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A Change in the Weather

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To: effronteaumonde
From: Your Secret Santa

Title: A Change in the Weather
Author: leni_jess
Pairing: Severus Snape/Hermione Granger
Summary: Saving Severus Snape seems to have set the course of Hermione's life. And to have introduced her to a nest of Slytherins.
Rating: NC17
Length: ~12,000 words
Warnings: post-DH, EWE, AU: Snape is alive, surprise. Exceedingly mild kink (read it and see; not telling you here!), and UST to burn.
Author notes The world of HP and its characters belongs to Rowling. The author of this fic has borrowed them for the purposes of storytelling. No profit was or will be made. I hope effronteaumonde enjoys this version of what she asked for. Thanks to my beta readers L and A, who both helped to improve this (outasight), and to r_becca for granting me time (lots of time!) to finish the story.

 

(Tell me the truth about love)
... Has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

....

Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

From Tell me the truth about love, by W H Auden (lyrics) & B Britten (music) (1938)

Harry disappeared into the scrum of people wanting to hug him, congratulate him, bend his ear, or just be seen with him, while Ron exchanged sympathy hugs and mutters with some of their friends before retreating to his family, still grouped around Fred's body in the middle of the Great Hall.

Hermione dodged and ran, touching hands, smiling as best she could, aiming for the staircases. She paused only at the foot of the nearest, where Lavender and Parvati huddled together.

She touched Lavender's undamaged shoulder. "You think you were a go-getter before, Lavender? You'll be able to roll Rita Skeeter herself now, if you put your mind to it."

No need to say that while Fenrir Greyback's other victim Bill Weasley now liked his steaks rare, he hadn't seemed to her more than ordinarily determined or resourceful, those last couple of months they had stayed at Shell Cottage. Lavender needed repair, not more damage, and self-help could be the best help of all.

Lavender raised her bruised face – it looked as if she had cried for a long time, but stopped a while ago – and choked out a laugh. "I'd rather not owe Greyback for anything I manage to do! Oh Hermione, you are such a twit! No one will ever want me again."

High on Harry's success and taut with nervous purpose for her own trial still to come, Hermione forged recklessly on. "It's not like he marked your face, as he did with Bill. That might have been a problem. You're pretty enough, drat you; by the time they get your clothes off they won't care." She couldn't help adding dryly, "You never put Ron off with the baby talk; it was the clinging. So your shoulder's torn up. You're a heroine! Make them come to you, and beg for the privilege of admiring your war wounds!"

Parvati had an arm round Lavender's shoulders, cradling the bandaged one tenderly, and sniffing indignantly at this lack of sympathy, but she said in surprise, "That's a plan, Hermione!"

Hermione gave Lavender another light pat and rose. "Of course it is. First rule, some Muggles say, is: 'Don't let the bastards grind you down!'"

Hermione wasn't sure if she'd found that in Dad's hoard of Mad Magazine; perhaps it was only that the made-up Latin led her to associate the slogan with that compendium of all idiot teenage boy attitudes, to which she had never paid much attention. Lavender could benefit from aggressiveness. No need just now to introduce her to "O me miserum!"

Before she moved off with a thumbs up, pleased by Lavender's slightly sniffly smile, she added another Muggle platitude, surprising herself by an improvement in her own outlook, "It's not a bug, it's a feature!" There. Let Lavender try to unravel that, if she could be bothered. She was feeling better, and should do better, which was what Hermione had wanted. She couldn't save the world, like Harry, but she could still make a difference.

As she hoped to do for Professor Snape. She had a three-point plan to rescue him; if she got it all right, he might live after all.

First she needed to go to the Infirmary. Madam Pomfrey was busy, as were the Healers and mediwitches working there, moving with calm speed, having done their triage on the platform in the Great Hall and sent the worst wounded to St Mungo's. Nonetheless, the school mediwitch spared half a minute to give permission and wave Hermione to the principal storage cabinet, at present unlocked. There she easily found dittany, since she had used up her own supply, and a bottle of bezoars – she took more than one; she could always replace what she did not use – and Blood-Replenishing Potion. After a moment she decanted some nerve restorative potion into a vial, and took a strong pain-relieving potion too. Luckily she had long ago asked Madam Pomfrey to teach her the wand movements and incantations to call up a stretcher and to move it without further injury to a patient.

Next, up the stairs, and up, and past the still groaning broken gargoyle, to the Headmaster's office. If she couldn't find a Time Turner, that could be the deal-breaker, the stumbling block to bring her plans crashing down. She was convinced Dumbledore had hidden one away. She knew enough now of the late Headmaster to be sure that he would never have allowed his Deputy to possess such a precious thing without having one in reserve for his own use, and never mind the Department of Mysteries' claim to control every one in existence.

Arthur Weasley had survived Nagini's bites for a long time before Harry got help to him, despite the blood loss and venom. Snape, however, had been bitten in the neck, more than three hours ago by Voldemort's count – Hermione had seldom had a chance to look at a clock, all this long night of stress and terror. Could Snape have survived that blood loss for so long? She would look for him in the present if she must, but far better would be to go back to the moment, the first possible moment after the three of them had plunged away down the passage to the Whomping Willow.

There was no way she could search every cupboard and drawer in the office, even if she could find, or open, all of them. Hermione stood in the middle of the room, trying one Summoning Charm after another, turning, looking at all the cupboards and open shelves and tall cases of drawers in the light of the new day pouring in through the tall windows.

Finally she snapped out a charm that had all the force of a military commander's expectation of unthinking obedience. She had found it in an Aurors' handbook from earlier times, when such wizards had relied more on power than on subtlety. She hadn't been sure she had the magical strength to make it work; she'd never tried it before. Shuddering with the force of the chaotic magic that roiled through her mind and body, struggling to keep on her feet, she decided to place that charm in the Dire Emergencies Only file. Now had it...

A drawer groaned open – she turned to the darkened alcove far from the windows – and yes, yes! Something small and glittering flung itself towards her, into her waiting hands. Feverishly she examined it. Long chain, dials, knobs – not a twin of the one she had used in third year, but with the same controls, the same graduations on the dials, though there was an extra dial, identically marked. No touching that one without instruction! She slipped the chain over her head, so she couldn't lose it, and tucked the Time Turner itself into her bra, where she could feel it, know she had it safe.

She looked up at Dumbledore's portrait, but he had been asleep when she came in, and still appeared to be, in so far as that meant anything. Just for luck, she said, "Thank you, sir," before she hurried over to be sure she could identify the drawer. That might be worth investigation, if she ever had the opportunity. Not now. She slid it closed; stupid to leave it looking interesting.

She nodded politely to the portrait of Phineas Nigellus, who snorted and lowered himself to ask a Muggleborn for information.

"The Dark Lord is gone?"

"His body's laid out downstairs – well away from all the others. Killed by his own Avada Kedavra." She hesitated, but it was only fair. She had irritated him immensely, not just by her mere existence, which reaction merited no kindness, but he had cooperated. "Thank you, sir; you helped us and helped everyone. I'm sorry I dragged you up and down the country in my bag, but I couldn't think how else to keep in touch with Professor Dumbledore."

