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FIC: How It Happened Doesn't Matter

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[SEVERUS - NOW] [OR: YULETIDE IN CASEMATES SQUARE]

 

How it happened doesn't matter.

Oh, it matters to those who study war and strategy, he supposes. Thankfully, the time for study of those things is over for Severus. Now that he is, wonder of wonders, healing from the war, he can leave such analysis to others. Merlin knows there's no shortage of biographers for all of them. Some of them even have a fighting chance of relaying something approximating the truth.

Not that he cares.

Life in Gibraltar has been good to him, he thinks. It's a completely different society here, well integrated with the Muggles through sheer necessity of sharing a small place. Gibraltar was thought to be the end of the world for millennia, with mystical views over what was thought to be Hades and turned out to be Morocco. (Severus has been to Tangier and is not absolutely convinced that it isn't the doorway to hell, but the rest of Northern Morocco is pleasant enough).

It doesn't matter that the ancients were wrong; their ancient magic lingers on. It is infused in the Rock and it drips from the stalagmites in St Michael's Cave. So there will always be magic in Gibraltar, Muggles or no Muggles, and if that means blending in, then so be it.

So he wears Muggle clothes and Muggle hair and he spends time in the sun, and he thinks it is the gentle Mediterranean sun that has healed him more than anything else. He has rewarding work (with apprentices, not children, thank Merlin), a sundrenched Muggle apartment, and even a moderately attractive witch to share his bed from time to time. It's taken five years, but he has achieved some measure of peace.

He takes care of his appearance now, and while he will never be handsome, he has learned to his surprise that he is interesting and striking. At his age, when his better-looking contemporaries are losing their edge, that is enough for him, and more than he ever expected. He is ageing downwards, in a way, from the gaunt and haunted figure of the war to his own time. That observation is only pertinent insofar as it reflects a deeper one, uttered by Dumbledore's portrait on a recent visit to Hogwarts. "Severus, my boy," he twinkled (Merlin's balls, how the hell do you still twinkle when you're dead?), "you've stopped waiting to die and started to live."

That same fact has enabled him to finally close the door on Lily Evans. The nature of life and time is to carry away the living from the dead, and now that he has started to live, the world has begun to right itself in response. Lily is still beloved in his mind, but distantly so, like a bittersweet teen romance. Which, if he is brutally frank about it, is exactly what it was, and if he had ever had the luxury of emotional growth during the war he might have realised it sooner. He even has his old Patronus back - a dragon - and he hasn't seen that since he was fourteen years old.

So how it happened doesn't matter - not really, not anymore. He could tell stories of Dumbledore's death hot on the heels of Sirius, of the war that went on for four more years after that, of the battle that nearly destroyed Hogwarts along with half of magical Britain on the Yule. Indeed, Rita Skeeter has offered him a handsome sum to tell her his stories (and boy, if he did, would she get more than she ever bargained for), but he never will.

Because it just doesn't matter.

The only thing that matters anymore out of the war is Haitch, and Haitch is not a story for anything but his heart. She is his only remaining wound. But it's a wound he's lived peaceably with for a long time, and it isn't likely to become acute.

("Haitch?" her voice rises up in his mind, rich and amused. "I never figured you for a Haitch in the Aitch-Haitch wars, Severus. I might have to reconsider bearing your child."

"I'll have you know, my ancestry traces back to twelfth century The Pale," he'd said loftily, swirling her in his arms. "Hiberno-English is my heritage, and our child's, too. So you had just better get used to it. Haitch." And then he'd led her laughing around the room, another man's fiancee, and the next day he let them both go.)

That child is four, now, and the mother has grown from a fearless girl with a determined woman's eyes to a polished witch of twenty-four. He sees them less often than he would like, but they are walking a tightrope, all of them, him and her and her husband too. Managing a delicate equilibrium that allows them all peace and sanity in the aftermath of the war. And he can't afford to be drawn into the maelstrom any more than she.

So he spends the Yule in Casemates Square, enjoying the mild winter sun, drinking innumerable cups of coffee and smoking. (Filthy habit, but it passes the time on days like today). Yule is a time for gifts, but not for visits. They agreed that after their one and only disastrous Christmas, exactly a year after the war.

A Barbary Partridge taps gently at his ankle. Owls have a cooperative relationship with the local birds, and he has come to expect deliveries from both. The partridges specialise in discreet public deliveries. Idly, he leans down with a few crumbs from his plate and throws the crumbs for the bird, palming the letter on his way back up.

It is from them. Both of them.

As the words form into meaning beneath his gaze, his brow puckers. He lets out a low whistle.

Without a second thought, he rises. Puts over three hundred colourful Gibraltar pounds on the table, everything he has, careful to keep back his galleons. Strides purposefully out of the Square, up through Irish Town. Slips into Parliament Lane. It is deserted, as he knew it would be. He stands there, beneath the streaming sun, flickering red and green through the flags of the little Mexican restaurant at the end. This is his home, his sanctuary, his healing, and he loves it with all of his soul.

Without hesitation, he Disapparates, leaving it all behind.

There is something he loves more.

 

[SEVERUS - THEN] [OR: THE BATTLE OF YULE]

 

How it happened doesn't matter.

What does matter is they wound up captured that horrible Yule night, him and Haitch and Remus and Weasley and Nymphadora. One minute they were fighting at the perimeter, exhausted and filthy, while Harry and Voldemort had their final deadly showdown in the grounds; the next, they were lying in the snow, bound by invisible ropes as Lucius and Bellatrix looked on.

It was playtime for those two; the resistance was losing, and virtually everyone on the Order's side was incapacitated or dead. So Lucius and Bella had amused themselves with random acts of torture around the grounds, and now it was their turn.

Their dark counterparts were whispering, clearly debating what they should do and to whom. The air was punctuated by insane giggles from Bella, and sultry mutterings by Lucius as they canoodled like a pair of demented sprites. Lucius had emerged from Azkaban every bit as mad as his sister-in-law, and now the two were a cackling, manic pair on a continual rampage. The man was drunk on magic, drunk on the sensual appeal of whatever ghastly deeds he'd already performed that night, all of it foreplay while obnoxious yet blameless Narcissa braved the castle to rescue Draco alone.

It was Haitch who spoke first, but that wasn't her name back then. She'd been Granger at school, a primly correct Miss Granger for a year after that, and then graduated to a respectful Hermione as she grew older and the war grew darker. He can count the changes in their relationship by the changes in her name.

"What do you think, Tonks?" she said in a low voice, her head turned away from him, beside her, to Nymphadora on her other side. "You, or me?"

Nymphadora turned her head, and said with slow reluctance, "You. It'll be you. A Mudblood trumps a blood traitor, every time."

"That's what I thought." Hermione lapsed into silence.

Weasley, poor innocent clueless Weasley spoke. "What?" he said, looking from Tonks to Hermione and back again. "What are they on about?"

He and Remus shared an agonised glance over the women's heads. The two had reached a gentlemen's accord some time ago, but even without it, each would have known the other's thoughts. It was, after all, a second war for both. You didn't need to be a Legilimens to figure it out.

As for the women, well, they were women. They knew what happens to women captured in war. It was innate knowledge, carried in their blood and their bones, part of the same paradoxical vulnerability/strength as moonblood and childbearing and their own uniquely feminine strand of magic that men could never know.

Hermione ignored Weasley. "Who will it be?"

"Not Lucius," Nymphadora said matter-of-factly. "He's too old to be sure of going more than once. He'll save it for Bellatrix."

He and Remus shot each other another glance, and again found a kindred expression, this time a slight grimace. They were close enough in age to Lucius to know firsthand that Nymphadora was right, and their minds were tripping ahead.

It was at this point that Weasley caught up with the conversation. His eyes grew wide. "What?" he said wildly. "No! Hermione!"

Hermione said kindly, "Do shut up, Ron. You can get angst-ridden later. We have a situation to deal with." If Severus had held her in esteem before, it increased tenfold now. She went on, "They'll make one of the men do it, won't they? Either by Imperius or on pain of killing the others."

Nymphadora nodded. "It won't be Ron. He's your age, and you dated in school."

Hermione nodded too. "No," she agreed. "Not interesting enough. Not humiliating. That leaves Remus and Severus."

He spoke for the first time. "And I'm the traitor in their ranks. I can almost guarantee it will be me." He added ironically, "You poor girl. You're not a virgin, are you?"

