Remus's office door.

Looking up, Remus smiled. "Harry! Come in; I'm just finishing this set of exams. How were your finals today?" As he spoke, Harry took a seat while Remus went to the fireplace and returned with two mugs of hot chocolate.

Harry gratefully accepted the drink, then replied, "I think they were all right. Transfiguration was ok, I know. I managed a perfect tabby cat--though Neville's badger looked more like a pig than a cat--somehow it lost all of its hair when he transfigured it." Remus chuckled. "And Divination was all right, although…" Remus raised an eyebrow. "I have to admit that I still fake it half the time in there. Professor Trelawny is happy if we just look interested, I think."

Remus nodded, "it seems the biggest danger would be that you'd run out of horrible things to predict for yourself."

"We did, last year," Harry grinned. "Now we're recycling things from our first year in her class--she hasn't noticed yet."

"And how are Ron and Hermione?" Remus asked. "I can imagine that it's difficult taking exams when your two best friends have just broken up."

Harry shrugged. "It's not so bad. They're actually being overly polite to one another just now. They both feel bad about what happened, but I think they also realize that it just wasn't working out, no matter how much we all wanted it to." He sipped his chocolate. "Hermione's not around much, anyway. She's always in the library, either studying for finals or researching her Potions project." Harry smiled. "Can you believe she's trying to talk Madam Pince into letting her take books home with her over the break?"

Remus laughed. "I can believe it."

Harry was quiet for a minute, and his smile turned into a look of concern. Remus asked, "Are you still worried that Snape won't approve her project?" Harry nodded, and Remus continued, "I think that, if he were predisposed to turn her down, he would have done it at their first meeting, Harry. The fact that he didn't tells me that Hermione's caught his attention. I think it's safe to say that Severus Snape could tell from the start whether or not he'd approve her project. So it seems that Hermione will indeed get her wish."

Harry looked up at him. "I think you might be right," he said, smiling.

********
Hermione sat in the library behind a formidable stack of books. She had finished her finals for the day, and was working on research for her proposal, frantically taking notes out of the most important volumes. She didn't know what she was going to do without the library this summer. And on top of that, her next meeting with Snape was tomorrow--and she wanted to be ready. She'd read the articles he'd loaned her five times, and would go over them again before bed; she just knew he'd quiz her on them. Besides, she couldn't take them home with her, either.

She was startled by the arrival of a small, honey-colored owl, who fluttered in through the window (much to Madam Pince's dismay) and settled atop a dusty volume entitled Curses: Causes and Effects, by Muriel Philpot. The handwriting on the letter the owl carried was familiar, the loopy but elegant script written in the signature purple ink. It was from Dumbledore.

She opened it quickly, after patting the owl on the head. Delighted, it flew out the window as Madam Pince tutted under her breath. It read,

Dear Miss Granger,

If it will not interrupt your studies, I would appreciate the chance to speak with you sometime before you leave for the summer break. Never fear; you are not in any trouble. If you've been up to something, it remains your secret--and, I assume, Harry's.

Please feel free to stop by my office at your convenience, and, if it is not convenient, I will see you next term.

Sincerely,
Albus Dumbledore

Hermione smiled. Of course Dumbledore would know immediately if she and Harry (and Ron, she added to herself) were up to something. And of course it would be convenient. She wondered what was really behind the invitation, though, and determined to stop by the Headmaster's office before dinner.

********
As she approached, she saw Dumbledore speaking with Professor McGonagall in the hallway outside his office. They turned when they heard her footsteps, and McGonagall came to meet her. Placing a hand on Hermione's shoulder, she said, "My dear, I couldn't be more proud. Congratulations--I know that you'll do well."

"Thank you," said Hermione, not sure why her Head of House was congratulating her.

"Professor Dumbledore will explain," McGonagall said. "I'll see you at supper."

Hermione turned to the Headmaster, who was beaming down at her, a twinkle in his eye. "Well, Miss Granger, shall we?" he motioned towards his office.

They rode the stairway in silence, and, once inside, he said, "Please, have a seat. May I offer you some tea? A lemon drop, perhaps?"

"No Professor, I'm fine," she answered, expectantly.

"Please yourself. You don't mind if I…?" he nodded at the candy dish near the corner of his desk.

"Not at all, Sir," she said, smiling.

He carefully chose a lemon drop, then leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers, and gazed at her over the top of his glasses.

Before Hermione could begin to worry, he smiled again. "Miss Granger, I can't say how thrilled I was to receive Professor Snape's letter of intent concerning your Potions proposal today. It's been so long since Severus has had such a highly qualified student interested in his field--why, I don't think I've seen him so pleased in years."

Hermione's thoughts must have shown on her face, because Dumbledore continued, "Yes, Miss Granger, though it's hard to tell, I daresay even Professor Snape can manage to be pleased…every so often."

Hermione tried not to smile.

"Besides, you must realize that all of your professors were hoping to be the one to walk into the staff room and announce that they would be directing Miss Hermione Granger's honors project. I can well imagine that even Severus would get a lift out of making that entrance."

Now Hermione could only blush.

"I am proud of you, Miss Granger, as is Professor McGonagall--as are all of your professors. I know that this was a difficult decision for you, and one not without personal costs."

"That cinches it," she thought, "Dumbledore does know everything that goes on around here." Then she remembered that he had to have witnessed Ron's recent exit from the Great Hall.

"You are a determined, brave young woman--a credit to your house. And I look forward to reading your proposal. Your work, as Severus describes it, seems very promising."

"Thank you, Sir," she replied, aware that she'd been pretty much dumbfounded for the past few minutes.

Dumbledore paused, and Hermione wondered if he was going to say something more about Professor Snape, or…she didn't know, but congratulations on intending to do an honors project didn't seem to warrant a visit to the Headmaster's office.

Dumbledore continued, "Miss Granger, I have asked you here not only because of Professor Snape's letter, but because I wish to speak to you about something a little more serious." Hermione nodded.

"You turned down a position as Prefect because you did not want to detract from your studies--a decision reluctantly supported by your Head of House. I say 'reluctantly' only because she knew what a good Prefect you would make," he added, seeing Hermione's reaction. "Now that you have taken on an honors project, I am wondering if you would also turn down the position of Head Girl?"

Hermione stared at him. He smiled at her, and, when she had collected herself, she replied, "Well, Sir, my proposal hasn't been accepted yet, of course--or written, for that matter…"

"I think we may be certain that, by the start of next term, both will be the case," interjected Dumbledore, causing Hermione to lose her train of thought.

She finally managed, "Whether it is or it isn't, Sir, I would be honored to be Hogwarts's Head Girl."

"Splendid!" Dumbledore beamed. "I have had a letter of recommendation from Professor McGonagall, and I imagine that your work to choose a topic for your project will have reminded many of your other professors to write one as well. If not, I'm sure Minerva will remind them herself. I know that it's unusual; usually an existing Prefect is promoted to Head Girl. But our best candidate, Lisa Grey, is taking a leave of absence next semester. We will name another Hufflepuff Prefect in her place, of course. At any rate, your appointment won't be official until the beginning of the term, but I will say that you are one of the best people for the job I've ever had the pleasure of knowing, and I'm sure you'll be named with no objections."

He leaned towards her conspiratorially. "And I would be in the position to know."

At this, Hermione blushed and looked intently at her shoes.

"Now, my dear," said Dumbledore, "you should head down to dinner, or you'll miss another meal." Hermione glanced at him, startled, but he was smiling.

She rose to leave, stopping at the door to say, "Thank you, Professor Dumbledore. I won't disappoint you."

The old man's eyes twinkled anew as he replied, "I'm certain that you won't, Miss Granger. Not on any count--including being on time to dinner." Hermione smiled and opened the door.

"And Miss Granger?" he added. "Tell Madam Pince that she might allow you to take one or two books home with you for the summer."

Hermione grinned, and left for the Great Hall. She wouldn't, on any account, want to be late for dinner.

Chapter Text

The last three days of finals went by in a flash, and they were left with blue skies and a free week before their exam results were posted. After several hours in the library and a consultation with Snape at the end of their meeting (which had gone rather well, she thought, though they'd only had twenty minutes in between her exams), Hermione had finally picked out the two volumes she wanted to take home with her. Snape had assured her that extensive citations were not necessary for the descriptive part of her proposal, but she was still a little panicked at the thought of writing without the aid of the library.

"You'll still have all of these books to help you, Hermione," Ron offered, gesturing at her textbooks. "Besides, your proposal will be the best one Snape's ever seen, library or no library."

Now that they had spoken their minds and cleared the air ("and broken up," Harry thought, still a bit disappointed by it), their friendship had become easy again--though Ron was clearly working hard not to say anything derogatory about her project or Snape, so as to make up for his cruel remarks previously. ("Working a little too hard," Harry thought, and not for the first time.)

"I know, but it's just that there are so many books I didn't even get a chance to look at, much less take notes from," Hermione lamented.

"Oh, woe is me," Ron mimicked her, getting a laugh out of Harry, "no library for the whole summer! Whatever will I do! I simply must read every single book so dear Professor Snape will pass my proposal!"

His eyes widened as he realized he might have crossed a line, but Hermione was looking at him with only her usual frustrated expression. Harry could have sworn that she was trying to stifle a smile.

"Boys!" she said, rolling her eyes. "Let me guess. You're just harassing me so that I'll leave off reading and come outside with you." Harry and Ron smiled. "Fine," she agreed. "I had promised to visit Hagrid once finals were done anyway."

The trio left Gryffindor tower, and Harry smiled as he saw Hermione roll her eyes again at something Ron had said, happy that they were all friends again.

********
The end of the semester had been another triumph for Gryffindor. Hermione had made the highest marks in all of her subjects, and Harry's Quidditch win against Slytherin had guaranteed that they won the House Cup for the sixth year running. Amazingly enough, there had been no "harrowing event" to close out the year--Ron couldn't believe that somebody hadn't at least kidnapped Neville's toad or threatened to kill them all with Fred and George's new invention: Laughing Levitation Lozenges.

By the middle of the summer, Hermione was knee-deep in parchment. She'd worked on her proposal every day, except for the weekend her parents made her go with them to visit her mom's sister's family. She'd returned from the vacation only to shut herself up in her room for two days straight--"to make up the time," she'd explained to her mother.

She was completely fascinated with the possibilities of her subject matter, and had to keep reminding herself of Snape's instructions ("save something for the actual project, Miss Granger") to concentrate on fashioning an efficient, well-written proposal--a limit of twenty-five feet of parchment--and not diving into the project directly.

"It might not be accepted, after all," she told herself. But she didn't believe it for a minute. She'd sat, stunned, for a full five minutes when she'd first realized that she believed--absolutely, positively believed--that Snape was going to pass her proposal. That in his mind, he already had. The brief meeting she'd had with him during finals week really had gone well, and as she thought back over the details, she couldn't remember a single sarcastic remark. Well, all right, one or two, but neither was aimed at her in quite the cruel way she was used to. It was almost as though he was teasing her, rather than cutting her down…but that couldn't be right. This was, as Ron would certainly have reminded her, Snape, after all. Snape didn't like anybody, certainly not a seventh-year Gryffindor witch who'd annoyed him in every class she'd ever taken from him.

But something had changed. Not in class--during the final, he had scowled at her quite menacingly across the room when she'd tried to whisper encouragement to Neville as they both bent down to pick up a vial of asphodel he'd dropped on the floor. Outside of class, though--both in their meeting and at one point when he'd nodded a perfunctory greeting to her as they passed each other in the hallway--something had changed, if only slightly.

She shook her head, focusing her thoughts again. She'd have the whole year to try to figure out Snape, after all. It was a scary thought…but not as scary as she might have thought before.

********
It was always nice to receive an owl from Harry and Ron. Harry wrote most of the time, with Ron adding in bits here and there. Harry was staying the whole summer with the Weasleys. For some reason, Dumbledore had agreed. Hermione wondered if it had anything to do with her.

This time, the letter arrived well after dark, borne by Percy's owl, and it took Hermione a few minutes to realize that there was something tapping at her window, wanting to come in. She had fallen asleep at her desk while putting the finishing touches on her proposal. Finally, Crookshanks jumped to the desktop, put both paws on her face, and meow-ed, waking her up enough to hear the beat of owl wings against the glass.

Dear Hermione, the letter read, once she'd managed to find the owl a tidbit and rub the sleep out of her eyes, Things are great here, wish you could come stay. Bill and Charlie are in to visit, and we've been having great fun practicing Quidditch. "Great fun for you maybe," she thought with a smirk. But Bill was rather cute…she turned back to the letter, thinking that would be a fine fix, if she wound up dating Ron's brother. Mrs. Weasley wants to know if you want to head up to London with us to shop for school. We're off the day after tomorrow to beat the rush. She glanced at the calendar: Friday, August 15th. The day proposals were due; she'd planned to send it on Thursday so it would be sure to arrive in time. She smiled, certain that Harry was counting on her punctuality. If you've got your proposal done, we hope you'll come--I'll buy you a butterbeer to celebrate! Love, Harry. P.S. Ron says "please come" too.

Hermione smiled. She reached for a piece of parchment and wrote out a quick note, saying she'd meet them in Diagon Alley around ten o'clock that morning. Afterwards, she looked at her proposal--twenty-five feet of parchment, almost exactly. Exactly, it was twenty-four feet, eleven inches. She hadn't wanted to risk running over. She could just see the look on Snape's face; she knew he'd measure.

She unrolled it, wished she could have brought at least one more library book home with her, then re-rolled and sealed it with wax. It was done. It was the best she could do, and she was proud of it. She placed it in a mailing tube for safety--made of a lightweight metal alloy and magically sealed--then took out another sheet of parchment. After thinking for a long moment, she wrote quickly:

Dear Professor Snape:

Enclosed, please find my honors project proposal, delivered to you on time, as promised. I look forward to hearing your comments and criticism when I arrive at school. Thank you for your time and consideration. You have already been a great help to me in my work.

Sincerely,
Hermione Granger

She looked back over the note, then decided to recopy it, changing the middle phrase to read "your comments on and criticism of it…"--she didn't want to encourage him to criticize her more generally if she could help it--and leaving off the last sentence. She also didn't want to seem like she was too pretentious, or as though she were brown-nosing in order to affect his decision--even if she did believe he already planned to accept the proposal. She didn't think he'd appreciate it.

Adding the letter to the tube, she set it aside to wait for tomorrow; she'd arranged for a Hogwarts owl to retrieve it. Percy's owl had finished its snack, and she tied her note to Harry and Ron on its leg. She stroked its head and said, "You could, of course, wait until morning to go, if you're tired." The owl hooted softly, nipped congenially at her fingers, and turned to the window. "All right then. See you later," she said, opening the window and watching the owl fly out into the night sky. She sighed and returned to bed.

********
As she walked along Diagon Alley with Ron and Harry, all three carrying packages, Hermione wasn't paying close attention, as the boys' talk had turned to Quidditch. She couldn't help wondering if her proposal had arrived safely.

"C'mon, Hermione, lighten up," Harry said. "If your proposal hadn't arrived, at least six of our professors would have owled you to find out where it was."

Hermione smiled, reassured. "You're right. Look, can we stop for lunch? I could stand to put these packages down for a bit."

They chose sidewalk seats at the ice cream shop ("They also have sandwiches," Hermione noted as Ron immediately turned to the dessert section of the menu), and had just placed their orders when a large, black owl swooped down to rest on the back of the empty seat at their table.

"That is one mean looking owl," Ron observed. "Wonder who sent it?"

Hermione reached over to untie the envelope from the owl's leg. It flew off before she could offer it anything. The envelope was sealed with a dark green wax, embossed with the seal of Slytherin House.

"Oh good grief, you mean he's sending you mail now?" Ron complained. Hermione was too surprised to answer.

She broke the seal and opened the letter. After glancing over it, she read it aloud:

Dear Miss Granger,

I am writing to let you know that your proposal arrived safely--intact, and on time, as requested. I was certain you would want to know.

Sincerely,
Prof. Severus Snape

"You can almost hear the smirk," Harry said.

Ron looked over her shoulder, "Oh, look, he's signed his first name. Should we be worried?" He grinned at Hermione.

She placed the letter inside one of her boxes and didn't answer. When Ron got a nervous look on his face, however, she smiled a mischievous grin of her own. "I don't know, Ron," she raised an eyebrow at him, "Should you be worried?" Ron didn't have an answer. Harry tried in vain not to smile.

********
Hermione hadn't said two words to them on the train. She had returned home after their shopping expedition; her mother and father had realized that this would be her last summer at home ("while at Hogwarts," she had reminded them; she would be there next summer as usual), and they wanted to spend as much time with her as possible. Hermione was so anxious over the announcements that would be made at the Sorting Feast that she had barely spoken to them for those two weeks.

Her mother had muttered, "You're just no good at good-byes," as Hermione left them to enter Platform 9¾, distracted to the point that she had almost gone through the barrier without saying a word.

She had turned, tears in her eyes, and hugged her mother, hard. "I'm sorry mum. I didn't mean it. I love you."

Hugging her father, then, while her mother dug in her purse for a handkerchief, he had said, "We know, dear. And good luck. Write when you've heard the news. We know it'll be good."

She had rejoined Harry and Ron, who were both pretending that they hadn't heard anything, and the three had walked through the barricade.

Now that they were nearing Hogsmeade, Hermione looked like she was going to come out of her seat. Or her skin. The news concerning Head Boy and Girl, as well as the accepted honors project proposals, would come at the end of the banquet after the first years were Sorted. Harry hoped that Hermione could walk to the castle on her own; he didn't expect that she'd want to be levitated in by Madam Pomfrey. Though perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to sedate her….

Hermione managed under her own steam, and they took their seats. Harry glanced up at the head table, where the professors were already seated--all except for Professor McGonagall, who was greeting the first years as they arrived by boat with Hagrid, down below. He couldn't catch Remus's eye, but Professor Sprout smiled at him and he waved in response before Snape raised an eyebrow in his direction. Harry quickly turned back to the table.

********
Hermione managed to eat something, and Harry refrained from teasing her as she stared blankly at Ron and Seamus, who were already discussing Quidditch. He felt almost as nervous as she did, he thought.

In her mind, Hermione was running over the options over and over. If Snape didn't approve her project ("but he had," she told herself), she knew that Professor Flitwick would gladly do an independent study with her in Charms, and she could then do Transfiguration in the spring with McGonagall. ("He approved it; I know he did.") She hadn't risked looking up towards the head table once; she knew that none of her professors ("least of all Snape," she thought) would give anything away, and she couldn't stand to see them and know that they knew…they knew, and she didn't…wouldn't for another half-hour, at least.

By the time the Sorting began, Hermione looked as though she was going to be sick. As the first new Gryffindor joined the table, Ron heard Colin Creevey, seated down the row a bit, say, "Don't mind her; she's just nervous about being named Head Girl."

Ron reached across the table and took Hermione's hand; she started, as if she hadn't realized he was still there. "It'll be all right, Hermione. Don't worry." She smiled and squeezed his hand, then forced herself to applaud as the next first year was Sorted.

********
By the time Dumbledore rose to make his announcements ("Let me guess," said Ron, "we shouldn't go into the Forbidden Forest?"), Hermione seemed calmer, and Harry was a nervous wreck.

"Harry, did you hear me?" Ron poked him in the arm.

"I heard you. Now be quiet; we're getting to it…" he leaned out into the aisle to get a better view, casting a quick glance at Hermione to make sure she wasn't going to fall out of her seat. She seemed all right.

"Now, there are only two more announcements, and then you'll all be free to return to your common rooms and greet your new housemates properly."

Ron noticed that Hermione shifted, but her expression didn't change; her eyes were glued to Dumbledore.

"First, I am pleased to announce this year's Head Boy and Head Girl: Ralph Innes, of Ravenclaw…"

The Ravenclaw table exploded with cheers, and the rest of the hall (except for Slytherin, who only politely--if you could call it politely--clapped) joined in; Ralph was the most popular Prefect by far, and a Chaser for the Ravenclaw Quidditch team.

Dumbledore waited for the noise to die down, and then finished, "…and Hermione Granger, of Gryffindor."

The noise was no less for Hermione; while she might not have the popular following of Quidditch fans, Gryffindor House was not one to skimp when it came to celebrating the success of one of their own.

"Yes, yes, congratulations Mr. Innes, Miss Granger." Hermione managed a smile as Dumbledore nodded in her direction, and Harry glanced at Remus in time to see him grin at Professor McGonagall. A good sign. He was about to lean across and tell Hermione when Dumbledore continued.

"And, finally, this year the faculty is very pleased to announce that we have not one, but two students who will be completing honors projects this year. Their proposals were outstanding, and the supervising professors tell me that we should expect great things from both students."

Ron whispered to Harry, "I heard McGonagall tell Sprout at the end of last year that they were expecting five proposals."

Harry nodded, suddenly nervous.

He watched Hermione's face as Dumbledore finally announced, "Oddly enough, these names will seem quite familiar to all of you. I assure you, this is not a case of déjà vu. Our honors students for this year are Mr. Ralph Innes, who will be working with Professor Lupin on a Defense Against the Dark Arts project, and Miss Hermione Granger, who will be working with Professor Snape on the subject of Potions."

If the first years had thought the noise was loud before, it was nothing compared to this. Ron smiled broadly, Harry couldn't help but let out a loud whoop, and the entire Gryffindor table was on its feet.

As the melee died down, Ron cast a glance around the room. "The Slytherins don't look at all happy about the news, do they? Guess they realize they're going to have to share their Potions Master with a Gryffindor."

Harry nodded in agreement, but couldn't take his eyes off Hermione. She was luminous, smiling and shaking hands, and when he saw her look up towards the head table and give a little smile, he thought he finally understood what Ron meant when he'd said sometime early in their fifth year, "She's just…just beautiful, Harry. Can't you see it?"

He turned to look at Remus, thinking that he was the recipient of the smile, but saw him patting Madam Hooch on the shoulder as they both leaned over to congratulate Professors McGonagall and Flitwick. He was just in time to see Snape, as somber-faced as ever, nod in their direction. Surprised, he turned back to Hermione, who had lowered her eyes and was blushing as Ginny Weasley arrived at her side and hugged her.

"I knew she could do it," Ron said, still grinning. "I bloody well knew it."

Chapter Text

It took a long time for the Gryffindor common room to quiet down that night. Finally Hermione went to her room, and the crowd dispersed somewhat. She rejoined Ron and Harry in front of the fire a while later. As seventh years, they were insured the best seats--and having the Head Girl for a best friend didn't hurt, either.

As she looked over her timetable for the first day of class, Ron yawned. "I guess that means that Lavender Brown didn't get her proposal approved."

Harry caught the yawn. "Guess not. Wonder if McGonagall had to step in on that one or what? Or maybe she didn't finish?"

Hermione didn't respond, and Harry prodded her with his toe. "Hermione, can't that timetable wait for tomorrow?"

She looked up at him, her brow creased, and replied, "Wha…huh? I'm sorry, what did you say?"

Ron said, speaking extremely slowly and making hand gestures to illustrate each word, "He said, 'can't…that…timetable…wait…'"

Hermione shot him a look. "Funny, Ron. In fact, that bit gets funnier every time you do it." Ron still grinned, pleased with himself.

"You all right, Hermione?" Harry asked.

She sighed. "Yeah, I am. Just tired. I was so nervous for so long, and now that the term is here, I should be happy with all the good news. But I'm still nervous." Harry nodded.

"You'll be fine. You'll make a great Head Girl," Ron added, his mouth full of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, "And I'm sure that ol' Snape won't give you too much trouble. You just let me know if you need me to rough him up a bit."

Hermione smiled. "There was a note from him waiting for me upstairs; I'm supposed to stop by sometime tomorrow to make arrangements for the study."

Ron noted, "No wonder you're nervous."

Hermione gave him a look, not quite irritated.

"Hey," he said, looking at her in mock earnestness, "just because I'm not mad at you anymore about Snape doesn't mean I have to stop poking fun at him all together. That just wouldn't be right."

She laughed a little. "No Ron, it wouldn't be right at all."

"Right. Then I'm off to bed. Coming, Harry?" Ron rose and headed for the dormitory stairs.

"In a minute," Harry said.

After he'd gone, Harry looked at Hermione. "Are you really all right?"

She nodded. "I was also thinking about my parents. I sent them an owl while I was upstairs…with the good news. I…well, I wasn't very nice to them this summer, locked up in my room writing my proposal."

Harry tried to reassure her. "They know you love them. They understand."

She glanced over at him. "Do they? Or do they feel like Ron--like this is more important to me than they are?" Harry didn't know what to say. She continued, quietly, "And the thing is, Harry, it is. I feel like they don't really know me. Not really. Not any more. I couldn't wait to get back to school. I almost forgot to say good-bye…"

She turned to face the fire, a tear running softly down her cheek, and the two friends watched the flames together.

********
Snape's note had suggested that she stay behind after Potions class; they had Advanced Potions with Slytherin ("Gods, for once you'd think they'd give us a break!" moaned Ron when he saw it listed on his timetable) in the last class period. Neville, of course, was a nervous wreck as they entered the room and found their customary seats on the back row.

Draco Malfoy was there ahead of them, and snarled, "Why look, Crabbe, it's the Head Girl," as Hermione walked by. Ron reached over and calmly smacked him on the back of the head. Draco was too shocked to respond immediately, and before he could rise from his seat to follow Ron down the aisle, Snape entered.

He swept up to the front of the room, turned, and glared at them all. "So…" he let the word snake around the room, his voice smoothly menacing, "I see you have all survived long enough to make it to your final year. For some of you, this must have taken some very powerful magic indeed…" he glanced sharply at Neville before adding, "or just dumb luck." Neville's eyes were glued to his desk. "I was very disappointed in your final exams at the end of last term. Not at all what I'd expect from the house champions, after all…" his gaze drifted over Ron and Hermione to settle on Harry. Then he turned to Draco, seated in his usual place ("The sucking up seat," Ron had named it) in the front row. "And, though it shames me to say it, the papers from Slytherin House were not much better." Draco looked away, the smug smile gone from his face for the moment.

"Because of this…" the smooth, mocking tone was gone, and in its place, coldness--though his movements were still measured, his words still softly spoken. A slight change that, lucky for him, kept Seamus from lolling into an afternoon nap. "I want to begin with a review of the last several potions you brewed--or should I say, attempted to brew?--for this class last term." There was some shuffling, since no one had thought to prepare for this. Harry was pleased to see that even Draco looked a little disconcerted.

"Can anyone list for me the ingredients for the Basic Anti-Sleeping Charm Potion you were assigned at the end of last year?" Silence. Snape ran his eyes up and down the rows, waiting for somebody to attempt an answer. Hermione shifted a bit in her seat, and his gaze jumped to her. For some reason she felt shy about putting her hand up, and she sat looking at him for a moment before Draco raised his hand. Snape's expression had never changed, but she felt like she had done something wrong.

Draco had begun to list the ingredients, and Hermione regrouped in time to hear him name "crushed Unicorn Horn powder," which she knew was incorrect. Her hand flew into the air, startling Harry, who had been taking notes beside her.

Snape's eyes again shot to her, and Draco's voice faded. Raising an eyebrow, Snape asked, "Miss Granger, did you have something to add?"

She set her jaw and answered, "Professor, it should be 'Unicorn Horn essence'--the powdered form won't mix evenly with the bitterroot leaves."

Again that glint of something she couldn't place. He turned back to Draco. "Now that Miss Granger has answered part of your question for you, please continue."

Hermione flushed in anger, until, as Draco continued, Snape glanced back at her and nodded, ever so slightly, before turning away to slowly pace the front of the room.

The class finished their Potions just as the period ended (Neville had written the ingredients down incorrectly and used the powder, causing a bit of smoke and damaging the tabletop--"Five points from Gryffindor, Mr. Longbottom, for ruining your potion, five for the damage, and another five for not listening to your housemate's explanation as to why not to use the powdered form."), and Harry and Ron had cleaned up and gathered their things by the time Snape gave them all permission to leave. "See you at dinner," Harry said, as he and Ron hurried to put some room between them and Draco.

Hermione packed her bag as the rest of the class filed out. Snape finished sorting the homework parchments and said, "Miss Granger, I believe we were going to speak about the arrangements for your project?"

She looked up to find him watching her. "Yes, Professor."

He gestured to the door, "Shall we go to my office to get away from the smell of Mr. Longbottom's work for the day?"

She refrained from smiling and simply followed him to the door.

********
Seated in his office (which felt strange, she thought), Snape took out the parchment she recognized as her proposal. Her nerves tensed a bit, but Snape gestured to the page and said, "Miss Granger, your work here is excellent. Twenty-five points to Gryffindor for the best honors project proposal I have ever read."

She was stunned, but managed to say, "Thank you, Sir."

He continued as if she hadn't spoken at all. "Now. We have agreed that you will begin with the Cruciatus curse. While I know you are anxious to begin experimenting, I am going to ask you first to compile a reading list--the literature review you were so anxious to complete."

She nodded, not even noticing the words that, had he spoken them in class, would have seemed to mock her.

"If you could have a bibliography completed by this time next week, I will take a look at it and make whatever suggestions I deem necessary. I don't mean to keep you from experimenting for too long; I find that my best inspirations come when I'm actually working with ingredients, seeing them interact. Once I am sure that you have the theory in hand, we'll begin. Say…the third week of class? You will, of course, continue your reading as we go along."

Hermione was stunned; he seemed to expect her to make quick progress. That she had expected, but the simple fact of his seeming confidence in her abilities had her stymied. She heard him ask a question, but didn't know what he'd said.

"I'm sorry, Professor, I was thinking about the bibliography…" she covered. "Could you repeat the question?"

"It's not a quiz, Miss Granger," his voice was smooth and low, "I merely asked you if this time was convenient for you. If so, I would suggest that we meet after class again next week to discuss your progress and go over your bibliography."

"That would be fine," she said.

"Good. After that, when we begin the practical trials, I would want to arrange a second time during the week as well. Perhaps Thursday afternoon at this same time, to space things evenly across the week?"

"That would be fine," she said again, suddenly feeling a little like Neville. She forced herself to focus, and asked, "Professor Snape, will we be conducting the trials in the classroom, or somewhere else? I'd like to be able to check on things in between our meetings…" He waved his hand, but not quite dismissively.

"Yes, of course. I had thought to assign you one of the small workrooms just off the classroom, if you think that would be suitable. You would then have access at any time, and the storeroom would be convenient to you. I will give you the keys to both rooms, though some of the rare ingredients you will have to request from me directly. I would, of course, be available in between classes and in the evenings, if you needed me--though I would ask for some warning, especially for the latter, if at all possible. Will this do?"

"Of course," she said. "And thank you."

"I came across a book that I thought might be of interest to you…" he said, standing up and crossing to the shelves, when it hit her. She knew what was so odd about their meetings. It wasn't only that he'd stopped ridiculing her; it was more than that. He was actually interested in her ideas. He didn't hate her (oh, Ron would be horrified). He was treating her like a grown-up.

********
Having outlined all of the arrangements, Hermione had talked with Snape for upwards of half an hour about her work over the summer. He had asked several questions about her proposal, and had actually smiled--it was only there for a moment, and she wasn't sure she'd actually seen it, wasn't sure it was actually a smile, for that matter--as she'd grown excited describing her thoughts on the section suggesting applications of her primary work to the other Unforgivable Curses. Snape had (maybe) smiled at her. This semester was definitely going to be weird….

Someone called her name as she walked towards the Great Hall. She turned to see Remus Lupin coming down the stairs.

"Hi Professor," she smiled, waiting for him at the bottom.

He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick hug as he joined her. "Congratulations! I was so excited, I couldn't even look at you--or Harry--when you arrived last night. I knew you would be thrilled."

"I am," Hermione beamed.

"You look it!" he said. "I had to keep myself from sending you an owl when Severus announced in the teacher's meeting just before school started that he had approved your proposal. Have you met with him yet?"

"Of course." Hermione adopted her best know-it-all tone. "Do you think I'd let the whole first day of school go by without formulating my entire plan of attack?"

Remus laughed. "Of course not! Come on. We'd better go in--but you'll have to keep me posted, all right?"

As they walked into the hall, Hermione stopped him. "By the way, have you met with your own honors student yet? It seems you need a plan of attack as well."

He nodded. "Actually, I only saw him briefly today, and we're meeting tomorrow." He glanced at the head table, where most of the faculty was in place. "Better go. Talk to you later."

Hermione slid into her seat just as Dumbledore began the meal. In the middle of a conversation with Seamus and Neville (Quidditch, of course), Ron rolled his eyes at her for almost being late, and Harry, smiling, asked, "How did it go?"

Hermione started to explain everything--how excited she was, all of the arrangements they had made, the book Professor Snape had loaned her--and realized that Harry really only wanted to know that it had gone all right, that Snape hadn't been mean, and that she was happy.

She smiled at him, and said, honestly, "It was great, Harry."

He nodded. "I'm glad."

********
Closing the door behind her, Snape returned to his desk. He had a few minutes before he needed to leave for dinner. He was surprised at how much he didn't mind meeting with Miss Granger. When Remus Lupin had mentioned the possibility of her talking to him about a proposal last semester, he had been genuinely surprised. Hermione Granger had been an annoyance in his class since the first day he'd laid eyes on her. Yes, she was intelligent and talented (with an almost instinctive insight verging on brilliance, he allowed himself to add), but she was also one of the kinds of students he dreaded most: the smart child who answered every question correctly, letting the rest of the class off the hook. As long as Granger was in the room, they all knew that somebody already had the answer. She had never realized how detrimental that could be, no matter how many times he'd snarled at her, refused to call on her, or taken points from Gryffindor for her grand displays of hand-waving. He wondered for a moment why she had hesitated in today's class when he'd asked for the list of ingredients.

When she came to him about the proposal, he was impressed. He assumed she would talk herself out of it, decide on an Arithmancy study or take the easy route with Flitwick. Transfiguration with McGonagall would have been more of a challenge, or even Defense, with Lupin. He knew from watching her in class that neither of those would interest her, though--not enough to commit to a year-long study.

After their first meeting, he was convinced. Her idea was cutting edge, though the library didn't have the resources that would allow her to realize just how current her thinking was. He had been thinking along the same lines with the Imperius curse for some time, and had been intrigued by her description of her work with Professor Vector. More importantly, she had realized that Arithmancy didn't offer her the right tools for the job. He smiled to himself; of course she hadn't immediately jumped to Potions. With Weasley and Potter as her best friends, and Gryffindor as her house, why would she ever make Potions her first thought? Just showing up for the meeting had proven that she was brave enough to work with him; she hadn't been cowed by him in class for a long time, and it was clear that she was bracing for the worst when she arrived at his office that day. He had been tempted to show her his worst, to see just how determined she was, but her eloquent defense of her ideas that afternoon had made it impossible for him to do more than jab at her a bit in the beginning.

This girl deserved to know how smart she was--how good her work was. He realized that she wasn't, after all, the sort of student he'd always thought her to be. She didn't give every answer because she wanted the attention, or because she needed her teacher to tell her she was right--or at least that wasn't the main reason. She knew she was right, and she was too impatient to wait for somebody else to blunder through. She wanted to get on with the lesson. She wanted to learn.

He had scoffed at the other professors fawning over her in the staff room for years. Vector, especially, was a sycophant. Only Trelawny was worse, though not about Granger. (It amused him that she had so clearly dismissed Trelawny and her classes as worthless.) He had trusted McGonagall's appraisal of her, though he was skeptical of Lupin's praise. He had never seen her through their eyes, and had always suspected her of being merely a brown-nosing student determined to win over her teachers because of some need for approval. It appeared he had been wrong. When she had been talking to him about the expansion of her project from the Cruciatus curse to the others, she had glowed with excitement, and he had not been able to repress the smile that had flitted across his face.

Yes, he had to admit it; he was looking forward to working with Miss Granger.

He picked up her proposal and skimmed the opening paragraphs again. He stood, and, after filing it away safely, opened the door and left for dinner.

Chapter Text

The first two months of the school year had flown by, and Hermione was amazed to think that Halloween was just around the corner. She had a busy schedule, but somehow this term didn't feel as frantic as the last.

First, the school had been rather quiet, and her duties as Head Girl had been minimal. She met with Professor McGonagall and Ralph Innes every Tuesday afternoon, and once a month Professor Dumbledore joined them for a few minutes at the end of their meeting.

Second, she had to admit that part of the reason last spring had seemed so…pressured, so busy, was that Professor Vector was excitable and--Hermione didn't want to admit it--loud. Working with her had been great fun, but an outsider would have been amazed to see that a subject based in mathematics would have involved so much pacing, animated conversation, and flustered activity. Hermione herself was a quiet worker, but couldn't avoid--and really, she didn't mind it--being caught up in Vector's whirlwind of thoughts and blackboard scrawls. She actually enjoyed it very much. But the pace and the emotions had added to her feeling of time moving too quickly, of not getting enough done--and indeed, Vector got off track quite easily, because she enjoyed spinning out tangents with Hermione and generally catching up on everything else in the girl's life.

Working with Snape was very different. While he would occasionally ask her perfunctory questions about her classes or some school news, in keeping with her position as Head Girl, more often than not he would greet her (sometimes they met in her workroom, sometimes in his office, depending on the task for the day), and then turn immediately to work, picking up from where they left off the last time, anticipating her questions (but letting her ask them, she noted, appreciatively), or suggesting a new direction that was, also more often than not, exactly what she had been thinking.

When they discussed her reading, she had at first felt like she was in class, being quizzed on a homework assignment. That had changed, almost without her noticing, and while she was still required to answer questions from time to time, Snape generally let her talk about what she wanted, prompting her to expand on her thoughts or explain herself more clearly when she moved too quickly or shied away from pushing through a difficult argument. They would discuss what she had read, with him adding ideas from his own reading and suggesting things for her to look at. He had loaned her several articles, more than one of which he had translated himself (he didn't trust the translation spells to provide for the nuances of the languages), and never once mocked her for not knowing German or French.

But it was in the workroom--or in the classroom, when her work demanded more space than her small area could offer--where working with Snape proved to be the most different from Vector's dizzying Arithmantical calculations. Hermione had always thought that his measured movements (he almost seemed to glide across the floor, at times, and even when he moved quickly, there was an…elegance, she had thought with a start…about him) were part of his attitude towards students. Just as his low, smooth voice was designed to put them off their guard, so that the cold, hard tones of his criticisms, thrown sharply at any student who did not live up to his ridiculously high expectations, would hurt even worse for the contrast--just so, his easy, graceful movements kept you guessing, never knowing when he'd show up just over your shoulder to deduct points for any small error. He was, she had thought, like his house symbol: a grand serpent, hissing softly and uncoiling slowly in a corner, but quick to strike the moment your back was turned.

Now that they had been working on practical trials for several weeks, she thought differently. Or rather, she hadn't discounted her theory about his approach towards students, but she had realized that his controlled movements--the wave of his hand, the smooth stride--were a product of his practiced method at the cauldron. Or, if he naturally moved with such feline grace (she thought of Crookshanks tearing around the room in an early morning frenzy when the word came to her mind, but thought to give cats in general the benefit of the doubt), his work with Potions had reinforced it to the point where he moved in no other way…even when rushed or agitated (in other words, any time Harry was around), he moved…deliberately.

They had added a third session to their weekly schedule at the beginning of October. Now, in addition to their Monday and Thursday sessions between the last class period and dinner, they met for two hours on Wednesday evenings after the meal. Hermione had asked if he would be willing to add an hour, since she found herself interrupting his work more often than she would like. He had offered two. So while Mondays and Thursdays remained concerned with progress reports, questions about methods, and discussions about the readings, they had tacitly reserved Wednesday evenings for the actual work of potion making. Sometimes he worked with her, always allowing her to direct their progress; other nights he would work on something of his own, never minding when she asked a question or needed him to come to her side and help with something.

By the end of October, Wednesday evening was Hermione's favorite time of the week. Working in silence--though the lack of conversation never made her feel awkward--and not immediately accountable for any reading, she had the freedom to try out her ideas and the security of knowing that someone was there to help. She worked on her experiments other times during the week--usually after Potions class on Wednesdays, and always on Friday afternoons, when she had the last class period free. If she needed him--to answer a question, to supply one of the more powerful or rare elements--he was always nearby, but it wasn't the same as their time on Wednesday evenings.

It's not like they were friends, she told herself, lying awake one Wednesday night after their session had run late--as it usually did, with him allowing her to stay as long as she wanted, and staying himself until she headed back to the dormitory just in time for curfew. And it's not exactly like they were colleagues, since she was still accountable to him for her reading, and for the formal report that she would write at the end of the year to detail her work. But it wasn't exactly like being his student, either. It was something in between. And she liked it.

"I might even," she thought to herself as she fell asleep, too tired to be surprised, "like him."

********
For his part, Severus Snape had realized sometime in late September that he liked it too. When Miss Granger was working, she was quiet--and not raising her hand, he thought with a smirk. He had been pleased when she had asked him for some extra time devoted to her project, and though she had asked for another hour, he had offered two. He had no upper-level classes on Thursday, and so his class preparations were light, and he could manage any grading he had either during the day or on another evening. When, on the second of their added Wednesdays, he realized that they were never going to work for only two hours, he said nothing, but found that he didn't mind at all.

He, too, enjoyed the quiet Wednesday evenings, whether they were working over the same cauldron or across the room from each other on their individual undertakings. He was impressed with her progress, and, while he answered her every inquiry, noted with pride that her questions were almost always for confirmation's sake, rather than for information that she didn't have, or a connection she hadn't yet made. She worked with confidence, but knew when to ask for assistance. She had tried a combination on the third Wednesday that he hadn't thought of--though he didn't admit that to her. He sometimes watched her work when she didn't realize he was looking. She moved slowly, as any good potion-maker should, and didn't panic, even when something reacted in an unexpected way. Not that the unexpected happens often, he smiled to himself; she was predictably two steps ahead of any experiment, and a miscalculation from her was rare. Potion development was trial and error--educated trial and error, but a little bit of guesswork with one's talent, all the same. Her command of her subject matter, however, was more than he had expected, and nothing unpredictable in her trials was ever a result of a mistake on her part.

He hadn't let on that he enjoyed their meetings at all, though he could see by her relaxed demeanor that she must know he didn't despise her or resent the time he spent on her project. But what he found himself looking forward to most were the shorter meetings before dinner. She had a quick mind and a ready wit--the latter he had never realized before, since she had always been in her "classroom mode." As she talked about her reading and experiments, however, she forgot that she was talking to "vile Professor Snape" (he doubted that she had ever called him that, since she probably never spoke ill about her teachers, but he wasn't deaf, and knew every name the students had for him), and just talked. When he asked her questions, he could tell when she mentally braced herself for a quiz, as if she were still a second year who knew what to expect from his classes. But by the end of October, that response was gone, and though he guided the discussion somewhat, he primarily let her think out loud, making connections--flying without the safety net of the library books he knew she read by the score. It was a pleasure to watch her mind at work.

Not that he would ever admit it to anybody else.

********
One Tuesday in early November, Hermione hurried around the corner and into the staff room. Professor McGonagall and Ralph Innes were already seated at the fire, chatting amicably.

"Sorry I'm late," she said, breathless, "I was trying to finish up something downstairs."

"It's barely gone five o'clock," said McGonagall. "Not to worry. How is your work coming?"

"Great," smiled Hermione, still excited over her progress, and she noticed Ralph duck his head and smile in response out of the corner of her eye.

"Splendid!" replied McGonagall. "Ralph was just telling me about his project as well. I am pleased to hear that both of you are doing such fine work. And, I hope, are enjoying yourselves at the same time?"

She looked at Hermione, who nodded.

McGonagall seemed pleased. "Now then, I only have a few things to go over with you, beginning with that little excitement with the third years in Hogsmeade last weekend. We've had an owl from the new owner of The Three Broomsticks, and I daresay Albus will have to do some smoothing over to set things right."

Their meeting was indeed a short one, and as they left, Ralph said, "I'm glad to hear things are going well, Hermione. I couldn't believe you'd chosen to work with Snape."

Hermione frowned for a moment; she was used to such sentiments, of course, but had thought for some reason that Ralph would be different.

"He's not bad," she said, honestly, and ignored Ralph's raised eyebrow. "We get on quite well," she added. Then, seeing the look of amazement on his face, she noted, "though I'm sure he's not as much fun to work with as Remus."

Ralph looked surprised again at her use of Lupin's first name, but decided not to question it. "Professor Lupin is great. In fact, that reminds me, I've got to run to the library for a book he mentioned to me. I'll see you later, eh?"

She smiled and replied, "Sure. See you later."

As she headed in the opposite direction, she heard him say, "Hermione?"

She turned back. "Yeah?"

He paused for a moment before asking, "Ravenclaw's playing Gryffindor on Friday. You'll be there?"

"Of course," she answered, a little confused by the question.

"Great," he said, and smiled broadly as he headed for the library.

********
That Thursday evening, she was in the library doing some reading for Transfiguration, as Professor Snape was grading and she had reached a good stopping point with her trials; she would return to them on Monday, she thought, and take the weekend to look over some books Snape had loaned her. She also had an essay for Charms that she needed to finish, and Harry and Ron had made her promise to come to Hogsmeade. "Where else are you going to buy our Christmas presents?" Ron teased.

Finishing up, she saw that it was only seven thirty, and she thought she'd surprise the boys by getting back to the common room early. As she headed towards Gryffindor Tower, she saw the light on under Remus's office door, and decided to stop in to say hello.

Knocking softly, she realized that there were voices inside, and when Remus opened the door, she began, "I'm sorry; I didn't realize anybody else was here before I knocked…"

Remus stepped aside, motioning her in. "No, it's fine; Ralph and I were just finishing up."

"Oh," said Hermione, waving a greeting to Ralph, "I don't want to interrupt…it's nothing important…"

Ralph stood, picking up his book bag. "No, I was just headed out. I had to stop by and reschedule a meeting because of Quidditch practice," he explained. "See you later, Professor Lupin." He waved good-bye to them both as he left.

"Please, sit," said Lupin, motioning to the chair Ralph had just vacated. "How are things going?"

Hermione started to say, "Just fine," but realized that Lupin wouldn't mind hearing more. She told him everything, all about her work, her ideas, her reading, Snape--and he didn't look amused or surprised when she admitted that she liked working with him. He just listened, asking a question every so often when he wanted her to say more.

"Hermione," he said, when she'd finally run out of things to say, "it sounds wonderful. Your idea is--well, it's impressive, and I'm glad to see that you're making progress--and not just because of your honors project. This could be very important work." She blushed. "I know you were a bit nervous to be working with Professor Snape, as well…" He paused, wondering if he should say anything more, but decided to continue, "so I'm glad to know that both of you are enjoying your project." She looked up at him, surprised. ("Of course he wouldn't let on," Remus thought to himself, "and she wouldn't realize it on her own.") "He hasn't said anything in so many words, of course," Remus added, smiling at her, "but whenever anyone asks him how things are going, he says, 'Miss Granger's work is quite satisfactory.' I think it's the 'quite' that tells me he's enjoying himself, more than anything else."

Hermione was flabbergasted. She had thought that Snape had come to respect her, to not be so annoyed by her, but to enjoy working with her? She didn't have any response. Lupin decided to save her from having to try to formulate one.

"So, Ralph tells me that it's to be a big match on Friday?" He waited for her to focus.

"Yes," she added, still recovering, "Harry's been talking about nothing else." They lapsed into a friendly conversation as Remus went to the fireplace for the hot chocolate.

Chapter Text

One Wednesday afternoon, as the snow was falling softly outside and the Hogwarts ghosts were beginning to practice Christmas carols as they roamed the hallways, Hermione stopped in the library before her late afternoon Potions class to look for a book Snape had recommended on the Imperius curse. Her work on Cruciatus was going so well that they had decided it was time for her to expand her reading a bit in preparation for the next term. She had seen his name in a list of upcoming articles in the most recent number of Ars Alchemica; he hadn't pointed it out to her when he loaned her the scroll, and, when she asked, he had said that he'd submitted it over a year before and had only recently learned it was to be published. (Apparently the wizarding world's academic press didn't care for Snape any more than his students.) She suspected that he didn't want to scare her off, since she'd begun to think about the next curse she would turn to, but he hadn't said anything further. She had asked him a question about his article, and an hour later they had agreed that she could work on Imperius without feeling as though she was mimicking his own work. The project could not, because of time restraints and other considerations (she did have other classes, after all), aim to finalize the potion for Cruciatus she was developing; her goal was to provide enough evidence that the path she was on would likely lead towards the desired end. She hoped to continue her work as a university student at Mywoods. She hoped that, somehow, she could continue to work with Professor Snape.

"Perhaps when I return to Hogwarts as a teacher," she smiled to herself, choosing the volume she needed and moving to Madam Pince's desk to check it out. She didn't see that somebody had entered the stacks behind her, and plowed into Ralph, who was kneeling down to retrieve something from the bottom shelf.

"Oof!" he said, but smiling. "Watch where you're going, Hermione--or were you trying to sabotage Ravenclaw for our next match? Of course, it is against Slytherin, so I suppose you're not. Unless Snape has put you up to it?" He grinned.

Hermione had regrouped, and smiled back. "Let's just say he wouldn't object, hmm?"

Ralph laughed. Hermione thought he had a nice laugh. She asked, "But seriously, you do promise to win, don't you?" He looked surprised but pleased. She continued, "Because it would certainly help Gryffindor out if you'd knock Slytherin down a peg or two."

She couldn't care less about Quidditch, for the most part, but Harry had convinced her that the Quidditch season could have some serious bearing on the house points this year, at least with the way things currently stood, and even Hermione was thrilled at the notion of a Gryffindor victory each and every year she was at Hogwarts.

They talked for a bit as they left the library, and Ralph finally said, "You'd better run; you'll be late. And that wouldn't do for the Head Girl, eh?"

Hermione gasped, "Oh no! And I've got Potions!"

She took off running, while Ralph smiled, watching her until she'd turned the corner.

********

"Where's Hermione?" whispered Ron, as Snape entered the classroom and began to check the roll. "She's late!"

"This isn't good," Harry whispered back.

Just then, Hermione burst through the door. Trying to catch her breath, she muttered, "Sorry, Professor," and hurried to her seat.

Professor Snape hadn't taken his eyes off her since she'd entered. Once she was seated, he watched as she took out parchment and quill, waiting for her to raise her eyes and look at him. The rest of the class was silent, and Draco Malfoy looked as though it was Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year's all at the same time.

After another moment, Hermione glanced up to see Snape scowling down at her, one eyebrow raised to the ceiling. Her eyes widened a little, and she wondered whether she should apologize again, when Snape drawled, so quietly that she could barely hear him, "Miss Granger, the fact that you are my honors student does not entitle you to arrive in my class any time you please."

She looked down at her desk.

Another pause. "Was there some emergency that required your attendance as Head Girl?" She shook her head.

"No, Sir."

He tilted his head and crossed his arms across his chest, his lip turning up ever so slightly at the end. "I thought not. Ten points from Gryffindor."

When he had turned to write the list of ingredients on the blackboard, Ron muttered, "Ten points?!"

But Hermione hissed, "Shut up, Ron," and stared fixedly at her parchment.

********

Hermione had intended to speak to Professor Snape just after class about a question she'd had that morning, but when Goyle had exploded his potion all over the wall two minutes before the end of the period, she decided she could wait until their regular meeting that night.

She stopped in the hallway outside the classroom to gather her thoughts. She had been hurt that Snape took off so many points, but had reminded herself that it was no more and no less than he took off for anyone who dared to be late to his class. Mostly, she was mad at herself for losing track of time while talking to Ralph.

She opened the door and entered. Snape wasn't there yet, she noticed. She set down her things inside the workroom and came back out to gather some ingredients. Standard, base elements, she could find them all in the classroom. The door opened behind her and she didn't turn.

"Ah, good evening Miss Granger. On time, I see," Snape quipped, but his tone wasn't harsh.

She turned to face him; he was watching her, waiting to see what she would say, it seemed. She wanted to smart off, wanted to ask him why he'd humiliated her in class. Instead, she said, "On time, as requested," and turned back to the cabinet.

After a moment she heard him working at his own cauldron, and asked, "Professor, I had a question I wanted to ask you--about the Smythe article we were discussing on Monday?"

"Yes?"

But she had to say something about class first, she decided. "Professor, before I ask…" She turned to find him looking at her. "I did want to apologize again for being late today. I…I was at the library, and I just lost track of time. I'm sorry."

He raised an eyebrow, but this time it seemed he was…amused? Surely not.

He returned to his work and said, "You know my thoughts on letting your work on this project get in the way of your other responsibilities. I don't believe we need to say any more on the subject."

"Yes, Sir," she answered, glad he didn't know about Ralph.

"And as for the points," he continued, "I didn't think that you would want me to show you any favoritism in front of Slytherin. Or ever, for that matter." He looked up for her response.

"No, Sir."

"Very well then." His tone changed from something that wasn't quite patronizing to the business-like manner that told her the subject was closed. Somehow, she didn't feel so badly about what happened, despite her humiliation when it had happened. She wondered if she was relived because he wasn't angry with her…

"Miss Granger," his voice startled her, "you said you had a question?"

She asked her question, not noticing the gleam in his eye.

********
"So, did you tell him off for yelling at you like that in class?" Ron asked with a grin when she returned to the common room.

Harry added, "I'm sure Madam Pince could have sent a note with you to class: 'Dear Professor Snape, please excuse Miss Granger for being late to your class. Her library work is ever so much more important, as I'm sure you'll agree…'"

He and Ron laughed, and Hermione couldn't help from smiling.

"No, I explained what happened and he didn't seem to be angry about it anymore. I guess he had to come down on me so hard because it wouldn't do to not come down on me--Draco and the others would have had it out for me for sure then," she said.

Ron didn't look convinced, but Harry nodded. She wasn't completely convinced, herself; it still bothered her a little that Snape had been so cruel to her, making that crack about her being Head Girl (Draco had actually laughed out loud). She realized that she had come to think of herself as different than everybody else where Snape was concerned, even in the classroom. So maybe she felt so humiliated because she realized she'd let herself presume too much.

Ron said, "You make it sound like he did you a favor. I just don't get it."

Hermione shook her head. It didn't matter, she told herself. "Never mind. Now what have you been up to?"

Ron, forgetting all about Snape, launched into his latest scheme. "Fred and George wrote today; they've promised to send me some of their newest invention to try out at the Yule Ball." Hermione turned to Harry, rolling her eyes when she saw him grinning just as widely as Ron. ("Boys!" she thought.) Ron grew animated as he described the new Very Cherry Hairy Beary Treats, guaranteed to make you start sprouting fur five minutes after you swallowed the candies. "They're even the right color for Christmas," Ron added, proudly.

Hermione smiled. She cared about Ron an awful lot, but she sometimes wondered how they had ever gotten together in the first place. He was just so…childish. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but…she thought of Ralph. He was the same age, but he was Head Boy, and captain of his house Quidditch team. He did well in school--was doing an honors project, like her. She stopped, mid-thought, wondering why she had thought of Ralph Innes. She liked Ralph, but had never really thought about…then she did. All the times he stopped to talk to her after their meetings with McGonagall, the way he always asked her if she'd be at that week's match, the way he smiled at her….

"Oy, Hermione!" Ron did his best impression of his older brothers. "Where'd you go?"

"Sorry," Hermione said, "I just got distracted."

Harry winked at her. "Thinking about work, or…Snape?" he asked, teasing.

She frowned at him. "No. Actually, I was thinking about Ralph Innes," she said, getting out of her chair and leaving for her dorm room.

She glanced back to see Ron's mouth hanging open.

Chapter Text

From the way Ron began to make disparaging remarks about Ralph's Quidditch playing, Hermione knew that she had really bothered him. She wished she hadn't said anything, because she had been only half joking. She had been thinking about Ralph a lot, and one time she had let herself become so distracted over something he had said to her in the hallway before class that she had almost put the wrong ingredient into her cauldron ("I'd think again, Miss Granger, and pay attention, or there will be points from Gryffindor for certain," Snape had said, so low that nobody else had heard him).

Before that week's meeting with Professor McGonagall, she felt nervous--no, not nervous, just anxious. She realized that the last time she'd felt this way was when Ron was about to kiss her for the first time.

"Grow up, Granger," she said to herself as she took a seat by the fire, "you're seventeen years old and acting like a first year."

McGonagall and Ralph entered together, greeting her as they took their seats.

"Well, unless the two of you have anything to bring up, I think the only topic on hand is the Yule Ball," the Deputy Headmistress began. Hermione and Ralph looked at each other, then shook their heads. "Fine," McGonagall continued. "Now, I expect that both of you are planning to attend?"

"Of course," said Ralph, quickly.

"Yes," nodded Hermione.

"Good. I don't require anything of you, only that you keep an eye out, as usual, and let one of your professors know if anything disruptive or…untoward…happens. I'm sure everything will go smoothly. So, how are things going? Well, I assume?"

After a few minutes of chatting, McGonagall had to leave to meet with Professor Dumbledore. As Hermione gathered her things, Ralph touched her on the arm. She looked at him.

"Um…I was…I was wondering…" he stumbled over the words, and she could tell he was nervous.

"Yes?" she said.

He cleared his throat and tried again. "I was wondering if you'd like to go to the dance with me, Hermione." He looked at her expectantly.

"Oh," she said, blushing. "Actually…" his face fell, until she finished, "yes…yes I would. I'd like that."

They both smiled, and now he was blushing as well. "Great, then! I'll…check in with you later about…about meeting you before…beforehand, and all."

"Right," she said.

"Ok, then…um…I've got to go meet Professor Lupin before dinner." He hurried towards the door, stopping to turn back and say, "See you, then."

"See you," she said, as she gave him a little wave good-bye.

********
"It's like Victor Krum all over again," muttered Ron, for the fiftieth time that day. They were sitting in their bedroom, as the third years had taken over the common room with a project for Flitwick's class. "Except this one isn't going to go away any time soon," Ron added.

Harry kept quiet. Ron had been up in arms over Hermione's date with Ralph for the Yule Ball ever since she admitted that she was going with him. It had taken her a whole week, Harry knew, to gather enough courage to tell Ron. "And with good reason," he thought to himself as Ron continued lambasting Ralph.

"Ron, she can go with whoever she wants," Harry said. "And your grousing is just going to mean that none of us have any fun. Just let it go." Ron scowled. Harry went back to his book.

Ron couldn't let it go. "I just don't understand. Is it because he's sooo smart, or sooo good looking, or what? Because he's Head Boy?" Ron pulled a face at every option on the list. "Or maybe it's because he can understand why she'd want to do an honors project."

Harry sighed. "Ron, do you want her to go to the ball with you? Is that it?" Ron shook his head. "So what is it then?" Harry asked, honestly.

Ron shrugged. "I don't know. It seems like--it seems like I never stood a chance, you know? I'm not some big Quidditch player…and she doesn't even like Quidditch!" he raised his voice.

Harry gave him a look. Ron slumped against his headboard. "I don't know, Harry. I just…" his voice faded.

"I know," Harry said. Ron looked at him and nodded.

********
The night of the ball, Harry made Ron promise not to pick a fight with Ralph. "It's not like they'll be spending much time with us anyway," he'd muttered, but he had promised. Ron hadn't been in any kind of mood to ask somebody to go with him, and Harry had been glad enough not to have to look for a date. He hadn't really been interested in anyone since Cho, anyway. He'd have to ask somebody to dance, though, or he'd never hear the end of it from Seamus, who had asked Parvati Patil over a month ago. They were the new "Gryffindor item," now that Ron and Hermione had broken up, and Parvati had seemed much too pleased with herself and all the attention she'd been getting from jealous first and second years. Harry just hoped that they'd dance the whole night and leave off parading in front of people.

He waited with Ron in the common room for Hermione; something had come up at the last minute, and Ralph was going to meet her at the ball. She came down the stairs, and Harry's eyes grew wide. Ron stared and said, "Whoa…."

Hermione looked lovely. She was wearing sapphire blue robes, and her hair--her curls were tamed, but only slightly, and piled on top of her head in a manner Harry had never seen before, but of which he definitely approved--was literally glistening ("Fairy Dust Charm," she admitted to him, later).

She smiled shyly, not looking at them. When they still didn't say anything after a moment, she raised an eyebrow and said, "Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley…are you going to stand there and stare, or are you going to escort me to the ball?"

Harry offered her his arm, and they heard Ron, under his breath, mutter, "She has been spending too much time with Snape."

********
The Great Hall was beautiful, as it always was at Christmastime. Tall trees with various decorations lined the walls, and magical snow, which appeared this time to be glitter, fell from the ceiling, which mirrored the clear, indigo-and-starlight sky above. The glitter faded as it neared the floor, so as not to stick on anybody's clothing and become a bother.

After a moment of appreciating the decorations (and the practicality of the snow), Hermione looked around but didn't see Ralph. "Guess he's not here yet," she said to Harry.

Ron muttered something under his breath, and Harry elbowed him in the ribs. "Ow!" he grunted.

"Behave," Harry said.

Professor Lupin entered behind them, stopping short so as not to run into two third-year Hufflepuff girls who had come to a dead stop as they entered the hall, amazed at the sight. Harry saw him and waved, and he came to greet them.

"Hello, you three…why Hermione, you look stunning," he said, causing Hermione to blush.

"Hi, Remus," Harry said.

"Hi, Professor Lupin," Ron said, "if you'll excuse me…" he hurried off, and Harry noticed that Dean Thomas had just arrived, also solo.

"Sorry about that," Harry said to Remus, "he and Dean are going to try out some new stuff they got from Fred and George."

"Hmm," said Remus. "I'll pretend I didn't hear that, if you promise me it's not dangerous."

"Not dangerous…no…" Harry said. "But probably worth a trip to the hospital wing."

"Oh, dear," said Lupin, raising an eyebrow. "Well, at least tell me what it is so I don't eat any of it."

Harry smiled. "Watch out for the dark red candies." He thought about telling Remus what they did, but wasn't sure he'd find it amusing that Ron was planning to grow fur on unsuspecting classmates.

Hermione waved at someone suddenly, and Harry turned to see Ralph beaming at her. He made his way over to them and greeted Harry and Professor Lupin.

"Hi, Hermione. Sorry I'm late."

"Is everything all right?" she asked him, taking his arm (Harry noticed).

"I think so," he said, and then explained, when Remus looked worried, "One of our fourth years heard a group of Slytherins saying that they were going to try to spike the punch. You'll never guess who it was," he said sarcastically.

"Malfoy." Harry didn't have to guess.

"Got it in one," said Ralph.

Remus looked towards the head table. "Well, I'll head up to the front and see if I can get the update. I'm sure Snape will be pleased about this one," Remus said, but he smiled at all of them as he left.

Harry realized that he should probably go too. "Well, I'll see you later," he said, a bit awkwardly. "I'd better go make sure Ron isn't getting into trouble somewhere."

For the feast, the long house tables had been replaced with smaller, round tables that seated six or eight people. Most of these would be removed later for the dancing. He found Ron and Dean at a table near the wall. They hadn't heard the news about Draco trying to spike the punch, and when Harry told them, Ron said, "Wicked!"

Harry figured he'd have his job cut out for him tonight.

********
He was right. Once the dancing began, he lost track of Ron and Dean. He walked outside to look for them--also to get some fresh air, away from all the couples. He regretted, a little, not having asked anybody to come with him. He had danced with Lavender and even Parvati, when Seamus claimed he had to take a break from dancing. A pretty sixth-year Hufflepuff girl had asked him to dance, but he hadn't heard her name over the music. He'd thought he'd have to ask Ginny Weasley to dance, but she actually had a date, and he hadn't seen her since the dancing began.

Out on the lawn, there was no sign of Ron, but there were more couples. Harry went back inside, standing near the doorway to the Great Hall and watching everybody. He was going to miss Hogwarts, he thought, and not for the first time. Determined to ask somebody to dance, he crossed the room, but stopped when he caught a glance of Hermione dancing with Ralph. They were out of the limelight, towards the side of the hall, and were dancing fairly close. He smiled. Then he saw Ron. Ron looked angry, and he was headed right for them. Harry hurried, trying to get there first, but nearly tripped over someone and had to stop and apologize. When he looked again, he saw Ron shove Ralph. Hermione looked mortified, and as he got closer, he could hear her saying, "Ron, stop it. You're going to make a scene."

Harry got a hand on Ron, but Ron jerked away. He was muttering, "I saw you…I saw you…don't you lay a hand on her…"

Before Harry could say anything, Ron rared back and punched Ralph square in the nose. Hermione squealed, everyone who wasn't already staring stopped and stared, and Ralph crumpled to the floor.

Professors McGonagall and Lupin were there at once. Remus and Harry got hold of Ron, and McGonagall bent down to check on Ralph. He angrily brushed her hand away, saying, "I'm all right. Leave me be."

But she insisted, and, at the sight of his nose, said, "Come on then, let's get you to the hospital wing." She led him away.

Remus said to Ron, "And as for you, I think you need to come outside with me and cool off."

Ron brushed Harry and Remus off and snarled, "Leave me alone," before running away.

Harry took Hermione's hand; she was crying softly. "Hermione, are you all right?" he asked, worried. She nodded.

He turned to Remus and said, "I think I should go after Ron, but…"

Remus put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Yes, I think that would be best, Harry. I'll stay with Hermione."

As Harry left, Remus turned to the students nearby who were still staring, and instructed, "Go back to your dancing, everybody; everything's all right here." Slowly they turned their attention elsewhere. He guided Hermione to the nearest table and pulled out a chair for her. She sat, still not having said anything.

"Are you all right?" Remus asked, offering her a handkerchief.

She looked up at him with tears in her eyes, and said, "This wasn't what I wanted."

He smiled, then replied, "I know."

He let her sit for a minute and regain her composure. Then he asked, "Would you like to go to my office, or for a walk? Or I could take you back to your dormitory…"

She shook her head. Lifting her chin, she looked him straight in the eye and said, "I can't leave; I'm Head Girl."

He nodded. "Then would you like to dance, perhaps?" he rose and held out his hand.

Finally, a smile. She quickly wiped the last tear from her cheek and said, "I would love to, Professor Lupin."

********
Harry returned a while later to see Hermione and Remus dancing together. He smiled. He had made sure Ron was back in the dormitory and left him to sleep; Harry had found him halfway up the stairs to the Charms hallway, throwing up over the railing. Draco Malfoy hadn't managed to spike the punch, but he had smuggled in a flask or two ("or three," Harry thought, figuring that both Crabbe and Goyle had been helping) of his father's best vodka, and Ron, in his great wisdom, had gotten himself royally drunk. (Vodka was apparently Lucius Malfoy's only concession to Muggle culture, and Harry didn't doubt that he'd altered it magically somehow.) Convincing himself that Ralph was making unwanted advances on Hermione ("It wouldn't take much, in that state," Harry thought), Ron had intervened.

Harry surveyed the room again. None of the professors seemed to be missing, so Ron couldn't be in too much trouble. It would probably hit tomorrow. He hoped it would hit for Draco as well; with that thought, he looked around to find Snape. The Head of Slytherin House looked angrier than usual, and Harry followed his glare to see that it rested on Malfoy--who didn't look very happy himself. Harry wished that it had been Draco throwing up over the banister instead of Ron. He looked back at Snape, who was now watching someone else, a different expression on his face. Again Harry looked to see who it was, and realized that Snape was watching Hermione and Remus. His eyes went back to Snape, who, apparently satisfied, had turned to speak with Madam Hooch.

Harry crossed to Hermione and tapped Remus on the shoulder. "May I cut in?" he asked, grinning.

Remus bowed with his best imitation of the aristocracy. "But of course, my good man. I trust that all is well?" Harry nodded. "Then be my guest." He waved a hand, and Harry took his place with Hermione.

Neither of them said anything. When the song was over, she quietly asked, "Do you think we could take a walk?"

"Sure," Harry said, "Whatever you want."

As they left the hall, Harry noticed that Snape was watching them leave. He was curious, and so didn't turn away as quickly as he usually did, and Snape…nodded, then looked away. Bizarre. Hermione hadn't seen anything.

They went outside, walked a little, and took a seat underneath a huge tree strung with Fairy lights (actual Fairies, of course, enlisted to help with the outdoor decorations). They sat together in silence for a few minutes, and then Hermione asked, "Is Ron all right?"

"Yeah," Harry answered, "he is. He…he got drunk on some vodka Malfoy brought to the party, and I guess…I guess he didn't know what he was doing."

Hermione paused, and then said, "Yes he did."

Harry thought for a minute and then said softly, "I know."

After another few minutes, Hermione laid her head on his shoulder. Surprised, he put his arm around her and leaned his cheek against the top of her head, hoping that he wasn't going to mess up her hair.

She whispered, "Sometimes I think things would be a lot easier if I'd fallen in love with you, Harry."

Harry smiled, then remembered that she couldn't see his face. "It might have been nice, Hermione, but I don't think it would have been any easier."

She laughed a little, and straightened up. Meeting his gaze she smiled, and said, "You're probably right."

He smiled back, and she hugged him around the neck. His eyes grew wide for a minute, and then he hugged her in return.

Chapter Text

Things were not easily smoothed over between Ron and Hermione. It was a good thing that Ron was going home to spend Christmas with his family, Harry thought. Plus, he wanted some time to talk with Hermione, who'd seemed quieter than usual ever since the Ball. She was staying at Hogwarts over the holidays to work on her project, of course, and he suspected that she was glad to be staying because she'd rather be near him than see her family. Not that either of them had misunderstood their conversation under the Fairy tree. They were just friends, and always would be, but Harry had thought more than once since then that it might have been nice if it had worked out differently. He and Ron were fine, though Ron had been a little embarrassed, but as a trio they had remained in tense silence for a few days before it was time for Ron to leave.

On Christmas Eve, Harry came into the common room late (Neville had lost Trevor…again; he was staying as well, but Dean and Seamus had both gone home) to find that Hermione had returned from her dungeon laboratory (as he liked to call it) and was seated by the fire reading some huge book.

"Oh, not on Christmas Eve, Hermione," he groaned. She gave him a look. "Come on, even Professor Snape would agree that you don't need to read this right now."

She sighed, though he knew she was teasing, and put her book down. "Fine. So what do you propose we do? And don't tell me it's anything that can get us expelled," she said, raising an eyebrow at him.

"Why Hermione, we've been positively angelic this whole year!" he said, in mock surprise. She laughed.

"Why don't you just tell me how you've been," he offered tentatively after a moment.

"I don't want to talk about Ron right now," she said, a little guarded.

"No, no, not about Ron," he said quickly, adding, "unless you want to later. I just meant, well, how were your finals, and how's your project coming, and how's your family?"

She started at that.

"I'm sorry, Hermione," he backtracked, "I know they weren't happy about you staying here…"

She cut him off. "No, it's all right. We…we did have a bit of a fight when I told them I wasn't coming home, but it was really because I made the mistake of telling them in the same letter that Ron and I had broken up. Mum was worried about me, and told me I was working too hard."

"You hadn't told them before?" Harry asked.

"No…I didn't want to be consoled about it, since it turned out to be for the best, but mum had said something about inviting him to come home with me for the hols, and…well, I finally had to explain," she ended.

"Sorry about that," he said. "You know, Mrs. Weasley was planning on asking you to come there, but Ron told her you were staying here to work on your project. I don't know if he's told them or not."

Hermione snorted. "Well, if you had that many siblings to razz you about it, you might not tell them either, I suppose."

They sat in silence for a moment. "Mum was upset because Mywoods sent the forms for next year home instead of here. She's not handling my leaving home very well. And I guess…I…I guess I'm handling it too well. You know?" Harry nodded.

She returned to his other questions, wanting to change the subject. "Finals were fine…"

"Of course," Harry interrupted.

"And my project is going really, really well," she finished, ignoring him. "We're going to start some preliminary work on the Imperius curse just after the start of the term. It's why I'm reading this huge book…" she broke off. "What is it?" she asked, trying to remember what she'd said to put that look on his face.

"You just said…'we'…" Harry explained. He saw her jaw clench, and hurried on, "No, I'm not criticizing. I just never thought I'd hear one of us say 'we' and mean Snape." He smiled a weak smile, hoping that she wasn't mad.

She looked down. "I know it's strange. It's taken me ages to get used to it. But…we work really well together, and…I don't know…I sort of…like him."

Harry sat bolt upright in his chair. "You like him? You mean like him, like him, or just get along with him, like him?"

She laughed out loud. "Oh, honestly, Harry, he's my teacher. I just mean that we seem to get along. Now calm down; you look like Ron."

Harry rested his head on the back of the chair again. "Well I was going to say…"

********
The next morning Harry woke when Neville poked him in the arm and said, "Come on, Harry, everybody's taking their presents down to the common room. Hurry up!"

Harry rolled over and put on his glasses, looking down towards the end of his bed. He could see what looked like the annual Weasley sweater and several other gifts.

Scooping them up, he headed downstairs. Not many Gryffindors were staying this holiday, but it was nice to have Neville there. He was sitting with two fifth-year boys, and then there was Lavender Brown and a couple of first-year girls. It seemed quiet, and Harry reckoned it was because there were no Weasleys. He didn't see Hermione, so he put his packages in a chair and went up to knock on her door, knowing that there wasn't anybody else staying.

When she didn't immediately answer, he knocked again. "Come on, Hermione, wake up. It's Christmas." Her heard her say, "Come in," and opened the door. He laughed out loud at the sight of her, sitting in bed with Crookshanks and a large book. "We're opening presents, and you're in here reading?"

She looked up from the book she had open in her lap. "I didn't know what this one was, and then I saw the seal…" she showed him the card with the Slytherin serpent in dark green wax. "It's the volume on the history of the Unforgivable Curses that I've checked out of the library so often…and a subscription to Ars Alchemica that runs through the end of the summer."

She handed him the card; he put the subscription notice aside to read it.

Dear Miss Granger,

As you did not return home for the holidays this year, I wanted to be sure that you had something to occupy your time. I hope that this volume is the one you most wanted; Madam Pince tells me that you have almost worn the binding off of the library's copy. I am certain that you will know what to do when the first copy of Ars Alchemica arrives; I hear that there will be an article on the Avada Kadavra Curse that will most certainly show up in our meeting shortly after it appears.