Stiffly he responded, "If you're grateful, make sure young Potter expresses the thanks due to all the Slytherins who helped him win this war. We may be conservative and cautious of strangers to our world who have no ties here, and therefore no reason to keep it safe, but we are not all murderers – nor fools, either."

"No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. You, and Professor Snape, and Professor Slughorn, and the seventh and even sixth years who came back to help with the battle, after Professor McGonagall threw them out. And," she added softly, "all the people who didn't rally to Voldemort, who didn't kill children and helpless Muggles, or cooperate with that Umbridge woman's horrible Commission."

Another burden. Well, she had been assuming them for years, and no one went through life without obligations; helping to win the war wasn't the end of what she needed to do. Taking on this one might help to heal the wizarding world itself, not just an individual here and there.

"Goodbye, sir. And again, thank you so much."

"Put my other portrait back in my family home!"

Over her shoulder she called, "As soon as I can, sir!"

Now she needed to make the last preparation, finding a safe refuge for a wounded and probably wanted man. That might be hardest of all.

Earlier, she had seen the Malfoys sitting together at the Slytherin table, bruised, begrimed, as exhausted as everyone else, and apprehensive rather than hysterically triumphant or desperately grieving. She hoped they were still there.

Lucius Malfoy was listening grim-faced to Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Draco was in a huddle with Goyle, but Mrs Malfoy was missing. She couldn't be gone; she didn't have a wand, she'd given hers to Draco, and he'd lost it to the Fiendfyre!

Hermione's heart settled into place again as she saw her target against the side wall, kneeling beside one of the bodies... That would be Bellatrix, probably; Hermione couldn't think of any other Death Eater whose death Mrs Malfoy might regret. There were no other mourners beside that row of bodies, unmasked now, incapable of further harm.

Taking a deep breath and her courage in her hands, Hermione threaded her way through the crowd until she reached Narcissa Malfoy and knelt beside her.

Unlike Lavender, Mrs Malfoy hadn't been crying, though she looked sad, and sober. She had one of her hands over her sister's, which were crossed over her breast on the grimy black cloth of her robes.

Hermione said softly, "I'm sorry for the loss you feel." She herself was unfeignedly glad the madwoman who had tortured her was dead, but she didn't have to say that to the woman's sister. Tonight she seemed to share in everyone's losses, not just those of her friends and allies, as the world slowly wobbled its way back to stability.

Mrs Malfoy sat back on her heels and said wryly, "I was remembering when we were children, and Bella was my big sister who loved me. I don't feel loss, except of those past times, and the love of a kind she still had for me, considering that she used my son almost to his death, and did her best to destroy my husband."

She gave a sharp sigh, turned aside from her sister to face Hermione, and asked, "What do you want with me, Miss Granger?"

That was said with courtesy purebloods didn't often give her, but Mrs Malfoy did seem recently to be much more sensible than either her husband or her son.

"None of you has a wand, do you?"

The woman stiffened, her grey eyes going cold and wary. Hermione went on quickly, "I know you gave Draco yours. But I – I have your sister's."

She had thankfully shoved the disobliging thing into a robe pocket once she had snatched up Rowle's, after using Expelliarmus to defend – good heavens! She hadn't even thought at the time – Daphne Greengrass from his attack. Rowle's wand had felt immediately comfortable in her hand (and she would worry about that affinity later); she had used it with increasing confidence. Until she could get one of her own again it would serve her well. Meanwhile, she could probably buy with Bellatrix's wand what she might not get for asking, even if Mrs Malfoy owed Snape a debt.

"You may have it, with my good will," Hermione went on, more steadily. She took it out, but did not offer it. "If you seize it from me, that might make it more obedient to you – or will it not need that, since she was your sister? Draco used yours easily enough."

"I have used Bella's wand before, reluctant though she was to lend it," Mrs Malfoy said slowly. "It's a little stiff, but I just had to be firm and it gave way to me. If you are willing to part with it – thank you."

Hermione made a face. "It didn't like me one bit. You're welcome." She held out her hand, the wand balanced on her open palm.

Narcissa Malfoy took it up delicately. Politely she pointed it at the ceiling before she breathed, "Lumos."

The wand's tip lit promptly, and after a long moment the glow of light increased to real brilliance. Narcissa whispered, "Nox," and the light vanished.

"A good fit, then," Hermione murmured.

Narcissa Malfoy bent her head to look at her sister, before caressing one worn cheek with her left hand, and brushing the tangled hair back tenderly from her brow. "Thank you, Bella, for one last good thing. I loved you, too, even after everything."

Then she looked at Hermione, all fondness vanished, and said crisply, "Thank you, again. But you didn't give me her wand in pure good will though, did you, Miss Granger? Tell me now, please, what you want for it."

Better to get straight to the point. "Your help with Professor Snape."

"But the Dark Lord said he'd killed him – hours ago!"

Hermione nodded. "He set Nagini on the professor; Nagini bit his neck. There was blood everywhere." They both shuddered, instinctively horrified, one at the memory, the other at the image. Hermione was encouraged by that reaction, hoping it meant Narcissa Malfoy had a fondness for Snape, or felt friendship for him, or a strong sense of indebtedness to him.

"We saw it – or Harry did, and I saw him immediately afterwards, when he spoke to Harry. We thought, then, that he'd died, after he gave Harry his memories, but... I've had time to wonder, since; it's not as if I checked his pulse or his breathing. Or," she added, bitterly castigating herself for neglect, "used the dittany I had left on the wounds, either."

Quietly Mrs Malfoy answered, "I heard what Potter said about Severus to the Dark Lord; we all did. Severus would have wanted you to do what you did do – to concentrate on putting an end to that horror. He laid his life on the line for Draco, taking an Unbreakable Vow with me, and if Potter was right... And I suppose he must have been. How clever of Severus to deceive Lucius and me all those years! It seems Severus was willing to die for all of us, if it got rid of that monster. To whom," she added energetically, "neither of them should ever have sworn service!

"So, you want me to come with you, see if he still lives?" She tucked her sister's wand away and got to her feet without looking back at Bellatrix.

Hermione felt faint with relief, but managed to rise herself. "Yes. But I could go alone, I have potions, I can call a stretcher. What I need is a safe place for him; he wouldn't be safe in St Mungo's. Some fool with a grudge or a vengeful Auror might kill him at any moment, even if the Healers were ready to do their duty. I don't think he'd be safe here, either; there're too many people running about unsupervised."

"Our home," Mrs Malfoy agreed at once. "If DMLE –" she pronounced it "dimly", and Hermione had to smile "– comes for Lucius or Draco, though... No, it should be all right. The new Minister's already told me I'm safe from prosecution, and that they're sure to reward me for what I did for Potter." A smile twitched at her lips. "He's a Ravenclaw, not a Slytherin, but he knows perfectly well I did it for Draco. He was too polite to say it, naturally."

Hermione smiled at her in return. "There are worse things than doing everything for love," she agreed softly.