She turned her head away from Nymphadora, towards him, addressing him for the first time. "I'm afraid I've been too busy fighting a war to get laid, Severus. Sorry."

"You've at least done enough to -" he broke off.

"Break my maidenhead?" she said primly, but with a dark, slightly wild undertone of mirthless humour. "That won't be an issue. I took care of that problem in anticipation of this one."

Weasley, behind Remus, was all but hyperventilating, an overgrown boy among adults in a grimly adult situation. He felt impatience, but tempered it as best he could. "You'd best get used to the idea, Mr Weasley. You won't do any of us any good if you can't. Avert your eyes if you must, but remain alert for any signal we might be able to give." His gaze never left Hermione's in the dark.

Hermione's eyes were fixed on his, too. "We do what we have to do to get out alive, agreed? No recriminations later."

"No recriminations," he agreed. "I won't hurt you."

"I know you won't. I trust you."

He was relieved. He knew that modern young women didn't necessarily view their virginity with great sentimentality. Nonetheless, she was nineteen, he was forty, and he was a partner not of her choosing. He could be as gentle with her as he liked and it would still be less than ideal at best, if not traumatic at worst.

At least, if there was trust between them, and if she was really as mentally prepared as she appeared, the harm might be kept to a minimum. On both sides, because he believed that his own ability to come out of it unscathed, hinged very much on whether he could come out of it without harming her.

And if there was trust between them, there could also be honour, and their own peculiar brand of consent. And it was Yule. All of that opened up new possibilities for their survival. He wondered if she was aware of them. It was esoteric knowledge held by the Aurors and the historians, but if anyone else would know, it would be Hermione.

Weasley burst out, "How can you just calmly talk about this?"

Hermione didn't look at him. Kept her eyes firmly fixed on Severus. "We knew this could happen, Ron. Me and Tonks and Ginny and your mum and all of us. Rape has always been used against women in war. We all make our own peace with it in our own ways. This is mine. I accept what is going to happen and I choose not to be ruled by it. I suggest you do the same."

Weasley lapsed back into schoolboy mode. He spat, "If you hurt her, you greasy git-"

Severus quelled a sound of irritation. It wasn't really Weasley's fault he was in the situation unprepared - among them, he was the only one who never factored it in as a possibility. The rest of them had had months or years to make their peace with it.

Remus said gently, "You're not helping, Ron. However the women choose to handle this, I for one will go along with it. No recriminations," he added with a nod to Hermione and Severus, and Severus nodded back.

"But-"

"Stop being a child," Hermione said coldly. "Remus is right, you're not helping. We need to prepare, so shut the hell up. If we make it out alive, feel free to have as big a meltdown as you like."

Severus shot her a piercing look, and she stared back, her eyes dark and inscrutable. Gave a slight nod. So she did know. Of course she did.

"Prepare?" Weasley burst out in outrage.

If there was a pause before any of them answered, Weasley didn't seem to notice. "Mental discipline," Severus said at last, an answer that was both nonsense and the truth. "Stilling the mind and...keeping things in balance."

"You've got to be fucking shitting me."

A note of tiredness entered Hermione's voice. "Ron, please."

This apparently moved him in a way that all the logic in the world could not, and he fell silent, looking away from them with a huffing sound and staring up at the sky. Weasley had opted out, at least for the moment, and that was probably for the best. Lucius was close enough that Severus could read his thoughts, and while he and Bella had not finalised their plan, it was indeed to be he and Hermione, that much was clear. Reassured that their chosen course was the right one, he turned his attention to stilling his mind.

It wasn't just stilling of the mind. They all knew it, except Weasley, which was why Nymphadora and Remus had fallen silent too. They were preparing for their own role in this, as witnesses with their own part to play.

It was ancient magic, a natural magic of earth and moon that required no wand. Fertility magic, actually, with its roots in Druid religion. The ritual mating at a fertile time between powerful people who held each other in trust and regard. It had the power to orient the natural powers of the earth towards harmony and light. It could restore balance where it was required. And where was balance required more, than a world about to fall to the Dark Lord?

Of course, the middle of the English winter was far from fertile. But it was also the Yule, the Winter solstice - renewal of the sun - and the bringing to birth of the great Muggle Jesus of Nazareth. It was a time closely tied to fertility in ways other than the harvest. He thought - thought - that would be enough.

All of these things crossed his mind in an instant as he studied her. It was important, for the magic to work, for the things they honoured in each other to be at the forefront of their minds. He supposed that she could summon something on her side; they had been amiable and trusting partners in the war effort for two years now. For Hermione, intellectual respect and loyalty were powerful things. He thought that would be sufficient.

For his part, those things were in his mind, but there were other things, too. Her clinical assessment of their situation, her fearless acceptance of what was to come, her command to all of them that there be no recriminations later. Her ability to turn her powerlessness into power, to turn the prospect of rape upside down by her will and shape it into something that might save them all. She was an extraordinary witch; moreover, she was an extraordinary woman, wisened by war and by her own inimitable mind and heart. He had no difficulty summoning things to honour in Hermione. There was enough that he could meet her as an equal, not an inexperienced girl, and from what he knew of the ritual, that much was crucial.

Presently, her intent expression cleared. "Let's begin."

He nodded. Leaned over towards her, as close as he could get. "Man."

"Woman," she murmured, her voice like a caress.

"Sun to earth," said Remus.

"Across the plains," said Nymphadora.

"Matter," said Severus.

"Spirit," Hermione countered.

"Magnetic attraction." Remus.

"Polar balance." Nymphadora.

"Movement." Himself, his breath mingling with hers.

"Rest." That from Hermione, still holding his gaze.

"Fire." Remus.

"Water." Nymphadora.

"Divine alignment," Severus murmured against her skin.

"Restoration of harmony," she whispered, and she kissed him.

Somewhere far away, he could hear singing as she claimed him. Christmas carols, sung forlornly by dying children in need of comfort. Flashes and cracks and pops of scattered spells as the resistance made its last stand. His mouth fell open and he gave in to her warmth.

"I honour you," he whispered against her lips.

"I trust you," she whispered back.

A mad cackle from Lucius. "They've started without us, Bella! And you thought we'd need the Imperius. I always knew he was a dirty little sod. Seducing a student, Severus, really," he mocked, "and one who's about to be murdered, at that. Did you think you'd die without becoming a woman, dear?" Suddenly their bonds were free. "Mind you give us a nice show, now, or I'll most likely kill all your friends."

It took all the discipline that he had, but he tuned them out. Kept all his focus on Hermione and the way her hair was splayed out in the snow and those impossibly deep eyes. On her mind and her heart and how she was beautiful and strong and wilful and proud and she was kissing him and her hands were in his hair and Merlin help him, he wanted her.

Bellatrix. "Come on, sweetie, give us a show. Show us how much you love a wizard's...wand." A movement as she elbowed Lucius and giggled insanely and fell into his grasping arms. Irrelevant. Just noise.

Hermione was shifting, from her side to her back, tugging him with her so that he covered her. "Fire and water and I trust you, Severus..."

Nymphadora murmured beside them, "Matter and spirit and movement and rest..."

He cradled her face between his palms as her hips moved beneath him. Breathed, "Harmony and man and woman and you're wise and beautiful and proud and I want you."

Lucius kicking his side. She held his face so that their eyes stayed trained on each other. "Stop wasting time kissing her, Snape, what are you, a fucking girl?"

Hermione stared down between them, reaching for him, her forehead against his. "Attraction and balance and you're strong and proud and loyal, Severus, please touch me."

His hand under her skirt, pressing up her thigh, pulling fabric aside. She was shivering and cold, too long lying in the snow, but then he found warmth and a different kind of damp. She arched her back and flexed her nails at his side. Whispered against his lips, "Sun to earth and across the plains and Severus, please, I want you to."

He did.

They came quickly - not so much a climax as an anticlimax, if it had been an encounter where that mattered - but as they rose and fell together, each other's names on their lips, the wind rose up around them and they felt it, felt the ancient power of the earth flow through them from one to the other and back again in a circuit. Suddenly they were in each other's veins, blood calling to blood, and they spoke without words, honouring each other and releasing each other and rising powerfully in a single shared accord.

Lucius and Bellatrix were too busy cackling and canoodling to realise what had happened until they loomed up over them, casting a single shadow with interlinked hands.