Sincerely,
Prof. Severus Snape

"Gods, he manages to make even a Christmas present seem like homework." Harry wrinkled his nose at the card.

Hermione didn't see him; she was looking up something in the index of her new book. "He's only teasing," she said, and didn't notice when Harry almost fell off the bed in response.

"It's a really good thing Ron isn't here," he thought to himself.

********
There were so few students staying for the holidays that Professor McGonagall had decided that they should all eat in their common rooms for breakfast and lunch so that they would feel like they were with family. She had stopped by Gryffindor Tower towards the end of lunch and they had asked her to stay for dessert. She seemed pleased. Over the years, Harry had realized that--although she was very strict with her students, especially Gryffindors--she was one of the kindest people he knew. He could see that she cared about all of them, and was happy that they could show her in some small way that they appreciated having her as their Head of House.

That evening, though, dinner was in the Great Hall, with all who were present eating around a central table. It was always sort of strange, Harry thought, and Hermione agreed, to eat at the same table as the professors, but with Dumbledore at the head, it had always turned out to be a pleasant experience.

The Gryffindors arrived en masse, and Harry could see the professors who were already there grouped around one end of the table: Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick, Madam Hooch, Professor McGonagall, and Remus, who waved at Harry to come and sit next to him. Harry looked at Hermione, who nodded and took a seat directly across from him. Neville and the rest of the Gryffindors sat in a row next to her, and there were two spaces on her left between her and Madam Hooch.

The rest filed in soon after, and Professor Sprout sat next to Harry, with her four students beside her. There were no Slytherins staying over ("not surprising," Hermione had remarked), so the two remaining seats at the end were taken by the Ravenclaw students. That left Madam Pomfrey and Professor Snape, who arrived behind the Ravenclaws, talking together about some ingredients she would need for the next term. Pomfrey moved automatically to sit next to Madam Hooch, one of her best friends, and Snape took the seat next to Hermione. They were still deep in discussion about some sort of ointment when Dumbledore stood and raised his glass.

"Happy Christmas, everyone," he said, and all around the table they echoed his sentiments. "I always look forward to this meal, as my fellow professors know, and I am glad to see all of you here. Do enjoy the food, and the company. But first, a toast, borrowed from one of my favorite Muggle authors: 'And God Bless Us, Every One.'"

"Cheers," said Remus, and clinked glasses with Harry before drinking.

"Cheers, Remus," Harry replied, and looked across at Hermione, who was toasting with Professor Snape. She turned to Harry, smiling, and their glasses met across the table.

********
After the meal was finished, Remus, McGonagall, and Snape were still discussing the finer points of something-or-other, and Harry gave Hermione a look. She turned her head away from Snape and smiled. Professor Sprout clucked and led her students out of the hall, and the Ravenclaws and most of Gryffindor followed.

As Neville rose to leave, Dumbledore looked at Harry and said, "Now, don't let us drive you away. You're most welcome to stay with us and have a nightcap. And you as well, my dear," he said, turning to Hermione.

As he motioned for Professor McGonagall to ring for the House-Elves to send up the brandy, Hermione looked at Harry, wide-eyed.

They were saved from a fit of giggles by Madam Hooch standing to say, "Well, Albus, I'm afraid I'll have to leave the nightcaps to you all just now. I have to make a call to my sister before it gets any later."

"Of course, of course--though I remind you that it is Christmas," his eyes twinkled.

"I'm afraid I need to go as well," said Madam Pomfrey. There's a little one who's been left by himself for too long."

Remus looked at Harry, who whispered, "She means her cat." Hermione shot him a look. Remus nodded.

"Well then, that leaves the seven of us. A lucky number." Dumbledore smiled, and began to pour. After setting a glass in front of Professor Flitwick, he said, "Now, Minerva, if you'll pass these around…" she handed glasses down to Remus, who in turn gave one to Hermione, Professor Snape, and Harry.

When everyone had a glass, Dumbledore said, "I know that I've already made my toast, and Minerva always reminds me to stop while I'm ahead…" Everyone smiled (even Snape managed a bit of a smirk, Harry noticed). "But I'm going to say something that I don't say often enough, to any of you."

They were silent, waiting, as he looked at each of them in turn. He then said softly, "Seated here before me are some of my favorite people in this world. Each and every one of you--yes, yes, even you two--" he smiled at Harry and Hermione, "is special to me. And I am so very grateful that we could spend a part of this holiday together."

Harry looked towards Hermione. Catching her eye, he smiled. She smiled back, and then Remus had put his hand on Harry's shoulder and Harry looked towards him. He was smiling at McGonagall then, and Dumbledore, and didn't see Snape, who--though he didn't turn to look at her--placed his hand briefly on Hermione's arm before reaching again for his glass.

********
As they left with Remus, several stories from Flitwick and a couple of songs from Dumbledore later (even McGonagall had joined in on the last one), Harry said, "Thanks for the photo album Remus. I love it."

Remus had given him a second photo album, which not only contained a few more photos of his father and mother, but also two photos of him with Sirius, taken during a secret visit last summer, as well as a few snapshots by Colin Creevey (now the school photographer) of Harry playing Quidditch, and standing with Hermione and Ron. There was even a copy of the photo that had run with Rita Skeeter's article on Harry during the Triwizard Tournament.

"That reminds me…" Hermione suddenly said, "I'll be right back." She hurried to catch up with Professor Snape, who was walking towards the dungeons, and Harry heard her say, "Professor Snape, I just wanted to thank you for the gift…" as he and Remus headed up the stairs.

"I never would have imagined that they would get along so well," confided Remus.

"You never imagined…" Harry said, and they laughed.

********
Snape enjoyed the Christmas break because there were almost no students around. He hadn't been surprised when Hermione Granger had told him that she would be staying this year; he knew she would want to continue her work, uninterrupted, and from some small comments she had made here and there, he also knew that she wasn't really getting on with her parents just now. Or with Ron Weasley--though she'd never said a word about him. Snape hadn't even realized they had dated, until he overheard the Slytherin students talking about them one day. Not that he'd ever thought much about it before Weasley had made a nuisance of himself at the Yule Ball--with Draco Malfoy's help, he thought, not missing the irony.

He had noticed her immediately when she had entered on Potter's arm; she looked beautiful. He had been surprised by the thought, as he generally never concerned himself with his students' appearances, unless their face was covered with boils or their hair was falling out because of some error made in Potions class. He had noticed her, though, and had thought, "This is how a proud father must feel."

When Weasley was gone, he had wanted to make sure that she was all right, but knew he wouldn't be welcome. He had to admit that he was glad Lupin had stepped in; he had kept an eye on her for the rest of the evening, though, to make sure that she was cared for. He had admired her bravery in staying for the rest of the party, and was glad--for the first time in his life--to see Harry Potter, returning for her.

Because of everything he knew, he had thought he might send her a present--nothing sentimental, but something useful. Something she would appreciate, and that would be appropriate, coming from a professor. Others gave their favorite students tokens at the holidays, but he never had, and not only because it was officially--if not in practice--frowned upon. He'd never wanted to single a Slytherin out, since it would cause all kinds of trouble. Besides, he'd never had a…he'd hesitated over the word the first time it crossed his mind…favorite before. Couldn't remember liking many students, much less feeling as though he wanted to give them a Christmas gift. (When Dumbledore had toasted them all as his favorite people, he had reached out to touch her arm without thinking…was surprised at how pleased he was that she hadn't pulled away….)

When Madam Pince had mentioned to him that Miss Granger seemed to be working harder than usual, and had joked about the volume on the Unforgivable Curses being her favorite, judging by the number of times she'd borrowed it, he realized that it was something she would enjoy owning, especially when she went to Mywoods (he, like the rest of her professors, had no doubt that she would be accepted). Though they would certainly have multiple copies in their library, he knew that she wanted to pursue her work on the Curses past this school year, and would put the volume to good use. The subscription to Ars Alchemica was an afterthought, really; he had planned to order a second copy for the spring term so that she would have one of her own. The library didn't carry it; it was above the level of the students (and most of the teachers, he noted). At the last minute, he decided to include it as part of gift.

He was certain that she would be discreet, and so hadn't expected her to thank him at all, or at least not until their next meeting. When she stopped him in the hallway, he was surprised, and her thanks were so gracious, her appreciation so genuine, that he hadn't quite known what to say. He had put his hand on her shoulder, smiled, and said, "I'm glad you liked the gift. Now, shouldn't you head upstairs?" She'd smiled at him--a beaming smile that she'd never given him before--and gone.

He poured himself a cup of tea and sat in front of the fire, leaving his work for the next day. It was Christmas, after all.

Chapter Text

"Professor Snape!" she called, hurrying towards his office door.

He flung it open with a worried look on his face. "What is it--what's wrong…" he demanded.

Hermione smiled, "Nothing…nothing's wrong, Professor…I think…I think we've done it!" She turned quickly to lead him back to her workroom.

They had agreed that, at the beginning of February, she would begin work on the Imperius Curse. But Hermione couldn't quite let go of the work on Cruciatus yet, not completely, and as she drafted that section of her final report, she had done a few more tests. Today, they had paid off.

As they entered the workroom, she grabbed his arm, pulling him nearer to the cauldron. "Look! Doesn't that mean what I think it means?" she said, excited.

He leaned down and sniffed the fumes, then turned to look at her. "You tell me, Miss Granger--what do you think it means?"

"That it will work," she answered. "This experiment is on too small a scale, and we'd need to check out the possibility of using wormwood as a substitute--in small amounts, of course…" she trailed off. "But I think it will work."

He raised an eyebrow, and for a moment, she thought she'd miscalculated--that he had seen something that she hadn't, or that she was missing the obvious. But then he smiled. "I believe you're right. Congratulations. Excellent work."

She smiled, and then hugged him around the neck. "Thank you, Professor Snape. And congratulations to you too."

She turned back to her work, more determined than ever to move on to the next Curse. Her mind was spinning so quickly that she didn't notice him leave.

Outside the door to the workroom, he adjusted his robes, paused, and raised an eyebrow. For the life of him, he couldn't remember a student ever--for as long as he'd been a teacher--giving him a hug.

********
Ron and Hermione still weren't speaking much, but he had apologized to her, and they seemed to be trying hard to get along. With Valentine's Day around the corner, however, things were a little tense again. The Ravenclaw seventh years had received permission to have a party--sixth and seventh years only, from all houses--in the Great Hall on that evening. Not everybody was going; some didn't have dates and didn't want to go on their own, others were dating fourth or fifth years, and still others, like Ron and Harry, didn't want to go through the ordeal of asking anybody.

"So…I guess you'll be going to the party?" asked Harry one night in the common room, realizing that he didn't know what Hermione's plans were.

Ron looked up at her, then away, pretending not to be interested in her reply.

She glanced at Harry, and then back to her book. "Actually, I won't." Both Ron and Harry stared at her. She flushed, then continued, eyes on the page, "Ralph and I haven't seen each other again since Christmas."

Ron swallowed hard. "Er…I'm sorry, Hermione. I know I've said so before, but I really am sorry."

Hermione said quietly, "It wasn't you, Ron, believe it or not." But there was no malice in her tone.

They sat silently for a few minutes before Harry said, "Maybe we could just boycott the whole stupid holiday." Ron grinned, and Harry could see Hermione smiling behind her book.

Later, when Ron was deeply involved in a game of chess with Dean, Harry leaned towards Hermione and said, "I'm sorry about you and Ralph."

She nodded, then looked up from her book. "It's all right. I realized about halfway through the second dance that it wasn't going to work out." She smiled at the look on Harry's face. "I know, I know--what's wrong with Ralph Innes? Nothing, really. It's just, well, you'd think we'd have more to talk about. We share responsibilities, we're both working on honors projects, we both come from Muggle families…"

"Really?" Harry asked.

"Yeah, his mom's a Muggle, and his dad's a wizard, but he's chosen not to practice magic since he married her. They left it up to Ralph to choose what he wanted to do when he was old enough to come to Hogwarts, though they knew he'd have to be trained, regardless."

"Wow," said Harry. "But…" he prompted her to continue.

She sighed. "It's not that he talks too much about Quidditch--though he does." She looked pointedly at Harry, who smiled. "I've learned to put up with that from you and Ron. But, for all I said about Ron not understanding me, it's like Ralph understood me even less. And I guess I didn't really understand him either. I can't really explain it. It's like…well, you're going to laugh at me for this," Harry grinned wickedly at her, "but it's the best example I can think of. One night he was at Remus's office rearranging a meeting because of an extra Quidditch practice. I know things come up, and I don't even fault him for having to rearrange the meeting--but he just seemed, I don't know, disorganized. And he never wants to talk about his work."

"Imagine that," Harry teased.

After a minute he asked, "Hermione, how do you put up with me and Ron?"

She saw that he was serious, and considered her answer. "You and Ron are my best friends, Harry. We've all learned to put up with each other. But you…or rather, I…I want something…more, I guess, from somebody I'm going to be in love with. I want to spend my life with somebody who shares my interests--not that we have to be exactly the same, but you know what I mean." Harry nodded. "Somebody who…I don't know, somebody who is calm when I'm a nervous wreck, practical when I'm idealistic--somebody who needs me to balance them out as well. Somebody who's as smart as I am--or smarter, even. I'm not saying you and Ron aren't smart, Harry, but I mean somebody who loves learning like I do. Somebody who…who makes me feel safe and trusted, and accepts me for who I am."

They were silent for a minute. Harry said quietly, "I understand exactly what you mean, Hermione."

Several minutes later, just when she was involved in her reading again, Harry turned to her and said, with a gleam in his eye, "You know, Hermione, it seems to me like you ought to date Remus. He seems like just your type." He laughed and wiggled his eyebrows as she flung a cushion at him.

But the words on the page blurred in front of her eyes as she realized that she hadn't been describing Remus Lupin. Without realizing it, she'd been describing Professor Snape.

********
They should have known that Hogwarts had been too quiet for too long. ("Do you realize that none of us has spent the night in the hospital wing in over a year?" Ron asked one night.) During the Quidditch match between Slytherin and Gryffindor, Draco Malfoy and Evan Bishop had ganged up to trap Harry against the side of the stands. He'd hit the wall hard, and had to go to the hospital wing. Ron and Hermione had gone with him, as Madam Hooch tried to sort out the remaining players.

It was quite a serious broken arm, Madam Pomfrey had said, but she'd mended it quickly. Harry wanted to return to the match, but she had said "definitely not." Without Harry, it was very likely that they'd lose, meaning that their only hope of winning the Quidditch cup would be if Ravenclaw beat Hufflepuff and Hufflepuff…well, if Hufflepuff beat Slytherin.

"We're doomed," Ron said.

"Hush, Ron. You're making it worse," Hermione scolded.

But luck--or rather, the Slytherin's bad judgment--was on their side. After the end of the match, Professor McGonagall came hurrying into the room, looking both excited and angry.

"Did we win, Professor?" asked Ron.

"No," McGonagall said, "they've called off the game and there's to be a rematch. When Bishop and Malfoy shoved you into the stands, apparently you put up enough of a fight that it caused Bishop to drop something out of his pocket. A vial of…well, we're not sure yet what it is. Professor Snape is analyzing it right now."

"I'm sure he's happy about that," muttered Ron, and Hermione glared at him, shaking her head.

McGonagall didn't seem to have heard, though Harry was sure she probably had.

"Professor?" he asked, "so…does this mean that whatever it was, there will be a rematch? Or…"

"Yes, Mr. Potter," she nodded sharply, though Harry knew her irritation wasn't directed at him. "Whether it was something to be used against another player, or something…something beneficial to Bishop, Madam Hooch had declared that the game will be scratched from the books and replayed." Harry sighed, relieved.

"Now. I think that the sooner you two let your friend here get some rest, the sooner Madam Pomfrey will allow him to leave. And Miss Granger, don't you have your meeting with Professor Snape to attend?"

Hermione had all but forgotten. She'd asked to see Professor Snape briefly this evening ("Crikey, it's Saturday," Ron had moaned) because of some trouble she was having with a formula. "I do!" she exclaimed, grabbing for her book bag. "But…" she turned to McGonagall, "won't he be working on the…"

Professor McGonagall eyed her over the top of her glasses. "Miss Granger, if I were you, I would never presume that Professor Snape wouldn't keep an appointment, no matter what had come up. Now go on."

Hermione left, quickly, and McGonagall smiled before turning back to the two boys.

********
As she neared the Potions classroom, she could hear Snape fuming from the other end of the hall. "Of all the idiotic…drug use in sports, like common Muggles…should know better…" CRASH. She wasn't sure what had just hit the floor. She stopped in her tracks for a minute, but didn't hear anything further.

She took a deep breath and walked into the room.

Professor Snape was staring intently at a cauldron that was just beginning to boil. His eyes were narrowed, his hands braced on either side of the cauldron against the desktop, and he was breathing deeply and deliberately. She saw him mutter something under his breath, close his eyes for a moment, and straighten.

As he reached for a mortar-and-pestle, she said, "Professor Snape?"

He gave her the look he usually reserved for the moment right before he took fifty points from Gryffindor on Harry Potter's behalf. In a flash, it was gone.

"Ah, Miss Granger. I wasn't sure that you would keep our appointment, seeing as how…your friend…" he sneered at the word and returned his focus to the cauldron, "is still in the hospital wing. I trust he is recovering nicely?"

His tone told her that he clearly hoped nothing of the kind. She managed to respond with civility. "Harry is fine, Sir. Should we reschedule for Monday? I know…that is, I don't want to interrupt…"

Looking at her again, but not as coldly, he said, "Ah. I see that you have heard the news about Mr. Bishop." Beginning to grind some leaves into powder, he continued, "While I know that it is hopeless to try to keep the news from spreading over the school before curfew, I hope that you, at least, will not add to the rumors?"

She nodded as he glanced up at her. "Especially," he added, "as you may well be here when I determine with what, exactly, Mr. Bishop was flying around this afternoon. Now, ask your question, and then I assume you'll want to do a bit of work?"

With that, things went back to normal, although Snape was still agitated (it didn't affect his potion making, she noted; he was still as methodical as ever) and Hermione wanted very much to say something to him. She just wasn't sure what, or even why.

Later, as she was sitting in the workroom reading over some notes from the week, she heard voices in the classroom. Professor Snape appeared in the doorway. "Miss Granger, I need to close your door for a moment, and ask that you not listen at the keyhole."

Despite his words, his tone was polite. She said, "Of course not," and he pushed the door shut.

Of course, now she was completely distracted. She didn't know who was out there, or how long she'd be shut in the workroom. She assumed it had something to do with Evan Bishop. And she'd promised not to listen…. After a few minutes of hypothesizing, she forced herself to attend to her experiment. She'd be done for the night soon, and there was still no sign of whatever-it-was being over.

As she began to clean up, however, there was a knock at the door. "Yes?" she said.

"You can come out now," Professor Snape replied, opening the door. "And I apologize for the inconvenience. Would you mind stepping out here for a moment?"

She followed him into the classroom, starting when she saw that Professor Dumbledore was there. "Good evening, Miss Granger," the Headmaster said. "Good evening, Professor," she replied, noticing that his eyes weren't twinkling tonight.

Then he said to Snape, "Severus, I'll see you in a few minutes," and left.

Snape sighed. "Miss Granger, I'm afraid something has come up and I must attend to it personally."

He paused, and she ventured, "I'm done, Professor, and was just about to leave, so…"

He interrupted her with a wave of his hand. "I didn't mean to drive you away; I was just letting you know that I would be unavailable for the rest of the evening. I wanted to ask…" he paused, furrowing his brow, "but no, you said you were about to leave, and I don't want to keep you."

"What is it, Professor?" she asked, hoping that she could help with something--he seemed upset. "I hope it's nothing too terrible about Evan…" she stopped as he glared at her, but the look was gone almost as soon as it had flashed across his face.

"Mr. Bishop faces a stiff penalty…for use of a forbidden stimulant," he said, and Hermione didn't know if he was testing her to see if she'd spread the word or choosing to trust her. "But there is other news…I can say no more than that." He paused.

Hermione decided to try again. "I actually meant…that is…if there's something you needed me to do, I would be glad to stay and help…" her voice trailed off.

He studied her face for what felt like a full minute, and then motioned to his desk. "I had thought to ask you if would finish up this Shrinking Potion for me. I need it for class tomorrow; the third years are going to try to brew the antidote. I know it's not in your job description as my honors student, but if I leave it now…"

She glanced at the cauldron. "You'll have to start all over. Of course I can finish it, Professor. I'd be happy to."

A look she couldn't identify crossed his face, briefly, and then he said, "Thank you, Miss Granger. I trust you can see where I've left off."

She nodded, taking her place at his cauldron.

As he left the room, he added, "And I'll add five points to Gryffindor for your assistance."

"It's not necessary," she told him. "I'm glad to help."

********
He did grant her the points, she noticed the following afternoon, though they had always worked under a tacit agreement--ever since she'd earned the points for her proposal (and she suspected he had only given her so many then because he was allowing her to make up for the points Neville had lost the first day of class)--that her work on the project would not affect her house's points. She knew that, upon completion, the honors project would earn Gryffindor a set number of points anyway. And she had reason to suspect that Remus had been handling Ralph's project in the same way, so as to keep things even.

At the thought of Ralph, she flushed, but shuffled her notes and tried to look like nothing was on her mind but her reading as Harry joined her at the fire. "All right, Harry?" she asked.

He stretched out his arm, and replied, "All right. Good as new."

It dawned on her that she hadn't seen Ron all day. "Where's Ron, anyway?" she asked, and noticed that Harry didn't look at her as he said, lamely, "I'm sure he's around somewhere."

"Hrmmph," she muttered, immediately suspicious that they were up to something and not letting her in on it.

Harry fidgeted for a minute, then said, "Well, actually…" she shot him a look, "I do know where he is. I just…I wasn't supposed to tell you."

Now she was irritated. "Why on earth not? What could there possibly be that he wouldn't want me to know about?"

Harry looked sheepish. "Well," he faltered, then sighed, resigned. "He's on a date."

Hermione's mouth fell open. Harry continued, "he didn't want you to know, because he's not sure…well…I mean…he's not sure if it'll work out, and he didn't want you to…"

Hermione cut him off, angrily. "Did he think I'd be jealous? I guess not, or he'd have told me straight out, knowing him. Did he think I'd make fun of him if she turned out not to like him? Or...that's it. He thought I'd feel sorry for him, didn't he. As if I have the time to spend worrying about Ron Weasley's love life!" She sputtered to a stop.

Harry tried to explain. "I think he just didn't want you to think he was bragging, and didn't want you to feel bad. I don't think he meant anything by it, Hermione, honest."

She sighed. "I just wish all of this…this mess…would be over. I'm so tired of it."

"So am I," Harry exaggerated a sigh, "so am I."

She smiled despite herself. "So?" she asked, pointedly.

"So…what?" Harry said.

"So who is it?"

"Oh," he answered. "It's Sarah McClintock. She's sixth year, in Ravenclaw. She's in Magical Creatures with us."

Hermione raised an eyebrow, and her eyes glittered. "Oh, really…" she drawled. "She's pretty, right? With long dark hair and green eyes?"

"Yes…" Harry was cautious. He'd seen that look in Hermione's eyes before. "What are you on about?"

Hermione looked at him. "Why Harry," she said, still glittering, "you can't expect me not to give Ron a hard time about this can you? Especially not after he tried to keep it from me."

Harry grinned, "Oh, no. Of course not…."

Chapter Text

Luckily for Ron, Hermione was too busy to give him as much of a hard time as she'd have liked. Somehow, though, the fact that he was seeing somebody else (it had worked out, after all) released a lot of the tension that had been with them since the holidays. Things were quieter around the common room with Ron spending more and more time with Sarah (Hermione's new favorite thing was to tease him about all the hours they spent in the library: "More hours than in your whole time at Hogwarts," she'd say with a gleam in her eye), and since Hermione was in the middle of a particularly difficult trial and spending more and more time in the dungeon, Harry was left on his own most evenings. He didn't mind too much, since the team had voted to add an extra Quidditch practice each week in preparation for their rematch against Slytherin.

It was mid-March, now, and the weather was beginning to look like spring, though the wind was still cold. Ron got back at Hermione by picking on her for spending so much time in the dungeon with Snape. She was so pleased with her progress--it looked as though they might have time to start on the last Curse before the end of the term, and the work on Imperius was just as promising as Cruciatus had been--that he couldn't really compete, since Harry was on Hermione's side, teasing him about Sarah.

One night after Quidditch, Harry stopped by to see Remus. His office door was closed, but he had told Harry that he'd be there grading, and to stop by. Harry knocked on the door, and heard Remus say, "Just a moment," and waited.

A few minutes went by before the door opened, and then Harry was startled to see Snape give Remus a nod as he exited.

"Mr. Potter," he said with his usual sneer. "I trust you'll be safely back in Gryffindor Tower before curfew." And he passed Harry and left down the hall.

"Ah, Harry, come in," Remus said. But he looked tired, and not a little distracted.

"I can come back some other night," Harry offered, but Remus gestured to the usual chair.

"No, no. I could use the visit."

They sat in silence for a moment, and Harry asked, "Is…is something wrong? I mean…with the Potion, or with…anything else?"

Remus looked at him. "Oh, no, nothing like that." He smiled, but Harry could see that it didn't quite reach his weary eyes. "Severus has just brought me some news…I'm sorry, I can't say anything more than that. It's nothing for you to worry about."

"All right," said Harry. "I just thought that it might be Sirius…"

"Sirius is fine, Harry," Lupin assured him. "I've just had an owl from him this week, and he sends his love to you." Harry smiled.

"So…" Remus changed the subject, looking for something a bit more quotidian. "How is your final semester at Hogwarts going?"

Now it was Harry's turn to look concerned.

"Is anything wrong?" Remus asked.

"No," Harry shook his head. "Not really. School is going well, and Quidditch is brilliant…" he trailed off.

"But?" Remus prompted.

"But I'm not sure what I'm going to do…after," Harry admitted. "I haven't told anybody this, but I have no idea what to do when I leave Hogwarts. Ron assumes that I'll try for a spot on a professional team. He's pretty sure he's going to work with Charlie, at least for a while. Hermione knows exactly what she's going to do--more school. And what she's doing is important. But I…" he glanced sheepishly at Remus. "I had hoped I could go to live with Sirius. But even if that happens, it's not really something to do, is it." It wasn't a question.

Remus studied him for a minute. "Have you ever considered being an Auror, Harry?"

Harry looked up at him, startled. "But…" he stammered. "Well, no. I haven't. I mean…I thought about it, but…I thought…" He took a breath. "I thought it would be too dangerous for me because of…" he pointed to his scar.

"Ah," Remus said, repressing a smile. "You think you'd be a sitting duck out there because of the target painted on your forehead?"

"Something like that," Harry admitted.

"Being an Auror is difficult work. You would be in great danger. But it is rewarding work. I suspect that you want something a little more important to do than playing professional Quidditch." Harry looked up, a little embarrassed, and nodded. "But not all Aurors are like Mad-Eye Moody. And I suspect…no, I know, Harry, that you would make a fine one."

Harry was silent. "Are you scared, Harry?"

Harry said softly, "Yes."

Remus came around to place a hand on his shoulder. "You should be. But Harry," and Harry looked up into Remus's kind face at the tone in his voice, "you have never been one to let your fear guide your actions."

Harry nodded. "Thank you, Remus."

And impulsively, he stood up and hugged his teacher--his friend.

********
By the end of the month it was clear to everybody that something was going on. The teachers seemed nervous, and kept a watchful eye on everything. Ron and Harry had come back five minutes late from visiting Hagrid one night, and McGonagall had taken twenty points from her own house. The next morning, she announced at breakfast that all students would be asked to stay in their dormitories whenever they were not in class, at meals, or in the library. Curfew was moved two hours earlier, causing Quidditch players across the room to grumble. Even Hermione had to get special permission to stay in her workroom as late as she was used to, and someone had to accompany her back to the tower afterwards. Ron reckoned that her worst escort was Snape, though McGonagall often came to walk with her student; Harry decided that the night Filch brought her back had to be worse than Snape, any day.

One evening, Hermione was in her workroom cleaning up after the end of an experiment when she again heard voices in the classroom. Getting up to close the door herself, she heard McGonagall's voice say, "…in Hogsmeade. We need to go now."

As she pulled the door closed, Snape appeared in the doorway and stopped it with his hand.

"Miss Granger, I need you to stay here. I must leave. If you need to return to your dormitory before I return--and I may be very late--" a shadow passed over his face, "do not, under any circumstance, walk the halls by yourself. Is that clear? I will have Mr. Filch check on you every half hour."

It had been a long time since she'd felt like a first year under his piercing gaze, but she managed a nod.

As he swept towards the classroom door, she said, "Professor?"

He stopped, not turning. "I can tell you nothing more, Miss Granger." But he waited.

"I was about to head back to my dormitory…"

Now he turned, his robes swirling around him. After a moment, he gestured to the door. "Come then, I'll take you there myself. I have a few minutes before…" and he stopped.

She hastily grabbed her bag from the workroom, not stopping to check if there was anything else she'd need before the next afternoon--it didn't seem important just now--and he held the door as she passed ahead of him.

They walked quickly and in complete silence to the portrait hole. She muttered the password, and as she moved to enter, he said, "Miss Granger, as Head Girl, I would ask you to keep a watchful eye on everyone tonight." She nodded. "As my student…" he paused, long enough that she wasn't sure he would continue, "I would ask you to please be careful, whatever may happen." A chill ran down her spine.

As he left, she said softly, "You be careful too, Sir." She didn't know if he'd heard her or not.

********
Most of the Gryffindors were sitting in silence, wide-eyed, in the common room. She looked around the room for Harry and Ron and didn't see them. Heading up to knock on their door, she said, "Everything will be all right, everyone. The teachers have it under control." Some of the younger students seemed reassured, but the older students knew that she didn't know anything more than they did. They were right. She had seen more than they had, however, and it didn't make her feel any better.

There was no answer at the boys' dormitory, and as she knocked for the third time, Neville approached. "They're not there," he said.

She whirled around to face him. "Where are they, then?" she demanded.

"I don't…I don't know…" Neville had to agree with Ron; Hermione could be scary sometimes.

Hermione sighed. "I'm sorry, Neville. But could you go in and see if they've left any sign of where they've gone?"

He opened the door, and, seeing that nobody was there, she entered with him. They looked over the room for a minute, and then Neville cried, "There! What's that?"

Hermione bent to pick up a letter that had dropped to the floor and lay halfway under Harry's bed. She scanned it quickly, and then opened the trunk at the foot of Harry's bed. She must have seen something that gave her an answer, Neville thought, because she exited quickly, leaving him to wonder what was going on. He picked up the note--she had left it on the bed in her haste--and read it to himself.

Dear Harry,

We have to talk. Meet me tonight in the Forbidden Forest. I'll be there until midnight.

S.

Neville looked at the clock. It was just before eleven.

********
Hermione crashed into Remus's office. He wasn't there; she knew that the teachers would probably all have left by now, but had hoped that she could catch him.

Harry's invisibility cloak was not in his trunk.

She knew from the note that Harry had gone to meet Sirius, and had probably taken Ron with him. She hoped beyond hope that Ron was instead sneaking out to meet Sarah somewhere. But Harry didn't know what she knew--didn't know that the teachers were headed out…and the Forbidden Forest lay between the school and Hogsmeade. What if…what if whatever-it-was that McGonagall had said was out there was coming this way? They had to think it was a possibility, or they wouldn't have shut up the school so tightly. Snape had even walked her back to the tower himself, probably wasting valuable time, rather than letting her go on her own. If it was something that could breach Hogwarts's security…and Harry was out there.

She had no choice. She had to find Harry and warn him.

But how did she get out of the castle without being spotted? A confident attitude and her Head Girl's badge would get her only so far. She looked around the office, and her eyes glanced across the fireplace. That was it. She moved to the mantelpiece and looked more carefully--there it was. The jar of Floo Powder that every witch or wizard kept near their fire.

She spread a bit over the logs, a little nervous about traveling this way on school grounds. Would it work? "Hagrid's hut," she said clearly, stepping into the blaze.

********
It had worked, and her hunch had been right. Hagrid was nowhere to be seen; she had counted on him leaving with the teachers. Fang was happy to see her, and stood up from the rug to slobber his greetings. "Not now, Fang," she whispered. "I've got something I have to do."

She paused at the door, looking back at the dog. "Do you want to come with me, boy?" Fang came to her side. "We're going into the forest--are you sure?" He cocked his head, looking worried, but nosed the door. "Thanks." She opened the door and the two crept out into the night.

She was glad for the company, even though she knew Fang was a coward and would run for home the moment he smelled trouble. The forest was forbidden for a reason, though, and at least Fang could act as her early warning system ("Dad would appreciate that metaphor," she thought with a pang).

At the edge of the forest, Fang hesitated. "It's ok, boy," she said, and patted his head. He whined, but didn't leave her side. She took hold of his collar for reassurance (hers as well as his) and they walked into the trees.

Hermione had no idea where in the forest Sirius would meet Harry. She doubted that the note was from Sirius at all, which was the reason she'd come out after her friends. She pushed her doubts aside, hoping that Sirius was there, for all their sakes. She decided to stick to the edge of the forest, not going in too far, and move generally in the direction of Hogsmeade. That way, if she didn't find him, she could get help from one of the teachers. ("Oh, that'll be a hundred points from Gryffindor for sure," she thought.) She didn't think Sirius would want Harry to have to come too far into the forest either, and she knew that he had stayed near Hogsmeade every time he was in the area.

She quickened her pace, listening carefully for any sound that might tell her where they were. There was nothing, though, until she'd gone most of the way around the forest. Then she heard it--not a conversation, but a yell. Somebody had been hurt. She stopped dead in her tracks. More voices--she heard Hagrid call out to someone. Fang left her then, headed for his master. "Well, I guess you have some bravery in you after all," she muttered. What should she do? It sounded like trouble up ahead, but she was worried sick about Harry and Ron.

She decided to move closer and see if she could tell what was happening. She moved from tree to tree, trying to stay in the shadows. After several yards, she heard McGonagall's voice: "Remus! Behind you!"

She hurried then, not caring about the house points, thinking that maybe, somehow, she could help. She caught a glimpse of Professor Sprout through the trees. Saw her raise her wand. Saw her cry out, "Expecto Patronum!"

Then sparks flew by Hermione's head and she hit the ground. "Dementors?" she thought. "Dementors in Hogsmeade?"

She stayed crouched at the base of the tree for what felt like an hour, though it was only ten minutes. The sounds of…of what she could only think of as a battle continued.

Finally, when things seemed quieter, she peeked around the tree. Seeing nothing, she wondered if it was over, or if they'd simply moved away from her. Taking a deep breath, she crept closer.

To her right, just outside the edge of the forest, she could see Remus. He had cast his own Patronus, and as it returned to his side and faded, she saw that there were two hooded figures at his feet. The other professors were still under the trees where she couldn't see them.

Quickly, she made her decision, and broke out into a run, calling his name. "Remus! Remus, I need your help! I can't find Harry!"

He whirled around, shocked to see her. His look turned to anger, and then fear, and he seemed to look past her.

"Hermione!" someone shouted, and then she felt it--the cold touch of a Dementor pressing down on her shoulder.

She fell hard on her knees to the ground, scraping her hand as she pitched forward. There was another hand on her ankle, pulling her backwards.

She screamed, and then everything went dark.

********
She woke to the muffled sounds of a conversation near her feet. It was as though she was underwater, and she couldn't hear what they were saying. She opened her eyes carefully, squeezing them shut again when a pain shot through her temple.

Then Madam Pomfrey was there, clucking over her. "There, there, dear. Don't move. You've had a hard night. Lie still, and I'll be back with something for the pain."

She lay quietly, but heard someone sit beside her. She turned her head to the right slightly, towards the sound, and gingerly opened one eye. It was Professor McGonagall, looking very worried.

"Professor…Harry…did they find…" McGonagall shushed her, taking her hand.

"It's all right, my dear. Harry is safe, and Ron," she added, seeing Hermione's next question on her face. "It's you we were worried about."

"But what…"

"Hush, now." McGonagall stopped her. "You need to rest for a while longer, and then we'll tell you everything."

Madam Pomfrey returned, and Professor McGonagall rose to leave. Hermione closed her eyes and sank back into her pillow. She felt a cool hand on her forehead, and then it supported her neck, helping her to raise her head enough to take a draught of something that tasted foul ("Of course it does," she thought, "any truly effective potion tastes foul"), and lowered her head back, gently, onto the pillow.

As she felt herself drifting off to sleep, she heard Madam Pomfrey say, "Why, bless my stars. He's been sitting there all night. I wonder where he could have gone?"

********
That afternoon, she woke again, this time hearing several voices at the door.

"But we have to see she's all right"--that was Ron.

"Not now, I said. She's sleeping." And Madam Pomfrey.

"Poppy, I think it'll be all right, just for a minute." And Remus.

She opened her eyes and found that her head didn't hurt at all anymore. "Please," she said softly, "I'd like to see them."

At that, Harry and Ron pushed past Madam Pomfrey ("Well, I never," she said) and came to her side.

"What were you thinking, going out by yourself?!" demanded Ron. You could have been killed!"

"That's right, Ron, tell her something that'll comfort her," Harry said, jabbing him in the arm.

Remus interrupted. "I think her story can wait for a bit, Ron. I suspect that she has some questions of her own. And instead of making her ask them, why don't I just tell the story so all of you will know what happened."

Ron and Harry took a seat on the next bed, while Remus took the chair.

Hermione shifted in the bed, wanting to sit up straighter, and all three of them moved to help. Remus added a pillow behind her head and helped her to sit up as the boys sat back down. "All right?" Remus asked her. She nodded.

He leaned back in the chair and said, "I'll start at the beginning, though there are some things I can't tell you. I think we've pieced together Hermione's part of the story as well, though she may want to add to it when she feels better. Now…" he looked at Harry and Ron, then back to Hermione. "You all know that something's been going on. If you didn't realize it at the start of the term, you had to recognize the signs that there was some danger once the curfew was changed and the other safety measures taken."

They all nodded.

"We had received word that a known Death Eater had been seen in Hogsmeade over the holiday," he said, watching for their reaction. When he saw that they were intent enough on his story not to react, he continued.

"We have, of course, been keeping a very close eye on the town this term. And Sirius," he looked at Harry, "has been in the country since just after the start of the year, listening for rumors. He's fine, Harry," he added. Harry nodded.

"Last month, we received word that there had been another sighting. Dumbledore suspected the new owner of The Three Broomsticks, and sent…well, he found a way to determine if she was a safety risk."

Hermione started; this must have been the night Dumbledore came to see Professor Snape. Remus glanced at her, but said nothing.

"Then, last night, a loyal associate in Hogsmeade sent an owl saying that something wasn't right. Hagrid went into town to canvas the situation--since he's a regular fixture at the pub--and reported that something was clearly amiss, though he couldn't put his finger on what. Dumbledore asked us all to accompany him--it seemed like he knew more than he was saying, and though I now know some of it, that is the part I cannot tell you. We headed to Hogsmeade after making sure all the students were accounted for."

He looked at Harry. "Of course, the note from Sirius--which was not from Sirius at all," Harry ducked his head at that, "came after we'd checked the dormitories. And with the teachers leaving or already gone, there was no one you could check with--even if you'd wanted to--before heading out. They knew you'd come; they'd intercepted something Sirius had written, or hoped he'd written, knowing that if they forged the handwriting and it was from him, you'd come when they called."

Harry looked up. "I would have come to you, Remus," he said quietly.

"Thank you, Harry. I'm glad of it."

He continued, "By the time Severus brought Hermione up to your common room, Harry and Ron had already left, but he knew that Minerva had already checked her house and headed out before him. He joined us, none of us knowing that the two of you were gone, or that Hermione would find the note and come after you."

"Did you think it was from Sirius?" he asked Hermione.

Hermione shook her head. "I wanted to believe that it was…that he'd keep Harry safe. But I knew it wasn't. That's why I had to go…" she trailed off, expecting a rebuke, but Remus returned to his story.

"What I can tell you, though I must ask you to keep it to yourselves, is that there has been a small group of Death Eaters meeting in Hogsmeade since Christmas. They were going to attempt to kidnap one of the students to hold for ransom--to show Dumbledore that he could not hope to keep Hogwarts safe from them in the future. With the sample of Sirius's handwriting, they knew they were going to do much better than they had hoped. Now, they wanted to kidnap Harry Potter."

Harry shifted nervously, and Ron put his hand on Harry's shoulder.

"The good news, Harry, is that they were acting on their own--they had no orders regarding Hogwarts, or you, and we have reason to believe that the few who got away…well, that they won't be in favor with the others for quite some time."

"Because they wound up giving us a warning," Hermione said softly.

Remus looked at her, surprised. "Yes. That's right."

Ron raised his hand.

"You're not in class, Ron," Remus smiled, "ask your question."

Too interested to be embarrassed, Ron said, "But Remus, there were…there were Dementors there. Aren't they supposed to work for us? You know, at Azkaban?"

Remus nodded. "There's no way of knowing how many Dementors are in existence at any given time," he answered. "We must assume, especially now, that there are many more than we knew about."

"Because if this small group of Death Eaters had some, there has to be more," Harry added.

"That's right," Remus said. "Perhaps I should give the three of you points for Defense Against the Dark Arts, the way you're putting things together."

Encouraged, Ron continued, "So Harry and I headed out to see Sirius, and they nabbed us. But the teachers were already between them and Hogsmeade. And by the time Hermione showed up, Dumbledore had sent us back to the castle with Hagrid, and you saved her from that last Dementor and the Death Eater that was trying to grab her."

"Remus?" Hermione's voice sounded small. They all turned to look at her, and saw that she was crying.

"What is it, child?" He smoothed a tear from her cheek.

"I'm…I'm sorry I came out there. I knew I shouldn't…I knew it was dangerous, and I wasn't any help at all--I just caused more trouble, and I…" she began to cry in earnest.

Remus took her hand, and looked at Harry and Ron. "You two should go on to dinner," he said. When they hesitated, he added, "I'll stay here with Hermione. Don't worry."

They stood, but didn't move away.

"Go on, now. She'll be fine." They left slowly.

Hermione had managed to stop crying when he turned back around.

"It's all right, dear heart. Cry, if it will make you feel better." He offered her his handkerchief and she blew her nose. When she didn't say anything, he began, "You shouldn't have gone into the forest; you're right about that. But no one can fault you for wanting to protect your friends."

She looked up at him. "I'm sure the Gryffindor house points won't agree," she said, attempting a smile.

"Don't worry about that right now," said Remus.

As he leaned back in his chair, she said, "Thank you…for now, and for last night too…"

He seemed confused. "Last night?"

She said, shyly, "I heard Madam Pince say that there had been somebody sitting here all night--a 'he.' I…I figured it had to be you."

He put his finger under her chin and lifted her eyes to his. "It wasn't me," he said. "It was Professor Snape."

********
Snape shut the door to his classroom as the last student of the day left. Nobody had paid attention all day, and, as irritating as it was, he couldn't blame them. Of course the rumors of last night's events had spread like wildfire. And when Hermione Granger wasn't in class, everyone knew that something serious had to have happened.

Damn Harry Potter for putting her in danger again.

He sighed, too tired to be angry, and his gaze drifted to the door opposite. He crossed the room and unlocked it. Inside, he checked her worktable to make sure there was nothing that needed to be done. She had left it, as always, in perfect order. There was a note for him, however, and he sat down to read it. She must have written it before Minerva had come to tell him that the Death Eaters were preparing to move from Hogsmeade.

Professor--

I've finished the work with the grindylowe's stomach (sorry, but that's still gross), and I think we're going to have to try something else--perhaps the dragon's heartstring you had suggested?

I'll be back in on Wednesday, and everything's shut down safely in the meantime.

H.

"She must not have wanted to interrupt me," he thought. "But she knew I'd come in to see what she had found when she didn't say anything." Reading the note again, he smiled exactly where she'd intended, though he doubted that she'd thought he actually would.

He took the note with him, picked up the homework parchments from the podium, and went to his office. After placing the kettle on the fire, he sat down at his desk, intending to grade the essays for his class the next day.

Some time later, his eyes re-focused, and he realized that Remus Lupin was taking the kettle from the blaze.

He sat up, startled. "Wha…what is it?" He stumbled over the words.

"You looked like you were under some sort of petrification curse, Severus," Remus said, pouring out the tea.

Snape didn't answer. Remus set the cup in front of him, but didn't sit down. Snape looked up to find the other man watching him. He frowned. "Did you want something, Professor Lupin?"

Remus smiled. "I just came by to tell you that Hermione is awake again, and Madam Pomfrey says that she'll be fine. She should be back in classes tomorrow."

Snape looked away. After a moment, Remus opened the door to leave.

As he pulled it closed behind him, he heard, barely a whisper, "Thank you."

Chapter Text

Hermione had indeed gone back to class the next day. Her housemates were glad enough to see her--glad enough that Harry and Ron were all right as well, and scared enough by the rumors of Death Eaters at Hogsmeade--that they hadn't grumbled too much about the fifty points she'd lost them. "Besides," Ron said, "Harry'll win it back for us at Quidditch."

She was nervous, though, about returning to Potions. She knew Snape would be angry with her, and while McGonagall was so relieved to see Hermione up and around that she'd stopped casting disapproving frowns at her by lunchtime, Hermione didn't think Snape would be so easily distracted from the fact she'd disobeyed his explicit instructions.

As they entered, Draco Malfoy smirked and said, loudly, "Well, if it isn't our Head Girl. Head Girl, Honors Student, and now she wants to be School Hero. All you managed to do was nearly get yourself killed, Granger. You should have tried a little harder."

Hermione flushed, despite her resolve not to pay any attention to him, but Harry had to grab hold of Ron's arm to keep him from going after Draco.

From behind them, they heard a cold voice say, "Ten points from Slytherin, Mr. Malfoy, for wishing your classmate dead." Everyone turned to stare; nobody had seen Snape enter the room. For that matter, nobody had ever seen him take points from his own house.

"Well?" he raised an eyebrow. "Was there something else, or were the three of you planning on standing in the aisle for the duration of class today?" They hurried to their seats.

********
Since it was a Thursday, Hermione not only had to make it through class, but through her afternoon meeting with Snape, as well. As Harry and Ron cleared away their things and prepared to leave, Harry whispered, "I'm sure it'll be all right. If he'd wanted to take any more points off than McGonagall already did, he'd have done it by now."

Somehow she was not reassured.

She took a deep breath, and then moved to the front of the classroom. After the last student was gone, Snape looked up at her and said simply, "Shall we meet here, or in my office, Miss Granger?"

She looked at him blankly. "There's only the reading to discuss, so the office would be fine." He motioned for her to go ahead of him.

They took their accustomed seats, and then he began, "I don't imagine that you've managed much reading in the past couple of days. Did you finish the Rollins article as you'd planned?"

She looked at him then, wondering why on earth he hadn't yelled at her yet for what had happened. "Professor…" she started, not quite knowing what it was she wanted to say.

He sighed, and moved to the fire to put the kettle on. "I suppose you want to know when I'm going to rant about Gryffindors breaking rules and deduct several hundred points for your actions of Tuesday night?"

She nodded, having no idea where he was headed. He turned to face her, his black eyes fixing hers.

"While I know that Professor McGonagall has spoken to you on this subject, I am sure it will have had about as much effect as one of Mr. Longbottom's sleeping draughts. However, she has already deducted points from your house, and I…" he paused, but did not look away. "We have, Miss Granger, in the course of this study, treated each other like adults. I did not think you would have me change my opinion of you now."

She shook her head. Finally he turned away and took his seat.

"I am glad you are well. And while I suspect that I am doomed to disappointment on this count, I can only hope that you will one day learn your lesson before you are more seriously hurt."

He looked up, a glimmer of something crossing his face. "And that, Miss Granger, is as close to a rebuke as I have the energy to give this afternoon." She nodded.

"Was there anything else, or shall we turn to the Rollins?" he asked.

When he looked away she said, almost too softly for him to hear the words, "Thank you for sitting with me that night, Professor."

Looking at her, his eyes narrowed for a moment, and then he replied, "The Rollins, Miss Granger?" And they began their meeting.

********
Over the next week, things went back to normal. Neither Hermione nor Professor Snape had made any further mention of the night in the Forbidden Forest or its aftermath. Professor Dumbledore, however, asked her to his office one afternoon. Now that she'd had time to recover, he wanted to hear her story. ("Not that he doesn't know everything already," she thought to herself.)

Mostly, he wanted to see that she was all right--make sure she wasn't overly upset by what had happened. She described the events of that night, and when she got to the part about running towards Remus, she hesitated.

"What is it, child?" Dumbledore asked.

"I…I don't know exactly what happened then," she admitted. "I remember feeling a Dementor's hand on my shoulder, and somebody calling my name. What…would you tell me what happened, Sir?"

Dumbledore looked at her over his spectacles, and then calmly replied, "You are right. A Dementor had a hand on your shoulder, and as you fell, the Death Eater who was with it grabbed onto your ankle, trying to keep you from getting away. When Remus saw you falling, he managed a Patronus--impressive, so soon after the one he had just cast, but then, we didn't hire him back as the Defense teacher for nothing." He smiled.

"As for who called your name, I believe it was Severus. He had turned back to make sure Remus had trapped the last of them in that direction, and saw you fall. He, too, sent a Patronus, and the two of them brought you to safety."

"He…he sat with me all night…in the hospital wing," she said lamely.

"Yes," said Dumbledore, not needing to ask which "he" she meant. "Indeed he did. I was sorry that I could not come to see about you myself; I was busy still, in the forest and at Hogsmeade. But Madam Pomfrey wasn't sure that she had the right medicines on hand to counter the mixture of spells the Death Eater had cast at you, and Severus volunteered to stay and help her make whatever she needed until you awoke."

"Besides," he smiled, leaning towards her, "you're his favorite student."

Hermione blushed. Not because of Dumbledore's words, but because she had realized that the voice she'd heard--Snape's voice--had called out her first name. "Hermione." She couldn't decide why that was important to her.

********
Harry noticed that Hermione was often distracted when she came to the common room at the end of the day, and worried that she might still be feeling the effects of that night, now a month behind them. Probably it was all the time she was putting in trying to finish up her experiments so that she could have a couple of weeks at the end of school to finalize her report, he thought, but he wanted to be sure. When he asked her if there was anything bothering her one night, she said that she was just tired, and headed to her room to go to bed early, glad of the fact she had a room to herself.

She couldn't tell him that for the past couple of weeks she'd found herself daydreaming about Professor Snape. Not the silly, brought-her-flowers-at-dinner-in-front-of-everyone sort of thing she used to imagine about Gilderoy Lockhart. And not that kind of daydream, she thought with a start, and flushed crimson. She just found herself wondering about him--what he'd be doing over the summer, if he really hated all of his students the way he seemed to, why Dumbledore and Remus seemed to think that he considered her his favorite student.

"I guess I am, though," she admitted to Crookshanks, who answered by inserting his head under her hand to be petted. "Not that there's much competition."

But why her? Why had he accepted her proposal, and why had he decided to treat her, as he had said, like an adult? "Because I'm smart, and he finally realized it." That's what she had always believed. But now….

She had to admit that maybe he actually did like her.

She was surprised at how much that meant to her. She wanted to believe that he enjoyed working with her, that he looked forward to their meetings, that he trusted her. More than anything, she wanted to believe that, once she had gone, he wouldn't mind her writing every once in a while to check in with him on the work they had started.

She told herself that was it--that she wanted him to like her because she wanted to work with him past her graduation. She knew that there would be other talented professors at Mywoods, but their work together was the most important thing in her life, and she hated the thought of continuing it without him entirely.

That wasn't all of it, though, if she were honest. As she'd wondered about him, she'd found herself watching him when she was sure he was too engrossed in his work to notice. Never in class--his continuous survey of the room made that impossible. But as they worked together, or as she passed through the classroom to retrieve ingredients from the storeroom, or while he read over something they were working on…she would watch him out of the corner of her eye, trying to decide why it was so important that he think of her as…special. Of course it was just that she wanted every teacher to think she was special, she told herself. But as she watched him work, followed his graceful movements as he poured the carefully measured ingredients into the cauldron, traced his steps as he crossed the room…she had realized that she was…attracted to him.

No. She refused to believe it. It was the power of suggestion, the product of her confused emotions over finding out that he had helped Remus to save her life--had sat with her all that night. That had to be it. Because there was no way she could be falling in love with…she balked at the phrase, changing it immediately. There was no way she could have a crush on…Professor Snape?!

"Ugh," she said to Crookshanks, who was now curled up on her stomach. "And Ron would never let me hear the end of it. It's crazy. Can you imagine?" The trouble was, she could. She rolled on her side (much to the cat's distress) and forced her eyes closed, determined to go to sleep immediately.

Chapter Text

She actually managed it, too. Hermione hadn't realized that she was so exhausted from the long hours she'd been working. She'd fallen asleep as soon as her eyes closed on Crookshanks, who had curled into a ball between her pillow and the edge of the bed, as always.

The next morning, she woke to the feeling of a cold, wet nose on her forehead, followed by a rough, wet lick. She slowly moved her hand out from under the pillow to poke his behind and grab his tail as he returned to his bath. He stood up, meow-ing his objection, and began to pace up and down the bed, rubbing against her whenever possible.

"You sound like Mr. Weasley's lawnmower," she mumbled, and the cat paused to purr even more loudly, pressing his head against her chin. "All right, all right, I'm getting up, you big nutty nut."

The thoughts of last night had passed, and Hermione managed to laugh at her panic in the light of morning. It was just stress, the long hours in the Potions classroom. It was--and she was quite sure of this--that she had found herself missing the nice things about having a boyfriend.

"But not the rest of it," she noted, raising an eyebrow at herself in the mirror. There were simply no boys her age she was interested in, and the only other males around were professors. "And I know Remus too well to have a crush on him, right ookie?" Crookshanks meow-ed his assent.

"It's nothing. Just me being silly because I'd like to think I'd have a date again before I'm twenty." She turned from the mirror and pulled on her robe, gathering her things for the bath.

"Besides," she added, "it's just a matter of geography. When I get to Mywoods, I'm sure there will be loads of cute, intelligent guys."

********
Having made it through a couple of weeks with no further sign of insanity, Hermione was convinced that she did not have a crush on Professor Snape. There had been that one time when she'd found herself wanting to brush a strand of hair out of his face as he was telling the class what he expected from their next essay, but she decided that was just a momentary lapse. She didn't even feel awkward at their meetings (after the first one), and they were so busy with their work that, by early April, she no longer had to reassure herself that she wasn't attracted to the Potions Master.

They had agreed to finish the trials on Imperius by the end of the month, so that Hermione would have the remaining weeks of the term to focus on completing her final report. They wouldn't have time to work on the third Curse, but she was going to include a section that pointed to work that might be done in the future. Professor Snape would read the report during the week she took her exams, and then, if he requested any revisions, she would have the following week to finish them before the end-of-year banquet.

There was no question that she would pass. She knew her work was good. She also knew that Snape thought her work was good, but was still surprised when he came into the classroom as she was working one Friday afternoon to see a smile on his face. The smile itself was surprising enough; ever since that night in the forest he had seemed exhausted. ("And it's not like he smiled often before that," she noted to herself.) Occasionally during their meetings she would look at him and think that there were more lines on his face than there had been previously. His eyes looked tired. Now, however, he looked a little like Crookshanks on the trail of some imaginary rodent beneath the bed.

"Miss Granger, how is your work going today?" he asked, coming up to stand on the opposite side of the desk.

"It's going well, Professor," she said, wondering what he was on about.

"I have good news," he said, taking his hand from behind his back to reveal a sheet of parchment. And this was the real surprise. "I wrote to a colleague of mine last month and described the work you were doing. His name is Martin Rochester, and he is…"

"…the managing editor of Ars Alchemica."

"Precisely," said Snape. "He was very interested in your project, and has suggested that, perhaps, if you were so inclined, you should submit something to him to consider for the journal."

Hermione was completely flummoxed. "For the journal? To be published? But it's…I mean…things are so preliminary, and I wouldn't be able…does he realize…"

Snape waved his hand to silence her. "He knows at what stage the work exists, and he makes no promises as to publication. But he would like to see something from you…perhaps by the end of the summer? I think that, once your report is finished, it wouldn't be too hard for you to reshape the pertinent sections into an article."

She looked at him, still in shock. "To publish?" she said faintly.

"Yes, Miss Granger, to publish." He waited, an amused look on his face.

Finally, she smiled up at him. "Thank you, Sir!"

"You are welcome, Miss Granger. But for now, I think you should attend to things in the present. Your cauldron looks to be about thirty seconds from boiling over."

He pointed at it, and, flustered, she lowered the heat and stirred the mixture.

Once it was under control again, she spoke again. He had gone into the storeroom. "Professor Snape?"

"Yes?"

"You know that I want to continue work on the Curses when I go to Mywoods."

"Yes?" he replied, coming back out.

"I was wondering…that is, I had hoped," she could not look at him, "that you wouldn't mind working on them with me…" she stopped. She couldn't believe that she had asked him.

There was silence for a moment, and then he came back to face her. "I have never found distance to be a great help in collaboration," he said slowly. "And I would not want my name to overshadow yours at any point…especially given the way most people react to my name," he added, matter-of-factly.

She looked up at him, a protest on her lips.

"But," he said, before she could speak, "I would be honored, Miss Granger, to work with you in the future." He held her gaze for a moment, and then moved back to the storeroom.

"Once you are at Mywoods," he continued, raising his voice so that she could hear him from the other room, "we will see where your work takes you. And along the way, should you ever need my help or want my opinion, I will gladly give it. Let us leave it at that, for now."

Coming back into the room, he said, and she glanced up in time to catch the gleam in his eye, "Though perhaps, Miss Granger, it will be the other way around, before too many years have passed."

********
One clear Tuesday morning in late April, the mail arrived. For the most part, it was the usual stuff: Hermione's copy of The Daily Prophet, a package for Ron containing Fred and George's latest concoction, and the newest Quidditch supplies catalog for Harry.

But there was also a letter for Hermione, and as she turned it over to open it, her eyes grew wide.

"What is it?" asked Ron, his mouth full of sausage.

"It's from Mywoods," answered Hermione, too nervous to scold him for his bad table manners. She stared at the Mywoods crest embossed in the wax.

"Well," prodded Harry, "go on then, open it!"

She ran her finger under the seal and pulled out the letter. As she skimmed it, she smiled broadly.

Seeing her reaction, Ron took it from her, glanced over it, and then stood up on the bench.

"Ron," Hermione hissed, "get down!" Harry just grinned.

"Excuse me! Excuse me everyone!"

Around the room people turned to look, some sniggering, others craning their necks to get a better view. Someone from the other end of the Gryffindor table called out, "Ron Weasley, you're an idiot!"

Ron was undaunted. "I have an announcement to make!"

"Mr. Weasley! What is the meaning of this?!" Professor McGonagall was headed down from the head table.

"Not to worry, Professor!" Ron called out to her. "It's good news!" Before she could reach him, he yelled, "Hermione's got into Mywoods!"

There were cheers all around (except from the Slytherins, who looked bored), most of Gryffindor got to their feet, and even the professors were applauding from the head table.

Professor McGonagall sighed. "Well, Mr. Weasley, at least it was good news. Five points from Gryffindor for disrupting breakfast."

As she returned to the head table, she smiled at Hermione, and Ron said, "Thanks Professor! It was worth it!"

As Harry pulled him down, Hermione just shook her head at him. But she was smiling.

********
At their meeting with Professor McGonagall that afternoon, Ralph grinned at her. "Congratulations, Hermione. You deserve it."

"Thanks," she smiled. They had remained friends after the ball, and had quickly gotten over their initial awkwardness.

"You certainly do," agreed McGonagall, as she came into the staff room. "I was almost glad Weasley did what he did, because he put us all out of our misery. We've been waiting to hear."

Hermione smiled. "I was worried…Professor, do you know if anybody else applied to Mywoods? Ron didn't think--I'm sure--that there might be somebody else in the room who didn't get accepted, or who hadn't heard yet."

Professor McGonagall put her hand on Hermione's shoulder before taking her seat. "You're sweet to think of it, dear. But no, you were the only applicant this year. I suspect that the current…" she hesitated, "troubles…may have kept some people from applying. But there are never more than two or three applicants from Hogwarts in any given year."

"Oh…I would think that more people would want to continue their education, in case they were needed."

"I think that they're probably going to go into Auror training, if anything…" added Ralph, somewhat shyly.

"Oh, Ralph!" Hermione realized what she must have sounded like. "I didn't mean…"

He smiled. "I know you didn't. But I just don't have an interest in university. It's why I did my project with Professor Lupin--so I'd get a head start on my training."

Hermione smiled at him. "I know you'll do well."

"As do I," said Professor McGonagall. "But now we need to get down to business before I have to leave to meet with Professor Dumbledore."

********
After the meeting, McGonagall had stopped Hermione for a word alone, and asked her to tea that Friday afternoon. Hermione was pleased to accept the invitation.

She had been in Professor McGonagall's office several times over the year, but usually only when she was in trouble, or in her official capacity as Head Girl. It was strange to be there as a guest. Although Hermione had been on good terms with all of her professors throughout her time at Hogwarts (except for Trelawny--and Snape, until this year, she thought to herself with a smile), in her final term she had felt like some of them were not only treating her like a grown-up, but as a friend.

Professor McGonagall brought the tea tray over to the fire, where Hermione sat in one of the two chintz-covered wing chairs placed before the grate. Though it was April, the castle was drafty, and the fire was welcome.

"So," McGonagall began, "I know that you have your term well in hand: honors project report coming along beautifully, finals a piece of cake…"

"Is that what our last Transfiguration will be?" Hermione grinned.

"I'll never tell," smiled McGonagall. "And on top of your acceptance to Mywoods--not a surprise, of course--I hear that you may be an author in the near future?"

Hermione nodded. "I'll be drafting the article over the summer--Professor Snape has agreed to take a look at it before I submit it."

"Well," beamed McGonagall, "who would have thought that the pretty girl with her hand in the air on the front row of my class seven years ago would turn out quite so well?" Hermione blushed. "I'm proud of you, my dear. And I do hope that you'll write every so often and let me know how you're doing."

"Of course I will," Hermione gladly promised. "I'm going to miss you all so very much--it'll be good to hear from you."

"It's hard to leave here," Professor McGonagall noted, and Hermione knew she spoke from experience. "I remember when I graduated…the only thing that comforted me was the thought that I could come back after two years away--to teach."

Hermione looked into the older woman's eyes. What she felt showed clearly on her face, and McGonagall smiled. "I had hoped that you would consider coming back to us after finishing your degree. I see now that I might just get my wish."

They sipped their tea in peace for a moment.

"Professor?" Hermione asked.

"Hmm?"

"I was wondering what sort of job there might be for me when I finished Mywoods. I mean, I know that it's much too soon to say, but I can't think of any professor that might be leaving in the next two years--and there are some that should never leave, in my opinion."

McGonagall smiled. "Well, it does seem like some of us will be here forever, doesn't it?" she chuckled. "No, I don't know what the next two years will bring…" she frowned, but only for a moment. "But we may have an opening in Muggle Studies about that time. Not really your specialty, though."

Hermione interrupted, "The thing is, Professor, that I'm planning to do work in more than one field--a double major in Potions and Arithmancy. I'm wondering if having a broader range of classes would hurt my chances of coming back to Hogwarts?"

"Not at all," said McGonagall. "I've told you before that diversity is for the best. Why, most of us weren't specialized at your age. It's just that we've been here so long, and you identify us completely with the subject we teach. As you know, Professor Snape is qualified to teach more than one subject." Hermione couldn't quite repress a smile. "Yes, well, perhaps the less said about that the better," McGonagall hurried on. "But I think that I can safely say that--if at all possible--there will be a place for you at Hogwarts, should you ever want to return."

********
Before they knew it, they were done. The day of the end-of-year banquet, the three friends walked the grounds together for hours, not headed anywhere. They just wanted to be together.

"I can't believe it," said Ron.

"You've said that about a hundred times this afternoon," Harry replied.

"I know, but I can't believe it."

"One-hundred-and-one," noted Hermione. Harry smiled.

"So…you promise you'll write from Romania, won't you?" Hermione asked Ron. "You won't be so busy with dragons that you forget your best friends?"

Ron grinned. "Of course not! And when I come home to visit, you'll both have to come out to the house too! Mum will love it. Besides, I'm not going to be the busy one. Both of you will still be in school." He stopped. "You're both daft, you know it?"

"We know," nodded Harry.

"Oh, Crikey!" Ron said, "I've just remembered…what time is it?"

Hermione looked at her watch. "Four thirty," she noted.

"I've got to meet Sarah! Bloody hell, she's going to kill me!" Ron exclaimed as he ran for the castle.

Hermione and Harry stood and watched him, then continued on towards the Quidditch field. "You know," Harry said, "I can't believe it either."

Hermione smiled. "Me either. You know what else I can't believe?"

He shook his head. "No, what?"

"You're going to be an Auror."

"Why can't you believe that?" he asked, a bit defensively.

"Just because…well, because to me you're just my friend Harry, and thinking of you…" she broke off as Harry laughed. "What's so funny?" she looked puzzled.

"Well, I was thinking of all the things we'd been through together. After all that, maybe being an Auror won't be scary after all."

She smiled. "Harry, are you scared?"

He shrugged. "Maybe," he said, "but it's something I need to do. You understand that," he said, pointedly.

"I do," she said.

A minute passed, and then he continued. "I mean, I've always been famous--even before I knew who my parents were, I was famous. And…well, I've never felt like I deserved it. Not really. I need to do something that…well, not that makes me famous, but something that means something. Something that's important. So no matter what people think of me, I'll know that I've done my best--and done something right, and good, and useful."

He stopped and smiled. "And besides, my being an Auror isn't half as weird as the thought that you might someday be a Hogwarts teacher."

She laughed, putting her arm around his waist; he put his around her shoulders, and they continued their walk together.

********
Gryffindor would have won the house cup regardless, but when Dumbledore announced that Hermione Granger had earned one hundred points for completing her honors project, the table let out a roar that would have made Godric himself proud.

That night in the common room, after the celebratory refreshments were cleared away and the others had gone off to bed, the seventh years--the Hogwarts graduates--couldn't seem to leave. There were hugs and tears, but there were even more jokes and stories. And in the end, they wound up sleeping in the common room, draped over chairs, curled up on the floor, talking until they dropped off, one by one…not wanting to say goodbye until they had to.

Colin Creevey had offered to take their picture, and Hermione's copy sat on her desk at her parents' home where she could see it as she worked on her article--all ten of them, waving and laughing together. Beside it was another. She had asked Colin if he would mind taking it for her, and he had been only too happy. She picked it up from her desk, looking at the faces on either side of hers--her best friends, smiling back at her.

********
Later that summer, Severus Snape sat in his office, sipping tea and thanking the Gods that there was still more than a month before school started again. There had been no further developments, since that night in March, but the strain of waiting was getting to him. He sat down his cup, rubbed his eyes, and turned to his mail. Along with the professional correspondence and the memo regarding the school's defenses for the upcoming year from Professor Sprout ("All that woman ever does is write memos," he grumbled), there were two parchment tubes. One he recognized as the facsimile scroll he'd requested from the Ministry's research library in London. The other…he picked it up from his desk and opened it. Inside was a roll of parchment, and a note. He opened the latter and read:

Dear Professor Snape,

Enclosed, please find the draft of my article--on time, as requested. Thanks for your help, and I look forward to your comments, as always.

Sincerely,
H.

He unrolled the scroll and began reading. As he finished the introduction and moved on to her discussion of the Cruciatus curse, he admitted to himself that he missed her.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Severus Snape completed his suggestions to Hermione Granger regarding the revision of her manuscript for Ars Alchemica. There weren't many, he noted, but she would expect him to be thorough, and he certainly didn't have to worry about hurting her feelings with his honest criticism of the few points he felt she needed to clarify. That was only one of the things he missed about her. He had always insisted (to himself; everybody else took it as a given) that he worked best--really, that he only ever worked--alone. It was still true, since his work with the Granger girl had been on her project, and not his own.

But he missed their talks: her insightful discussion, the gleam in her eye as she made the mental connection she'd been working towards, her clever remarks…even her teasing comments about his class. She had only made one or two, and only at the very end of the year, but when she had noted to him that she had been glad to see that even he wasn't impressed with Draco Malfoy turning Pansy Parkinson's cauldron into an impromptu fireball (she had just broken up with him) in the middle of class, he couldn't help but smile.

Sometimes--though he told himself that these moments were rare, that they were born out of the tension that filled his sleep with dark visions and his silent hours at the cauldron with nagging voices speaking only doubt--sometimes, he missed the simple fact of her presence in the workroom. The knowledge that she would at some point during the evening come to him with a question, or a request for something from the storeroom. The thought that she would, as she left for the night, turn back and wave: "Goodnight, Professor."

The memory that, as she waved, she would smile.

"Ludicrous," he said out loud, as he turned back to his letter to her. He remembered it because it was so unusual--people never smiled at him, unless they were up to something. And he wasn't sure why she would. That was it. That was all it was. Curiosity.

Snape looked over the letter, signed his name with an insistence that made the tip of his quill creak out a complaint, and sealed it closed.

The owl was there before he could look up. "There you are, my friend," he said, stroking a finger over the spot of white feathers on the bird's ruff. "You always know when you are needed." He tied the note to the bird's leg, then held out his hand. The owl hooted an acknowledgement, stepped onto his master's forearm, and stretched his wings slightly as Snape took him to the open window.

"You might stay for a minute," Snape said, looking the bird in the eye. "She seems to take it personally when you don't." A soft hoot, a gentle nip at the finger that stroked his head, and he was gone.

********
Hermione sat at her desk, working on an Arithmancy assignment. She had taken a flat within walking distance of the college; the thought of returning to dormitory life had made the expense worth it. She lived in the converted top floor of a three-story Victorian townhouse, owned by a retired professor from the college, Hazel Bedford. Professor Bedford had announced, when Hermione came to apply for the flat, that she would tolerate no noise, no guests, no late hours, and no pets. Hermione's heart had sunk--the flat had seemed so perfect, so close to school--until she described Crookshanks to the older woman. She had eyed the girl for a minute, then crossed to her mantelpiece and took down a photograph. Showing it to Hermione, she had asked, "does your little one look something like this?" The photograph was of a cat that could have been Crookshanks's sibling, except that she had died forty-five years ago. "She was my companion all through school," Hazel had said--it was "Hazel" now, and she insisted on lowering the rent by ten galleons a month. "I got her when I started Beauxbatons, and she was a dear friend. Died young, sadly enough--at the age of nineteen."

Hermione leaned down to stroke Crookshanks's head; he had come to the leg of her chair and let out a plaintive cry. "What is it, whiny butt?" she asked, letting her hand run along the cat's back and down his tail, pulling the end through her fingers. He turned to make another pass. "I'm trying to do some work here." He meowed again in protest, but before Hermione could answer there was a noise at her window and a large, black owl settled himself on the corner of her desk.

"Well, Mordred," she raised her eyebrow, "have you brought Professor Snape's reply?" A hoot. "And would you like to stay for a minute this time?" A ruffle of feathers. She smiled. "Snape's been teaching you something about manners, I see. Don't worry; the irony isn't lost on me." She knew better than to offer him anything. Of course, considering some of Snape's correspondents, she understood why the owl would refuse.

"All right," she said, "hang on a minute and I'll give you something to take back with you." She opened the letter, skimmed the note at the top, and reached for a piece of parchment. After signing her name to the acknowledgment--she would write more once she had time to look over his comments--she tied it to the owl's leg. "Tell your master that you behaved yourself admirably," she commented. Mordred turned to the window, spread his wings, and was off without comment.

********
By the end of September, Hermione had settled into a new routine at Mywoods, and though she still found herself thinking about Hogwarts from time to time, she was happy. Her article was almost ready to be mailed to Martin Rochester, the managing editor of Ars Alchemica, and though she knew there was a good chance it wouldn't be accepted (the work was still very much in progress, and she was, after all, only a first-year university student; even though he was Snape's acquaintance, it was a long-shot), she was pleased with it. Her classes for the term were going well: she had Arithmancy, Potions, History of Magic (and without Professor Binns, it was actually interesting), Herbology, Charms, and an elective of Muggle Literature. She had looked forward to the literature class regardless of the particular subject matter, but was thrilled when she saw that the Professor--Anne Harwood--had chosen to focus on British Novels of the Nineteenth Century. Hermione's favorite authors came from that period, and though she had taken Muggle Studies at Hogwarts, fewer students here raised an eyebrow if you admitted to being truly interested in the topic.

Best of all, Hermione had made a close friend on the very first day of class. Almost late for their Herbology lesson, she and Greg had literally smashed into each other just outside the door. Books and parchment went flying, but instead of being angry, Hermione had found herself laughing with Greg and trying to sneak quietly in at the back of the greenhouse before Professor Thorne had come to their names on the roster.

From then on, she and Greg had been inseparable--to the point that Greg's partner, Bill, complained that he was jealous. Greg and Bill had graduated from Hogwarts the year before Hermione had arrived, and knew the Weasley family by way of the older brothers. (At the mention of Percy, Bill had exclaimed, "What a pain in the ass he was. You dated his brother? And here I thought you had some taste." The last was added with a wink.) They had both found jobs in London, saving money for Greg to go back to school. Once he had his degree in Herbology, Greg wanted to work for the Ministry. Bill was happy with his career in graphic design, and proudly told anybody who would listen, "I'm pleased as punch to put my sweetheart through school!"

Bill, it turned out, was mad for Muggle popular culture. He subscribed to the local Muggle paper, followed a Muggle football team ("Just for the outfits, darling," he told Hermione), and absolutely adored Muggle movies. For his birthday, Greg had bought him a DVD player, and most Friday nights found the trio curled up on the guys' sofa watching a double feature. Everything took longer because, at the end of each film, Bill had to flip back through for the "crystal clear freeze frame-able moments." ("Gone with the Wind is long enough, love, without you adding another thirty minutes of Clark Gable stills at the end," Greg had said, getting up to open another bottle of wine.)