"They're talking, still." Mrs Malfoy glanced across the hall at her husband. "If he planned to have Lucius marched back to Azkaban there'd be no need for that." She straightened her shoulders. "Where is Severus?"

"The Apparition wards are still down, I believe; we can get there quickly. I have one more thing." Their eyes met, and at her words Mrs Malfoy's lit up. "A Time Turner."

Hermione was astonished when Mrs Malfoy took her hand and pressed it hard. She looked like a dark lantern sprung to vivid life, aglow with intensity of joy. "Miss Granger – no, may I use your name? Mine is Narcissa. Unless you were right about his being dead already – because if he was, and you'd seen him so, there's no mending it – we can save him. We will save him! Thank you! Slytherins can be grateful, you'll see! Thank you! Come!"

They walked quickly towards the ruined doors, with hope rising above fear, hands reaching for each other, ready for Hermione to Side-Along them to the door of the Shack.

***SSHG***SSHG***

Now that Severus Snape was in good hands, Hermione looked forward to returning to Hogwarts, possibly even for a year of nothing but study, the first one ever. Hard to imagine. Some of the seventh year students who had stayed at school and kept their heads down decided to sit for the special NEWT exams offered in August, but Draco would be coming back to school, and Lavender and Parvati, and Neville, but not Ron or Harry. They had leapt upon Kingsley's offer of almost immediate admission to the Auror training program, with special tutoring over the summer to make sure they could keep up. Hermione could hardly express the depths of her disapproval of that, either his offer or their acceptance, but she had stopped trying; the boys didn't listen, and the Minister had his own agenda.

She had, in astonishment, refused Ron's off-hand suggestion that they get married and that she should join them – as she had officially been invited to do – until such time as the babies started coming. However fond of him she was, her disapproval of that exceeded even her feelings about his leaving school without NEWTs, but she hadn't been sure which repulsive assumption to address first. She had settled for slapping his face while she fought for adequate words, though she'd managed soon enough to express some of her objections. Harry had laughed in surprise, quite as much at Ron as at her, though he put his hand over his mouth quickly; and Ron had hardly spoken to her since. Really, it was just like all the other times he had walked away from them. Maybe it would be safe for someone to love Ron when he finally grew up.

Her last commitment, before she went back to her textbooks, had been to retrieve her parents, and to apologise for Obliviating them. They gave her vigorous and frequent lectures on not doing things to people for their own good without their consent, but they forgave her, too. She returned to London with a light heart and a determination to earn their approval with something they could understand about her life as a witch: success in her examinations, and dedication to whatever career she chose.

Over the summer Narcissa sent Hermione a discreetly worded report on Snape's progress every week, always with the same unremarkable barn owl. She had to use the Muggle post while Hermione was in Australia, after the first owl straggled miserably home from somewhere over north Africa, but Hermione had warned her. Sometimes Narcissa wrote more often, when there was a great improvement to share (or when Snape had been whinging even more spectacularly than usual: Narcissa liked to share the pain of that, too).

Just before Hogwarts reopened, late, at the start of October, for Hermione to take the seventh year she had missed, Mrs Malfoy sent an invitation to visit Professor Snape, now that he felt able to receive visitors. She had not asked to see him, wanting to avoid any suggestion of demanding gratitude. He had summoned her at last, and she felt more anxiety at the thought of meeting him than at any time since she had found her parents and restored their memories.

Hermione hadn't seen the professor at all in the year he'd been Headmaster, but these last months Narcissa had given her vivid word pictures of how he had grown gaunter, and paler, and more tired over that year, though he had been as viciously fluent as ever, until he was skin and bones, kept upright by will. He looked much better, Narcissa kept assuring her.

It wasn't her first visit to Malfoy Manor after her return from Australia, but it was always Draco she had gone to see. He had responded with tentative friendship to her encouragement to repeat his final year at Hogwarts, and her unspoken offer of support. Mostly they had met in the gardens, or in poor weather in the marvellous conservatory, fit to rival some of the glasshouses at Kew (though really, engineering was more impressive than magic). Malfoy Manor was being thoroughly redecorated, Narcissa had explained when she first invited Hermione to afternoon tea in her pretty upstairs parlour (cucumber or smoked salmon sandwiches and Earl Grey and exquisite pastries).

Hermione had no wish to revisit the drawing room, or the dungeons. She didn't care for the front hall, either, though now that had parquet flooring rather than black and white marble, and celadon rather than cold white walls. That made it much more bearable. Until the rebuilding was finished, Draco had been as shy of them as she was, he had eventually admitted, and spent a lot of time on Herbology rather than Defence, though Professor Snape had recently begun to give him brief tutoring sessions in the final year Potions curriculum. Apparently doing so was good for his temper; he had always been indulgent with Draco, and that tolerance carried over even when it was no longer politically necessary.

Professor Snape had ground floor rooms on the morning sun side of the east wing, well away from the public rooms at the front of the house. Narcissa took her to the door of his sitting room, gave her a slight push between her shoulder blades, then closed the door and meanly left her to deal with Snape alone. When she entered, he was seated in a deep, winged armchair that seemed to be sized exactly to give him both support and comfort. It was green, naturally, though a deeper colour than Slytherin green.

He wore black, as always, but not robes, to her surprise, or even the long coat she had sometimes seen him in at school. Just a cashmere pullover with a silk shirt beneath – he had never worn silk, that she recalled; his clothing had always been plain and sturdy, rather than elegant – and lightweight black trousers, with glossily polished house shoes rather than the dragonhide boots essential for Potions and useful for Defence. Narcissa, or possibly Lucius, must have taken over his wardrobe as well as his furnishings. She was glad he wasn't wearing an invalid's dressing gown over pyjamas, though probably he would have dressed properly for her visit even if he was comfortable with the Malfoys in less formal clothing. She couldn't help noticing the light wool shawl folded over a nearby little table, though, or the fire, despite the sunshine of a fine autumn day pouring in.

He did look better than he had in the shack. As lean as she remembered, but his colour was healthier, the lines on his face less marked, and the dreadful wounds on his neck were now silver scar lines, hardly raised at all – someone had exercised a lot of magical energy, healing them so that they looked years old, after the first aid she had performed, to halt the flow of blood. Then she had concentrated on getting the snake venom out of his system, and after that pouring Blood-Replenishing Potion into him as fast as she could stroke it down his ruined throat.

"Finished taking notes?"

His voice was as silky as ever, and relief welled up in her. It seemed a small thing that he should have kept his beautiful voice, so long as he had retained his life and was regaining his health, but she was glad that he still had that one beauty. The shape of his hands, too, was beautiful, though they seemed as potions-stained as ever. Maybe the discolouration was permanent, or maybe he had resumed brewing, as well as a little light teaching with Draco.

She told herself to stop wittering nervously. She wouldn't cringe before him; he had none of her parents' forgiveness or gentleness.

"I've run a detailed comparison, and am glad to see you so improved."

"Would you like me to strip, to facilitate your analysis?" The words were provocative, and she couldn't help blinking in surprise, but the tone was, again, almost pleasant.

"Unnecessary. The only damage was to your throat."