There were no wands, no words, just crazy, reckless power thrust out at the enemy before them. Lucius and Bellatrix were thrown backwards, their wands flying through the air into their waiting hands. Lucius was quite dead; Bellatrix only winded. The difference in intent between the two of them, he thought; Hermione's first instinct was not to kill.

"Finite Incantatem," Hermione said absently, waving Bella's wand vaguely over her shoulder to free the others. Severus heard rustling and crunching snow as they pulled themselves to their feet a little distance behind them, but kept his eyes trained on the homicidal woman before them.

Bellatrix gave a roar of outrage, pulling herself to her feet. Spied her lover dead beside her. "You filthy little Mudblood!" she screamed, her voice shocked and murderously aggrieved. Then, to the sky, she cried, "Dementors! Seize them!"

"Expecto patronum!" they cried out together, and turned away. Ran towards the others, slipping and sliding on the snow as the light of two powerful Patronuses flashed in their peripheral vision. Weasley and Remus and Nymphadora were rooted to the spot as they approached.

"Come on," Hermione yelled, stretching out her own hand and his (he hadn't even realised she was still holding it). Nymphadora came to herself first and slammed her hand on top so hard that it hurt, Remus and Weasley quickly following.

Severus felt the telltale pressure throughout his body, and then they Disapparated.


They arrived in the middle of the battle.

It was like a Muggle horror movie, starring the dead bodies of children he had taught and cared for. He could see Sybill Trelawney's body crumpled and thrown to one side like a doll, sheltered over her equally dead apprentice, Lavender Brown. Those who were not dead were exhausted and injured, barely able to defend themselves and well past attack.

Few of the casualties were the Dark Lord's.

They ran towards movement and light. Harry and Voldemort were trading insults, blocking each other as equals with no sign of progress on either side. They both looked tired; they had been fighting for at least as long as he and Hermione had been captured on the perimeter. At this rate they would simply fight until they dropped, and then Harry would be killed by one of the Dark Lord's acolytes.

There was a crack behind him. Someone Apparating.

Bellatrix.

"Severus!" Hermione screamed, pushing him away with one arm, sending a curse flying wordlessly with the other. It struck Bella clean on the breast and the cursed woman simply keeled over and died.

"Blimey," Weasley whispered - the first thing he'd said since the ritual. He stared at Hermione with undisguised fear.

Severus felt intimidated himself. His own power was not inconsiderable, but hers was amplified by her womanhood, her fertility. If she had been a witch to be reckoned with before, she was now unstoppable.

Unstoppable, his mind repeated, and he realised from the look on her face that Hermione had heard, using that low-grade telepathy they had shared after what they did.

She thrust out her arms, and suddenly the whole courtyard, the whole school was bathed in light. The dead were beyond help, but the living rose, wounds healing, wands drawn.

Harry's movements became faster, more reflexive. And he began to win.

He now considers it a matter of interest that the power left both he and Hermione at that moment. He believes that the power had done what it was called to do - the restoration of balance and light - and balance would not be served by any of them possessing great power in the long term.

For whatever reason, the power did leave them, but it was there for long enough. Harry won. They won. There were no further losses on the Order's side. At the end of it, Voldemort was no more than a pitiful ragdoll, felled by his own rebounding magic, crumpled on the ground like trash at their feet. And when he was felled, when the last lights of his Dark magic faded away, she simply turned to him and put her arms around him, and they marked each other with soot and tears and with blood calling to blood.

They stood there for a long time under the breaking dawn. They weren't the only ones, but gradually, the numbers dwindled as the sun rose.

Eventually, they were disturbed by footsteps. Remus.

"I know it's been...intense," he said without preamble, "but I think you should talk to Ron, Hermione. He still doesn't really understand what happened out there. He cares about your welfare and he's under the mistaken impression that you're in need of protection," he added with a ghost of a smile.

Hermione broke free of Severus. Her eyes were suddenly averted. The fragile web of old magic was starting to lose its hold in the light of day. Suddenly she was awkward. No longer the formidable war-witch, but a young woman who had been intimate in front of others when she would not have chosen it, who had let a man into her soul who would not otherwise have been allowed.

She nodded. "Of course. I'll talk to him." Hugged herself protectively.

Remus directed his next words to Severus. "I don't think he should see you until that's been worked out. Why don't you come back to Grimmauld Place with Dora and I? I don't know about you, but I could use a stiff drink."

Severus nodded. "Of course," he echoed. He felt suddenly awkward and self-conscious too. He gave her a courteous nod. It felt stilted. "Hermione."

Hermione backed away, her shoulders hunched. "I'll see you at Grimmauld Place, then."

He nodded, but before he could reply in kind, she had turned and clattered away.

 

[SEVERUS - THEN - CONTINUED] [OR: FIREWHISKY AND BANTER]

 

"Have you thought about what you'll do?" Remus wondered.

"Do?" Severus echoed. Steam rose up from his tea, laced with a liberal lashing of Firewhisky. He'd showered and swapped out his battle clothes for something that might have been washed in living memory, and he was beginning to feel like a human being again.

"You know. If - when - the ritual comes to fruition." Their gazes locked. Remus went on, "Pregnancy is likely enough for Dora, unless we abstain for the month, but it's all but certain for Hermione."

"I'm aware of that," Severus said slowly. "I'm sure Hermione is, too."

"And?"

"And," he went on heavily, "I imagine she has a plan in mind for when it happens. I would not dream of interfering in whatever course of action she saw fit to take."

Remus threw back his tea impatiently, giving a grimace as the heavily laced drink went down. "Stop being so bloody prim and proper, you old git. I know you wouldn't stop her from taking herbs. I'm asking what happens if she wants to keep it."

He looked up at Remus abruptly, his brows knit together in surprise. He said, "She's a modern woman with her whole life ahead of her. She doesn't need to be tied to a baby, nor to a middle aged man. I don't believe she would even consider keeping it. I can't imagine why she would."

Remus gave him a rather odd look. "Can't you?"

Severus frowned, but Remus abruptly changed the subject and would not be drawn on it any further.


Hermione arrived in the evening.

He'd already resigned himself to the thought that she would avoid him for a while, to get her thoughts together. He thought it possible he might not hear from her until the pregnancy was confirmed, and then only to politely inform him that she had taken care of it.

He reckoned without her courage.

For that reason, he was dozing on the couch when she arrived. He woke to her knelt beside him, close enough for him to feel her breath on his face.

"Hey," she said. Simple as that.

"Hey," he echoed stupidly. Sat up, a bit disoriented. She was still kneeling before him. "Uh, how are you?"

She shone him a smile. "I'm good. We're alive, the war's over - what's not to smile about, right?"

He held her gaze, but didn't answer, his mouth formed into a grim line.

Realisation flooded her features. "Don't you do that, Severus," she said with a tone of warning. "No recriminations, remember? We saved each other last night, and everyone else too. There isn't anyone here who thinks badly of you, so just stop whatever the hell you're doing to yourself in there."

He suppressed a grin. The awkward girl was gone without a trace, replaced by the fearless woman who knew her own mind and was more than happy to try to impose it on everyone else. "Yes, ma'am."

She cocked an eyebrow. "Ma'am? I don't know if I can handle this submissive Severus."

"Oh, I'm sure you could," he retorted, "but I wouldn't get used to it if I were you."

"No," she mused, "I'm sure it's just a waking-up aberration on your part. What in Merlin's name are you looking for?" she wondered as he turned to the coffee table beside him.

"Firewhisky. I need fuel if you're hell-bent on witty repartee."

Remus snorted and brought him the bottle. "There you go, old man." He said to Hermione, "Go easy on him, witch. He's starting from a two-bottle handicap."

Severus took a swig. Said with a wrinkle of irritation, "Watch who you're calling an old man."

A broad smirk flitted across Lupin's features. "Ah, yes, you have, after all, recently sampled the fountain of youth."

A deadly silence fell for at least five seconds before Severus sputtered. "You - you -"

Hermione was struggling valiantly against giggles. "You did leave yourself wide open for that one, Severus."

Severus had finally managed to get his words out. He snarled, "Lupin, you're an arse!" But then Hermione was collapsed in peals of laughter, her arms folded on his knees before her, her head buried there under masses of hair, and it was the most warming thing he'd ever seen. Against his will, he laughed too, leaning in with her.