Hermione managed to find plenty of time for her work on the Cruciatus curse; it was an important priority, and not only because it could help in any future fight against Voldemort. She knew that Professor Snape had turned his attention back to Imperius, both because their work in the spring had been so promising and because he had hit a stumbling block in his attempt to perfect the cure for lycanthropy. He had told her that he would wait a while and come back to it with some objective distance; he had even written her once to ask what she thought of the possible use of mandrake root--something he had earlier rejected in a different combination.

She had been thrilled, and Mordred had to wait (impatiently) an entire hour before her response was ready. She received regular letters from Professors McGonagall and Vector, and an occasional note from Professor Sprout, but she hadn't expected Professor Snape to write to her unless it was with a response to something she had asked him. The thought that he wanted her input--that he saw her not only as a student, but also…maybe, possibly…as a peer…. She had smiled for days.

Yes, it promised to be a very good year.

********
"Ah, Severus. Please--have a seat." Headmaster Dumbledore motioned towards the chair opposite his desk. Snape bristled at the warm greeting; he had heard enough rumors in the past week to know that this would not be a friendly chat. He expected the call at any time, and the mark on his arm seemed to burn already, if only slightly, underneath his skin. Soon it would pain him in earnest, and then…then they would see if everything they had been working towards would succeed…or fail.

"I assume, since you're here, that you haven't been called yet?" Dumbledore asked. Snape nodded. "Severus, I know you're anxious…" he stopped as Snape shot him a look.

"Headmaster, if you know that, you will understand that I am in no mood for pleasantries. What have you heard?"

Dumbledore continued, respecting his wishes. "It's not good, Severus. Sirius sent an owl to me today that confirms what my contacts at the Ministry told us a week ago: Voldemort and his followers are going to make their move sooner, rather than later."

"Was he…" Snape managed to repress a scowl at the reference to Sirius Black, "any more specific than that?"

"I'm afraid not," answered Dumbledore. "My best guess," he continued, and Snape raised an eyebrow slightly--Dumbledore's best guess was a formidable thing, "is that they will move before the year is out."

"And the target? Still the Ministry headquarters in London?"

"By all accounts, that will be their main goal. I have my suspicions that they will also strike at the Auror training facility outside of Glasgow."

Snape's brow raised in earnest. "Why Glasgow? If they're striking in London already, why would…" Suddenly, it was clear. "Potter," Snape growled. "They're going after Potter."

Chapter Text

"Oh, come on, Hermione--don't you think he's cute?" Greg elbowed her as they found a spot at their favorite lunchtime hangout. It was a crisp November day, and the warmth of the small sandwich shop was welcome. "I mean, he's no Ken Branagh, but still…and I think he likes you…" Greg waggled his eyebrows at her and grinned broadly.

"Oh, for Pete's sake!" She rolled her eyes. "I've told you before. I'm not interested in Russell. He's very nice, and I enjoy studying Arithmancy with him, but he's not my type. Period. So don't you encourage him," she added, pointing a finger at her friend.

"Fine, fine. So then, if Russell of the deep blue eyes and bulging biceps isn't your type, dear…what is?" Greg leaned closer.

Hermione was saved from answering immediately by the arrival of the waitress. When her eyes lingered in Greg's gaze for a moment longer than necessary as she took his order, he cranked up the dimples. When the waitress was gone, Hermione noted, "I see you're not sticking to your type today."

Greg patted her cheek. "Of course not, love. Not when they're so much fun to toy with. Besides, I made her day!" Hermione shook her head. "And you're not off the hook yet. Spill. What kind of man curls your toes, after all?"

Hermione remained resolutely silent.

"Ok, then, let's go about this a different way," he said. "Tell me about the men in your past, and I'll see if there's a pattern." Again, Hermione rolled her eyes. "No, I'm serious. We've told you everything--well, right, not everything..."

Hermione shot him a look. "Thank goodness…"

"'Quid pro quo, Clarice,'" Greg said, falling into a bad impression of Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, one of Bill's favorites ("He's just so sexy," Bill would croon).

Hermione sighed. "Ok, ok. Well, it's just that there's not much to know. I haven't been holding back on you…you probably know it all already…"

"So tell me again," Greg prodded

She glanced at him, and then focused on her sandwich. "Well, I guess Viktor was the first," she started slowly. "I sort of went out with him just to get at Ron, but I really did like him. He was quiet, serious…"

"…with a beautifully toned athletic body…" Greg interrupted.

Hermione snorted. "Am I telling this, or are you?"

Greg raised a hand. "My apologies, madam, pray continue."

"Viktor was…well, despite his 'Quidditch celebrity' status, he was down to earth. He didn't like all of the stuff that came with fame. He just wanted to play--and he was dedicated to his schoolwork. We got along great, there." She paused. "He was the first guy other than my father to tell me I was pretty," she admitted with a shy smile.

"You're gorgeous," Greg interjected.

"Thanks." Hermione blushed a little. "Viktor was great, but there was just too much dividing us: distance, busy schedules…ancestry…" she faltered.

Greg shot back, "Are you telling me that he broke up with you because…"

"No, no, no," Hermione countered quickly. "Viktor didn't care who my parents were, or whether my family had ever produced a witch or wizard before. But being from Durmstrang--and having the parents he has--meant that it was just one more thing that stood between us."

She paused, and Greg said, "Sorry about that."

"Yeah, but what are you going to do?" Hermione shrugged. "Anyway, Viktor seemed to understand why I worked so hard. But I think the thing that stood between us the most was that, as hard as he worked at school, he really did want a career as a Quidditch player before he turned to something more lasting--and he could have been such an asset to the Ministry. He was so smart…" She paused again. "I guess it wouldn't have worked out. And now I wonder if I was really in love with him, or just flattered that somebody was interested in me."

"Sometimes tough to tell," Greg agreed. "So what about Ron? He was next, right?"

"Right," Hermione said. "I think I did really love Ron. We were so connected through Harry, and by everything we'd been through together. The problem was, I didn't love him enough. And Ron didn't understand me. Not really. He loved me, but he wanted me to be different. Probably he wanted me to be more like his mom and sister--strong witches who were also good wife material. I didn't want that, and he couldn't understand what I wanted."

"So you don't want a family?" Greg asked.

After a long pause, Hermione said, "I don't think I do. I know that's not what people expect me to say, but I…I mean, I thought about it growing up. I read all the novels with the happy endings. But at this point, I have so many things that I want to do--so many things I couldn't do, or at least, couldn't do as well, with kids…. Maybe it's selfish of me, but no, I don't think I want that."

Greg took her hand. "It's perfectly fine, love. It's not that you're selfish, or juvenile, or a misfit. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. It's that you know what you do want, and you're smart enough to have it. You're smart enough not to have kids because people tell you that you should want them. And did I mention you're beautiful?" Hermione smiled.

He continued, "Now, I do know better than to think that you don't want a man in the picture at all. So back to my original question. I believe there's one other suitor in your past?"

"Ralph Innes. He was a Ravenclaw Prefect. But we only had one date," Hermione quickly added. "He was nice, good-looking, intelligent. I told Harry once that he didn't seem organized enough." Greg chuckled. "But I think it was more that he…well, that's not right. He did have goals; he was planning to become an Auror. He's in training now in London. I don't know…he seemed too…too much like every other guy."

"Ah, so now we're on to something," Greg beamed. "You don't like the pretty boys, we know that from movie nights. You prefer men who are at least a few years older…wait a minute. Tell me you're not holding out for a professor." Hermione blanched. "Ah, that's it, isn't it!" Greg laughed. "It's…wait a minute…it's not O'Brien or…wait…maybe it is! It's Grant, isn't it? Edward Grant, your Potions Master?"

At words "Potions Master," Hermione's eyes flew wide. Greg laughed out loud. "No wonder you're working so hard on your own project. You want to get in good with the Potions Master!"

Hermione frowned at him. "Greg, I am most definitely not interested in Professor Grant."

********
Luckily, Greg let the subject go (and hadn't told Bill about his Potions Master crack--Bill would have driven it into the ground). Hermione knew that he had only been joking, lightening the mood after her serious talk about the men in her life. But he had come a little too close for comfort.

Hermione often thought of Snape as she worked on Cruciatus. That she could understand; they'd worked closely on the preliminary experiments, and she would of course wonder what he'd have to say about her efforts now. She refrained from writing him more than once or twice a month, since she knew he was busy--with school, and with whatever ongoing plans Dumbledore had for him in the defense against Voldemort. She tried not to think about the danger he might be in, spying against Death Eaters as he must still be doing. But between work and worry, she still couldn't account for all of her thoughts about him.

She missed him. Still understandable, she told herself, because they had spent so much time together her last year at school--but why did he come to mind when she tried to explain to Greg and Bill why she wasn't interested in Russell Meredith? Why did she think of him any time the conversation turned to men? And with Greg and Bill around, that was a daily topic. They both wanted to see her with somebody nice. They adored her, and criticized the straight men of Mywoods for not doing the same.

Hermione told herself that she was too smart--intimidatingly smart--and that was the reason that Mywoods men didn't ask her out. Besides, she didn't have time. But…Snape…had never minded that she was smart….

"He was your teacher, Granger!" she said out loud, and rolled roughly over to her other side. Crookshanks, in his customary place between the pillow and the edge of the bed, sighed.

********
Dear Professor Snape--

Things are well here. I hope that the school year is going smoothly at Hogwarts, and that everyone is safe.

Thanks for your answer regarding the lace-wings. I'm going to try them in the next solution, and will let you know what I find.

And I agree with you on the basilisk toenail in the beetle solution--too harsh. If you have time, let me know what you decide to try instead.

I'll send this now, since Mordred is waiting.

Sincerely,
H.

Her letters were always brief, always focused on business. She never wrote to him with the sorts of things she put in her letters to McGonagall. But then, she wouldn't. Of course, Professor McGonagall was all too happy to read the news from Miss Granger to the other professors in the staff room. Snape had smiled to himself at the general response to Hermione's note that she loved all of her classes, but Potions most of all. And he suspected McGonagall had edited out something about Binns in Hermione's descriptions of her professors.

He had just picked up his quill to write an answer about the substitution he had made to the solution in question when the door to his office opened, revealing Professor Dumbledore. He was, of course, the only person at Hogwarts who would (or could) enter Snape's office without knocking first.

"Headmaster. Please, come in," Snape said, and motioned to the only other chair in the room.

"Thank you, Severus," replied Dumbledore. "But I'm only here for a moment. I have reason to believe that…the move we've been waiting for will be coming in the next two weeks--maybe in the next week." There was silence for a moment. Dumbledore continued, "Should we be worried that they haven't contacted you yet?"

The Headmaster didn't say what was on both their minds: that there was a chance Voldemort didn't trust Snape any longer. Since the night of the Death Eater raid at Hogsmeade in March, Snape hadn't been called--and that was longer than he'd ever been left to his own devices.

"They will call," Snape said, biting off the words. "Regardless of the Dark Lord's…faith…in me, or lack thereof, he will call. I am, after all, close to you, and he will want to see what I will tell him of your preparations, of what you know…whether he believes me or not."

Snape knew that Voldemort would most likely cast Cruciatus on him in an effort to weed out truth from lie. His mind flickered to…and then he had control of his thoughts again.

Dumbledore studied the face of the Potions Master. He knew of the torture, of the nights Severus spent wracked with pain, physical as well as mental, never telling anybody. He decided not to breach that barrier.

"Severus," he said instead, "you will let me know what I can do for you."

"Of course, Headmaster," Severus replied, not looking into the kindly face. "And I expect that Voldemort will call me to his side at the last minute. His attempt to keep me in the dark…" his eyebrow twitched at the ironic turn of phrase, "may well give us a hint as to when he will move."

"And then we will move as well," Dumbledore assented, and left Snape sitting alone in the cold office.

Chapter Text

Hermione sat at the breakfast table with Hazel, sipping her tea and looking through her mail. A few university notices; a note from Professor O'Brien about the History of Magic tutorial he'd asked her to lead, helping some of the other students review for the final exam; a letter from Professor McGonagall--but before she could open this, she saw a familiar scrawl on the last envelope.

It was a letter from Harry.

She tore it open. Harry had been so busy in his Auror training that he rarely wrote. Not that she was any better. She quickly scanned the two pages and then returned to read them through more carefully.

Dear Hermione,

How are you? Things are fine here, but I miss you and Ron. I know you're well--I could tell from your last letter that you're enjoying classes there even more than you enjoyed them at Hogwarts--and that's saying something, isn't it.

Have you heard from Ron recently? He writes less often than you, but Ginny and Mrs. Weasley tell me in their letters that he's doing fine. (Fred and George seem to be making a go of their new business, by the way. If you want to order anything, you should write them at The Burrow. Mrs. Weasley complains that they're still living there, but we all know that she doesn't mind at all. Percy's moved to London for his job.) Anyway, I got a note from him only once since training started, and it was mostly about Charlie and dragons--and a mention of Bill, who came round to visit once shortly after Ron got out there. But he seemed…I dunno…he seemed different. Anyway, I don't mean to worry you. I'm sure he'll sort out whatever it is. Maybe he's just homesick

Speaking of, I sure miss Hogwarts more than I thought I would. I mean, I knew I would miss it, and I knew I would miss the two of you, but…it's so strange not being there. I think about what they must be doing every once in a while, like keeping the calendar in my head. What are you doing for Christmas? I don't want to go to the Dursleys' (not that I'm invited), natch, so I thought I might come to see you for part of the break--I've got about a week. Let me know. I've been invited to the Weasleys' for the actual day, etc. But I'd like to see you too.

Right, so Auror training is brilliant, and fun--but don't tell anybody I said so. We're supposed to be serious. Glasgow is beautiful, and though I'd still rather have gone to London for training, I think Dumbledore was right to ask me to go here instead. There are rumors that something's going on, but they don't tell us anything. If you and Ron were here, we'd figure it out for ourselves!

Better go,
All my love,
Harry

Hermione smiled. While she was a little concerned about Ron, based on what Harry had written, she agreed that he'd sort it out. And Harry was well and happy, and that made her happy too.

"Here we go, dear," Hazel announced, "more toast. And do you need another spot of tea to warm your cup?"

Hermione shook her head, "No thanks. I just got a letter from Harry--he's doing fine."

"Oh, that's good to hear," said Hazel. "You should have him round to visit sometime. I'd love to meet him."

"Actually," teased Hermione, "he mentioned Christmas, and I was wondering if you'd allow me to have a guest, just this once. I'll go home for a few days right at the holidays, but I'll be staying here through most of the break, and I wanted to invite Harry to come for a bit."

"That would be lovely!" said Hazel.

Hermione smiled. It was going to be a Happy Christmas indeed.

********
Harry was due in the next day. Hermione had come back from her parents' house on the 27th, and was spending a belated Christmas with Bill and Greg. She'd bought Greg a copy of Jane Eyre, so that he wouldn't keep borrowing hers, and found a "Kiss the Cook" apron for Bill. They had bought her a box of gorgeous linen parchment and some beautiful sapphire blue ink. "For all those love letters you write," teased Bill, as Greg kissed her on the cheek.

As they took their places in front of the television for the double feature of It's a Wonderful Life and White Christmas, there was a knock at the door.

"Who on earth could that be," asked Bill, setting down his martini and going to the door. He was still wearing the apron. Greg and Hermione turned their heads to look as he opened the door to reveal a slender, handsome man. "Why, hello, Mister Naughty and Nice…" Bill began, but Hermione jumped to her feet and interrupted him.

"Remus! Gods, what are you doing here?" When she saw his face, she froze in her tracks. "What's wrong?" she asked, suddenly fearful.

"If I could come in for a moment…" Remus began, and Bill waved him into the room. Greg had come around the sofa as well, a look of concern on his face. "Perhaps we could go somewhere to talk?" Remus asked Hermione.

She glanced at Greg. "Unless it's…a secret, Remus, Greg and Bill can hear. They're good friends."

"All right, then," Remus said, as Greg motioned him to a chair by the fire and Bill took his cloak. "I'm afraid I must skip the introductions and tell you why I've come. I can't stay long; I'm needed back at Hogwarts."

Greg and Bill stood near the door as Hermione sat down on the sofa. "It's bad, isn't it?" she asked, her voice shaking.

"Yes," answered Remus. "But not as bad as it could be."

********
"Was she all right?" Minerva met Remus in the entry hall. It was clear she'd waited up for him.

"She took it better than I expected. Is there news on Harry yet?"

"He's fine," McGonagall assured him. "Sirius sent an owl to say so, and is staying in Glasgow to keep an eye on him."

Remus sighed in relief. "And Snape?" he asked, feeling less sure of the answer.

"He is…resting in his own rooms. We asked him to stay in the hospital wing so that Poppy could watch over him, but…"

"He would refuse, the stubborn old bat." But there was no malice in his tone, only concern.

As they walked towards Dumbledore's office, McGonagall concern returned to Hermione. "She had no warning, poor dear. But you told her Harry was safe?"

Remus nodded. "I told her that from all reports, he was, and that we'd owl her when we had confirmation from Sirius." He paused, unsure. "She wanted to go to him. But I convinced her not to."

Minerva sighed. "No, she'll be safest at Hazel's. I don't know for certain that she's in danger, but it's best that we not take chances."

"Agreed. And it's for the best that Ron is away in Romania just now."

McGonagall nodded.

He continued, "And have we heard any more from London?"

She shook her head. "Albus was threatening to go to the Ministry himself, earlier--Fudge is trying to cover it all up, you know."

"Gods…" muttered Remus.

McGonagall continued, "I don't know how he thinks that he can explain away that much destruction--that many deaths…" she faltered.

Remus put an arm around her shoulders. "It'll be all right. We'll make sure of it."

She looked up at him and nodded as they arrived at the door.

********
Hermione--

Remus told me about his visit with you. I know that you are worried, but it will be best for you to stay at school. We are watching over Harry, and will let you know if anything happens.

Do be careful, dear, and if for any reason you fear for your own safety, go to Professor Bedford. She can and will protect you.

Yours truly,
Minerva McGonagall

Hermione tossed the letter onto the desk. "Right," she said to Crookshanks. "They'll let me know if something happens, but they won't tell me what's going on in the meantime." She knew she was being unfair, that they couldn't tell her, but it still made her angry to be kept in the dark.

Harry was safe, for now, but she knew that Voldemort would not give up after his raid on the Ministry's London headquarters. Would not give up on Harry.

The Ministry was trying desperately to reassure the wizarding community that everything was under control. Stories in The Daily Prophet went so far as to suggest that this action might have been the work of rogue Death Eaters, rather than Voldemort himself. ("Must have gotten that idea from the report they covered up about the attempt to kidnap Harry last year," Hermione noted with a scowl.)

It wasn't the end of the bad news, though. And they didn't have to wait for Voldemort to make his next move. While Cornelius Fudge might try to spin the situation into something manageable, most people were starting to believe that there was more going on than he was saying. And he couldn't hide the number of deaths, or the names of the dead, missing, and wounded that ran in the Prophet two days after the raid.

Seamus Finnegan was dead.

Hermione couldn't believe it. Sitting at the breakfast table with Hazel bustling around making tea, she read the name three times before it sank in. "Oh Gods," she had said, too stunned to cry, and Hazel simply sat with her and held her hand.

At the funeral, Hermione sat with Harry in between Dean and Neville, her head bowed. She had yet to cry; she wasn't sad, she was in shock. She was angry. Scared to death, and angry. She took hold of Harry's hand halfway through the service and didn't let it go until they left the church.

"Hermione, are you all right?" Harry asked when he saw her face.

She looked up at him. "It's not right, Harry. It's just not right."

He nodded. "But it's more than Seamus, isn't it?"

She looked away.

Harry touched her arm. "Hermione, tell me what's wrong."

Tears welled in her eyes as she said, "I…I feel horrible…but…I keep thinking…" She turned away from him, and softly finished, "I'm just thankful that it wasn't you."

He turned her to him and hugged her then, and she buried her face his shoulder.

********
"All right, love?" asked Bill, as he entered with the groceries. Hermione nodded weakly, and Greg got up to help Bill with the bags. It had been three weeks since the funeral, and school was back in session. Hermione was moving through her days like a sleepwalker, not registering most of what was going on around her.

Greg and Bill were worried. They'd never seen her like this, and they didn't know what to do. She spent most of her evenings at their house, and they encouraged it. At least that way they knew she was eating. Meanwhile, her parents had written; they had heard something of what had happened from Neville's grandmother, and had asked Hermione to come home. She wouldn't even read their letter, and Greg had written what he hoped was a comforting response.

Greg brought her some tea. "Here, have a cuppa. Guaranteed to make you feel better." Hermione took the mug without comment.

As the couple started to make dinner, there was a rustling at the window. When they didn't respond, Hermione slowly turned to look. She started. As if waking up from a deep sleep, she moved to let in the owl who was hovering outside.

The large black owl with the white spot on its ruff flew in and settled on the arm of the sofa. Hermione quickly took the note from his leg and opened it, not noticing that Greg had poked his head around the corner to see what the noise had been.

"Bloody heck, that's a scary looking owl," he said, but Hermione did not respond. She stroked Mordred's head as she read the letter.

Dear Miss Granger,

Since I haven't heard from you recently, I can only assume that the beginning of the term finds you as busy as I am. I hope that your experiments are proceeding apace; in light of recent events, any progress we make may be of help.

I wished also to offer my condolences for your loss. I know that you were friends with Mr. Finnigan at Hogwarts, and that you mourn for him now. Perhaps you will forgive a callous man for offering some well-intentioned advice: when the pain and fear are too much to bear, work has always helped me to recover my equilibrium.

But then, I'm sure Ron Weasley would tell you that you have always been more balanced than me.

Sincerely,
Prof. Severus Snape

As she read, Hermione sunk to the edge of the sofa. When she finished, she slid to the floor, pulled her knees to her chest, and began to cry. Mordred fluttered down to her shoulder and huddled against her neck. Greg went back to the kitchen, knowing now that she would be all right.

Chapter Text

Later, when Greg returned to the living room, Hermione started to talk and didn't stop for half an hour. She told him stories about Seamus, about all of them at Hogwarts. She told him how worried she was that Harry would be killed. And she told him, finally, about Professor Snape. Before this, she had only ever said that he was her Potions Master, that she had worked with him on her honors project. Now she told him that he also worked as a spy for Dumbledore, and that when his letter had arrived, she had realized that she hadn't even stopped once to wonder what had happened to him at the time of the raid. Remus would have told her if he was…if he'd been hurt, but when she read his note, which was both familiar in its measured language and more caring than she would have expected, she felt guilty, and was relieved that he was all right.

She knew that there was more than he was saying. That he had, most likely, been hurt at the hands of the Death Eaters, that he had been in danger during the attacks, possibly from both sides, and that he would not have admitted to anyone what he had gone through.

She also knew that he would have known that Harry was in danger. Like Remus and McGonagall, he hadn't warned her.

She pushed all of those thoughts out of her mind over the next few weeks and concentrated on getting back to work. Snape was right; her work was important. And regardless of her jumbled feelings over the awful events over the holiday break, that was something she could do, something she could hold onto, something that could make her forget, for a while, the fear and doubt and anger that threatened to eat her alive.

********
For the spring term, she had Arithmancy, Potions, and Herbology (with Greg) again, all counting towards her double major, and Professor Harwood's students had convinced her to do another semester on the Victorian novel, for which Hermione had gladly signed up as her elective. She also had Transfiguration and her second required semester of History of Magic.

Shortly after the start of the semester, she had received a letter from Ars Alchemica. It wasn't exactly a rejection, but they also didn't promise they'd ever run the article. She decided to let them keep it for a while and see what happened, rather than requesting they return it and withdrawing her submission.

She had also resumed her correspondence with Professor Snape a week or so after receiving his letter. She had made no mention of recent events, and neither did he.

Hermione had settled into her comfortable routine again, feeling almost normal, when she received a letter from Harry saying that Ron was coming for a visit, and could she come to Glasgow the weekend after next to see them both?

She was a bit anxious. Neither of them had heard from Ron since before Christmas-he'd chosen to stay in Romania for the holiday (and the funeral, added Hermione), though Charlie had made it home. When she'd asked Harry about him, Harry said he still wasn't sure what was going on with Ron.

Harry and Ron met her at the train station, and the three friends embraced warmly. Hermione kissed them both on the cheek, and noticed that Ron's eyes seemed…distant. That was the only word she could come up with. They didn't leave her time to sort it out, though, and bundled her into a cab with them to return to Harry's flat.

The evening went smoothly, as they told stories and joked with each other. It wasn't quite like old times, and none of them wanted to be the first to mention Seamus's death. But it was good.

After dinner, as they sat sipping mulled cider out of over-sized mugs, Ron said, "So I guess you'd both like to know why I wanted to see you." It wasn't a question.

Harry replied, after casting a glance at Hermione, "Yeah…I mean, it seemed like you had something you wanted to tell us. What is it?"

Ron didn't answer immediately, and Hermione offered, "Is something wrong, Ron?"

He flinched. "Nothing's wrong. Or rather, it has been wrong, but I've sorted out what to do about it." He looked from one to the other. "I'm going into Auror training. I'm moving to London, and I'll start next week."

Hermione and Harry were stunned. Harry spoke first. "That's great, Ron, but…when did you decide this? I thought you didn't want to be an Auror."

Ron looked at his friend. "I didn't want to be an Auror, Harry, because you were going to be one. I wanted to do something different; I wanted to be somebody other than 'Harry Potter's best friend.'"

Harry didn't know what to say.

Ron swallowed, then continued. "I don't mean to hurt your feelings, Harry, but…well, Hermione knew exactly what she wanted to do, and her work is important. And you were going to be an Auror, and everybody assumed that 'the boy who lived' would be the best Auror there was. And so I decided that I'd go away, do something that I liked, something neither of you were going to do. I wanted to be…different. Important."

After a moment, Hermione said, "Ron, you were always important." But she knew what he meant, and as he looked her in the eye, she faltered. "You were. You were important to me," she quietly insisted.

Ron smiled at her. "I know. And thank you. It's not really to do with either of you--you never made me feel badly about myself. Or…well…not very often, at least."

Harry smiled, thinking of the Triwizard Tournament, when Ron had turned against him, and of Ron's more recent spats with Hermione.

Ron continued, "It's more about how everybody else sees me--my family, even. Of course, going to work with Charlie didn't solve that."

He took a sip and said, "But now that…" He stopped, cleared his throat. "Now the Ministry needs help to rebuild. They lost a lot of…good people in that raid, and they need help. This is something important. This is something I can do. I know I can. I can be good at it." He stopped, his emotion getting the better of him.

"We know you can Ron. You'll be the best," Hermione said gently.

"The very best," added Harry.

Chapter Text

Hermione was staying at Mywoods over the summer. She wanted to finish her required coursework so as to leave room for other things in her second year, and to keep working on the Cruciatus curse. Ron and Harry were both in training, and though they wanted to try to find time for a visit, it looked like it was going to be impossible for all of them to be in the same place at the same time.

Meanwhile, Professor McGonagall had invited her to stay for a week at Hogwarts. Hermione was both excited and nervous. She longed to see all of her old professors, but Hogwarts wouldn't be the same. So much had happened…

She wiped away her momentary sadness with thoughts of treacle fudge at Hagrid's, tea with Minerva (she had almost gotten used to calling her Head of House by her first name), chocolate by the fire with Remus, and…Snape. A lot had happened there, too--the time apart, his work…. She hadn't seen him for a year--longer by the time she would arrive later that summer. While they had exchanged letters regularly, there hadn't been any further mention about working together, and the notes remained solely about business--except for the one he'd sent after the funeral, and she hadn't responded in kind, mostly because she didn't know what to say. He seemed a figment of her imagination, an image, an impression flitting through her memory. She wondered how different the real Snape was from the one she so often imagined. But she wanted to see him, whether things had changed or not.

She would go to Hogwarts.

********
"Have you heard from Hermione Granger recently, Minerva?" asked Madam Pomfrey.

The two women sat in the staff room, seeking some company against the pervading quiet of the halls. Most of the professors--even those who didn't live at Hogwarts year round--were staying this summer, so as to be prepared if Voldemort made another move. It was only a matter of time, after all. And there was comfort in waiting for it together.

"Why, didn't I tell you? She's going to pay us a visit after the end of her summer term," Minerva smiled.

Poppy was thrilled. "Oh, good! Will she be staying long?"

McGonagall nodded. "She'll be staying a week."

Poppy smiled. "Oh, it'll be good to see her. Of all the students who left us that year, she's the only one who's managed to stay in touch. And she always was such a lovely girl."

Minerva gave her a look. "You didn't think so when she wound up in the hospital wing with cat fur on her face, Poppy." Both of them laughed at the memory.

"It's a shame that Professors Lupin and Vector won't be here then, what with their work taking them to London; she was a favorite with both of them, I know," Pomfrey added. She paused, thinking of another professor who favored Hermione, and asked, "Have you seen Professor Snape today? He said he would try to stop by and go over some of the stores with me. I want to be ready, in case…" The old nurse stopped.

McGonagall answered, "Of course, Poppy. I'm sure you'll be more than ready, if ever there is need. And no, I haven't seen Severus today. He must be working on something. Not that anybody's seen much of him this summer. He seems…well, withdrawn. Of course, some would ask how I tell the difference, but…"

"I know what you mean," nodded Madam Pomfrey. "Severus was never the most friendly man, but it's as if he never comes out of that dungeon nowadays. Frankly, I've started to worry. And I never thought I'd see the day where I'd have to worry about him. He's a good man, Minerva, though some people wouldn't believe it. He deserves better than he's had over the years."

McGonagall nodded her agreement, and the two women sat in silence, sipping their tea.

********
Hermione stood in the hallway outside the Potions classroom. She had been at Hogwarts since the previous afternoon, but Professor Snape had not come to dinner, or breakfast, or made any sign that he even knew that she was there. Professor McGonagall--Minerva--had told her that he rarely left his dungeons these days.

She took a deep breath and knocked.

Silence. Then a cold, hard voice, irritated: "Come in."

Hermione opened the door, willing herself not to be afraid. Maybe he didn't know she was there, after all. As she entered, meeting his gaze from across the room, the familiarity of the dungeon classroom struck her as nothing else in the castle had. She could see, without taking her eyes away from his, that nothing had changed.

"Ah, Miss Granger," he said, the expression on his face shifting slightly, "welcome back to Hogwarts. I trust you find everything is as you left it?" He did not smile.

Hermione felt the flicker of anger at the back of her mind, but chided herself for expecting a warm greeting from Snape. He had been her teacher, not her friend. But as he turned back to his cauldron, she had to swallow down her disappointment.

He stirred for a moment, then looked up again. "Would you like some tea? I believe this potion will be all right for a while on its own for a while." She nodded, and he gestured to the door that connected the classroom to his office. It was open, since there were no students around to intrude, and she entered ahead of him and took her usual seat.

Realizing that she hadn't actually said anything yet, she spoke. "It's good to see you, Professor. I'm glad you are well. I had heard…"

A wave of his hand cut her off. "I assure you, Miss Granger, there is no need to waste your time worrying about me."

Another flash of anger. She chose instead to say, "Yes, well, with everything that's going on, I tend to worry about everyone…" she paused, stopped herself from finishing the sentence as it had formed in her mind ("…that I care about"), "I know."

He glanced sharply at her as he put the kettle on the fire. "Yes, I can imagine that losing one of your classmates would leave you concerned indeed."

Taking his seat, he changed the subject. "I see from your last letter that you've been making good progress with your work. Has there been no further word from the journal?"

"No. I thought I might write Mr. Rochester at the end of the year to see if he's made a decision, if I haven't heard by then."

Snape nodded, "Certainly. Let me know if I can be of use to you on that front. Rochester is not the most reliable correspondent. And I meant to ask, did you read…"

Suddenly, the anger that had been threatening to surface since she had arrived at Hogwarts swept over her. The others had at least shared with her their concern, their sympathy over Seamus's death. They hadn't told her to get back to work so as not to feel anything. They had told her what they could of their own work, told her something of their own lives, their own fears.

But Snape…Snape was as unfeeling as ever. Heartless.

She felt the tears burning in her eyes--tears of anger, of grief, of worry. She stood up, suddenly, no longer seeing the room around her, but seeing Seamus lying on a London street corner…Harry's lifeless body…Snape…

"How can you sit there and offer me tea like nothing has happened?" she raged. "How dare you brush away my concern as something…some sort of…annoyance, and then pat me on the head and ask me about my work? Is that all that matters to you? Whether or not some blasted article gets published? That my work is going well, regardless of the fact that Seamus Finnigan is dead? And my best friend could be next? You…could be next?"

Her tears overwhelmed her, and she ran out into the classroom. As she crossed to the outer door, she heard his voice behind her--soft, gentle, like spun satin… "Miss Granger…" he began. She stopped, but could not look at him.

"I am…sorry…that I upset you. I had no idea that you were…. I am so used to turning to work as a way to block out my own…emotions…that I find I cannot speak of anything else these days. Of course your feelings are more important than your work. And while it should not have surprised me that you have been concerned for my well being, I…am not used to having people tell me that they are worried about me. It is easier, perhaps, not to think of it as a possibility."

She stood in silence, shaking with quiet sobs, clutching her arms around herself, still not turning towards him.

"Thank you," he said, "for worrying about me." A pause. "Miss Granger…Hermione…are you all right?"

At the sound of her name, she felt her knees give way. But he was there, his hands under her elbows, lowering her, kneeling on the floor behind her. Her head fell back onto his shoulder, she leaned against his chest, and his cheek touched hers as her tears now ran freely. She choked out her sobs as he whispered in her ear, "Shh. It will be all right. We will make sure of it. Hush now."

********
Ten minutes later, she was again seated in his office, a cup of hot tea in her hand, his handkerchief in her lap. She found it odd that she was not embarrassed. Actually, she felt better than she had in ages.

They were sitting in silence. Finally, she looked up at him, a little shyly, and said, "Thank you. I didn't mean to take everything out on you. I didn't realize that coming here would bring it all back so badly."

His eyes were kind. "I suspect," he said, and now the teacherly tone didn't grate on her at all, "that it never went away to begin with." She nodded as he continued. "The trouble with using work to block out your emotions is that it can't make them go away. Work can only delay the impact; it cannot hope to heal the wound." He looked back to the fire, and she wondered how long he had delayed the pain he kept at bay, how deep his wounds were.

She did not ask. Instead, she said, a knowing smile crossing her lips, "Professor, I meant to ask you in my last letter, but I forgot--what did you think of Mark Herring's article in the last number of Ars Alchemica?"

Snape's eyes momentarily narrowed as he met her gaze, and then the corner of his mouth twitched. "Miss Granger, I suspect you know my answer already. Mark Herring is an idiot."

********
Hermione had to repress the smile on her lips as she and Snape entered the Great Hall for dinner that evening. She knew from Minerva that some of his colleagues hadn't seen him for weeks, that he took his meals alone in his dungeon. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled as he welcomed them. "Ah, there they are. We were about to start without you. Please, Miss Granger, take a seat next to me."

As they crossed to the other side of the table, Hermione heard Madam Pomfrey whisper to Minerva McGonagall, "You should have invited her sooner, Minerva. Who knew that she was just what we needed to get Snape to the dinner table?"

Hermione was certain that Snape had heard too, even before she noticed him raise his eyebrow.

Chapter Text

"So basically you spent the last two weeks of your three-week summer break holed up in a dungeon?" Greg teased. Having visited her parents before going to Hogwarts ("It did not go well" was the only description she would give), Hermione had agreed to extend her visit at Minerva's request--and not in small part because she and Professor Snape had fallen into old working patterns again.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Yes, Greg, and we got excellent work done. I think I've solved that bit with the Hippogriff hoof now." She saw him smile, expecting her to launch into yet another description of her work, and said instead, "And besides, I could think of worse things to do than work for two weeks with Severus Snape on a promising project."

Greg lifted an eyebrow, watching her as she took a bite out of her sandwich. "Oh, indeed," he said, knowingly.

********
Having taken the remaining required sections over the summer--Astronomy and Care of Magical Creatures (luckily, the requirements allowed students to skip one subject completely, and she hadn't had to take Divination)--Hermione was facing a school year filled with classes from her major. She had taken an Advanced Charms course as an elective, as well as the second-year classes in Potions, Arithmancy, and Herbology. She then had an Advanced Seminar on the history of Arithmancy, as well as one on Herbal Potions. The spring term would be more of the same, except for the Charms.

In early October, she received word that her application for grant money from the Ministry for her work on the Cruciatus Curse had been approved. Two weeks later, Ars Alchemica had written to say that they would like to see a new draft of her article, reflecting her more recent work on the subject. Apparently the grant had worked in her favor there, as well.

Since her visit to Hogwarts, she had written to Snape more frequently. While he rarely wrote to her of anything other than work, the letters felt more open, somehow, and Hermione found herself including bits from her classes and asking him about the others at Hogwarts, or how his classes were going. He assured her that nothing had changed, and that the in-class explosion tally was already up to nineteen.

Neither of them wrote anything about Voldemort.

Hermione had told Greg about falling apart in Snape's office. She had thought that he would tell her that she was mad, but he had said, "It makes sense, Hermione. This is the man you credit with near omniscience, after all. He makes you feel safe. And he couldn't do anything about this. The thought of him not being safe may be worse to you than knowing Harry and Ron are in danger. It's not the way things are supposed to be. And at the same time you're realizing he's vulnerable, just the same as you are, he's acting like nothing's happened. You felt shut out…you felt that you needed him to understand. You probably didn't realize how much until you saw him."

He was right. Just as she had needed Snape to see that she was talented, that her ideas were good, she had needed him to understand her pain. Because from what little she knew about how much he suffered, she expected him to have the answers to that, too.

"Omniscience indeed," she said to Crookshanks. "The man's brilliant, but he's only human." Crookshanks meowed in agreement, and she realized that the thought wasn't so scary after all.

********
"Besides, I think you like him," Greg said, as they continued their conversation about Snape one day in November. He had sent Hermione his suggestions on her article revision, and she had told Greg that she was a little irked that it meant so much to her that he liked her work.

She shot him a look. "I do not," she insisted, but had to look away as she said it.

He smiled broadly. "I've finally sussed it out, haven't I…you have a thing for Snape!"

She closed her eyes and wrinkled her nose, taking in a deep breath. She let it out and looked at him, her face still scrunched up. "I might…" she admitted.

Greg started laughing. "Gods, why didn't I see it before? This explains a lot."

Hermione shook her head. "Greg, please don't make a big deal out of this. It's not…it's not like I want to marry the man--and I'm sure he doesn't think anything of the sort about me. I just…think he's interesting."

"And attractive," said Greg, matter-of-factly. "You want to snog the teacher. Admit it."

Hermione looked away, refusing to answer.

********
In late November, eleven months after the London raid, Voldemort struck again. This time, he bypassed London--where the Ministry had been focusing their attentions, Greg noted grimly--and hit smaller targets around the country: Hogwarts, and the Auror training facilities in Dublin and Glasgow.

Hogwarts seemed to have been merely an afterthought. There was no damage to the school itself, though Hogsmeade had been hard hit. The main purpose of this round had been to knock out the Auror support system, leaving London isolated. In the wake of the attacks, Voldemort's supporters had begun to terrorize those who did not support the Dark Lord, focusing, for the moment, on major cities.

Harry and Ron were safe, at least for the moment, and Hermione had not recognized any of the names on the lists of the dead, missing, and wounded. She had not, however, heard from anyone at Hogwarts, so when a large barn owl arrived at Greg and Bill's window, she opened it before they even realized the bird was there.

She ripped open the note as Bill fetched the bird some water. Greg asked, "What is it?" fearing the worst from the intent look on her face.

As she skimmed the page, her jaw clenched, and then relaxed. She closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. "It's from Remus. He's writing to say that everyone is safe at Hogwarts. Nobody was hurt."

"That's a relief," said Greg.

Bill nodded. "I'm just worried that they're going to get it into their head to hit Mywoods one of these days."

Hermione shook her head. "I don't think so. I don't think they'll want to spread themselves that wide--not right now, at least. They hit Hogwarts because Dumbledore is there."

"And they hit Glasgow again because Harry is there?" Greg asked gently. Hermione nodded.

********
The next morning, Hermione woke to the sound of owl wings. She was instantly alert, and at the sight of Mordred outside her window, a bolt of relief shot through her stomach. Remus had told her that everybody was safe, but she knew that Snape wouldn't necessarily let anybody know everything that had happened to him--if he had been in contact with the Death Eaters that night.

She opened the window and the bird came to rest on the edge of her desk. She took the envelope from his leg and he gave her a look before lifting off again. She was too intent on the note to scold him for his bad manners.

Dear Miss Granger,

Though I suspect that one of your other correspondents will have written to let you know that Hogwarts has made it through this latest attack unscathed, I wanted to write myself to assure you that all was well. I know that you worry.

Sincerely,
Prof. Severus Snape

From anybody else, the letter would have seemed cold. Any other reader would have wondered why Snape bothered to write at all. But Hermione smiled, and read the letter again before putting it safely into her desk drawer with the others.

********
"Back so soon, my pet?" Snape said with a smirk as Mordred sailed into the classroom and came to rest on his shoulder. "I'm sure Miss Granger will have something to say about that." The owl hooted. "Off with you then, I've work to do." Mordred nipped at his master's ear before floating into the office, headed for the hidden corridor to Snape's private chambers. The owl chose to stay there instead of in the owlery. It was one of the many things Snape liked about his feathered familiar.

He had not been called before these latest attacks, and that left him more anxious than he had been though all the months of waiting. There was a good chance that Voldemort no longer trusted him. That could mean that he was no longer useful….

Faced with the knowledge that his days might finally be numbered, he had been surprised to find that one of his first thoughts--once he was safely back in his dungeons the night of the attack and had a chance to think--was how glad he was that Mywoods had not been targeted.

His second thought had been that he should write to her, to let her know that he was all right. He had known that she…liked him (he still hesitated on the word), that she enjoyed working with him and wanted to continue their work in the future. That she respected his opinion, valued his guidance. What he had not known, until she was there, screaming at him in his office, sobbing out her fears in his classroom--what he had not known until he had held her to him, whispering the words of comfort he had heard other professors use, having none of his own--was how passionate she was. Not about her work, not this time. The sheer depth of her emotion floored him. And part of it, he had realized, was for him.

He had dealt with her automatically (he couldn't credit himself with having the instinct), trying to speak calmly at first, to keep her from leaving--to keep her from hating him. Supporting her as she collapsed, though he feared she must feel the awkwardness in the movement, the inclination to draw back to a safe distance. Saying the words he thought she would want to hear, though he could not believe them himself. He couldn't remember how they'd gotten back to his office.

He was glad she had stayed that afternoon. He was also glad that she had changed the subject so readily, and that, over the remainder of her stay, they had gone back to work. That was familiar; that was a connection he understood.

As for the rest… The realization that there was something else--something he couldn't articulate, didn't want to examine too closely--had shocked him. He shoved it aside. There was no room for anything else. Not now.

********
People prepared for Christmas cautiously. Decorations were sparse, and no one felt like shopping for gifts or singing carols. Bill, however, was playing David Bowie's "Peace on Earth" duet with Bing Crosby repeatedly, as if holding on to it for dear life. "At least he has the sense to use headphones, most of the time," said Greg, trying to make light of things.

It was as though the wizarding community was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hermione knew that Remus thought the continuing terrorism against "mudbloods" was a sign that Voldemort was not going to hibernate for another year this time. And Minerva's invitation to spend Christmas at Hogwarts did nothing to alleviate her fears. She suspected that both of her professors knew more than they were telling. On top of everything else, Snape had been oddly quiet. Remus hadn't said much about the attempted raid at Hogwarts--nobody had--but from the way he spoke about Snape, it was clear that there was reason for her to be worried.

On Christmas Eve, Voldemort struck again.

On Christmas Day, he was defeated.

The strike against the Ministry headquarters in London began just before midnight. As the battle waged throughout the night, a smaller force had attempted to infiltrate the Auror training facility in Glasgow.

Voldemort had been with the latter group; the attack in London had been a diversion. Voldemort wanted Harry dead, once and for all--as a symbol, if nothing else. But the boy who lived still lived, and the Dark Lord was no more.

Hermione had Apparated to Glasgow the moment she'd heard the news. No one seemed to know if Harry was injured, or dying--no one could tell her exactly what had happened. She had thought about going to Hogwarts instead (her thoughts had flickered to Snape), but she knew that she had to see for herself that Harry was safe.

The guards hadn't wanted to let her in, but Remus was there, and had brought her through the barricades, brought her to Harry's room where he lay sleeping, pale and weak, the scar on his forehead a vicious shade of crimson.

Sirius was there as well, and he crossed to her, Remus taking the chair he vacated at Harry's side.

"He'll be all right," Sirius said, putting his arm around her.

She nodded, her eyes dry. "What happened?" she finally managed.

"We…we don't know…" Sirius answered. "Nobody is sure."

"Hermione?" a voice came from the doorway. She turned to see Ron, a gash on his forearm oozing with blood, a scrape on his cheek, his robes singed.

She ran to him, fell into his arms, and, crying now, said, "He's going to be all right. He's going to be all right."

Chapter Text

The true story of Voldemort's defeat never made it into The Daily Prophet. Most likely, even Cornelius Fudge didn't know the whole of it. It had taken Harry three weeks to remember it at all, and that was with the help of Albus Dumbledore. After a few days in Glasgow, Dumbledore had brought Harry back to Hogwarts. And a few days after that, with Death Eaters confessing as much as they could to avoid Azkaban, Sirius was cleared and Harry went to live with him in a house near Hogsmeade, still under the watchful eye of the Headmaster. Ron was staying with them as well, despite the protests of Mrs. Weasley, who wanted all of her children where she could see them.

Hermione had returned to Mywoods and her last semester of classes. It seemed…completely unimportant, but Minerva reminded her that there was still work to do, routing out what remained of Voldemort's forces and working to ensure that another Dark Lord would not rise to take his place. The next generation must be taught, she had written, and for Hermione to help in all of these tasks, she must finish her degree.

Hermione knew that the older woman was right, but studying seemed far removed from anything useful. She threw herself into her work on Cruciatus. Her article had been accepted, and would run in the fall issue. She had, with the help of her grant money, refined the potion for the treatment of the Curse and had been in contact with the Ministry concerning official tests and possible production. The potion to protect against Cruciatus was still eluding her, but she continued to make progress, however slowly.

At the end of January, she received a note from Sirius, inviting her to visit one weekend. She wrote immediately to say that she would be there on Friday; she hoped this meant that Harry had fully recovered, and had remembered his final battle with Voldemort. She had to admit she was curious.

Harry lay on the sofa, covered with a quilt, in their homey living room. (It was strange to think of "Sirius" and "homey" in the same sentence.) He still looked pale, and his scar was darker than before. Dumbledore had told him that, as it healed, it might fade away completely, but Harry wasn't sure that he wanted it to disappear. This time, he felt that he had earned his scar--that he had earned his fame, even if he still shied away from it.

After Sirius made certain that Hermione was comfortable, he left the two friends alone together. Ron had returned to his parents' home the week before, and would be back in London at the beginning of the month.

They sat gazing at each other for a minute, and then Hermione smiled. "I was worried, Harry. I'm so glad that you're all right."

He nodded. "Dumbledore says that within a week, I'll be as good as new," he told her.

"I'm glad," she said.

After a moment, she asked, "Was it awful, Harry?"

He frowned, and she quickly said, "You don't have to talk about it…" but he interrupted.

"No, I want to tell you. Ron and Sirius heard it in bits and pieces as Dumbledore helped me to remember. I want to tell it as a proper story…to get it straight in my head. To make it seem real."

He shifted a bit on the pillow, and then began. "I knew he was coming, Hermione. I knew, somehow, that Voldemort was coming for me. I just didn't know when, exactly. When we got the news that London had been hit again…then I was sure. As we prepared that night, I felt it…I felt him. It was like he was…calling me. I slipped out of the barracks, past the front gates, and Apparated…I knew that I would go right to him. I was outside the city, out in the open…the stars were so bright…. Then he was there, behind me. I turned, but couldn't see anything. He…he laughed…he taunted me, saying that this time, I would die."

Hermione was silent, listening intently, as Harry continued. "I knew what I was going to do. Knew what I had to do." He paused, a crease furrowing his brow. "Voldemort wouldn't make the same mistake again--wouldn't let me connect our wands. I expected him to curse me immediately with Avada Kadavra, but then, in the last moment, I realized that he would want to get my wand away from me first." Harry took a deep breath. "As he cried out, 'Expelliarmus,' I…I cursed him. He didn't expect me to be able to use the killing curse. He wouldn't have expected me to actually use it, even if he thought I could. I…I almost couldn't do it." He looked at Hermione. "He deserved to die…for everything…for my parents…and I almost couldn't do it." He faltered, tears forming in his eyes.

Hermione moved to kneel beside him, and took his hand in hers. "But you did," she said quietly.

Harry nodded. "I did. But it didn't kill him. He fell back, stunned, and when his spell hit me, my wand flew out of my hand. I thought of calling it back to me with Accio, but he was ready then…. I…I just knew…and I cursed him again. I shouted it, pointing at him. And this time, it…instead of my wand, it shot out of the scar on my forehead. There was a brilliant green light, a scream…and then blackness. That's all I remember. I still can't remember what happened next. I just remember waking up back in my bed with you and Ron there, and Sirius and Remus. And Sirius said that Voldemort was dead."

Hermione smiled, wiping the tears from his cheek. "You did it Harry. You did it." Harry looked away. She added, softly, "I'm proud of you Harry. But more than that, I'm grateful that you're alive." Harry nodded.

As Hermione returned to her seat, Sirius came in with a restorative tea for Harry and a cup for her as well. She looked up, a questioning look on her face. "It can't hurt, now, can it?" he said to her, placing a hand on her head.

"No," she smiled up at him, "it can't hurt."

********
When he returned to Hogwarts, Snape learned that he had missed Hermione's visit. It was just as well; he knew he was unfit for company, and had been since Voldemort's death. He retreated back into the dungeons, and the only time anybody saw him was when he surfaced to teach class. He hadn't eaten in the Great Hall since the beginning of the term, and the Slytherin Prefects were left, for the most part, to run the house on their own.

In class, he yelled less often than usual, choosing instead to quietly deduct points for the slightest offense. Students found his lessons more demanding, his lectures more taxing. They couldn't put their finger on exactly what was different, but Elise Renaldi, a fifth-year Gryffindor, told Professor McGonagall that it was as if his angry temper was gone and in its place was only coldness.

To the other professors, when they saw him, he seemed--not distracted, but as if he were focusing intently on something outside Hogwarts as he moved through his day. McGonagall knew that he was working within the Death Eaters, even now, to convince those who had been coerced into service to come to the Ministry for help and protection against those who were out to avenge the Dark Lord's death on those they perceived as traitors to the cause. Of course, Snape was just such a traitor, and every time he went out--whether it was to contact those who might be saved or to help trap those who would be punished--there was a chance that he would not return.

McGonagall spoke to Remus about him just after Valentine's Day. Snape had returned to meals in the Great Hall, at Dumbledore's insistence, and even the flurry of pink hadn't elicited a response from him.

"Remus, I'm worried about him. Is there nothing we can do?" she asked, as Professor Lupin handed her a mug of hot chocolate.

"He has to handle this in his own way, Minerva," Remus told her. "He's never wanted our help before, and I'm sure he doesn't want it now."

Minerva sighed. "Albus says the same thing. If it were only a matter of his moodiness, I might be able to let go of it. There's no real trouble with his classes, though the students don't quite know what to make of him. But it's the danger. He is in real danger, Remus, and with the Ministry trying to seal this up so neatly, telling everyone that it's all over, he's had less and less support--fewer people who understand the importance of what he's doing. No, I'm worried about him."

Remus nodded. "I try to keep an eye on him…watch for signs that…. He seems to be handling it, Minerva, even if it's not in the way we would wish for him, or even understand." He paused, then added, "Hermione still hears from him, if not very often; she wrote to me this week and mentioned his last letter. She wanted to know if he was all right."

"Well, at least that's something," Minerva replied. "At least he's saying something to somebody."

********
Hermione could only imagine what Snape must be faced with, now that Voldemort was gone. It probably didn't help that Harry's name was routinely emblazoned on the front page of the Prophet even now, three months after the fact.

She continued to write to him, sometimes receiving brief responses to her queries, but more often than not hearing nothing in return. She told him of her progress, about classes, about the novels that she was reading. She never mentioned her worries, her fear for him. She knew instinctively that if she did, he might not answer her again. She toyed with the idea of going to visit Hogwarts…but wasn't at all sure that he would want to see her.

She was at her desk one morning, going over some notes from her independent study in Potions (the department was letting her have some academic credit for her work on Cruciatus in her last semester), when Mordred flew in through the open window. Since her visit the past summer, the owl had been downright affectionate--or at least as affectionate as any owl belonging to Snape would be. This time, he even accepted the bit of toast she offered him.

When she turned her attention to the letter, she realized that it was longer than usual. Her eyes moved across the page.

Dear Miss Granger,

My apologies for being such a poor correspondent this term. I have been away from Hogwarts quite often, and, when I am here, my thoughts are distracted. I do not find that I have much to say that you would wish to hear, at any rate.

Thank you for worrying about me, as I know you do. Thanks also for not reminding me of that fact. Your letters have been a dose of a pleasant reality, for which I am grateful. I have especially enjoyed your descriptions of your leisure reading--though, despite your impassioned recommendation of Mrs. Gaskell's work, I'm quite sure she would not be to my tastes. My preferences run towards the Hardy end of the Nineteenth-Century spectrum, and not only in terms of chronology. And though I am not surprised that the Victorian novel suits you, I must admit that I prefer that century's poetry.

I can see the surprised look on your face now. Don't be shocked; I assure you my preference for verse has nothing to do with romantic notions of love and death, but comes instead out of a practical concern for time. Verse is, with the rare Wordsworthian exception, shorter. I have little time to read for pleasure, and prefer something I can carry with me in memory. Verse is also more difficult, and I find it somehow more unsettled than novels--the Victorian novelists were, after all, determined to have everything pinned down, even when they knew they couldn't succeed.

I say all of this because I have had fragments of a poem floating through my thoughts since…Christmas, and thought that you might have read widely enough to appreciate the reference. Though it would, perhaps, serve me better to ponder Tennyson's "Ulysses," I find myself drawn inexorably to Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I suppose I cannot let go of it because I fear that, even now, some rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. Others may say that this thing is over, neatly ended with the success of your friend, Mr. Potter. They are wrong to think so.

You will forgive me, I think, for my lack of optimism, where others would not. So instead of tossing this message aside and writing you a short note in answer to your question about the asphodel/hibiscus mixture (you are correct in your assumption, by the way), I will send this.

Make of it--make of me--what you will, but know that I am well, in body and mind, if not in spirit.

Sincerely,
Severus Snape

Hermione read through it again. It was the longest thing he'd ever sent her, aside from his comments on the first draft of her article over a year ago. It was the most…personal thing that she'd ever received from him. She had noticed the change in his signature immediately.

She knew the references, though Yeats was early twentieth century, not Victorian (and she did have some quibbles with his characterization of the Victorian novelists--aside from wondering what he meant by his comment about their suitability to her character, given his later remark about their pinning things down in vain). Though he did not give any details, she knew well enough that he was worried about those the Dark Lord had left behind. She assumed that was what had kept him silent and occupied since Voldemort's defeat. She was worried about him--not because of his mood, or his choice of poems. She worried because his life might still be in danger.

She could not bear to lose him.

********
Snape sat in the semi-darkness of his office. He had been attempting to grade papers, but could not fix his attention on second-year narrations of the value of unicorn horn in basic potion making. He had extinguished the candles, and sat facing the glowing embers of his fading fire.

He did not hear Dumbledore enter, or take the chair opposite. He flinched at the Headmaster's first words, "Severus, I'm worried about you," but did not look at him.

Dumbledore waited. Finally, Snape turned to meet his gaze. "I am fine, Headmaster."

Dumbledore sighed. "You are not fine. You are losing yourself in this mess, Severus, and you have worked too long and hard to keep yourself to give up now." Snape shifted in his seat, looking back at the fire. Dumbledore continued, "I know that the work you must do is difficult, that it casts the entire world in shadows for you. You do it without reward or recognition from those who owe you more than they know."

Snape snorted derisively. "If you think that I am holed up in this dungeon waiting for recognition…" he began, but Dumbledore stopped him with a wave of his hand.

"Of course not. I know better than that. Though I suspect it bothers you more than you let on. Cornelius Fudge is an idiot." Snape raised an eyebrow at that.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Severus, I know that you don't want to hear this, but there are people that care about you. You are not alone, as much as you might feel that way. I will do anything that I can to help--you know that."

Snape sighed, uncomfortable. "Yes, Headmaster, of course. I am…sorry…for my attitude of late…I…"

"There is no need to apologize. I am not here to chide you for your bad manners or ask you to present a cheery face to the world," Dumbledore told him, a twinkle playing about his kindly eyes.

Snape looked up at him, his mouth curving into a wry smile. The two men regarded each other for a moment, and then Dumbledore moved towards the door.

"We will see you at dinner, I assume?" the Headmaster asked.

"Of course," replied Snape.

Dumbledore opened the door and paused, noting, "By the way, there's been a bit of news. Professor Vector will be leaving at the end of the term; she's going to work for the Ministry full time."

"Well, at least there will be one sane person there," snarled Snape.

"Yes, yes, quite right," chuckled Dumbledore. "Minerva has recommended that we ask Hermione Granger to come to Hogwarts as her replacement."

He shut the door behind him, not waiting to see the look of surprise on Snape's face, but knowing that it was there all the same.

********
By the end of the following week, Snape seemed more like himself than he had all term. His work--in and out of school--was going well. He was adjusting to the thought that Voldemort was finally gone. He'd even yelled at the Hufflepuff first years, causing one of them to run from the room in tears. And then he'd deducted five points for the boy's leaving class without permission. It felt good to be getting back to normal.

As the last class of the day emptied out into the hallway, Snape gathered the homework papers and prepared to move to his office. How he hated grading. His reprieve arrived in the form of a tawny barn owl, who swooped into the classroom and settled on his podium. He recognized it as Hazel Bedford's owl, and his chest tightened. He couldn't remember everything he'd written in his last letter to Miss Granger, composed late one night after several glasses of wine and a dose of asphodel and wormwood that was taking longer than expected to achieve the desired effect, but he knew there had been verse…. Gods, what must she think of him now?

Dear Professor,

I was glad to receive your last letter, and to hear that you are doing as well as can be expected in the face of…things I can only imagine.

I do recognize the Yeats (and the Tennyson, which I agree is not exactly what you were looking for), and though it seems suitable enough, I thought you might try the passage near the end of section 96 of Tennyson's In Memoriam, instead. (If you stick with Yeats, then you might find some solace in the thought that, perhaps, we are beginning a cycle upward, rather than another downward.) I know you will say that I am too optimistic by half, but Professor Harwood had mentioned the Tennyson to me at lunch last week, and it came to my mind as I read your letter.

You probably already know my biggest news--probably knew before I did. Prof. Dumbledore has written to ask me to come to Hogwarts as the new Arithmancy professor next year, and I have accepted. I'm to meet with the board in London in June, but Minerva assures me that it is merely a formality. I'm thrilled, of course, and more than a little nervous.

I would like it very much if you would consider working with me again, once I've arrived. I know you are busy, and will understand if you decline--for any reason. But I cannot seem to work out the final details of the--well, I will leave that for when I see you.

I look forward to seeing you this summer, if everything goes as expected,
Sincerely,
H.

Snape ran his hand across the page, smiled, and then stood and reached for a book that he had left on top of a cabinet a few days before. He flipped through the pages, and his eyes found what he was seeking. While he knew poem generally, he had not been certain as to the specific passage. As he glanced over the section she had named, he knew the stanzas she meant for him to read immediately.

Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gathered strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the specters of the mind
And laid them; thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own,
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone.

"Too optimistic by half, indeed," he said, with a gleam in his eye, and slipped her letter between the pages to mark his place before he closed the book and set it gently on his desk.

Chapter Text

Hermione Granger Apparated onto the platform at Hogsmeade. It seemed appropriate; this was where she arrived her first year of school, getting off the Hogwarts Express with Ron and Harry and the others. Behind her lay the wizarding town itself, almost fully recovered from the damage it had suffered that winter; down that way was the path to the boats that carried the first years across the lake for their first view of the castle; this way was the road the coaches took up to the front gates.

She remembered as though it were yesterday the first time that she had seen Hogwarts--something from a storybook, twinkling against the night. It had been like coming home--as though a part of her had been missing, and she hadn't even known it. Here she had met the most important people in her life--her two best friends, the professors that helped her channel her energy and focus her intellect, the mentors who showed her the life she wanted.

The life she had chosen. Hermione Granger had come back to Hogwarts.

She would be teaching Arithmancy; her own teacher, Professor Vector, was leaving the school to work at the Ministry offices in London full time. All of her other professors remained. It would be familiar, and yet completely different at the same time. She was no longer their student, and so much had happened in the two years that she had been at Mywoods University…

A booming voice interrupted her reverie. "There ya are, 'Mione! I meant teh be 'ere sooner, but I had teh take care of somethin' for Dumbledore."

Hermione beamed, then ran to Hagrid and hugged him. "Oh, Hagrid, it's so good to see you!" Letting go, she smiled up at him.

He had a tear in his eye, and wiped it away as he said, "I 'member the first time you an' 'arry an' Ron got 'ere. Jus' like ol' times, it is…almost."

She patted his arm and changed the subject. Her own emotions would be barely under the surface for a while, and she didn't want to deal with a weeping Hagrid just then. "Hagrid, you didn't have to come; I could have managed on my own."

"Nonsense!" he bellowed. "'Course I had teh. The new teacher shouldn't have teh carry her own bags!" She smiled.

As Hagrid gathered her things and Hermione picked up Crookshanks's cage, someone said her name from the opposite end of the platform.

She turned to see Harry and Sirius approaching. She sat Crookshanks back down (he gave a meow of protest) and went to greet them.

As she hugged Harry, Hagrid said to Sirius, "Yeh know, it really is just like ol' times, after all…" He wiped away another tear as Sirius patted him on the back.

********
It was late July, and Harry had come down from Glasgow, where he was training to be an Auror, to be there when Hermione arrived. He could only stay the night before he had to get back, and Hermione happily agreed to come to the house he shared with Sirius for dinner.

She and Hagrid walked up to the castle together, and Hagrid refused to let her levitate her bags ("I'm the one who's teh be worryin' over you," he insisted). When they arrived in the entry hall, Hermione was a little disappointed to see that nobody was there to greet her.

"I 'spect they'll be in the staff room," Hagrid noted, "the few of 'em who stayed the summer. They gen'rally wind up there this time of the afternoon." She nodded. "Tell yeh what. Let's leave your stuff here, for the House-Elves to take up, and we'll go and find 'em."

She agreed, and they headed up to the staff room. As they reached the corridor, Hermione could tell that Hagrid was trying his best not to smile. "Hagrid, what's going on?"

"Nothin', nothin' 'tall…" he replied, giving her an innocent look. Hermione decided not to press him.

Hagrid opened the staff room door for her. At first she didn't see anybody there, but as she entered, there was a POOF and Professor Flitwick removed his Veiling Charm to reveal himself and Professors McGonagall, Dumbledore, Lupin, and Sprout. Madam Hooch was there as well, and Madam Pomfrey. "Surprise!" they all cheered. As she greeted them all, she heard Dumbledore say to Lupin, "I've always wanted to do that!" And when Minerva McGonagall couldn't resist giving her a hug, over her shoulder Hermione saw Snape, seated calmly behind them in a chair by the fire, one eyebrow raised and a smile tugging at his lips. He nodded, and she raised her hand to wave at him, smiling back.

********
"I've put you in rooms in Gryffindor Tower," Minerva said as she led the way. "Professor Vector's quarters were in Ravenclaw, but I thought you might prefer to be in a more familiar section of the castle." Something in Hermione's face made her stop. "If you'd rather, I can of course have your things moved…"

"No, Hermione interrupted, "this will be fine. It's just a little strange, is all."

Minerva smiled as they started walking again. "I understand completely. Now, you'll be just down the way from me, so should you need anything, you know where to find me."

The entrance to Hermione's rooms was through a large painting of a cottage by the sea. The waves crashed softly against the rocky shore, and the breeze blew the grey clouds across the sky.

"The painting has no occupant, but occasionally the others will come to visit," explained Minerva. "You may, of course, reset the Locking Charm to whatever password you like. Currently, it's set for 'ginger root'--I think that's in honor of Crookshanks, in a roundabout sort of way."

The painting was large enough, and low enough to the ground (above it hung a still life of flowers and fruit, though the flies from the nearby farm scene buzzed through it regularly, and it was anything but still), that Hermione could step easily into her new sitting room. There was a small table with two chairs to the left of the door, but the room was dominated by the fireplace against the opposite wall. It was flanked by a large window on the left, and on the right--starting near the fireplace and running along the entire right wall--bookcases. There was a desk underneath the window, and the door to the bedroom was centered on the left wall. Before the fireplace was a large rug and two comfortable looking wing chairs on either side of a small table, one in a dark navy with small cream-colored checks, and one in forest green and cream stripes with a matching ottoman.

"We couldn't find two to match, but feel free to change one to match the other, or change them both if you like," McGonagall noted.

But Hermione was enchanted. "Oh, Minerva, it's wonderful!"

"I'm glad you like it, dear," McGonagall smiled. "Now come, see the other room."

They passed through the open door into the bedroom. It was slightly smaller than the front room, with a double, four-poster bed in the center of the room made up with a moss green duvet and matching drapes--Crookshanks was already sitting in the middle of it, basking in the sunlight that streamed through the window.

"Chest of drawers, closet there, another small bookcase, lavatory over there…" Minerva pointed to things as she named them. "The desk in the front room isn't very large, so you might want to move it in here under this window and have a bigger one brought in," she noted. "Though you may prefer to do most of your work in your office. It should be ready for you tomorrow morning."

"Yes, that might be a good idea…but it's perfect. Really it is."

McGonagall beamed. "I see that they've brought all of your things up already, so I'll let you have the rest of the afternoon to get unpacked." Hermione walked with her to the portrait hole. "Now, you're having dinner with Harry and Mr. Black in Hogsmeade, correct?"

"Yes."

"Then we won't expect you at dinner. But do tell Harry that he should walk you back to the castle and say hello, won't you?"

Hermione nodded. "I'll tell him," she replied.

********
With most of her things unpacked, Hermione decided that there was time to make one stop before she headed to dinner with Sirius and Harry.

As reached the dungeons, she felt her face flush. She had only exchanged one or two letters with Snape since their discussion of poetry, and she still didn't know quite what to make of the fact that he had been so open with her.

She also couldn't help thinking of the last time she had visited him in the dungeons--the feel of his cheek against hers. While at the time she had been surprised not to feel awkward, she felt awkward now, and paused for a moment to catch her breath. For so long she had told herself that he was her teacher, that they were colleagues, that…any number of excuses not to feel what she was feeling. This was, after all, Snape--the sarcastic, mean spirited, by all accounts unattractive teacher whom they'd once suspected of wanting Harry dead. After all the time they'd spent together, however, she had decided that it would be nice to count him as a friend. When returning to Hogwarts became a reality, she realized that he was not her teacher anymore--realized what that could mean. Though she remained wary of the word "love," she had to admit that she cared about him a great deal.

Of course, she told herself repeatedly, Snape would never feel the same way, so she needed to act normally. Gods, what would he do if he ever found out…

All of which made her stomach flutter as she knocked on the classroom door.

"Enter." Snape's voice had a hard edge to it, but this time she knew better than to be scared. She opened the door, smiling, and was greeted with his smile in return. "Well, Miss Granger--or should I say, Professor Granger?" he raised an eyebrow, and she smiled more broadly.

"Yes, I think 'Professor Granger' would be appropriate." She couldn't believe that she was teasing him. But he smiled again.

"I assume that Minerva has you all settled in by now?" he asked, turning back to his work.

"Yes," she answered, "I've almost finished unpacking." She had compiled a mental list of the questions she could ask, the comments she could make about work or her reading or the upcoming term, but none of those subjects seemed to fit this conversation.

He didn't seem to notice her pause as he poured another vial of liquid into the cauldron. "I wanted to thank you, Professor," his lips twitched as he emphasized the word, "for the poem you sent me in the spring." Now she really didn't know what to say. "It was, as you said, too optimistic by half, but it did convince me to re-read some Tennyson, which I have been enjoying."

"I'm glad," she said, a little lamely. Automatically she reached to hand him the container of fish scales she could see he needed; he took it as though she had never been gone. She decided to ask her real question. "Since you've had time to read Tennyson, does that mean you've had less…outside work…than you did before?"

He shot her a glance, but there was no cruelty in it. "I am still…doing work outside the school. But you are right; there is less of it now." He paused, looking her in the eye. "I will not lie to you, Miss Granger, though there are things I cannot--will not--tell you about my work. I am still in danger, so this topic of conversation requires the greatest amount of discretion."

She nodded, waiting for him to continue.

"Just before Voldemort was defeated, it became clear that he no longer trusted me. I assumed that I would be…taken care of. With his death, the immediate threat on my life was gone. I chose to continue my work…and so the danger remains. This time, however, I feel that it is more my choice than my fault that has led to it. If there is a difference.

"Dumbledore worries about me, as do some of the others. I'm sure Minerva has told you. And I have been…more reserved, more withdrawn, than usual since the start of the year, I admit, though I have gradually felt more at ease with the new…situation. My thoughts, as I believe I wrote to you, have been distracted. And because I have moved into such uncharted territory, I must depend solely on myself--more than ever before."

Hermione sat in stunned silence. She had not expected him to answer so fully.

Her surprise must have registered on her face, because Snape added, "I know that it is…unusual…for me to speak so frankly on this subject with you. But now that you are a member of the faculty, a situation might arise where it would be helpful for you to know some of what is going on. My work is not a secret--not completely. I assumed that Professor Lupin would have told you something of it already."

"He did," she admitted. "No details, and nothing much, really. I think he told me enough so that I…wouldn't worry quite so much." Another twitch of his lip. "Professor Snape?"

"Yes?"

"If there's…anything I can do to help…" Another sharp glance. "I don't mean…that is, what I mean is, if there's anything I can do to help with your classes, or your research, if you are ever gone…"

His face softened a little. "I will certainly let you know. Thank you for the offer. I believe you also had some things about which you wanted my opinion in your own work? I would be glad to assist you, of course, any time I am able."

"Thank you," she replied.

After a pause and another addition to the mixture, he looked at her again. "Martin Rochester wrote me last week with a question about a piece he was considering for the winter issue. He mentioned that you included my name in your endnotes--thanking me for my help." She nodded.

"You didn't have to do that," Snape said.

"Yes I did," Hermione answered.

Chapter Text

After Miss Granger had left for Hogsmeade (he tried not to dwell on the fact that she was going there to have dinner with two of his least favorite people), Snape considered their conversation. He hadn't intended to mention the poem, and it had been the first thing he'd done. He also hadn't intended to tell her quite so much about his efforts regarding the Death Eaters--of course, he had given her no details, nothing that McGonagall or Lupin wouldn't have told her already.

At the sight of her smile (she was usually glad to see him, and he was still amazed by that), and after her teasing remark in return for his jibe about her new title, he had seen that she immediately reverted to a quieter, more self-conscious mode. She was never fearful, but she was sometimes nervous around him, he noticed, as if never wanting to say the wrong thing. He felt like she was still waiting for him to take points from Gryffindor.

And so he had said more than he intended, hoping that she would realize that he trusted her--as much as he could allow himself to trust anyone. That she would understand that he was not simply the sequestered old bat Remus Lupin had certainly told her he was. There was…method to his madness, he thought dryly, though the other professors could not hope to understand his behavior in light of what little they knew of the situation (Dumbledore being, perhaps, the one exception). They could not understand fallen Death Eaters, for they had never truly understood Death Eaters. How could they? And indeed, he wouldn't wish that understanding on anyone. Besides, it didn't matter. He didn't care what the others thought of him. Yet it was important that Miss Granger know there was more to the situation than his normal anti-social disposition. He wasn't sure why.

No, he had not told her everything. Things had quieted down, a bit, in the past few months; his mood had lightened because of it. He knew, however, that the hardest tasks might well lie ahead, as he and those few like him (he had found, since Voldemort's death, that there were a handful of former Death Eaters working towards the same ends, and they had formed a tentative alliance) searched for the last of the Dark Lord's loyal supporters--those who would still, even though their cause had failed, fight for what they believed with their very lives.

He had received word from one of these contacts that a couple, maybe three, of the remaining fanatics had reconnected and gone underground. Moreover, the contact said that there had been a possible sighting near Edinburgh. At first, Snape's suspicions jumped to Glasgow and Harry Potter--what if they were out to finish the job Voldemort had wanted done so badly? He dismissed the thought. While Voldemort was living, Potter had been in danger. But his supporters, for the most part, had thought the vendetta against Potter was a waste of time--though they would never have admitted it aloud. No. Voldemort's leftovers would target those who had posed the real threat to their Master, aside from his Achilles's heel where the Potter boy was concerned. They would continue to target the traitors, and would go after Dumbledore. And at Hogwarts, they could find both.

********
Hermione left the castle and walked towards Hogsmeade. Once clear of the grounds, she could Apparate to Sirius's house, but she had time and the walk appealed to her. She had remembered to ask Remus to explain how Floo powder worked at Hogwarts; she had used his fireplace once in her seventh year to get to Hagrid's hut without being seen. Apparently, the faculty (and some of the staff) fireplaces were networked together, in case of emergency. Hogwarts was cut off from the outside Floo network, however, in terms of travel. Calls could be made, with permission--their intranet could be connected, for conversations only, to the outside wizarding world. When she asked if the professors conversed by way of their connected fireplaces when it wasn't an emergency, Remus had laughed. It was possible, he said, but could you imagine professors sticking their heads in the fireplace to talk with somebody that was in the same building?