She didn't say that she and Narcissa had stripped him to confirm that, as well as to get rid of the blood-soaked clothing, unfit for further use. The three hours and more that the Time Turner had given them allowed them to be thorough, before Narcissa had taken his deeply sleeping body, no longer unconscious, back to Malfoy Manor and a house-elf's constant supervision. Then they both returned to the Great Hall a few minutes after they had left it. The Malfoys had discreetly taken the Knight Bus home shortly afterwards, rather than flaunt the wands they had probably acquired during the battle, or after.

Blandly she added, "I have been practising some basic mediwizardry over the summer, under Madam Pomfrey's supervision; may I perform diagnostic charms to confirm the results of mere visual inspection?"

"No, you may not!" he growled.

So much for pleasantness.

"I suppose you expect me to thank you for coming back for me and starting my healing, however clumsily?"

So Narcissa had told him everything.

"Certainly not," she answered, almost pertly. "In six years we never thanked you once, after all, for standing between us and harm."

He seemed ever so slightly taken aback by that. Did he expect never to be acknowledged? Possibly. Harry had shown her a careful selection of Snape's memories, and it had not seemed to her that Dumbledore had been either grateful to him, or even very pleasant, for most of twenty years. She wouldn't mention Dumbledore, though; that was almost certainly slippery ground.

Quite seriously she went on, "Now that I understand all you did for us, I do want to thank you. For saving us, for saving Harry, several times; for trying to keep us out of trouble, for trying to teach us to do that for ourselves – or even to think, it must have seemed to you, sometimes! For not telling other people some of the things you must have known we did, even though you disapproved. All that apart from what you did to fight Voldemort –" she was glad to see he didn't flinch, or even scowl more than minutely at her for using the once-forbidden name "– and to save the world. Thank you."

He was staring at her, so she repeated, "Thank you."

She managed to smile, and say, to lighten the atmosphere, "Thanks for not petrifying us and bunging us up in separate barrels to keep us out of mischief until we knew better, too."

"I would have done, and gladly, if Dumbledore hadn't been so insistent that Potter had to be the one to deal with... with Voldemort. Not that it was right of him to put that task off on a child, even if he hadn't been the one who let Tom Riddle have his head in the first place. If Dumbledore had been agreeable to locking you all away in safety, and allowing adults to plan a concerted attack on the Dark Lord, we might have been successful sooner, and I should certainly have suffered less irritation."

"That, at least, you managed to share around," she told him, smiling a little.

"Yes, well, it's done now, thank Merlin," he replied, and seemed to relax a little, leaning back in his armchair.

He changed the subject decisively. "You're returning for your seventh year? Good. You could probably have passed those late exams, but I suspect the standards were lowered, deliberately, to allow as many students as possible to be got out of the way, students who would never have achieved more than mediocre results. That would not have been appropriate for you, any more than for Draco – or, I suppose, Mr Longbottom, in some subjects. Have you plans for after Hogwarts, or will you follow those young men into the Auror program and resume doing their work for them?"

"I hope I've learned my lesson there," Hermione said ruefully. "I wasn't teaching them anything, was I? I just let them avoid learning. At least Neville always did better in Potions exams than he did in class. It's more important now, of course. Aurors frequently operate alone; they have to be on top of everything."

Testily as ever he answered, "Stupid girl, it was always important! Do you think letting them develop the habit of skimping their work and copying yours has taught them anything about learning on their own, as they now must do? You handicapped, not helped, them!" As she flinched, then nodded, having had time to think all that through this summer, he added, less sharply, "Sit down, Miss Granger. You're giving me a crick in my neck."

It was typical of him, she thought as she moved to the armchair across from his, further from the fire, to refuse her welcome, and then to blame her.

Briskly he said, "I want to talk with you about what you'll do after Hogwarts, if you are willing."

Hermione was pleased, if surprised; career advice from Professor Snape might well be useful, however uncomfortably pragmatic.

"Please do," she said at once, "if you don't mind, sir."

"No need for the 'sir' – I'm not your teacher now, thank Merlin. Or anyone's, ever again, if I can help it," he added.

"I don't know: I think you'd be good with really bright apprentices who knew their stuff and respected what you could teach, and who worked."

"So I might, if there were any such. A rare Ravenclaw, or Slytherin. Possibly even a Hufflepuff, if one was brave enough that he or she didn't irritate me to frenzy."

"Never a Gryffindor," she responded, unoffended. To her the houses didn't seem to matter so much any more, though the distortions their narrow mindsets induced still seemed very bad.

"Certainly not," he said, smooth as honey. "As it is, I plan to eschew teaching. Now, to your concerns. No doubt you plan to undertake as many NEWT subjects as possible. Choose carefully, though, to keep your options as wide open as possible. You can always read History of Magic for yourself, later, from a better selection of books than Binns ever recommended. Just don't overreach yourself; you may not use a Time Turner again."

He didn't ask what she had done with the one souvenired from the Headmaster's office, and she had no plans to tell him, or anyone, that she was keeping it hidden away. She would hide it at least until she knew that the Department of Mysteries had managed to create replacements for their stock, now they were not distracted by a war to the death. It was no more selfish an action than Professor Dumbledore's in concealing it. The wizarding world was too inclined to put all its eggs in one basket; at least she could be an unexpected basket.

"We'll come back to your choice of subjects. Have you definite plans for a career yet, or are you waiting for one to fall in your lap?"

"I could do, if I wanted: I've had some offers. Some are very silly, of course. The better ones generally want me to do my NEWTs first. But while Mysteries, for example, might be enormous fun, I think – not yet."

"That's probably better taken on by a person already mature and experienced, rather than a young woman who still has a lot to learn, no matter how capable she is."

Good heavens, a compliment? He did not hesitate to spoil it.

"The first thing you need to learn, as soon as possible, is to think, rather than to accept the textbooks uncritically. What will you do, girl, when they start contradicting each other, if you haven't learned to discriminate and evaluate?"

"I'm better at that than I was; there's nothing like trying to draw useful information from a series of books full of muddled thinking. I was reading up on Horcruxes," she explained. "But we only ever had one Potions textbook, or Defence, either, and it's a bit hard to pick up critical thinking that way."

He snorted with all his old expressiveness. "Tell me you read only your textbooks and I'll call you a liar, girl."

"No, I read a lot – but I expected the textbooks to be right, more than the others."

"And seeing how well Potter managed to cheat his way to better Potions marks with my old book – Slughorn was impressed almost beyond words, damn him for an idiot – didn't cure you of that? Knowing that the textbook was wrong? Perhaps accidentally, in simple if reprehensible error, but more often, if Borage was anything like most Potions masters who write such books, maliciously."

"Yes, I did work that out," she sighed. "I was so indignant!"

"And angry with Potter and Borage, if I know you," he responded acerbically, "rather than with your own gullibility and simple-mindedness. No wonder the Hat put you in Gryffindor! Any Ravenclaw, or Slytherin, would have worked it out years ago, and a 'Puff, however rule-bound, would have noticed! You must have had very so-so teachers, in your Muggle primary school, if they didn't give you any weapons to deal with malice and folly and error!"