Finally, she looked up. Face streaked with tears of laughter. Dishevelled and undone. Smiling face and shining eyes tilted up towards his. Shared heartbeat on a single breath.

Oh dear Merlin, he would not kiss her.

"Why?" she murmured, and that was when he realised the low-grade telepathy between them was still there. Fading, but not yet gone.

Because you're young and whole and I'm not and I...I have healing to do, he thought. Startled into total frankness.

"Don't look now, Severus, but you're being emotionally honest," she said softly.

"I usually am. Most people heartily dislike me for it."

"I'm not most people."

Remus cleared his throat. "Severus, Hermione, this mind-reading half-conversation is a little creepy to watch," he volunteered.

Severus said dryly, "Then by all means, don't, Lupin," but they pulled apart anyway, Hermione sitting back on her heels.

"I was rather more thinking that you shouldn't do it in front of anyone else."

Severus could almost hear the unspoken, Like Ron. He asked Hermione, "How is Mr Weasley?"

Hermione shrugged. "Better. He'll never say it to you, but he feels like a bit of a prat. He knows he came off like a jealous boyfriend."

"And he isn't?" Severus queried. Openly doubtful.

"Oh, no. Ron and I haven't dated since seventh year. He's pretty sweet on Susan Bones these days, actually. He was just - you know -"

"Protective," he supplied. "Quite so."

"It's more than that, I think," Hermione said. "He felt out of his depth. He hadn't anticipated what might happen like we had, and he didn't know about the old ways. He felt like a little kid surrounded by adults, and he didn't like it. He regressed. Like I said - he'll never say it to you. He'll just do something nice out of the blue and that will be your apology."

"And he told you this?" Severus said with a smirk.

"Of course not. I can read him like a book."

"Don't you think you can read me like a book, witch. Not even now."

She shone him a gorgeous, mischievous smile, wide and full. "Severus," she said, rising, "with you, that's half the fun."

"What's the other half?" he challenged as she moved away.

She paused at the doorway and looked at him, her eyes dark and unknowable. He caught a fragment, just a throwaway fragment of memory from her mind. You're strong and proud and loyal, Severus; please touch me.

He gave a shuddering breath as she left, and took another swig of Firewhisky. Became aware that Remus was still watching, with a pitying expression that he couldn't decipher.

"Are you still here?" he growled, but his heart wasn't in it.

"Just be careful, old man."

"I'm not going to pursue her, if that's what you're getting at. We're not all cradle-snatchers," he added with a smirk.

Remus clutched at his chest dramatically, as though wounded. "Oh, touché. But that's not what I'm worried about."

He said in exasperation, "Fuck, Remus, stop beating about the bush and spit it out."

Remus said cryptically, "Well, hasn't it occurred to you that you might as well be hanged for a dragon as an egg?"

Severus blinked. "For the life of me, I don't understand the application to the current situation."

Maddeningly, Remus just gave another of those pitying looks, threw up his hands, and poured himself another drink.


The war had been over for three weeks.

Grimmauld Place was still a war bunker, more or less, but plans were underway for its future. Harry and Ginny didn't want to live there; they already had a flat in a trendy part of Diagon Alley. Remus and Nymphadora had offered to rent it, ignoring all raised eyebrows ("It's an awfully big house for just the two of you, dear," as Molly had so inquisitively put it). Like Molly, and with the benefit of inside information, Severus suspected they were preparing for a new arrival.

So gradually, people were moving out.

Severus was still there; he wasn't sure where he was going to go, but he knew he would leave England before long. He knew instinctively that he needed to do so in order to heal. But he wouldn't leave until he knew the inevitable pregnancy had been dealt with. He did not consider himself in any way a decision-maker in this, but he wanted to be available in case Hermione chose to ask anything of him.

As people moved out, the number of visitors faded from a flood to a trickle. Where at first people needed to be together, they now needed to be apart, to pull away from the war-effort collective and rebuild their lives as individuals and families. Most of the time, now, it was only Remus, Nymphadora, and himself.

The Weasleys visited for dinner a couple of times, and Severus noted with amusement that Hermione's prediction came true. Ron was helping to rebuild Hogwarts, and he brought over a battered Slytherin crest that he had retrieved from the rubble. Severus accepted it in the spirit it was intended, and the two returned to their civil, if not particularly friendly wartime footing.

It was three weeks until the pregnancy came up, nearly a week more than she needed to know for sure. He was a little surprised she took so long, but then, women could be unaccountable sometimes. Especially about women's business.

Whatever the reason for the delay, Hermione finally showed up unannounced on the doorstep one night, bedraggled in the January rain. Nymphadora let her in and ushered her into the sitting room. Bustled into the kitchen, told Severus with a knowing look, and dragged Remus none-too-discreetly upstairs.

"You're soaking," he accused, kneeling before her and wrapping her in a rug. "Incendio," he added, and the hearth sprang to light behind him.

"A warming charm would be more efficient," she murmured.

"Merlin's balls, but you're a know-it-all, woman," he said without rancour. He muttered the charm under his breath, along with a couple of other choice words. "Better?"

"Much." Her tone was fond. "No cloak, Severus? Don't you feel occupationally naked?"

"Hell, no. I've been hiding wands and potions and body language under it for twenty years. I'm tempted to give it a ritual burning."

"Quite so." She fell silent.

The telepathy was gone, but he didn't need it. "You're pregnant," he said.

"I am," she agreed. She said gravely, "What would you say if I said I wanted to keep it?"

Damn Remus, he thought. How the fuck did he know? He said slowly, "I'd say I would respect your decision and offer any and all support you needed, financial and otherwise."

Her voice was mocking, but kindly so. "Of course you would. How very correct of you."

"I'd also have to ask you why."

That gave her pause. "It isn't political," she said slowly, and he knew what she meant. The wizarding world, following certain strands of post-Druid and Wiccan thought, tended toward the view that the foetus gained significance once it was embraced by the mother as her future child. But he and Hermione were raised in the Muggle world, with its more vivid diagnostic technology and more divided religious thought, and for them it wasn't so simple. "It's just...I've seen enough death. I won't be part of any more." She went on in a rush, "And especially - what we did - it gave life and saved life and renewed it and - somehow - it would be all wrong."

He nodded slowly. "I see," he said noncommittally. Not wanting to influence her.

"You're not bound to this, or to me, Severus," she said.

At this, he spared her a gentle laugh. "Of course I am, Hermione, and if I wasn't, I would choose to be."

She said valiantly, "How can you have responsibility when I didn't give you a choice?"

He shrugged. "Because it's part of me and part of you and -"

"And we did this together," she supplied. Looking suddenly very relieved. Had she thought he would be angry with her for her decision?

"Telepathy?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Nope." Her eyes were gleaming.

He would not kiss her, he thought again. He didn't have to, because she kissed him.

His hands came up to her shoulders, possibly to push her away, but she sank into him, opening up for him, and his resistance died. He knelt up and tugged her closer, gathering her into his arms, and she smiled against his mouth.

After a long moment, she pressed his chest gently with one hand, and for a split second he thought she was pushing him away, but she was touching his lips with the other and shining him a contented smile.

"I have to go, Severus. I'm already late for dinner at the Weasleys'. And I've got to figure out a way of telling Molly and Arthur I'm having a baby without using the words 'Druid fertility ritual.'"

He groaned. "Oh, Merlin's balls."

"I'm not saying that, either."

Her laughter followed her out of the house.

 

[SEVERUS - THEN - CONTINUED] [OR: MOLLY'S MEDDLING]

 

"No one here doubts your sincerity, Severus. Of course you care for the girl. Of course you feel responsible for her. Any decent man would."

He could see her out the window, over Molly's shoulder. Standing there, the wind swirling around her, she looked far older than nineteen. Just for a moment, he could see her, pushing him aside, screaming his name, throwing out her magic at Bellatrix, a force of nature in her own right.

Remus chimed in, "We all saw what you did for her that night. The circumstances were impossible. The fact that she has come out of this relatively unscathed is as much your doing as her own resilience and will."

Severus made a sound of derision. "If my sincerity and goodwill is not in doubt, then I say again, what is wrong with my name? For that matter, what is wrong with her own?"