Her thoughts on Hogwarts communication took her most of the way to the train station. After that, she started to see the familiar sights of Hogsmeade: The Three Broomsticks (Rosmerta was safely back at her post, thanks to Dumbledore), Honeydukes, Dervish and Banges, the Shrieking Shack. She thought of the night they'd discovered that Ron's rat, Scabbers, was actually Peter Pettigrew. At the time, she could not understand how Snape could be so…stupid, so intolerant, so angry. Funny, she didn't understand him much better now, but now she assumed that he had reasons, rather than simply writing him off as the enemy.

As she arrived at the gate, Harry opened the front door. She hurried to meet him, and he gave her a hug in greeting. Inside, Sirius was preparing dinner, and leaned through the archway that led into the kitchen to wave his hello to her. "Won't be ten minutes," he called.

Harry and Hermione took seats by the fire. "You look happy," he noted, "and flushed."

Hermione felt her cheek. "I was walking quickly; I thought I might be late."

With an odd look on his face, Harry asked, "So did you get all of your unpacking done, then?"

Hermione smiled. "Almost. I got to a stopping place and then wanted to check in with Snape, since I wasn't going to be at dinner."

The odd look turned into a smile. "Hmm. I see."

At the tone in his voice, Hermione shot him a look. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

Harry chuckled. "Only that it doesn't surprise me one bit that you have to start working the very day you arrive."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "I was not working," she said, irritated. "I was just saying hello." Harry raised an eyebrow. "And asking about work," she admitted, trying not to smile.

Sirius came out of the kitchen with a stack of plates and silverware. "If you two will set the table, we should be just about ready," he said, placing the stack on the table.

As Hermione moved to help, Harry muttered under his breath, "Uh-huh…work with Snape."

********
During dinner, Hermione kept Harry talking, wanting to know about his training, what the Ministry was saying about life after Voldemort, and about Ron and their other friends. Sirius too, she pummeled with questions, until he said, "Now Hermione, what about you? Tell us what you've been up to."

She took a breath. "Well," she began, "after graduation I went to stay with my parents. I had to meet with the Hogwarts Board of Directors in June, and stayed in Diagon Alley for a few days so I could work in the library a bit to start getting ready for classes." Harry chuckled. Hermione ignored him. "And then I knew I wanted to get in early to Hogwarts so I could be settled in before I had to start preparing in earnest. It feels a little weird, still. I keep expecting Minerva to show up and take points off for something." Sirius laughed.

"How are your folks?" Harry asked.

Hermione sighed. "They're all right. They're…well, they're not really happy with me just now. Mum had convinced herself that once I finished Mywoods--especially given…everything that happened while I was there--that I would 'see the light' and come back to the Muggle world for good. I don't know why on earth they paid for me to attend a wizard university if they wanted me to give up on it immediately afterwards."

Sirius noted, "Probably they knew that refusing you would just drive you away."

Harry asked, "So…they aren't happy about you being back at Hogwarts?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not really. At least Dad convinced Mum that this was the safest place I could be, what with Dumbledore here and everything. I tried to tell her that you'd be here too," here she looked at Sirius, "but I don't think she found that very comforting. Sorry." But Sirius only laughed and got up to clear the table.

Hermione and Harry moved back to the fire. "So Ron is ok?"

"I think so," answered Harry. "He still seems…distant. But he writes more often, and seems happier now that he's in Auror training."

"You're about done with training, aren't you?"

"Yeah," nodded Harry, "and then I'll be moved to London, probably. I don't know what Ron's going to think about that; he's still got his second year to go."

"You'll be fine. The two of you will work it out."

Harry nodded. "You're probably right. But what about the two of you?"

Hermione shrugged. "Don't know. He hasn't written me since we came to Glasgow to see if you were all right. Ginny writes me sometimes, and always gives me the latest report from him, but…who knows."

The friends sat in silence for a bit. "So…you're…all right, now?" Harry asked softly. "You're happy?" Hermione looked at him. "Well, I mean," he faltered, "I know things were rough while you were away at school…"

Hermione sighed. "You know, I have thought a lot about why Seamus's death hit me so hard. I mean, Cedric…" she faded off, and Harry nodded. She smiled softly. "Seamus wasn't the first person my age that died, but he was my housemate, my friend, even if we weren't as close as the two of you were. But it was…it was a more than that."

She shifted in her seat and Harry waited for her to continue. "Cedric died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time--he was an innocent bystander." Harry looked away, and Hermione added, "You know what I mean, Harry." Harry nodded.

She sighed. "But Seamus…Seamus chose to be in the line of fire. He chose to be an Auror. And he died for it. And you could have too--you still could." Her voice caught, but she kept speaking. "Ron could as well…. When we were at Hogwarts, we were in danger lots of times. But it was a game, you know? Even though you could have died at Voldemort's hands, it was still…it didn't seem real. Because we were here; because we were safe. That doesn't make sense…"

"No, it does," Harry said.

After a moment, Hermione continued. "You know, I chose to go to university. I chose to experiment, to learn, to develop a potion that would help people on the front lines. But in doing so…I chose not to be on the front lines." Harry looked at her intently as she tried to explain. "I felt so…useless, Harry. I did. I couldn't figure out the potion--I still haven't--and in the meantime, friends of mine, professors of mine, were getting hurt."

She looked at him with a weak smile. "At least you let me come with you when we faced danger as kids. You know?"

"I know," Harry said. "I couldn't have done without you."

Hermione nodded.

********
As she left, a couple of hours later, Harry offered to walk her home, even though it was a bit late to pay a visit. She declined; she wanted the time to think. He had told her, as he hugged her goodbye, "Your work is important, Hermione. You know that."

She knew, but sometimes it was hard to believe that the things she loved to do, sitting safely in a room somewhere, weren't simply a way to avoid the things that scared her.

"No," she said aloud, refusing to let her insecurities run away with her. Whatever her parents said, whatever she sometimes felt, what she did was important. She was important.

Chapter Text

By mid-August, Hermione felt like she actually belonged at Hogwarts again. Between planning for her classes and working with Snape on Cruciatus, she'd barely had time to think about things outside the castle walls. Though the preventative potion had been her project for the past three years, she'd realized that spring that she was pushing the boundaries of her knowledge of potion making, and needed Snape's help. She knew better than to worry that he would take over, and they had reached a tacit agreement to work as partners. He had, in turn, enlisted her aid with the cure for lycanthropy, saying that he needed a fresh perspective. She imagined that they would return to Imperius in the future as well, and liked the thought of the ongoing projects stretched out before them.

One morning, the professors were sitting down to breakfast--around a single table, as they did when there were few enough students staying for Christmas--when the mail came. Hermione greeted both Mordred (who had landed just across the table at Snape's right hand) and the owl she recognized as Hazel Bedford's--the retired professor in whose house she had rented rooms while she was at college. Hazel's letter was thick, and Hermione unfolded it to find another note inside, from Greg and Bill.

As Professor Flitwick was launching into yet another discussion with Minerva and Professor Dumbledore concerning the Board's recommendation to cut back on security now that Voldemort was gone, Hermione decided she might as well glance at her mail. She opened Hazel's letter and skimmed it quickly, smiling at the woman's sending Crookshanks a kiss, and then turned to the guys' note.

At the first line, she flushed, and re-folded the letter quickly, causing Remus, who was seated next to her, to ask her if anything was the matter. "Dear Hermione," it read, "Have you managed to snog the professor yet? It's the only reason we can think of for you to remain so quiet, and…" She hadn't read any further, and after assuring Remus that everything was fine, decided that she might pay attention to the discussion of campus safety measures after all.

********
As everyone made their way out of the Great Hall, Hermione noticed Professor Dumbledore take Snape aside, away from the others. Something was definitely going on; she had noticed the Headmaster and the Spy in more than one tête-à-tête over the past month. She wanted to ask Snape about it, but knew he wouldn't give her a straight answer.

She worried about him. She wanted to help him. But unlike Harry and Ron (she smiled to herself at the comparison), Snape didn't want her help. At least, not with this. Hermione knew that he had good reasons, but she also suspected that, even if he were able to, he wouldn't ask her to help him. That bothered her more than she liked to admit.

Minerva McGonagall interrupted her thoughts. "Hermione, would now be a good time for me to look over your class schedules with you? I have some free time."

"Of course, Minerva, that would be a great help," Hermione answered, and the two women headed for Hermione's office.

********
That afternoon was the first official teachers' meeting to prepare for the fall term. Hermione couldn't believe that the students would be arriving in just two weeks' time. She was a little early, for fear of being late, and took a chair to the side, away from the door. As the others began to file in, Remus arrived, and gave her a look. When she asked him what the look was for, he said, "Talk to me after the meeting?" She nodded, and he took a chair nearer the fire.

Professor Sprout sat on Hermione's left, patting her arm in greeting, and the other professors found places around the room. Snape entered with McGonagall, and, quickly surveying the room ("He doesn't look happy," Hermione muttered, seeing his face, and Sprout smiled behind her hand. "He's never happy about staff meetings, dear."), chose the seat on Hermione's right, bypassing an empty seat by the door.

"Is anything the matter?" Hermione asked, knowing that he would choose to ignore the serious question that lay underneath the surface of her teasing manner.

Surprisingly, he didn't. "Everything is well," he said under his breath, "for now."

She couldn't say anything further, as McGonagall was calling the meeting to order, but as she turned towards the Deputy Headmistress, Remus caught her eye. He was smiling--a knowing smile. She smiled back, knowing that she didn't get the joke.

********
Once she was seated in Remus's office, cup of hot chocolate safely in hand, Hermione asked, "So what is up with you today? You looked absolutely mischievous in the staff room. Have I done something to amuse you?"

Remus chuckled. "Not exactly. It's just…well, I've been wondering about something for a while, and today I think I figured it out." He looked at her, serious and yet friendly at the same time.

"Well?" she prompted.

"Hermione," he began, and then paused. Something passed across his face, and then he asked, "What is your relationship with Severus Snape?"

Hermione's mouth dropped open. "What…do you mean?"

"Oh, I don't mean to suggest anything untoward…" Remus paused again, "unless…. No, I only meant to ask just how close your friendship was." His eyes twinkled.

Hermione took a deep breath. "We were student and teacher, and now we are colleagues--we work well together, and he's been a great help. I…don't know that I would call us friends."

Remus did not look convinced. As a smile played across his face, Hermione started to get angry. "Why are you asking me this? What happened today…what do you think you've figured out?"

Remus smiled in earnest now. "It's simply that…in all the time that I've been here, Severus Snape has never, in any staff meeting, sat anywhere else but in that chair by the door. He comes just on time, and leaves immediately afterwards."

Hermione felt her face grow hot. "There's nothing…nothing going on between me and Professor Snape," she insisted. But she couldn't look him in the eye.

"I believe you," Remus allowed. Hermione stared at her chocolate. "Hermione, I would never have asked, except…" he trailed off, causing her to look up at him. "I consider you a friend--you know that. And more importantly, my best friend--and his godson--consider you a friend. Snape is a good man, but he can be a right bastard. If there were anything between you…well, I would worry."

Hermione looked away, still feeling his gaze on her. When she looked back, he added, "But I could be happy. For the both of you. Even if I do think that he doesn't deserve you."

Hermione stood up silently, setting her cup on his desk. Remus watched her walk to the door, and thought he'd gone too far--thought she was angry with him, that he should apologize, that he never should have said anything.

But she stopped at the door, and, without turning around, said, "If I did…feel something for Professor Snape…I am certain that he wouldn't feel the same. So…either way, you wouldn't have to worry."

After she left, Remus sat for a moment looking pensive. Then, picking up both cups to return them to the mantelpiece, he said to himself with a wry smile, "snog the teacher indeed."

Chapter Text

Before she knew it, it was September 1st, and Hermione was facing the arrival of the students of Hogwarts. Her students. Teaching Arithmancy, she would have only third years and up, and for a moment, she wished that she were facing first years. Even though she had spent two years at university, she was only a couple of years older than her oldest students; she had friends their age--for that matter, she had shared a common room with the upper-level Gryffindors she would now be teaching.

Trying to get a grip on her nerves, she had spent the morning going over her first day's lesson plans…again. She had two sections of third years on Mondays, with the Hufflepuffs and Slytherins just before lunch and the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws just after.

She had lunch with Remus (while the professors ate together for breakfast and dinner, lunch was an inherently casual affair, with people generally eating in their own quarters as they worked), which they took in Hermione's sitting room. Crookshanks had insisted on sniffing him throughout the meal--Remus had shown more patience than Hermione, who threatened to shut him in the bedroom--but when they moved to sit by the fire, Crookshanks climbed into Remus's lap and promptly fell asleep, purring loudly. "I guess you passed inspection," she noted, as Remus smiled and stroked the cat.

After he had gone, she looked over at her piles of teaching materials and decided that maybe it was a better idea to take a break from them than to work herself up any more by going over her plans one more time.

Perhaps she'd stop by the dungeons to check the stores she would need for her latest experiment, and then go for a walk on the grounds.

As they'd settled into a routine over the summer, Snape had volunteered her old workroom, so that her experiments wouldn't have to sit out unprotected once school began. He had handed her the key on a small ring, and she saw three others hanging with it. One, she knew, was the door to the classroom, and another to the storeroom. The other one…

"What's the fourth key?" she had asked, looking at it closely. It was small, and seemed fairly ancient, with a rune inscribed at the top. She didn't recognize it.

"That is the key to the special stores. I'll show you the wards as well, once you've set up your things," he had said, matter-of-factly, and returned to his cauldron.

Feeling her gaze still on him, he had looked up. "Professor Granger, you didn't think I would make you ask me for ingredients with which you've been freely working for the past three years, did you?"

She had mumbled a response and quickly gone into her workroom.

Even though she had a key, Hermione still knocked at the classroom door, letting him know that she was there. There was no answer this time, so she let herself in. She heard him moving in his office, but the door was closed, and, not wanting to interrupt, she set her things down in the workroom and returned to the storeroom to retrieve a few ingredients she would need.

"Miss Granger, is that you?" she heard his voice call out as his office door opened and closed.

"Yes, it's me," she replied, coming back into the main room.

He was wearing a light cloak. "I assumed you'd be going over your plans for class tomorrow," he noted with a hint of mockery--no, humor--in his tone.

"I've done with that for the day," she answered. "If I look at them any longer I'll just be more nervous." She moved back towards her workroom.

"If you're looking for a distraction, perhaps you would like to accompany me?" he began, and she turned to look at him, hoping that she didn't look too surprised. His lip curled slightly--amused?--as he explained, "I'm going into Hogsmeade to retrieve a few things for the first week of classes. I need the ingredients fresh." He waited, an eyebrow raised as if…in challenge?

"That would be great," she said. "I need a few things myself…" She waved her wand after shifting the vials to her left hand. "Accio cloak! Accio purse!" She locked up her workroom and they passed out of the classroom (with Snape locking all the other doors behind them) just in time for her cloak and coin purse to come flying down the hallway into her hands.

Draping the cloak about her shoulders, she turned to Snape. "Shall we?" she asked, and they set off for Hogsmeade together.

********
When they finished shopping at Dervish and Banges, their packages safely stowed in miniature form in the pockets of their cloaks, they headed back outside into the early autumn air, warmed now by the afternoon sun. It was a beautiful day, and Hermione had enjoyed the walk, talking about various articles, experiments, the Sorting Feast. Part of her couldn't believe that she was spending the afternoon with Snape, and the rest of her thought that her heart might never beat at its normal rate again.

At one point, as she examined a jar of dried eyes of newt, he had come up behind her and noted, "No, these are too old…this one is positively clouded over." She had only nodded, because the feel of his sleeve brushing her shoulder as he'd pointed to the eye in question--the sound of his voice just behind and above her ear--had left her breathless.

She was just chiding herself for behaving like a schoolgirl with a crush when he spoke again. "Would you like to stop in The Three Broomsticks for a drink, Miss Granger? I believe we have plenty of time, unless you wanted to get back to your experiment."

But he was teasing her again, and she smiled in return. "A butterbeer sounds delicious."

He held the door for her, and as she entered ahead of him, Sirius rose to greet her, not noticing her companion. As Snape came through the door, Sirius stopped, his face changing in an instant. He looked back to Hermione.

"All right, Hermione? I didn't expect to see you today."

"Fine," she answered, in what she hoped was a light tone, "just doing some shopping before the students arrive tonight."

Sirius's eyes shifted back to Snape. "Black," Snape drawled, in a softly dangerous tone. Sirius only nodded in recognition.

Then, to Hermione, Snape said, "Miss Granger, if you wish to join your…friend…" but Hermione interrupted, speaking to Sirius as though she hadn't heard Snape.

"Well, we'd better find a table. It was good to see you, Sirius."

Sirius's eyes narrowed, flickered to Snape, and then he muttered a "good-bye" and left.

Hermione waved at Rosmerta and chose a table, unfastening her cloak and draping it over the back of her chair before sitting. When she finally looked at Snape, now seated across from her, she ignored his almost-suspicious stare and said, "Do you know how long it's been since I've had a butterbeer? It must be a year. I just couldn't find any place at Mywoods that served anything as good Rosmerta's."

********
They had returned to Hogwarts in the late afternoon, and Hermione had left her new purchase in her workroom (stopping also to re-shelve the stores she had selected earlier) and headed to her rooms to write some letters and dress for dinner, leaving Snape in the dungeons alone.

He closed the classroom door behind her and went into his office, spelling the fire alight and putting the kettle on out of habit. He sat behind his desk and stared ahead, not seeing. The annoyance of running errands in Hogsmeade had turned into a day that had left him with much to think about.

He had asked her to accompany him on a whim (though he knew that she would never believe he ever acted on whims), and was surprised when she so quickly agreed. "She must truly have errands of her own," he had thought to himself. And she had chosen a few things, but nothing that couldn't have waited. The only ingredient she had purchased had been fresh salamander blood, and she could have asked him to buy that for her, if she had wanted.

When he'd leaned over to point out the poor condition of the eyes of newt (usually Dervish and Banges were much better about refreshing their stock, but he had let it go without comment), he could have sworn that he heard her hold her breath for a moment, that her face was slightly flushed even before they'd gone outside into the cooler air.

And oh, how she had smiled at him.

He had suggested The Three Broomsticks because he wasn't ready for the afternoon to end. Seeing Black, he had become unaccountably angry (well, perhaps not unaccountably, but he knew it was a more violent reaction than he'd had at other times). But when she'd dismissed the man so perfunctorily, ignoring his own snarls and insisting on a second round of butterbeer (he usually avoided butterbeer at all costs, but she had so enjoyed it)…. Their conversation on the way to Hogsmeade had been familiar, easy, two colleagues discussing work. But on the walk home, she had talked of her parents, told him about her own first day at Hogwarts, her own Sorting…spoken to him as if she considered him…what, a friend?

He was amazed. It seemed to be the only word he could find for it. And what was more amazing still was the fact that he couldn't remember the last time he had been…happy.

Not surprisingly to Snape, the emotion was short-lived. Mordred arrived with bad news from a Death Eater contact. The trail had gone cold. And he would be stuck Sorting first years and teaching idiot students, unable to help search for the foreseeable future.

********
Hermione's happiness didn't dissipate as quickly. As she headed to the Great Hall, where the other professors would form at the head table before the students arrived, she felt almost as excited as she had when she had been Sorted.

Most of the other faculty members were there already; Heads of House had to meet beforehand, she remembered. She slowed for a moment as she walked down between the student tables. Her afternoon with Snape had made her forget that they would now be at the head table, and she wasn't sure where she would be expected to sit. Usually the professors, she knew from her days as a student, sat in the same spots at every meal, but she didn't know if it was based on some sort of hierarchy, or habit, or both. She knew Hagrid would sit at the end of the table to Dumbledore's left, and there were a couple of empty seats there. Vector had sat on that side as well. But all of the teachers she spent the most time with were on the other side of the Headmaster.

At that point, Remus saw her entering, and motioned for her to come and sit next to him. She arrived at the table about the same time as Professor Sprout, who reached for the chair across the corner from him. Hermione headed for the next available seat, but Professor Sprout said, "Oh, no, dear, swap with me. Otherwise, I'll have to talk at Madam Pomfrey across your plate!"

Sitting down with Sprout on her right and Lupin around the corner on her left, Hermione was pleased not to be in the limelight. She greeted Remus and looked down the table to his left: Snape, Hooch, Flitwick, McGonagall, and Professor Dumbledore. She caught Minerva's kind look as the woman rose to leave for the entry hall, where she would greet the first years. Flitwick rose as well, to move the stool and Sorting Hat onto the dais, and Madam Hooch and Snape were watching the older students coming to take their seats.

Snape hadn't looked at her since she'd arrived, and her happiness waned just a little. When she thought to herself that he would of course be on his best intimidating behavior for the arriving students, she felt better. But there was still something in his face that told her this wasn't simply his usual dour manner. Her speculation would have to wait; the first years were nervously entering the hall. Maybe later she'd be brave enough to ask him what was bothering him.

Chapter Text

She hadn't had a chance to talk to Snape that night. Once the feast was over, the Heads of House left to meet with their Prefects and see that the new students were stowed away safely.

The next morning, she was too anxious to worry about Snape. Taking her corner seat, Remus said, "You're positively green, Hermione. Just tell yourself that it can't turn out to be as bad as you expect it to be." She nodded, though he had been joking, and reached for the toast.

********
She'd arrived in her classroom early, of course. She set her books on the desk--her office was adjacent, through a door at her right--and smoothed her skirt.

It was incredible how difficult it had been to choose what to wear (very little makeup, her hair pulled back from her face--that part was easy). At Mywoods, when she wasn't in uniform, she had been very casual: jeans, T-shirts and sweaters, an occasional skirt when she went someplace special with Greg and Bill. She'd bought several things (too many things, she told herself) as she prepared for Hogwarts, but though she'd worn pants and jeans that summer (one Saturday, Snape had raised an eyebrow to the ceiling at the Chudley Cannons T-shirt Ron had bought her for Christmas their seventh year), now she had to look professional.

She'd chosen a long, straight, black skirt in a tweed material, not too heavy, and a white starched blouse with a matching black vest and a black tie. She'd thought, in a giddy moment just after midnight, that she still had her Gryffindor tie, but had seen reason in the light of morning. Her robes allowed her freedom of movement; she'd chosen ones similar to those of Madam Hooch (and Snape, she thought with a smile, though she was sure she'd never get as much effect out of hers), as opposed to the fuller, heavier robes Minerva always wore.

She'd hesitated over her choice of shoes as well. Though she was tempted to wear her adored Doc Marten boots--the skirt was long enough that few people would notice--she decided for the regulation oxfords over her black tights instead. Maybe after a month or two, she'd be brave enough to try the boots…

As the students began to arrive, Hermione stopped thinking about her footwear and turned to the blackboard, writing her name in large letters. It was, certainly, a cheesy thing to do, but it gave her hands an occupation. (Though for a moment, she thought she'd spelled her own name wrong.)

She turned, nodding to the students in the front row (Hufflepuffs, of course; the Slytherins would congregate towards the back), and moved to the podium as the remaining students found their places.

And with that perhaps inauspicious beginning, Hermione Granger became a teacher.

********
"PEEVES!" Hermione screeched, as the poltergeist swept through her classroom, raining water everywhere. She didn't want to think where that water had come from, but couldn't repress the thought of Moaning Myrtle and the girls' restroom just down the hall.

"Come on, calm down. I know Professor Flitwick will have taught you the charm to dry up this water by now…" She managed to get her third years to help her clean up the mess, but by the time they had finished and she'd gotten them back into their seats and focused on her, the bell rang and class was over.

"Remember, your equations are due at the start of next class period," she called, as they headed out the door. She turned to gather her things with a sigh.

"Looks like you've had some excitement," Remus said from the doorway as he dodged the last exiting Ravenclaw.

"I'll say," Hermione agreed. "Peeves paid us another visit." She wasn't smiling.

"You should tell McGonagall…" he began, but she interrupted him.

"I have."

He watched her pack her bag in silence, then prodded, "so…why does Peeves have you so irritated?" She sighed, put her bag on the desk, and sat down. He moved to lean against a desk on the front row.

"It's not really Peeves," she began. "I don't know--for the most part, I really, really enjoy teaching. My students are great…for the most part. Once you get to the fifth year, they've made a choice to continue in the subject, and it's difficult enough that they have to pay attention. And the sixth and seventh years especially are just grand. The third years are fine too, since they're too scared they're going to fail their new subjects to be any bother."

"It's those fourth years that get you every time," Remus smiled.

Now she smiled back. "They fall into two categories. Either they want to show the new teacher how much they know, or they've decided that they know more than the new teacher. Either way, the new teacher gets tired of corralling them into some semblance of a discussion. I've taken to lecturing for more of the class period than I intended to, and last Wednesday I wound up assigning equations for the last half of class because I just couldn't take it anymore."

He laughed, and she joined in after a moment. "And," she added, "none of them--except for the seventh years, who are trying to finish things up until the bell rings--will stay in their seat to listen to my reminders at the end of class. What happened to waiting for the teacher's permission to charge out of the room?"

Remus grinned, "Well, I seem to remember you and your friends being fairly speedy at times."

Hermione laughed. "I know, I know." She looked up at him. "It's weird to be on this side of the desk."

********
One afternoon the following week, Remus and Hermione were grading papers in the staff room for a change of scenery. Snape had arrived after his last class of the day, escaping from the fumes of the most recent potion gone awry. Remus had levitated in a table from an unused classroom, and he and Hermione were seated at it; Snape was in a chair near the window, reading.

Though they worked, for the most part, in silence, occasionally one of the graders would have a comment for the other. At one point, Hermione muttered, "Oh, good grief." Remus looked up. She sighed, "I never should have said I would give partial credit on homework equations. Not only does it mean I can't simply check the final answer when I'm in a hurry, but some of them aren't even bothering to work to the ends of the problems."

"Let me guess, fourth years?" Remus asked.

"Got it in one. Well, Mr. Prichard," she spoke to the writer of the incomplete equations, "I guess you think that a forty-five percent is better than a zero. Won't you be surprised on your next exam."

"Arthur Prichard?" Snape's voice purred from the corner.

Hermione turned her head. "Yes," she said, "fourth-year Slytherin."

Snape scowled. "I'm amazed, Miss Granger, that he didn't finish his assignment."

Hermione expected some snide remark about Slytherin students and her own, obvious error in instruction. ("Where did that come from?" she thought with a start.)

"After all," Snape drawled, "he was working so diligently on it in my class yesterday. Shall I have a word with Mr. Prichard? Another word, that is?"

Hermione shook her head. "No, Professor, that won't be necessary. I'll be having a word with Mr. Prichard myself. It will do me no good to have the Slytherin Three decide that I've gone to their Head of House for help because I can't handle them myself."

She turned back to her parchments, and didn't see Snape's smile.

********
"Sorry I'm late," Hermione called as she burst into the Potions classroom one Monday afternoon. She breezed past the cauldron on the front table and unlocked her workroom door to retrieve her notes. As she came back out, Snape was smirking at her from his office door. "What?" she asked, a frown of confusion on her face.

"I was going to remind you that I can't take points off for your tardiness anymore, Professor Granger, but you look like you would prefer that I skip that joke." She didn't smile as she set her notes down on the table and began to flip through them forcefully. "Is…something the matter?" Snape asked, still amused.

Hermione took a deep breath. "No, not really. I'm late because I've spent the entire last class period--which I'm supposed to have free, I might add--talking to a student from my afternoon class. She is a sweet girl, and works so hard. But any time I hand back an assignment, I know that I'll have to spend at least five minutes explaining each point that I took off. She never contests her scores--and she always makes an A--but she has to understand exactly what she did wrong." She was still flipping through her notes, and didn't notice the look on Snape's face.

"And the thing is, she'd already driven me crazy in class because she would not stop raising her hand. Of course nobody else tried to answer a single question. When I'd ask something, they'd just all look at her."

She lost her train of thought as Snape began to chuckle. The sound itself was enough to flummox her--she had never heard Snape laugh anything but a cutting, derisive "ha!"--but when she'd realized what she'd said, and why he was laughing, she flushed crimson, and not out of embarrassment.

"I'm thrilled that I can offer you so much amusement, even when I'm no longer in your class," she snarled.

"My apologies, Miss Granger. It's just that…I was wondering how long it would take you to meet a student like yourself."

She rolled her eyes and sighed, refusing to look at him.

Chapter Text

When she woke, she could still feel the warmth of his chest under her cheek, the touch of his hand in her hair. She rolled away from where she lay nestled at his side, smiling, and opened her eyes--to find Crookshanks having his morning bath in the usual spot between her pillow and the edge of the bed. She sat up…looked behind her…it had been a dream.

Embarrassed, she hurried to the shower. Breakfast was certainly going to be awkward…

********
She shouldn't have worried. Just as she took her seat, the mail arrived, a little earlier than usual, and she had letters to distract her. (She most pointedly did not open the one from Greg and Bill, and glanced up at Snape, thankful for once that he still behaved at meals as though they had only just met.) She was surprised to see Mordred land on the table with a note in his beak; he always took Snape's correspondence to his private chambers, though he usually stopped in with the other owls for a bite from his Master's plate in the morning.

At the sight of the letter, Snape merely raised an eyebrow and muttered his apologies to Madam Hooch, who had been regaling him with a report on the Slytherin Quidditch team's practice the night before. He rose quickly from the table and, catching the Headmaster's eye, left with Mordred perched on his shoulder and the note in his hand.

It seemed that now she had something else to worry about.

********
It was the end of October, and the students were distracted. That Saturday was the first Quidditch match of the season--Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw. Sunday was Halloween, which would bring not only the Halloween Feast but also the first day trip to Hogsmeade. She practically had to tap-dance to keep their attention in class.

"Wouldn't that be something," she muttered to herself as her last class of the day left the room.

She needed to go to the dungeon before dinner to check on a trial she was running, and if it hadn't been for her curiosity about Snape's mail, thoughts of that morning's dream might have made her task difficult.

Snape was in a foul mood. She'd gotten used to the fact that, outside their private conversations, he behaved just as he always had. Students still drove him absolutely mad. She'd had to comfort one of her fifth years when they'd come to Arithmancy straight from a particularly trying day in Potions.

Today, it seemed, had been an unusually bad day. Snape didn't even look at her as she entered (silently) and crossed to her workroom. After half an hour had passed, she crossed again, headed to the storeroom, and he began, as though she had just arrived, "Miss Granger, I should inform you that I had a conversation with Mr. Prichard today."

She stopped and wheeled around to face him. He continued, still attending to his cauldron. "He was yet again doing his Arithmancy homework in my class, and I kept him afterwards. I deducted five points for not paying attention in class, and another five for treating his Arithmancy homework so casually. I told him that I'd heard from you that he had been turning in incomplete assignments. I assure you that it will not happen again."

"You did what?!" Hermione demanded, coming to stand on the other side of the worktable.

At her tone, Snape glared at her. "I believe I spoke quite clearly, Professor Granger." He waited for her response.

Calming herself, Hermione changed her tone. She had learned from him that a lowered voice could be twice as cutting as one raised in anger.

"I seem to remember asking you to leave the issue of Mr. Prichard's Arithmancy homework to me, Professor. Or is my recollection faulty?" She glared back.

Snape's eyes narrowed for a moment. "As soon as Mr. Prichard brought your assignment into my classroom, his Arithmancy homework was mine to deal with as I saw fit. And if I had done so after his first offense, perhaps I wouldn't have had to waste my class time on him today."

He once again returned to his work. Hermione wanted to rage at him, wanted to throw something. He knew how she felt about this, and here he was treating her like…like one of his students to be intimidated into submission.

Instead, she said in a flatly sarcastic tone, "Of course, Professor. I recognize now that your methods are clearly superior to my own. I thank you for your gracious help in the matter."

She returned to her workroom. When she left for dinner, he was already gone.

********
Hermione didn't even have the satisfaction of glaring at Snape over dinner. He wasn't there. Gods, she'd thought that she was used to him. But she had specifically asked him not to tell Arthur Prichard that she'd spoken to him about the boy's work. Prichard would be worse than ever. And he'd treated her as though she was being unreasonable. She smirked as she remembered her feelings over breakfast. What a difference a day makes.

At the same time, she was worried. The thought of breakfast reminded her of the letter he'd received. Maybe it wasn't only class that had set Snape on edge. Maybe she'd just walked in on… No. Whatever news he had received, whatever his students had blown up in class, she hadn't deserved that.

********
That night, after grading a stack of homework parchments for the next day's class (Mr. Prichard's had, of course, been incomplete), she sat with Crookshanks and a cup of tea in the green chair, enjoying the fire and her personal sliver of the night sky.

About the time she decided to go to bed, there was a fluttering at her window. Lifting Crookshanks and depositing him in the chair as she stood, she recognized Mordred. With a sigh, she went to the window and let the owl in.

Dear Miss Granger--

My apologies for my behavior this afternoon. I would have offered them in person, but I was called into Hogsmeade on business before dinner, and have only just returned.

Do not worry; all is well.

I need to speak with you tomorrow regarding the plans for this weekend. While you usually come to work after your afternoon class, I wanted to make certain that I would see you. It is important.

Sincerely,
Severus Snape

She shook her head. "So, Mordred, did he apologize only because he needs something from me?" A soft hoot. "And I guess I'm supposed to be happy that he didn't call me 'Professor Granger'?" She also resented Snape's admonishment not to worry; sometimes she felt like he was getting to know her a little too well, even as she was convinced he didn't know her at all.

"I'm not sending a reply, so you can go back to your Master." Mordred ruffled his feathers and sailed out the window.

She turned to see Crookshanks eyeing the desk where the bird had perched. "It's ok, ookie. He's a friend," she said, and then scooped up the cat and headed for bed.

Chapter Text

At breakfast, Snape had raised an eyebrow at her, which she took to mean, "Well, did you get my note?" She nodded a curt reply, and then focused her attention on Professor Sprout, who was deep in discussion with Madam Pomfrey over that weekend's Quidditch match. Apparently, the Gryffindors had found another terrific seeker, and stood a good chance of winning the cup this year.

Remus was left sitting between two people who were working very hard to pay no attention to each other. He ate his breakfast quietly, smiling to himself.

********
She opened the door to the classroom without knocking. He was at the front, writing ingredients for his first class on the blackboard. He turned to greet her, but when he saw the look on her face, his own expression hardened and he said, "Professor Granger, thank you for coming. I have a favor to ask, and though I wouldn't bother you otherwise, it does regard our mutual project."

"What do you need from me?" she asked coldly.

His chin raised a fraction and his jaw set. "I am going to be away from the school Sunday evening--perhaps all night. We had planned to begin the next practical trial tomorrow afternoon on our free period, to run over the weekend. I need to know if you can monitor the potion, or if I need to postpone the trial until next week."

"Sunday…but that's Halloween," she said, her surprise winning out over her anger. Snape wouldn't leave for Halloween unless it was important; there would be too many students getting into too much mischief, and he'd be needed. He was probably looking forward to it.

"I believe I mentioned that it was a matter of some importance, Miss Granger?" Snape scowled.

Angry again, but also worried, Hermione thought aloud, "If it's important, then it must also be dangerous. What…"

Snape cut off her question. "Miss Granger, the trial? Should I begin or not?"

"Yes, that will be fine. I am certainly capable of monitoring a potion while you're gone." She turned to leave.

"Miss Granger, wait. Please."

It was the "please" that made her stop. When she turned to look at him, he said, "This is not how I intended for this meeting to go. I am sorry for my behavior yesterday, and for my reaction now. You have every right to be angry with me. It was a long night, and it promises to be an even longer weekend." He paused, but she didn't respond. "I am sorry."

Hermione's brow was still furrowed. "I just want to help. You know that."

"You can't help me. Not in the way you mean. You know that," he replied.

"And I had every right, as you put it, to be angry about Mr. Prichard," she countered, as if she hadn't heard him. "There are times that I don't want your help, either." He nodded in response.

She turned again, but when she got to the door, she said softly, "You're forgiven."

********
Hermione was still angry with him, and frustrated. Even if he wouldn't let her help, she wished that he would confide in her, at least after the fact, and even if he had to keep some of the details secret.

She arrived the next day in time to help him start the trial. Working together was always comfortable now, and whatever tensions cropped up during the week, Friday afternoons at the worktable smoothed them out.

But she still had to bite her tongue to keep herself from asking him any questions.

Afterwards, he asked her if she would like some tea, and she accepted. They sat in his office, and she found herself thinking back to all the other times they'd sat just like this, in exactly these places.

"Miss Granger?"

She came back to the present. "I'm sorry…I was just thinking about how many times we've sat in this office together."

He smiled. "I believe that you hold the record for highest number of visits." She laughed.

"I was asking if you were going to the Quidditch match tomorrow," he explained. "I assume you are, since your house is playing."

"Yes, I'll be there. Are you going? Or will…" she trailed off, dangerously close to a question.

"Actually, yes, I will. I need the distraction. And I do so enjoy the way students stop cheering when I glare at them." The thing was, she knew he wasn't joking. At least, not completely.

After a moment, she said, "Ok, you can yell at me if you want, but I have to ask one question." He raised an eyebrow, but she persisted. "No details, just…you said you might be gone overnight. Are you going far?"

He shifted in his seat, looking unhappy, but he answered. "Not far."

She pressed her luck. "When should we worry that you're not home yet?"

An irritated sigh. "I would say that if I'm not in class on Monday, you should worry."

"Fine," she agreed.

********
Saturday dawned bright and clear, and the Great Hall was noisy with excited Quidditch fans. Hermione had decided to wear her Gryffindor tie with her black sweater and skirt (boots now included, and not only because they were warm), earning a smile from McGonagall and a scowl from Snape.

Even the professors could talk of nothing but the match. Remus looked at her as the argument between Flitwick and Hooch concerning Ravenclaw's chances grew louder. "They're as bad as the kids," he said, and she smiled at him, noticing Snape roll his eyes.

Hermione taunted Snape as they made their way down to the pitch. "I don't know why you bother. Surely glaring at students can't make up for your obvious distaste for the whole undertaking."

"Hmm. It seems that you will enjoy the event enough for the both of us," he said dryly, noting her muffler in gold and crimson stripes.

********
Snape couldn't help noticing the whispers between Professor Sprout and Madam Pomfrey as he and Hermione entered the faculty box together. Nor could he ignore them when Hagrid arrived and, taking a seat on the other side of Hermione, forced all of them to sit closer together than Snape thought he would be able to tolerate. Madam Pomfrey had actually giggled a little as they shifted down to make room.

Then again…the feel of Hermione's sleeve against his, the…electricity that ran through his body when she put a hand on his arm as she turned behind them to comment to Professor Lupin after a Gryffindor goal…yes, he could grow to like this silly game. He wondered if he could find a Slytherin scarf before their match against Gryffindor. She would probably find that amusing.

As it was, he enjoyed the match more than any he could remember. It helped that Harry Potter was no longer playing. Hagrid's bellowing when Gryffindor won caused him a moment of doubt, but when she took his arm in the midst of her victory celebration and smiled up at him ("I told you we'd win," she beamed) before releasing him to hug McGonagall, he felt that all was right with the world.

Chapter Text

By the next morning the wind had picked up, and the leaves were dancing in circles over the Hogwarts grounds. Grey clouds loomed on the far horizon, and Hermione worried that they'd have to make the return trip from Hogsmeade in the rain.

She had agreed to go along as a faculty sponsor, much to the delight of her third years (all but Slytherin). She hoped that this generation's Fred and George Weasley wouldn't choose today to make their debut.

At the same time, she was glad for the distraction. If she'd stayed at Hogwarts, she would have either spent the day in the dungeons, forcing herself not to ask any questions, or in her own office, wishing she was down in the dungeons forcing herself not to ask any questions.

As it was, she was sitting in The Three Broomsticks with Hagrid and Remus, desperately wishing that she were down in the dungeons, questions or no questions.

"This crowd can only mean Hogwarts has come to town!" Sirius Black stood in the doorway, smiling at the melee before him. Remus motioned him over and Hermione waved a greeting in reply.

As he pulled up a chair, Hagrid called out, "'nother mug o' ale, Rosemerta!"

Remus tapped him on the shoulder. "Go up and get it yourself, friend, you know you want to." Hagrid blushed, but he moved to the counter.

Sirius smiled at Hermione. "I got a note from Harry yesterday. He's all moved in, and likes his job just fine. Saw Ron on Friday, he said. Seems to be doing all right."

"That's good to hear," she smiled. "I'm afraid I haven't been a very good correspondent this term."

"Well, you've been busy, I hear," Sirius noted, shifting his gaze away from her.

Remus turned the conversation to the Quidditch match, and Sirius was saying that he wanted to come up for the game against Slytherin when Hermione noticed a cluster of students on the street outside. She knew students don't cluster unless something is going on.

As she came out of the pub door, several of the kids moved away, leaving a clear view of the pair at the center of the group: Arthur Prichard and Geoffrey Wood (cousin to Oliver), the Gryffindor seeker. Before Prichard could notice her, he shoved Wood hard enough to make him stumble back a couple of steps.

"Five points from Slytherin, Prichard," she barked. She had his attention now.

Prichard turned on his sneer. "Yeah, right. Like those will stick. All I have to do is tell Snape that Wood started it. Who's he going to believe? A student from his own house, or a Gryffindor witch who's barely out of school herself?"

Hermione took a breath, slowly, and allowed her eyebrow to arch just as slowly. She noticed a first year Slytherin back away. In her smoothest voice, she drawled, "Well, Mr. Prichard, if Professor Snape's reaction to my news that you have been turning in unacceptable homework assignments in my class all semester is any indication, I would guess that, of the two of us, he is more likely to believe me."

Prichard's sneer failed him. As she went back into the pub, she smiled.

********
That night, she went to the dungeons twice: once at nine o'clock, just as the Halloween Feast was moving from the Great Hall into the common rooms, once at midnight. After that, the potion would be all right on its own until six o'clock the next morning.

She couldn't stand to stay in the dungeons in the meantime. She couldn't stand the silence.

She slept fitfully, waking fifteen minutes before her alarm. She was in the workroom ten minutes before the hour, and though she knew Snape wasn't usually there so early, she hoped that she would find him preparing to stir the potion himself.

He wasn't there.

Hermione went to breakfast; Madam Hooch was the only one at the table. Not wanting to leave empty seats between them, she took Snape's usual place, mechanically reaching for the teapot.

She managed small talk, waiting for the others to arrive, hoping that they had news. By seven o'clock, Remus had arrived, as well as Flitwick and McGonagall, but when she asked Remus under her breath if he knew anything, he shook his head. Her heart sank.

Snape's first class was at eight o'clock. She refrained from going down to his classroom to see if he was there, but she was now officially worried. Dumbledore had never shown up at breakfast, and there had been no note in the mail. Mordred hadn't even made an appearance, as if he knew his Master wouldn't be present.

She went to her office to pass the time until her first class, but couldn't sit still. Finally, she decided that she had sufficient reason to see the Headmaster.

At the statue, she spoke the password: "Fizzy Lifting Drinks." She almost lost her nerve as she rode the staircase up, but Snape's words rang in her ears. I would say that if I'm not in class on Monday, you should worry.

She knocked on the door, and took heart at Dumbledore's cheery tone. "Do come in, Professor Granger."

She entered, and met the Headmaster's smiling eyes. "Sir, I…do you know where Professor Snape is?" she blurted out.

"Ah yes. I have been expecting you this morning. I wanted to ask if Severus had told you anything of his plans." He waited.

Hermione was stunned. If Dumbledore had to ask her for information… She swallowed. "All he said was that he wasn't going far, and that if he wasn't back by his first class, I had his permission to worry. I've been watching a potion we're working on; it will need stirring again at noon…" she trailed off, realizing that she was beginning to ramble.

"Please, sit," Dumbledore said, and motioned to a chair. "I know slightly more than you do," he began, "though not much. Severus has insisted on dealing with these matters himself--he believes me to be in danger." Hermione's eyes grew wide. "There's no reason to fear, child, while there is reason enough to worry."

The familiar endearment was a comfort, coming from Dumbledore. "So…do you know where he is? Is he all right?"

"I have an idea," Dumbledore answered. "And I believe that we shall find Severus before dinnertime." Hermione's mind raced, a thousand questions colliding in her brain. Before she could frame one of them, Dumbledore continued. "Professor Granger, I must ask you to proceed with your classes as usual. And I must ask you to be available to teach Professor Snape's final section of the day, should we need you. I believe Professor Sprout will be able to take his morning classes, as they are both first years. In the afternoon, I will send Professor Lupin to sit with the fourth years as they do some writing in class, if you will then take the third years. I believe the lesson plans will be in Severus's office--nothing you can't handle. Or you could always adjust them to something you are more interested in."

Hermione had stopped listening. At first she was distracted at the thought of four classes in one day (and three different preparations), and then she regrouped and began, "Professor Dumbledore, what if…"

"I think that you should head to your own class now, Professor Granger." She nodded, and rose to leave. "Hermione," he said, "I will let you know immediately when there is any news. Any news at all."

She managed a smile. "Thank you, Sir."

********
Finding herself unable to lecture, Hermione quizzed her classes for half the hour and then set them to working equations, saying it was in preparation for their upcoming exam. By the time she arrived in the classroom to prepare for the Potions lesson, she wasn't sure she'd make it through.

As she took her place behind the podium, however, the thought of Snape in every class she'd ever had from him, glaring at them from this same spot, was enough to convince her that she would be all right. ("What irony," she thought.) Luckily, she had Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, and no Slytherins to insist she tell them where their Head of House was. These students simply looked relieved that he wasn't there.

At the end of class, she said goodbye to one of her own students, and then noticed Professor Sprout in the hallway. Her heart jumped into her throat and she swallowed it down.

"You're wanted in the infirmary, dear. Professor Dumbledore said to bring you right away."

********
She wanted to run. Professor Sprout was moving so slowly. As they turned onto the hospital wing, she did run.

She opened the door to find Remus and Dumbledore in conference with Madam Pomfrey. She couldn't find breath to ask the question. Remus touched her arm. "It's all right. He's here."

She turned to Dumbledore, who said, "I believe he'll be fine, my dear. But we need your help. Do you have any of your improvement on the Cruciatus cure made up?"

She had thought she was prepared for anything. But the thought of Snape… Her face contorted for a moment.

Swallowing hard, she managed, "I…I should make some up fresh. The stuff we…the stuff I have on hand won't be as potent." Dumbledore nodded. "Can I see him, Sir?" She looked pleadingly into the Headmaster's face.

He placed a hand on her shoulder. "I think it would be best if you did what you had to do first. Then you may stay with him as long as you want."

Hermione took a deep breath. "Of course…no, of course you're right. I'll start right away. Thank you, Sir."

********
She didn't realize that Remus had followed her to the classroom until Professor Sprout said, "Oh, good. Someone to sit with her. I've been waiting; I didn't know quite how to close everything up and didn't want to leave it."

"We'll take it from here," Remus assured her.

Hermione had automatically moved to the storeroom, her hands knowing from numerous repetitions how to find everything she needed. She stepped up to the worktable, stared at the cauldron for a moment, and then went into her workroom.

Remus stood in the doorway. "I'm not much of a potion maker myself, but if you need any help…"

She shook her head and insistently wiped the only tear she couldn't contain from her cheek. "No, I can do it."

He stood in silence and watched her work. He'd never seen her brew a potion before. She was quick yet methodical, her movements occasionally mimicking, completely unconsciously, those of her mentor…her friend…. Despite the tears that were still threatening to fall, she never hesitated. Her hands never shook.

********
Back in the hospital wing, Dumbledore was still waiting. Hermione handed a vial to Madam Pomfrey and noted, "I've made up enough for about six doses. The whole vial, and another one every four hours. Hopefully that will be enough…" she choked on her words.

They waited in silence as Madam Pomfrey took the treatment into the room and behind the curtain at the far end. When she was done, she pulled the curtain back a bit, and moved a chair to Snape's bedside.

"Go on, child." Dumbledore's voice was soft and gentle, and Hermione felt the tears on her cheeks as she moved into the room.

"She can stay as long as she likes, Poppy," Dumbledore said, and then they both returned to their own duties, leaving Remus to take a chair by the door.

He watched the figure of the girl--the woman--as she took a seat next to the bed. Wiping a tear from her eye, she took the man's hand and sat watching him, willing him to wake up.

Remus would stay as long as she did, watching her from the chair in which Snape had spent the night, three years ago.

Chapter Text

Just before midnight, he saw her head nod, briefly, before she shifted in her seat and sighed. She had barely moved for nearly six hours. He approached, softly, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

"You should rest," Remus said.

Hermione's answer was a scarcely audible, "I won't leave him."

"No, but you can lie down and rest," he said, gesturing to the empty bed beside her. As she stood wordlessly, Remus moved the screen out of the way so that she could see Snape from her own bed.

Snape was deathly pale, and an angry gash marked his temple, close to his eye. Remus could see bruising on his neck where his shirt lay open, and on the hand Hermione had released. Poppy had said that she had done everything she knew to do, save continuing the doses Hermione had prepared. Dumbledore had assured her that she could do no better, and had suggested that it might be a matter of will, rather than wizardry, that would save him now.

Remus didn't know if he had been referring to Snape or Hermione.

When he returned to his post at the door, Sirius was standing there. "I don't know what she sees in him," he muttered.

Remus smiled. "I don't know, but it's got to be something, to inspire that sort of devotion."

Sirius snorted. "Either that, or he's got her under a spell."

"Sirius…" Remus chastised.

"Why don't you get some rest," Sirius continued. "I'll keep watch for a while. And I'll come get you if anything changes."

********
A few hours later, Hermione woke up. She remained still, watching the figure in the next bed. She heard the door open and craned her neck to see Sirius leave the room.

Then she sat up, the moonlight streaming across her face like tears. She slid down to kneel on the floor beside him, taking his hand again in hers.

"Severus…" she began, the sound of his name strange on her lips. "Can you hear me? I know you can hear me…please, hear me." She stifled the sob that was rising in her throat, angrily brushed away tears.

"They say that…that it's up to you. They say that you have to fight now. You have to fight…to…wake up. Do you hear me? Severus, you have to fight now. I know you. I know you would never give up. You're too mean and stubborn."

She paused, her face a mask of pain as she clutched his hand between both of her own.

"You have to fight. You have to wake up. Please…please try. Please don't leave me…"

She cried in earnest then, but softly, bending to brush her lips against his hand before laying her head down beside it.

When Sirius returned with the next dose, he found her there.

********
Hermione woke again when the sunlight began to creep in at the windows. For a moment, she couldn't remember how she got back into bed. But then she heard it.

A low sound… "Hermione…"

She moved quickly back to his side, taking his hand. "I'm here. I'm here." She said it over and over, willing him to answer her, stopping only when Madam Pomfrey arrived at the other side of the bed.

Remus was there as well, and as she stood, he put his hands on her shoulders while the nurse checked Snape quickly. Pomfrey beamed up at them. "He'll be all right. A day of rest, another dose, and he'll be all right. Give me a minute with him, will you? And then you may return. And Remus, do fetch Albus. He's been so worried."

Remus guided Hermione towards the door. She said nothing, but when they reached the entryway, he heard her sob. She clutched his arm and whispered, "I can't lose him. I can't do without him."

Taking her in his arms, Remus stroked her hair and whispered, "I know, dear heart. I know."

********
Hermione skipped breakfast the next day. When it had become clear that all Snape needed was rest, Dumbledore had sent Hermione to her rooms to sleep while Poppy arranged to move Snape to his own bed. Though he had opened his eyes again, two or three times, to look up at her for a moment while she sat with him, he hadn't spoken to her again. And she couldn't bear to see him for the first time in front of everyone else.

She had classes all morning, all of the fifth years together, followed by all of the sixth years--by that point in the Arithmancy sequence, there were few enough students that the four houses could meet together.

Remus arrived in her classroom just before lunch. "You look better." She managed a smile. "Missed you at breakfast," he added.

"I'm sorry if I worried anybody. I just…couldn't face everybody quite yet," she explained.

"I see. Well, Snape wasn't there either, so I was left quite to my own devices." She immediately looked worried. "He's fine," he explained. "He insisted on returning to class today, and Poppy, in turn, insisted that he remain in his own chambers the rest of the time."

He gave her a look. "So will you join me for lunch?"

She smiled. "I'd love to."

********
Hermione knew that Snape would be in class all day, and that, with their weekend trial ruined, there was no work-related reason for her to go to the dungeon. She wanted to go to him after his last class, but told herself that he would be tired, that he needed rest. She wanted to go to him after dinner, but worried that he would be back in bed and unavailable.

She went anyway.

The light was on in the classroom, and she held her breath for a minute. Instead of knocking, she eased the door open slowly, giving herself the chance to leave without his knowing that she had been there if he was in the office.

He wasn't. He was at the worktable, and turned at the sound of the door opening. Her heart beat faster. He looked as though he'd never been in the hospital wing, aside from being slightly paler than usual.

Raising an eyebrow, he said, "Sneaking in, are we, Miss Granger?"

She smiled. "I didn't want to disturb you; I thought Poppy might have sent you back to bed." He nodded.

"You can rest assured that I have seen more of Poppy Pomfrey today than I have in all my time at Hogwarts. I am very well looked after, to my great discomfort."

She crossed to the worktable, suddenly not knowing what to do with her hands. "Well, we were all worried," she said, stating the obvious. He had returned to his potion. "What happened?"

The question was out before she could stop it. Her face flushed, but as he met her eyes, she did not look away.

"What happened?" she repeated, the frustration and anger she had so long forced down rising to the surface. "I have a right to know."

A wave of his hand. His voice was low and menacing. "You have a right to know? What, do you think that your…attendance on me while I was ill gives you the right to ask me things that you know perfectly well I do not want to discuss with you? Would you take advantage of my…preference for you, of our partnership, of whatever friendly openness we may have found together, small though it may be, to insist on knowing information I would keep secret from everyone, up to and including the Headmaster?" He sneered. "Or perhaps this is a test. If I fail, do you return safely to your tower rooms and leave the miserable old bat in his dungeons alone? I assure you, that threat will grant you no sway over me. And if…"

"I have a right!" Hermione's face was red with anger, her hands planted on the table, and she was making no effort to lower the tone of her voice. "I have every right! How dare you! How dare you suggest I'm blackmailing you in some way, that I'm…I'm some unreasonable harpy demanding confidences from you unfairly!"

She turned from the table to pace back and forth across the front of the room.

"I have kept my questions to myself, afraid you would cut me off without a backwards glance if I asked one too many. I didn't want details--I simply wanted to know what you were feeling, the basic facts of what you were up against. Instead, I have waited, in ignorance, every time you get one of those blasted notes, to see if you would disappear, or if we'd find you dead on the doorstep in the morning. I have worried myself sick--not that it matters to you, you who find it an…an annoyance to think that anybody would care anything about you."

She stepped onto the dais to face him again across the table.

"I have every right. I have the right to know whether you're merely going to some shadowy meeting or whether you think there's a chance you might not come back at all. I have the right to ask if you're scared. I have the right to tell you that I'm scared. I have the right to be treated as a colleague, as a friend, and not as a student who's to be scolded and sent away when she asks unwanted questions. I have a right to know if there's a chance that the man I love is going to wind up unconscious in the hospital wing…"

She stopped, mid-sentence, as the horrified realization of what she'd just said washed over her. Snape looked as though he'd been slapped. She headed for the door.

Snape took two quick steps and grabbed her arm. When she tried to pull away, he drew her firmly to him. When she turned her head to face him, she was mere inches away, her eyes flashing fire, her breath warm on his face. "Hermione…" he whispered, and watched as her eyes moved to his lips, felt her lean towards him…

He released her, and took a step back. Cursing himself mentally as he saw the pained expression on her face, he cleared his throat and said, "You are right. You have been a…friend to me, and I have not treated you as you deserve." Walking back to the cauldron, he added, "I will answer your questions--reserving the right…" he almost choked on the word, "to hold back the details that might put you in danger." He saw her flinch out of the corner of his eye; he knew she hadn't thought of that. "But I cannot do it tonight. I simply do not have the energy."

He waited for her response, still not looking at her, still cursing himself for turning away…and heard the door close behind her as she left the room.

********
He stood, immobile, until the boiling cauldron called him to his senses. Finishing quickly, he left it to simmer and moved to sit in his office.

Gods, what had he done? The most beautiful creature he had ever seen had stood in his classroom and proclaimed that she loved him, and he had sent her away. Was he so used to pushing everyone away--out of necessity, out of inclination, out of habit--that he had rendered himself unable to feel any real connection? The pounding of his heart, the cold pit of his stomach told him differently.

He loved her. He admitted it to himself now. Perhaps he could only do so now that he had lost her.

It was for the best. Besides, it made no sense. It was inconceivable that she would want to be with him…that she could want him. It was a crush, a passing fancy born of too many hours spent working together. And he was used to being alone. He liked being alone.

But he loved her. And Severus Snape could not remember having ever loved anyone.

********
He could not say how the hour passed, but at its end, Snape extinguished the flame under the cauldron and carefully ladled the mixture out into vials. With that preparation for class done, he would return to his rooms, take a Dreamless Sleeping Draught, and…

The sound of the door opening. Turning, he saw her standing there, framed in the darkness of the hallway. He opened his mouth to speak, but could find nothing to say. He watched her, transfixed, as she slowly approached. She came to stand before him, and reached her fingers up to brush a strand of hair from his cheek. Then, placing a hand on each side of his face, she moved closer, drawing his lips down to hers.

She kissed him gently, and her lips were warm and sweet. He could not respond for a moment, then found himself returning her kiss, sliding his arms around her to feel her hair brushing against his hands.

She released his lips to smile against his cheek, and her arms went around his neck as she held him close.

"I thought you were gone," he murmured into her hair, the smell of it--a clean smell, laced with vanilla--filling his nostrils as he pulled her closer to him.

A shy giggle in his ear. A breath on his neck. "I decided that, if I waited for you to kiss me, I might have to wait forever."

He smiled, and, placing his lips near her ear, whispered, "You might at that."

Chapter Text

Hermione woke, but did not open her eyes. A smile crossed her face as she remembered their kiss. She had been terrified, returning to the classroom, but was determined to show him what she felt for him.

She loved him.

And he had kissed her in return, had held her so close, but…carefully, as if fearing that she would break. She knew his scent already, from all the time spent together working over the same cauldron: the smell of potion making, natural smells of root and herb, something underneath that was simply him. But she had never felt the silkiness of his hair--and she was surprised to think that, except for the touch of his cheek on hers as he comforted her after Seamus's death and the occasional brush of his hand as they worked together (the hand that had been so cold as she held it that night in the hospital wing)…she had never felt his skin. It was warm, soft. She loved the feel of his hands…

As she sighed and snuggled deeper into her pillow, a cold nose touched hers. "Meow?" She sighed. "Crookshanks, mama is really happy right where she is." Another touch. She bolted upright--how long had it been since the alarm went off? She had time, but she needed to hurry.

********
Coming in the side door to avoid the long walk through the student tables, Hermione saw that Snape was there before her, and that Remus had taken her seat and was deep in conversation with Professor Sprout. Raising an eyebrow, she sat in the empty seat between them. Snape was assuring Madam Hooch that he was quite all right, but as she reached for the toast, she caught Madam Pomfrey looking at them both with a smile on her face. Hermione smiled back, and began to butter her toast intently.

Snape had said "good morning" to her, but not much else, though he'd leaned towards her at one point when answering a query about his health from Madam Pomfrey. Hermione had focused her attentions on Remus, who made no mention of their new seating arrangement. Dumbledore had arrived at one point, and stopped to lean in between the two of them to say, "It is good to see you with us again, Severus," and pat Hermione on the shoulder.

All in all, she was relieved when breakfast was over.

********
If she had thought that Monday and Tuesday had been long, intolerable days, Wednesday was no better. Certainty did not bring ease of mind. On the contrary, she got absolutely nothing done that morning in her office, and in the afternoon, she found her thoughts wandering as her students presented their equations on the board. At least Arthur Prichard had chosen that day to come down with the flu; his two cronies were easy enough to handle. Lunch hadn't been any easier than breakfast, though she had bowed to the inevitable and taken the seat next to Snape even before Remus had arrived.

This time, Snape had involved her in a conversation he was reluctantly having with Madam Hooch regarding the upcoming match between Hufflepuff and Slytherin. (For a man so uninterested in the game for its own sake, he was incredibly well informed--she assumed that he enjoyed taunting the other Heads of House enough to make it worth his while.) It was still two weeks away, but apparently was already a prime subject of conversation. Hermione had never understood the wizarding world's sheer fascination with Quidditch. Though she enjoyed going to matches, Quidditch fandom was a form of insanity, as far as she was concerned. She suspected Snape had included her only so he wouldn't have to talk about it so much himself.

Somehow she didn't mind.

********
After her last class, she went, as usual, to check on their work. The classroom door was still open, and she could hear Snape in his office with a student. From the sound of his voice and the sight of black ooze running from a desk in the back row, she assumed the student would be serving detention in the near future.

In the workroom, she found that he'd restarted their most recent trial, anticipating her plans for the afternoon. She didn't see anything that needed to be done, so began to prepare the ingredients they'd need to add that evening.

Hearing the student leave a few minutes later, she left her cutting board and stuck her head into the classroom. He was still in his office, but the door was open. She crossed the room and looked in. He was leaning against the edge of his desk, rubbing his eyes.

He looked up as she pulled the door closed behind her. "Do you know," he began, his irritated expression unchanging, "what exquisite torture it is to sit next to you in public and not be able to touch you?" She smiled.

Moving to embrace him, she kissed him gently and replied, "I do."

For a few minutes, he held her close, resting his cheek on the top of her head. She could stay there, buried in his chest, forever.

"I love you, Hermione."

"I love you too."

He stood and released her. Tracing a fingertip down her cheek, he said, in a familiar tone, "Miss Granger, I'm afraid I must insist on setting some new ground rules for our time together."

Taking her usual seat, Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what would those new rules be, Professor?"

He shot her an amused look. "First of all, if you do that every time you arrive, I can guarantee that we will never get any work done." She laughed. Serious then, he said, "It is something to consider. We spend hours together, and if we cannot agree that there is a time for work and a time for…" his eyebrow lifted, "play…"

"Of course you're right," she acquiesced, "and I promise to be good." He smiled. "But Professor, you might have to compromise just a bit on the greeting rule."

"Indeed?" His voice smooth and teasing, sending a shiver down her spine.

She rose and crossed to him where he stood at the hearth. "Indeed," she replied.

"I will…consider it," he said, his voice like rich silk, "if you will consider calling me something other than 'Professor Snape'--when we are alone."

She grinned. "Impossible. I can never call you anything but 'Professor Snape.' Except, maybe, 'My Professor Snape.'" He chuckled, and as he drew her to him, she whispered, "Severus…."

********
When they arrived at dinner together, Snape thought Professor Sprout was going to fall out of her chair. It wasn't as though they had never arrived together before. He scowled at her. Luckily, Flitwick was regaling their half of the table with some story or another and required no conversational assistance. He knew that Hermione wouldn't forget his promise to answer her questions, and his mind was engaged in sorting out what he could and could not tell her.

He left ahead of her--she was talking to Lupin--and went down to add the necessary ingredients to the trial mixture. They were close to solving this potion; he could feel it with every instinct he possessed. He sat down to read over her notes from the abandoned trial, and to make some of his own.

Actually managing to concentrate, he didn't hear her come in until she said, "I believe, Professor Snape, that we agreed you owed me some sort of explanation?" He shot her a glance. Finishing his notes, he made her wait in silence.

He stood, gesturing for her to go ahead of him, and guided her to his office. With his wand, he closed and locked all of the doors. As she moved to sit, he finally spoke.

"Would you mind if we…went someplace a little less accessible?"

She answered, "of course not," though she wasn't sure what he meant.

He turned to a filing cabinet that sat in the far corner, waved his wand, and muttered under his breath for several seconds. She watched, fascinated, as the cabinet…faded, was the only word she could think of, revealing a passageway behind it. With the geometry of the room, that passage should have cut through the hallway outside; she would never understand the architecture of Hogwarts.

He reached out his hand, and she took it. "Lumos!" he commanded, and led her into the passageway. It was only a few steps, but when he stopped, she cast a glance back over her shoulder, and she could no longer see the office. Perhaps the opening had closed already, or perhaps they were several floors away from where they started. He murmured again, and with a wave of his wand, a golden spark appeared on the wall before them, just above his head. It flared, and then split in two, with each half tracing one side of an outline. The sparks faded when they reached the floor, and she was shocked to see that a heavy wooden door now stood in the shape they had circumscribed.

"How does Mordred get in?" she asked, though she immediately thought the question was silly.

He looked at her, the glow of the wand illuminating his face. "Magic," he replied, with a mischievous smile.

Snape opened the door and led her into the room. She caught her breath. "This is beautiful."

As Snape crossed to the fireplace, he waved his hand dismissively. "My family has money," he said, as if it were a curse.

Her eyes made a circuit of the room: a table and two chairs to the left, with a bookcase against the wall--the kind with glass doors over each shelf, everything in gorgeous dark wood; an enormous fireplace, now lit, where Severus stood watching her; in front of the hearth, a luxurious rug, and two large, brown leather club chairs facing a long sofa, upholstered in what looked like tapestry, across a large, low, square table; more bookcases on the far wall--the room was bigger than her two rooms put together; the bathroom door, mirroring the one they'd just come through, and a dresser beside it; a large desk, set out from the wall, and behind it, more bookshelves (she longed to know what all they held; she'd barely begun to fill her own); and an enormous bed to her right, draped not in Slytherin green, but in a deep, rich purple.

She looked back towards him to find him studying her reaction. "It is beautiful," she said.

He tilted his head. "Thank you."

"Where is Mordred?" she asked.

"He's usually out, in the evening, but will return before too long to see if I have anything for him to carry." Immediately he had given her an opening, but she didn't take it. Not yet.

After a pause, he asked, "Would you like some tea? Something stronger?"

She shook her head. "I'm fine at the moment. Thank you."

"Then would you like to sit?" He motioned to the sofa, and she was glad he wanted her beside him.

As they sat--not so close as to cause distraction, but close enough to feel connected--Snape wondered what she would ask him. Though he knew she would begin with his work, he doubted that she realized he had mentally given her carte blanche. He would answer, at least in part, whatever she asked.

She drew her knees up, tucking her feet underneath her, and sat facing him. He sat closest to the fire, his arm resting along the back of the sofa, not quite touching her shoulder.

"Ask," he said.

********
She began with the details of Halloween, and he told her about his contacts, and of the Three they hunted. While giving no names, he included more details than she expected. He had received a message from one of his contacts earlier that week--the note she saw Mordred deliver at breakfast. The man would be waiting for him at the outskirts of Hogsmeade on Halloween night. One of the others had spotted the Three together in London, and had followed them. He would not tell her where the trail had led, but it had been within reach of Hogwarts. He had met his contact; they had received confirmation, and had gone to meet the others, hoping to surprise the Three. Something had given their presence away, however, most likely a ward of warning they hadn't detected, and the Three bolted before the others had arrived. Trying to stop them, he and his contact had separated, and two of the Three had cornered him.

She had not needed to prompt him so far, but as he came to this point, he hesitated. She reached out and touched his cheek. "Tell me," she said. "I want to know."

Meeting her gaze, he told her. He remembered several spells, remembered one of the men attacking him physically, keeping him from using his wand, while the other continued to cast. He remembered hearing the man cry out "Crucio!" and thinking, even as he fell to the ground in agony, that the fact it had not been Avada Kadavra was important--it meant the man couldn't cast the killing curse, or he surely would have, and that might make the difference the next time.

Finally, he had blacked out, and when he'd regained consciousness, he had no idea where his contact was, or if the others had ever arrived. He'd lain there for a while, regaining his strength, and then half-walked, half-crawled to the nearest town, in too much pain to Apparate. He'd passed out again just as he'd seen the lights of a house. And he'd awakened in the hospital wing.

"I remember knowing you were there before I opened my eyes. Dumbledore told me later that you stayed through the night." He looked at her, concern written across his face. "Did you speak to me while I was unconscious? I don't remember…"

She smiled, doing her best not to cry. She answered simply, "I asked you not to leave me."

She moved towards him when she heard the groan he made in response. He pulled her to his side and she rested her head on his shoulder, laying one hand on his chest.

********
After a few minutes, he rose. "Before you ask your next question, can I offer you some tea? I need a cup myself." She nodded.

"I am sorry for the wretched night you must have spent by my side," he said quietly as he prepared the tea. She loved that he never spelled the kettle to boiling, but went through the ritual as methodically as if he were brewing the most intricate potion. "I never wanted you to be hurt; that has been one of the main reasons for my insistence that you cannot be a part of this work I have chosen to do."

"I thought maybe you didn't believe I could do it," she said, without accusation.

"No. Though from time to time I will admit to forgetting, briefly, what you are capable of. Next time I do so, you have my permission to set fire to my robes." A look; she laughed at the memory. "There are several reasons, actually, though your being hurt has been the primary one. If they realized that you knew too much, you might become a target. Also, we have not always used legal means to further our search. Finally, you have quite the knack for getting into trouble--don't think I've forgotten your days as a student."

His tone turned from instructor to lover. "From the moment you knocked on my door and asked to speak to me regarding an honors project, you became important to me. For different reasons at different times." He turned to look at her. "Before last night, I refused to…admit it, to articulate it. But it was always the truth. And now…"

"And now…"

"Now, you are the most important thing in my life."

Her brow furrowed. "And you are the most important thing in mine. Don't you see? That's why I want to understand; that's why I want to help." As he began to respond, she cut him off. "I'm not saying I want to go with you, or that you're doing work I can ever fully understand. I only ask that you let me try, that you let me be a part of your life--even the part that you hide so well from everyone else."

He sighed deeply. "I will try. But Hermione, I cannot promise you that I will ever let you see that part of my life clearly. It is dark and ugly, and I have worked too long and hard to put it behind me. I will not contaminate you with it. There are things…things you cannot know, for I would not wish the knowledge of them on anyone."

He spoke forcefully now, and she came to him. The teakettle began to squeal, and he made a sound of irritation. She put her hand under his chin, turned his face so that he looked into her eyes.

"I am not asking you to change for me, Severus. I wouldn't want you to be anything but what you are. And I'm not asking you to divulge dangerous secrets or to relive your past for the sake of my understanding. I just want to know you--as you are now."

"All right," he said, and then his tone shifted. "But let me take the bloody kettle off the fire first."

********
When they were seated again, tea in hand, he said, "Ask."

"So what's going on with the Three now?"

He sighed. "We're not sure. I have reconnected with all but one of the men I was working with that night. My closest contact--the one I met in Hogsmeade--is safe, and has written to say that he will let me know when there is any news."

"Do you know these Three? I mean, did you know them before?"

"Yes."

"Will you tell me when you hear something?"

A pause. "Yes."

She sipped her tea, debating her next question.

Placing her cup on the table, she drew her feet under her again and said, "Professor Dumbledore said to me once that you thought he was in danger." Ignoring whatever it was he muttered under his breath, she asked, "Can these people reach Hogwarts? Or is it their plan to lure their targets out into the open?"

He looked at her with a mix of surprise and admiration. "I'm not only good at Arithmancy and Potions," she said in her best classroom tone.

The corner of his mouth turned up. "I can see that," he said. "I do believe that Professor Dumbledore is in a modicum of danger. That is to say, I believe that these Three will aim their strike at those whom they believe to have done the most damage to Voldemort before his death. Dumbledore is one of those people."

"And you are another--you and those others who were working from the inside," she said, riveted despite her worry.

"Yes."

"And so you chose to act, rather than react," she added.

"Yes. I could not simply stand by and wait for them to come after me--not when they would target others in the meantime."

She smiled. "So it turns out you aren't so bad after all, Professor Snape."

He scowled, and rose to pace before the hearth. "Hermione, I do not do this because I am a good man. I do this because I have my own grievances to repay. More importantly, I do this because I owe a debt. I was not destroyed by my own proud and foolish choices, and someone gave me a chance to choose again. I resent that, as much as I appreciate it, simply because it is neither fair nor just. And part of the way I keep my resentment at bay is to do the work that I do."

Seeing that she could not frame her next question, he added, "I did not say that it would be possible for me to make you understand me in the span of a single night--only that I would answer your questions." He was serious, but she smiled.

He leaned against the fireplace. The look in his eyes as he gazed at her made her feel everything at once: childish as well as mature, sad and proud, contented and excited, loved and unworthy together.

She sighed. "Don't tell me that you've run out of questions already," he teased.

"No," she said, "I was just thinking how amazing it was that you love me."

He laughed softly. "That, my love, is precisely the word I would choose for it. Amazing, indeed."

********
Mordred interrupted at that point, but he did not bring any letters. Having fed and watered the owl, Snape sat down again and said, "Ask."

She creased her forehead. "I'm not sure I should ask this one…" she began, and he took her hand.

"I thought you knew," he said gently, "tonight you can ask me anything."

"Why did you join Voldemort in the first place?"

A quick intake of breath. She was worried that she'd crossed a line. Instead, he unbuttoned the cuffs of his jacket and sleeve and pushed them up to reveal the mark on his forearm. It was pale now, but she knew that it would have burned darkly.

Running his index finger over the mark, he answered her. "I will give you the short reply to that question; perhaps--perhaps--I will say more another night. There have been many theories: that I was rejected by a woman or abused as a child, that I wanted revenge or that I sought power. Interestingly enough, nobody assumes I was a believer. But it was nothing so dramatic. Nor was it as simple as 'because they asked me.' I joined Voldemort because the Death Eaters valued what I could do for them, and promised me the chance and the resources to do what I loved. They did not ask me to be polite or politic. Too late I realized that 'valued' translated into 'could make use of.' I made my choice, and within a year, I hated it. I hated them--for their stupidity, their closed-mindedness, for their inability to think for themselves, or to see past the next task that was handed to them. They were weak and foolish, but, banded together, they were a threat. I could not see things being different anywhere else, so I stayed. The longer I stayed, the more I loathed what I had become: a mere toady. And the more I could not imagine anything better. I was smarter and more talented than any of them--and they had no idea what I could do. And once I left them--or rather, decided to stay in a different capacity--I resented not only the fact that I had been given another chance, but that I had screwed up my first one so royally. And I resented the knowledge that I would always carry my failing with me."