How like him to say "weapons" rather than "tools".

Meekly she replied, "There were some who didn't seem to me to be very good – and where Mum couldn't get me transferred to a class with a better teacher, she said I should concentrate on the textbooks; they'd correct any silly ideas the teachers put forward."

"A difference between the Muggle and the wizarding worlds, then. Though I wonder if I, in my depressed mill town, didn't have better teaching than you, in some regards. The poor," he added sardonically, "learn early not to trust. It's only the middle class who can afford that."

"Oh please, let's not get into class as well as Muggle versus wizarding," she muttered.

"Very well, I'll take it you have absorbed that point. The other thing you should learn, for your teachers' sake quite as much as your own, with a view to having employers think well of you, is to edit. No more three feet of parchment when one is asked for! I penalised you for that from the beginning – did anyone else?"

"Professor Flitwick complained, sometimes, though he didn't seem to mark me down. But," she cheered up and grinned cheekily at him, "most of them just seemed so pleased to have someone who understood the topic that they let me get away with it."

He rolled his eyes at her. "Making rods for their own backs, as if they didn't have enough miles of parchment to mark already. Nor does it say much for the general standard of student. Or, possibly, teaching."

Hurriedly she implored, "Can we not get into that either?"

"Wait until your own children want help with their homework," he said darkly.

"Well. Edit," he repeated. "Don't regurgitate, don't tell everything: select! Critical thinking, remember? Even poorly expressed, that is better than vomiting up whatever the books say, with only logical order and good sentence and essay structure to commend it. Choose the most important things, explain your reasoning succinctly, and trust your teachers – and employers – to be impressed by that!"

She widened her eyes at him, miming meek acceptance.

He gave a small snort that seemed to be laughter before getting back to the main issue.

"Well, Miss Granger? In what capacity do you propose to astonish the wizarding world? Do you know? Have you a short list, even? If you can make up your mind well before you take your NEWTs it will give your teachers more time to offer you help and guidance, as I expect they plan to do."

"In better times," she said hesitantly, "I'd love to be a historian, though I realise I wouldn't earn a living that way. But now that seems a luxury – something for my spare time, perhaps: to interview people, to gather evidence, to preserve documents from loss or deliberate destruction, to begin to build up an archive. Then later I could do something, after thinking about it all. I'd want to write history, not journalism, or opinion."

He bent his head in what seemed thoughtful acceptance of her as well as her hopes.

"And now instead?"

She didn't revert to the lure the Department of Mysteries offered.

"It would be useful to become a lawyer, to try to do something about the crude justice, the endemic injustice, of the wizarding world. Not just the treatment given to werewolves and house-elves. But," she smiled ruefully, "I've been looking around, and where would I find a role model, or even someone I could respect to apprentice myself to, as I'd have to, with no wizarding law schools? Most lawyers seem to handle property conveyancing, and commercial suits, and marriage contracts – not civil rights. There's hardly any legislation to work from, for a start! Most of it is to control whatever's seen as abnormal or threatening, not to enable equality or uniform fairness.

"It would probably be more effective to get a responsible job, to campaign from a position of respect, to aim for a place on the Wizengamot, however long it took. Not to write more bits of law that are disregarded, like Arthur Weasley's Muggle Protection Act – which is quite awful, by the way! If that's the standard of law, and of law development, the wizarding world has generations of learning ahead of it! I'd want to persuade people to think differently. I can't fix it alone, but I can start by helping some people to see that it needs fixing, and discuss means of doing so."

"Ambitious indeed. But not unworthy. And rather more sensible than I might have expected of you, at this time of your life. No doubt the status of Muggleborns would be among your concerns?"

"Oh yes," she replied, with a heartfelt scowl. "That's another thing that time is needed for, and not just to avoid frightening the purebloods into revolt yet again!"

"So, what is that responsible post to be?"

"I thought – a Healer." This time she hesitated and looked at him, without expanding on it.

"We can always use good Healers," he said at once. "So that request to use diagnostic charms wasn't just to annoy me with impertinence, despite the adequate job you did on me that night – since Narcissa tells me she did little but hold things for you."

That was a change, too, admitting that her work had been adequate. She'd been so afraid it hadn't been, until Narcissa's first owl told her the Healer she'd brought in under strict promise of secrecy – Vow-bound, if not by the Unbreakable Vow itself – had approved of what she had done.

"I would have been interested," she admitted, "though I had no right to ask; you're not my patient."

"No doubt when you're apprenticed at St Mungo's they will say much the same, but don't cling to that view too blindly if you have any doubts about a treatment offered or used. Enquire, at least. You can always be seeking enlightenment."

He was probably right that she trusted too easily. And that tact (not that he had any, as distinct from Slytherin deviousness) won more friends than Gryffindor brashness.

"Very well, Miss Granger. You need to take Potions, Herbology, Charms – you know that."

Hermione hastily summoned parchment and an automatic quill and set it to making notes.

He waited until she was ready, then resumed, "Transfiguration, for emergencies, if nothing else. Take also Arithmancy, for the complex calculations you'll be making once you're senior enough. I suppose you could catch up on that later, if your course load was too heavy. Vector's good, though, unlike Binns. Defence, since there's always Dark Magic about. Ancient Runes is a luxury, Astronomy less so, as the stars can influence both Potions ingredients and Potions creation.

"You don't need the easy option of Muggle Studies, but later, you might begin keeping track of Muggle advances in medicine, in case there's some development that magic does not provide but might be brought to imitate. No doubt you'll be studying Muggle law in such little free time as your work allows, once you're at St Mungo's. I'd suggest you apprentice there. You would benefit from spending time at one of the major European hospitals, though for no more than a year, to broaden your understanding. Wizarding Britain is still very parochial. History of Magic, as I said, you can do for yourself, later.

"You may write to me, with due care for my privacy, of course, if you wish to discuss anything serious, or encounter an issue in your studies that your teachers seem unable to cover appropriately."

It was dismissal. "Thank you, sir." She rose, then repeated, "Thank you for all you've done."

"Yes, yes, stop saying that." He looked at her, the black eyes piercing with almost Legilimentic sharpness. "Come back in the Christmas holidays, if you care to. We would no doubt find further things to discuss. You need to start developing your thoughts on the nature of justice and equality, and expressing them in terms the wizarding world finds comfortable, now rather than later."

She had never expected such an open-ended invitation, and smiled happily. This talk had shown her how thoughtful and helpful he could be, however acerb his expression.

"Keep Draco up to the mark," he finished. "Don't let him drown himself in self-pity again. He did enough of that last year, even if he doesn't see yet that it's counter-productive."

"Yes," she promised.

"And if Goyle returns, as he's almost committed to doing, help Draco tutor him so he passes two subjects, at least!"

"Oh." The very idea made her feel faint.

"Don't say, 'Oh'," he snapped. "Just do it. It will give you practice in communicating ideas to the less than interested."

"Yes, sir." She reverted to schoolgirl obedience at that tone, to her annoyance.

"So be on your way, girl; you have enough to do."