Molly came to him. Placed a soothing hand on his shoulder. "Severus, think. If we were still at war, it would make perfect sense. Maybe it would even work. War does transcend many of the usual barriers. But we're not at war anymore. She has the chance to put all this behind her. Have a normal life with someone her own age. It's true that she and Ron have been broken up for some time, and perhaps it was puppy love even at the time. But they can make a good life together just as well as you could, and probably better."

Ron spoke up from the corner of the room. He seemed suddenly dwarfed by his surroundings. "I know you're not my number one fan, mate, but I wouldn't do wrong by her."

He dismissed this with a wave of his hand. "On the contrary, you've proven yourself very loyal, Mr Weasley. My objections are not personal in the least." He met the younger man's gaze, noting that for all the people talking about these two young people's futures, Hermione had been banished outside while the "adults" talked, and Ron was to be seen and not heard. "My concern is for you, too. I am older; I was never one for a young man's pursuits and my days of that are long gone in any event. You are a young man, and I'm sure you didn't bargain on supporting a wife and child so young. Naturally you would have financial support from me, but there are other kinds of support that only a spouse can provide."

Ron snorted. "Well, I didn't bargain on fighting a war at nineteen, either, and look how that turned out."

Molly said, "There will be support from all of us, Severus - the support of a large, close-knit family, which you cannot offer her. And you would be part of that family, of course. No one is proposing to keep you away from the baby. You will always be welcome here."

That touched him. She was right; he couldn't offer her that. Not a family, nor a normal life. He was crotchety and difficult to live with, temperamental and scarred and nervy. Hell, he barely even knew who he was; he'd been playing too many roles off against each other since he was twenty-one. It was just as likely Hermione would spend her time looking after him as the other way around.

Not that he saw any issue with compatibility, although Molly obviously did. He doubted Hermione would care one way or another about conventional things like age after all that had happened. They were well-matched intellectually, and intellect was important to Hermione. They had a shared sense of humour that was dry, pragmatic, and sometimes sardonic. And while he was no oil painting, Ron wasn't either.

It wasn't as though he were old. He was forty, still a young man for a wizard. For a mature, thoughtful young woman, such a pairing was unusual but not unheard of. And she had kissed him, after all. However unlikely it might seem to Molly, she had made it clear that she was attracted to him. No doubt the ritual had a part in creating the situation, but that didn't mean it wasn't real. The ritual could only open one's eyes to what was already possible.

But with Ron, she would have a companionable life in a companionable family. He was not convinced he could give her that.

"I need to think about this," he said at last. "And so does she."


"What do you think?" Severus asked, pressing his fingertips together.

Hermione snorted through her nose. "I think it's positively medieval. There's no earthly reason I should marry anyone."

Remus demurred, "I was raised in a sole parent family until I was eight, Hermione, and I don't think that's quite true. In my experience, two average parents are better than one good one. It's just too big a job for one person. I know the days of arranged marriages have gone by the wayside in the Muggle world, and they're not common in ours anymore either, but they're not totally without merit." Sitting back, he went on, "Now, as to whether it should be Ron, on that subject I'm less certain. I let Molly drag me over here, but that doesn't mean I'm convinced."

"What are your reservations, Remus?" Severus asked with interest.

Remus shot Nymphadora a look he couldn't decipher. Choosing his words carefully, he said, "It will only work if you can let each other go. The way it happened, with Lucius and Bellatrix present and a life-or-death situation..." He trailed off, at a loss. "Well, we all had to dig pretty deep to maintain the ritual. Dora and I are aware of it ourselves, and for us it's much simpler because we were already a couple. The two of you are bound by ancient magic, and by a child. That doesn't negate the element of choice, but it's a complicating factor. Regardless of whether you chose each other or someone else."

Nymphadora chimed in, "You shouldn't feel constrained by that. It's something to be managed, that's all. Distance helps. If you wanted to marry Ron, Hermione, then Severus could go away. I believe you were thinking of Gibraltar at one point, Severus?"

Severus nodded. "I was." By way of explanation, he said to Hermione, "They say it's a place of healing, and frankly, I could use some. Two decades of spying will do that," he added wryly.

Hermione's expression flickered. "Oh," she said woodenly. "Yes, I suppose that makes sense."

He said thoughtfully, "You should consider Weasley's offer, Hermione. I'd do the honours myself if I believed it was in your best interests, but I'm not convinced that's the case. I suspect it will be some time before I'm...equipped...to be what another person needs."

She cocked an eyebrow. Said dryly, "It's a bit like being passed around like an old pair of clothes, really. Do I get any say in this at all?"

Severus gave a mirthless laugh. "Hermione, I wouldn't let anyone force you to do anything you didn't want to do. Assuming, of course, they got past you in the first place, which I very much doubt."

"And if I didn't want to marry Ron?"

He said quietly, "I'd marry you if that was what you wanted. That's not a question. I just...can't make any guarantees about what you were getting."

There was no guile at all in his words; he was genuinely torn. He was a man of honour (and, as was frequently pointed out to him, some fairly old-fashioned sensibilities), and for his own part, she was the brightest thing to come into his life since Lily Evans. What he felt for her could not, he thought, properly be called love, exactly, but it was a precursor for it. He believed that he could find happiness with her. The question was whether Hermione could find happiness with him.

Hermione addressed Nymphadora. "So what do I do, Tonks? Write up a list of pros and cons? I'm afraid this whole marriage negotiation thing is outside my experience."

Nymphadora grimaced. "Don't ask me, I think it's medieval, too. But there are two offers on the table, so I suppose a list is a place to start."


She chose Ron.

He manufactured a wide smile, and kissed her cheek and shook Ron's hand, and suppressed the harsh sound in his throat with a frozen jaw. His reaction, deep and visceral, was his first clue that he was in deeper than he'd supposed. Fuck precursors, she was right there under his skin, and what the hell was with him and figuring out what he wanted just a minute too late?

Back at Grimmauld Place, he was packing when Nymphadora let herself into his room without knocking.

"Dora," he said. "What is it?"

Carefully, she put a piece of paper down on the desk. "It's Hermione's list. I didn't cast the Finite Incantatem to reveal it. I thought I would leave that choice to you."

He said coldly, "This is highly improper, Nymphadora."

"I've never cared for propriety, Severus."

"Clearly."

Her cheeks and hair flared bright red. She said passionately, "What I care about is people. She's my friend. I'm pregnant too, from the same ritual, and I know how I'd feel if-"

"If what?"

She sputtered a sound of frustration. "Stupid as it may be, I actually like you, you insufferable git. Why can't you just-"

He reflected that these half-sentences were really very tiresome. "Just what?"

"Severus," she said suddenly, unconscious of the non-sequitur, "what was your Patronus? Before it was a doe?"

"Nymphadora," he said with a tone of warning, but she held up a hand.

"Relax," she said, "I'm not going to get into the Lily Evans thing. You loved her, we all knew it, I won't make you say it. Just answer the question. What was it before the doe?"

"A dragon," he said through gritted teeth.

A look of pity crossed her features. "Read the list," she said. "Before it's too late."


The wedding feast went over two days.

Severus went to the dinner, and that was when they danced, when he christened her Haitch. ("Haitch for Hermione," he'd said idly, and that was when she made the rejoinder about Aitch and Haitch, and she'd been Haitch ever since).

The next morning, before the Bonding, she Apparated into Grimmauld Place just as he was about to leave. Nymphadora was her bridesmaid, and they were going to get dressed together.

He was sorely tempted to just leave, but he couldn't do that to her. So he knocked on the door of Remus and Dora's rooms.

The door opened. Nymphadora stood aside in silence, her eyes watchful, but not hostile.

"Severus," said Hermione, crossing the floor and putting her arms around his shoulders.

He buried his hand in her hair and closed his eyes for a long moment. "Haitch," he whispered. Pulled away a little. "You look lovely."

Her face broke out in a smile. "This old thing?" she teased.

To his horror, his face suddenly felt very warm. He could taste salt.

"I'm leaving, Haitch."

Her face fell. Her smile faded and everything seemed to drop all at once, like the things that held her together had just collapsed.

"It's better this way," he went on. His voice sounded old and weathered to his own ears. "You and Ron should do this without...without..."

She swallowed. Her face was pasty and pale and suddenly gaunt. He'd never seen her like that. She said with a ghastly grimace, "I understand."

"I won't come back until the baby's born. You and Ron need time, I think, and so do I." He took her hand and pressed an emerald ring into it. "You don't have to wear it," he said. "It's probably best if you don't. But it's paired with mine, and there's a locator spell on both. You'll always be able to find me."

