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Hermione ended that day in bed with Erika. Not in the way you might be expecting, and not in the way I have been hoping. But it was the right way, for the moment, and that was all there was to it.

Hermione, Severus, and Erika returned from St. Mungo's with Oliver in tow. It was very late at night at this point, and they returned via the floo to Hermione's sitting room. Severus was deeply withdrawn into himself, barely saying a word to anyone, collapsing into the sofa and tucking his head down and gazing in front of him through the greasy strands of his hair.

Erika seemed unable to decide what to say, and instead kept asking each person in the group if they were all right, to the point where it was nearly annoying. She looked a bit on edge, and disinclined to relax.

Oliver seemed excessively weary, and Hermione began to realize how old he seemed. There was a stiffness to his walk that she couldn't remember, and a slowness of his processing speed that belied some additional damage to his own brain from the severe and long-lasting memory charms.

"I hope she'll be all right there, alone," Oliver said, looking sad. He dabbed his eyes on his shirt-sleeve for the fifth time and Severus, with some annoyance, drew a handkerchief out of his sleeve and nearly threw it at the older man. Erika intercepted it and gently offered it to Oliver. Then, as he accepted it tearfully, he caught Hermione's eye. And the poorly-affected strength he'd adopted crumbled completely in an instant, and soon he was grasping Hermione tightly, sobbing on her shoulder as she rubbed his back.

She'd never had to comfort her father before. He was truly crying like a little child. What had happened to them? Hermione could scarcely guess.

The weight of guilt had been settling upon her even more and more heavily throughout the evening as the troupe had gone to St. Mungo's and checked Rachel into the Ward for Unfortunate Muggles. She'd been given calming potions and sedated, though that didn't stop her suspicious scowl towards Hermione whenever Hermione entered the room.

Indeed, Hermione was deeply afraid that her mother was irrevocably changed. How could her mother reject her so forcefully, and so mindlessly? It was so irrational. And all the things she'd said - trust me, dear readers, you don't want to have read everything the woman said to Hermione, nor do I wish to write them - they stuck in a place deep inside Hermione's heart.

Now, instead of thinking of her parents as benevolently meddlesome and pushy, but enthusiastically supportive of her success... now she was having to sort out the idea that her parents were perhaps not as good of people as she thought they were. Or, at least, this was true of her mother. Her father, poor soul... she had no idea what to think of what was happening to him.

No, Hermione was now thinking about Neville, and his parents, and their mental states. They were affected by memory spells - deeply malevolent ones, among other tortures - and now were permanently in St. Mungo's due to their inability to care for themselves. She didn't think the same fate would come to her parents... but what if it did?

Hermione had things to talk about with Neville, that was for sure.

So Hermione was hugging her father, and with every sob her own heart broke over and over again. The reason he was like this was because of *her* and the fact that she'd tried to do too much with too few skills and resources.

Yes, Hermione reasoned with herself, that was probably why she hadn't fetched her parents from Australia a lot sooner. She must have had an inkling that once she did, she'd have to face the facts that she'd taken on too much, and made costly errors as a result.

Errors that might have, in fact, cost her at least one of her parents.

.........

Soon, Oliver fell asleep on the couch. He clearly didn't want to be left alone, and Hermione transformed said couch slightly wider and had the house elves bring fresh linens for him, so it was quite comfortable. She asked Minty to keep an eye on him during the night, lest he need her kindness. Minty agreed that she might be of service to him, and that was that.

She quietly retreated to the bedroom with Erika and Severus once Oliver had closed his eyes.

"Are we going to say anything to your father?" hissed Severus as he quietly closed the door.

Hermione just numbly shook her head. She felt such despair over the situation - why did it have to be this way? And why did it have to be *her* fault?

Hermione was no stranger to feeling guilt, but this experience was simply the worst she had ever endured.

Severus seemed to see her blank response, and he rolled his lips more tightly and looked pleadingly at Erika, seeking a cue.

"You don't seem all right," Erika said, finally confident enough to decide that Hermione needed her own emotions to be translated to her. "Lay down."

Not needing to be told twice, Hermione lay on the bed, and closed her eyes. She felt like she needed to sleep for at least twelve hours.

"Do you mind if I lay next to you?" Erika asked, and Hermione just made a noise in the negative, keeping her eyes closed.