She got out before he thought of any other task to impose on her, and asked Narcissa for a cup of black coffee rather than Earl Grey tea. Narcissa laughed at her quite heartlessly, before she said, "I've had him in the house for five months; you've spoken to him once. You'll harden up. He asked you to come back?"

"Yes. At Christmas."

Narcissa looked satisfied, in a Slytherin way that Hermione decided not to enquire about. Christmas would be quite soon enough to find out what she had got into, walking into this nest of Salazar's own.

***SSHG***SSHG***

When Hermione visited Professor Snape before Christmas, he gave her some useful ideas on getting and keeping Gregory Goyle's attention. It wasn't that Goyle ignored her, or didn't wish to learn, but his attention span was limited, and she kept discovering new depths to his ignorance. It was terrifying. She had begun to understand, much better, Snape's hatred of teaching. Or rather, why he claimed to hate it; he never seemed to mind (much) tutoring her or Draco. She also understood better why he had used terror to keep his students' attention. She and a few others had always wanted to learn, but many didn't (Ron among them, she recalled); while others (like Harry at the time) hated their teacher so much they were incapable of concentrating on what he could teach.

"You take control, Miss Granger. Don't let your student decide what to do. Seize his attention and lead him to what he needs to know. A good student wishes to learn and is willing to be led. A poor student must fear you too much – or respect you – to take any path but the one you choose for him."

Her only consolation was that he certainly hadn't been able to do that infallibly himself.

***SSHG***SSHG***

New Year's Eve was much more relaxed. Professor Snape hosted a small gathering over elf-made wine (very small: her and Draco) and they talked Arithmancy problems until after midnight.

***SSHG***SSHG***

At Easter she brought Professor Snape a box of miniature Easter eggs from Honeyduke's (whose Hogsmeade shop had re-opened just before Christmas), and discovered that he loved chocolate. However, he doled it out to himself like a miser, taking pleasure in the anticipation and even, she thought, in the frustration of wanting and not having. She was surprised to be given a small Easter egg herself, which proved to be full of chocolate-covered Mexican coffee beans which – this being the wizarding world – bounced with manic enthusiasm once they were let out of the eggshell. She was thrilled that he had bothered to arrange an Easter gift for her.

In the end he, she, and Draco held a jumping coffee bean race. After Professor Snape fed her too many of the losers, Draco invited her to stay overnight, because it turned out that the chocolate had had a good dose of Kahlua too, and the professor didn't think she was safe to Apparate. She was too sleepy to object, and licked her lips again, remembering chocolate and coffee and Kahlua and Snape.

At breakfast she discovered that Professor Snape was not a morning person. She and Draco exchanged a few words as they helped themselves to hot food from the sideboard and sat down to eat, content to stare into their plates and enjoy the meal in peaceful silence.

"Draco, can't you eat your toast soldiers more quietly than that? Must I hex you silent, Miss Granger, if you can't handle your coffee cup and saucer without that vile clatter?"

They rolled their eyes at each other – neither of them being full of cheer first thing either – then Hermione offered, in an attempt at his own sarcasm, "Professor, shall I cast a Cone of Silence all of your own for you? A hex won't do much to quiet the cup when I next put it down."

He snarled at her and turned to hold out a hand imperatively. The house-elf, presumably used to this, put the Daily Prophet into his hand. He retreated behind its pages, snapping them vengefully at intervals.

After his second cup of coffee he told them what the headlines were. Draco nodded at her and mouthed, "It's all right to talk now."

She thought she'd let one of them speak aloud first.

***SSHG***SSHG***

Part way through her last term Severus Snape began brewing potions, selling by mail order only, and the Malfoys threw a party. Still a very small one, but there were perhaps a dozen people present to celebrate his return to health and the promise of financial stability.

She gave him a stasis-sealed package of Australian flora to experiment with in potions. Just in case it was all useless, for there had been little research on the subject in the last two hundred years, she also gave him three female Wollemi Pine cones. An Australian researcher had recently shown that their seeds were useful in potions to clear the bewildered minds of very elderly witches and wizards. That tree was, after all, one of the oldest living, so in magical terms it made sense. However, the trees were few, picking the cones could pose a danger to the trees, and new trees grown since the ancient pines were first discovered had still to produce seed. She wasn't sure which gift he was more pleased with: the rare and useful seeds, or the opportunity to experiment with the unknown.

He asked her, "You went to Australia to collect these?"

"Yes, after Easter, though I had help to find the stand of pines and some of the other plants. The Australians, Muggles as much as wizards, keep the location of the pines secret, for their safety. I had to get special permission from the Australian Ministry; they gave it only because the seeds were for you." She smiled at him. "They have heard of and used your work, and luckily I could prove I was your student. I was visiting my parents for a few days, so it was easy to do – just filling out papers."

There had been interviews, too, and she had started the request on its way well before she went to Australia. No need to mention that; he would know what obstacles there could be to collecting rare plant ingredients. Not least of those had been the trip into the canyon-ridden wilderness, under escort, and being elevated with Wingardium to the very top of three trees in turn to pluck one female cone from each. All of it was infinitely easier for wizards than for the Muggles who were the trees' primary caretakers.

Perhaps he was most pleased that she had taken so much trouble, though it was quite true about her visit. She certainly would never have been able to procure the seeds by owl.

***SSHG***SSHG***

After she passed her NEWTs with a straight run of Outstandings he gave her one – one! – glass of Firewhisky. She choked on it, breathed out the flames, and looked up to see him laughing at her, but in astonishment, not malice. Did he think her sufficiently adult to be used to Firewhisky, then?

She put the glass down slowly, by touch alone, feeling about distractedly for the surface of the low table beside her armchair, staring at his face, and the difference laughter made in it. He Vanished her glass and poured her elf-made wine instead. She drank it slowly, wanting to see him laugh, or better yet smile at her, again.

***SSHG***SSHG***

She visited Malfoy Manor several times over the summer. After she started her apprenticeship at St Mungo's, he invited her to use his first name and requested permission to use hers. She granted it, pointing out that in wizarding world terms she had been an adult for nearly three years.

"But now," he said softly, "you are no longer in any way my student. You may, if you wish, be my friend."

Once more she stared at him for a long moment before she answered, her own voice hushed, "Oh yes. Please."

Her dreams that night went far beyond what was likely.

***SSHG***SSHG***

For her birthday, later that year, he invited her out to dinner. She told Harry and Ron when they showed up at St Mungo's staff entrance that she had a prior engagement, and went with Severus to a quiet Indian restaurant in a seaside town opposite the Isle of Wight. They ate too much and drank Indian beer, and talked until the proprietor suggested that he would like to close. Afterwards they walked along the foreshore until the houses retreated from the sea, and there was space and privacy and darkness on the sandy dunes to Apparate away. He accompanied her back to her flat before returning to his own place (he lived in Romsey in Hampshire now, quite close to the Abbey). At her door he took her hand, lifted it to his mouth, and kissed it, first the back of her hand, then the palm. Her fingers curled around his. Still holding her fingers close to his lips, he looked up.

"Goodnight, Hermione."