She nodded. Stared down at it with haunted eyes.

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. It felt cool underneath his touch. Wrenched himself away in long strides, ducking past Nymphadora, down the stairs. Stopped to pick up his pitifully small suitcase.

"Severus," she called, and she clattered down the stairs after him. Caught up to him and grabbed his arm. Took his face between her palms and kissed him soundly on the lips. Instantly, he tugged her hard against him, grasping at her hair. She tasted like tears.

They broke apart. Stared at each other, eyes wide.

He reached out, hesitantly, like she was something incredibly fragile and precious. Cradled her cheek in his palm. She leaned into it, eyes closed for a long moment.

"Be happy," he whispered at last, then he pulled away from her and Apparated away.

Her anguished sound was the last thing he heard.


He finally read the list in Gibraltar.

It was weak of him, but then, he was broken that night in his Muggle hotel room, listening to the Mediterranean lapping at the rocky shore close by.

When silent, unwilling tears had been and gone and he had concluded that there would be no sleep that night, he switched on the electric lamp at his side. The light felt harsh compared to the candlelight or Lumos he would have used in England. He pointed his wand at the piece of paper Nymphadora had left him. "Finite Incantatem."

Writing began to appear on the sheet of paper, in Haitch's hand. The visible side was headed, RON.

Under the column headed Pros, she had scribbled the predictable things. Stability. Friendship. Reliability. The Cons column was empty. The only real disadvantage with Ron, he thought, was the fact that he didn't have a galleon to his name, but that was not an issue for Hermione. She had financial support from him and could earn a good living herself at anything she chose.

He turned the sheet over to the side headed, SEVERUS.

In the Cons column was scribbled, He needs Gibraltar more than he needs me. That twisted at him like a knife. Merlin, he hadn't meant for that to influence her decision.

Scribbled under Pros and underlined twice were the words, He's what I want.

It brought him completely undone.

 

[HERMIONE - NOW] [OR: A YULETIDE MISSIVE]

 

How it happened doesn't matter.

What matters is, she loves Severus and Ron loves Susan and somehow she and Ron wound up married to one another anyway and Merlin's balls, what a fucking mess she's made.

She knows that Molly and everyone else who cooked it up meant well. Maybe, if she had been an ordinary girl, they might have even been right. The age difference is significant, or would have been, if she hadn't been born old and Severus hadn't hidden himself away for half his life and they hadn't somehow wound up perfectly matched in the middle. And Severus has healed a lot, but he's still a complex, prickly man, even now.

But the ritual helped with that, in a way. The telepathy is gone, but their blood still calls out to one another, and that cuts through a hell of a lot of noise.

She used to wonder, early on, when she was trying to make things work with Ron, whether the ritual did it to them. Wondered if it made them love each other when otherwise they would not. But that isn't really the nature of the ritual. It is a ritual about fertility and light, not about romantic love. In Druid times, the participants were often married to others, and the ritual was not seen as breaking the marital bond.

If anything, she thinks, it is simply that the ritual forced them to focus on the things they loved in one another, things they might otherwise never have seen, things they were blinded to by the conventional delineations of age.

Well, that, and the additional complication of Lucius and Bellatrix in the background.

They had surrendered themselves completely and utterly to the bonds between them, in order to block out their captors and complete the ritual. It had required utter trust and commitment. It had been a more complete intimacy than most people would ever experience in a lifetime.

Once upon a time, she might have been able to convince herself that those facts rendered her bond with Severus a mere accidental byproduct of an extraordinary situation. But she is older now, she has been faced with her own denial, well demonstrated and bleeding obvious to Ron and Remus and Tonks since the Battle of Yule. Moreover, she understands now that no one loves in a vacuum. If not a ritual, then a shared experience, a shared sense of humour, shared values, shared journeys. Love is always accident and context and it's still utterly valid and real.

If Ron was ever jealous or angry, he isn't anymore. She thinks that's been burned out of him somewhere along the line. She isn't sure exactly how it happened, but at some point his clenched jaw and his hard eyes became a watchful look and a voice filled with pity. She thinks maybe it was about the time that Susan Bones came back to England.

She hates that pitying voice. Hates it with all her being. Somehow it was easier to put all her energies into fighting Severus, and Ron, than it is to accept it as Ron has accepted it.

So now she shares space with Ron and her blood calls out for Severus and her only joy is in the dark-haired child they made. Severus has thrived without her and she has withered without him, and it isn't fair that the ritual turned him right way in and her inside out.

"He won't come," she says in a monotone. It is the same monotone she used to answer him under Veritaserum earlier that evening.

"He will," Ron says. He is fixing the letter to Pigwidgeon's leg. Adds fondly, "Keep still, you git of a bird."

"You want him to," she accuses.

He says in that awful pitying voice, "Of course I do. I was all wrong for you that night, and he was right for you, and five years on, nothing's changed. Has it?"

There is no answer for that, so she watches, her heart sore, as he takes the owl to the window and releases him into the Yuletide sky.

 

[HERMIONE - THEN] [OR: A CORRECT DISTANCE]

 

How it happened doesn't matter.

What matters is, she was labouring in St Mungo's and Ron and Tonks were fighting and the baby was in trouble, and all she wanted was Severus.

"She's fighting it," one of the nurses said. "Mrs Weasley, you have to stop fighting it. This baby needs to be born." She tried to focus on letting go, but the coil wound up inside her wouldn't seem to release. All she could think was she'd let Severus go and her marriage was failing and this baby was all she had left and she had to hold on as tight as she could.

"Why is she fighting it?" Ron was saying somewhere far away.

A punching sound as Tonks pushed him. Hard.

"You know why she's fighting it, you selfish prat, now send for him!"

"Dora, she's my wife. He can see the baby as soon as it's born, but he is not coming in here while she's having it." She wanted to scream at them both but she didn't know what on earth would come out of her mouth.

Tonks' voice was filled with warning. She was huge, only a week or two off delivering herself. "Ronald Weasley, if you don't send for him, I will." She turned back to Hermione and crouched before her. Pushed back sweat-soaked hair off her face. "Do you want me to send for Severus?"

Her face was a rictus, her lips pressed tight together. She couldn't speak. Ron would be furious with her no matter what she said, and she couldn't bear any more conflict. Couldn't bear his disappointment in her. It was sullen and silent and near-continual and she couldn't bear it today.

Tonks said more gently, "Just move your head for me, Hermione. You don't have to say it."

Her lips trembled, and she nodded. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

Ron strode away in heavy footsteps. The door banged hard behind him.


Severus arrived by Portkey half an hour later.

He stood there, exchanging worried words with Tonks for a minute or two, and Hermione wanted to scream at him to just hold her already, what the hell was he waiting for, didn't he know she needed him?

He came over and sat down beside her bed. Took a flannel and wet it. Moistened her forehead. His brow was knit together in concern.

"Ron's angry," she said. "He's always angry."

His mouth settled into a grim line. "He is, is he?"

Tonks cleared her throat pointedly. Came around to Hermione's other side, hovering protectively.

With obvious effort, his face cleared. "Well, let's not worry about that now. When can I meet this baby?" he wondered with a smile.

That touched her. She did want them to meet. She felt the coil inside her loosen a little. Dimly, she heard the nurse make a sound of relief.

She mumbled awkwardly, "Will you hold me?"

Something indecipherable flickered over his face, but he nodded. Eyes grave. He removed the pillows from behind her and sat down on the bed, drawing her back against his chest and wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

"I'm a bit of a mess," she said apologetically, leaning against him, and then she felt her hair dry as he muttered a charm. She mustered a smile. "Now, why didn't I think of that?"

"You've had a rough day, Haitch. Under the circumstances, it's allowed."

"I like when you call me Haitch."

Tonks said awkwardly, "I think you're in good hands here, Hermione. I'd better go smooth Ron over. It's best if he isn't angry when the baby gets here."

Hermione nodded. "Thanks, Tonks. For everything." She could feel tears threatening. How on earth would she have gotten through this without her? "Sorry," she added, wiping her eyes, a bit shamefacedly.

His arms tightened around her, but he said nothing. Just sat there holding her, kissing her hair, waiting and silent until the baby came a short time later.

She marvelled that he knew exactly what she needed when she didn't know it herself.


"Where is he?" Ron demanded, looking around the room in puzzlement.