She felt the brush of satin as the other woman got in the bed with her, and soon she felt a tentative warm hand approaching hers.

"Do you mind if I hold your hand?" Erika asked, and Hermione indicated this would be all right. Soon one of Erika's hot, soft hands were wrapped around her own, and she felt Erika's other hand floating over her shoulder.

"Would you like a hug?" Erika asked, and Hermione just nodded yes.

Then Erika wrapped herself around Hermione. The other girl was deceptively soft and squishy in ways that Hermione relished; while she really was more pudgy than fat, Erika was a pleasure to be embraced by.

The warm and coconut scent of Erika made Hermione want to relax into her own sobbing.

"Do you mind if I tell you something?" Hermione asked, and Erika grunted in the affirmative.

"Even if it's really bad?"

Again, Erika affirmed in the positive.

Hermione began to cry at this, and she began to choke as she tried to suppress her own sobs.

She noticed vaguely that the bed creaked near her foot, and she felt Severus ease himself down at the end of the bed and stretch out. She couldn't get a read on him right now, and she didn't care.

"What is it?" Erika prompted, and Hermione buried her face in Erika's shoulder.

"I'm feeling so deeply guilty about this," Hermione confessed. "My parents... they've changed. And as we know, on a biological level. They literally aren't the same anymore, because of me. And I think I just... left them there... even though I knew that I had overextended myself when I did all those memory modification charms and even though I knew I'd put them in great danger."

"Shh," Erika said, and Hermione felt Erika rocking slightly, back and forth. "It's called cognitive dissonance, or post-hoc rationalization, or whatever. And it's all right. If you were a computer then I'd be concerned, but this is a foible unique to human beings. I've done the same sort of thing a lot."

"But ever of this scope?" Hermione asked dramatically, feeling a fresh wave of tears emerge.

"...perhaps not," Erika said, wisely not trying to engage Hermione in some convoluted and irrelevant story, "but Severus has."

"Thanks, Erika," drawled Severus, and it became clear to Hermione that he was raptly attending to every word. She opened her eyes and looked down the bed, and she saw him laying across the bed, looking immensely casual as he propped up his head on his folded elbow. His belly jutted forward with a sense of careless pride, and at any other moment she'd want to eat him up - particularly given the intense way he was staring at her.

But at the moment, Hermione could no more think of sex than commit it, and she drew Erika in a tighter embrace. "I guess so," Hermione acknowledged, and she felt Severus readjust himself and touch her foot. Her foot was covered in blankets, but he grasped it firmly, and began to massage it through the quilt. It was quite comforting and cozy.

Hermione drew a few deep breaths. "But I don't know what to do now," she said, and as she voiced this fear, her sobs bubbled up again, and she began to cry outright. "My dad cried today. I've never seen him cry before. What do I do now? And my mother might never speak to me again because she's suffering delusions that I'm a monster. What can I do?"

"Nothing," Severus said, and pressed his lips against the top of Hermione's foot to kiss her. "And that's the tough bit. We have to wait for the evals to be done tomorrow by the specialist, and until then, we merely wait."

"But what if I *am* a monster?" Hermione asked, and she began to sob incoherently in Erika's shoulder.

Severus heaved himself up - Hermione felt the bed creak underneath him - and moved himself up to cuddle Hermione on the other side. "This talk I will not tolerate," he said firmly. "Hermione, not only are you the most intelligent and most hard-working witch of your generation, you've made an impact on the world incomparable to anyone else I've ever met. And your humility and good humor are still intact, which is more than I can say for lesser wizards."

He pronounced this last word with significant distaste, and Hermione could read between the lines that he meant Harry and Ron, but was holding himself back, for her.

She felt his breath against her neck, and his arm drape below the curve of her luscious tum, and she felt the way his soft, sumptuous body melded against her like a warm soft lump of clay against a mold.

She responded by holding Erika closer, and as she moved slightly away from him, he tightened his own grasp on her, following her across the few inches of the bed until he was just as firmly holding her.

Hermione didn't say several of the things that she was feeling that night - that she wasn't worth it, that she was a terrible person for doing what she had done to her parents and being so cavalier about it, that she was so burdened with guilt that she was physically pained - but somehow Severus and Erika persevered and clasped Hermione until she drifted off into an uncomfortable and unhappy sleep.

............