He looked her in the eye. "I have always been arrogant, but with good reason." He was not joking. "I have never understood a society that claims to value skill, but in truth worships luck, good looks, and the cult of personality. They grant power and influence to all the wrong people, with only the occasional exception, and then they complain that those people are not what they have made them out to be. Witness our Minister of Magic. And while they claim to forgive, they do not forget."

"And Harry Potter?" she asked softly.

"Harry Potter. He was not the one who drove Voldemort away that night in Godric's Hollow. That credit should have gone to his mother. She was the one who gave her life for his, thus granting him the protection from Voldemort's curse. And yet everyone praised 'the boy who lived.' They wanted a celebrity they could see, not one who was dead."

It wasn't the answer she had expected. "And so, likewise, you hate Harry because of something he didn't do? Or is it that you take out your frustration with society on him because he happens to be here?" She had averted her eyes.

He lifted her chin, and, eyebrow raised, answered, "Believe it or not, I do not hate Harry Potter. Not yet. I hated his father--and his father's friends, though you will be pleased to hear that my hatred for Lupin has…lessened, over the time he has been here. But I am quite willing to hate the son if he continues down the same path his father took. I resent Harry Potter for what he represents, yes. When he was here, I resented the fact that nobody could see that he was an ordinary boy--he held great promise, yes, but he was ordinary. He received every break, every favor, the benefit of every doubt. Like an idiot, he believed his own press. I wanted him to be smarter than he was--to learn not to stake his life on the things other people told him were of value. I wanted him to work to realize his potential away from the Quidditch field, since I knew that Voldemort would continue in his quest to exterminate him. But I haven't the patience to coddle, and Harry Potter would not listen to cold, hard facts. Not from me."

He sighed. "I think I will end my answer there. I will never explain my attitudes and actions concerning Mr. Potter to your satisfaction, and defending myself further will only make me sound petty."

He looked up at her. "I am not, finally, a nice man. Or a good one. I may try to explain myself, but I refuse to make excuses."

She nodded.

"Have you any more questions?"

She smiled, deciding that anything else she wanted to know about his time with the Death Eaters could wait for another time. "I have two more, and they're much easier than the others have been."

He sighed, "Oh, thank the Gods."

She laughed, and moved closer, resting her head on his shoulder again.

"Number one," he said.

"If students drive you insane, why do you keep teaching?"

He chuckled. "Perhaps I am a masochist. Or a sadist. Or both. The truth is that teaching allows me the time to research. Outside of academia, where can you find a job that gives you time off every summer?"

She laughed out loud. "What?" he asked.

"That wasn't the answer I expected."

"What did you expect me to say?"

"Oh, that if you could help just one student to learn something, keep them from making the mistake you made, make them stronger…"

He rolled his eyes. "You forget. I'm too selfish for such a worthy answer."

"I apologize," she replied.

He rested his cheek on the top of her head, and his fingers stroked her arm. "And your last question?" he asked softly.

"Why--if you are so selfish, and stubborn, and bad, and mean, and…"

"I get the point," he interrupted.

"Why do you love me?"

A noise of amazement. "That sounds like something I should ask you."

"But it's not your turn."

A sigh. "I love you because…I love you for your intelligence, your talent, your determination. You are loyal to a fault, and difficult as a rule. You are brave as well as cunning. You are, not least of all, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I love you for your humor, for your innocence, and for your incredible capacity for emotion and sympathy. Most of all, I love you for the way you see the world--as it is, but also as it might be. And your world looks far better than mine ever has."

Chapter Text

Some time later, she woke in his arms to hear him whispering her name. She sat up, and he said, "You fell asleep, my love. You should go now; it's late." He brushed her hair with his fingers.

"I don't want to leave…" she began, unsure of what she did want, but he placed a finger on her lips.

"It is too soon for you to stay. For both of us." She smiled in response.

He stood and moved to the fireplace. "If you like, you can take the shortcut." He gestured to the flames.

Giving him a look, she said, "It's fairly disconcerting to know that you could show up in my room by this route at any time." The corner of his lip curled. "Of course," she grinned, "I suppose that works both ways."

Now his smile was wicked. "Of course it doesn't. Do you think Professor Dumbledore is the only one who knows how to manipulate a Floo network?"

She did her best to look angry, but he pulled her close and kissed her lips--slowly, insistently, until she had to catch her breath. The hint of a smile. "Go now," he said, "before we change our minds."

********
It was much later still before either of them fell asleep. Sometime before dawn, however, Hermione managed.

Just before her alarm went off, she was awakened by the sound of wings. Turning, she saw Mordred, and was up at once. She let the bird in and he fluttered to rest on the edge of the bed. Crookshanks eyed him warily.

Taking the note, Hermione smiled at the now-familiar handwriting. "He loves me," she said to owl and cat. They were too busy keeping an eye on each other to respond.

My dearest Hermione--

I have always prided myself with my command of language. It seems, however, that words do fail me, from time to time.

I simply cannot explain to you all the reasons I love you.

After you left me, I could not sleep--there was a poem that I needed, but I could not remember where I had read it. Finally, I found it--

Only--but this is rare--
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another's eyes read clear,
When our world-deafened ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caressed--
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.

All my love,
Severus

********
Hermione wasn't quite sure how she was going to make it through breakfast. She was both disappointed and relieved to find that Severus had come and gone; apparently Arthur Prichard had challenged a seventh-year Slytherin to a duel, and they had been at the edge of the Forbidden Forest just before breakfast, seconds and all. Prichard was now in the hospital wing, blinded, and with a tree branch growing out of his shoulder. The older boy was in the Headmaster's office, facing Dumbledore and Snape. She didn't give much for his chances.

It was Thursday, so she didn't have class until her seventh years met after lunch. She thought about taking a nap, but decided to tackle some of the grading that she'd let stack up since the week before. Just before lunch, she decided that, after all, she really did want to test a new combination before the weekend, and since the base needed to steep eight hours before she could use it, she'd need to start it now if she wanted it ready by the evening. And since Severus had a free period…

She headed down to the dungeon, chiding herself for being nervous. As she arrived in the Potions corridor, she stopped at the sight of a man exiting Snape's outer office door.

As the man stepped into the light, she saw that he was younger than she had first thought. And when he sneered, she caught her breath.

He saw her then, and the sneer deepened. "Why, if it isn't Hermione Granger, Hogwarts's newest mudblood teacher. Still sucking up to Snape, are we? Or are you planning on sleeping your way into a tenured position?"

"Hello, Draco," she replied, trying her best to make her eyes cold and distant. "What are you doing here?"

He moved closer to her--too close--a gleam in his eye. "Wouldn't you like to know…" he drawled, before laughing derisively as he climbed the stairs.

********
Once he was gone, Hermione hurried to the classroom and threw open the door without knocking. Snape was pacing at the far side.

"What in the hell was Draco Malfoy doing here?" she demanded. He did not respond. "Well?"

Severus came to a stop at the front of the room, placing a hand to his head. "Nothing," he said flatly.

"Nothing?!" How dare he shut her out now. "Yes, I can see it's nothing," she snapped.

He turned a scowl on her that she hadn't seen for years. "I will not discuss this in committee right now…"

"I am NOT a committee!" she stormed.

His voice was almost threatening. "Later. We will discuss this later." When she began to protest, his voice slowed to a low growl. "Not now, and never in this room. Do you understand?"

"I understand perfectly," she said, and slammed the door on her way out.

********
She didn't speak to him again until that evening, though she could tell he was watching her out of the corner of his eye at dinner. She opened his office door, again without knocking, and, closing it behind her, said, "Lucius Malfoy is one of the Three, isn't he." It wasn't a question.

Snape stood. Gesturing towards the classroom, he said, "Secure everything, then come with me."

She returned to find him waiting, the passageway open. Once they were safely seated in his room, he said, more gently this time, "We cannot discuss these things anywhere but here. This room--and the Headmaster's office--are the only rooms I completely trust."

"I'm sorry," she murmured.

He placed a finger softly under her chin, kissed her gently. "I did not mean for it to sound like scolding. But I am…not used to this. And I must have time to ponder things, to get my own thoughts under control, before I can discuss them." She nodded.

Leaning back, he returned to business. "Yes. Lucius Malfoy is one of the Three. The leader, we believe, and the wizard who cursed me Halloween night."

"Malfoy doesn't know Avada Kadavra, then?"

"No," Snape confirmed, "he does not. Malfoy's greatest talent is getting other people to do his dirtiest work. Unfortunately for him, he also prefers to surround himself with people even less talented than himself."

"So…why was Draco here?"

He sighed. "Draco Malfoy was here to bring me a message from his father."

Hermione was suddenly afraid. "But if Draco can just walk in here, into your office…"

He shook his head. "I agree, it was a more effective gesture than sending me a warning by owl post. But think. Why could Draco enter, where his father could not? Aside from the fact that Lucius is in hiding and would be taken into custody the moment he showed his face on school property, that is."

She thought for a moment, and then found her answer. "Because Draco was bringing a message--he wasn't intending you any immediate harm. If his father arrived, the wards would keep him out, because they would detect that, at some point, he intended to kill you." Severus nodded.

She paused before asking, "Do you think Draco is working with his father--I mean, other than carrying messages? I hated him in school," she thought the word seemed too severe for childhood dislike, in conversation with a man who knew what hate was, "but I never thought he would…I guess I was being naïve."

Snape shook his head. "I suspect that Lucius has kept Draco out of the way of things since he was old enough to understand them. He's only using him now because he's on the run--and because he knew that the sight of his son would throw me…and anyone else who saw him. No, that was part of Draco's problem in school. He had the attitude, but not the confidence to back it up, because he believed his father didn't trust him. But Lucius kept Draco clean, as it were, because he wanted to be sure there was a Malfoy left alive in the end to carry on the family name. So much for faith in our success," he added sarcastically, more to himself than to Hermione.

She paused. "I've been thinking about that night, and I have another question." He nodded. "You said…you said that Malfoy and his cronies knew you were coming, that they ran, but that then they jumped you before the others could get there."

"Correct."

"Now, isn't there a chance that one of your contacts told them you would be there? I mean, are you sure you can trust them?"

He smiled approvingly. "No, I am not sure. But I am as certain as I can be." He stroked her hair, a smile playing about his lips. "Now, I believe we have some work to do in the other room?"

"In a minute," she said, and curled up beside him, placing her hand over his heart.

Chapter Text

Things remained quiet for a while, both at school and on the Malfoy front, and Severus and Hermione settled into a new routine.

Actually, it was the same routine, with the addition of some time together in Severus's rooms a couple of evenings a week, as work allowed. Usually they would read together on the sofa (he had finally stopped protesting when she put her feet in his lap)--they had made a rule that nothing work-related was allowed--and then wind up talking for a while before she left for her own bed. Once or twice, they had started a game of chess, but she knew enough to tell within the first five moves that she was doomed, and they never finished.

On the one hand, she worried about what it meant that they were moving so slowly, but on the other hand, they were in no rush, and she enjoyed simply being with him, getting to know him (after all), and having the chance to relax. She had always known he was sarcastic, with a keen sense of irony, but she had never realized how witty he was. Amazing. She loved Severus Snape's sense of humor.

By the end of November, they were ready to test what they believed was--finally--a short-term protective potion against the Cruciatus curse. Human subjects were out of the question (Snape had volunteered himself, but Hermione steadfastly refused--besides, she said, adding the logical argument to the emotional, he was the one who had to cast the spell, because they couldn't ask somebody else to do it), so they were going to use an animal. Hermione was beside herself, insisting that it could be nothing with fur. She finally agreed on a toad, but only if it was not the same color as Trevor.

She had almost reached the limits of Snape's patience with the mention of Neville Longbottom.

They had also written to the Ministry of Magic, at Severus's insistence, for permission to cast the spell. Technically, since they would not be casting it on a human, it was legal. Barely. Snape, however, refused to allow room for any claim of unprofessional practice; Hermione suspected that he was still concerned that having his name on the project would cause her trouble in the future.

"Close your eyes, if you can't bear to watch," Snape snapped.

They had been working into the wee hours of the morning for three nights in a row, double-checking all of their calculations and brewing a new batch of the potion with fresh, pure ingredients. ("And I thought I was meticulous," Hermione had muttered to herself.) This was it, and their nerves were on edge.

She settled for glaring at him in response, and gave the unnamed toad the carefully calculated dose. Moving back, she made certain he could see that she was not closing her eyes.

"Crucio!" Snape commanded.

And nothing happened.

He tried a few more times, but the toad just sat there.

Hermione squealed and threw her arms around his neck. "We did it! I can't believe we did it!" Snape tried to keep her from jumping up and down quite so much, as she still had him in a choke hold, while the unnamed toad leaped to the floor.

********
"Miss Granger, I cannot tell you how thrilled I am that you and Severus have finally solved this potion!" Albus Dumbledore beamed at Hermione, insisting that she have another lemon drop. "It is a remarkable achievement. I know how long you have worked for this, and I commend you on your dedication." Hermione blushed; she was already smiling. "I trust," the Headmaster said, with a knowing smile, "that this will not be the last success we shall see from you and Severus working together?"

She ignored the smile. "Well, we had thought to finish Professor Snape's work on the Wolfsbane Potion, if at all possible, and will return to researching Imperius as well."

"Excellent!" He clapped his hands together. "That deserves another lemon drop!" As Hermione accepted a candy from the dish, he said, "I have something to discuss with you concerning next semester, Professor, though I was hesitant to do so when you were still so engrossed in the last stages of your project."

"What is it?" she asked, a bit nervous.

"You know, Miss Granger, that we were unable to offer Ancient Runes this term." She nodded; the subject's former professor had retired at the end of the previous year, and they had yet to find a replacement. "While I believe I may have found a full-time faculty member for the position, he cannot start until the next school year. I would hate to keep interested students from taking the subject for a full year, however, so I had thought to ask you if you might consider teaching first-level Runes only, for the spring term. It would be two sections, and I know it wasn't your specialty…"

Hermione actually interrupted the Headmaster. "I would love to, Sir. I didn't take Runes in college, but as you know I completed all but the last level of the series at Hogwarts. I could certainly teach the first-level course."

Dumbledore smiled. "Excellent! You should speak to Minerva about the arrangements--textbook requests, curriculum, etc.--before finals. Another lemon drop?"

********
Hermione stuck her head in through the open office door. "Knock-knock," she said, "I heard there might be hot chocolate available for weary professors?"

Remus looked up from his grading and smiled in greeting. "Come in!" he said. "It's been ages! Though I hear you've been busy--huge success, and all."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes. But I've taken time out of my busy schedule of celebrations to come and visit and old friend. How have you been?"

Remus handed her a cup and sat back down. "Oh, can't complain. Well, I could, of course, but it's the usual stuff. How about you? I imagine you're facing a mountain of grading now that you've finished that other little task."

"Actually," she said, "I managed to keep up with it fairly well while we were working--waiting for things to simmer and all that. Though Severus wasn't too happy the time I let something boil over because I was trying to finish marking an essay."

She didn't notice his reaction to her use of Snape's first name. "No, I imagine not," he said thoughtfully. "And how is…Snape? I can't imagine he's been in a very good mood, what with the hours you've been keeping."

She sipped. "Oh, no, he's fine. I mean, a little tetchy, but you get used to it." It dawned on her, then, what Remus was driving at. "Remus," she said, fixing him with a look, "are you trying to ask me about my relationship with Snape?"

He chuckled. "Yes, I am. After that night in the infirmary, the two of you seemed to carry on as usual--and then, with this eminent breakthrough, you've been working around the clock. I just wondered…well, if you'd told him what you told me that night. That you…couldn't do without him."

Hermione blushed at her words handed back to her. She trusted Remus, but he hadn't been completely thrilled with the idea of her possible relationship with Severus when he'd asked her this question before. She sighed, and braced herself for his response.

"I love him, Remus. And he loves me. I can't imagine life without him. He is…what I've always wanted. I just didn't know it until recently."

After a moment, Remus smiled. He said, almost wistfully it seemed to her, "Then I'm happy for you." His tone shifted. "And I'm amazed, frankly, that you could keep the news from Sprout and Pomfrey for this long."

She laughed. "Yes, well, it helps that Severus Snape is not one for…public displays of affection?" She quirked an eyebrow, glad to be back on safer, sarcastic ground. He laughed, but there was something in his face that told Hermione he wasn't saying everything. "Remus, I…" she fought to find the right words, "I know that you…that you didn't…or don't…completely approve--that you worry. You said before…"

"I said before that I would be happy for the both of you, even if I believed he didn't deserve you," Remus finished. "And he doesn't. But I don't worry. Not any more." Hermione looked at him, a little confused. "I was afraid that he would hurt you--reject you. It's clear that's not the case. I was worried that a working partnership with him would cause people to look at your work differently than they might otherwise. From the Ministry's response to your success, it seems that is also not the case."

He stopped, and smiled--a little sheepishly, she thought. "I need to confess something, Hermione." At the look on her face, he said, "Don't worry; it's not too bad. At least…I hope you'll agree that it's not too bad."

He rose and walked to the window. "I…I would never have thought that there was anything…personal…between you and Snape before Halloween night, except that I…well, you so audibly gasped as you opened that letter, I turned to see what was wrong and I…accidentally read the opening lines."

"What…a letter?" Hermione didn't know what he was talking about.

"About…snogging the teacher," he said, more loudly than he intended.

Hermione flushed crimson, and she wasn't sure if it was more anger or embarrassment. She decided it was the latter. "So…so you asked me what was going on because…because you thought I was heartsick over the man, or because you thought he was seducing me and would then leave me flat once he'd gotten what he wanted?" She was trying to joke, but the look on Remus's face as he turned back to her told her she hadn't completely succeeded. "Remus, I'm sorry. You know I didn't mean…"

"The thing is," he said, looking away again, "I…. The thing is, I didn't put it together completely until later that day--and then I was certain of it in the staff meeting. When he crossed to sit next to you, all of the pieces fell into place. It suddenly made sense. I had thought…for a minute I thought…but no, I knew it couldn't have been."

Now she was completely lost. "You thought what?"

Remus sat, sighed deeply, and dove in. "I thought, for a minute, that the letter might be about me."

Hermione's mouth fell open. "I…I…"

"No, it's all right," he explained, rather more quickly than was necessary, "I…that is to say, I didn't hope it was about me, or expect it to be. There was a time, back when we got the news of the first attack, when I visited you at Christmas…the thought crossed my mind that I would very much like to be the one you turned to during all of that. And…well, I guess I was always fond of you. But that was the first time I had seen you not as a student. I never had the chance--never made the chance…to see what you…"

He trailed off. Hermione had sat in astonishment through his explanation, and it finally registered. "Oh, Remus, I had no idea! I never thought…if I ever said anything that made you think…"

Remus shook his head, smiling now. "No, no. You never did. And I promise you, I have not been pining away for you, lo these many months. The point is…my…caution…about Snape was, in part…based in those feelings. I'm ashamed to say."

Hermione let out a nervous laugh. "Remus, I care about you--so much. You are my best friend at Hogwarts now. But don't tell Minerva." He smiled. "I…I don't know what to say. I'm sorry?"

He leaned towards her, crossing his arms on the desk. "Hermione, I care about you too. But I promise, I am not in love with you. And I'm happy for you. I really am. But promise me one thing?"

"Anything."

"Don't ever tell Severus." They both laughed.

********
Hermione wasn't completely sure she believed Remus. If he had only had a fleeting thought of interest in her, why was it so important for him to come clean now? Maybe she was making too much of it. He was really only trying to apologize for that last conversation, and tell her that he didn't worry about her being with Snape.

"Men…" she muttered, picking Crookshanks up off the floor and sitting down with him in the green chair. "You'd think I'd understand them better by now."

********
The start of December saw the first snowfall, as well as the next Gryffindor Quidditch match. They were playing Hufflepuff, so Hermione wasn't worried about their chances. Slytherin had won their match against Hufflepuff in record time, Snape reminded her over breakfast. Before she could offer an appropriate retort, Professor Sprout had taken the bait and they spent the rest of the meal discussing the ill-fated recent history of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team.

Hermione was grateful when the mail came. Sprout was so vehement in her argument that any other conversation was impossible. Hermione had learned that this was Snape's primary mealtime tactic: wind up another professor (or two) so that they'd talk non-stop, and he wouldn't have to add anything of consequence to the conversation.

She had just begun to pet Mordred (the first time she'd done that at the table she'd earned astonished looks all around) when another owl landed in front of her plate. "Hedwig!" she exclaimed, surprised and pleased to see Harry's owl. As Hedwig dropped an envelope on the table, Mordred turned his head around to scowl at her (Hermione swore that owl could replicate all of his Master's expressions).

Dear Hermione--

I am well, hope you are too. It's been ages since I've heard from you, and I guess now it's the end of the semester and you have grading and all. But I want to catch up, so I'm hoping that you'll be at Hogwarts at least part of Christmas. I'll be there to stay with Sirius for about 4 days, and I'm trying to get Ron to come in as well for a day. Please write and let me know.

Love,
Harry

She had held out a piece of toast for Hedwig to munch on while she was reading; now she smiled at the snowy owl. "Can you stick around? I'll write a quick response right after breakfast." Hedwig hooted and moved to sit closer to Remus, while Mordred fluttered up to sit on the back of his Master's chair.

********
After a morning of grading--and a quick note to Harry--Hermione gathered her cloak, gloves, and scarf and headed to the dungeons.

"Are you ready? We'll be late," she called as she entered the classroom.

Severus came to the door of the office. "This came in the morning mail," he said, and held it out to her. She laid her things over a desk in the front row and took it from him.

It was a note from the Editor of Ars Alchemica, asking them for exclusive publishing rights to their work on Cruciatus. As she finished, Snape said, "Word travels fast. Of course, writing the thing will be a nightmare. The Ministry won't want the details of the formula published, at least not at first, and…"

"Oh for Pete's sake," Hermione interrupted, pulling on her cloak. "I'm thrilled, but this can wait for later. After all, there's a Quidditch match on, and we're going to be late."

"Hmm. Pardon me for forgetting my priorities for a minute," Severus said, matching her tone and putting her Gryffindor scarf around her neck before giving her a kiss.

********
That night as they sat by the fire, with Hermione nestled in close, Severus asked, "Was that note from Potter this morning about Christmas?"

"Hmm," she murmured, finally warm again after the bitter cold of the Quidditch stands.

"You haven't told me your plans for the holiday," he noted.

Hermione sighed. "I'm staying here. I think I may try to go to Mywoods for an afternoon sometime between Christmas and New Year's. Harry's going to be at Sirius's for a few days, and maybe Ron, so I'll visit there. But mostly, I'll stay here with you, if you'll have me."

She smiled up at him, but he was serious. "What is it?"

He looked down at her. "You aren't going to see your parents, then?"

Hermione straightened up, and he shifted his arm to the back of the sofa. "I told them I was staying here." His eyebrow lifted. "I know, I know. I should go visit. I just…I want this Christmas to be happy. It's about time. And…well, they're not happy with me, as you know." Still no response. She sighed. "Are you going to try to convince me to go because they're my family and they love me?"

"No," he said, gazing again into the fire. "I just wondered if things were any better for you where they were concerned. You hadn't mentioned them in a while."

"Besides," she said, snuggling up to him again, "everyone else I love will be here. And that feels more important to me just now."

Chapter Text

Hermione woke up because she was having trouble breathing. The source of her problem was the large ginger-colored cat who had decided to sleep curled up over her heart. Opening her eyes, she saw a bottle-brush tail swishing slowly back and forth and refrained from grabbing hold. "Why do I always get this end?" she asked, rolling to her side. Crookshanks meowed in protest, but was then distracted by the packages at the end of the bed.

"I love that even teachers get their presents in bed," she noted sleepily, as the cat nosed the ribbon on a present from her parents.

"Hmm," murmured Hermione, choosing to open their gift first. It was a lovely, floral-patterned throw--not too bright, and not too flowery. The note read, Dear Hermione, We love you and miss you. We know you are busy, but do come for New Year's if you can. Mum and Dad.

Hermione sighed. "Well, Crookshanks, I guess I'll be going to the parents' for New Year's." She turned to her other presents: chocolates from Ron; Gryffindor-striped gloves and a bottle of color-changing ink from Harry; The Big Book of Movies and Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay from Greg and Bill ("We didn't want you to get rusty," the card read); linen parchment from Hazel; lemon drops and a book on Gaelic runes from Dumbledore; a pair of tartan plaid house shoes from Minerva; homemade treacle fudge from Hagrid ("It's the wizarding world's version of fruit cake," she noted to Crookshanks); a leather-bound copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from Remus; chocolates from Sirius; catnip-stuffed toy mice from Sprout, Hooch, and Pomfrey; a beautiful little appointment book from Flitwick.

But there had to be… "Crookshanks, give me that," she said, taking the tiny scroll out from between his paws.

"Meow!"

"Here," she said, "play with that." She tossed him a ribbon, which he contentedly began to shred.

She broke the seal, already smiling. Unrolling the parchment, she saw written, Come to the fireplace and say my name. She looked at her cat. "Apparently Severus has something up his sleeve for Christmas."

She got ready quickly, putting on jeans and the reindeer jumper Bill had sent to her (when he'd told her about it, she couldn't resist) and pulling her unruly hair back into a ponytail. She picked up her gifts for Severus from the blue chair, stood before the fireplace, and said, "Severus." The flames went green, and she stepped through…

She arrived in his room to see him waiting for her, a silver and green muffler around his neck. She smiled. "I see you got my present," she said, teasing.

"Hmm," he replied. "I see you're quite in the Christmas spirit." He cast a disapproving glance at her reindeer. She laughed. "And are those for me as well?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at the packages she carried. She nodded, coming towards him. "Don't tell me--gloves and a hat to match?"

"No, silly," she said, drawing close. "But Harry did find some Gryffindor gloves for me this year--I can ask him where he bought…"

He kissed her.

"Come here," she said, "and open your real presents."

Taking a seat with her on the sofa, he noted, "I'm quite fond of my scarf, thank you very much." She was nervous; he had been difficult to shop for ("Not surprisingly," she had thought, during her fifth hour in Diagon Alley). But he was pleased with the volume of Byron ("You said you hadn't read much of him."), and when he opened the set of five hand-blown vials, each ornately twisted and cast in a different color, deep and rich, like jewels, he was silent, simply running his fingers along each one in turn. "They are lovely," he finally said. "Exquisite. Like you."

He moved away before she could kiss him, and returned with two packages of his own. Raising an eyebrow, he said, "I believe…this one first," and held out his left hand.

She opened the wrapping to find two books tied together with dark green ribbon. The top was a gorgeous leather-bound edition of A Christmas Carol, and the other, the first single-volume edition of Emma. "These are beautiful! I'm afraid to open them."

"What good will they do you closed?" he said, mocking her gently. "And now…this one." He held out his right hand to reveal a small, square box--black, with a red ribbon on top.

Opening it, she gasped. Against the black velvet lay a pendant: a small, round, perfect diamond suspended from a slender gold chain. She looked at him, wide-eyed. He seemed nervous. "Severus…" she began.

"Do you like it?" he asked, and genuinely seemed not to know the answer.

"I love it," she said, and hugged him tightly. "But you didn't have to buy me a diamond…"

"I know I didn't," he said simply. "I wanted to."

Extricating himself from her embrace, he said, "Let me put it on you." She turned her back to him and held her hair out of the way as he put the chain around her neck.

"It really is beautiful," she said, holding the stone between her fingers. "I'm afraid I'll break it."

"I added a charm," he said as she turned back to him. "I don't think even Hagrid could break it."

She smiled. "Leave it to you to think of everything." She kissed his cheek. "What's wrong?" she asked, seeing that he still looked anxious.

"I…I will understand, if you choose not to wear it all of the time. We've been fairly safe from the gossips to this point, but…"

"Nonsense." Hermione gave him a look that told him the subject was closed. "The gossips can deal with it. Unless…" she looked at him, now unsure. "Unless you don't want me to…"

"I do."

"Thank you," she said, and, taking the ends of his Slytherin scarf, pulled his lips to hers.

********
The only meal in the Great Hall that day would be dinner. There were fewer students staying at Hogwarts this year than the previous. Last year, parents had wanted their kids safe within the school walls; now, they wanted them home. There were enough students staying that dinner would be at the house tables, rather than the more intimate setting of Hermione's seventh year, but not so many that breakfast and lunch couldn't be held in the common rooms.

Hermione had spent the rest of the morning with Severus; she was going to lunch in Hogsmeade. Harry would be there in time for lunch, and Ron was coming later that afternoon, as soon as Mrs. Weasley would let him go.

She had asked Severus if he minded her leaving him alone, and he told her that he was having lunch with Dumbledore and McGonagall. "Besides," he added, "though I may not…like…some of your friends, I respect the fact that they are your friends. And you should see them for Christmas."

As she climbed the stairs from the dungeon to meet Remus for the walk to Hogsmeade, she added to herself, "And I get to spend this evening with you."

********
Harry opened the door to the cottage and hugged both of them before letting either one inside. Once in, he took their coats while Sirius brought in mugs of cider on a tray. Taking their seats, Sirius and Remus fell to discussing a letter Remus had received from an old school friend, while Harry and Hermione started to catch up.

"I heard about your breakthrough," Harry said. "At work, nobody can stop talking about it. They reckon you'll get a first class Order of Merlin out of it, for sure."

"I'm just glad it's over," Hermione said. "I know research can take a while, but it feels like we've been working on that potion forever."

"What'll you do now? Work on Imperius?"

"We're starting to study for that, and we've got to write up an article--and about a dozen reports for the Ministry--on the stuff we've just finished. This term, I think we're going to focus on Remus, though."

"Did I hear my name?" Remus interjected.

"Hermione's just telling me that she and Snape are going to work on the Wolfsbane this term."

Remus smiled. "Oh yes, and she assures me that she's going to put me through the wringer, as it were. I suppose I should be glad she's on the project now, since her bedside manner's much better than Snape's."

He winked at Hermione, but Sirius snorted. "That ain't all they're working on, I'd wager," he muttered, and moved to the kitchen.

"Sirius…" A warning. He rose and followed.

Harry turned to Hermione, confused, and saw that she looked nervous. "What was that about?" She sighed. Now Harry was worried. "Is something wrong? What else are you working on?"

Hermione shook her head. "He means…well, there's something I haven't told you. I meant to…it's just…well, we've been busy. And…and I'm not sure what you're going to say when I tell you. I guess I was putting it off…waiting until I could see you and explain. Harry…"

"You're seeing Snape."

Hermione was astonished. "How did you…?"

"Well," Harry said, "I guess I didn't know for sure until now. But I guess I've been there since the beginning--since you started working with him as a student. I've seen your eyes light up when you get a letter from him, and how, when you do manage to write, you mention his name a hundred times. And when you started school this year, when you told me you had gone to visit Snape before coming here for dinner, you…well, you blushed. And you were really happy. Remus always tells me that you and Snape are getting along--that you're always together. I just put the pieces together. Learned that from you," he smiled.

"So you're…ok with it?" Hermione couldn't believe it.

Harry looked at her for a moment. "Are you happy, Hermione?"

"I am. We're happy."

"Then that's all that matters to me. Though…you won't be mad if I still don't like him much, will you?"

Hermione rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

********
"Sirius, I've asked you…"

"I know, I know," Sirius interrupted. "Remus, I know. And I promise--no scenes. It doesn't mean I have to like it, though, and Harry deserves to know."

"Shh. They'll hear you." Remus looked out into the front room, but Harry and Hermione were still talking. "Sirius, I'm not asking you to like it. I'm not asking you to like Snape, for the sake of the Gods. I'm just asking you not to give the girl a hard time. She loves him."

"And you love her," Sirius countered.

Remus shook his head. "No. I don't. I was…am…attracted to her. But I'm not what she wants--not what she needs." At the look on Sirius's face, he clapped a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right, old friend. Really."

Sirius made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a woof. But he nodded. "Ok. If you say so. But if he harms one hair on her head…"

Remus smiled. "I know. And I'll help you. But right now I'm more worried for Snape's safety. Ron still doesn't know, after all."

Sirius raised an eyebrow. "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas…"

********
After lunch, the four friends sat by fire, drinking eggnog and telling stories. Harry told the tale of the mountain troll in the girls' bathroom ("Hermione's first lie. She learned it from us," he said proudly), and Sirius topped that one with a story about meeting up with a Werewolf in the Forbidden Forest on one of their monthly adventures.

"Of course, for a while there, we weren't sure which Werewolf was on our side!"

He laughed loudly, and Remus looked a little embarrassed. "Yes, well, you should have known it was me when I refrained from biting your tail completely off."

They were all laughing when the fire in the grate turned green. "Here he comes!" said Harry.

True enough, Ron walked out of the fire, shaking off ashes, with an irritated look on his face. "Crazy woman," he muttered. "She actually reminded me to bring my toothbrush." Setting his bag down, he smiled. "Hey all! Happy Christmas!" He shook hands with Remus and Sirius, then hugged Harry and Hermione (though the last was a bit awkward) before taking the chair Sirius pulled over from the table.

"My Gods, it's good to be here. Mum's gone mad! We're all in for the holiday, but she's redone Fred and George's room as a sitting room, so there's even less space than there was. She's got Ginny sleeping on the sofa, which means she's a sitting duck for whatever pranks anybody decides to play on her. Last night we were all up at three in the morning because George decided to charm an old bathrobe of his and send it down there after her. She was screaming bloody murder!"

As they all laughed at the thought of nine Weasleys home for Christmas, Harry said, "Just like old times, eh?"

Ron's smiled faded just a hint. "Yeah, Harry. Just like old times."

Harry and Ron saw each other fairly regularly, but still had things to catch up on, and Quidditch to discuss. Ron wanted to hear all the news everybody else had already shared too, so Remus, Sirius, and Hermione wound up repeating themselves. Hermione waited for Sirius to make another crack, but he didn't. Finally, she saw Remus catch Sirius's eye, and they headed to the kitchen. "I'll put another kettle on, right?" Sirius said, nodding at Hermione.

Harry took the hint too, and said, "Ron, Hermione's got some more news…"

Ron replied, "What, have you solved global warming as well, then?"

Hermione swallowed, and looked at Harry, who nodded. "Well," she began, "I…that is, well, I've been seeing someone." She knew she was a coward for not saying the name, but she hoped that Ron would take it from there.

"Really," said Ron, confused, "but who…not Remus, is it? I always said you were going to wind up dating a professor."

Hermione shook her head. "No, Ron, it's not Remus…but it is a professor." She still couldn't bring herself to say his name; she was afraid "Severus" would set Ron over the edge, but "Snape" seemed too cold.

Ron thought for a moment, and then the look on his face turned to ice.

"Bloody hell," he said, but quietly. "I can't believe it." He stood up and walked towards the door.

"Ron," Hermione said gently, "Ron, please, let me explain."

"Just…just give me a minute, will you?" Ron left, closing the door softly behind him.

"Excuse me," said Harry. "I'll be right back." He opened the door. "And don't you go anywhere, either."

********
Ron wasn't sure what he felt. He guessed he shouldn't be surprised. He'd always had a feeling. All those hours she spent, working with…Snape. "Bloody Snape," he said to himself.

FWUMP.

A cold, wet snowball hit the back of Ron's head. "Hey!" he shouted. Turning around, he saw Harry armed with another one. "You crazy git, what do you think you're doing? That's cold, that is!"

"I know," said Harry calmly, and let fly.

Ron dodged, barely. "What're you on about, Harry?" He was starting to get mad.

"What are you on about, Ron?" Harry asked, coming a little closer. "For over a year now I've put up with your moods, your silence, your refusal to talk about…well, pretty much anything other than Quidditch. I don't know what's going on with you. And then you come here, acting like the Ron we used to know, happy to see us, complaining about your family, and then, the minute Hermione mentions Snape, you just shut down."

"She's done more than mention him, Harry, she's dating him. Do you get that? She's dating Snape!"

"I get it, Ron. But do you get how happy she is? Look at her. She pretty much lights up the room."

Ron was silent, kicking at the snow with the toe of his shoe.

"Is it that you want us all to be as miserable as you, or is that you've just forgotten how to be happy yourself?" Harry asked gently. "Because really, I don't get it."

Ron turned away, and Harry thought he'd gone too far. Then Ron said, quietly, "I don't know. I just feel like…like I'm not good enough. Like I never have been. Like I'm always one step behind. I can't explain it; I know I've been an ass. I just…"

Harry crossed in front of Ron. "Ron, you have always been good enough for us. And you've always been an ass. But we love you."

The two friends hugged tightly, and then Ron said, "I get it. Now get off, will you?"

********
"I'm sorry, Hermione." Ron stared at the carpet. Hermione came to him and hugged him. He tensed, for a moment, and then hugged her in return. "I've been a real bastard to you, I know it. I'm sorry."

Smiling at Harry over his shoulder, Hermione said, "Yes you have. But I love you anyway."

Chapter Text

Hermione went to her room to change for dinner. After the meal, there was to be a reception--professors, prefects, Harry and Sirius--Dumbledore wanted to find a way to make the crowd smaller, she thought with a smile, and give Harry a chance to see everybody while he was there.

She'd bought a new dress for the occasion. It was deep forest green, crushed velvet, long-sleeved with a square neckline--a little lower than she was used to. It was long--almost to the floor--and draped easily over her body, clinging just enough in all the right spots without making her feel uncomfortable. As she looked in the mirror, she realized that her necklace would be one of the first things anybody would notice.

"Well, you said they could deal with it, Granger," she muttered to herself.

"That's the spirit," the mirror replied.

For dinner, she put on her dress robes; fuller than her teaching robes, they were velvety to the touch as well, and of thicker material.

Using a spell she'd learned from Winky, Hermione piled her hair on top of her head--not too high--so that the curls fell down her neck. Maybe just a touch too fancy, but she thought she might as well.

********
She joined Remus on the walk downstairs. He smiled at her approach, and offered his arm. "You look beautiful," he noted appreciatively, his eyes pausing at her necklace as he surveyed her.

"Thank you," she said, and was pleased to find that she didn't feel too awkward.

"So…everything still ok? Ron hasn't shown up to cause trouble again, has he?"

Remus was teasing, but the thought of Ron, drunk at the Yule Ball, wasn't funny. Remus seemed to remember it too, so Hermione quickly responded, "I think Ron will be fine. From something Harry said, I think they finally had it out, at least a bit. Ron…well, Ron won't get over whatever's bothering him in a day, but maybe he's figured something out, at least." Remus nodded.

"Remus," she asked cautiously, "Did you…tell me what you told me because Sirius knows?"

Remus nodded. "I'm sorry, Hermione. I…I shouldn't have said anything, but I just…"

"No, it's ok," she said, patting his arm. "Of course you'd tell him. But…should I worry about him showing up to cause trouble?"

Remus replied firmly, "No. He's not going to cause any trouble. Though I can't promise he'll be polite to your boyfriend, either."

Hermione snorted. The thought of Snape as somebody's "boyfriend" was amusing, even if that somebody was her.

********
During dinner, under the cover of one of Flitwick's more boisterous stories, Severus whispered, "You look beautiful." Later, as Dumbledore addressed the room, Hermione realized she was toying with her necklace, and forced her hand back down to her lap. As she turned her head, she saw knowing smiles on the faces of Professor Sprout and Madam Pomfrey. She hoped--for Severus's sake--that they wouldn't pick on him too much.

Severus hadn't said anything about the reception, and she wondered if he would show up. She imagined, however, that Dumbledore would expect everyone to be there.

She'd left the room with Remus immediately following dinner to meet Harry in the entry hall. Hagrid was already waiting. "Happy Christmas, Hermione, Professor."

"Happy Christmas Hagrid," they replied.

As if on cue, the doors opened and Sirius, Harry, and Ron blew in with a few flakes of snow. "Happy Christmas, Hagrid!" Harry beamed, and gave the gentle giant a hug.

Hagrid's arms engulfed him, reaching over to squeeze Ron as well. "Oh, the three of yeh, t'gether, under one roof!" Hermione braced herself to be hugged as well, but Hagrid settled for Ron and Harry.

Releasing them, Harry greeted Remus as Ron noticed Hermione. "Whoa…" he said. You look…you look good!"

She giggled. "Thank you. But I thought you were headed home this afternoon?"

As Ron told the story of arriving home to find that Bill and Charlie had managed to burn one of Percy's reports for work in a game of exploding snap, and therefore deciding that he'd stay another night with Harry, the group headed up the stairs to the staff room.

********
Hermione had a vague thought, as they reached the corridor, that if she had tried to put together a group of friends that would irritate Severus more, she couldn't have managed.

When they entered the staff room, however, there wasn't time to worry. The professors descended on Harry and Ron en masse, everyone wanting to congratulate the two on their successes with the Ministry. Hermione thought returning to Hogwarts might be the best thing for Ron and his perpetually wounded ego, and moved to speak to Leigh Periwinkle, one of the Gryffindor Prefects. Surveying the room, she saw the other Prefects talking to each other at the edges of the group, and the Slytherin Head Boy seated in conference with Snape on the opposite side of the room.

The knot of people around the alumni began to loosen, with professors returning to their previous discussions, and Harry and Ron came to join Hermione in front of the fire. She introduced them to Leigh, who flushed crimson and excused herself, ostensibly to get more punch. But she didn't return, and Hermione teased, "Well, she seemed quite overcome by meeting the famous duo."

"Trio," Ron noted. "The sight of us all in one place was too much for her to stand!" They laughed.

Over Ron's shoulder, she saw Snape rise from his chair and cross towards Professor McGonagall. He passed Remus and Sirius on the way, and she noticed that he greeted Remus coolly but merely scowled at Sirius, whose lip curled in response. Well, where those two were concerned, saying nothing was a vast improvement.

One of the Ravenclaw Prefects, a seventh-year boy named Heathcliff Huffnagle, came up to greet Harry and Ron. Heath had played Quidditch against Harry for a couple of years. As the guys began the inevitable discussion of their favorite sport, Hermione realized that she'd lost track of Severus. She almost jumped when she heard his voice behind her--that same threatening drawl (she knew the sneer was there as well) that had frozen them in their tracks so often when they were in school.

"Ah, Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley…" they looked at Snape, but she watched their faces and waited to see what he would say next. "Professor Granger was so glad to hear that you were coming to visit. It's good you could stay. I'm sure you won't want to miss Professor Flitwick's impending holiday…orations. Mr. Huffnagle." Mr. Huffnagle appeared to be bracing for something. But with that curt greeting, Snape moved back towards his chair in the corner.

Harry and Ron just looked at each other, stunned, as Hermione bit her lip in an effort not to burst into giggles.

********
"What a beautiful necklace," said Professor Sprout, cornering Hermione against the edge of the refreshment table. "A Christmas present?"

"Yes," answered Hermione.

"Must be from someone special…" Sprout prompted, her eyes twinkling.

"Yes, yes it was," Hermione agreed, taking her chance to stop Remus and ask him about schedule for the next term. They really must find a time to talk about the lycanthropy cure before school started again….

********
"I see what he meant about orations," muttered Ron. After Dumbledore's several toasts, Flitwick had talked non-stop for about twenty minutes.

"Oh, my, it looks like Sirius needs to leave, Ron," Harry said in a falsely disappointed tone. "Sorry Hermione, we have to go now. I'll see you tomorrow…"

She shot them a familiar look as they made their way to the door, and waved good-bye to Ron when he turned back to smile at her.

Flitwick continued his narration, oblivious to the fact that other people were taking the opportunity to leave as well. All of the Prefects slipped out, and Hermione saw Remus leaving with Sirius and the others. She sought Severus's eye, and, finding it, made her own move towards the door. Once there, she saw that Professor Dumbledore had stopped him for something, and, hoping he wouldn't be trapped for too long, began to walk slowly in the direction of the dungeons.

He caught up with her in the entry hall. "Do you know," he said, as she quickened her pace to keep up with him, "I think he did that on purpose."

********
Severus took her hand and drew her into the room. Flicking his wand at the hearth, he pulled her to him, silencing the remark on her lips with a kiss.

"Feel better?" she taunted, once he had released her.

"Much," he said, helping her off with her dress robes and running a finger over the green velvet at her shoulder. Laying the robes across a chair, he said, "You really are exquisite."

Hermione blushed, still unused to being told she was beautiful. Moving away from him to sit on the sofa, she commented, "Sprout asked me about my necklace," she said, and smiled at his raised eyebrow.

"Oh? And what did you tell her?"

"Well, when she noted that it must be from somebody special, I agreed that yes, yes it was."

"Would you like to dance?" he asked, seemingly out of the blue.

Hermione looked at him, confused and pleased. "Dance? But there's no music."

He waved his wand. "Audio Musicus," he murmured, and Hermione heard the opening strains of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." She laughed with delight, rising to take the hand he offered her.

She stepped into his arms and they began to sway in time to the music. "How did you do that?"

Raising an eyebrow, he said, "Magic…"

She laughed. "Why do I always fall for that one?"

He smiled. "Actually, it was magic and Bill…"

"Oh, so you had some help. I wondered how you knew so much about Muggle Christmas music."

"Hmm. No, Bill was quite helpful…and enthusiastic…" Severus noted, his brow furrowing in jest.

"I can well imagine," Hermione giggled. "I wish I could have seen his face when your letter arrived."

Severus responded by pulling her close, so that they were now dancing cheek to cheek. Hermione sighed. They danced in silence, the music changing at some point to "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Hermione rested her forehead against his shoulder, and when he lifted her hand to kiss her palm, she shivered.

She realized that she wanted to stay…wanted him…that she was ready. She wasn't sure what to say, how to tell him. What if he still thought it was too soon?

The next song began.

When you said yesterday
That it's nearly Christmas
What did I want
And I thought
Just love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

She nuzzled against his neck, heard him sigh.

When I walk through a room
Let them see you need me
Walk through a room
Let them see you love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

Lifting her head, she kissed his neck, his earlobe, his jaw…soft, gentle kisses, trailing across his cheek…

Anyone can wish for all the trinkets in the window
Some can even buy the things they see
But the presents that I want
You'll never find in any window
Bring me love and bring it just for me

He captured her lips with his; her heart pounded against her ribs, and she found it difficult to breathe…

When you come home at night
Take me in your arms and hold me
Kiss me, and say you love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

Her arms went around his neck, and he pulled her closer, one hand straying to her neck to run through her curls…

Anyone can wish for all the trinkets in the window
Some can even buy the things they see
But the presents that I want
You'll never find in any window
Bring me love and bring it just for me

His tongue tasted her lips, and she opened her mouth to him…

When you come home at night
Take me in your arms and hold me
Kiss me, and say you love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

She pressed herself against him, her hands in his hair, and when he moved his mouth to kiss her neck, she whispered his name… "Severus…"

Something in her voice made him stop. He pulled away slightly, so as to see her face. Hermione swallowed--was he going to send her away? He caressed her cheek, his eyes searching hers.

"I…I didn't realize…" A pause. "There are questions I have to ask you…things I have to tell you. I thought I would have time later, but I see now…I didn't realize that you were ready to…further…our relationship." The music had stopped as the song ended.

He looked concerned, and before she could speak he said, "Or maybe I've just misread your intentions completely."

"No…" she insisted, "no…you haven't." She paused, feeling a bit awkward. "That is…I didn't plan…"

He smiled then. "Didn't plan to seduce me for Christmas? No, I didn't think that you had. But I didn't expect…" He broke off, and she took his hand.

"You said that there were things you needed to tell me, questions…ask me now, Severus."

"This will not be a particularly romantic conversation, my love. We could wait until after the holiday."

"No," she said, certain now. "Let's have the conversation, and then…then I'll tell you if I still want to stay tonight."

He chuckled. "Fair enough."

********
She was a little upset by the fact that he had taken a seat in one of the chairs. Hermione sat across from him on the sofa, not quite sure what he wanted to talk about. He didn't look at her, but his voice was soft and gentle, no longer hesitant.

"Hermione, I know very little about your past. I assume that you…have not done this before." He glanced up at her.

She shook her head, knowing somehow that her answer would not make a difference to him. He nodded, looked back to the fire.

"At some point in our time together, I might have asked whether you were doing this to prove a point, but I know better now. If you tell me, after you hear what I have to say, that you are certain that this is what you want--that I am what you want--then I will never doubt your sincerity again."

"But Hermione," his eyes on hers, "I need to be sure that you know what you are choosing. I do not want to come between you and your friends…your parents…"

He trailed off, and she realized what had been behind his question about her holiday travel plans. "You're right," she said, trying to keep her voice steady, "My parents won't be thrilled about this. It's one reason I've decided to see them at New Year's--I need to tell them. But whether they understand or not--whether they approve or not--they will not turn their backs on me. I know this for a fact. And my friends…well, Ron seems to have accepted it better than I expected, and Harry guessed before I could tell him. Remus guessed before I had figured it out myself." His eyes grew wide at her admission. "He's fine with it, I promise."

Snape took a deep breath. "Then I won't ask again. For reasons I cannot possibly understand, you love me, and you've chosen to be with me, damn the consequences." She smiled, but he continued. "I need to ask you one last thing." She nodded.

"Hermione, do you want a family?"

The question hung in the air and she felt her stomach drop. She couldn't read his expression. Surely he didn't want children, she thought…but what if he did? What if her answer was the one thing that would stand between them--what if he looked at her differently when she told him?

She swallowed, then said simply, "No. I don't want children. I…I might like to be married one day, but I'm in no hurry."

His eyes narrowed for a moment, and then he chuckled slightly. "You continue to amaze me, my love. I was sure that you would tell me that, while right now you wanted only me, yes, at some point in the future you would want a family. I was prepared to tell you to leave me here and now, because I would never be able to give you what you wanted."

He leaned forward, gazing into her eyes. "You are telling me the truth; I can see it. Why were you nervous about your answer?"

She looked down, giggled a little. "Well, for a moment I thought you were going to tell me that you wanted children, and I didn't know what I would do if you did…."

He laughed softly. "No, I can assure you. I will never want children. I…" He faltered, and she looked up at him. "I should tell you…the rest…before I make that declaration."

He rose to stand in front of the fire, and she thought he actually looked nervous. His voice was smooth, though, and she resisted the urge to go to him.

"You should know that this would not be my first time. I have had sex, many times, and with several different people. But this would be the first time I have ever been hopelessly, desperately in love with my partner." A noise of derision. "Or perhaps I should say, this will be the first time I have ever felt anything positive for my partner at all."

He looked at her, gauging her reaction. She looked intent, but had not run in horror.

Reassured, he continued. "As I said, I do not want children. Aside from that, I cannot have children of my own. Voldemort demanded intimate knowledge of his supporters--in more than one meaning of the term, where the women were concerned. I was told, early in my time as a Death Eater, that I was sterile, and, that being the case, I would not be allowed to marry a fellow Death Eater." A dark laugh. "Not that I was disappointed. I have never believed that I would fall in love, that I would need someone, would choose to spend the rest of my life with someone." He studiously did not look at her.

"But the Dark Lord's…proclamation…concerning my availability served to flag me in another way as well. Women would not generally give me a second glance--now for more reasons than my general appearance, to which I paid less attention at that time than I do now." He smirked an aside to her. "I should assure you that I don't clean up, as they say, to look much better than this."

"If you looked much better than this," she said coyly, "I wouldn't be able to concentrate on work at all."

He shot her a glance, and then returned to his narrative, now gravely serious. "I…" Stopping, he closed his eyes for a moment before starting again. "When we were called together for…celebrations…most of those in attendance would spend the evening getting obscenely drunk and indulging in all manner of…pleasures. I was never sure if it was more a way to masquerade as dutiful servants, or an honest perversion. It was assuredly both. For me, however, it was torture. Large numbers of people crammed into someone's dungeon, someone's country house. But…those revels gave me the opportunity to…vent…some of my rage, my disgust, my horror. I would not drink; I needed my wits about me. But a woman who would…indulge me…was never hard to find. They used me as I used them, and the disgust I felt--at myself, at them--only fueled those emotions that drove me to do the same at the next gathering."

She sat silently, not sure if he was finished, not knowing how to make this all right for him.

"I will understand if you leave," he said, misinterpreting her worry as horror--or worse, fear.

She came to stand beside him. "It doesn't matter to me," she began, and he tried to pull away as she put her hand to his cheek. She took his face in her hands. "It doesn't matter to me," she repeated, "except for the fact that you carry it with you--that it still has the power to hurt you. I'm sorry for that." His eyes met hers, believing they would now see only pity.

She leaned closer. "I love you." She kissed him gently, and felt the tension leave his shoulder where she rested her hand. After a moment, she said softly, "I don't want to leave…"

"Then stay."

********
When she woke, she could feel the warmth of his chest under her cheek, the touch of his hand in her hair. She stretched a little, noting the welcome soreness, and let her hand slide from his breast to his ribs, underneath the covers.

"Good morning," he said, and his voice rumbled up from his chest beneath her.

A little shy, she murmured, "Good morning," as she ducked her head slightly.

His hand moved to her shoulder. "Hermione…"

She looked up at him, hearing the note of uncertainty in his voice, and smiled. She shifted upwards to kiss him, then came to rest with her forehead against his cheek, his arm holding her close to him.

He pulled the covers up around her against the morning chill, then stroked her arm.

"I love you," she whispered, and he chuckled.

"Apparently so. I lost count of the number of times you told me last night…" He stopped her from pulling away. "I am only teasing, my love."

As she settled back into his arms, he asked, "It is all right, then?"

"It was wonderful," she said, drawing her hand up across his chest. She could feel him smile.

"But…did I hurt you…" he began, but she put her finger to his lips and kissed his neck.

"It hurt…some…but then it was better. I'll admit I'm a little sore this morning…but in a good way," she admitted, and he chuckled beneath her.

"I can give you something to ease the pain," he noted.

"No thanks," she said, sliding her hand back underneath the covers. "I have a better idea." She smiled to herself when he caught his breath as her hand reached its destination.

********
This time, she woke in his arms. He lay behind her, his arms encircling her, pulling her back into him. Her legs bent with his, and his face was buried in the tumble of her hair. She sighed, completely content to stay in this bed, with this man, forever.

Hearing his breathing change, she teased, "I think we've missed breakfast. What on earth will the gossips say?"

"Why do you love me?" he asked, and she could barely hear him.

"What?"

"I said," his voice in her ear, and a shiver ran through her at the feeling, "why do you love me? I believe it's my turn to ask?"

She shifted slightly, knowing her response by heart. "I'm afraid that most of my answer will sound pretty selfish," she began, and heard him chuckle. "I love you because you like me just as I am. Because you think I'm beautiful, and you make me believe it too. You don't complain that I work too much. You understand without explanation. I love you because we work together so well--because even though I still learn from you, you never make me feel like you know better than I do. I love you because you make me feel special--I'm the only one you let in behind that stubborn, strict exterior. I love you because I know I can completely trust you. Because you make me feel safe."

She rolled over to face him now, putting a little space between them so she could look into his eyes. "I love you," she said, "because you are a just and honorable man. You don't like the word 'good,' or I'd use it too. You want justice, but you accept mercy. You know guilt, but you refuse to blame others for what you have done. You resist help, but you do so because you want to keep others safe.

"There are things about you that I don't like--your cruelty to students is on the top of my list--though I've come to understand why you behave the way you do, at least a little bit. But I love that you refuse to change simply because I don't always approve. I love you because you're stubborn, and grumpy, and anti-social…"

He snorted. "Again, my love, I get the point."

She smiled. "I don't love you despite these things, Severus, I love you because of them. Because that's who you are, and how you are."

Her brow furrowed. "That's not a very good answer. I'm sorry. The only answer I really have is, 'because I do.'"

He pulled her to him tightly. "That's good enough."

Chapter Text

He loved her laugh.

And indeed, the prospect of Severus Snape working with Bill Geurin (Gryffindor, of course, with no interest whatsoever in Potions)--or Greg McDaniels (also Gryffindor, but had proved adequate in class), for that matter--on a surprise for his…girlfriend? No, he couldn't use that word. Had to be…partner.

These thoughts flashed through Severus's mind as Hermione giggled at his news that her friend Bill had helped him bring Christmas music into the dungeon. It was a gift for himself, as much as it was for her. It was the best excuse he could find to hold her in his arms for an indefinite length of time. The most amazing thing of all was that he had suddenly realized that he probably didn't need the excuse…

He drew Hermione closer, bending his head down to hers and feeling the warmth of her cheek against his. He heard her sigh. And, sometime after the music changed to the second song, she nestled her head against his shoulder, and his mind screamed, "My Gods, how I want her…"

Repressing the thought quickly, knowing that there were things she had to know, things he had to ask, before they could…and he had promised himself he would not rush her. He had vowed that she would set the pace.

After all, he would be happy simply to dance with her forever… He brought the hand he was holding to his lips, and kissed her palm gently.

The song changed again.

When you said yesterday
That it's nearly Christmas
What did I want
And I thought
Just love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

When she nuzzled her nose against his collar, he let out a sigh.

When I walk through a room
Let them see you need me
Walk through a room
Let them see you love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

And when she trailed kisses across his neck, jaw, cheek…he felt his body begin to respond…. True to his vow, he had never let himself fantasize (at least freely; he couldn't control his dreams), and this…this had not been a problem until now. Sitting together contentedly, kissing tenderly--that had been enough. But her lips were so soft…so insistent…so warm and sweet…

Anyone can wish for all the trinkets in the window
Some can even buy the things they see
But the presents that I want
You'll never find in any window
Bring me love and bring it just for me

He couldn't help himself; he captured her lips with his, felt his restraint slipping…

When you come home at night
Take me in your arms and hold me
Kiss me, and say you love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

As their kisses grew more passionate, she encircled his neck with her arms, and he could feel her breasts pressing against his chest…he moved his hand to the back of her neck and all but groaned at the feel of her hair on his hands. He wanted so much to take it down, to let it cascade freely down her back…

Anyone can wish for all the trinkets in the window
Some can even buy the things they see
But the presents that I want
You'll never find in any window
Bring me love and bring it just for me

This was too soon…too much…but he felt her lips part, and then flicked his tongue out to taste them…and found her mouth open, welcoming…Gods, she was delicious…

When you come home at night
Take me in your arms and hold me
Kiss me, and say you love me, love me, love me
That's what I want for Christmas

As he broke off the kiss, Hermione pressed against him, her breathing uneven, her face hot, and he knew that he had to find some measure of control…before his body betrayed him…. He concentrated on tracing a path down her neck with his lips…tried not to feel her warm breath on his ear…

But then she said his name… "Severus…"

He had not imagined that she would want this so soon. The fact that she wanted him at all still came as a surprise. And they had only been together, romantically (he also refused the word "dating"), for less than two months. Surely this was too fast? Not that he had any real basis for comparison…

He pulled back to look at her…her gently parted lips, lightly swollen…her eyes, gazing at him with…desire. That was the only word for it. He touched her cheek.

But he had paused a moment too long, and the look had been replaced by one that was both slightly guarded and definitely anxious.

He stammered out something about not realizing that she wanted this, about needing to talk, to ask questions, and he flicked his wand to end the music. She still looked…maybe he had been wrong. Gods.

"Or maybe I've just misread your intentions completely."

"No…" she insisted, "no…you haven't." She paused, and he had no idea what to say. "That is…I didn't plan…"

The thought that she would have planned any such thing made him smile. "Didn't plan to seduce me for Christmas? No, I didn't think that you had. But I didn't expect…" Searching for the right words, he was surprised to feel her hand in his.

"You said that there were things you needed to tell me, questions...ask me now, Severus."

Her calm, sure responses made him feel normal again. "This will not be a particularly romantic conversation, my love. We could wait until after the holiday."

"No," she said, and all reserve and worry had passed from her face. "Let's have the conversation now, and then…then I'll tell you if I still want to stay tonight."

She was amazing, and he laughed softly at her practicality, even in such things as this. "Fair enough."

********

She had answered his questions--how relieved he was that she didn't want children. He honestly would have sent her away; he could not let himself have her, knowing that she would someday leave him for a man who could provide her with a family. She was young; she might yet change her mind. But he suspected that she knew her mind quite well, in this as in all things. He had laughed out loud when she told him that she was scared he'd want children. The very idea. It made him more comfortable, though, to see that she was nervous as well, that she hadn't quite been certain of his answer, but had been honest nonetheless. She had made it very clear that nobody's opinion of him--of them--would stand in her way. Probably, he had thought with a smile, not even his.

And then he had told her about his past…indiscretions. He told her all of it, and she had made no sounds of disgust, no move to leave. She had simply…listened, a look of concentration and concern on her face. Had encouraged him to continue when he wasn't sure that he could.

When she did not respond at the end of his tale, however, he gave her the opportunity to go. "I will understand if you leave." But he had a fleeting thought that he would die if she did.

She came to stand beside him. "It doesn't matter to me," she began, and when she laid her hand on his cheek, he looked away. She trapped his face between her hands, gazed into his eyes. "It doesn't matter to me," she repeated, "except for the fact that you carry it with you--that it still has the power to hurt you. I'm sorry for that." Now he looked into her eyes. Now he would see her pity.

But he saw only…love, caring, understanding…forgiveness.

"I love you," she said, and he believed her. Utterly and completely, he believed her. As she kissed him, he felt the weight of the ages lift from his chest. After a moment, she said softly, "I don't want to leave…"

"Then stay."

********
Hermione smiled, and kissed him. In the back of her mind, a small voice asked if this wasn't too soon, if she was sure, if perhaps she should wait a while…maybe Easter?

Severus pulled her close, and as she felt his hands gliding over the velvet of her dress to press at her back, she told the little voice to take a hike. She was still nervous, but his kisses were slow and sure, his hands comforting even as they excited her, and she felt completely safe--completely certain.

Opening her lips to his, she caught her breath as his tongue began a careful exploration of her mouth. She did her best to keep up, but she found that she couldn't put together a conscious thought. The warmth, the taste of him…after a minute or two she did manage to think that the sofa might not be a bad choice. Her knees actually were getting weak.

And then she realized that one of the lovely hands that had been caressing her back had moved to her side and was resting on her hip. It paused there, briefly, before the fingers ran slowly up her side. She shivered. And when that same hand came around to cup her breast, kneading ever so slightly, the thumb finding her nipple and beginning to circle, she really thought she might faint.

About the time she realized that she had a death grip on his other shoulder, he took his mouth away, leaving her gasping for breath. His hands went around her waist, and she rested her head on his chest.

"You must tell me if you want to stop, Hermione, though there will come a point after which I won't be able to do so…" He rested his chin on the top of her head.

"I want to stay," she murmured, realizing too late that he hadn't asked a question.

He chuckled. "You've made that perfectly clear." A pause; breath slowing slightly. Hermione…" his arms tightened briefly, his lips brushed her hair, "I don't want to hurt you…"

Now she tilted her head back to smile at him. "I want to stay," she said, and gave him a kiss.

********
"You know, I always loved this suit, with all of its buttons, but now I just think it's some form of torture," Hermione announced, working to loosen one cuff as he unhooked the other. She needed a minute of calm, needed to focus on the row of intricate buttons. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she realized that she was beginning to babble.

When she had succeeded in undoing a few buttons, he took her hands in his. Holding them to his chest, he leaned down to kiss her. When his hands moved to her neck, her fingers moved to his collar. "Too many damned buttons," she teased, in between his kisses, and felt him smile.

They kissed as she unbuttoned, and at some point he chuckled. "Perhaps we should sit down. How long will this take, do you think?"

She did her best not to smile. "Do it yourself, then, if you think you can be quicker about it."

He raised an eyebrow, and, not moving away, quickly released the remaining buttons. As he took the jacket off and turned to lay it over the end of the sofa, she said, "Oh, for the Gods' sakes!" The shirt had a similar row of buttons.

He smiled, beginning with the left cuff. "Don't worry. If I loosen the cuffs and collar, the shirt will come off over my head without undoing the rest."

"Really…" Hermione drawled, a gleam in her eye. "How convenient…" She moved closer, beginning to gently pull the ends of the shirt out of his trousers. She tugged on the waistband and noted wryly, "And don't tell me. More buttons?"

"Yes, my love, but those promise to be much more fun…"

********
He had needed the insanity of the buttons as well. He could tell that she was still nervous, but when he had offered her the chance to stop, it was clear that she had no intention of doing so. Though his words were measured and his amusement at her attempt to undress him genuine, he needed a moment to catch his breath. He still didn't want to rush her. At least his body was cooperating on that front…so far.

When she had pulled his shirt off over his head, only to rest one hand on his rib cage while she began with the other one to track tentative circles across his chest, any calm he had regained quickly vanished. He closed his eyes, content to let her explore.

At the feeling of her mouth on his nipple, however, his eyes shot open again. He looked down at her to see her grinning mischievously. "Are you positive that you haven't done this before?" he teased, buying himself another moment to regroup.

She giggled. "Positive." She kissed his chest, and then gave him another look. "But I have always been a quick learner."

Placing his hands on her hips, he raised an eyebrow. "Hmm. Then perhaps a little quiz…shall we say, Latin? The phrase I want you to translate is quid pro quo. Sadly, I think you only know the answer from some movie or other." As she giggled, he turned her around, taking the opportunity to kiss the back of her neck.

********
He began with her hair. His hands quickly found the combs that held it atop her head, and as he pulled them out gently, the curls fell down her back. He let his hands roam through them for a few moments, and she leaned back against him.

With one hand, he stroked her hair and then pulled the mass of it aside. With the other, he found the top of the zipper and slowly began to move it downwards. Letting her hair fall, he put the first hand on her shoulder and leaned in to whisper, "I'm a little disappointed that you couldn't find a dress with…buttons." He smiled at the shiver that ran through her frame. Drawing the zipper even more slowly, he ran his tongue around the rim of her ear, stopping to catch the lobe in his teeth for a moment. She whimpered.

Smiling to himself, he noticed that the zipper had finally reached the end of its track. He reached a hand inside the fabric to rest it at her waist. With a kiss on her neck, he moved both hands to her shoulders, and she reached up to help him guide the dress to the floor. She shivered, either from cold or excitement, and he took her in his arms, closing his eyes…

He felt her move, shifting away from him, and he looked at her then. She turned, slowly, to face him, and blushed as his gaze traveled the length of her.

"You are…exquisite…" he whispered.

********
As his eyes trailed back up her body, Hermione decided that she couldn't stand it; she simply had to explain. "I…really didn't plan this," she noted, trying to ignore the smile she saw flickering at the edge of his mouth. "I just…well, I was trying things out for…future reference."

"Hmm." An approving glance. "No, I wouldn't have expected you to wear such…elaborate underthings…" he moved to embrace her, adding, "not that I mind…"

He ran a finger over her shoulder and beneath the strap of her bra, causing her to shudder again. "Cold?" he asked, and she couldn't tell if he was joking. She answered by shifting closer. Suddenly, she found she couldn't stand for him to keep his beautiful hands still…she needed him to touch her.

She kissed him as passionately as she knew how, pressing herself against him, feeling his growing hardness against her stomach, even through the layers that still separated them, and moaned as his hands began to caress her body…her back, her hips, her shoulders…finally he turned her around with her back to him, and both of his hands claimed a breast as he kissed her neck.

About the time her knees were threatening to weaken again, he murmured in her ear, "We've reached the limit of what I can do standing up…at least what I can do well…"

She turned to face him with a little smile, and, moving her hands to his waistband again, said, "Well, then. We'd better take care of the rest of these buttons…"

********
Feeling her feathery touch at the front of his trousers (she seemed to have gotten the knack of those buttons, he noted to himself), Severus thought he would lose control. She undid the fastenings, sliding the garment down past his knees to the floor, and, on her way back up, ran her hand along the soft grey material at his hip.

If she was startled at the sight of his erection straining against his underpants, she didn't show it. She smiled at him, took his hand, and moved to the bed.

She pulled back the covers and then turned to him; he said simply, "sit." The bed was tall, so he placed a hand on either side of her waist to help lift her up. She sat on the edge, and he came to stand in front of her, taking her face in his hands and kissing her deeply.

His fingers trailed down her shoulder, her arm, to her thigh, where they dexterously unclasped her right stocking from its garters. Releasing her lips, he moved both hands to slowly peel the stocking from her leg, occasionally kissing the newly uncovered skin on his path to her toes.

********
As Severus kissed her inner thigh, Hermione let herself sink backwards onto the bed. And as his hands and lips returned to repeat their treatment on her other leg, the feel of his breath caused a spark of flame to shoot from her womb up into her chest. She felt herself run wet, and thought that she had never been this aroused. Gods, this was incredible.

Her stockings gone, she felt Severus guiding her legs onto the bed and she turned herself to lie down properly. He lay beside her, and she put a hand to his neck and drew his mouth down to hers. As they kissed, his hand found her breast, beginning again that lovely caress; she could feel her erect nipple chafing against the ivory satin.

His mouth replaced his hand, tongue trailing across the top of a breast, tracing the edge of her bra, while his hand moved to caress her inner thigh. She couldn't help it; she began to writhe beneath his touch.

"Severus…I…"

And then his face was above hers, his hand in her hair, his eyes searching hers. "What is it?"

She kissed him deeply. "I love you."

He smiled. "I love you, too."

********
Still smiling, his hand moved now to her shoulder, sliding the strap of her bra from the smooth skin. She rolled towards him, allowing him to reach behind and unhook the garment, and he slowly pulled the satin away.

His breath caught in his chest at the sight of her. Smooth, creamy skin; dark, round aureoles; nipples hard and sensitive to his touch. He leaned down to the closest one and tasted it with his tongue. She moaned, moved her hand to wind her fingers through his hair.

He thought he could stay there forever, suckling, listening to the sounds of her labored breathing, her soft moans.

"Severus…"

This time, he knew better than to think that she was going to ask him to stop, and so did not pause in his ministrations. "Hmm…" he murmured against her flesh.

"…I want…I want to see you…"

********
She surprised herself with that request, and for a moment worried what he would say. But he simply rolled away from her slightly, and said, "Whatever you want…"

Hermione smiled, primarily out of nerves, and reached out a hand to stroke his chest. Raising herself to her knees, she allowed herself a good, long look at him--thin, but with lean muscle under the pale surface. She ran her hand through the dusting of hair on his chest, and then down across his stomach, delighting in the gooseflesh that resulted from her touch.

She leaned down to kiss his abdomen, and then, with a quick glance at his face--no sign of the wry Potions Master now, and it startled her to see his response to her attempts, since she hadn't really thought she'd know how to please him--she hooked her fingers over the waistband of his underpants and pulled them gently down…

Though she had seen photos before, the other girls' comments about penises ("Eww…they're so gross…all red and hairy and…bumpy!" Parvati had declared as they put their heads together over a Muggle magazine the girl had smuggled into school in their sixth year) had left her unsure of what her reaction might be to seeing one…well, up close and personal. With a smile to herself, she thought, "Not so bad…" Though it did seem a little…larger…than she had imagined.

Not-so-innocent curiosity got the better of her, and, after giving it a questioning stroke with one finger, she wrapped her hand around him, reveling in the warm paradox of soft hardness.

"Merlin's beard…" he groaned. She knew she'd done something--right or wrong, she couldn't exactly tell--because he never invoked Merlin, if he could help it…

********
Severus had watched her explorations in silence, his growing desire mixed with curiosity. The touch of her finger had been torture enough, but when she held him in her hand, he thought he would explode. There was patience, and then there was patience…and he was quickly running out of both.

"Merlin's beard…" he groaned. At the look on her face, he drew her back down to lie beside him. Rolling towards her, he brushed her hair from her face with one hand while the other roamed to her waist. "I'm afraid I don't have the…endurance to let you play as you will…not this time…" he said, and she giggled. He never thought he'd actually like the sound of a giggle…

Silencing her with a kiss, his hand passed underneath the top of her panties, pausing for a moment when she gasped. He continued his path downwards, trailing the tips of his fingers through her curls, cupping her with his palm, and then allowing one tapered finger to slide within her folds.

He was rewarded by a sharp intake of breath and the sound of his name, and as his finger toyed with its prize, she began to shift her hips. He removed his finger--she gave a shuddering sigh--and rose to his knees. He pulled the now-damp material down over her legs, lowering his mouth to run his tongue around her navel.

Her hands fastened themselves in his hair, and he continued to kiss her stomach as his finger returned to its previous activity.

********
Hermione had never, even in her most successful attempts at self-stimulation, felt like this. Her whole body tingled, and the slow, steady motion of his hand at her clitoris made her want to scream.

"Severus…please…I need you…"

He raised his head to look at her, and the darkness of his eyes matched the huskiness of his voice. "Are you sure you're ready?" She could only nod, and catch her breath as that same long, lovely finger entered her.

"Gods…yes…please…" she moaned…

********
Kissing his way back up to her mouth, Severus moved so that he was lying cradled between her legs. He felt her instinctively shift beneath him, and her legs came up to encircle his hips…perhaps leaving him a little less room than he needed to maneuver…at least at first.

He kissed her deeply, gauging her reaction as his erection pressed against her opening. Her legs relaxed a little, and he paused for a moment to whisper, "It will only hurt for a moment…" He felt her nod, felt her hand grip his shoulder a little more tightly.

Reaching down, he guided himself into her, placing only the tip of his penis inside at first, letting her get used to the feeling--letting himself get used to it, for that matter. Slowly, he pushed further; gradually he felt her relax. At the point of no return, his lips sought hers. He kissed her deeply as he broke through her barrier; she whimpered a little into his mouth.

He put his cheek to hers, lying very still (though he thought he might pass out with the effort) and supporting himself on his elbows so as not to rest his full weight upon her, until he felt her shift underneath him. She drew her breath to speak, but instead kissed his shoulder. Her hand ran down his back, and as he began to thrust, gently, it caressed his hip, and then his buttock.

"Severus…" she whispered, "I love you."

********
The feeling of him inside her--filling her--wasn't at all what she had expected. The pain was sharp, but quick, and whatever soreness she felt now was a distant second to the sweet, building tension inside of her.