She went on staring, lips slightly parted. His tiny smile was rueful, but then it modulated to a smirk.

"You don't handle surprise well, do you, Hermione? Better speak to your Healing master about rehearsing how to deal with all possible situations."

"Oh," she huffed, suddenly indignant. "You just like to disconcert me."

He gave her back her hand and suggested, just before he turned on his heel and Disapparated away, "Consider how you might respond if I kissed your mouth, Hermione. Goodnight."

She didn't sleep well that night. She kept thinking about how that kiss might have been, and wondering if she should slap him, as she had once slapped Ron (and once Draco, too), if he teased her again. Perhaps it might be wiser to return his kiss instead. His payback might be far worse than her own attack canaries.

***SSHG***SSHG***

Then the rotten bastard went to Bologna for a month, to conduct the last stages of a research project with the Italian master he had been corresponding with for over a year.

After three weeks she sent him an owl. When he opened the tiny package the owl carried, he would find a chocolate coffee bean onto which she had charmed her own natural scent, and, on the parchment itself, the impress of her lips, set there by a charm. As she folded the parchment carefully round the bean (and the kiss) she wondered if he would touch that mark, and feel her lips moving against his finger, as she intended, or if he would be too wary. Or, possibly, too much engaged with denial, prepared to wait and torment himself, as he had tormented her, by delaying the experience. Either way, she hoped he would be sorry. Or at least inspired to stop dilly-dallying.

The night before Severus returned he sent an owl, and she went into a frenzy of preparation. When everything she could think of had been done she burst into tears from sheer tension. Then she washed her face and thought over all the decisions she had made before she sent the kiss. She did sleep eventually.

Hermione left St Mungo's early rather than late, for once, and did a little shopping on the way home, to give herself something to do, preparing dinner for two, though his owl had mentioned going out for dinner. He hadn't said when he would arrive.

At last the knock on the door came. She hadn't meant to rush to answer it, but she looked at her hands in dismay – they were redolent of a mixture of salmon, red onion, hot chillies and coriander – and laughed at herself before she hastily put the half-prepared food in her cold box. Perhaps she couldn't plan ahead any better than she handled surprises. When she opened the door her hands were clean, if tingling from Scourgify, and the smile lingered.

Severus might have been wondering why she was delaying, but sharing his doubts wasn't something he did. He smiled at her, a real smile, however slight, rather than a smirk, and held out one hand in formal greeting. She took it and quickly kissed his fingertips – that did surprise him – and drew him in to her living room, shutting the front door behind them.

The sun of Italy had brought a little colour to his face. More might suit him.

She tightened her hold on his hands.

The first thing he said was, "I should return that kiss."

Her inner optimist crowed, but she didn't speak, simply moved to press against him, looking up into his face. Then he bent his face to hers, and set his lips on hers, too lightly. But oh, at last, at last!

She freed her hands and slid them up his body to wind her arms around his neck. He wasn't going to slip away this time. He couldn't be in doubt about her feelings; he had spent too long manipulating them.

He embraced her with reassuring alacrity and thoroughness, and kissed her. His nose pressed into her cheek, his lips moulded against hers, and she closed her eyes to concentrate on touch and the warm musky smell of his skin, while her hands flexed on his shoulders. His mouth moved over hers, lips still closed, but soft, so much more tender than she had expected. He didn't look or behave like a man who would kiss tenderly, but he did, and she let herself luxuriate, fizzy with the rush of joy as much as with the warm electricity coursing through her from the touch of his mouth, his hands, his body.

She tightened her hold and opened her lips, flickering her tongue along the seam of his, demanding entry, in case he should think she was in doubt of what she wanted. No more waiting for him to signal an advance.

Soon enough she wasn't thinking any more about his reactions, or his intentions, or her own, but immersed in feeling. He was warm, and close, and touching her; it was almost enough.

His tongue came out to meet hers and explored her mouth, as she tried to get more of the taste of him, the rough feel of his tongue, the new fullness of his lips. She nibbled at his lower lip, very gently, relishing his yielding, the way he held still for her for that long moment, until she had to lick any tenderness away from it, and slide her tongue into his mouth again.

At last their mouths parted, but only so that his tongue and lips could move over her face, along her jaw, down her neck, until he was licking open-mouthed at the hollow of it. Then his teeth closed lightly on her collarbone, just once, and she gasped, as her eyelids clenched tight. She moved one hand to stroke over his face, fingertips exploring the textures: the slightly sandpapery skin of his jaw, the smoothness of his cheeks, the finer skin of his temples, with the pulse pounding as her fingers slid past and into his hair, to grip again.

Her head had fallen back and one of his hands came up to support it; his fingers twined hard in her curls, and held her skull, positioning her for the perfect assaults of his mouth on her throat. It was a good thing his other arm was wrapped around her; she might otherwise have melted against him and slid to the floor.

At last his mouth returned to hers, devouring it, as she brought both hands up to hold him there, glad that his hair was long and she could wind her fingers in it. She moved to her tiptoes, trying to get as close a fit as possible, from mouth to knees. His hands began to move again, all over her, stroking down her spine, clenching in her buttocks, pulling her up against him so that she felt his growing readiness even firmer against her belly. Exhilarated, she rubbed against him, her own hands slipping down to grip his hard arse, keeping the contact between their bodies as full as she could.

It occurred to her that he was too damned tall.

He pushed a knee against her thighs, and she parted them for him, so he thrust between; she clamped around it while keeping herself upright as best she could. She wanted to be more closely wound with him.

He moved her back to press her against the wall, which made her feel more secure. He used his body to hold her there, freeing his hands to pull her blouse open and fasten on her breasts. After a moment his fingers fumbled at the straps and cups of her bra, then his hands slipped around her body, inside her blouse, pushing it away from her body, then dragging it off completely. He nipped open the bra clasp and tore it away, and his hands found her breasts at last. She gasped at the feel of rough fingertips, and surprisingly smooth palms, and pressed into his hands to intensify the sensations, putting her weight on both feet. He cupped both breasts.

His palms rubbed against her nipples until they hardened further, while his fingers pressed into the soft flesh, kneading. Then he grasped one nipple, twisting it lightly but persistently between forefinger and thumb. Lightning flew from that to her belly and to the wet hollow between her legs, tightening her muscles and heating her core, making her feel as if she gaped for him, needed to grasp him. Her fingers clenched in his arse like claws and his hips bucked against her, before they pinned her even more firmly.

His thigh pressed between hers again and he began to rub it at her apex, providing a new contact and a greater heat to concentrate her attention sharply there. And all the while his mouth and hers worked together, so that from head to arching feet she was held without more effort from either, between his warmth and hardness and the indifferent wall, rising and falling against him, overwhelmed with pleasure.

One hand left her breast, but the disappointment faded when it slid down so that it cupped her leg just above the knee, drawing it up. She took the hint, not needing to wait for him to complete the move, lifting her leg to grip his body, even her heel digging into his thigh muscles, rubbing up and down slowly, her foot instinctively arched. His hips rocked, pushing his erection against her belly.