"Gone," Hermione said. "Portkey. I didn't think you'd want to see him."

A lot of Ron's anger faded then. "Oh. I didn't mean – I always meant for him to see the baby, Mione."

An insane urge came over her, to tell him to call her Haitch.

"And he did," she said instead. "It's fine. He'll see her again at Yule."

"I suppose you chose a name together?" he said. He was trying for neutral, she could tell, but couldn't quite smother a note of accusation.

"Sperantia," she replied evenly. "It's Latin. It means hope." Then, after a moment, "Sperantia Ginevra. We thought...we wanted the Weasleys in there somewhere." It was a peace offering; she hoped he would take it as such.

"Oh," Ron said quietly. His expression softened a little more. "Mum will like that."

"Yeah." She bit her lip.

Ron asked, "What's her surname?"

Hermione felt her expression close, become more guarded. "Severus left the choice to me."

"And what did you choose?"

She just held his gaze steadily.

"Snape," he said, the corners of his mouth turned downwards in a scowl. "Right."


Christmas night at the Weasleys'.

It was their one and only Christmas, exactly a year after the Battle of Yule. Severus was invited to the Burrow for Christmas dinner, and he accepted, keen for the chance to see Sperantia, now almost three months old.

She had the chance to study him, which she had not done while having Sperantia. Ten months in Gibraltar had done him good. He was still...well...maimed, all of them were, but he was better than she had ever seen him. That thought gave her a pang, that he was doing so well away from her, but she pushed the unworthy thought aside. She complimented him on his Muggle look (Ron scowled a little at that) and his work and his new life there.

Dinner was pleasant. Afterwards, Severus slipped outside for some air. He had never been blessed with much tolerance for people, even ones he could be said to like, and she could pick his exits like clockwork. She followed.

"Won't Ron be angry if you're out here with me?" he asked as she took her place beside him.

"Possibly, but I come as a package deal. He knew that going in."

"Very well," he said. Held out his arm. "Would you like to walk with me?"

She tucked her arm in his. "Let's."

They traipsed through the snow a little way, out to the cornfields. The corn was old and withered in the cold, yet somehow beautiful.

"I've missed you," he said presently. Looked out straight ahead of them, at the snow and the stars.

"Same."

They wandered in listless quiet, not talking, not engaging, corn on one side, snow on the other. She was very aware of him, though, like a thrumming in her mind. Damn him, he was almost hypnotic.

The sounds of singing drifted out on the air. Christmas carols, to be exact. Arthur had discovered a Muggle cassette player and had been playing it on and off all afternoon.

And then suddenly her head was filled with memories of Severus and snow and carols, of dying children in the distance, and he was staring piercingly down at her, just as stricken as she. Then the world was doubling back on itself, and she was kissing him, tugging him down into the snow with her, and he was kneeling with her and pulling her hard against him. It was that quick and that strong.

"Haitch," he whispered, his hands in her hair.

"Severus," she whispered, "oh, Merlin, touch me, Severus, please -" and he was kissing her, claiming her, covering her, and only a couple of quick moves from being inside her when he rolled off her with an agonised sound.

"Shit," he rasped. "Shit, shit, shit."

"I'm sorry, Severus," she said, appalled, "it was all my fault-"

"It wasn't. It wasn't."

They lay there, still and silent side by side. His breaths were slowing, but they left him as shocked little huffs and puffs.

"It's the Yule," he said presently. "Solstice is a dangerous time for us. After what we did."

"It isn't just Yule." Her voice was low and harsh.

"No," he conceded. "But Yule is dangerous."

"Apparently."

"I can't ever come at Yule again. I won't."

She swallowed hard. "That's probably best."

"Make my excuses?"

"All right."

He Apparated away from right there beside her in the snow, and even when she got up, even when she cast charms to right her appearance and dry her clothes, she was still cold.


Subsequent visits were circumspect.

She made sure they were always with others. For family celebrations, he made a point of staying with the group rather than stepping out, even when she could tell from his expression that he was fed up with people and wanted to be alone. For Severus, never blessed with a strong tolerance for the inane, this was fairly often.

She asked Tonks to visit whenever he came to see Sperantia. Tonks, bless her, never asked why, and always kept the conversation going, even when she and Severus just looked at each other watchfully over their child's dark head. She deftly distracted them when they had held each other's gaze a shade too long, and did so without ever mentioning it.

He didn't touch her. He would give a courtly kiss to her hand in greeting, sign of respect as befitted her as the mother of his child, but he was never familiar, never put his arms around her or kissed her forehead or her cheek. If she passed him a glass, he would be careful not to touch her when he took it. She wavered between wanting to scream at him to just touch her already, and gratitude that he worked so hard to avoid it.

Sperantia looked more and more like him every day.

Ron didn't hold it against her, that was something. He was very kind to Sperantia, and was scrupulously careful to ensure she knew that Severus was her father (your other father, he would say). He eventually conceded that it was better that she bore the Snape name - it was very obvious that she was not Ron's child, and he preferred to be seen as a willing stepfather than an unwilling cuckold. Hermione, for her part, was impressed and grateful for Ron's attitude towards the baby, and a great deal of goodwill between them was restored.

But goodwill alone wasn't enough. For either of them.

She wanted to see Gibraltar; wanted to know this place that was such a part of Severus. Craved the healing magic he spoke of there. Wondered if it could heal her wounds, too.

They haunted her dreams, Severus and Gibraltar both.

The grief she felt when she woke far away ripped at her every day.


It would be Molly who noticed.

Hermione had noticed, of course, but then, she had her own reasons for doing so. But Molly was a gossip, plain and simple. Her intrusions were kindly meant, but they were still intrusions.

So Molly noticed, and as always, she rushed in where Veela feared to tread. "Why, Severus," she said, "who's this lovely lady? I can see she's accompanied you several times. Are you dating?"

He'd been discreet, Hermione had to give him that. No photos of him and the woman as the main focus. The snapshots he'd passed around were of Gibraltar's stunning scenery, and of social gatherings. The mixed Muggle/wizard events were a particular source of fascination for Arthur.

But she'd spotted them, of course, in the background, dancing or talking. Part of the social landscape. Her heart had sank, but then, by what right? She had been living with Ron, sharing his bed (however unhappily) for nearly four years. How dare she begrudge Severus some happiness? Wasn't one fated love from afar enough for the poor man?

Severus shot Hermione a look, so fast she doubted anyone noticed. "Her name's Matilda," he said evenly. "We've escorted each other to events, but it isn't serious. I wouldn't say we're dating as such." Hermione interpreted this as sleeping together, but not dating and suppressed a pang.

Molly clasped her hands on Severus' shoulders; he winced. "Oh, why not, dear? You should take the plunge! Live a little!"

Hermione read her thoughts with ludicrous ease. Perhaps if Severus was no longer available, she and Ron would get along better. Molly had never grasped the more fundamental problem, that she and Ron were simply poorly-matched and probably always would be. They would have struggled even if there was no one else.

"I'm quite content with the way things are, Molly," he said evenly.

Ron harrumphed. "That makes one of us," he muttered.

With clear effort, Molly ignored him and kept her focus on Severus. "You needn't accept just content, Severus, dear. Why don't you take it a bit further? See what happens?"

At this, Ron got to his feet. "You know why, Mum; are you blind? He's -" he paused with a grim look at Severus as he searched for the right word. "Otherwise attached." Harry got up and put a staying hand on his shoulder, and he shook it off. "Don't bother, I'm done." He stormed out to the hallway, Harry hot on his heels, and slammed the door.

Sperantia, just turned three, clambered up onto Severus' lap, eyes wide. Her Daddy Ron had never shouted in front of her; all shouting at home took place under Muffliato. "Daddy was cross," she said.

Severus held her close. Said softly, "He's good to you. That's all that matters." His gaze met Hermione's, and after a long moment, she nodded. She was trying very hard to be patient with Ron. None of this was his fault.

Arthur said awkwardly, "I'm so sorry, old chap."

Severus said, just as awkwardly, "You've always honoured your offer to keep your home open to me. I don't want to hold you to that at the expense of your right to happy and peaceful family events."

Molly saw where he was headed and forestalled him. Hermione felt fresh warmth towards her. Gossip or not, she valued hospitality, and she had a strong sense of right and wrong. "You're family, Severus. If you can live with Ron's behaviour, then so can we."