In the back of her mind, a doubt still lurked: she had wondered if she would be able to come to orgasm her first time with a man. This felt lovely, but she still wasn't sure…oh…my…Gods…

Severus had begun to move a little faster, shifting just a bit every few strokes…now she realized why. "Oh…Gods…" she moaned, and her hips began to move in earnest, matching his rhythm instinctively. Her hands clutched at his back, she felt her eyelids flutter, heard him saying her name into her hair as he found that same delicious spot again and again.

Faster now, and she was moaning with every thrust. She heard his breathing, ragged, heard him groan, and the sound of him put her over the edge. She grabbed at the headboard above her…she needed to hold onto something steady…. She came hard, her legs quivering, her vagina contracting…that same spark, magnified, shooting through her entire body…she screamed his name…

********
Her contractions brought Severus to his climax as well, and he groaned as she called out his name, spilling into her.

He could not support his own weight anymore, and began to roll to his side.

"No," she said softly. "Not yet…" So he remained where he was, letting himself relax, and her arms came around him. Still joined, for a minute they stayed there, their heartbeats returning to normal.

He heard her sniffle, and shifted onto his side then, concerned. "Hermione…"

She covered her eyes with her hand. "I'm sorry…I'm sorry…I didn't mean to cry…"

"Did I hurt you…what's wrong? What is it?"

"Nothing…I…" she looked at him, embarrassed, and choked out, "I'm just happy…"

Kissing her forehead, he rose just long enough to pull the covers up over them both, and then held her as she cried softly.

********
"Better?" he asked gently.

"Better," she answered. After a long pause, she spoke hesitantly. "I thought…well, I wasn't sure I would…but that was…good. Wasn't it?"

He chuckled despite himself. "Yes, love. Very good." She seemed to relax with that reassurance, nestling in a little closer.

A few minutes later, he rolled onto his back, bringing her with him so that she was resting with her head on his shoulder, held safely under his arm. Her hand moved lightly across his chest underneath the covers, but now it was far from torture. It was peace, contentment, belonging…something he had never thought to have.

As he drifted off to sleep, he heard her whisper…"I love you, Severus…"

Chapter Text

"Sassafras." Hermione barked the password and the portrait swung open. She was more grateful than ever that she had a landscape, rather than a human figure, guarding her door.

She had arrived at Hogsmeade station much later than she had intended, and it was dark and snowy out. Not a nice sort of snowy, with the moonlight glistening off the flake-covered branches. No, it was a dreary, wet sort of snowy, where no matter what shoes you wore (hers were ugly rubber things that her mother had forced on her) your socks got wet.

She dumped her bags in the floor, stripped off her cloak and threw it on top, and then took a seat in the blue chair to remove her (ugly) boots and (drippy) socks.

Leaning back, she jabbed her wand at the hearth. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as the flames began to warm her toes, and it was only then that she heard a plaintive "meow" coming into the room.

"There you are. I'm finally home." Home.

Crookshanks looked her over for a minute, decided it was safe, and jumped into her lap, fussing a bit.

As she stroked her cat in greeting, she said to him, "All I want is to get in bed and stay there for a week. Do you know it? Will you stay in bed with me?"

Then it hit her.

Severus.

She didn't want to see him. Or rather, she wanted to see him desperately, if she could be sure that he wouldn't ask her about her trip. He wouldn't push her to talk if she didn't want to, bless him, but she knew he wouldn't quite be able to hide his concern.

"Damn."

Hermione cursed just because she could. She'd been on her best behavior for forty-eight hours now, having arrived at her parents' house in time for lunch on New Year's Day and staying two nights, rather than the one she had planned on. She'd only gotten away after her mother had fed her dinner, complaining that she looked too thin, and what did they feed her at Hogwarts, anyway?

At least New Year's Eve had been fun. She'd gone to Greg and Bill's for the day, topped off with a movie (When Harry Met Sally, timed so that the credits rolled just in time for midnight) and the accompanying drinks (more than her usual), and stayed the night on their sofa. But somewhere around two o'clock in the morning, just as they were all fading to sleep (it was a fold-out sofa, wide enough for three to squeeze into), Bill had dropped a bomb.

Greg had begun by noting, "You know, Hermione, we really do want to come and visit you sometime."

"Umm-hmm," she'd murmured, knowing this could certainly keep until morning.

Bill had then added, "Yeah, it's been so long since we've been to Hogwarts--since graduation. It might be nice to see some of our old professors."

Had she been more awake and less drunk, she would have heard the warning siren start to howl. As it was, she was unprepared for Bill's next sentence.

"Because, you know, we were talking about this the other day--we have a hard time reconciling the Snape we knew then with the Snape you know now. It'd be fun to see the two of you together."

"Damn," Hermione muttered, picking up her cat and heading to bed.

********
In the morning, Hermione stayed in bed as long as she could stand it, which made Crookshanks very happy. She realized that she hadn't slept in the same bed with her cat since Christmas Eve, after all…

Which brought her thoughts back to Severus. Sighing, she got out of bed. After a hot shower, she rang for some breakfast; while she wanted to see Severus this morning, she didn't want to face everybody else.

She had settled into the green chair with the mail from the past few days when there was a knock on her door.

"I see you made it back safely," Severus quipped as soon as she opened the portrait. He didn't look happy; he didn't look mad either. She motioned for him to come in.

"I'm sorry. I should have let you know last night that I was back. I didn't…"

"I'm not scolding, Miss Granger," he said, teasing her. "That is, not exactly."

Looking into his eyes, she had no idea why she hadn't gone straight to his arms the night before. She dove into them now, holding on as if for dear life and feeling more relief than she would have thought was warranted before she'd opened the door.

********
"Your cat is staring at me," Snape noted dryly as she sat down opposite him. "I knew he didn't like me, but that glare is really off-putting. And yes, I recognize the irony in that."

She looked at him to find him glaring at her, apparently to make his point, but she only giggled. "He does that with everybody. He stared and sniffed at Remus for a full half-hour before he agreed…wait…how do you know Crookshanks doesn't like you? You've never met him."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "I most certainly have met him. He was a wretched addition to an already wretched night. Surely you remember?"

He waited patiently, and then it dawned on her.

"Oh…oh Gods, Severus, I am sorry about that. I completely forgot that he was there…but…and your head…"

"I assure you that my head has quite recovered by now," he said, grumpily sipping from his cup.

Hermione stifled a giggle. She knew that Severus had been mortified to find out that he had been wrong about Wormtail, and still didn't like to talk about his error--Sirius, of course, made a sport of throwing it in his face--but the fact that he would joke about it with her made her smile. As did the memory of his head bouncing against the ceiling, though she knew better than to say so.

"At least that thought has put a smile on your face. Are you going to tell me about your holidays, or is this one of those subjects we'll put off as long as possible until we have a huge row about it?"

Hermione's jaw dropped. "I don't believe that we ever put off subjects until they cause a row. The you of we, maybe, but the me of we…"

"Oh, do let's agree that I was joking before your grammar becomes any more atrocious."

She knew that he was trying to tease her back into normalcy, and part of her wished that he'd just take her to bed to achieve the same effect. But she knew that he wasn't going to let her off the hook.

"It wasn't bad," she started. "It was lovely to see Hazel--I had lunch with her--and then I spent the night with the guys. Aside from the hangover, it was great fun." He raised an eyebrow. "Don't look at me like that."

"I'm not criticizing your methods of celebrating the holiday; I'm only amazed the three of you were so far gone that no one thought to have something on hand to avoid the inevitable consequences."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I made it to my parents' house just in time for mum's luncheon party--that was an ordeal, of course, since most of her friends don't know what I actually do for a living and I have to keep the story straight. Apparently mum's added in a boyfriend. He's an accountant."

Snape snorted.

"Then, of course, mum was in high gear all night, and I didn't have time to talk with her. I spent the evening with Dad--I think he knew that I had some news, something I wanted to talk about, but I didn't say anything. I went to bed early. The next morning mum had a meeting to go to--her women's charity circle or some such thing--and Dad and I had the morning to ourselves. He asked me if anything was wrong, and I told him that I had something to tell him and mum, but I wasn't sure if they'd be happy about it…"

"Hermione, is there something wrong? You've seemed…anxious, ever since you arrived."

"Nothing's wrong, Daddy…I promise," Hermione assured him, seeing the skeptical look on his face. "In fact, everything feels right…for the first time. I'm just not sure what you're going to think about it. I know mum won't like it."

"Maybe you'd better tell me what it is?"

"I…I'm seeing someone."

"A wizard someone, I assume?" Hermione nodded, and her father continued, "Well, yes, your mum will be disappointed at that, but…I'm assuming there's more to it?"

"He's…he's a professor. He was my professor."

"Oh? So…he's older…."

"Yes. But Dad…it's Severus Snape." There was silence. Hermione knew that her Dad wouldn't have forgotten all the stories she'd told him over the years; she hoped he would also remember how her stories had changed for the better when she started working on her honors project--remember that Snape had helped her with her publishing. She hadn't told her parents everything--only the bare bones about the war with Voldemort, the ongoing threat before that, and nothing about the current troubles with renegade Death Eaters. What they knew was enough of an obstacle. She didn't need to add any more.

"Oh. I see. He wasn't…a favorite of yours at school, was he?" Hermione shook her head. "But you seemed to work well with him later on?" She nodded. Her father sighed. "Well, little one, I can't say that he would be my first choice, and I can't tell you that I don't have my doubts." He paused. "It's hard being so far removed from your daughter's life…. Will I ever have a chance to meet this man of yours?"

"Of course, Daddy."

"Well, then. I trust you, Hermione, though I still worry. It's my prerogative, you know." A pause; a searching gaze. "Does he make you happy?"

"Yes."

"Do you trust him?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Does he love you?"

"Yes."

"And you love him."

It was not a question; Hermione knew her father had always been able to read everything she was feeling from the look on her face.

"I love him, Daddy."

"Then that's that. Your mother certainly won't be happy, and you might as well let her rant about it for a while. She'll feel better, even if you and I don't."

"And believe me, mum ranted," Hermione groaned.

Snape narrowed his eyes. He had never met Hermione's parents, but knew that she had worried over their reaction--her mother's reaction in particular. It was difficult thinking of her as somebody's child. She seemed independent and confident, and at the same time still dependent, to some extent, on her parents' opinions--even when she dismissed them--and on their support. (The thought crossed his mind that she related to him in much the same way.) They still mattered, and he forced himself not to comment, waiting for her to continue.

She looked at him after a moment, and said, "I wish she'd just thrown a fit. Instead, she just pursed her lips, went about cleaning everything in sight, and made snide comments every few minutes. She covered everything: the fact that my choice in jobs had limited my choice in men; her conviction that I would choose an older man, and that I was choosing this man just to spite her…or Ron, or Harry, she couldn't decide who; and her certain knowledge that I would leave her house at some point and never, ever come back. I stayed a second night just so she'd have time to get it all in, so we could at least have a civil good-bye."

She stopped, gazed at the fire. Severus offered, "I'm sorry."

Hermione smiled weakly. "At least she's not coming for a visit." At his quizzical look, she explained, "Greg and Bill are planning on it. They've taken a notion to see us together."

Severus sighed.

********
"Do you suppose he's mad at me for keeping you away from him all those nights?" Snape eyed Crookshanks, who had not moved throughout Hermione's narrative. He was still seated in the doorway, his gaze never leaving the man who had invaded the green chair.

"I can't tell," she said, distracted by her own thoughts. "He hasn't even sniffed you yet."

Severus and the cat stared at each other for a few minutes while Hermione was lost in thought. Recovering herself, she looked at them both, and then addressed the cat. "Crookshanks, for the Gods' sakes, just go see about him and get it over with."

Crookshanks looked at his person, then back to Snape. Giving a grand stretch--apparently to show off his claws--he sauntered over to Snape's chair and gave the bottom edge of his robes a sniff.

Proving that a cat can do a double take, Crookshanks sniffed again, then carefully--as if suspecting that his nose deceived him--moved to Snape's shoes, and then raised up on his hind legs to sniff at Snape's hand, resting on the arm of the chair. He sat for a moment, regarding their guest, and then leaped nimbly into Severus's lap, kneaded his robes for a minute, and, with another sniff, settled in for a nap, purring loudly.

Hermione was stunned, and Severus's eyebrow was threatening to hit the ceiling. She looked from her cat to her partner, and her eyes went wide.

"My best guess, love, is that you bring my scent home with you…" Severus trailed off as Hermione blushed crimson and moved to make more tea.

********
They moved to the dungeons for the afternoon and evening, working in amicable silence for most of the time. It took Hermione until dinnertime to realize that there was something he hadn't told her yet. Neither one of them had suggested going to the Great Hall for lunch or dinner, and they took a break when several platters of food arrived on the desk in Severus's office.

"I heard from…my ally," Snape explained when she asked him if he had any news. By "ally," he meant the man with whom he worked most closely. "Apparently one of our other…colleagues…has arranged a meeting with a new contact, and asked him to go along."

"And you're not sure about the meeting?"

"I'm not sure about the meeting, the new contact…or our colleague…" Severus tapered off, and Hermione knew that he'd say more when he was ready. She had to clench her jaw closed, though, to keep from asking one of the myriad of questions she found at the tip of her tongue.

********
The next morning, Hermione shifted closer to the warmth of Severus. For a moment, she expected her mother to storm into the room and demand to know why there was a man in her bed. She smiled to herself, and reached up to pet the flannel-covered arm that was draped over her.

On their third night together, Hermione had announced that she couldn't keep up the pretense anymore, and had wrapped herself in Severus's dressing gown and returned to her room through the fireplace, leaving a stunned Severus in the bed alone. She'd come back almost immediately, clad in a long flannel nightshirt (she'd chosen the plaid over the penguins) and carrying with her a thick chenille robe (navy) and a pair of fluffy socks (grey). Severus had laughed out loud before going to the dresser to retrieve his own grey nightshirt.

She heard his breathing change, but before she could say anything, he muttered in her ear, "You've got to be kidding me."

She looked over her shoulder at him, and saw Crookshanks perched on Severus's hip like a leonine Sphinx.

"I'd rather he hated me, if this is what acceptance gets me," he growled softly, and Hermione refrained from pointing out that he still hadn't moved the cat.

Chapter Text

"There you are!" Remus greeted Hermione as she arrived in the Hall for breakfast. "I wondered when you were getting back."

Hermione had, with some foresight, not told him when to expect her. Maybe he didn't suspect that she'd spent the previous day with Severus…. Then again, something in his smile told her that he probably did. Of course, Severus had headed directly for the dungeons, bypassing breakfast in public. At least Remus was the last one remaining at the table.

"Hi, Remus," she said, slipping into the seat next to him. "It's good to see you."

They fell into friendly chatter about the holidays (he knew enough to ask about her friends, rather than her family), and were soon joined by Madame Hooch.

"Good to see I'm not the only one that likes a late breakfast over the holidays," she quipped, loading her plate with bacon and scones. "All the others already gone, I take it. Where's Snape?"

She looked straight at Hermione, who raised her eyebrows at the suddenness of the question. "I would guess that he's working already," Hermione began, and with a flash of sudden inspiration added, "we've got to get started on the Wolfsbane before school starts, and my being away didn't help matters any."

Hooch snorted, turning to her breakfast. "Didn't help his mood any, either."

In stark contrast to her friend Poppy, Madame Hooch was completely matter-of-fact, indulging in no suppositions, no innuendo, and no tittering, half-whispered gossip. Hermione was grateful, and amused, that the flying instructor had apparently made up her mind on the matter--and seemed to approve.

"Hmm," Hermione said, non-committal, and poured another cup of tea.

"Of course, he's never happy when his birthday rolls around," Hooch added to herself, and Hermione had to lunge to grab the sugar bowl she'd almost knocked over in her shock.

********
After breakfast, Hermione had arranged an afternoon meeting with Remus and headed to the dungeons. She had not, however, asked Severus about his birthday; Hooch hadn't mentioned the date, and Hermione was dying to ask him when it was and if she had missed it. But she'd just have to wait for an opening.

Most of their work today consisted of going over notes and formulas, books and articles, and past records of Lupin's biological changes over the months and years. They worked straight through lunch, and then continued their discussion as they began to brew the testing serums they would need for their meeting with Lupin.

By the time Remus arrived at the classroom door, Hermione and Snape were concentrating on their work so carefully that not even the thought of birthdays could distract them. While the potion making was routine, it was slightly complicated, and they had settled into the comfortable working rhythm that so often surrounded them.

Remus stood in the doorway and watched for a minute or two. Wordlessly, the pair worked as one, with Snape stirring the mixture and adding the ingredients Hermione prepared and handed to him. Remus had never seen them work together, and the synchronicity they shared was striking enough to send a twinge of jealousy through his heart. The potion almost complete, Hermione handed Snape the last of the ingredients and then stood quietly at his side, watching the cauldron.

Satisfied, Snape extinguished the flame and turned to Hermione, putting a hand on her shoulder and noting, "That should do it," as he moved to retrieve some vials from a cabinet at the side of the room.

Hermione smiled and said, "I'll get the notes…Remus!" She finally noticed him as she moved towards the office. "You should have said something; I didn't realize that we were keeping you waiting."

"I didn't want to interrupt," he replied, feeling more awkward than he would have liked to admit.

"Lupin." Snape's greeting was cold but polite. "We should let this cool; would you like to begin in my office?"

Remus nodded, and followed Hermione into the Potion Master's office. Snape took the seat behind his desk, while the other two sat by the hearth.

"Would you like me to start a fire?" Hermione asked. "We don't usually keep one going during the day, because the cauldrons generate so much heat. Or would you like some tea?"

Early on in their relationship, Hermione had realized that Snape's hair wasn't greasy; it was extremely fine and silky, and with the humidity from the cauldrons, it lay perpetually limp against his head. Meanwhile, Hermione's own curls grew increasingly fuzzy the more time she spent at her work, and even she couldn't stand the prospect of charming it into submission repeatedly. Typically, she just pulled it back and up and out of her face, causing Severus to laugh at some of the contortions she wound up with in her haste and distraction. She brushed a length back behind her ear self-consciously now.

"No, I'm fine," Remus answered, and tried to ignore Snape's almost imperceptible bristling at the delay. "Let's hear what you've got in store for me."

Snape began before Hermione had a chance. "I'll let Hermione tell you about the preliminary work we've done in a minute," he said (Remus wasn't sure he'd ever heard Snape use her first name). "She has had several excellent ideas to add to my previous work, and we may yet make some progress by following those paths. However…" Snape paused, and Remus noticed that Hermione was intent on his words, as if she didn't know what he was going to say. Snape took a breath, and his gaze moved to Hermione for a moment, before returning to Lupin. "I have not told either of you the primary reason I had stopped working on this potion. It wasn't only because the work on Cruciatus was so promising, and it wasn't necessarily because I'd hit a wall in my experiments. The truth is…" here he looked at Hermione, watching for her reaction, "that I was convinced I would not find the answer without resorting to…extreme measures."

Before he could continue, Hermione interjected, "Wait…do you mean…you think that we can't find a cure without the Dark Arts?"

"Precisely," said Severus, and his face remained unreadable.

Hermione sunk back in her chair. "But…we've had promising results over the past few weeks, and there are two or three hypotheses that we wanted to test--that we were going to go over with Remus today. What…you never said anything to me about this." Her brow was furrowed, and Remus thought that she looked as though her anger was quickly overtaking her surprise.

"No, I didn't," Snape responded, without irritation. "I wanted to speak to you both about this, together. I didn't want either of you to feel as though I had enlisted the support of the other in order to pressure you into an agreement. I wanted to measure both of your responses at the same time. And…I had hoped…that our work these past weeks would show me some prospect of success without the use of my darker skills." Hermione didn't look convinced, and he gently added, "I knew that it was quite possible--probable, in fact--that you would see something that I had not. I hoped that it would be enough."

Remus didn't think he'd ever heard Snape speak in just that tone, and as he turned back to Hermione he saw her face soften.

"But…ok. So apparently it wasn't enough?" Her voice told both men that she was setting aside her irritation for the time being, and her tone changed with her question to something akin to pleading.

"No, not enough," Severus shook his head gently. Turning to Remus, he continued. "So, I believe that we should continue our work as planned, but I did not want to begin my reading on alternative methods before I had an agreement with both of you. If you do not wish to involve the Dark Arts at this time, either of you, I will respect your wishes."

Remus needed no time for deliberation. With a glance at Hermione, he answered Snape. "I have complete trust in both of you," he began, choosing to ignore the way Snape's eyes went wide at the declaration, "and I will take whatever course you recommend. I agree with your assessment, Severus. I would like to continue the experiments as they are, but I have no objection to finding out how the Dark Arts can help us--can help me. Perhaps that's selfish of me, but the promise of a cure means that I would do just about anything."

Snape nodded, and the two men turned their gazes on Hermione. She shifted in her seat, and then said--to Remus--"If Remus agrees, I certainly won't stand in the way of our using any means necessary to cure him." Now she looked at Snape. "I have some questions, and, as I'm sure you expected, some reservations. But I trust that you will set my mind at ease when we have a chance to talk about this later?"

It was more a demand than a question, but Snape nodded his assurance.

"Then I suggest we get started with the tests for today, and while they simmer, I'll explain to Remus the things we'd already decided on. Shall we?"

She stood, and the men stood with her. Remus preceded her out of the office; Snape followed. She hadn't exploded, which Snape thought was a good sign. And he could put her mind at ease. Once she'd finished yelling at him for not sharing his thoughts on the matter earlier.

********
Hermione left with Lupin. He was headed to Hogsmeade to have dinner with Sirius; she was joining McGonagall for a private supper to talk about the Ancient Runes course and catch up in general.

Lupin had shaken Snape's hand before leaving, and Snape knew that the promise of further progress--even if they could never fully cure his condition--was more than the man had dared to hope was possible. He was sure that Lupin had believed he had given up when the experiments had lapsed.

Hermione, meanwhile, had given him a shy smile as she left, and he thought again that he didn't know what she would say to him, exactly, when they met later. He suspected that it wasn't the use of the Dark Arts that she was angry about, but rather the perceived lack of trust on his part--the thought that he either didn't believe that she (they) could find a solution without resorting to such measures, or that he didn't trust that she would understand his recommendation. It would be an interesting evening; that much was certain.

Tempting as it always was to hypothesize about the workings of her mind, Severus retrieved a few volumes from his office shelves and went to read in his rooms until it was time for dinner in the Great Hall.

********
Severus was interrupted, after dinner, by Mordred's arrival. The owl swept gently into the room, rustling to a stop on the arm of the club chair Snape had inhabited for the last hour.

He eyed the bird, then passed his hand along Mordred's feathered head. "Tell me you've brought good news, for once, at least?" The owl's reaction did nothing to reassure him.

Scanning the note quickly, Snape's brow furrowed, and his mouth drew close into a tight line across his face. After reading it again more slowly, one hand dropped with the note to his lap as the other pressed against the bridge of his nose.

He sat that way for several minutes before the next interruption: his name coming out of the fireplace. "Come," he muttered, and Hermione stepped through.

He only looked up at her when she said, "Please tell me that I'm not the only cause of this mood." She was teasing, he saw, but also worried.

"As certain as I am that you have many things to say to me tonight, most of them distinctly unpleasant, you are not the cause of this…mood." He hated that word.

She sunk into the sofa opposite. "Well that's good to hear, at least." She pointedly did not ask about the note in his lap, and Severus mentally reminded himself to thank her later for her forbearance.

After a moment of silence, he said, a bit testily, "Well?"

Hermione only sighed. He raised an eyebrow; he hadn't known her to hesitate before taking him to task over something in the past.

She looked at him then for a moment, and then said, "This may indeed be 'distinctly unpleasant,' but I don't think it will be for the reasons you expect." The other eyebrow joined the first, and she resigned herself. "Yes, I was angry at you for not telling me what was on your mind. I was angry because you had let me think our work was more promising than it was. Because you didn't believe that I could figure this one out. And also because you were deciding on an extreme measure and you hadn't let me in on the debate."

She paused, and Severus said, with just a touch of his professorial tone, "Had it not crossed your mind? Did you think our work was so promising that my recommendation was precipitous? Unnecessary?"

Hermione flinched, a movement born out of irritation, rather than embarrassment or anger. "It had crossed my mind. And I had dismissed it out of hand as a bad choice."

"Because it was dangerous? Wrong?"

"Both. And…. And because it was…the easy way out."

Severus had no response to that.

"I know that sounds ridiculous. But what I mean is…using the Dark Arts was like giving up on my own research methods. I had thought, at some point, that I couldn't solve the Cruciatus potion--told myself that maybe it couldn't be solved without using the sort of magic that created it in the first place. And that was a cop-out, for me. And with your help, and a lot more work, we did solve it. So when I had the same thought about this…"

She trailed off, and Severus nodded, understanding slightly better that shy smile she'd given him as she left that afternoon. This was certainly not what he had anticipated.

Hermione continued. "When you said that the only way we would perfect a cure was to use the Dark Arts, several things ran through my mind. The anger I already told you about," she shot him a look and his lip curled up in amused acknowledgement, "and the thought that I'd been flat wrong--too proud of my own work to think that there was something I couldn't do. The irritating truth that, yet again, I couldn't solve this one without your help, even if I tried--not that I'd want to." Another shy smile. "But…"

Here she stood and moved to the hearth, unable to meet his eye.

Still unsure of where this was going, Severus tried to reassure her. "I did not mean to suggest that you were too proud or not skilled enough to solve the problem. You may yet do it--certainly the Ministry would prefer a cleaner answer than mine. But in the meantime, we are at a dead end, and…"

"No. It's not to do with that."

"But you said…"

She glanced at him, and then looked back at the flames. "Yes, all of those things are a part of it. But by the time I left for dinner, I…I realized what was really bothering me."

"And…?"

A huge sigh. Hermione turned to face him, bracing herself, and Severus forced himself to remain seated.

"What bothers me most about your recommendation is that…now that Remus and I have agreed…I'm not sure that you're going to let me help you."

It took him a minute to register what she had said. When he did, he stood, and his face was hard, his eyes cold. Hermione hadn't seen him look at her in that way for ages. It wasn't what she had expected; it wasn't yelling and pacing--that she could have dealt with much more easily. Instead, he stood, unmoving, and uttered one word, devoid of all emotion: "No."

Hermione wanted to throw a fit, wanted to yell, wanted to try to drive him to some sort of emotion. At the same time, she wanted to explain, to plead, to reassure him. Finally, she wanted to tell him in no uncertain terms how angry this made her--and how scared.

Instead, she answered with a calm, quiet, word of her own: "Why?"

Severus took two steps towards her, stopping to brace one hand on the mantelpiece. "I will not teach you the Dark Arts."

"I'm not asking you to. And you didn't answer my question."

The mask cracked, and his lips pursed in annoyance. "I should think that would be obvious."

"It's not."

Now he began to pace. Despite herself, Hermione had to hide a smile.

"You don't want me to teach you the Dark Arts?"

"No."

"Then what are you asking me to let you do?"

She paused, choosing her words carefully. "I'm asking you to show me just enough of what you're working on so that I can understand the process. So that I can still help with our work, and not be left behind, taking blood samples from Lupin. I'm asking you to assure me that you're not going to shut me out." She let her irritation show just a little, and her insecurity.

Severus ran a hand through his hair. "I don't like it."

"I didn't expect that you would."

He huffed out a sigh. "I should refuse you absolutely."

"But you won't."

A look of supreme irritation. "No, I won't."

She gave him a tentative smile. "Thank you."

Severus grunted a response, and returned to his chair, pressing his fingertips to the bridge of his nose again.

After a few minutes, Hermione crossed to him, bent down, and kissed him softly on the forehead. His lips twitched, an annoyed look crossed his face, but he didn't protest.

"In exchange," she said softly, "I'm not going to ask you about your letter."

He gave no response, and she left silently through the fireplace. She knew he'd need some time alone to sort out this new development. Besides, she'd pushed him enough for one day--and she had to admit he'd done better than she'd expected.

********
Hermione was finally drifting off to sleep when Severus knocked softly at her bedroom door. Smiling to herself, she answered, "Come in."

He came to the foot of the bed and asked, quietly, "Do you mind?"

The smart remark faded on her lips when she lifted her head and saw his face. "Of course not."

He draped his dressing gown over the end of bed, lifted the covers, being careful not to let in the chill, and crawled in behind her. Hermione didn't move, and after several minutes, she thought he'd gone to sleep.

Softly then, in the darkness, he murmured, "I still don't like it."

"I know."

His arm came around her waist then, and she pulled him close.

Chapter Text

When Hermione woke the next morning, Severus was gone. In his place at her back, Crookshanks purred loudly, curled up in the warmth his new favorite had left behind. When she rolled over to face him, the nose that was just peeking out from under the covers raised a bit, as if judging whether or not her movement presented a clear and present danger.

"I know you're there, and I promise I'm not going to roll on you," she said, curling herself around her cat, her arm flung across Severus's pillow. The nose lowered itself; the purring grew loud again.

********
At first, she assumed that Severus didn't want to talk about their conversation last night, and had beat a hasty retreat. She had breakfast on time, sitting amidst the other professors and lingering over scones to finish a conversation with Dumbledore and McGonagall.

After Minerva had gone (Hermione wondered later if they had planned this beforehand, or if Dumbledore had given some sign recognizable as such only to McGonagall), Dumbledore twinkled at her from behind his spectacles.

Hermione raised an eyebrow, and the twinkle became a soft chuckle. Reaching for the pot of tea, Dumbledore began, "Miss Granger, I have been wondering whether or not to say anything to you concerning your relationship with Severus." He paused when she smiled. "What is it? Have I said something humorous?"

"No, Sir. It's just…well, I've been waiting to see who would ask me first. I didn't expect it would be you."

The Headmaster smiled. "I did not intend to ask anything, Miss Granger. Just to comment." She smiled again (since when did Dumbledore have to ask questions, after all?), and nodded for him to continue. "I have never seen Severus Snape so…content," he ventured. "I would say 'happy,' though I suspect that adjective will always be a little strong for our Severus."

"Perhaps." Hermione sipped her tea, and then added, a little coyly, "Though you might be surprised."

At this, Dumbledore let out a genuine laugh, nearly causing Hermione to drop her cup.

"You are probably right at that, my dear," he said, and reached for another scone.

********
When she arrived in the Potions classroom, however, there was no sign of Snape. Hermione knocked on his office door, opening it when there was no answer. She thought about returning to her rooms and going through the hearth to see if he was holed up in his own chambers, but decided that he'd show up when he was good and ready.

Setting herself to work, Hermione didn't notice the passage of time until her stomach began to growl. Looking at the clock, she was surprised to see that it was lunchtime. Still no Severus.

She decided to surface, to see who was around. The thought of asking the others if they'd seen him didn't appeal to her, but maybe somebody would mention something.

She joined Remus and Hooch at the table, and before long Flitwick arrived. The four of them settled into a lively conversation about Quidditch prospects in the new term (with Slytherin's troubles, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor had emerged neck and neck at the front of the standings), and it was only after lunch, when she was on her way back down to the dungeons, that her niggling worries about Snape resurfaced. She decided to check in with Dumbledore.

********
Pausing beside the Gargoyle, Hermione had a brief moment of panic, remembering the last time she had come to the Headmaster's office in search of Severus. She hadn't let herself think that he might be in trouble…. Flailing about mentally for anything that would anchor her thoughts and give her another possibility, a piece clicked into place.

When Dumbledore welcomed her into the office, her opening query was much calmer than she felt. "Have you seen Severus, Professor? I'm wondering if he's in hiding because it's his birthday."

The look on his face told her that her guess had been right. "I've always said that you were clever, dear. But I'm sorry, I don't think that his absence is as petty as that, much as we would like it to be."

Hermione's face fell. "What…do you know something, Professor?" The thought that he had been keeping something from her at breakfast…

"I have only just received word that there may be something darker at play. I myself had not realized that Severus was absent today, since you mentioned nothing at breakfast and I assumed that he was avoiding the dining table as a matter of course. Or, as you say, a matter of birthday."

"I didn't realize he was missing until he didn't show up in the dungeons all morning," Hermione managed to explain.

"Ah. Well, I will hasten to say that I do not think Severus is in immediate danger. I suspect…but then, let us hear what Sirius has to say."

Black stood in the door, having just arrived. Hermione hadn't heard him come in, and didn't understand why he should have any information about Severus.

"No real news, Sir," Sirius said, taking the seat next to Hermione as Dumbledore gestured towards it. Turning to Hermione, he explained. "As you may know, I…hear things. And part of what I hear concerns the renegade Death Eaters that I believe Snape has been tracking for some time now."

Hermione did not respond or react; though she trusted Sirius, she would not give away anything that Severus had told her, could she help it. She realized too late, however, that her lack of reaction would reveal that she knew something, that the news wasn't a complete surprise.

After watching her closely for a few moments, Black continued. "Early this morning, I got wind that there had been a meeting near Hogsmeade last night--three men, one definitely working on our side, though not with us. Of the other two…we're not sure."

Hermione ran down the mental checklist: Snape's ally was the one Sirius was sure of, and the two were Snape's other, questionable colleague and the new contact.

When she still said nothing, Black said, "I know for a fact that Snape wasn't at the meeting. I assume, however, that he will have gone to survey the damage for himself today, as soon as he heard."

"The…damage?" Hermione asked.

"The man on our side is…missing, and presumed dead," Sirius said shortly, but not without gentleness.

Hermione took a deep breath, and turned to look at the Headmaster, who had remained silent throughout Sirius's narrative.

Sirius, however, was still focused on Hermione. "If you know anything, Hermione, I need you to tell me. I need to find Snape, to see…"

"No, Sirius. You will not put her in the middle of this." Dumbledore's voice was soft, but it was clear this was not a request.

"Sir, I…"

"No. What Miss Granger knows and does not know is none of our business. I assume, as you clearly do, that Severus has told her part of this--possibly more than we know. But we must leave it to her to speak of it, or to act on it, as she will. Hopefully, she will come to us for help, should she decide there is something to be done."

Black began to protest, and Hermione to reassure, but Dumbledore stopped them both with a wave of his hand. "Miss Granger, I believe we will have Severus back with us, safe and sound, before the end of the day--once he has, as Sirius says, surveyed the damage. I would ask you not to take any drastic action, should I turn out to be wrong in this, without consulting me." Hermione nodded. "And Sirius, I think that it might be wise to allow Severus to deal with this? Let us lie low for today and see what news the evening brings."

"As you wish, Headmaster. With your permission…?" He was already halfway to the door.

Dumbledore nodded, and, when the door closed behind Black, said, "Miss Granger, I honestly do not think we have cause to worry."

"Thank you, Sir. You'll let me know if you do hear anything?"

"Of course. Though I suspect you will see Severus before I do."

As Hermione rose to leave, he added, "You will wish him a happy birthday for me, won't you?"

Hermione smiled, pulling the door closed after her.

********
As the afternoon wore on, Hermione's anger began to catch up with her worry. Dumbledore's reassurance and Sirius's explanation had kept the latter at bay; now that she was mostly convinced Severus wasn't in danger, she had room to be mad at him.

She had made it very clear that she would not be left in the dark again, wondering where he was and when--if--he would come home. How hard would it have been for him to tell her that he had to go out to check on some reports, that he would be back by nightfall, that…well, anything?!

In her distraction, she added too much octopus tentacle to the cauldron. The potion turned a sludge-grey color and bubbled up, oozing over the side. She waved her wand to stop the reaction, but decided to leave the mess for Snape to clean up.

********
After forcing herself to eat dinner with the others, and not to appear too distracted, Hermione retreated to her rooms. She paced, she vented to Crookshanks, she made tea that she was too wound up to drink. Finally, she gave up, and sat in the green chair to stare at the fire and wait.

Several hours after dark, a small, honey-colored owl arrived at her window.

Miss Granger--

I believe our missing Potions Master has arrived home, safe and sound. If he is otherwise when you have done with him, do let Poppy know.

Albus Dumbledore

Hermione closed her eyes and sighed. Clearly, Severus would have had a bad day--a severe understatement, since most likely his ally was dead. And she didn't want him to shut down entirely. But he was going to have to deal with her, and it wouldn't wait until morning.

She moved to the fireplace, set her jaw, and said, "Severus." No answer. Louder: "Severus."

On the third try, it dawned on her. The invocation of his name didn't work simply because he was there in his rooms; it was a request, and he had to give her permission to enter, each and every time.

The implications of that--the questions of trust and control and the sheer stubbornness of it all--swept away her concern for Snape's state of mind. "Severus Snape, you bastard, let me through now or by the Gods…"

The smoke shifted color slightly--the sign that she could pass through--and she stepped into the flames.

********
She had not expected this.

Snape sat sprawled on the floor, his back to the sofa, with one leg stretched out under the table and the other drawn up to his chest. His robes and his jacket were strewn across a chair; his boots had been flung towards the door. He had undone his cuffs and his collar, pulled one side of his shirttail out of his trousers. His hair was more unruly than usual, with ends curling every which way and strands of it insistently falling into his face.

The half-empty bottle of scotch on the table in front of him told the tale.

At her arrival, Snape looked up, running through his hair the hand that was not holding the glass. He smiled faintly. "I suppose you are here to chastise me for disappearing? Well, my dear, I do hope that you won't restrain yourself on my account. At this point, I would welcome your further slurs on my parentage as a fitting end to an perfectly foul day."

He poured another shot (more like two or three) into the glass, held it up to her in a crude parody of a toast, and drank.

"Damn him," Hermione thought. She couldn't tell how drunk he was. She didn't know if he'd started with a full bottle or not, and she would bet money that Snape would remain annoyingly articulate, regardless. There was a glazed look in his eyes, however, that told her he had drunk enough to make a difference.

She sunk into to the chair opposite him, and, offering no sympathy as of yet, asked, "What happened?"

He poured another and sighed. Without prevarication or pause, he said, "Last night I received word that my ally had agreed to go with our colleague to meet with the new contact--to assess the situation and provide that service to which the American action films so charmingly refer as 'backup.' He didn't tell me when or where, but the meeting had originally been scheduled for the tenth of this month. I was being purposefully kept clear of things. This morning, at about five thirty, I received another message."

He drank, and poured again. This one he held in his hand, watching the liquid swirl in the glass as he spoke.

"You were right, of course." A glance at her, empty of sarcasm. "Our colleague was not to be trusted. And my ally is dead. By the hand of a man he called 'friend.'"

He tossed back the drink, eyed the empty glass, and then hurled it into the fireplace. Hermione flinched.

He continued calmly, as if there had been no interruption. "The new contact was Draco Malfoy. He claimed that he wanted to stop his father, that he had information. Of course I would have known better, and so I was kept away. My ally should have known better…" He trailed off, staring into the flames for a minute, but Hermione knew he was looking at something she could not see.

"I left this morning thinking that I would hear the details of the meeting and be back before you awoke. Instead, I spent the day investigating a man's death. Two of our colleagues have gone to ground. The man with whom I am left will be of little help, though I am fairly certain that he is loyal. And we are left with one more traitor to hunt down."

Hermione raised an eyebrow at his final turn of phrase, but said nothing. They sat in silence for several minutes before he turned his gaze on her.

"Well?"

"Well…what?" She wasn't sure what he wanted her to say.

"If you could see fit to yell at me sooner, rather than later, I'd like to get it over with so I can pass out and wake up on what will have to be a better day."

Hermione didn't respond. She simply rose from her chair and, taking the bottle with her, crossed to the bathroom. As shocked as she was to find Severus drunk, she would have been even more surprised if he didn't have a remedy already prepared. As controlling as he was, he wouldn't risk letting himself get drunk without…there it was.

She returned with the vial of Sober-Up Potion and set it on the table in front of him. He shot her a look of amusement mixed with irritation, and said, "I'd just as soon stay drunk, if you don't mind."

"Drink it."

He obeyed, and eyed her almost warily. He closed his eyes as his head began to clear and said softly, "I'm sorry, Hermione. I honestly thought I'd be back…"

She moved to sit beside him. When she said nothing, he looked at her. Her face was unreadable.

"Your apology is accepted. Though we're going to have a long talk about this tomorrow."

He looked confused. "Why tomorrow?"

Then she smiled gently at him, brushing his hair out of his face. "Because I wouldn't want to make your birthday any worse than it already is."

He chuckled at that, and they sat in silence, watching the fire.

********
Some time after they had moved to the sofa, Severus murmured, "You have no idea how hard it is to be kept back, to learn of things after the fact, to wonder if you could have helped…"

He trailed off, and Hermione chose to stay silent.

"Then again," he noted gently, "I suppose you do."

Maybe, she thought, their talk wouldn't have to be quite so long, after all.

Chapter Text

It was long enough. But not, Hermione thought, bad at all.

Deciding to forego any more scolding on the count of his not telling her where he was going, Hermione began with a few questions about the story he had told her the previous night.

"No, I do not think that Draco was the one to kill him," Severus answered. "I'm not sure what, exactly, Draco's point in arranging the meeting was. I don't know if he was hoping to turn one of us--or pretend that he had a change of heart himself, for some reason--or merely to threaten, or perhaps to convince the man to take a meeting with Lucius--and Lucius most certainly would have killed him…."

He paced a moment. "I think that our own colleague has to be the one who killed him, using the meeting with Draco as a cover, or…I don't know, perhaps he was unhappy with the way things were going…" He stopped and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I don't know."

Hermione waited for a moment before quietly asking her next question. "Do you think Lucius even knew about the meeting?"

Severus turned to give her a surprising smile of amusement. "Are you sure you weren't meant to be Sorted into Slytherin, Miss Granger?" She couldn't repress a laugh at his use of her surname, and the sentiment. His face turned somber again. "That's exactly what I was wondering. Draco could have been up to something on his own, trying to impress his father. It's likely, since, as I told you before, Lucius has always kept his son out of the thick of things."

He sunk into a chair and closed his eyes, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose in that now-familiar gesture. Hermione watched him for a moment, and decided that it was now or never…

"Severus?"

"Hmm?"

"While you were…gone yesterday," she had almost said "missing," but caught herself in time, "Dumbledore asked me what I knew about your…whereabouts."

Now she had his attention. He scowled, but said nothing. ("Probably waiting to see how loudly he should yell," she thought.)

She continued, refusing to drop her eyes. "I didn't tell him anything." ("Not that I knew where you were, anyway," she added to herself.) "But he already knew about the meeting. He must have found out about it shortly after you did."

Snape leaned forward in his chair, clearly caught between anger and confusion. "How…?"

"Black."

As he rose to pace again, Hermione continued. "Black had heard of the meeting, and while I was in Dumbledore's office, he came with the details. He knew almost as much as you did--or at least almost as much as you told me. Though I suspect he knew more than he wanted to say in front of me."

Hands on his hips, Severus stood gazing into the fire. "What, exactly, did he…no. I will take that up with Dumbledore. And then with Black."

He turned to glare at her, and she hurried to answer his probable question. "I didn't say anything--didn't admit to knowing anything about it. He wanted me to tell him what I knew so that he could go looking for you, but Dumbledore wouldn't let him drag me into it…"

He stopped her with a wave of his hand. "I believed you when you said so the first time. What I want to know is…why are you telling me this?"

"Why would I keep it from you?"

"You know very well what I mean."

She took a deep breath, allowing herself to drop her eyes for a moment. Then, fixing him with a look of her own, she said, "Because I want you to let us help you."

His eyes narrowed for a moment, but before he could say anything, she stood up and poured out her argument in a rush. "Look, you told me last night that you're left almost on your own now. Clearly your other allies are, if not questionable, either missing or of little use. You don't know what's going on with Draco, but if I know you, you're hoping that you can get him out of this mess somehow. Dumbledore is in no real danger from Lucius, if Lucius is working pretty much on his own, as it seems to me he must be, or he'd have done more damage by now. Meanwhile, though Black is certainly not your favorite person, it seems clear to me that his own sources of information are nearly, if not equally, as good as your own. And Remus and I…"

She stopped, trying desperately to read the expression on his face. Anger, frustration…but no disappointment, she thought, and…indecision?

She reached out to place a hand on his arm, and allowed herself to plead. "Please, Severus. Tell me you'll think about it. We want to help you. All of us."

An eyebrow raised. "You, especially?"

She smiled hesitantly. "Me, especially."

"I will…think…about it."

As she turned to sit back down, he muttered, "But I don't like it."

"No," she said, with a lifted eyebrow of her own, "I didn't expect that you would."

********
The topic was shelved for a bit, out of necessity, as school started up again. Hermione had spent much less time than she'd intended in preparing for her classes, what with her holiday travels and all the talk about things Severus didn't like. She still managed to be over-prepared, and when the bell rang at the end of her first lesson on Monday, she was astonished to find that she still had four pages of notes that she hadn't covered.

She flicked her wand at the right-hand chalkboard to ready it for her next class of third years, leaving the notes on the left for the same reason. Gathering her books, she headed for the Great Hall and lunch.

As she entered, Professor Sprout caught up to her. "Ah, Professor Granger. I hope the return to classes has found you well?"

"Well enough. And you?"

"Just fine, just fine. Oh, what a lovely outfit! That darkest of greens certainly suits you. And of course Professor Snape would approve of the color…"

Hermione was surprised by the remark, and Sprout had hurried to her chair before she could come up with a rejoinder.

Snape noticed the look on her face as she took her seat, and asked her if anything was the matter. The image of a head-table spat over beef stew sprang to mind, and she muttered, "Nothing. It's nothing." He wasn't convinced, but Hermione was thankful that he didn't press her. She decided that chatting with Remus would be a nice way to spend lunch. And at any rate, Madam Hooch appeared to have several things to talk over with Snape.

********
At the end of her afternoon class, Hermione was preparing for a trip to the library when she realized that one of her students was hovering at the office door. She looked up, and then warmly greeted the girl.

"Miss Fairfax, it's good to see you. I trust your holidays went well?"

The girl blushed a little, but smiled. She answered softly, "Yes, Professor. Quite well."

"Why don't you come in and have a seat? Tell me what I can do for you."

Having perched herself on the edge of a chair, the girl stared intently at the floor. "I…I am going to be in your Ancient Runes class on Thursday as well, Professor Granger, and I just wanted to tell you how happy I was that you'd be teaching it." Looking up, her large brown eyes gone even wider, she added, "I know that we'll be behind schedule, a little, since runes weren't offered last term, and I wondered…that is…" Her eyes fell to her lap. "I was hoping that you would allow me to do some extra work so that I could finish all of the usual first-year material. I…I'm very interested in the subject…"

The girl faltered, and Hermione recognized at once the similarity to herself, underneath the girl's hesitant demeanor. Evelyn Fairfax was already planning an honors project, most likely. Hermione squelched a chuckle and smiled kindly at the girl.

"Of course, Evelyn. I would be glad to work with you as much as possible, and to outline a course of extra work that would allow you to cover the material we'll have to pass over in class. Let me get some things organized, and we'll talk again. Perhaps Thursday? I have a class just after lunch, but we could meet later in the afternoon? Check in with me after class, and we'll find a time."

The girl was practically beaming. "Oh, yes, Professor Granger, I will. Thank you ever so much!"

********
After Evelyn had gone to her next class, Hermione headed to the library. Intent on her goal, she hadn't stopped to see which students were present, and was deep in the stacks, wading through some books on Runes before turning to the restricted section and the volume they needed for the lycanthropy work, before she noticed the hushed conversation.

Three or four voices, she thought, seated at a study table at the side of the room, directly on the other side of the shelves from her. She recognized one: Ruth Mitchell, a fourth-year Hufflepuff from her Arithmancy class. She guessed that the others were Hufflepuffs as well.

She had noticed them because they were talking about Snape--something about an incident that morning in Potions class. Now that she was no longer on the receiving end of his classroom manner, she found the students' impressions of him rather amusing.

"…and I thought it was fifty points from Ravenclaw for sure. You should have seen the look on Snape's face!"

"That's nothing. I heard that in the class before, he took five points from his own house because Arthur Prichard and his lot were talking through the lecture."

"Well, you know that the only thing Snape hates more than a Gryffindor is being ignored."

Giggles erupted at that witticism, certainly not original. Hermione smiled to herself. It was, after all, the truth.

The first voice began again. "You would think he'd be nicer now that…you know…"

"I thought that was just a rumor. You don't mean that it's true, do you?"

"I dunno. Ruth, you should know, you have her for class. Do you think she's actually…you know…" the voice dropped, almost inaudible, "dating Snape?"

Ruth's voice, then, for the first time, a little shaky. "I don't think it's any of our business. And I'm sure I wouldn't know."

"Gods, can you imagine?"

"I don't think I want to…"

"You don't think they…"

At the chorus of "Ewww"s that broke out, Hermione rounded the corner and stood quietly, waiting for them to notice her. Ruth was the first to see her, and gasped. The others turned, and looked sufficiently embarrassed that Hermione half-regretted putting a stop to their nonsense.

Donning her best professorial tone (one that would do Snape proud), she noted, "I would suggest that all of you get on with your studying before I am forced to take points from your house for this disruption. Or to tell Professor Snape about this…discussion."

They quickly looked down at their books. Ruth, however, shot a concerned look at her professor, and Hermione nodded slightly to reassure her. She returned to her studies as well, and Hermione to her stacks.

She knew, of course, that there were rumors. But she had never liked being the subject of gossip, and it took her several minutes to refocus her energies on the subject of Thursday's lesson.

********
It had not been a good day. Points from Slytherin in the morning (Arthur Prichard refused to learn what was good for him), and a Ravenclaw, of all people, exploding a cauldron in the middle of a lesson that should have posed no trouble at all. And he suspected the boy's error had been the result of a distraction of the female persuasion. There was no place for that in his classroom, especially when it managed to coat half the class in a (thankfully) weakened version of the Pepper-Up potion.

Gods, how he hated peppy students.

And now, instead of settling in to work, he had to see Poppy Pomfrey--again--about stores for the term. The woman worried too much. And he suspected that she had said something to Hermione just before lunch. Again. She and Sprout would insist on making other people's business their own.

As he rounded the corner onto the Hospital Wing, he heard voices. He slowed to listen out of habit; it was always good to know, whenever possible, what was going on in a room before you entered it. It wasn't that he could read minds, though few students would believe it. It was that he was observant.

This time he belatedly wished that his powers of observation hadn't served him so well. He came to a halt, his eyes wide, as he heard the voices more clearly.

"Well, you know that she was back from holiday at least a day before she showed up to table. They had to have been together. They always are, you know."

That was Pomfrey. And she must be talking to…

"I would never have imagined it." Sprout. Of course. "Even when they were working together her last year of school, I was amazed that they got on so well. But I would never have thought that she'd actually fall in love with him. Mind you, I think it's wonderful. But he can't be an easy man to get on with. Though I don't think he's half as terrible as some people say."

"No, no, of course not. And they are…well, rather perfect for each other. I sometimes wonder…how much of that time do you think they actually spend working?"

Whether it was the giggles, the thought of the two old biddies talking about his…sex life, or the horrid realization that they actually didn't think he was as bad as all that, Severus Snape couldn't stand to hear anymore. He came through the doorway in a flurry of robes, bearing down on the two of them with a malevolent look on his face.

"That is enough!" His voice rang out against the stone walls and the two women's faces went white with shock. "I have endured your continuous innuendo, your coy glances, and your insufferable tittering behind my back for longer than I had thought possible. I have done so for Professor Granger's sake. It appears, however, that my forbearance has only encouraged you to progress to in-depth speculation about my private life, and I tell you now that I will not stand for it any longer! I will not be made into your afternoon's entertainment, and I will not have you harassing Professor Granger any more with this foolishness!" His eyes narrowed then, and his voice dropped to a truly threatening near-whisper. "Do I make myself clear?"

As they nodded their acquiescence, he scowled at them and stalked from the room.

********
Back in the dungeon, he was still stalking when a sound at the door interrupted him. "Go away," he spat.

"Somebody's having a bad day," Hooch drawled from the doorway.

Too irritated to be surprised that the flying instructor had actually come to the dungeons for the first time in he didn't know how long, he repeated his injunction: "Go away."

Hooch crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe. "No, I don't think I will. Are you going to offer me a seat in your office, or should I say what I have to say here in the hallway, where anybody could hear?"

Snape sighed, and gestured to his office in resignation.

Once seated behind the closed door, Hooch eyed him narrowly before she began.

Snape assumed this was about Pomfrey, but he was willing to hear her out. Elizabeth Hooch was one of the few people he routinely tolerated. More than tolerated. They had fought tooth and nail in the past, and would again, no doubt, but he always made sure to keep her next to him at the head table. He appreciated her matter-of-factness, and respected her opinion on most subjects. Along with Dumbledore and McGonagall, she was one whose companionship he would be sorry to lose. She might not know it (then again, knowing her, she probably did), but Snape considered her a friend.

"Snape, I don't know what's going on between you and Hermione Granger, and I'm not asking. I assume, however, that it's more than work, and that it's good for both of you. It certainly appears that way."

Snape shifted in his seat, but said nothing.

"I heard about your performance in the Hospital Wing." Her yellow eyes flashed with amusement. "I daresay they had it coming. I can't tolerate that prattle myself, which is, of course, why Poppy shares all of her gossip with Sprout. Gods, there are days…"

She broke off at Snape's smirk. "But I'm getting off the subject. I came here to talk about you."

Snape was no longer smiling. "I thought I had made it perfectly clear that I do not wish to be the subject of anyone's discussion."

"Calm down, Snape. I told you, I'm not asking. I do, however, have a bit of advice." As he raised an eyebrow, she corrected herself. "Maybe two bits. You'll do me the courtesy of listening, and then you can ignore me or not, as you wish. It makes no difference to me."

Snape sighed. "Go on then, since there's apparently nothing I can do to stop you."

Hooch knew him well enough to know that he was curious, but she also knew better than to say so. "Right. You're not going to like this, but you have to realize that the reason the faculty chatter on about you and Granger so much is that they're happy for you. You have friends here, Snape, as much as you try to believe otherwise. They worry about you when you shut yourself in the dungeons, and when you're gone who knows where. They haven't forgotten all those times after your meetings with…"

Hooch cleared her throat, and Snape narrowed his eyes, amazed at the emotion in her voice. He, too, knew better than to mention it.

"They care about you, Snape, whether you want them to or not. And I agree, they have a damned annoying way of showing it. But they want you to know that they're happy for you. You know Miss Granger was everybody's favorite. It's good to see you both so happy. And you know, we can see that both of you are happy, no matter how hard you try to hide it."

Snape waved his hand. "You said that you had some advice?"

Hooch fixed him with her sulfurous gaze. It was amazing that McGonagall was the feline Animagus, really.

"You'll like this even less. But I know I'm right. Poppy and Sprout and the rest of them will never let you hear the end of this. But they'll settle down once they know for certain that something serious is going on, and that you and Granger are happy. Find a way to let them know all's well, and they'll take your relationship for granted. It won't be new anymore. And if you stop trying to pretend that there's nothing going on, the gossip won't be half as fun."

Snape was incredulous. "You have got to be kidding."

"I'm not saying you should make some grand gesture, or a public announcement, or, Gods forbid, start snogging at table. But mark my words. Once they know you're not dodging them, that you're not trying to hide, they'll back off."

Hooch rose to leave. "Right. Now, I'm off to watch over the Gryffindor team's practice session. Wood hurt his wrist over the break, practicing with his brother and cousins, and I've promised Poppy I'll keep an eye out."

She turned back at the door to add, "And don't think I don't know you'll share that little tidbit with the Slytherin team."

"Madam Hooch, sometimes I think you know me too well," Snape demurred. And they both knew that he wasn't only talking about Quidditch.

********
At dinner, Hermione thought that their side of the table was uncharacteristically quiet. Her conversation with Remus seemed to be the only one this side of Flitwick. She glanced at Severus out of the corner of her eye, but he seemed irritated. On her right, Sprout and Pomfrey were completely subdued. She looked back at Remus, who shrugged in amazement.

"Snape, did I tell you who we ran into in London over the break? Poppy, tell the story; you know I'll forget half of it." With that, Hooch brought their corner in line, and the conversation continued in a pleasant way for the rest of the meal.

Though she wasn't quite sure what was going on, Hermione knew all was well when, as they turned to their dessert, Madame Hooch caught her eye and gave her a wink.

Chapter Text

Ironically, Hermione found out what had happened that day by way of the rumor mill. Over tea that Friday, McGonagall told her what she had heard of the encounter in the Hospital Wing. ("Can you imagine the looks on their faces?" she tittered.) Hermione decided not to mention it to any of the involved parties, but assumed that Madame Hooch had been the one to step in, even before her intervention at dinner.

It was the end of the month before Hermione realized that Severus hadn't said anything more about the Malfoys, father and son, or her request that he finally rely on his Hogwarts cohorts to provide him with the support he so clearly needed. She bit her tongue, for the time being, knowing that anything involving Black and Lupin (much less her own involvement) would take him some time to sort out. At the same time, she couldn't imagine him refusing their help--not at this point--and wasn't sure what she would do if he did. But the worst thing on his mind seemed to be his classes, so she waited.

Luckily for Snape, they had other things to deal with as January wound to a close. With the term safely underway, Hermione had focused on keeping track of Remus's condition and continuing the trials they had discussed. Severus had been helping, of course, but it wasn't until the fourth week of classes that he joined them for one of their meetings.

"I have not forgotten you, Lupin. I have been considering various options. I want to discuss some things with Hermione, and hopefully we'll have an update for you by mid-February. If that is all right with you?"

He added the question off-handedly, but Hermione was pleased to see him making the effort, nonetheless. She was also oddly pleased at the thought that he was taking her participation in his efforts as a matter of fact--though she knew she hadn't heard the last of his complaining.

After Lupin had gone, Severus turned to her, his expression a blank. "Could we move to my office?" He motioned to the door, and she led the way.

Once she was seated, he said, "I have several things for you to read, before I can explain the decision we have to make," he noted, and she latched onto the word "we." A wry smile. "If you will forgive me for taking on the role of advisor, once again, of course. Though I won't require you to submit a report at the end of things, this time."

She smiled, more at his good humor than at his jest, and replied, "I am yours to instruct, Professor Snape."

He chuckled before steeling his expression again. "This is a serious matter, Hermione. If you have any doubts, we need to talk about them now."

"I'm sure," she said, with slightly more confidence than she felt. But at his questioning glance, she felt, and spoke, the truth of it: "I trust you."

A quick smile. "I have a list of things from the restricted section, but I also have some pages marked in books that I own. I…will have to ask that you read them in my chambers; I don't trust them outside those walls." She nodded. As he glanced over the list, he added, "If my own reactions over the past week are any indication, I predict we'll be retreating to your rooms more and more often at the end of the evening. The reading is bad enough, but one of the volumes in particular is…disturbing." He glanced up in time to see her shudder involuntarily. "I will of course be there whenever you need me to be."

She smiled weakly. "I know."

"Here, then, is the list. I assume you'll be headed to the library now?"

"You know me too well," she said, standing to leave as she glanced at the parchment.

He rose, and crossed to open the door for her. "Not half so well as I would like," he whispered, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze as she left.

********
A few days later, Hermione had covered all the listed material that was available from the restricted section (as well as a good bit that wasn't listed). As she finished marking her last homework parchment, she looked across the office to where Severus sat at his desk, grading essays.

"When you're done with those, do you think I could take a look at the passages you've marked for me in your own books?"

Not looking up, he answered, "Of course. I have only a few more essays remaining." But she could see the muscle twitch along his jaw. She set to recording homework scores.

********
After summoning the book with an almost silent incantation from wherever Dumbledore stored his more questionable volumes, Severus insisted on arranging it on the table for her, setting it down carefully and opening it to the first marked page.

Hermione was ready to protest, but then noticed the cover's edge as she took the chair he pulled out for her. The leather was…odd, and the realization that it was quite possibly human skin flickered across her mind before she forced her attention to the page he had selected.

Not that it was much better. The parchment was in fine condition for a book that must be quite old. But the edges looked as though they had been burnt (for effect, she told herself), there was a stain on the facing page that she didn't want to examine too closely, and the ink…she would only allow herself to note that it must be blood.

She took a deep breath, and let curiosity take over. Having read the selection over twice, she reached to turn to the next marker, then changed her mind and flipped to the Table of Contents. From behind her on the sofa, she heard Severus's sharp intake of breath, but he said nothing.

She skimmed the listings. The earlier items were surprisingly un-noteworthy. The usual spells and potions, some of them alternate versions of those she already knew. It was only in the second half of the book--the passages Severus had assigned were just after the mid-way point, she saw--that the entries became truly Dark. And towards the end, frightening. She didn't read the last page of entries.

Turning back to the second selection, she couldn't help but repress a shudder. From everything she'd read so far, she had her own working theory on what made Dark Magic dark. Partly, of course, it was the ingredients. Even some of the milder potions couldn't be brewed without ingredients that no self-respecting wizard would care to obtain, and which could not be purchased legally. But the primary distinction, she had decided, was intent. Some Dark potions simply could not be brewed unless the intent of the Maker was to harm another. It was that malicious intent that would make it difficult for them to utilize these ideas and combinations for a cure, even if they could acquire the ingredients. (And that was one errand that Hermione had decided she would willingly leave to Severus, though it didn't seem quite fair.)

Half-way through the second selection--a description of a charm that would turn one's opponent into animal form for the span of half an hour (she knew that the irrevocable version of the charm existed, towards the back of the book…that it was possible to turn somebody into an unthinking animal, permanently)--she couldn't read anymore. She reached to shut the book, and shuddered again. Leaving it open on the table, she turned to look at Severus.

He was reading, she saw, but he instantly looked up to meet her gaze.

"I'm…tired. I think I'm going to take a bath and go to bed," Hermione said, knowing full well that he knew she was covering her reaction.

"Should I…come up, in a while?" There was a tone in his question that she couldn't quite place.

"Of course," she said, smiling. She crossed to perch on the sofa beside him for a moment, and planted a quick peck on his cheek. "I'm fine," she said. And as she stepped through the fireplace, she couldn't help adding, "Though I know you worry."

********
He had found her still in the bath. Lost in her thoughts, she'd let the water go cold, and came into the bedroom shivering. Joining him in the bed, he immediately set his book on the bedside table, doused the lamp, and pulled her to him. Grateful for his warmth, and his silence, she let herself cling to him as she drifted to sleep.
********
"Noooooo!!"

The cry resounded in the darkness, and Hermione sat up straight, terrified. A second later, as he launched himself out of the bed, she realized that Severus had screamed.

"A nightmare," she muttered, following him into the front room.

"Severus…" she began, seeing him brace himself against the mantelpiece, forcing himself not to leave her for the isolation of his own rooms.

At the sound of her voice, he turned away. She waited.

"Gods! What could have possessed me to let you even see that book, much less read from it?" He began to pace. "And why, in the names of all the Gods, did you ask it of me?"

Hermione wasn't sure what to say, and before she could attempt an answer, he continued. "For the Gods' sakes, Hermione, why do you want to expose yourself to that filth?!" He spat out the word.

She met his gaze, and as he sunk onto the ottoman, she found her answer. "To help Remus." Before he could protest, she added, "And to help you."

He glared at her then. "I don't need your help. In fact, this would be a lot easier if you would just stay out of it."

"Apparently everything in your life would be easier if I'd just stay out of it." There was no real malice in her words, but he flinched as though she had struck him. Changing tactics, she crossed to him and knelt at his feet. Taking his chin in her hand so that he couldn't turn away, she said, "Tell me about your dream."

He sighed, and closed his eyes. She allowed it, dropping her hand to his knee.

"I was…at Malfoy's estate. It was one of the…meetings I…told you about before. He was…torturing…a young girl, a Muggle. Taunting her with the hope that she might survive the night if she…did what he wanted. Of course she would die. He began to…rape her as I…as I watched. And as he bent over her, I…saw her face."

Now his eyes sought hers, pleading. "It was you…and I couldn't move…I couldn't…"

She pulled him into her arms as he began to weep.

********
The next morning when they awoke, he had seemed shy, withdrawn. She clung to him, this time for his sake as well as hers, and made love to him gently until things were right again.

Settling in beside him, their arms sheltering each other, she kissed the tear away from his cheek.

"Severus, what is it?" When he did not answer, she pushed. "You let me help you because I asked; I decided for myself. And if you hadn't let me read your books, I would have gone to Knockturn Alley myself to look for them…"

He pulled her to his chest, clinging to her now. "How can you love me?"

"Severus…I…"

"How can you love me when you see what I have been…of what I am capable?"

Now she understood; the missing piece slid into place.

Turning her head, she whispered into his chest, "Because I do."

********
It was Saturday, and Hermione thought that the Gryffindor/Slytherin Quidditch match could not have come at a better time. Severus had insisted that they be on time for breakfast, and had chosen to sweep in through the students' entrance and up past the Slytherin table, stopping to bend his head to that of the Slytherin team captain before taking his place.

All signs of his difficult night were gone, and his opening remark to McGonagall was, not surprisingly, as unsubtle as his entrance.

"So, Minerva, I assume you're prepared for the disappointment that awaits you this afternoon?"

Hermione smiled at her eggs, and when she looked up for the salt, she saw that the rest of the table shared her amusement.

********
Hermione hurried to the front entrance to meet him. She had stopped to leave some papers in her office before the match. As she arrived in the hall, she saw him standing near the doors, eyebrow raised, arms crossed. She smiled at him, and he merely tapped a finger on his wrist in that Muggle gesture of pointing to a watch. In turn, she adjusted her Gryffindor scarf around her neck.

"You're late, Miss Granger. Certainly you don't want to miss the match today? Though I can see why you might not be looking forward to it with your usual interest. The prospect of losing is never a happy one."

"I'm not late; you're early."

"Hmm." He put his hand into a pocket of his cloak and deliberately pulled out the scarf she had bought him for Christmas. Having wrapped it around his neck, and ignoring her giggles, he pulled open the heavy door and gestured formally. "After you."

********
As they crossed to the pitch, he absently tucked her arm in his. It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining, and the cold wind had abated. February was promising to be mild, and after the gloomy storms of December and January, it was a welcome relief.

"Hermione!"

She turned to see who had called her name, and saw a familiar figure coming from the direction of town.

"Harry!"

She crossed to meet him, thinking that it would give Severus a chance to escape, or at least to avoid an extended greeting.

"Harry, what are you doing here?" she asked, when he finally let her free of his hug.

"Came up for the weekend. Needed a break, and Sirius wanted to see the match," he said. "And I wanted to see you, of course." He smiled broadly.

"Of course," she laughed.

"I'm off to meet Hagrid--Sirius is already there--we're sitting in the Gryffindor section…" Harry began, leaving the question unasked.

"He'll be thrilled--as will all those first-year girls," she teased. "So I'll see you after? Come have dinner with me."

Harry could see that she hadn't realized he wanted her to join them. It hadn't been an option. Glancing at Snape, who was standing a few yards behind her (was that a Slytherin scarf?), he smiled. "I'd love to, but Dumbledore's got first dibs. Come to dinner at our house tomorrow, why don't you. Remus already agreed."

"I'd love to," she said. But if you have some time tomorrow during the day, come up and find me. Maybe for lunch?"

"That sounds great," Harry said, and hugged her again.

She took his arm before he could move away, and they walked back up the hill to join Snape. "It's so good to see you," she said. "I miss you when you're not around."

"Me too," he said, meeting Snape's gaze. "Professor," he said, trying not to let his irritation sound in his voice.

"Mr. Potter, I see you've come to support your house in its certain disappointment today. Such loyalty is to be commended."

Before Harry could summon up an appropriate response, Snape had turned to match their stride. He heard Hermione stifle a giggle, and realized that he'd just been…teased…by Professor Snape.

As they approached the stands, Harry turned towards the Gryffindor students' section, and waved at Hermione. She waved back, and Harry realized that he didn't mind so much when he saw her Gryffindor-mittened hand tuck itself under Snape's arm.

********
Hermione removed her hand as they climbed the stairs to the main teachers' section. There was only room for one at a time, first of all, but it was also their habit, when in public--at least in close quarters--not to be even that demonstrative.

So she was surprised when, as they descended to take a seat just behind McGonagall and Remus, she felt Snape's hand under her elbow. She was grateful; she had never been fond of stairs, and the moving staircases of Hogwarts hadn't been any help. But she inwardly cringed as she saw Sprout and Pomfrey put their heads together.

Severus had chosen not to notice. Instead, he turned back to greet them, albeit tersely, and then remarked, his eyes on the field, "Well, Professor Sprout, a Slytherin victory today would put your house out of the running for the cup for…how many years is it in a row now?"

Poppy Pomfrey hooted with glee, and Flitwick and McGonagall exchanged amused looks as they tried not to laugh. From behind them all came Dumbledore's voice. "I believe it's an unlucky thirteen, now, Severus. As if you didn't already know." Hermione didn't need to turn around to see the twinkling in his eyes.

Slytherin won, 180 to 70.

********
"Sorry I'm late. We got an owl just before I headed up," Harry explained as Hermione opened the portrait. "Dumbledore wants to see us after lunch in his office--you too."

"What's going on?" Dumbledore must be taking advantage of Harry's visit, she thought, but for what reason?

"Don't know," he said. "Oh, yum--chicken pot pie!"

Hermione rolled her eyes. She'd forgotten just how difficult it was to keep Harry's attention on a subject when there was food around.

********
After lunch, the pair of them arrived at Dumbledore's office. ("Butterscotch.") Sirius was there ahead of them, seated with Remus, who rose to offer Hermione his chair. Once she was seated, Sirius gave him a knowing look, which he chose to ignore.

"Is this all of us, Headmaster?" Remus asked. "I'll admit I don't have the slightest notion what this is about."

"If Harry's here, it can't be good news," Sirius noted. "Is he in danger?"

Harry looked perturbed by his godfather's comment, Hermione noticed. Before she could say anything, however, Dumbledore answered.

"No, there is one more of us. In fact, we cannot start the meeting without him, since he's the one who called it. I suspect, however, that… Ah, Severus. Do come in and tell us why you wanted to see us, will you? Your audience grows restless."

Harry glanced at Hermione, but she looked as surprised as he was. She, in turn, was staring at Snape, waiting for him to explain what was going on.

Snape thanked the Headmaster and crossed to stand behind him as he was seated at his desk. Turning to face the rest of them, he said simply, "I asked you all here because I need your help."

********
Sirius broke the sigh with a loud snort. "What is this, Snape? I don't have time for your…"

"Be quiet," snapped Remus. "Help with what, Snape?"

Snape took a deep breath. "I have…been considering this request for some time now. Recent events have left me…vulnerable, and it was suggested to me that I should ask you all for your aid."

Hermione flushed, but the men were too focused on Snape to notice. Except for Dumbledore, who twinkled at her over his spectacles as he reached for a lemon drop. Snape hadn't looked at her once since he'd entered the room.

"All of you know enough about my…endeavors to know that I do not ask for your help lightly. Quite probably, if you agree you will be in danger. Depending on the extent of your help, possibly grave danger. I…will continue to do most of the work myself, but I need your advice, as well as whatever information you may be able to discover through your respective channels."

He paused, looking at each of them in turn, and Hermione almost could not meet his gaze. She had been so sure that he would have finally asked for their help without her encouragement, but then again…he was asking them all to put themselves in danger, and at her urging.

"I cannot tell you any details until I have your agreement. If you choose not to support my efforts, you will be safer knowing less. All of you know the basic facts: I am tracking down certain remaining Death Eaters--the small group that offers the most direct threat to Hogwarts, or at least to Dumbledore."

"And yourself," Sirius muttered bitterly, having found his sarcastic tongue once more.

"Yes, Black, and myself. If the thought of saving my unworthy hide is too much for you to handle, you can, I would think, manage to find the door."

His tone was calm and cold, and Black was silent.

After a few moments, Harry spoke. "You're asking for information, primarily. Are you asking for information the Ministry would not give you otherwise? Is that why you asked me to this meeting?"

"I know more than the Ministry does, Potter. No, while the Headmaster and Black have their own sources of information, and while anything you would be able to contribute by way of information would be appreciated, I am asking something slightly different as well--of you, and of Black and Lupin." He glanced at Hermione. "And of Professor Granger."

"Information is one thing. And tracking is another--that I can do myself. At some point, however, I may have to face down these rogue Death Eaters. And I will not be able to do that by myself. Since I refuse to put Professor Dumbledore in the line of fire, I must ask those who would defend him to go with me in his place. Perhaps we can still avoid such a confrontation. But I have my doubts. In the meantime, there is still hope that we can save some lives."

The malice that had been so conspicuously absent from his tone crept back in for a single cut: "Though I'm sure that some of those lives aren't necessarily ones with which you would normally concern yourself, Mr. Potter."

"Severus…" Dumbledore's voice, a gentle admonition.

Harry ignored the exchange, and said simply, "Of course I'll help you. Any way that I can."

Snape narrowed his eyes. "You haven't heard my terms, Mr. Potter."

Black couldn't stand it. "You come begging for our help, and you want to give us the terms it'll take for you to accept it if it's offered? You're a piece of work, Snape, and a right bastard…"

"Sirius!" Lupin again. "Tell us your terms, Severus." Black's nose wrinkled at Lupin's familiar address.

Snape, who had been standing until now, took a seat in a chair to the side of the office. "First, I need to know everything that you may already know about the group in question. Second, I will not, in turn, share everything that I know with you--only what you need to know as we progress. Third, if any one of you acts without my knowledge, without my permission, or against my instructions, I will take action against you. Once you are neutralized, I will go to ground, take care of this myself, and resurface only when this thing is over."

Hermione flinched at the words; his tone, however, was smooth and low. He had taken her advice, but he would do this his way or no way at all. Somehow, she couldn't begrudge him his need for control. But the thought of him disappearing…

Harry spoke first. "I'll repeat my offer, Snape. And I accept your terms."

Remus started before Harry had done. "Of course I'll help, Severus. Anything you need. The Gods know you've done as much for me."

Hermione answered next, her voice weaker than she might hope. "If you don't already know my answer"--she saw the corner of his mouth turn up--"I'll give it. I'll do whatever you ask."

All eyes went to Sirius Black, but it was Dumbledore who asked the question: "Sirius? Your answer?"