It wasn't enough, not any more. She wanted to be wrapped around him, to have him inside her, for their bodies to stroke together as they were meant to.

She twisted her head sideways and gasped, "Bed."

"Here," he answered thickly, taking her mouth again, significantly harder, nipping at her lips and her tongue tip.

She made a frustrated noise, and his mouth gentled. One of his hands moved, she didn't know what for, until her clothes vanished with a whisper of magic. She could feel his skin against her, as she had longed to, instead of the fine wool of his summer-weight robes, and the heat and hardness of his penis against her stomach, its skin like silk. She heard the faint clatter of his wand hitting the floor, but only later realised what the sound meant.

"Here," he repeated, and his hands grasped her hips, lifting.

She wrapped her legs about him, and tightened fiercely, but he lifted her further.

"Guide me in," he demanded.

She grasped him firmly, rubbing her thumb along his shaft, spreading the wetness gathered at the tip, and pressed the head to her wet opening, centring it, trying to slide down, to bring him in.

"Gently! Take it slow, don't rush."

Her breath came in a harsh sob. She was impatient of restraint at this moment, but his hands held her back, lowering her by fractions instead of leaving her free to impale herself on him. Once she felt the blunt thickness of him pressing into her, the rash desire to have him inside at once gave way to a need to feel the slow slide of his entry, to relish it, to feel it all, instead of having the moment rush blindly over her and never truly know this first time as she wanted, needed.

"Yes," he hissed, as her fingers urged him up and in, and her hips canted to match against his.

There was a moment of fierce pressure, and he sensed it, holding her there: not letting her retreat from it, but not pulling her down into it, either. Then, as the pressure eased and she released her hard-held breath, the hot glide resumed. She moaned softly as he sheathed himself completely in her. She was impossibly full; it was wonderful, and terrifying, and she had no intention of letting go.

He held still, then, and made her do the same, until she twitched her inner muscles in renewed eagerness. His gasp pleased her, so she did it again, more strongly, more consciously clasping and releasing.

"Yes, Hermione!"

His hands took a hard hold on her hips, fingers digging into the softness, and he lifted her, and brought her down again. The fullness, its movement, was almost painful, but she waited through several such strokes, breathing through her mouth, until she felt able to clamp down on him again to encourage him to speed up.

Then he pressed her hard against the wall and held her there, and thrust into her, over and over, until he was pounding into her. His flesh slapped against hers, his harsh breath matched hers, and her hands holding her to him were as much claws as his on her. She felt the wall at each thrust, and didn't care. Her whole body tightened around him, and the white heat drove into her white heat until she was a brand, a torch, burning recklessly, flames shooting into the air, the fire too strong for mere flesh to contain. At last she exploded into release, for all she could do to keep hold of the fire, and joy and pleasure fountained around her.

There was a long moment of velvet blackness, then she came back to feel his last hard thrusts, glad to hear his voiceless grunts of effort, while she continued to flex around him, and then, as he stilled and shuddered within her, she felt rather than heard the sigh of completion, of pleasure finally accepted and yielded to.

She moved her hands so that she was clinging to him, and shifted her legs to grip him more securely.

He breathed her name, and she answered with his, and there was another long, quiet moment, while her breathing eased and her body cooled and her taut muscles relaxed.

Then he said prosaically, "If I try to carry you to your bed I'll drop you."

She rubbed her cheek against his, feeling its heat and the beads of sweat on his skin, before replying, "I think I can walk that far."

His hold on her loosened and he lifted his body away from hers, letting her slide down the wall, while she untangled her legs and lowered them, to stand quivering for a long moment before her leg muscles consented to work.

He put his arm around her shoulders, she put hers around his waist, and slowly they walked into the bedroom.

His wand was by the front door, hers in the kitchen, so she pulled back the duvet and the top sheet by hand and tumbled in, reaching back to make sure he followed her.

He stretched out in her bed like a cat, his long body becoming even longer, before he turned on his side and pulled her into his arms, burrowing his face into her wild hair. He inhaled deeply and sighed in satisfaction. She shifted her head and kissed his shoulder, then closed her eyes, relaxing completely. Men were supposed to go to sleep after they had sex; when she woke up she would ask him if he did. With a long sigh she slipped away deep, feeling his mouth on her temple as no more than a warm breath of air.

When she roused she became aware of sticky thighs and dried sweat and muscles stiff from unfamiliar movement, as well as hair tangled around her face, but it didn't matter. She could shower later; she was comfortable in a different way now, and quite content to lie with one arm over his waist, within the lax cage of his arms.

She was asleep again before he woke, and in the morning he awoke before she did, but he lay still, holding her to him, so that she roused to find her face tucked into his shoulder and one of his legs draped possessively over hers. His penis was settled between her thighs, quite ready for her, it seemed, and she breathed out a little snort of laughter.

"Hmmm?"

Not a morning person, she remembered; but maybe sex was different.

She felt a little sore, so she reached for that confident intruder and wrapped one hand about it, in so far as she could, before sliding her hand gently up his length, from its base to where the tip was lodged.

A contented murmur and a slight movement that allowed her to move her hand again, running it over the tip, confirmed that she had liberty to explore what she had not even seen properly yet. So she did. It was satisfying to hear his breath speeding up, though he kept still, and let her play almost as long as she wanted. At last, though, he put his hand over hers, and showed her what he liked; she paid the lesson all the attention it was due.

When she was lying between his open legs, her head pillowed on his chest, feeling his breathing steadying again, and his hands moving idly in her hair, she thought that after a cup of coffee he might be able to learn something she would like him to know. Though he might already have useful and interesting ideas.

She sighed softly and moved up and away from him.

He put out a hand to stop her, but when she asked softly, "Coffee?" he sighed and released her, though his hand slipped between her thighs and stroked in a friendly manner that boded well. She took that as assent.

Much later, they had Thai fish cakes with mango salsa for breakfast. As she rose to clear the table he pulled her onto his knee to exchange sticky sweet chilli-flavoured kisses. When at last she waved the dishes to the sink, Hermione remembered St Mungo's. She could only be thankful that it was Saturday, but she didn't care much. At all, if she had to be honest.

He had probably thought of her ward and class schedules when he arranged the day of his return. She was ready to wager he hadn't made a reservation for dinner last night, either.

She was going to have to pay much closer attention to his plots, large and small. It would be entertaining to see if she could learn to do that. He so much enjoyed her surprise, though, that she decided she would keep score silently. If she was very clever and careful, it might be a while before he noticed she was doing so.

But first, to follow up on those kisses, perhaps in the shower.

Much later again, now that they had come to an unspoken agreement, Hermione began negotiations on its terms. She decided to say what she wanted, instead of waiting for him to ask. Judging by the last two years, if she left it to him she would have been an accredited Healer for another two before they were doing more than having sex in her living room beside the front door. She had several more years of her apprenticeship; she had no desire to spend them alone.

She was fairly sure that he didn't either; everything else, they could work out. Perhaps in bed, if she ever learned not to find his mouth and hands so distracting. No, that was not something to be wished for. She would just have to set a charm to remind her of when it was time to go in to St Mungo's.