"I need some time to think about it, Sir."

"As you wish," the Headmaster agreed. "Indeed, as thrilled as I am that you all wish to help, I think that we should all take some time to confirm our decisions. Perhaps after dinner, those of us who are willing to commit to this task should meet again? Be here at eight, please. We've plenty to discuss."

As they rose to leave, Dumbledore added, "Severus, Hermione, a word, please?"

Harry squeezed Hermione's arm. "I'll understand if you don't want to come, but will we still see you at dinner?"

"Of course," she smiled up at him.

After the others had gone, Severus collapsed into the chair that Harry had vacated.

"You did well, Severus," said the Headmaster. "And I hope you see now that you need not have worried about their response."

"Was that an 'I told you so,' Professor?" Even though his eyes were closed, Snape managed to raise an eyebrow.

"As close as I am willing to get," Dumbledore chuckled. "I'll leave that pleasure to Miss Granger."

"Not on your life," she said, causing Severus to smile. "Dinner at Sirius's and an 'I told you so' on the same day? Not even Slytherin winning the House Cup would make up for that."

"It would make up for a lot, however," Snape noted, reaching out to take her hand.

Professor Dumbledore beamed at them both, though Hermione was too relieved to notice.

Chapter Text

Sirius hadn't been at dinner (Hermione had to admit that she was relieved), but he did arrive in the Headmaster's office that evening to seal the agreement. He insisted on reporting to Dumbledore, rather than Snape, but Severus merely scowled and Dumbledore simply noted that it might be for the best.

Since there wasn't any news, they disbanded quickly, to wait. Meanwhile, there was another evil on the horizon….

********
Hermione hated Valentine's Day as a teacher even more than she ever had as a student. It was a stupid holiday, after all, and the few gifts she'd received in the past were given more out of a sense of "have to"--or of matching up to everybody else's monetary displays of affection--than any real feeling. She'd much prefer something practical over the usual frippery. And pink was a Gods-awful color.

But now, in the week leading up to the big day (and the inevitable Valentine's Day Party--complete with dance--that Friday evening), the halls were filled with hormonal teenagers going on about true love. "As if they'd know true love at this age if it bit them in the arse," she thought to herself. Her next thought was, "Gods, I sound like Severus." She smiled all the way to Arithmancy.

********
For his part, Snape was a little concerned. Hermione hadn't said one positive word about Valentine's Day, and while he was happy enough to ignore it all together (as much as was possible, with all the pink and lacy nonsense that was sure to surface in time for the party), he wondered if this wasn't a case of the lady protesting too much. Or of someone who had never been given a reason to like the holiday before, but who would not object to some token of his affection. He didn't think she'd expect it, and he had no idea what she would like, or what would be appropriate. And she said he was hard to shop for….

And then there was the matter of the gossip. It had lessened, where Pomfrey and Sprout were concerned--they were at least keeping it to themselves, though not for a minute did he believe they had stopped their speculations completely. But he had begun to hear whispers as he passed groups of students. Despite everything, Hooch's advice continued to plague him. Surely she was wrong. Surely any public gesture, no matter how small, would simply make matters worse? And there was no guaranteeing Hermione's response. But on the other hand, to confirm the rumors in some small way would take half the fun out of the thing--and by making their relationship a matter of record, they might ensure that, by the end of the term, or at least the start of the next year, it would be old news. A given.

Sometimes he thought dealing with Voldemort had been easier.

********
Late Thursday afternoon, Hermione stopped by Remus's office. It had been a while since they'd seen each other--at least outside of teachers' meetings, meals, and work on the cure. And after a while, those didn't count.

She knocked lightly at the door, which stood slightly ajar.

"Come in?"

"Hi, stranger. You busy?"

Remus smiled broadly. "Not a bit. At least, nothing that I won't be happy to put off until later. Is there news?"

Hermione sat. "No, I'm sorry. Nothing to report yet. I just came by to chat, really; we haven't done that in a long time."

"I suppose we haven't. I…I apologize for that, I…"

"Oh, Gods, Remus, I'm not here to scold you. We've been busy, we both have. And you know I wasn't in great spirits after the holidays."

"I can't imagine that reading up on the Dark Arts leaves you in a much better mood," Remus noted softly.

"Not you too!" Hermione let out a mock sigh. At the look on his face, she explained, "Severus isn't happy about it, but it's going all right. Having made it through the introductory reading, I can keep up with his train of thought. I don't know that I'll actually have to read much more source material--at least not the worst sorts."

Remus fixed her with an earnest gaze. "Thank you, Hermione. You know it means the world to me that you want to help."

"Stop it. It's nothing you wouldn't do for me. And it is, after all, a challenge. And you know how I like a good challenge." She smiled at him, and he relaxed. "Now, let's talk about something else, please. How have you been?"

"Fine. Good. Busy. Sirius is driving me crazy." A knowing grin.

"Mmm. I can well imagine what he has to say about the current state of affairs. Remus, do you think Harry's told Ron what we're up to?"

Remus didn't quite follow her tangent. "I don't know. I suppose he might have done, but they've not been as close lately, as you know. Why do you ask?"

"Well, because we didn't ask Ron for his help, after all. And for that matter, I know that Hooch and McGonagall--and Flitwick, and the others--would want to help. I just hope nobody is offended."

"I see your point. At the same time, it's not like we're really doing anything yet. I'm sure that if we need them, Snape will see his way clear to expand a bit."

"Mmm." Hermione was non-committal.

Remus decided to change the topic again. "So how are classes? How are the Runes going?"

"Great. I really enjoy them. And I have some of the same students in both, so that makes it easier. Though I swear, if I see one more note about Valentine's Day being passed, I'll scream."

"That will certainly get their attention," Remus chuckled, and Hermione's scowl of irritation broke into a smile. "I suppose you'll be serving as chaperone for the dance tomorrow night?"

"Oh, yes. Big plans for the big day." She rolled her eyes. "The joys of being a Hogwarts teacher."

"I suppose it's made worse by the fact that you would have something better to do, after all," he noted. Immediately he wished he hadn't brought it up. He didn't particularly want to know…

She gave him a look, not immediately understanding. "Oh," she said, surprised that she was embarrassed at the necessary admission. "No, actually, we hadn't made any plans. I guess we're just not a Valentine sort of people."

"No, I guess not," Remus said, before quickly changing the subject again.

********
Hermione was never so grateful that she had Fridays off. In the morning, she caught up on her grading and read through some of Severus's notes for their next meeting with Lupin. The work was promising, but they still didn't have any concrete suggestions. Just theories, and those were still more vague than either of them would have liked.

After lunch, she headed to the dungeon with Severus. He had two classes that afternoon, and she shut herself in her workroom (she still thought of it as hers, from her days at school) for the first and his office for the second. By late afternoon, she felt a little claustrophobic, and the repeated sound of deductions from all houses was becoming annoying.

After the last student had left for the day, shorn of all Valentine cheer (at least until they got back to the ground floor), Snape flung open the door and scowled at her. She raised an eyebrow, and returned to her reading. "Tea, love? There's some fresh, or at least it was twenty minutes ago."

"You know I hate that," he muttered, sinking into the chair opposite her.

"What, tea that's been in the pot for twenty minutes?"

"No, your cutting me off before I can rant and rave. And yes, tea would be grand."

She ignored the sarcasm and poured him a cup, tapping it once and murmuring the words to warm it. "I could hear your ranting and raving all afternoon. Not that I didn't enjoy it."

The corners of his lips twitched upwards before he turned his attention to his cup and saucer.

After a few moments' silence, Hermione ventured, "We're not…planning…anything for Valentine's Day, are we?"

Severus's eyes narrowed as he regarded her. "Is this a trick question?"

She giggled. "No. I mean, I didn't plan anything, what with the party tonight and all, and I didn't know…that is, I didn't think…"

"Since this isn't a trick question, then I'll say that, while the thought did cross my mind--only because I wasn't sure if you'd be expecting anything--no, I haven't planned a thing. Though I had rather hoped you'd come home with me after the dance."

A coy smile. "It has been a while since we slept in your bed. I miss it."

"Hmm. Indeed." A sip from his cup. "Although sleep wasn't necessarily what I had in mind."

********
Aside from the explosion of doves out of Michelle Carrington's dessert at dinner, the rest of the time before the party was thankfully quiet. At least for Hermione. Snape had to sort out something or other in the Slytherin common room (she had heard him mutter the words "pink" and "idiot" as he swept away to deal with it), so Hermione had agreed to head down to the Great Hall with Remus, when she was ready, knowing that Severus would catch up to them later.

She was simply beautiful, he thought. "Simply" was the word for it. Remus supposed that she hadn't done anything different to her hair, though the style seemed…softer, somehow…and she was wearing no more makeup than usual. Her dress was downright plain, compared to the concoctions some the students were wearing--deep red, and velvety like her dress at Christmas, but with a neckline that draped across the front of her throat only to plunge, ever so slightly, down her back. Nothing inappropriate, and incredibly elegant. He swallowed as she made her way down the stairs to meet him, and was surprised to find himself grateful to see her necklace sparkling against the rich fabric. A reminder. At this point he needed one.

Teasing, he formally offered her his arm, and she took it with a giggle. They entered the party together, and he told himself that he would never do anything to make her uncomfortable with him again. No matter how fast his heart was beating.

Remus moved to join Professors McGonagall and Flitwick, but Hermione stopped just inside the door to greet Hagrid, who was swaying to the music, a glass of punch perched in his over-sized hand.

"Hagrid! Oh, it's so good to see you."

"Och! Hermione! It's been a while since yeh came out teh visit. I've missed yeh! But you've been busy with important things, I hear tell. Still…"

"I apologize, and I'll come to see you as soon as I can. How have you been? How are classes?"

"Fine, fine. Dumbledore's a great man, yeh know, teh let me stay on with the first years. A right great man, he is, Dumbledore."

Hermione decided Hagrid had been drinking more than punch, at this point, but nodded her agreement.

"It does me 'eart good, it does, to see all those happy children. A little crush is good for 'em, I reckon. Puts color in their cheeks, distracts 'em from work. I seem teh remember that yeh had a certain glow about yeh when you had that there crush on Professor Lockhart, back in your…what was it, your third year?"

"Second." The smooth voice came from behind her, and she shut her eyes against the inevitable.

"Professor Lockhart was here in Professor Granger's second year, I believe. Is that not correct, Professor?"

Hermione began to answer, but Hagrid cut in, oblivious to the amusement on Snape's face. "Och, yer right at that. Second year. Evenin', Professor Snape, but will yeh excuse me? I need a word with Professor Sprout, and she's just now arrived."

"Of course, Hagrid. Good evening."

Hermione looked up, and winced at the smirk that tugged the corners of his mouth. "Not one word out of you, or I'll sleep in my own bed tonight," she chided.

As he passed her, he lowered his voice to the level of silk and whispered in her ear, "Oh, my dear, I wouldn't dream of it."

********
"Well, not such a bad score tonight, I think," McGonagall commented.

Hermione didn't follow. "Pardon?"

"Well, there's only been one attempt at spiking the punch, which Severus cut off at the pass; only two girls have left the room in tears, and no boys; and the music has remained at a tolerable level. Not such a bad score."

"Yes indeed," chuckled Flitwick. What was it, ten or eleven years ago now that we had two successful passes at the punch bowl, eight weeping students, three of them male, and a broken Audio Musicus charm?"

"More like fifteen years ago," noted Madame Hooch as she came to stand on the other side of Hermione. "Of course, I'd take all of that over the Valentine's night of the dual suicide attempts any day."

"Gods!" Hermione shuddered at the thought.

"I'll say," Hooch agreed. "At least the second one was founded in alcohol and an Unrequited Love Potion. Snape was fit to be tied."

"I can well imagine," Hermione answered.

They stood watching the students for a few moments, and then Minerva said, "You know, the music hasn't been half bad this year either. The newer stuff I'll never understand. But I simply adore those Muggle standards."

"Dumbledore has a soft spot for them as well. I'd imagine he made some…suggestions…to the students in charge?" Hooch's guess brought smiles and murmurs of agreement from the others.

It was almost midnight--the end of the dance--and Hermione's thoughts had turned to Severus's un-plans for them afterwards. She was startled out of her reverie by Dumbledore's voice: "Professor McGonagall, would you like to dance?" Minerva blushed and assented, much to the delight of Flitwick.

"You know, I always did think they'd make a lovely couple," he said, matter-of-factly.

"You're as bad as Poppy," Hooch noted tersely, but with a wink at Hermione.

It was one of her mother's favorite songs: Johnny Mathis singing "Chances Are." She had danced with her father to it on many occasions--that, along with Herb Alpert and Andy Williams--after he vacuumed the carpets every Saturday. Every Saturday without fail. And afterwards, to make sure they were done properly, he would put on a record and dance with Hermione.

The song ended, and she was brought back to the present by the sight of Snape crossing the floor. Students parted in front of him, but he didn't look angry… Then she realized…he was headed straight for her, with a look of…oh Gods…mischief.

After greeting the others, he held out his hand. "Professor Granger, would you do me the honor?"

Hermione's face felt as red as her dress, but she looked in his eyes and knew that he meant it. Her decision was already made.

"Certainly, Professor Snape. I'd be delighted."

He led her onto the floor as the first strains of the next song began.

At last my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song

"I thought you said you didn't have any plans?" she asked, as he placed his hand on her waist.

"Mmm. I assure you that this was not premeditated."

"I see," she said, still unsure of what had possessed him. Not that she minded.

At last the skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you

"Although Madame Hooch suggested, some weeks ago, that this would be a good idea."

"Dancing with me on Valentine's Day?"

"No. A gesture that would let everybody know that we are indeed together, and indeed happy."

I found a dream, that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to rest my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known

She couldn't resist playing with him just a bit. "So you're dancing with me to make a statement?"

His eyes met hers for the first time since his request. "No, my love, I'm dancing with you because you look so delicious in that dress."

Hermione flushed. "Mmm."

You smile, you smile
And then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine at last

"I probably should have thought this through, however," he said, with a touch of concern in his voice. Her eyes flew back to his face. "After all," he continued, steadfastly gazing over her shoulder at the passing couples (she suspected he was doing it to keep them from staring so blatantly), "this only serves to put me in mind of the last time we danced."

Now she knew her face matched her dress. They swayed together for the remainder of the song, and she managed to be slightly more composed by the time the music ended.

As Dumbledore pronounced the party to be over, Snape placed her hand in the crook of his arm, nodded a good-bye to Pomfrey, Hooch, and Sprout, and guided her towards the door, and to the dungeons beyond.

Chapter Text

Once the doors to the classroom and office were secured behind them, Hermione took a deep, steadying breath. The strains of the song to which they had danced still echoed in her ears, the looks on the others' faces still played in her mind's eye…and most of all, the memory of his voice, richly suggestive, telling her that she looked delicious…

Before Severus could begin to work the charms on the door to his rooms, she caught at his robes with the hand he didn't hold captive under his arm and pulled him towards her.

Her kiss was demanding; she found that their dancing had taken care of most of the preliminaries…at least for now. She pressed against him, her head beginning to spin as his tongue met hers. Her hand moved lower to graze the front of his trousers (she loved that sound he made when she managed to surprise him), and as her palm rubbed slowly up and down, she felt him begin to stiffen against the layers of material…

His firm grip was gentle on her wrist, his whisper insistent silk. "Unless the thought of my desk has some strange appeal for you, do you think you could let me open the door?"

She gave him a mischievous grin. "It has possibilities…but not tonight, I think. You may proceed."

It amazed her how he could turn her on with just the raise of an eyebrow. Perhaps his most overused facial expression, somehow it never lost its power--to silence, to question, to ridicule. And, of course, to drive her mad with wanting him.

********

Once inside, her mouth claimed his once more, and he had to aim his wand at the fireplace three times before he managed to break free long enough to ignite the flames.

He had thought he was in control, especially after Hagrid's revelation about Lockhart. The look on her face when he asked her to dance…yes, he'd definitely had the upper hand.

Until he'd found himself backed up against the filing cabinet, one arm trapped by her breasts against his own chest, her tongue demanding entrance to his mouth…and before he knew it, her other hand…

Merlin's balls.

As she backed him into the room, her hand again found its way to the fly of his trousers while her tongue explored his mouth slowly and thoroughly. He needed to sit down…

He broke the kiss, took hold of her by her forearms, closed his eyes, and breathed.

"Why, Professor Snape, you look flushed. Are you all right?"

He opened his eyes to see her Cheshire-cat grin. "I'm perfectly fine, my dear. I just need to catch my breath so that I might…tend to you properly."

She began to advance, he to back up slowly, as her words melted in her mouth.

"That sounds perfectly delightful, Professor. I look forward to that…a little later. Meanwhile, I thought you understood? At present, I'm the one who's going to tend to you."

With that, she took a quick step forward. When he tried to compensate, his foot met the sofa, and he had no choice but to sit down. She leaned over him, placing one hand on his shoulder, and trailing the index finger of the other down his cheek.

"Now…let me see. Where to begin…?"

********
Truth be told, Hermione wanted nothing more than for him to take her to bed and make love to her. Severus was an incredible lover, and he took the most exquisite care of her. Never domineering, he let her guide him more often than not. But as sex with him became more familiar, she found herself more at ease, more confident--and she did like surprising him. She wanted to make him feel taken care of…and his response to her kisses was promising indeed.

Besides, there was a little something that she truly enjoyed, and that she wanted to practice….

Having traced his cheek with her fingertip, she began to outline his lips. With another small grin, she paused, reached to adjust her skirt, and put one knee between his leg and the arm of the couch. The other one found its place opposite, and she straddled him, leaving enough room between them for her fingers to toy with the buttons of his jacket--and ensuring that any friction generated would be at her instigation.

She felt his hands come to her waist, rubbing small circles against the velvet, and she leaned in to kiss him--hot, wet, hungry kisses. He would not simply submit, she knew, and his tongue met hers with equal insistence, before escaping to flick at the roof of her mouth.

Willing herself not to simply sink into his embrace, she began to unbutton his jacket as his hands roamed over her lower back, her hips, and her bottom.

When she felt him pulling her forward to close the slight gap between them, she removed her mouth from his and placed her hands against his chest. "Ah, ah, ah, Professor. That's not exactly what I had in mind."

He had recovered, a bit, and matched her tone. "And what, pray tell, do you have in mind?"

One hand trailed slowly down his shirtfront; her fingers eased inside his waistband and paused for a teasing moment before she began slowly to pull his shirttails from his trousers. The grin never left her face; her eyes never left his.

As she started on the buttons of his fly, she leaned forward to whisper in his ear, "That's for me to know, and for you to find out…"

********
He had a good idea where she was headed. It didn't make the anticipation any less. In fact, it was probably worse.

He took advantage of her whispering to move one hand to her breast, while the other splayed across her back in a vain attempt to hold her in this closer position.

He could feel her smile as his thumb began to tease her nipple. She murmured, "Nice try, but I promise you're going to want to give me some room to work," and then ran her tongue around the edge of his ear, finally sucking the lobe in between her teeth--just as her hand (Gods, how had he forgotten about her hands?) reached in to cup his balls.

He moaned, both of his palms coming to rest on her thighs as the fingertips of her other hand fluttered against his aching cock. His head fell back, his eyes closed, and she chuckled softly. "I thought you'd see it my way."

Her feather-soft caresses continued for a few moments, and just before he could voice a protest against her torture, she wrapped her fingers around his hard on and gave it a questioning stroke. In answer, he felt himself begin to leak.

Her thumb lazily drifted up the underside of his penis, and then smeared the fluid around its swollen head. He moaned again, muttering something under his breath even he couldn't distinguish.

Her voice came to him as if from a great distance. "Relax, my love. You're going to like this…"

********
Hermione looked at him for a moment--eyes closed, lips parted, face flushed. The starched white of his collar in stark contrast with the color that now tinted his throat.

His hands tensed on her legs, and his lips formed her name… "Hermione…" She realized that, in her distraction, her fingers had stopped, and she smiled to herself. That torture, at least, had been unintentional.

She took her hands away and his eyes floated open. "Hermione…" Audible, this time.

One hand on his thigh, she reached forward to place a fingertip against his lips as she rose. "Shh…close your eyes…" He obeyed, and she nudged his knees apart, settling herself on the floor between them.

She played with the idea of pulling his trousers down, but decided to save that for later. They were comfortably tailored, and gave her plenty of room to…negotiate. Leaning closer, she breathed his scent in deeply and then exhaled her warm breath over his swollen head, slick with his need. She nudged her nose against the side of his shaft, and then quickly flicked her tongue across the head, thrilled at the sounds he made from above. His hands clenched at the sofa cushions, and she covered them with her own.

"Hermione…"

She knew that it was part praise, part pleading, and she rewarded him by licking the underside of his cock from root to tip before placing her lips over the head and beginning to suck gently.

After a moment, she released him. She couldn't help but tease, just a little. "Do you like that, Severus?"

"Angels and ministers of grace defend us," she heard him murmur, and could swear that she saw the corner of his mouth turn up.

In answer, she moved her hands to help in her cause. The left slid back into his trousers, gently caressing his sac, while the right circled the base of his shaft. With another flick of her tongue, she took him into her mouth again, swirling her tongue around the head and teasing the spot just underneath before taking him deeper.

She sucked languidly for a few minutes, moving slowly up and down, and then turned her head to lick and kiss her way up one side of his cock and down the other as her thumb began to trace the now-familiar ridges. Glancing up at him, she saw his hooded eyes watching her. The intensity of the look only added to the wetness between her legs, and she sighed with pleasure as she let her hand slide up his erection before settling at the base once more.

Knowing that he couldn't take much more teasing, she took him into her mouth and began to move in earnest. Her hand moved in time with her mouth, up and down, but with that slight twisting motion that drove him mad.

His hips began to shift in response, one hand flew up to entangle itself in her hair, and, after a moment's consideration, she shifted her head, dropped her jaw, and took him deep into her throat. As she instinctively tried to swallow, his hips came off the sofa and she tried not to tense.

Sliding back up, she moved more quickly, greedily sucking at his throbbing cock, and when she felt his balls begin to draw up, she reached the tip of her finger back to press gently against that delectable spot just behind them…

He called out her name and shuddered. He came hard, and she backed off slightly, her hand still stroking, so she could swallow every drop. She coaxed him with mouth and fingers until he was completely spent, and then cleaned him gently as he softened.

He was silent, and she moved to sit next to him on the sofa. He smiled slightly before opening his eyes. At the look on her face, he noted, "You're certainly proud of yourself."

She giggled softly, and kissed him before resting her head on his shoulder. "I am at that."

"Hmm. Well, my dear, if you give me a minute…or five…to recover, we'll see if I can manage an…appropriate response…"

********
They sat in silence for several minutes, as it happened. He rested his cheek against the top her head while his fingers traced up and down her arm. She had pulled her legs up into his lap, and absently played with a buttonhole on the front of his shirt as she rested against his shoulder.

"I love you, Hermione." It was barely a whisper, but she heard every word.

"I love you, too."

She shifted in his arms and tilted her head up to kiss him, but he stopped her with a finger to her lips, just as she had done before. His eyes searched hers, and then he kissed her lips--the barest of kisses--before drawing her head to his shoulder again.

"I…" He stopped himself, and paused for so long that she wasn't sure he would continue. "I am not at all used to needing someone…anyone. I am certainly not used to trusting without reservations."

She raised her head to look in his eyes once more, and was startled at the intensity she saw there. "Severus…I…"

He silenced her with a shy smile, a slight shake of his head, but his eyes were still troubled. "Let me say this, my love." He placed his palm against her cheek, ran his thumb along her bottom lip, and took a deep breath. "I do not know what I would do if I ever lost you. Please, promise me. Whatever happens…" His voice caught, and he swallowed. "Please, Hermione, be careful." The hint of another smile, as he echoed her own words from what seemed like a lifetime ago: "Please don't leave me."

"I won't," she murmured, and then he kissed her.

********
After another several minutes, she felt the arm that held her relax, and smiled up at him, putting the playful gleam back in her eye. "I have a confession to make."

The eyebrow lifted. "Hmm."

"I did not buy you anything for Valentine's Day. But I do have something--I'd almost forgotten about it--that I thought might be, as you say…appropriate?"

"I'm intrigued."

"Yes, I rather thought you might be." She kissed his cheek and extricated herself from her place on the sofa. "Wait here," she added, on her way to the hearth. With another thought, she stopped. "Or…do you think you could face away from the fireplace, until I get back and tell you to turn around? It's just that coming through the fire isn't the most graceful of entrances."

He chuckled, and covered his eyes with his hand. "Will this do?"

She smiled even though he could no longer see her. "Yes. Promise you'll let me back through?"

"I won't have to."

This drew her up short. "Pardon?"

"I changed the wards. You can come through any time." He had not moved his hand, and gave no further explanation.

Surprised, she said nothing. After a second, she went through the fireplace to find his surprise.

********
When she returned, Severus was not on the couch, but his jacket was draped over the arm and his boots and socks were placed on the floor near the end.

"Where did you go?" she asked, wondering if he was up to something.

"Is it safe to come out now?" he called from the bathroom. "I thought I might…tidy up a bit, myself."

She took a deep breath, then answered, "Yes, it's safe." Why was she so nervous? He'd seen her in fancy lingerie before…though it had sort of been an accident. She giggled to herself as she heard him running the tap, reaching for a towel. This time, she thought, she'd chosen her ensemble just for him, and with a better sense of her own taste in such matters; the other things were purchased on a dare while shopping with Greg and Bill (who firmly believed that she deserved some tasteful-yet-slutty underthings, even if she wasn't dating anybody at the time).

"Severus?" The noises had stopped, but he hadn't appeared.

"Sorry, I was just…" His words trailed off at the sight of her. "My Gods…" he whispered, as he stood and stared.

She flushed, but let him look. And she didn't mind the chance to look, either: cuffs and collar unbuttoned, the latter falling open to reveal a tempting stretch of collarbone; shirttails pulled out; hair rumpled just a bit, the ends damp from where he'd leaned over the sink to wash his face; and best of all, bare feet…

She felt the heat inside her flare up, and she was no longer nervous.

********
She was a vision. The gown appeared to be satin, of the darkest midnight blue he had ever seen. The material draped between her breasts, suspended from almost nonexistent straps, and then floated down her body, the play of light from the fireplace giving the most torturous hints of what lay beneath.

And then she turned. He almost missed her seductive glance, fascinated as he was by the sheen of the satin, the curve of her hip, the shadow and cream of her décolletage. The back of the gown left less to the imagination, but was no less enticing. The infinitesimal straps criss-crossed her back, her hair fell in waves, but the material plunged to the base of her spine. Her skin glowed in the light from the fire.

He had to touch her, but he could not move.

She turned again, and smiled at him. "I take it you approve?"

"Hermione…"

She came towards him slowly, dropping her eyes once, for a moment, as if she could not bear the intensity of his gaze. One hand floated up to stroke his cheek, to brush a strand of hair behind his ear.

At her touch, he could move again, and he took her into his arms and kissed her deeply. One hand on her back, to feel the warmth of her skin and the silk of her hair; the other at her waist, slowly drawing up her side to cradle her breast…

"Take me to bed, Severus…"

********
He obliged her willingly, scooping her up and carrying her the few feet to the bed. The sight of her had left him breathless, shocked, but now it was as though he couldn't get enough air into his lungs. His breathing was heavy, and his body tingled as if his blood had stopped flowing for that moment, before continuing on its path.

He sat with her on the edge of the bed, took her face in his hands and kissed her. Gently first, and then hungrily. When they came up for air, she smiled at him--the goddess of temptation was in her smiles tonight, he thought--and eased back to lie across the bed, languorously stretching her hands up above her head.

With a quick grin of his own, slightly on the lascivious side (at least that was the effect he intended; he wouldn't be surprised if it had looked more like sheer giddy joy), he bent his head to kiss her stomach through the slick fabric. His hands found her hips as his mouth traveled upwards to tease one nipple through the cloth. He heard her breath catch in her throat, could almost feel the heat radiating from her.

"As much as I love this gown, my dear, I'm afraid it's getting in the way…" Clutching the material at her thighs, he began to pull it up slowly; she lifted her hips slightly to allow its passage, and he slid it off over her head.

"Gods, but you are perfection," he whispered, half to himself, and bent towards the other nipple.

She actually snorted. He looked up at her in amazement, eyebrow (of course) raised in question, to see her covering her mouth with her hands.

"Did I say something amusing?"

"I'm…sorry…" Her words were interrupted by giggles, and he waited for her to regain composure, knowing from experience that anything he said or did might serve to extend her fit of laughter. After a minute she bit her lip and looked at him. "I'm sorry. It's just that sometimes…when you say those things…well, I have to admit that the thought of me as the perfect anything is rather…"

At his look of irritation, she broke off. "Severus, I'm sorry…it's not you, really. I…"

"I see that I have my work cut out for me," he noted, ignoring her apology, "if I'm to show you just how perfect you are to me…"

He slid up to stop her from saying anything more--or from giggling, for that matter--with a kiss, as the hand on her hip began again to track small circles.

********
After that kiss, it was clear that she was in no danger of a return of the giggles. The sounds she was making now were…Gods, he thought he could come just from the sound of her sometimes. Urging him on, occasionally, but usually just soft, earnest moans of pleasure that drove him to distraction.

He had been teasing her for a few minutes, in return for her previous torture. His hands and lips had roamed her body, mapping every inch of her, save for the place at which they both wanted him to arrive. Finally, for his own sake, he allowed himself to slip one finger in between her folds. She was hot and wet, and she moaned his name as the finger glided inside her. He added a second, and then a third, as his other hand traced upwards.

One finger circled her clitoris, and she squealed, her hips rising to meet his touch. He smiled to himself, and then closed his eyes. He loved the smell of her, the taste of her, and moved slowly at first, enjoying both. As she began to wriggle impatiently, he chuckled, knowing the feel of it would only tease her more.

"Severus, please…"

He, too, knew a plea when he heard it, and he obliged her yet again. His fingers began to move in and out, his tongue to knead her clit in earnest, and he moved his other hand to her thigh to help keep himself in place as she…

"SEVERUS!" She screamed his name as she came, and he sucked at her until she settled once more into the bed. Now her hands came to his hair, and she massaged his scalp as he cleaned her, as she had done for him before.

She pulled gently at his hair, and he moved to lie down beside her. For a moment, they lay in silence.

********
She didn't want to come down completely, and she could feel his rock-hard cock against her hip. So it was only a short moment before she kissed him, her hand moving down to wrap around his erection.

It twitched at her touch, and his hips shifted forwards instinctively. She moved her hand to his hip, then, and pulled him towards her. Wordlessly, he rolled with her, coming to rest between her thighs. He gazed down at her for a long moment, then shifted slightly and entered her.

Her eyes fluttered closed. Never would she get used to this feeling; she could not imagine anything better than this, than him filling her up, than the two of them linked, like this, together.

He held her close as they began to rock, but he was near to release, and she felt him quicken the pace almost immediately. She wrapped her legs around him, drawing him in deeper, and when he came, she came with him.

********
Later, when they were nestled together under the covers and he was on the edge of consciousness, he heard her murmur, "I will never leave you." He kissed the top of her head, and they fell asleep.

Chapter Text

He went to bed, finally, after proving to himself that Old Odgen's Firewhiskey could not erase the thoughts of her from his mind. She was stunning, dressed in dark red velvet--so graceful, so beautiful, especially in contrast to the obvious attempts by the students to seem so. When she had taken his arm, his heart had stopped in his chest.

And when he had seen her dancing with another man, his heart had broken.

This was madness, he told himself. It wasn't as though he hadn't known they were together… But somehow the sight of them, dancing together at the Valentine's dance, willing the world to know that they were in love…

In love. She loved someone else. He had known this, but tonight he had let himself believe it.

Getting back out of bed, he poured himself another shot, tossing it back and flinging the empty glass into the fireplace.

Trying not to think about what they must be doing now, he pulled the covers up to his ears and willed himself to sleep.

********
He woke once, sometime before dawn, from a dream of her. It was too late to stop; he frantically stroked himself to release, moaning her name.

No, this was wrong…this…he shouldn't think of her this way. It was torture, it was…

Shaking the last of the dream from his mind, he rose and went to the bathroom. He gazed at himself in the mirror for a long time. It was ridiculous. A crush he had encouraged for too long, a fantasy that he had no hope of making real.

If anyone had told him the year before that he would have passed on the chance to begrudge Severus Snape anything, he would have laughed, long and loud.

But she loved him, and he clearly loved her. And somehow, they belonged together. They were right for each other. He was what she needed. What she wanted.

But gods, how he loved her…needed her…wanted her.

He swallowed down a vial of hangover remedy and returned to bed.

********
He woke again once the sun was up, a little later than usual. He had dreamed of her again--dreamed that they were dancing, that she was leaving the dance on his arm.

His head was more than a little fuzzy, but did not ache; his penis was half-stiff with a morning erection. He sighed. He should opt for a cold shower; he couldn't let himself think of her again while he…

But he wasn't strong enough. If this was all he was ever going to have of her, he could not give it up without indulging himself completely one last time.

He trailed his hand along his ribs, over his stomach, causing his cock to twitch in anticipation. He let himself remember every detail of her appearance--hair pulled back to fall in those luscious curls, the hint of gloss on her lips and rouge at her cheeks, the drape of that rich material across her neck, and the teasing glimpse of creamy skin where the dress plunged ever so slightly down her back…

He let his hand wander lower, bypassing his hardening shaft to find his balls. He cupped them, and then massaged gently, rolling them between palm and fingers while his other hand teased at his inner thigh.

As he imagined the music, imagined the feel of her in his arms, her breath on his neck, her whisper in his ear, he felt himself begin to leak. His hips moved against the sheets of their own accord, and the feel of the fabric against his hard on caused him to groan. He blindly groped at the nightstand, opening the drawer to find the small jar of lubricant he kept there.

Rubbing a small amount of it between his hands, he tried to imagine her here, with him, wanting him as much as he wanted her…

Finally, he let his hand encircle his cock. He held still, not wanting this to be over too quickly, and ran his thumb along the head, coating it in fluid.

His thoughts of her became vague impressions, fleeting images of tongue and breasts and hands, as he began to stroke himself. Slowly, deliberately, his hand moved up and down. He forced his hips into the bed to keep from thrusting.

Finally, he could resist no longer. He imagined himself moving inside of her, surrounded by her heat, her wetness, and his hand began to move in earnest. He tugged harder…she would whisper in his ear, "I love you, Remus," and he would kiss her deeply as her own orgasm began from deep inside her.

Thrusting into his hand, his grip almost painful, he reached the edge. He slowed almost imperceptibly, torturing himself with the feeling. With his other hand, he reached down to squeeze his balls, to run a finger along his perineum…

"Hermione!" he cried out, coming hard, coating his stomach and wetting the sheets with his semen. His hand continued to move, pulling gently until every drop had been wrung from his body.

He turned onto his side, burying his face in the pillow.

"Hermione…"

Chapter Text

The next morning, Mordred woke them by coming to land on the headboard and hooting repeatedly. When they did not immediately respond, he dropped an envelope on his master's head. Severus cursed under his breath and ripped open the message; Hermione burrowed further under the covers, refusing to acknowledge either of them.

"Dumbledore wants to see us after breakfast," he announced.

"Mmm." She heard him refold the note, then begin to get out of bed. "MMMmmm." She reached a hand back towards him with this inarticulate protest, and he leaned over to kiss the top of her head.

As he crossed to the bathroom, he said (rather more loudly than was necessary, she thought), "I'd better shower, love. The Headmaster will assume that breakfast is going to happen at a reasonable hour."

She shoved back the covers with a pout. "It's supposed to be Saturday." He didn't answer, and she faded back to sleep.

To be awakened again when he grabbed her foot and shook it. "Come on, get up. I'll send for some breakfast while you shower." Pouting again, she headed to the bathroom. He smiled to himself. They were definitely not morning people, but the note from Dumbledore had made him curious, so he was doing better than she was.

From the bathroom he heard her grumble loudly, "Tea." He chuckled as he put the kettle on.

********
As they neared Dumbledore's office ("Pixie stix."), Hermione finally asked, "Did he say what this was about?"

"There's news about Draco, apparently."

"Mmm."

She fell silent again, wondering if she could perhaps go back to bed when this was over, and, more importantly, if she could convince him to come with her.

Severus opened the door for her, and as she passed in front of him she felt him tense. Sirius was there already, and he didn't look happy. He also didn't look at them as they entered. So much for a quiet Saturday morning.

"You wished to see us, Headmaster?" Severus's voice was coldly polite.

"Yes, yes. Both of you, please, have a seat. Professor Lupin should be along any minute, but I think we can start without him. Sirius?"

Black took the seat in the far corner of the office. Speaking to Dumbledore, with an occasional glance at Hermione, he began. "Last night I got word that Draco Malfoy had been spotted in London. I went there myself to check the reports. I found him having dinner with some tart--Muggle place, really fancy like. I tracked him back to her flat--he didn't stay the night, sorry bugger--and then planned on following him to wherever he was holed up. Demand some answers, you know, before he could disappear on us again."

Hermione dared not look at Snape. He was perfectly still, perfectly silent--and that was a very bad sign. She glanced at Dumbledore, who seemed to be listening impassively. She also knew better than to trust his appearance.

Black continued. "He stopped in a Muggle pub over on Oxford Street, looked like he was making a phone call. Don't know to who. Then he ducked into the Leaky Cauldron, and I figured he was headed out the back. I was hoping he wouldn't Apparate. I didn't want to follow too closely, and I lost track of him for a minute. Then…" he paused, looked almost sheepishly at Dumbledore, "as I passed Gringotts, I heard him behind me."

Now Snape drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He said nothing, however, and Black flashed him a look before finishing. "He asked me why I was following him. I tried to put him off, tell him he was too suspicious for his own good, but he didn't buy it. He had his wand pointed at me, or I'd have…"

"You blundering fool." Snape's quiet malice cut through Black's narrative. He leaned forward to snarl at the man, but did not rise from his chair. "You arrogant, blundering fool. What, exactly, would you have done? Beaten the information out of him? Asked him nicely where his Daddy was spending Valentine's Day? Perhaps called for the Aurors, removing the one sure link we have to Lucius Malfoy? What the hell were you thinking?"

"You watch your mouth, Snape. I know what I'm doing. I…"

"You know nothing, Black. Nothing. You know only what other people tell you. And now Malfoy knows more than he did two days ago. He knows that either I have enlisted the help of Hogwarts, or that Dumbledore is after him as well."

"And what do I care if he knows I'm onto him? The little rat-faced bastard…"

"I care! And if you had any sense of strategy about you, I wouldn't have to explain this. Not only have you severely limited our options in approaching 'the little rat-faced bastard,' as you so kindly put it, but you have ensured that he'll be even harder to track in the future. Imbecile."

The last was directed the office at large, or to himself, Hermione couldn't tell. At this point, Snape rose to begin pacing in front of Dumbledore's desk. She looked at the Headmaster, but he had simply steepled his fingers against his lips, and was watching both men in turn.

Black had apparently collected himself, because he stood as well and shot back, "Tell the truth, Snape. I see it all now. You're trying to protect that little weasel, and you want me to help you. If I had taken care of him last night, that would be one less thing to worry about this morning."

Snape stopped cold in his tracks. "So much for Gryffindor honor, Black, if you can so lightly discuss killing someone who might still be recovered. Then again, I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that you'd vote to throw Malfoy to the wolves…"

Black lunged at Snape, growling, and Dumbledore rose to his feet. Hermione froze; the look on Black's face was…horrible. Neither could intervene in time, and Hermione had to back out of the way to avoid the two as they crashed into the wall behind her, Black's forearm crushing against Snape's throat. Snape struggled to reach his wand, to free himself.

"Let him go, Black, or so help me, I'll make you wish you'd never been born." Both men stopped; Black turned to look at her. Hermione had her wand pointed at him; her gaze was cold, and her hand steady. "I'm not kidding. Let him go."

Black seemed to be weighing the odds when another voice interrupted. "I expected better of you, Sirius," Remus said quietly from the doorway. "To give your word and--did you have any intention of honoring your agreement with Severus? Or were you simply looking for a way to cause trouble?"

Black snarled, pushed past his friend and out the door. Hermione sat down, hard. Remus asked, "Are you all right, Severus?"

Massaging his throat, Snape brushed away Lupin's hand. "Fine." He turned on his heel and stalked out.

"Should I go after him?" Hermione's voice shook.

"No, my dear," Dumbledore answered. "I don't expect to hear the sounds of a duel coming from the lawn any time soon. I apologize; perhaps I should have given the two of you some sort of warning."

"It's all right," she said, managing a smile. "I don't know that anything would have made it any better."

"Hmm. Now, Remus, take a seat. I think that what we all need is some hot chocolate. The rest will sort itself out later, when cooler heads prevail."

Remus touched Hermione on the shoulder as he took the chair beside her. "Headmaster, I always said you were an optimist."

Dumbledore merely chuckled.

********
An hour later, Hermione arrived in the Potions classroom, where Snape was, predictably, hard at work over a cauldron.

She watched him for a while, and then asked, "Are you all right?"

He glanced up before continuing with his measurements. "Yes. Thanks in part to you, I might add." His expression didn't change, but she could see the smile behind his eyes.

"Mmm. Well, I suspect Dumbledore would have stepped in if I hadn't been there."

Now the smile played on his lips. "Probably. But I wouldn't have traded the sight of you holding Sirius Black at wandpoint for the world."

She was surprisingly relieved. He continued, "And I know what you're going to say: I can't expect Black to stay in line when I'm constantly goading him. But I could not stand back and listen to him speak of Draco so callously."

"I most certainly was not going to say that."

"Hmm." He glanced at her again. "No, I suppose you weren't. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

As she joined him at the worktable, she heard him murmur, "God be thanked, the meanest of his creatures boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with, one to show a woman when he loves her."

After a moment of mental searching, she asked, "And are you going to make me look that up myself?"

He smiled. "Of course."

********
That evening, Severus was reading on the sofa with Hermione's feet in his lap. Having finished grading a set of homework papers, she had promptly fallen asleep.

When she woke up, she took the opportunity to watch him for a minute; he was intently focused on his book, the crease between his eyes a testimony to his concentration. She couldn't resist. Slowly, she shifted her foot to the right…just enough…

He seized her ankle. Not looking at her, he said, "This is precisely the reason I resisted your feet in my lap the first time you put them there."

She smiled to herself. He did not release her foot. "You seem to be taking the events of this morning rather well," she noted. "I half expected you to pack up and disappear, since Sirius made a mess of things the first time out." She had not truly been afraid that he would go it alone--surely Black's actions were predictable enough--but his original warning she had taken seriously.

He sighed, and leaned forward to place the book on the table. Settling back, he propped his feet up on the table as well, rested his head against the back of the couch, and began to massage her foot.

"I suppose I was expecting it. And while he has indeed made things even more difficult, after so long a silence, he hasn't done irreparable damage." He turned his head to look at her. "Yet."

"Are you as worried as I am that we haven't heard anything out of either Malfoy for this long?"

"I am. Lucius--well, it surprises me that he could actually stay out of sight this long, given his craving for center stage, his insistence on taking credit. And Draco--he was never that clever. The fact that Carson"--Carson was the last remaining ally out of the group of ex-Death Eaters with whom he had been working--"cannot find hide nor hair of him, and that even Dumbledore's usual sources of news are as dry as mine, worries me."

Hermione sighed. He turned his attentions to her other foot.

"You're worried about Draco, too, aren't you."

"Yes." His hands stopped; she felt the tension in his grip as he continued. "I have seen far too many of my past students wind up dead or in Azkaban. Them, I cannot help. But there is still a chance that I can get through to Draco Malfoy, stubborn brat that he is." His hands began again. "If we can but find him…"

"We will," she said. She wriggled her toes to make him look at her. "We will."

********
The next day, Hermione got her wish--they slept in until almost ten o'clock, before heading to the classroom and their work on the lycanthropy cure. They had a meeting with Remus late that afternoon, and nothing to tell him when he arrived.

Their work in both directions--the original Wolfsbane Potion and the research into Dark Magic--had stalled out, and they were at a frustrating loss as to what to try next. The good news was that Hermione believed she had worked out a way to lessen the monthly dose. A minor consideration, but a spoonful of a horribly foul tasting liquid was better than a gobletful.

"Well, I'm disappointed, but not surprised. I've always suspected that there would never be a cure. After all, this isn't a curse, or, technically, a disease. How can you cure me from what I am?" Lupin's words were resigned, but his tone light. He smiled at Hermione.

"We won't give up, Remus," she insisted. "We…I will keep working on it."

"As will I," added Snape.

"Thank you both," said Remus. "I could not ask for two better friends."

Severus's eyes went wide, but Hermione ignored him to ask, "Remus, you haven't mentioned it, and since I'm used to men who don't want any special attention paid to the day, I thought I'd let it pass, but…didn't I read in your medical history that today was your birthday?"

Remus smiled meekly. "Yes, February 16th. I…never want anybody to go to any trouble…"

"Nonsense." The men exchanged a look; her tone was very much that of a Gryffindor know-it-all. "You'll have dinner with us, to celebrate." Then she smiled. "But we won't mention your birthday again if you don't want us to. Will seven o'clock be too late?"

"No, that'll be fine…"

"Come to my rooms, then. We'll see you there."

As she turned back to her notes, Snape and Lupin smiled at each other for what was perhaps the first time.

********
After Remus had left, Severus had asked if she thought Lupin would like Italian food. When she answered in the affirmative, he simply noted that she should bring Lupin through the fireplace when he came to her rooms at seven o'clock.

Severus had chosen well, and the three enjoyed a wonderful meal, from the wine to the manicotti. Afterwards, over espresso, they continued their conversation for some time. Of course, Severus hadn't said much the entire evening, but Hermione could tell that he was enjoying himself. He mainly spoke when the subject was school and students--to complain, of course. He sat quietly, listening, as they discussed anything but the cure and the Malfoys. Remus had received a letter from Harry the day before, and it seemed that Ron might have a new girlfriend. Harry wasn't sure. Hermione decided that Harry had counted on Remus to share the information with her, so that he wouldn't have to write her the news himself.

After Remus had gone, Hermione poured a glass of wine for herself, Severus having gestured that he did not want another.

"That was nice," she said, once seated with him on the sofa. "I had no idea you knew so much about Italian food." He'd clearly ordered everything to his exact specifications, and it had been better than the fancy Italian restaurant to which her parents used to take her, by a long shot.

"Mmm. I had it in mind for Valentine's Day, but then we decided not to do anything special."

"You know it's my favorite."

"Of course."

"And who could have imagined…Remus Lupin sitting at your table."

"Who could have imagined you sitting at my table."

They sat in comfortable silence for a while before going to bed.

********
Severus woke in the middle of the night to a soft glow in the room. Rolling over, he saw Hermione seated at the table, surrounded by books and feverishly scribbling.

He slid out of bed, wrapping his dressing gown around him, and crossed to place a hand on her shoulder.

"What are you doing up?" he asked softly.

She jumped, despite his quiet tone. "Gods! Severus! You scared me."

"Reading this in the small hours of the morning can't have helped your nerves. What are you doing?" She had one of the Darker tomes out, as well as volumes on Transfiguration and Potions--and one on Muggle Biology.

She finished her notation, and then leaned her head back against him. He obligingly rubbed her shoulders.

"I didn't want to wake you, but I had a thought. I think…I think I may have an idea about Remus's cure."

Hopes of luring her back to bed before he was wide awake vanished. "And?"

"And I think we've been coming at this from the wrong angle. Come here, I'll show you."

She picked up the top page of notes and led him to the sofa.

"Now," she began, collecting her thoughts, "we've been working with the existing Wolfsbane Potion as a starting point. We've managed to refine, but not perfect. And I've decided that isn't possible." She watched his face for a response, but he simply motioned for her to go on.

"Well, I've been thinking about this in terms of the work we did on Cruciatus. There too, we were working towards a potion that would block effects. In both cases, the cure, or counter reaction, is dependent on there being an action in the first place. In other words, the Wolfsbane only works when the transformation occurs, just as the Cruciatus potion only works when Cruciatus is cast. It lies dormant until then."

He saw where she was headed. Of course!

"So, that's been rattling around in my head for a while, and I woke up tonight with an absurdly simple thought. We need to stop focusing on blocking the physical reaction, and work on altering Remus's body chemistry to the point where the transformation won't occur in the first place--then there won't be anything to block." She paused, then added, "Not that it will be simple to implement…"

"No, you're right. We should take a step back and come at this from another angle. So you're thinking about the Dark Curses to transform people into animals, and thinking of…what, adapting them somehow? Reversing?"

"Yes, or something like a…permanent transfiguration. Or…we may not manage a permanent change, but we might at least get him to the point where he doesn't have to deal with any effects of the transformation--even the discomfort as he waits for the right time to take his monthly dose. But I think that, because of the physiology involved, it will still have to be a potion. I can't tell."

"Well, I'm sure that McGonagall would be happy to help us, should we need her, as would Pomfrey," he offered. "But in the meantime, we have school tomorrow, and you've proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are not a morning person. Come to bed."

She allowed herself to be led to bed. A few minutes later, she began, "Severus, do you think that if we…"

"Go to sleep, Hermione."

She sighed, wrapped her arms around him, and finally fell asleep.

********
After her last class on Monday, Hermione stopped at the library, and then was outside the door waiting when the last Potions class of the day let out. Snape was at the front of the room, scowling down at a student who had been late to class. Since the student had been with Flitwick, his Head of House, Snape had no choice but to let him have the full time in which to complete that day's assignment.

Hermione crossed the room, giving him a quick look, and tried not to laugh at his clear expression of annoyance.

She was intently working on a shopping list for their next trip to Knockturn Alley when she heard Snape growl. "What is it, Miss Fairfax? Well? Spit it out now, or get out of my sight."

She hurried to intervene. "Miss Fairfax, are you looking for me?"

The girl visibly relaxed. "Yes, Professor. I…need to change the time of our meeting tomorrow, and Professor Lupin said that you'd probably be down here." She glanced at Snape nervously. He said nothing, simply glared.

"Why don't we go to my office, then. We can talk now, or we can arrange some other time this week."

"Thank you, Professor."

They escaped the Potions classroom together, though Hermione couldn't resist waving good-bye to Severus as she went. He rolled his eyes and went back to his work.

********
"Why on earth are you so grumpy?" she asked upon her return. "Have you finally found Neville Longbottom's replacement?"

"No," he answered. "Just after lunch I received a letter. From Draco Malfoy."

Chapter Text

"We're due in Dumbledore's office in ten minutes." That was the only answer he had given to her questions. "If you hadn't returned, I'd have sent for you."

She had followed in his wake as he stalked through the hallways from the dungeon to the Headmaster's office, parting the students, who were on their way to dinner, without seeming to notice they were there.

They took their seats silently, and Dumbledore looked up from the papers in front of him. Without a greeting, he said somberly, "Tell me what Draco has to say, Severus."

Snape produced Draco's note out of some hidden pocket. Dumbledore scanned it quickly and handed it to Hermione.

Dear Professor Snape--

I think it's time we spoke face to face. Meet me on the far side of the Forbidden Forest, midnight, this Friday.

Come alone.

D.M.

The location was marked on a hand-drawn map at the bottom of the page, and the irony with which "Professor" had been written was almost tangible.

Hermione's eyes jumped to Severus's face, and Dumbledore asked the question that was on her lips.

"Surely you can't go alone, Severus?"

Snape sighed. "No. And I would expect Malfoy to assume that I will bring some well-hidden support. We must be very discreet, however, and extremely careful. We must not confirm his suspicions that others are there unless absolutely necessary."

"Of course," nodded Dumbledore.

"I will not take Black. And I'd rather not take Potter. Draco would not respond well to him, should he have to make himself visible." He glanced at Hermione before continuing. "I would choose to take Hermione and Lupin, if they're willing…"

"Of course I'll go," Hermione interjected. A smile flitted at the corner of Severus's lips, but he did not look at her.

"Fine. That sounds fine," Dumbledore agreed. "Two should be easily concealed, and you've chosen as I would have."

Hermione couldn't help it; her eyes went wide as she heard Dumbledore's vote of confidence.

"Now," asked the Headmaster, "why do you think Draco wants to see you?"

Snape reclined in his chair, closing his eyes and pressing two fingers to the bridge of his nose. "I'm not sure. There are several options. The fact that he chooses to meet so close to Hogwarts seems in our favor, and would indicate that he actually does wish to talk about something. One, he could want out--could want help to get out of this mess into which his father has dumped him. Two, it could be a trap."

"And three?" Hermione asked, not wanting to linger on the obvious.

He smiled for an instant, and his hand dropped to his lap. "Three, Draco Malfoy is going to make me an offer. An exchange, perhaps--his father for his own immunity. Or else a ceasefire, or an offer to trade information. He may be in earnest, or it may be part of the set-up. I won't know until I hear what he has to say--until I can look into his eyes."

It was Dumbledore's turn to sigh. "And you expect the third option, that is clear. I myself am not so sure that it won't be the second. All right. Let's have some supper, and then we'll talk to Remus and begin to make plans."

As they passed out of the office, Dumbledore put his hand on Snape's shoulder. "Whatever you need, Severus, we are here to help."

Snape nodded, then took Hermione's hand in his as the three of them headed to the Great Hall.

********
The plans were easily made. Remus was going to tell Sirius what was going on, for fear that he would learn about the meeting on his own and show up in the middle of it. Snape had reluctantly agreed. Black had made himself scarce, since the scene in Dumbledore's office, and seemed unwilling to cause any more trouble. Past that, Flitwick was going to help Hermione and Lupin with a few useful charms, and the preparations on Friday night would take only minutes. So they had the rest of the week to wait and worry.

The days passed surprisingly quickly, what with their potions work, grading, and an outbreak of minor classroom offenses brought on by a few days of surprisingly warm, sunny weather. On Friday, however, Hermione was free, and Snape was in class most of the day.

That was for the best, she thought to herself, since she would probably drive him crazy with her pacing. It was certain that she wouldn't be able to stop asking, "What if…?"

So she was very relieved when, at lunch, McGonagall asked her to tea that afternoon. It had been ages since they'd made the time to chat, and Hermione knew that a dose of Minerva's quiet confidence and practical encouragement would do her good.

They spoke of the latest teachers' meeting, of the students' weather-induced behavior, and of Greg and Bill's promise of an Easter visit. Minerva asked about the work with Lupin, and was genuinely thrilled to hear that the Dark research they had been doing was helpful. She inquired with a slight smile as to whether things with Severus were going as well as they seemed, and for the first time Hermione didn't cringe inwardly at the question.

Finally, the older woman set down her cup and said, in a tone that recalled her days as Hermione's Head of House, "Albus has told me about your task tonight." At Hermione's startled reaction, she explained, "Albus tells me almost everything, you know. Even though I sometimes have to pretend as though I know less than I actually do. Granted, he often tells me after the fact, but this time…I suspect he knew you'd appreciate a little encouragement."

Hermione smiled. "I would. Of course, it feels strange that you both know about our dangerous trip into the Forbidden Forest beforehand; when I was a student, you only ever discovered us afterwards."

Minerva smiled. "Yes, you three were quite a handful. Had me worried sick at least once every year, it seems. But that does not mean that I did not have confidence in you, even then. And we can only hope that this meeting will go smoothly, and that Draco…will find his way back to us."

Hermione didn't want to get her own hopes up where Draco was concerned, but she didn't say so. Just as she hadn't admitted it to Severus--though she knew his hope was less grand, perhaps, than Minerva's. She merely nodded.

"Flitwick is quite pleased with the charms you and Lupin have been working on this week. He was so tickled that you wanted to borrow his Veiling Charm. He's very proud of it, you know," McGonagall said, sounding for all the world like she was praising one of her students.

"He's been so helpful. And he and Remus have been helping me to review my charms and spells. I'm afraid I'm a bit rusty."

"You'll be fine, dear. Severus wouldn't have asked you to come if he weren't sure of that. And Albus wouldn't let you go if he didn't think you were up to the task." McGonagall's eyes met Hermione's. "Does Severus understand why you have to do this? Why you need to be a part of it?"

"I think he does," Hermione said, dropping her gaze. "Finally."

"And are you sure why you need to do this?"

Hermione glanced back up at her teacher, not sure what she was asking. "Because…it needs doing, and because I want to help him."

McGonagall regarded her for a long minute. "Good. I wanted to be sure you weren't going along out of sheer stubbornness, or because you were trying to prove something. I know…I know your time at university was difficult. But you are very valuable to all of us, and we wouldn't want to lose you." Minerva cleared her throat, and Hermione felt her cheeks redden.

"Now, would you like another slice of this poppy seed cake?" As McGonagall served, she shifted topics. "How are your classes going? Has Arthur Prichard decided to behave himself?"

********
Dinner was a quiet affair at their end of the table. At one point Hermione glanced over to see Hagrid watching her; she gave him a genuine smile to reassure him that all was well. Though McGonagall and Flitwick both knew at least some of what was going on, the rest of their colleagues did not, and Hermione wanted to tell all of them to stop exchanging worried looks. She made an effort to involve Professor Sprout in conversation, forcing Remus at least to nod in agreement every once in a while.

Snape left the table early, and after the meal was over, Hermione went to his rooms to find him. They weren't scheduled to meet until eleven o'clock, and they hadn't discussed what they would do in the intervening hours. But she needed to be with him.

He was stretched out on the sofa, long legs crossed at the ankles. She hesitated, not wanting to wake him if he actually slept. But he shifted onto his side, turned his head to look up over the arm of the sofa at her, and said, "We should try to rest a while." She smiled softly, and lay down beside him. He held her close, and they stayed there for a couple of hours. While she dozed off for a bit, she wasn't sure if he ever did.

********
At eleven o'clock, they met Remus in the Potions classroom. All three were dressed completely in black, with heavy cloaks. After a few murmured confirmations, they left the castle and walked to the edge of the grounds. They Apparated to a spot some distance from Draco's intended meeting site, and Hermione and Remus began to cast the charms needed for their surveillance--and possible defense--of Snape.

The Exaudio was first, because it was easier to cast without interference from the other spells. The charm would allow Remus and Hermione to hear each other clearly from a distance, even though they spoke sotto voce. Hermione glanced at Severus; he shook his head. They charmed him as well, but one way only; they would be sure to hear everything that passed between him and Draco, but he had insisted that he did not want them buzzing in his ear.

They had debated more than once, over the course of the week, whether to use a full Invisibility Charm, or cloaks. Cloaks could be troublesome, catching on things or leaving one's appendages inadvertently exposed, Hermione had noted (Snape had raised an eyebrow but said nothing; Remus had smiled). But Invisibility Charms were difficult to maintain, and neither Hermione nor Remus had much experience with them. (Hermione assumed that Remus could well have managed, but also knew that, if the Invisibility Charm were the best choice, they wouldn't have refrained from using it only for her sake.) Hermione had thought of Flitwick's Veiling Charm. It served as a screen, curving around the front of the caster and moving with her, but it had the added bonus of muffling sound and was much easier to maintain because of the screen's set shape. From their positions, they'd only need to be shielded from one direction.

Unless Draco was bringing friends as well, Hermione thought. But in that case, they'd have to make a move, and their attempt to hide would be forfeit anyway.

There were a couple of other spells to sharpen their night vision and keep their muscles from tightening up too much during their wait, as well as a Warming Charm. For Snape, there were some low-level defensive spells, nothing to draw too much attention if Draco chose to look; they had each already taken a dose against Crucio in the classroom. Hermione had hoped that their work on that potion wouldn't be needed quite so personally.

Finally, Snape spoke. "Remember, watch for my signal before you get involved--whatever happens. Draco may try to test the waters, to see what he can get away with. I can handle him. But even though he may suspect I have somebody accompanying me, let us do our best not to prove to him that I have broken his trust before we've even started."

Remus and Hermione glanced at each other and nodded. Snape focused on Lupin. "Thank you, Remus, for agreeing to come." Remus could only nod again, surprised as he was. Then Snape turned to Hermione. He brushed a hand against her cheek, and said only, "Be careful."

He began to turn away, and she caught his hand. "That goes for you, too."

He smiled a little, and nodded. And then, after a pause, he leaned in and kissed her, swiftly and gently, before striding away ahead of them towards the meeting place. She didn't look at Remus, but hurried to follow.

********
Hermione sat cross-legged on the ground, her back against a tree trunk, her sides flanked by some rather large shrubbery. Despite the charms, she was already starting to shift, and wished she could see things more clearly. When she stood, she would have a clear view of Severus, who was now sitting on a large rock, waiting for Draco. Though she couldn't see him, she knew that Remus was directly across from her, watching from the other side of the clearing. The clearing itself was in a depression, surrounded by woods on all sides. Enough to hide any activity there from prying eyes; you couldn't see what was going on unless you were on the inside of the bowl, as it were. She and Remus had chosen spots near the top.

They had taken their places a quarter of an hour before Draco's appointed time. Hermione had asked if Severus's early arrival would make Draco suspect that there were others waiting as well, but Severus had said that it would allow Draco to survey the location beforehand, and to make a grand entrance, should he choose to do so. So here they sat, waiting in silence.

"He certainly does look calm," came Remus's voice in her ear. "How dangerous do you think Draco Malfoy actually is?"

"I don't know. It may depend on how desperate he is," she muttered back.

A few minutes later, there was a sound in the darkness to her left, and Hermione started. Then Draco Apparated into the clearing. Severus had been right; Draco had taken a look first to be sure that he was there.

Hermione stood, careful not to rustle anything, and looked at the boy she had known. He seemed pale--whiter than usual--and she could see dark smudges under his eyes. Even at a distance, he seemed tired, despite his arrogant stance. Snape still sat staring at the ground. Waiting for Draco to make the first move.

"So you actually came," sneered Draco. "I thought perhaps you'd think I wasn't important enough to bother with. Certainly not worth the effort you've made to find my father. Though your…canine friend was a bit of a surprise. Really, can't you find better help these days?"

Snape raised his eyes to meet Draco's, but did not stand. "You asked to speak to me. I had no reason to avoid you. And I will admit to being curious."

They paused before the next move, and Hermione weighed each line in her mind. Draco could be looking for attention, and it seemed clear that he didn't feel like he was of any real value to his father. And he was trying to push Snape's buttons with the bit about Sirius. For his part, Snape was avoiding the bait, as well as any attempt at flattery or dissimulation. Draco would see right through it, after all.

This time, Snape spoke first. "Well? What did you want to tell me, Draco? What is so urgent that you brought me out here in the middle of the night?" A touch of the easily irritated professor, keeping this on familiar ground.

Draco barked out a laugh. "My father told me to meet with you." At Snape's reaction, he smirked. "Are you scared, Snape? You should be. But don't worry; I'm not here to drag you kicking and screaming to my father. I told him I wanted to talk to you once first, here, near Hogwarts, so that you wouldn't be so suspicious when I asked you to meet me…somewhere else. I told him I'd lure you in by making you think I was ready to turn against him, that I wanted help. He knew you'd fall for it. So here we are."

"Why are you telling me all of this?" Snape asked calmly.

"Good question," said Hermione. Remus snorted.

"Maybe I'm telling you to gain your trust. Or maybe this is the trap. You certainly were stupid enough to step right into it," Draco answered. "How did you ever stay alive so long?"

Draco was pacing now. Snape sat calmly, but watched him carefully.

Hermione whispered to Remus, "What's he up to? Is he stalling for some reason?"

"Maybe he wants Snape to make him an offer first, to ask him for something?"

"Maybe…" But Hermione wasn't convinced.

Draco came to a stop and glared down at Snape. "I have information you want. And I'm willing to bet that you'll pay good money to get it."

"Perhaps." Snape sounded bored. "Or perhaps I can give you something better than money."

Draco snorted. "And what would that be?"

"Perhaps I can help you stay out of Azkaban."

Draco's eyes went wide. Hermione wondered if Severus was doing the right thing, putting an offer on the table rather than waiting for Draco to play out his hand. And there was still something niggling at the back of her mind. Something that wasn't quite right…

"Wha…you…I'm not going to Azkaban," Draco insisted. "I've done nothing wrong!"

"Draco, do you know where your father is?" Draco nodded once, hesitantly, his eyes afraid. "And do you know that he is wanted by the Ministry?" Draco turned away. "You are an accessory, Draco. Your father has used you and turned you into a criminal. And do you think he would raise a finger to help you if you were caught?"

Draco glanced up into the woods surrounding them. Snape added, "No, Draco. I am not here to capture you. I came because you wanted to talk. But you have said nothing of interest yet. You have offered to sell me information--but how can I trust that what you tell me is the truth, and not a set-up? You'll have to do better than that."

Hermione could see that Severus was keeping Draco off balance. At first, he had been seemingly submissive, but now he had taken control of the situation while not posing any clear threat. It still didn't seem the right way to appeal to Draco--more like bullying--but maybe Draco would be suspicious of anything else.

Draco seemed flustered, but his jaw set as he answered, "I would think that my not having set a trap for you at this meeting--that my telling you what my father wanted me to do to you--would be enough proof that my intentions are…"

"Honest? Honorable?" Snape's tone was still quiet and smooth, but Draco flinched at the words.

"You're just like my father. How do I know you're not going to turn on me? It seems to me that both of us will have something to risk. Do you want the information or not?"

"Just like my father…turn on me…" Why on earth would Lucius Malfoy let Draco decide what steps to take where Snape was concerned? Clearly he would be suspicious, would wonder why Draco really wanted to meet with his ex-Potions Master--the ex-Potions Master who was still at Hogwarts, who was still working, now openly, with Albus Dumbledore.

Unless… "Remus," she hissed. "What if this is a trap, but Draco doesn't know about it?"

"What?"

"What if Lucius decided to lay a trap anyway, despite what Draco said? What if he doesn't mind using his son as bait?"

Silence for a minute. "We haven't seen any sign that there's anybody else here. What kind of trap…"

"Stay here, Remus, and keep an eye on them. I'm going to circle around to you."

"No…Hermione! Wait!" But she didn't answer. After murmuring the charm to shut out Severus and Draco's conversation, she eased herself around her tree trunk, and backed a few feet into the darkness, over the crest of the rise. She set out to pass behind Draco, since they had come from the other direction.

"Hermione!" Remus's voice in her ear.

"I'm ok. I don't see anything yet. I…wait."

"What? What is it?"

"Nothing. Never mind. Must have been an animal. I'm going on."

She moved slowly and quietly, keeping the Veiling Charm between her and Draco. She had to watch the ground carefully, so as not to trip over anything and give her presence away. She wished for more light, but couldn't risk it.

She hadn't let herself name her suspicion. But as she paused behind a rather large tree, she shivered. It felt cooler here. And the thing she feared…Dementors.

She remembered all too clearly that night in the forest her seventh year, when the professors had fought back the Dementors near Hogsmeade. She had been out in the woods looking for Harry. One of them had grabbed her…

She shuddered. "Back to the present, Granger," she muttered.

"What? Hermione, I couldn't hear you. Where are you?"

How glad she was that Severus wasn't listening in on this. "Nothing, Remus. I'm just talking to myself. Listen…did Snape say anything about the possibility of Lucius still having access to Dementors?"

A long pause from Lupin. "Hermione, what do you see?"

"Nothing, I…" And then there they were. She dropped to the ground. One, two, three…at least three coming from this direction. Not enough to pose a real threat--not to a wizard of Severus's caliber, surely. Even if he were alone. She held her breath as they passed a few yards away from her, headed down towards the clearing. She took a breath to speak to Lupin, and then froze.

Four…five…six…seven…

Shit.

If she spoke to Remus, they might hear her. One of them had already snuffled in her direction. And if she drew them all towards her at once…. Her Patronus had always been weak. And could one of the others get there in time? Severus was closest. But if she called out, he would have to deal with a startled Draco first, as well as the three Dementors that now stood between them.

She edged herself backwards, keeping an eye on the Dementors. She could run…could try to get back towards Remus before they caught her….

She sat, crouched in a bush, for several minutes. If she could drive even one or two of them off--surprise them. "Oh, Gods," she thought, "I'm seriously contemplating trying to surprise a pack of Dementors."

The four she was left with seemed to be spreading out. She had to let Lupin know what was going on before they were all completely surrounded.

"Remus," she whispered, covering her mouth with her hands. "Don't talk. Listen to me. Behind Draco--at least seven Dementors. I need your help."

At that point, she heard Draco yell something, and then saw the flash of a spell. Apparently it was now or never.

She stood, reassured herself that her Veiling Charm was still in place, and checked the positions of the other Dementors. She could see three…where was the fourth? She took a deep breath, and searched her mind for a happy memory….

Their first kiss…dancing at Valentine's…the Slytherin scarf she had bought him…waking up in his arms…Christmas…

"Expecto Patronum!" she shouted, aiming her wand at Dementor number four. A white form, wavering a little more than she would have liked, shot out of her wand and ran towards the Dementors.

She heard a cry from the clearing, and wondered if the first three had made their move. If so, at least she knew where they were. She looked around. Numbers four and five had backed away, but number seven was scanning the woods for any sign of their attacker. She still didn't know where number six was, and her Patronus would have begun to fade by now, even before it could return to her.

Her Veiling Charm was weakening, and she hurried to duck behind a tree. She would need a few minutes before she could successfully send another Patronus. She needed to get back to Lupin…

She took a few steps and then froze at the sound behind her. Number six, and it was coming quickly. Her mind raced across the happy thoughts again. "Think of one happy thought," she muttered to herself. "Focus."

Her mind reeled, and then… "Severus waking up in the hospital wing…when he came back to me…" She clutched at the memory, raised her wand, and shouted, "EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

An enormous form leaped out of her wand, and she stumbled backwards. The lion padded towards the Dementor, gathering speed, and she turned towards the clearing.

The ground was steeper here, and she slid the last few feet to the bottom. Quickly she stood, glancing around. Severus was there, with Draco unconscious at his feet. He had just sent a Patronus--the largest raven she had ever seen--towards the three Dementors at the front of the pack, and was headed up the hill after them.

"Severus!"

He stopped, a flicker of relief crossing his face at the sound of her voice, and then called, "Come on! Lupin's up there already!"

She ran to him, and he took her hand to pull her with him up the incline.

"How many?" he asked over his shoulder.

"I saw seven," she managed, her breath ragged. She wanted to ask after Draco, but knew it could wait.

The large, translucent lion approached before fading away, and she saw Snape's eyebrow rise for a moment before he called out, "Lupin!"

"Over here! I think that's the last of them!"

They headed towards the sound of his voice and found him a few yards away, two Dementors at his feet.

"The others headed that way, into the woods. I decided I'd better not chase them any further. Besides, I didn't know if I could manage another Patronus so quickly." He stopped to catch his breath.

"No, no, you did well to hang back," Snape said.

Lupin turned to Hermione, a grin on his face. "And that lion was yours, wasn't it?" She nodded, a little embarrassed. "Well, I can see that my teaching has finally paid off." He chuckled.

She was about to reply when a voice shouted, "Hey, did anybody up there happen to lose some Dementors?"

"It's Harry!" she exclaimed.

In a moment, Harry, Sirius, Ron, and a couple of men Hermione didn't recognize came out of the trees. Hermione ran to her friends, managing to get one arm around each of their necks before demanding, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Well," Ron said, "we are Aurors, after all. And we heard that you might be in need of a little backup."

"Always," said Hermione.

Snape glared at Black as he approached. Black shook his head, apologetic but dangerously cocky. "I know, I know, we didn't follow directions. But when I got wind of some Dementors moving about an hour ago, and Harry had heard the same, we decided that you were the most likely target."

Coldly, Snape turned away and headed back for the clearing. Remus put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Thank you, Sirius." Sirius nodded, but his eyes followed Snape.

********
"He'll sleep through the night, and probably most of tomorrow," Madame Pomfrey clucked. "I don't see why you had to use such a strong Binding Charm, Snape. He's obviously in no condition--he hit his head on the way down, too, and that can't have done him any good."

"Perhaps it will knock some sense into him," Snape replied.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Poppy said, heading back to her charge. But Hermione could see her repressing a smile.

Professor Dumbledore waved them all towards the hallway. "Yes, yes, a job well done. It is good to have Draco safely back under our roof again. And I am very thankful that none of you were injured. Severus, I couldn't have done any better myself."

Snape ignored the last remark to comment, "Yes, we were lucky that Professor Granger's suspicions got the better of her. I was watching for trouble, but expected it to come from Draco. I had not wanted to believe that Lucius would so easily put his son's life in danger." Hermione, standing with an arm around Ron, blushed.

"And it was a good thing we had some Aurors along to help, as it turns out," added Lupin. "I'll sleep better tonight knowing that those other five Dementors aren't somewhere nearby."

Dumbledore beamed. "This calls for a bit of a celebration. I know it's late, but if you'll all join me in my office, I'll have some food sent up. And I could use a drink."

As he turned to lead the way, Snape's low voice brought them all up short. "Black." Sirius turned to face him. "You were…of use tonight. There is still work to be done, however. Perhaps you can see your way clear to not forcing me to leave you at home next time?"

As Black tried to decide what part of the remark to reply to first, Snape took Hermione's hand, placed it under his arm, and headed off down the hall. Dumbledore chuckled and followed.

"Come on, old man," Remus said, clapping his hand on Sirius's back. "Maybe by the time we get there you'll have come up with a suitable response."

Ron glanced at Harry before they moved to bring up the rear. "You know, I just can't make up my mind about him."

Harry grinned. "Aw, come on, Ron. You know he's not so bad."

Ron's nose crinkled, his eyes widened. "Not you too! I swear, I never thought I'd see the day."

"You've been spending too much time with your mother, Ron." Harry laughed, and Ron joined in.

Chapter Text

It was well after two o'clock by the time they reached Snape's quarters. Regardless, Severus wanted to take a shower. Gods, how he hated Dementors. He could still feel their…presence…on his skin. As he headed to the bathroom, Hermione slipped through the fireplace to change for bed and retrieve Crookshanks. She needed everybody in one place, and though she knew Severus would sleep in her rooms if she asked, she wanted to be here. His rooms, his things, his bed. Safe.

Though her cat had never visited the dungeons before, he settled quietly against Hermione as she curled up on her side of the bed. Exhausted, she quickly fell asleep to the sounds of his purr and the water running in the other room.

Severus smiled at the sight when he slipped into bed a few minutes later, and Crookshanks blinked at him, lifting his nose in greeting. But as the man closed his eyes, the sleeping woman scooted closer--and the cat was forced to leap nimbly to the edge of the bed to avoid being smushed. He dropped silently to the floor, where he began a careful inspection of the room.

********
Sometime before dawn, Hermione stirred, jerking out of sleep before taking a deep breath and laying her head back down.

"All right?" His voice was sleepy, but concerned.

"Yes. I'm sorry I woke you."

"Bad dream?"

"Not too. Dementors."

"Mmm." He shifted closer, putting his arm across her.

After a moment, she said, "When I was little, my mother would always tell me to think of something happy. She said that would help me get back to sleep and keep me from dreaming the bad dream again."

"Your mother is a wise woman."

"I always thought about the Walt Disney World parade. We went when I was four or five. For some reason my happy thought was always Mickey and the others in their marching band."

"It sounds dreadful."

She smiled in the darkness. After another brief silence, she added, "I thought of you."

"In the marching band?"

"No, silly." She laughed softly. "Tonight. With the Dementors. I…was never good at making a Patronus…before…."

He was quiet, and she thought perhaps he'd gone back to sleep. But as her eyes fell shut, he spoke softly.

"I thought of the night…I thought I'd lost you, driven you away. But there you were in the doorway…and then you kissed me…"

As they drifted back to sleep, Crookshanks jumped up on the end of the bed. After slowly stalking his way along the edge, he curled up by Severus's pillow, tucked his nose in his tail, and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.

********
When Hermione awoke, Crookshanks was still in his place by the pillow, but Severus was gone. "Probably checking on Draco," she said to Crookshanks, who promptly rose to begin his morning stretches on Severus's side of the bed. Hermione scratched his head and he flopped to one side and began lolling around on his back. Taking the not-so-subtle hint, Hermione rubbed his tummy.

She decided on breakfast in the Great Hall, because she knew that the others would be glad to see her, given their worried looks last night at dinner. She also wanted to see Remus, if he was there. She hadn't had a chance to thank him.

News that Draco Malfoy was in the hospital wing had spread quickly, and the faculty seemed to know at least the basic facts about the previous night's adventures. McGonagall smiled at her as she took her seat, and Flitwick couldn't wait to ask, "So, was my Veiling Charm a help?"

"It was, and thank you so much for teaching it to us," Hermione answered. "Though it turns out I could have used a little practice on my Patronus. Or a few more of you along to help."

Madam Hooch interjected, "Yes, we heard the Dementors showed up. Good thing you had some Ministry backup. Though I also heard that you handled yourself quite well."

Hermione glanced over at Remus, who smiled as he buttered his toast.

"Well, I still wouldn't have minded having a few more of you around," Hermione demurred. "But yes, Professor Flitwick, your charm worked perfectly. I had no trouble at all maintaining it, even when I was concentrating on casting my Patronus."

That took the focus off of her accomplishments satisfactorily, as Flitwick had an endless string of questions about using the Veiling Charm under pressure, with other spells, etc.

After breakfast, she walked with Remus towards his office. "I wanted to say thank you. I didn't get a chance last night."

He shrugged. "Happy to be of service. And I'm glad it turned out so well."

He seemed distracted. "Is everything all right?"

Remus smiled. "Oh, yes, of course. I'm sorry; I am a bit…I don't know what, this morning. Perhaps I didn't eat enough chocolate last night. I did get fairly close to one of those Dementors."

She let it go, though she wasn't convinced. "Well, I've got to find a way to pass the time until I hear something from Severus--he's in the hospital wing with Draco." She raised a teasing eyebrow. "If you ply me with some hot chocolate, I'd consider waiting a while with you."

His face softened now, as it hadn't on his previous smile. "It would be my pleasure. I've been anxious to hear an update on Draco as well. What do you think he'll do now?"

Hermione shook her head. "I have no idea."

********
Snape had come to the hospital wing just before seven o'clock, when he received a note from Madam Pomfrey saying that Draco was awake. The boy--he couldn't help thinking of Draco as a boy--was asleep again by the time Snape had arrived, but Poppy noted that it was a natural sleep this time, and that the medications had worn off.

Draco Malfoy would be fine. But when he woke up, he would have a major decision to make.

Snape waited, sitting in a chair near the door. Dumbledore had come to check on them, and shared a small breakfast with Severus. The Headmaster was prepared to make Draco an offer--an offer both men found very familiar. If Draco helped them find his father, assisted in putting Lucius Malfoy safely in Azkaban, Dumbledore would make sure that he remained free. Otherwise, Draco Malfoy would go to Azkaban himself.

The bargain was more than fair. It was, Snape thought, just as generous and merciful as the offer Albus had made him, so many years ago. And just as awful. But even though Draco would not face years of spying as he had, Severus intended to make certain the boy knew the repercussions of his decision. Turning on one's own father couldn't be easy--not even for Draco Malfoy.

And sometimes paying for your crimes in a straightforward manner was the easier route.

The pale figure in the last bed on the right stirred, and Poppy Pomfrey came immediately into the room. Snape had always wondered if she had some unseen means of monitoring her patients, or whether this "sixth sense" was some personal magic of hers.

He sat quietly while she clucked and tutted over Draco. When she was done, she fixed Snape with a matronly gaze. "Don't upset him, Professor. He still needs his rest. But you can see him now."

Snape rose without a response. As she left, Poppy added, "Please help him, Severus."

He quietly took the seat next to Draco's bed. The boy was staring at the wall, and Snape wasn't sure whether or not to wait for him to speak. He decided that, once again, the familiar approach might be best.

"Madam Pomfrey tells me that you will recover. I'm glad to hear it. Especially since your…escapade last night could have turned into something much worse." His professorial tone was not as harsh as it could be, but still Draco flinched.

"I didn't know…" a brief pause, one that anyone else would not have noticed, "that the Dementors would be there. I thought that my father and I had come to an…understanding."

"No," Snape noted without emotion, "I did not imagine that you did. And you would not have reacted so violently if you had been expecting them."

"I thought…" Draco's eyes sought Snape's, and his expression was that of the insecure, blond-headed child Snape had welcomed into his house almost ten years ago. "For a second I thought that…"

"You though that I had brought them? As I told you last night, I was not there to capture you."

"I…I know." Draco's eyes dropped to the coverlet. "My father sent them."

"Yes he did." Snape waited for Draco to continue. He would not relay Dumbledore's offer until the boy had said everything he needed to say.

Draco sighed. "He used me. I mean, I knew he was using me, but I thought I could use him as well. I thought…I thought…maybe I could…prove that I was better than that. That he could really trust me. And when I realized that he would never…" He angrily brushed away the tear that threatened to fall. "I asked you to meet me because I wanted to see for myself. My father told me that you were out to hurt both of us, that you wanted revenge. I…I wasn't sure, but then when your partner killed that other guy, I…"

"Draco, I do not want revenge against you. Your father has hurt you as he has hurt so many others. And that is his worst crime, because you are his son, and you--you of all people--deserved much better at his hands."

"My mother deserved better." Draco spat out the words.

Narcissa Malfoy had been taken into custody after Voldemort's death, when the Ministry rounded up as many of the known Death Eaters as they could find. She had been in Azkaban ever since, and Draco had not been allowed to visit because his own loyalties were suspect. Snape knew that Lucius had never attempted to see her, or to free her.

"Yes, she did," he agreed. After a pause, he took a deep breath and added, "I cannot help your mother, Draco. But I can help you, if you will let me."

The boy's eyes met his. "What do you mean?"

"You have a decision to make. And there are several options before you. One, you can leave here to go back into hiding, either on your own, or with your father. If you choose to leave, I will not stop you. And I will not follow. But when I finally track down Lucius Malfoy--and I will track him down--if I find you at his side I will deal with you as I would deal with anyone else who would support him."

Draco swallowed. "Or?"

"Two, Albus Dumbledore is willing to offer you a bargain. In exchange for your help in stopping your father, he will promise to keep you out of Azkaban. It is a promise that he knows he can keep. If you do not agree, he will turn you over to the Ministry. If that happens, I promise that I will tell them everything I know, and that I will do my best to make sure that your sentence is not out of proportion with your crimes."

He could see the boy putting the pieces together. Snape's first option would mean that he was going against Dumbledore's wishes. He hoped that the boy would believe he wanted to help.

Before Draco could speak again, Snape added, "And three, you can choose to turn yourself in."

Draco jerked upright in the bed. "What? Why would I…?"

"I know. The choice holds no appeal. At least, it does not seem to." For the first time, his gaze left the boy's face. "As you well know, I was offered a similar bargain. I wasn't brave enough to refuse it. I have…done some good, I know, because of my choice. And I have been able to live my life, for the most part--to do my work, to…" he was going to say he had been able to find friends, to find love, but that was too personal. He settled for, "to have a second chance."

His eyes sought Draco's again. "But you should know that I have also had to deal with more guilt, more regret than I might have had otherwise. That despite my attempts to…counterbalance…" the word "atone" would not come to his lips, "my crimes, I am still reviled, held at arm's length. I am tolerated, but not respected. And if that respect ever comes, it will be offered only grudgingly."

He sighed. "Draco, my temperament is such that remaining separate and apart has not been a burden to me. The Ministry's opinion of me is irksome, but does no lasting harm. I have recently begun to find some measure of peace. But you should consider your choices carefully."

He rose to leave, and Draco said, "So you think I should go to Azkaban? That I should turn myself in, let Dumbledore call the Aurors?"

Snape looked at him for a long moment, and Draco turned away.

"I cannot tell you what you should do. I can only help you to look at the consequences for each option. The choice is up to you. But Draco," at his tone, the boy looked up at him again, "I will say this. I have only ever wanted you to find your own way. I have only ever wanted you to be safe."

********
Hermione's quill stopped mid-word at the sound of a knock at her office door.

"Come in?"

As tired as he looked, she couldn't help but smile at the sight of him.

"I saw Lupin in the hallway; he said you were here," Severus explained. "If I'm interrupting…"

"Nonsense," she said, and pointed to the comfortable chair by the fire. "Sit down; you look exhausted. Or we can go somewhere else, if you like?"

"No, this is fine. I just…this is better."

He sat in silence, while she returned to her grading. After a few moments, he said, "Draco is considering his options."

"I'm sorry. I know this has been hard."

"Thank you."

********
Once Hermione had gone, Remus headed for Hogsmeade. Harry was staying at Sirius's for the day; he had said something about talking to Snape and waiting for the news on Draco. Harry would be a nice distraction. And even though his relationship with Sirius had been strained lately, Remus needed his best friend.

"So, have I missed lunch?" he called, as he entered the cottage.

"Remus! I didn't expect you. But no, you haven't missed lunch. Harry should be back in a bit; he stopped in at Dervish and Banges for a couple of things while he was here."

Sirius's welcome was genuine, but he was also taking the opportunity to watch Remus. Since his arrival on the scene the night before, Lupin had seemed to be…agitated about something. There were two choices. Either Remus was still angry with him about attacking Snape, and his actions last night had made that worse, or…

"Remus, is something bothering you?"

"What? No. I'm ok. It's just…the Dementors."

"Mmm. This is me. I know better. Now, either you're pissed at me for all the usual reasons, or this is about…"

"Sirius, drop it."

"Drop what?" Harry asked from the front door. "Is something wrong?"

Remus and Sirius glared at each other.

"Should I go away and come back later? Or are you going to tell me what's going on?" Harry had seen these two friends square off before, and it never amounted to anything. Just nonsense they had to apologize for later.

"Remus is upset about last night."

"I am not! Sirius, let it go. I'm warning…"

"He can't get over seeing Hermione in danger…"

"Sirius! Dammit, you promised…"

"Because he's in love with her!"

Sirius's voice rebounded against the close cottage walls. Remus fell immediately silent, and sunk into a chair, his head in his hands. Harry didn't know what to say.

Sirius spoke first. "You can't keep this bottled up, Remus. You can't pretend like it isn't there. It's tearing you up inside."

"I asked you not to tell anyone. You promised. And this is my problem. I can deal with it any way I want."

"But you're not dealing with it. I see you watching her, see the look in your eyes when she takes Snape's arm, when she smiles up at him. You can't help yourself. You are fixated on a girl who doesn't love you."

Remus lifted his head and glared at his friend. "And so what? Is telling the world about it going to change that fact? Is wallowing in it going to make me feel any better?"

Harry closed the door softly and set his bag on the sofa. "I'm sorry, Remus. I didn't know."

"It's all right. But…" he turned to Harry, a pleading look on his face, "please don't tell her."

"She doesn't know? She doesn't…I don't know, suspect?"

"I told her once that I had…been attracted to her. I was trying to explain why I had warned her away from Snape, back at the first of the year. I was afraid he'd break her heart, that she'd be hurt. Then it turned out he…loved her. They got together. I wanted to explain, to tell her that I was happy for her, to tell her that…" A sigh. "Her response told me what I needed to know. She had never thought of me that way."

"Remus, you can't…" Sirius began.

"No. Sirius, I know you. You would go barreling in there three times a day to tell her that you loved her and that she deserved better than Severus Snape. You wouldn't stop fighting. But that's not me. I can't…I cannot make her uncomfortable again, even for a moment."

"Then stay away from her," Sirius insisted. "Why put yourself through the ringer like this? Why volunteer yourself for every experiment, every dangerous mission? And why the hell should you spend your birthday with her, in the company of the man she loves instead of you?!"

Remus's voice was cold. "Because they were acting like better friends to me at that time than you were."

Harry interrupted before Sirius could reply. "He's right, you know." Not knowing which "he" Harry meant, both of them turned to look at him. "Remus is right. He can't handle this the way you want him to, Sirius. You have to let him do it his way. He's the one that has to live with it. But Remus, you can't pretend like this isn't going on. I won't say anything. Ever. But if you need somebody to talk to…"

"Thanks, Harry. Now, can we all just sit down and have lunch, please?"

Harry smiled his encouragement, and turned to hang up his cloak and remove his boots. Sirius placed his hand on the top of Remus's head and stared into his friend's eyes for a long moment. Then, mussing his hair a little, said, "Comin' right up," and headed into the kitchen.

********
Harry had a stop to make before he left for London. Snape wasn't in the hospital wing or the dungeons, so he tried Hermione's office before locating her in her rooms in Gryffindor Tower.

"Harry, hi! Come on in. Severus is here, but…"

"Actually, I wanted to speak to him, if that's ok."

"Of course, Mr. Potter." Snape's voice resonated down the entryway, and for a moment, Harry was back in Potions class.

"You can stay, Hermione," Harry noted as his friend headed for the bedroom. He took the chair opposite Snape, while Hermione pulled up the chair from the desk to sit beside Harry.

"Professor Snape, I wanted to apologize for our taking action on our own last night. When the information came in, you were already on your way to meet Draco, but I couldn't let Hermione--or any of you--walk into something you might not be prepared for."

"Mr. Potter, I can assure you that three Hogwarts professors are quite capable of defending themselves against a group of Dementors." Harry bristled. "However…your help is appreciated. We would have been forced to let most of the Dementors go free, if you hadn't arrived. And while I might wish that you had not brought complete strangers along, I know enough of how the Ministry works to assume that you had very little say in the matter."

Harry decided to take the olive branch, hidden as it was by the thorns. "No, I didn't. But they did want to send four complete strangers, and I talked them down to two."

Snape chuckled. Harry couldn't believe it. Snape actually chuckled. "Well then," Snape said, "I see that Harry Potter is a force to be reckoned with after all. It's a good thing that we're on the same side."

Before Harry could respond, Snape rose. "Now I have to go; I have to meet with the Headmaster about Mr. Malfoy. So I'll leave you two to catch up."

He held out his hand. "Mr. Potter, thank you again." Harry took it, and the two shook hands.

Hermione went with Snape to the door, and Harry saw them kiss before she returned to take the chair Snape had vacated.

"I can't believe it," Harry said.

"Don't worry," Hermione teased. "It's not like he likes you, or anything."

"I hope not. This was weird enough."

********
Dumbledore had been waiting for Snape in the hall outside his office. Draco Malfoy had made his decision, and wanted to see them both.

As they made their way back to the hospital wing, Severus thought that he would like to have Hermione there with him. He was worried about Draco; he wondered if he should have said anything, if he would be to blame if the boy wound up in Azkaban.

Madam Pomfrey met them at the door. "I'll stay out of the way, but please don't do anything to over-excite him," she instructed.

"It will be all right, Poppy," Dumbledore reassured her.

Draco's eyes followed them as they made their way into the room. Dumbledore took the chair, and Snape stood behind. "You wanted to see us, Mr. Malfoy?" The Headmaster's tone was gentle; he too saw the young boy in the eyes of the young man.

"I've made up my mind, Sir," Draco stated simply. Snape could see he was afraid.

"Are you certain that you've given your decision enough thought?" Dumbledore asked. "This is not something to be decided lightly. And you have recently been unconscious."

"No, Sir, I'm sure. I've made up my mind."

"Well then, let us hear what you have decided."

Draco's chin rose a fraction. "I will tell you everything I know about my father." Snape felt Dumbledore relax, but he waited…

Draco's eyes fixed on Snape. "But after I do, I'm going to turn myself in. I'm going to Azkaban." Snape read the anger there, the rebellion. He knew the Headmaster would choose not to see it.

Dumbledore sighed. "It is an honorable choice, Mr. Malfoy. And I will respect your wishes. We will do whatever we can to ensure you are well cared for, and that your trial is a fair one."

"I know."

"Well then. You will sleep here tonight, and tomorrow we will talk about your father." He rose to leave, as student and teacher regarded one another.

When he was gone, Snape began, "Draco…"

"No. It's all right. It's…it's the right thing to do."

Snape nodded, and turned to follow the Headmaster.

"Professor Snape?"

"Yes?"

"I think you did the right thing, too."

Chapter Text

The next several weeks were not happy ones. The Ministry made a show of Draco Malfoy's trial, it being their first chance to bring a "Rogue Death Eater" to justice. They--and the press--conveniently forgot the fact that Draco had never actually been a Death Eater. On top of everything, Harry Potter, Auror Extraordinaire, was given credit for the arrest. Hermione couldn't tell who was more livid, Snape or Harry.

Dumbledore and Snape were often gone to London, working with lawyers, answering questions, filing reports. Dumbledore insisted that the trial not be delayed for the sake of the Ministry's media blitz, and Snape insisted on testifying to the entire story of the search for Lucius Malfoy and Draco's part in the events.

In the end, Draco was sentenced to five years in Azkaban. Three more than Snape and Dumbledore had hoped for, and five less than the Ministry wanted.

Every time he came back from London, invariably after midnight, Severus sat silently with a drink before crawling into bed for another night of fitful sleep. He was withdrawn, irritable, and distracted. He had insisted, at one point, that Hermione sleep in her own room so that he wouldn't keep her awake--there was no sense, he said, in both of them losing sleep. She hadn't argued. But about four in the morning, he had joined her in her bed, and that became the pattern for over a week.

His students were more afraid of Snape than ever. Even Jeremy Crump, the Slytherin Head Boy, avoided him. He once stopped Hermione in the hallway outside the Potions classroom to ask her to give Snape a message from Madam Pomfrey. Apparently he hadn't wanted to take the chance of delivering it himself.

So on the one hand, it was a good thing that Easter Break had arrived. On the other…

"Hermione, love! We're here! We're finally here!" Bill impatiently waited for Greg to release her from a huge bear hug. "My turn, my turn! Oh, it's so good to see you!"

"We've missed you," Greg smiled, "in case you couldn't tell."

"I've missed you too," Hermione answered, a huge grin on her face.

"Gods, we've been reading all about Draco Malfoy in the paper," Bill said. "Poor guy. Can you imagine?"

"It's been a nightmare," Hermione agreed. "The students can't stop talking about it, all of the professors are angry at the Ministry…"

"And your professor can't be too happy these days," Greg observed.

"No, he's not."

"Well, we promise to stay out of his way while we're here," Bill said, matter-of-factly. "No rude questions, no teasing…"

"Bill…" Greg chided.

"I'm just saying, we'll be nice."

As Bill levitated the bags, Greg rolled his eyes at Hermione. "Some things never change."

"Thank the Gods," she smiled.

********
"You have your choice," Hermione said, as they climbed the stairs to Gryffindor Tower. "You can either have the guest room, or you can stay in my room."

"Oh, I see…" Bill drawled, his eyes lighting up.

Hermione raised an eyebrow at him. "I thought you said you were going to be nice."

"Nice to Snape, I said. You're another matter altogether. But we'll take your room, because it will be more conducive to late-night slumber parties. Unless our dear Professor Snape would miss you."

Hermione shot him a look.

"Or maybe he'd like to join us? What?" This last was addressed to Greg, who had placed a firm hand on the back of his neck.

With everything unpacked, Greg and Hermione sunk into chairs in front of the fire, while Bill lay in the floor and played with Crookshanks. They had a couple of hours before dinner, at which time they were going to join Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore in the Headmaster's private dining room.

"If I had known we'd get the royal treatment, I'd have come back to visit earlier," Greg noted.

"Well, it helps that you're friends with a faculty member," Hermione teased.

"I'll say," Bill added.

Greg smiled. "You know, it's really not strange at all that you're here. You really seem at home. Good for you."

"Thank you. You know, I do feel at home here. It was intimidating, when I first came back. Still is, for that matter. And Dumbledore calls me 'child,' from time to time. Though most of them manage 'Professor Granger' instead of 'Miss Granger' when we're working. Which still sounds strange."

"And what does Professor Snape call you?" Bill asked, batting his eyes.

"None of your business," Hermione said, batting her eyes back. Bill erupted in chuckles.

"Now, seriously, Hermione, we do want to hear about this thing you've got going with Professor Snape," Greg interjected. "Not the details, you know, just…I don't know, more than you've told us."

"I've told you plenty!" Hermione protested.

"Not enough," Bill said, "since we still aren't sure whether you're sleeping with him. I mean, letting us have your room is a good sign, but that could mean you're staying in McGonagall's spare room, after all."

"I'll be staying with Severus," Hermione said primly, "as I have every night, with the very occasional exception, since Christmas."

Greg gave Bill a serious look. "It's worse than we thought. Not only has she snogged the teacher, she's shagged him as well."

********
Severus had been sleeping more easily the past few nights, but Hermione was still careful not to disturb him when she came to bed.

At dinner, Greg and Bill had started talking about movies, and their old movie nights with Hermione at university, and Dumbledore had decided that, since he hadn't seen a movie in ages, they should have a Gryffindor movie night that very evening. McGonagall agreed, and Dumbledore conjured a working TV and DVD player ("Nice trick, that," Bill had said. "Indeed," twinkled Dumbledore.), along with a copy of their movie of choice: My Best Friend's Wedding.

Dumbledore was enchanted, and kept producing all manner of sweets and other snacks, and McGonagall (though she complained about all of the lying) cried a little at the end--along with Hermione, Greg, and Bill. Back in her rooms, Greg and Bill had sent Hermione through the fireplace with a repeat performance of "I Say A Little Prayer for You."

Despite her extra efforts, Severus rolled towards her as she tucked herself in.

"So you came back to me," he said, eyes closed but with a smile playing on his lips.

"I did, and you weren't supposed to wake up."

He drew her to him as he said, "Sorry. I missed you. I thought perhaps your guests were going to steal you away from me for the duration of their time here."

"You seem to be in a better mood. And no, they want to see you, as well." She tried not to giggle as he sighed.

"I am. Enough so that I can suggest dinner tomorrow. Your rooms, I think. I don't know that I could handle three giddy Gryffindors here at the same time. I'm not in that good a mood."

"Or we could go to Hogsmeade. You've been wanting to try that little restaurant that opened last month."

"That would be nice. And I can arrange for Mordred to bring me an important message so I have the option to escape gracefully…" She pinched him, hoping she'd at least come close to his nipple. "Ow!"

"It serves you right, for picking on a helpless, giddy Gryffindor."

"Mmm. Let's see if I can find some way to make it up to you…come here…"

His hands moved under the covers and she squealed.

"Like I said, giddy…" he murmured.

********
"This is so strange."

"What's so strange," Greg asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

"It is strange that we are sleeping in a bed where…you know."

"Bill…"

"Well I'm serious. Do you think they've…done it…in this bed?"

"Bill, people have sex. It's a fact of life. We've been over this. Now go to sleep."

Bill gasped. "Oh. My. Gods. Do you think they're doing it right now?"

"If you don't shut up and go to sleep, they're the only ones who are going to be 'doing it' for some time to come."

"You're just no fun anymore," Bill said, pouting. Greg only sighed. "But I still love you."

"Good night, Bill."

"Good night."

********
The walk to Hogsmeade had been surprisingly pleasant, Hermione thought. Greg and Bill had wanted to hear the real story behind Draco Malfoy's arrest, and were appalled at the Ministry's actions. Bill had said "You're kidding!" so many times that Snape had finally replied, "Bill, do I look like I'm kidding?" Bill had been so flustered he'd missed the smiles exchanged by his three companions.

The restaurant purported to be Italian, though the fact that you could order anything from Yorkshire pudding to gnocchi weighed against that claim. The cook could indeed make pasta, it turned out, and they enjoyed a delightful meal. The wine was excellent, and Severus was pleased when they actually had the vintage he asked for.

The talk turned to Hogwarts, and stories of teaching and students, and then back to tales from Gryffindor school days. Greg and Bill tried in vain to find a story about Hermione that Severus hadn't heard, and didn't succeed until the conversation had moved on and Bill mentioned, off-handedly, the time Hermione had stolen something out of Snape's office.

Encouraged by Snape's amused reaction, Bill noted, "And you know, of course, that she's been smitten with you for simply ages."

Silence for a moment, as Hermione blushed crimson, and then the corner of Snape's mouth turned up. "Indeed…" he drawled. Taking Hermione's hand, he said, "I would never have guessed." He kissed her fingers, then, releasing them, added, "You should have had your friends to visit sooner, my dear."

Bill put his hand over his heart and said, "That is the sweetest thing..."

Greg chuckled, Hermione tried to look irritated, and Snape raised his eyebrow to the ceiling.

On the way home, each couple walked arm in arm, and as they neared Hogwarts, Greg said, "Professor Snape?"

"Greg, at this point I think that you and Bill can call me Severus."

"Severus, then. I just wanted to say that, well, we've been waiting for some time for Hermione to find the man that deserves her. And--though I never thought I'd be saying this--I think we both agree that she has. We're happy for both of you, and wish you both the very best."

Severus paused for a minute, and Hermione could feel his arm tighten beneath her hand. Then he extended his hand, and for the second time in two months shook the hand of a Gryffindor. He shook Bill's as well, as he replied, "Thank you for saying so. And it has been…a pleasure to spend time with two of Hermione's closest friends. I hope you'll come back and visit us again."

As the four resumed their walk, Snape added, in a familiar tone, "Though if you tell anyone I said so, I will most certainly deny it."

********
Easter Break was a brief respite. The Daily Prophet was still running obnoxious stories, and one writer had blamed Snape for the fact that Lucius Malfoy was still not in custody, going so far as to suggest that he was covering for Lucius, to enable him to get away clean.

The students were restless--Spring Fever, Minerva always called it. And when a fifth-year Gryffindor was caught cheating in History of Magic, all of his coursework for the year was called into question, meaning his other teachers were brought into the review. Hermione felt for the poor boy, having to face down four grumpy Heads of House at the same time. And since she had him in Arithmancy, she had to go back through all of her paperwork as well.

Snape was no longer in a good mood.

He had snarled at Hermione one afternoon for setting up a trial in the main classroom. He needed the space to prepare for class, but there wasn't enough room in her usual workroom for either of them. She had snarled back, and they hadn't spoken until well after dinner, when both muttered apologies. They went to bed angry, only to wake in the middle of the night and make a more sincere attempt at reconciliation.

Another evening, as they were discussing the possibility of an additional workspace, separate from the classroom, Hermione was looking over her mail from that morning. She had a letter from her parents, and hadn't had time to read it until now.

He watched her read, saw her smile. "Good news?"

"Not news, really. Mom's been insanely busy with this upcoming conference. She's the chair of the organizational committee, and insists on keeping all of her appointments at the office as well. Not to mention her charity work. Dad says she's running herself ragged, but is happier than he's seen her in ages."

"She sounds like someone I know."

Hermione laughed. "I certainly did get my work ethic from my mother. Not that Dad doesn't work hard, too. He's just more laid back than mum. And less practical. So he reads his books, does his job--and the ironing and vacuuming every Saturday--while she's the one who runs the office, the house, and now the conference. He always jokes that he never sees his paycheck; it goes straight to her."

She read for another moment. "And mum says that…ha! I can't believe it."

"What?"

"Apparently Mrs. Weasley--she and mum started corresponding last summer--has sent along some of the Draco Malfoy clippings, and has told them all about what really happened. Mum cannot believe that anybody is suggesting that you would cover for that…let's see, what does she call him? 'Cretin.'"

Severus smiled, a little warily. Of course, the Grangers wouldn't understand the dynamics of the situation completely, but he was glad to hear Mrs. Granger wasn't thinking the worst of him.

"She adds that she wants us to come for dinner sometime, because since it's clear I've made up my mind, she'd better get used to it." She glanced at Severus.

"Well?" she said.

"I suppose we'll have to go," he said flatly. Her brow furrowed, and he added, "Don't tell me that you expected me to be excited about this."

"No…I just…"

"Haven't I proven that I can be presentable enough for your friends and family?"

"I didn't meant that at all, and you know it!"

His fingers came to the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry. Gods. I'm so used to being a bastard I forget myself sometimes."

Anger turned to worry, and she crossed to where he stood at the mantelpiece.

"What is it?"

"I…can't even imagine what it's like for him. I never had to go to Azkaban."

Wordlessly, she embraced him, and felt some of the tension subside.

********
At breakfast the next morning, things seemed fairly normal. Snape was discussing the final Quidditch match of the season with Hooch and Flitwick, and Hermione and Remus were listening to Sprout and Pomfrey fight over the proper way to slice angel root, when using it in a cold compress. Apparently Sprout had visited the hospital wing that morning before breakfast and was appalled to see the mistreatment of the angel root she had worked so hard to cultivate.

The mail arrived towards the end of the meal, and Hermione was as delighted as always when the owls dropped a few things at her plate. Severus had some correspondence from Ars Alchemica, she noticed, and she had the usual things, plus a note from Ron and…an envelope she didn't recognize.

It was addressed to "Prof. Hermione Granger," in an unfamiliar handwriting. She tore it open, removed the note, and suddenly flung it to the table. She had recoiled from it so strongly that her chair scooted back against the flagstones, the sound drawing everyone's attention to her. She gripped Severus's arm as he asked, "What is it?"

He lifted the note, and read:

If this were a port-key, you'd be mine now.

L.M.

Chapter Text

Instantly, Snape was out of his chair. Hermione couldn't make sense of the voices around her, chattering, questioning. Lupin helped her to stand, and then Snape's arm was around her waist, guiding her out the side door. McGonagall's voice, strong and calm, telling everyone to take their seats, that there was nothing to worry about.

"Let's go to my office." Dumbledore's voice.

Her eyes seemed to focus for the first time since she'd read the note from Lucius Malfoy. "If this were a port-key, you'd be mine now." Oh Gods…oh Gods…oh Gods…

"Hermione, look at me." Snape's voice. Severus. "It will be all right." Severus.

She managed to nod, and as he drew her along again--she could tell he was fighting not to hurry--the world seemed to slide back into place around her. She squeezed his hand; the grip on her arm relaxed slightly.

As they arrived at Dumbledore's office ("Lolly-pop."), Snape said, "Headmaster, could we have a minute?" Dumbledore must have nodded, because Snape guided her to one side of the outer office.

His arms were around her and she was safe. But she could feel him trembling. "I'm all right," she said, finding her voice. "I was surprised, shocked. I'll be ok."

"This is my fault…I should have never…"

"Never what? Never loved me? We have no way of knowing if Malfoy knows I was there that night with Draco, or if he's just aiming at me based on a rumor about us being together, or something else entirely." She pulled away from him slightly to meet his gaze. "Severus, this is not your fault. Please."

He kissed her forehead. "You amaze me."

"So you keep telling me." A shared smile. "Now, let's see what Dumbledore has to say. Because I have to tell you, Lucius Malfoy is starting to piss me off."

********
That evening, after several people had spent the day exchanging messages, calling in favors, and making threats, Dumbledore assembled Sirius, Harry, Ron, Lupin, Snape, Hermione, Flitwick, Sprout, and McGonagall in the staff room. Hermione had asked that Madam Hooch, Hagrid, and Madam Pomfrey be asked as well, and Harry had brought along one of the Aurors--Carl Wainwright--who had helped them in the Forbidden Forest. When Snape's ally, Carson, didn't arrive, it seemed clear that he was no longer to be trusted.

Hagrid had taken a position directly behind Hermione's chair, and refused to move. She sat between Harry and Ron on one side and Lupin and Sirius on the other, all of whom looked ready to rip Lucius Malfoy to shreds.

Snape was little better. Forcing himself to be calm, he sat with Dumbledore at the head of the table. Although most of those present knew the facts by now, he briefly outlined his search for Malfoy and his followers from the death of Voldemort on.

Dumbledore held up the note. "And you see what this has come to. We do not know whether Malfoy will make a move against Professor Granger, or against Professor Snape directly. We also do not know where he is, or whether he is out for revenge because of--or even against--his son Draco. We do not know if he is working alone, or whether he has other supporters, or access to any more Dementors.

"Truth be told, we know very little. Draco Malfoy informed us before his incarceration that his father has been hiding in various places throughout the country, moving frequently. He gave us a list of the six that he had visited. The Ministry has investigated them all in the past few weeks, and found no sign of Malfoy. This is the first direct contact we've had from him in months."

"What can we do, Albus?" McGonagall asked. "If we know so little, then won't we…"

"…just have to wait until Lucius Malfoy sees fit to make his next move," Hermione finished. She could see Snape tense even further.

"Yes, I'm afraid you're right, Miss Granger," Dumbledore somberly agreed. "But there are steps we can take in the meantime. We will send this letter to the Ministry to see if it can give us any clues. Madam Hooch had sense enough to detain the owl that brought it as well. And we will reconsider the security measures in place here at the castle. I seriously doubt that Mr. Malfoy will dare to set foot on Hogwarts grounds. But I intend to ensure that if he does--or if he dares attempt to harm any of those who are under my protection--he will pay dearly for his mistake."

The room was silent. Dumbledore's expression hadn't changed, but his eyes were cold, and his voice hard. In that moment, no one doubted that Lucius Malfoy was doomed to failure.

********
They had discussed security for several minutes before the meeting adjourned. Afterwards, Snape spent another hour speaking with the Headmaster, Sirius, and Harry. Lupin and Ron sat in front of the fire with Hermione, who refused to leave without Severus. She thought she should probably be a part of the discussion, but at this point, she was relieved to let the others take care of it. Severus would tell her about it later.

"Are you sure you don't want some tea or something?" Ron asked, for the twenty-seventh time.

"I'm fine, Ron." She managed a smile, and the trio lapsed again into silence.

"I believe we're done for the night." Severus's voice came softly from behind her chair a few moments later.

"Good," she said, getting to her feet. "If you had been much longer you'd have had to carry me." He placed his hand on her shoulder and bent to kiss the top of her head.

"Thank you both for your assistance," Snape said to her guardians.

Remus nodded, and Ron said, "No problem."

After Severus had led Hermione from the room, Ron noticed Lupin's worried look. "She'll be all right, Remus. We'll make sure of that."

"Yes," Remus agreed. "Yes we will."

********
"So what were you talking about all this time?" Hermione asked with a yawn as she changed into her nightshirt.

"Nothing you need worry about tonight," Severus answered.

She crawled into bed, where Crookshanks was already waiting for her.

After a moment, she said, "Please come to bed." He was standing at the fireplace, staring into the flames.

He shook his head. "I'll only keep you from sleeping."

"You need your rest, too. And I need you with me." When he didn't move, she added, "Please, Severus."

He closed his eyes for a moment, then offered her a weak smile. "How can I resist you?"

He quickly changed into his nightshirt and joined her in the bed. She nestled against his side and clung to him. Eventually they both managed to sleep.

********
The next morning, they ate breakfast together in Severus's rooms, to give him a chance to fill her in on his discussion with Dumbledore and Harry the previous night.

"So I don't have to miss tomorrow's classes?" she asked, worried that Dumbledore might have changed his mind. She didn't want to fall behind.

"No. The castle is as secure as we can make it, and this may simply be Lucius rattling our chains. I don't believe that he'll come here. But even if I'm wrong, Dumbledore is ready for him. So yes, class as usual. Except that…" He seemed amused.

"Except what?"

"Hagrid has insisted on staying with you when I cannot. I assume it will be the most Arithmancy he's studied in his life." He couldn't help but smile a little.

Hermione decided not to be irritated with Hagrid. "So you'll be in class as well?"

"Yes. Business as usual. Dumbledore wants that for the students' sakes. Minerva has told them that you received some bad news from home, and that the security measures are due to the Ministry's decision to step up their search for Lucius Malfoy. Of course they'll put two and two together."

"It makes sense to make everything as normal as possible, though. Now, tell me about our options. What did you four talk about?"

"Harry was filling us in on the Ministry's plans, primarily. Small teams sent out to each of the locations on Draco's list, which will then begin canvassing the surrounding areas to see if anybody has seen or heard anything. Harry and Ron will remain here at Hogwarts, in case they are needed. So Harry suggested that he and Sirius might ask some questions around Hogsmeade, because of the activity there in the fall."

"Hmm." She was trying her best not to point out that he had just referred to her friends as "Harry" and "Ron." She re-focused her thoughts on the problem at hand. "So is our only choice searching for Lucius? It hasn't brought us very far up to now."

Severus sighed, and gave her a warning look. "Sirius has another option, but none of us would agree to it."

"And…?" she prompted, when he didn't continue.

"We could…set a trap for Lucius."

"A trap?" Then it dawned on her. "Oh…"

"Yes, and that would make you the bait. And as I said before, none of us would agree to it."

"But if we could draw Malfoy out…"

"Hermione." His voice was adamant, his gaze steel. This was not an option. After a moment, he sighed. "I'm sorry, my love. I know that you are willing, if only to break this stalemate. But the rest of us are simply…unable to let you."

She smiled a little. "Ok." Then, with a look, "For now."

He nodded, and moved to the sofa. Sitting down beside him, she asked, "So what's on the agenda for today?"

"Well, I thought I might go with Sirius and Harry to Hogsmeade. There are a few inquiries I can make myself, and if I were to get into an argument with Sirius in some public place…"

"It might make his own inquiries easier?"

"Something like that."

She noticed the grin twitching at his lips and frowned. "You're going to enjoy this, aren't you. Don't deny it."

He raised an eyebrow. "Why would I deny it?" Then, seeing her irritation was real, he added, "Hermione, we're doing everything we can."

"But it doesn't seem enough, does it? Severus, this can't drag out much longer."

He let out a sigh. "I know. Lucius is not smart enough--no, I won't underestimate him. That note was effective, whether he poses a direct threat to you or not. It's stirred the cauldron, put all of us into action."

"Isn't that to his own disadvantage? Why would he want to pull Albus Dumbledore and the Ministry down on his head?"

"Lucius Malfoy needs us to know that he is going to make his move. He wants us on edge, scattered…"

"And so we're doing exactly what he wants. That message was designed to get you out of the castle--to bring you into the open where he can get at you. I'm sure of it. Why not wait him out, wait for him to slip up? Why not lay some sort of trap?"

"Because now that we've involved the Ministry to this extent, that choice is out of our hands. Whatever we do, hunting down Lucius Malfoy is their top priority. We can make sure they don't miss anything, do some searching on our own, but Lucius will be on the lookout for a trap. He'll want to draw us to him, to maintain what little advantage he has. And yes, that note was most likely intended to draw me out. But I can't sit by and let other people take the risks." Before she could protest that he was asking her to do exactly that, he added, "I'm the reason they're involved in the first place."

It was her turn to sigh. Instead of pointing out that they would all have been involved at some point regardless of his asking them for help, she said, "Ok. I guess. This just all seems a bit…futile." Remembering that he was as frustrated as she was, she added, "It's ok. I'll stay here; you go to Hogsmeade. Please be careful."

"I will."

********
Hermione spent the morning on lesson plans for the week, and the early afternoon grading homework. By three o'clock, she had run out of busywork, and decided to stretch her legs. She dropped off her things at her office, and stopped to knock at Minerva's office door.

"Come in," came the kind voice.

Hermione entered. "Hello, Minerva. Are you busy?"

"Never too busy for you, dear. Is everything all right?" McGonagall's eyes took a quick inventory of Hermione's appearance. She seemed to be holding up well. "I see Hagrid hasn't yet begun his self-appointed task of serving as your bodyguard."

"No, he's out with Flitwick this afternoon, checking over the grounds one last time. And I'm fine. Just nerves. I've never graded homework so quickly."

"Well do have a seat. I'm just finishing up some grades myself. Is everybody else out and about?"

"Yes. It feels a little like leaving the women safe at home, but at this point I'm not complaining. Much."

McGonagall made a dismissive sound. "Yes, well, they may be a little medieval at times, but they mean well. And right now, I am needed here, to handle the students and teachers, and you are needed here until we decide what sort of threat Lucius Malfoy actually intended towards you. So here we sit." She paused. "It's still rather dreadful, all this waiting around."

Hermione nodded. "Exactly. Severus has gone to Hogsmeade, and I can't help but think that he's in more danger than I am."

McGonagall returned to her grade book. "Whoever coined the phrase 'No news is good news' must have been a man."

********
The two women were on their way to take a walk on the grounds (dutifully staying close to the castle, of course) when the front doors crashed open. The sight of the large dog, its tongue lolling with exertion, its sides heaving as it tried to catch its breath, brought Hermione immediately to a halt.

Sirius changed back into human form as Dumbledore and Lupin came hurrying from the direction of the Headmaster's office. Panting for breath, Sirius said, "I…we lost him…don't know…where he is…Harry's still looking…"

Dumbledore's voice was steady, but the expression on his face was one of deep concern. "You lost whom, Sirius? Is Severus lost?" Sirius nodded. "All right. Take a minute to calm down and then…"

"NO!" Hermione shrieked, flinging herself down the last few stairs. "Where is he? What did you do to him?" Remus caught her around the waist as she struggled to reach Sirius. "No…where is he?! Bring him back! Get him back!" Sirius's shock turned to sorrow, and at his downcast expression, Hermione's rage dissipated. She stilled in Remus's arms, clutching at his sleeve, and fought to calm herself.

Softly but firmly, Sirius said, "I will do whatever it takes to find him, Hermione. I promise you that." Hermione nodded, insistently wiping tears from her eyes.

Dumbledore placed a hand on Sirius's shoulder. "Now. Let us move to my office, and while we wait for Harry to return, you can tell us exactly what happened." Quietly then, he added to Sirius, "It's all right, my friend."

As the others led the way, Hermione whispered to Remus, "I can't lose him…"

"I know, dear heart. I know."

Chapter Text

By the time they arrived yet again in Dumbledore's office, Hermione was done with hysterics. The set of her jaw, the look in her eye--no one in the room doubted that she would be perfectly able to do whatever had to be done.

Her gaze fixed on Sirius at once. "What happened?"

He glanced at the Headmaster, then outlined the events in Hogsmeade. "We split up, just outside of town. I went to check in with a friend of mine who…keeps an ear to the ground for me. Harry and Snape headed for The Three Broomsticks. Harry thought Rosmerta might have some information on the people who had taken over last year. They messed with her bank records and all to force her to sell, and she was right mad about it. Thought she would tell us anything she knew--and she always had a soft spot for Harry.

"Afterwards, we were going to meet down towards Zonko's. Harry and Snape were going to stage a disagreement, and I was all set to come barreling in, start a big fight, what have you. That way, when I started sniffing around asking questions about Death Eaters and Lucius Malfoy, it might look like I was willing to give up Snape, for a price. Snape's idea, and not a bad one, though maybe not completely necessary."

"Yes, yes. And then what happened?" Dumbledore prodded.

"Oh, right. Well, I saw them there in the street, and they looked like they were starting in, but then Harry…well, it looked like he saw something. He pointed it out to Snape--something back behind Zonko's, it seemed to me. Snape headed over there at a run, and Harry called after him. When he didn't stop, we both took off running. By the time we cleared the building, there was no sign of him."

"And no sign of whatever it was Harry saw?" Hermione asked.

"No sign of whoever Harry saw. It was a man, but Harry said he didn't look familiar. Just…sort of…shifty looking. Harry'll be able to describe him better."

Remus asked, "So it wasn't Malfoy."

"No, Harry would have recognized him," Sirius confirmed.

Dumbledore rose from his seat. "All right. I think the time has come for me to go to the Ministry myself. After Harry tells us a little more about this man, I'd like you, Sirius, to come with me." Sirius opened his mouth to speak. "No, I know you'd rather be out searching, but if we find a lead, I'd like to know I can send you out immediately, and not have to wait on owls or the Ministry's bureaucratic red tape. And you know as much about the goings on at this end as I do, so you can help me fend off questions in the meantime." Sirius nodded.

"Minerva, I will leave you in charge here. Lucius might be mad enough to make a move, if he thinks he has the upper hand. Bring Flitwick and Hagrid into your confidence, and whomever else you need. But try to keep things calm, for the children's sakes. "

"Of course, Albus."

"Ron, Hermione, Remus, I'd like you to go with Harry to back Hogsmeade…"

"Here I am, Sir." Harry arrived in the doorway, breathless.

"Ah, good. As I was saying, I'd like the four of you to go back to town. Harry, you and Ron are to use every tool at your disposal. Any sign of a port-key, any sign of a spell or Apparation--you know what to do. In the meantime, Hermione, I want you to go over everything Severus has ever told you about the Death Eaters and Lucius Malfoy. Remus, quiz her on every detail. And if you find a lead, send me an owl at the Ministry…but you have my permission to follow it yourselves."

Hermione had been ready to protest, but then she realized Dumbledore's intention. He would indeed be doing everything he could at the Ministry, but he expected the break they'd been looking for to come in Hogsmeade--or from Hermione herself. And he had just given them carte blanche to take whatever actions they deemed necessary.

"Yes, Sir. I'll do my best," she said, and the Headmaster nodded his head solemnly.

"I know that you will. All of you." He turned to Harry. "Now, Mr. Potter, perhaps you can tell us something about this man?"

"Well, Sir, I didn't see him well. He was crouched behind the bins out back of Zonko's. I noticed him mostly because he was trying so hard not to be noticed. Instead of keeping still, he was dodging in and out. When he realized I had seen him, he did stand up straight before he started running. He was about…Lupin's height, but built more like Sirius. He had dark hair, and glasses."

"Was he wearing brown robes?" Hermione asked.

"I think so."

"Then it could have been the infamous Mr. Carson," Hermione noted. "That would explain a lot."

"Indeed," said Dumbledore. "Well, let us waste no more time. Do let me know what you discover, and please, everyone. Be careful. And bring Severus home."

********
"You went over this ground before. And the trail's older now. Do you really think we're going to find anything?" Ron asked, half an hour into their search.

"We've got to keep looking. If it was a port-key, then probably the other man Apparated after Snape was taken away," Harry thought aloud.

"What if the port-key was on the other guy? So when Snape caught up to him, they both went?"

"Then there'd be less of a trace, even if it were fresh." The two exchanged glances.

"Harry, what if there was more than one port-key. You know, more than one thing for him to aim at? There might not be a magical trace any more, if it was timed. But if we found it, we might be able to tell something about it."

"You might be right. That guy didn't seem too smart--though he did want to attract our attention. But didn't Hermione say that Snape never did think he was that clever or talented anyway?"

"Something like that. I'm going to look up this way."

********
Hermione and Remus sat on a bench outside the back door of Zonko's, watching Harry and Ron's search.

"They look like Holmes and Watson, all bent over and looking for footprints," Hermione mused.

"Like who?"

"Never mind. All right. I think we can agree that Malfoy wouldn't have gone back to any of the places Draco had visited. He would have to know that there was a possibility that Draco had told us everything he knew."

"Agreed. Which means the Ministry teams are wasting their time, unless they can find somebody nearby who saw something, or a trace Malfoy left behind--magical or just a scrap of parchment or something."

"But I can't help but think that Malfoy would want us to be able to figure out where he had gone."

"Why?" Remus asked, attempting to keep up with her train of thought. "Isn't there a chance he would just…disappear?" He hoped Hermione wouldn't be upset at the possibility.

She wasn't. "No. I don't think so. Because what Lucius Malfoy wants is attention--an audience. Severus always said that he was surprised that Malfoy had stayed quiet this long. So if he has Severus now, he would want us to find him. But where would he be?"

"Looks like they're coming back," Remus noted. "They don't appear to have found anything." Deep in thought, Hermione didn't answer.

"Nothing?" he asked, as the two men approached.

"Nothing," Harry answered. "Sorry, Hermione."

"I've got it." Hermione didn't seem to have heard him. "It makes perfect sense--well, perfect sense for Lucius Malfoy."

"What does?" Ron asked.

Hermione looked up at Harry. "He won't be anywhere on the Ministry's list. Right?"

"Right," agreed Harry.

"And he'll want to be somewhere that the Ministry won't think to look--but where we can find him."

Harry thought he was catching on. "Somewhere the Ministry would never think to look--but somewhere that makes absolute sense."

Ron interjected, "And where would that be?"

Harry, eyes still locked with Hermione's, answered. "The Malfoy estate."

Hermione nodded. "Exactly."

********
They Apparated to a point about a quarter of a mile from the Malfoy estate. Harry and Ron cast the spells that would help them identify wards and traces of magic; Remus and Hermione quickly added some minor defensive spells and set Flitwick's Veiling Charm in front of themselves for the approach. Ron and Harry cast full invisibility.

It seemed all for naught, when they finally stood in front of the house, because there was no sign of life--no sign that anybody had been there since the last Auror raid months earlier.

Visible once more, Harry offered, "We should look through the house anyway. There might be something…"

Hermione stared up at the dark windows. She had been so sure.

"Yeah, come on. There might be something," echoed Ron, and the four of them headed up the front stairs.

********
Over an hour later, they had gone quickly but carefully through the entire house, and found nothing.

"Well, what now?" asked Ron. "Should we check in with Dumbledore to see if they've come up with anything?"

Remus placed a hand on Hermione's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

Irritably, she moved away. "Gods, this is…they have to be here. This is the only place that makes sense."

Ron tried to console her. "We'll find him, Hermione. We just have to decide where to look next."

But Harry interrupted before she could respond. "Hermione, do you remember, back in school--I guess it started our sixth year--Draco always talked about his father buying him a horse?"

Hermione's eyes went wide. "Of course! We almost missed it. An estate of this size has to have other buildings--a stable, something." She glanced around. "But where?"

Remus suggested, "Let's go around the outside of the house and look for a path or another drive. This one only goes up to the main road."

It was getting dark, but they didn't dare to cast Lumos. At the back of the house there was, in fact, another gravel drive, headed off into the trees. Again they cast their spells and charms, making another cautious approach.

"There it is!" hissed Ron. "And there's a light on."

"There's absolutely no sign of magic--no wards, no indication he's been casting anything," Harry noted.

"Well, he could have Apparated in at a distance, like we did. And maybe he's trying not to draw any Ministry attention," Ron suggested.

Hermione interrupted. "Whatever the case, we have to assume that Lucius Malfoy is in there, and that he's got Severus. Now. If he's not casting any magic, that means that there are probably no wards, nothing to let him know that we're coming. But there's no sense in us all just charging in and forcing him to do something drastic."

She looked from Ron to Harry. "You two head around the back, and watch for an opening. Remus and I will come from this direction." She turned to Remus. "If he expects anybody, he expects me--and possibly you, if he knows you were there when we found Draco." Remus nodded. "So I'll go in first, and try to keep his attention. You'll be there to protect me if he tries anything. Hopefully, we can get him away from Severus--at least distract him enough so that Harry and Ron can contain him, or better yet, get Severus out of there."

Three heads nodded in the dim light.

"But Hermione…" Ron began.

"Ron Weasley, if you tell me that you don't think I should go in there to face him by myself, I'm going to wallop you."

"Never mind."

Ron and Harry took off through the trees to circle back behind the stable. Hermione waited a couple of minutes, and then headed for the stable door with Remus behind her. When they were almost there, she motioned for Remus to stop. They stood still, listening.

"…my son to Azkaban. Why? Was this your final retribution, Snape? To take my son away from me?" Lucius's voice was shrill, pitched higher than Hermione remembered. She heard another voice, too soft to make out.

A sharp noise crackled through the night. A slap? "Speak up!"

Then Snape's voice, strained, but still cold and sure. "I didn't take your son from you, Lucius. You drove him away. You treated him as though he was unworthy of you. And in the end, he made his own choice."

Another slap. A groan. "How dare you! You…traitor. You know nothing of loyalty, of family. Of honor. I would kill you right now, if that didn't mean I would lose the pleasure of watching you die slowly."

Hermione choked back a sound. She moved closer to the building, making her way towards the window to get a look inside. Glancing over the sill, she caught her breath, and dropped to her knees. She took another look, then backed up towards Remus.

Pulling him with her under the cover of the trees to the side of the road, she whispered, "He's there. Lucius has him tied up to a chair…torturing him."

"How does Severus look?" Remus asked, cautiously.

Hermione swallowed. "He's been cut. Looks like Lucius has been taking a swipe at him every so often with a knife. He's got a black eye, and his lip's bleeding. He…looks pretty bad, but I don't think it's anything very serious, except a gash on his shoulder. Not yet, anyway."

Remus nodded. "Are you ready?"

"Yes."

They edged up to the stable once more, and Hermione disengaged her Veiling Charm. Taking a last glance towards Remus, she pushed open the door and stepped inside.

********
Lucius Malfoy didn't seem to have heard her. He was too focused on Snape. Hermione watched as he shifted the knife--a dangerous but compact blade, serrated, she noticed, though she knew very little about knives--back to his right hand and ran the tip of the blade down Severus's cheek, drawing another faint line of blood.

Hermione's hands clinched. She forced herself to calm down, and spoke--low and clear, to draw Malfoy's focus without startling him.

"Well, well. Lucius Malfoy. Fancy meeting you here." She stifled a flinch as Malfoy whipped around to face her. Raising an eyebrow in her best impression of confidence, she added, "Though I don't suppose you're familiar with such a Muggle phrase."

She didn't let herself look at Severus. Instead, she locked eyes with Malfoy, watched the smug grin slide across his features.

"Ah, yes. Miss Granger. Muggle whore and Arithmancy professor at Hogwarts. I have to say, I'm not surprised to see you. Though it did take you an awfully long time to find us…"

Snape spat, "I told you that you were an idiot for coming here, Malfoy. If she can find you, so can the Ministry."

Malfoy tutted. "No, my dear Severus, I think not. I think you're not giving your slut enough credit. She's a clever one, after all. And so loyal. Ironic to think that you'd value loyalty, when you have none of your own."

He took a step towards Hermione, and Severus struggled against his bonds. Hermione didn't move, except to raise her chin a fraction of an inch in mute defiance. Mentally she urged him on, "Come closer, you prick."

"You know, our last visitor was of no use to me." He nodded towards the corner, and Hermione glanced over to see the body of Carson, throat slit, slumped against one of the stalls. "Perhaps you will prove to be more…amusing?"

Malfoy turned towards Snape. "What do you think, Snape? Can your whore amuse me? Or should I kill her now and get her out of the away?"

"Your son was right." At Hermione's words, Malfoy's head snapped around to fix her with his glare.

"What do you know about my son?" She had his attention now. She concentrated on not reaching for her wand, and chose her words carefully, following Snape's lead.

"Draco told us everything. He told us that you were nothing but a broken man, desperately trying to strike out at those whom you blamed for your own complete and utter failure. He chose to go to Azkaban rather than return to you. All he wanted was your approval, but in the end, he realized the truth. He realized that you are nothing."

Malfoy's eyes narrowed, his jaw clenched. A snarl wrenched itself from his throat and as he cried out, his wand appeared in his hand. "I'll show you nothing, you foolish girl!"

All at once, chaos erupted. Hermione drew her wand. Ron and Harry entered through the door behind Malfoy, and Remus appeared at Hermione's side. As Malfoy swung around, the spell he had begun to cast shot into the rafters with a blinding flash. Hermione aimed, intending to cast Petrificus Totalus, but an instant later, she heard her name--"HERMIONE!"--and was shoved to one side, where she landed with a searing pain before everything went black.

********
"Severus…" she murmured, coming back into consciousness. "Severus?" She tried to sit up, but was stopped by a hand on her shoulder and a sharp pain in her arm.

"It's all right, he's fine." Ron's voice. "Lie still. You've broken your arm, and I don't want to try to set it myself."

She opened her eyes and put her other hand to her temple. "Everything's fuzzy…what happened? Where is Severus?"

"He's just over there. We called in the Ministry; they're bringing medical help."

She turned her head and saw Harry cleaning the gash across Snape's collarbone. Snape held a bloody cloth in his hand, and winced as Harry aimed his wand again. "This can wait. I have to see…"

"Hold still!" Harry ordered.

"She's awake," Ron announced. "She'll be all right."

Snape rose from his chair. "Get out of my way, Potter, or I swear…"

"Severus…" She tried to sit up again. Ron helped her, and Severus sunk to the floor beside her. Careful of her arm and his own injuries, he supported her against him.

"I thought he was going to kill you," she murmured.

"He would have," Snape answered softly. She felt the tears fill her eyes. "But he won't hurt anyone now."

"Is he dead?"

"No," Ron noted with a grimace. "Harry cast a Full Body Bind on him, and he's lying on the floor over there, waiting to be taken into custody."

"Any sign of them yet?" Sirius's voice came from behind her.

"That was Sirius," Hermione said, confused. "When did he get here?"

"Shortly after you came in here," Ron said. "He and Dumbledore had the same idea we did. By the time he got down here to the stables, it was pretty much over."

"Is Remus still…" Severus began. Ron nodded.

"Is Remus still what?" Hermione asked. Ron looked uncomfortable. "What?" She shifted, determined to sit up and see for herself.

"Unconscious," Severus answered. "He pushed you out of the way because he saw Malfoy's botched spell was going to bring that loft down on your head…"

"And it came down on him, instead," Hermione finished. "Oh, Gods, Remus!"

"He's breathing," Harry added, coming from Sirius's side. "But his pulse is weak, and he won't wake up."

Desperately, Hermione ran through a mental list of the healing charms she knew. "Have you tried…"

"We've tried everything we know," said Harry.

"That must be them!" Ron exclaimed, and the others heard the sounds of voices outside. "In here!" he called out, and headed out the stable door.

Harry joined him. "Everybody except Malfoy is to go to Hogwarts," he instructed. "Dumbledore's orders. They're stable now, except for Professor Lupin. He should be ready to move, though."

As the sounds of orders and arrangements and questions rose around her, Hermione whispered, "He has to be all right, Severus."

He kissed the top of her head, but had no promise to give her.

Chapter Text

Snape sighed, letting himself relax into the hard, straight-backed chair as much as possible. It had been several hours--time for Madam Pomfrey to heal all of his cuts and Hermione's broken arm--since they'd arrived back at Hogwarts. Lucius Malfoy was safely in Ministry hands, and they had all come out unscathed--for the most part.

Poppy had assured them repeatedly that Remus would be fine, but he still hadn't regained consciousness, and there was a look in her eye that Severus had seen before. It held out hope, but not conviction.

He had not admitted this to Hermione, and had insisted that she go to their rooms to get some rest. "Our rooms"--he realized his turn of phrase once she was gone. She had wanted him to come with her, but there was a chance that Poppy would still need his help, and so he promised that he would follow shortly. Sirius was asleep in a nearby bed, having dropped from exhaustion.

He watched the still form intently, hoping for some sign--any sign--that Lupin was waking up.

A short time later, Severus imagined that he saw Lupin's eyelids flutter. Or…wait, was he imagining? Then Lupin's breath caught, his jaw twitched, and Snape thought he seemed to be trying to speak. As Snape motioned to Madam Pomfrey, Lupin sucked in a gulp of air and softly called out, "Hermione…"

Severus's eyes returned to Lupin's face. He placed his hand on the back of Remus's wrist, and spoke to him in comforting tones. "She's all right, Lupin. She's safe. Can you hear me?"

Remus's eyes floated open. "Hermione, I…" His eyes went wide as he focused on Snape.

Severus paused before repeating his reassurances, "She's all right. She's safe."

Lupin still seemed upset. "I'm…sorry, Severus…I didn't realize…"

Beginning to understand, Severus moved his hand away, not wanting to make him more uncomfortable. "There's nothing to be sorry about, Remus. She is safe. That is what matters. And it is you who had us worried."

Remus said nothing more, but the awkward moment passed as Madam Pomfrey came into view. "Oh, thank the Gods. Professor Snape, if you'll let me have a minute with my patient?"

"Of course," he replied, and left to tell Dumbledore and Hermione the good news.

********
It was late indeed when Madam Pomfrey declared that visiting hours were definitely over. Dumbledore acquiesced, guiding Sirius and Harry towards the door, but Hermione lingered to plant a kiss on Lupin's forehead.

"Thank you," she whispered. "For everything."

He smiled, a bit crookedly, and she beamed at him in return. As she moved away, Remus's eyes met Severus's for a moment before the latter turned to follow Hermione.

"Severus, can I…have a minute?"

"Of course."

Hermione looked confused, but left without comment to join the others in the hallway.

Remus seemed exceedingly nervous. "Severus, I…I don't know…what to say."

"It's all right," Severus interrupted. "How could I fault any man for loving her? Especially you, who have been such a friend to her."

Remus let out a breath, and nodded. "I'm sorry. I would never…"

"I know."

"You won't tell her?"

"No."

"Thank you."

"Thank you, Remus, for everything."

As he joined the others, Hermione asked, "What was that about?" as she took his arm.

"Nothing." He smiled. "It was nothing."

********
Taking her seat at breakfast the next morning, Hermione decided that yes, things were definitely getting back to normal. Snape stalked into the Great Hall and down the aisle, stopping to speak sharply to Jeremy Crump about the altercation in Slytherin House that morning and managing to send two Hufflepuffs shrinking to their seats with the glare he cast at them when he found them unwittingly blocking his path. The way that man's robes billowed…. She stifled a smile as he came to sit next to her.

Dumbledore's announcements about Lucius Malfoy being taken into custody and Professor Lupin's stay in the hospital wing were greeted with the usual surprised chatter, but when he explained that Professor Snape would be taking Professor Lupin's classes for a few days, it died out quickly.

Once the mail had arrived with that day's issue of The Daily Prophet, the rumors spread like wildfire. Hermione heard a student in the hallway tell another that Professor Granger had defeated Lucius Malfoy with her bare hands. In the library, she overheard a discussion as to whether Harry Potter or Professor Snape should have the credit for the arrest. And one plucky fifth year asked her after class whether it was true that Professor Lupin had been hurt when he had pulled her out of a burning building.

At least this was the kind of gossip she was used to, she thought to herself after the girl had left.

Deciding to catch up on some grading before dinner, rather than make yet another visit to the hospital wing, she dipped her quill in the red ink and began reading one of several stacks of homework.

She was interrupted a few minutes later by a knock at her office door.

"Professor Granger, Professor Dumbledore would like to see you for a moment," McGonagall announced. She looked upset, Hermione thought.

"Is everything all right, Minerva?"

"I believe Albus should be the one to tell you. Can you come now?" She gestured towards the classroom door.

Severus was there before her, as was Sirius. Minerva hadn't joined them. Hermione took a seat.

Dumbledore looked grim. "I have some…news," he said, "from Azkaban."

Sirius shifted in his chair, but Snape, who was standing by the fire, didn't move.

Dumbledore sighed. "Lucius Malfoy has received the Dementor's Kiss."

"What?!" At this, Snape exploded. "Those imbeciles! Don't they realize that Malfoy may know something about the other Death Eaters for which they claim to be searching? Have they decided to do away with the formality of a trial for everyone, now, or just their prize catch? What the hell is Fudge thinking?!"

Dumbledore held up his hand. "I know, Severus. I know. And I agree with you on all counts--especially that last bit. But it is done. And with popular opinion as it is now…"

"They'll get away with it," Snape said flatly.

Hermione ventured, "Does…has anyone told Draco?" Severus flinched.

"You read my mind, Miss Granger. I have convinced Fudge to let me send Severus…if he wants to go."

Severus's eyes closed, his brow furrowed. After a deep breath, he said, "Of course I'll go."

Sirius spoke after a moment's silence. "If you don't mind, Sir, I'd like to check in with Harry…and Remus."

"Of course, Sirius," the Headmaster answered. "By all means."

When he was gone, Severus sunk into the chair he had occupied. Dumbledore watched him for a moment, and then said gently, "The two of you have been through quite a bit this school year. And the worst of it has come this past week. I thank you for your help. Should you need anything from me, you have only to ask."

"Thank you, Headmaster," Hermione said, and rose to leave.

As Severus stood, Dumbledore began to say something more. "Severus…"

"Thank you, Headmaster."

Dumbledore nodded. He watched until the door closed behind them.

********
The Leaving Feast was, perhaps, more somber than in other years. Slytherin had won, but the arrests of Lucius Malfoy and his son had brought back thoughts of another time, still too close for comfort, and of the shadow that still lay over their house. Pride was mixed with a hesitant hope that things could be better, and the glory of the House Cup seemed a little less bright than might be expected.

Still, the Head of Slytherin House was pleased, and under his stern but approving gaze the Slytherins managed to celebrate quite enough for anyone.

Their Head of House was less pleased when, as the seriousness of the evening faded into the frivolity of a party moved from the Great Hall to the Slytherin common room, he had to go not once, but three times to order them all to be quiet. Only the threat of their beginning the next school year with a deficit of one hundred points could ensure the peace, which frustrated their Head to no end.

He was still fuming when he got back into bed for the third time. And the soft chuckle that greeted him a moment later did nothing for his temper.

"What?" he demanded.

"I never knew that winning a House Cup was so stressful," she teased. When he gave no response, she shifted closer. "I would have thought you'd be so pleased that I'd never hear the end of it." Still no answer.

She laid an arm across him, and closed her eyes. After a minute he slipped his own underneath her to draw her close, and her head came to rest on his shoulder.

"I hate parties," he noted.

"Mmm." Her fingers moved across the soft flannel of his nightshirt to rest on the warm skin at the juncture of neck and collarbone.

Softly, he added, "But I love you."

"I love you, too," she said, as a large ginger cat leapt onto the bed and began making his way across them to his usual spot next to Severus's pillow.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth Nielson nervously straightened her robes as she stepped down from the Hogwarts Express. She had been shocked when she received the letter announcing her acceptance into Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Her family was…well, average. She adored her parents, and her little sister, but there had never been anything special about them. Not like this.

And the books she had read could never have prepared her for…

An enormous man stood on the platform to greet them, and called for the first years to follow him.

"My brother told me he was big, but I never imagined he'd be…so big." The girl with whom Elizabeth had sat on the train joined her. Karen Simmons, from a wizarding family. The two girls had swapped stories for the entire journey, and Elizabeth hoped desperately that they'd be Sorted into the same house.

"Right this way," the enormous man called.

"That must be Hagrid," Elizabeth ventured.

"Got it in one," Karen said, as they began to make their way down to a vast, dark lake.

Elizabeth found herself in a boat with Karen and two boys. The boys managed to mumble their names--Jonathan Weasley and Robert Duncan--before fastening their gaze on the castle.

Elizabeth was awe-struck. She'd read plenty of books about castles, both real and fictional (well, she'd thought they were fictional), but this was incredible. The spires loomed high against the night sky, their daunting appearance softened by the myriad of lights that twinkled from their windows.

When they arrived at a landing, Hagrid instructed them to head up the stairs, where their Deputy Head Mistress would be waiting for them.

"This is bloody amazing," came the voice of Jonathan Weasley. Karen shushed him, and he shot her a look. Behind them, a boy complained that he couldn't find his toad, and would somebody please look about in the boats?

They all shuffled into place silently under the watchful eye of the woman above them. She was dressed in dark blue robes, Elizabeth saw, embroidered with an intricate pattern. Her hair was streaked with grey under her matching pointed hat, but Elizabeth thought she might be as old as ninety or as young as sixty. It was more difficult to tell with wizards and witches, as she had found out in her trip to Diagon Alley to buy her things for school.

"Welcome to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry," the woman said. "I am Professor Granger, and I am Deputy Headmistress here, and Head of Gryffindor House. In a moment, we will go through these doors and make our way to the Great Hall. There, you will be Sorted into your houses. While at Hogwarts, your house will be like your family, and all of your combined achievements will be reflected in your house points. At the end of the year, the house with the highest number of points is awarded the House Cup. Likewise, failure to follow the school rules, bad behavior, or ill preparation for class will cause you to lose house points. Let us hope that all of you will do your best to avoid that necessity."

Her expression softened, and Elizabeth decided that she would very much like Professor Granger to be her Head of House. It didn't seem likely, however. She was smart and clever, but didn't think of herself as courageous, by any means. And Gryffindors, she knew, were known primarily for their courage.

Professor Granger led them inside, and as they entered the Great Hall, the reactions to their new surroundings became audible.

"Look up at the ceiling," Karen prodded. "It's spelled to reflect the night sky. Isn't it beautiful?"

Elizabeth glanced up, but her attention was now focused on the imposing row of witches and wizards sitting at the Head Table. Hagrid was there, smiling at them, and there was a kind looking man towards the left end of the table, seated next to two positively friendly looking older women. Next to them, however, was a rather severe looking woman with yellow eyes. And next to her…Elizabeth swallowed.

"Who is that?" she asked Karen.

Karen followed her gaze. "That," she said, "is Professor Snape. Potions Master and Head of Slytherin House. Scary, isn't he?"

Elizabeth nodded. The man was certainly scary. Dressed completely in black, with steel-grey hair and a rather hooked nose, he looked like the villain out of some movie.

"Can you believe Professor Granger is married to him?"

Elizabeth couldn't. But then, if Professor Granger was married to him, maybe he wasn't as bad as he looked….

She noted the empty seat beside him, obviously Professor Granger's, and then, for the first time, had a clear view of the Headmaster.

For all the stories she had heard about him, Hogwarts's Headmaster looked completely unprepossessing. Dressed in burgundy robes with gold trim and a tall hat, he watched the first years arrive at the front of the room through round spectacles. Elizabeth noticed the gleam in his eye, and then, under the fringe of his greying hair, her eyes found the scar.

Professor Granger spoke again. "As I call out your names, please take a seat on the stool. I will place the Sorting Hat upon your head. When it announces your new house, please take a seat at the appropriate table with your new housemates."

Elizabeth clasped her hands together to keep them still as the first few students were sorted. What if the Hat said that she wasn't supposed to be there at all? What if…

"Karen Simmons."

Karen took her place on the stool. After a moment, the Hat called out, "Gryffindor!" Karen gave her a smile as she headed for the Gryffindor table amidst cheers. Karen had been the first student Sorted into their house.

"Matthew Anderson."

"Slytherin!" Elizabeth saw the Head of Slytherin House applauding.

"Elizabeth Nielson."

Elizabeth sat cautiously on the stool. "Ah," said the Sorting Hat in her ear, "someone completely new…I bet it was a surprise to find you belonged with us?" Elizabeth nodded. "Well let's see…yes, I think…definitely has to be…Gryffindor!"

Elizabeth couldn't help but smile in her relief, and looked up to see Professor Granger smiling at her as she placed the Hat back on the stool.

********
Having finally finished with her Prefects and seen her students quietly to bed, Professor Granger made her way down the hall to her rooms. The Gryffindor Tower entrance to her rooms. She entered through the painting of the seascape, checked a few things at the desk in this, her private study, and walked through the fireplace.

Her husband was nowhere to be seen. Apparently his duties in Slytherin House were taking longer than he expected. He was generally back well before she was after a Sorting Feast.

She removed her dress robes and changed into a comfortable, flannel nightshirt decorated with snitches. A Christmas present from the Headmaster last year. Harry still loved Quidditch, though he rarely got to play. Occasionally, he would referee a game, but the players were all so distracted at the sight of their Headmaster on a broom that he only did it once every few years.

She looked over some correspondence on the table--a letter from Minerva (who would, of course, want the complete report on the new Gryffindors), another from Albus, an invitation to dinner at Sirius's house that weekend--then sat on the sofa with a brandy. Something she'd learned from her husband.

She ran her thumb along the platinum band on her left ring finger. It felt like only yesterday she had nervously asked him about a proposal for an honors project. And at the same time, she couldn't remember what it was like not to love him. To be loved by him. The band appeared to be plain, but if you stared at it long enough, you would begin to see the Celtic knotwork magically etched into the metal. And if she ever took it off her finger (which she never did), you could read the inscription. "Love, let us be true…" A recognition of the dark days through which they had passed, a vow to love one another in spite of everything. Not, perhaps, a verse some other couple would choose for their wedding bands. But perfect.

She was brought out of her reverie by her husband's entrance. Letting the door slam shut behind him, he crossed wordlessly to his own study, a room long since added to these dungeon quarters. She smiled a little, and waited. After a few minutes, he came back into the main room with a sigh. Draping his dress robes over the chair and unbuttoning collar and cuffs, he sat beside her on the sofa.

"Brandy?" she asked.

"In a minute," he sighed. They sat for a few moments in comfortable silence, and he took her hand.

"Trouble in Slytherin House already?"

"No. The Headmaster wanted to see me. Some Ministry nonsense."

"I've always said that the only reason you turned down the position yourself was because you wanted the luxury of complaining about Harry's getting it."

"Not at all. It was the paperwork." She smiled knowingly, and he raised an eyebrow. "And the chance to complain about Potter on a regular basis."

She ran a finger along his cheek. "Professor Snape, don't you think it's time for bed?"

"Professor Granger, I thought you'd never ask."

Finis.