"That's very gracious of you, Molly, thank you."

Just then, they heard a fresh outburst behind the door. "No, Harry, I'm sick of it! I'm sick of the pet names and I'm sick of them making love with their eyes across the fucking room -"

Hermione gasped as though she'd been slapped. Groped for her chair and pushed away blindly, brushing back tears. "Muffliato," Severus said hurriedly, and silence fell.

Severus handed Sperantia to Ginny, beside him. "I should go," he said. Then, deliberately, he said with a polite nod, "Hermione."

She sat there hugging herself until he reached the door. Then she said, almost accusingly, "Severus?"

He turned to face her.

"Don't you ever call me Hermione again."

He held her gaze steadily. Finally, he said:

"As you wish. Haitch."

 

[SEVERUS - THEN] [OR: PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER]

 

It hurt him to see her like that. The brightness in her eyes was fading, and the spring in her step was gone.

Sperantia was three now, and they had been difficult years. Difficult for him, certainly; he was coming to terms with his demons and gradually learning to be a civilised human being. He had endured the angry outbursts and for the most part conquered them. He had learned to uncurl his hands and wait patiently when harmlessly bucolic Muggle cashiers took too long at the store. He had learned to tolerate fools, up to a point, and to stop and breathe when he thought the pettiness of their daily trials was too much to bear.

The years had not only been difficult for him.

She was still beautiful, of course. That wasn't in question, and for him, probably never would be, no matter how they might both age and wither. She was beautiful as the mother of his child and she was beautiful just because she was.

But she was also burdened, terribly burdened. He could see it in the drawn lines of her face and the way she sat quietly, keeping to herself. She was so very different to his sparkling Haitch, the lively, teasing woman he'd fallen in love with at Grimmauld Place, and it was painful to watch.

She was withdrawn at family gatherings, not only with him, but with everyone. That, at least, could be attributed to the snippy asides Ron could never quite keep completely under wraps in his presence. He regretted it – Molly and Arthur had been good to him – but he refused to be kept from his child on her birthday, and he would not have deprived them of their granddaughter by taking her home to Gibraltar. It was bad enough that he had to be away from her at Yule.

But she was withdrawn when he saw Sperantia away from the Weasleys, too. She kept Tonks at her side like a talisman, and he wondered sometimes whether she feared he would make an advance on her, but mostly he thought she feared making an advance on him. Longing came off her in waves, he could feel it, and he suspected that, like him, if she could not speak what was in her heart, she preferred not to speak at all.

For that reason, despite co-parenting and monthly visits, they had passed very few words since that disastrous Yule.

He had Apparated, not to Gibraltar, but to the nearby Spanish territory of Ceuta that night. He could not bear the idea of going home to his empty bed that night, and Ceuta had a busy nightlife, even (or especially) on religious festivals. He'd found himself a restaurant and stared vacantly out over the water, smoking, picking at tapas, and drinking himself silly on Muggle alcohol as Christmas carols rang out into the early hours. If wizards made the best spirits, Muggles made the best cocktails, and Spanish Muggles made the best of those.

He was utterly shaken by what had happened between them at the Burrow. He had never knowingly bedded a married woman before. Still hadn't, although he could make that claim now only by the most tenuous of threads.

For a man of conventional sensibilities, it was a matter of respect. Whatever he thought of Haitch's choice of husband (and that opinion was fast going downhill as her unhappiness became plain), Ron was her choice. Presumably she was trying to make things work, and it was not his place to undermine her. It wasn't even as though he had much to offer her in Ron's stead at this point. He'd gone against his own standards and disrespected her boundaries. She'd given birth to his child a short time earlier and she was understandably vulnerable to him. He had no such excuse.

And that wasn't really what had left him a broken mess on his sixth cocktail, was it?

The point was that he loved Haitch. If he had ever believed it was just fondness or infatuation, he didn't now. If it had been either of those things, it would have faded after nearly a year apart. But it had all come flooding back, not just out there in the snow with her, but even before that. The moment he'd set eyes on her. It had only taken a single demanding look from her and he'd been hers all over again, not so much claiming as being claimed. Surrendering to her completely. And Severus was not a man who surrendered easily.

So now, he watched her at the Weasleys' and he watched her at Grimmauld Place (they had taken to visits on neutral ground at the Lupins'), and she was clearly, desperately unhappy, and it killed him to watch. She was unspeakably beautiful with her delicately sloped neck and her oh-so-fine features and her flowing hair, but it was a fragile and sad kind of beauty, quite unlike his Haitch, strong and tempestuous and proud.

He would give anything to see her strong again.


Ron opened the door of Grimmauld Place. "Hello, Severus."

Severus blinked in surprise. "Hello, Ron." He wondered what Ron was doing here but didn't know how to ask.

But Ron didn't make him ask. "Teddy fell down those wretched stairs. He's all right, but he needs Skele-Gro and a night at St Mungo's. So they left me here to wait for you." He added without rancour, "Hermione really mustn't trust herself if she's willing to risk us coming to blows rather than be alone with you." There was no answer for that, and Ron didn't wait for one. He just turned and headed down the hallway. "Come on in," he said over his shoulder. "Sperantia's waiting."

Severus followed. Rounded into the kitchen, saying uneasily, "Look, Ron-"

Ron handed him a Firewhisky. "Join me."

A wrinkle of worry passed over his brow. "Have you been drinking?"

"Only one. I wouldn't get plastered looking after Sperantia, whatever you might think of me."

Severus held up a hand, sign of concession. "No. You're a good father. I know that. I'm sorry." He took the glass and drank. It was the only peace offering he could make.

Sperantia was in her high chair. Severus went and lifted her out. She was half asleep, clutching her toy wand, more like a cuddly baby than a rambunctious toddler for once. She mumbled a protest then snuggled into him. He held her close, breathing her scent. She smelled like clean baby and she smelled like Haitch.

He felt horribly sad all of a sudden, struck by how wrong the whole picture was. His daughter should not be living with another man, the woman he loved should not be hiding from him and herself, and the perfectly decent man beside him should not be made to feel continually like he was not good enough.

Ron had taken his seat at the table. He was watching them curiously. "What are you thinking?"

Severus saw no reason to lie. "That you're the most innocent of us all."

Ron looked down into his drink. "It's good of you to say so. Especially after what happened at Mum's." He added quietly, "I don't blame you, you know. Not really."

"No?" he demanded, sitting down too, shifting to support Sperantia better. Frankly unbelieving.

"If I blame anyone, it's her." For a moment, he thought Ron meant Haitch, and he was ready to speak in her defence, but Ron went on pensively, "Interfering old harridan. Why the hell couldn't she have left it alone?"

Severus frowned. He had completely failed to consider the Weasley family dynamics in all this. It dawned on him that Ron's outbursts at family gatherings had less to do with his presence and more to do with Molly. He was reaching out in the only way he knew how, rubbing her nose in their unhappiness. He wanted his mother's comfort but blamed her too much to ask in a healthy way. Severus recognised a lot of his own fractured relationship with Dumbledore, something he'd been coming to terms with in recent times.

The man before him now was completely unlike the man who had snapped at Molly. He was not angry, only melancholy, and he understood that when Ron said he didn't blame him, he was speaking the absolute truth.

"It's my fault, too," Severus said at last. "I should have fought for her."

"Yeah, you should. We'd all have been better off." Ron said curiously, "Why on earth didn't you?"

Severus shrugged. "I suppose I didn't think I was what she needed."

Ron gave a bark of laughter at that.

"And I'm not either. Funny how things turn out."


Matilda was waiting for him.

It was a liberty she had never taken before, and one he had never invited. Their handful of one-night stands had always been at her apartment, not his.

"What are you doing here?" he wondered. He'd always understood that she wasn't in the market for a relationship. He hoped she hadn't changed her mind.

"You're always in a filthy mood when you come back. I thought you might like a friend." He shot her a wary look, and she added, "I said friend, Severus. I'm not going to mother you or girlfriend you or whatever it is you're worried about. Merlin knows I've spent decades trying to avoid that particular millstone."

Well, that was true enough. Matilda Martil had no shortage of suitors, most of them far better-looking and better-tempered than he. He relented. "Come in," he said, lowering the wards and opening the door. He nodded for her to enter. "Drink?"

"Only if it's Muggle."

"The best I can do is Transfigure a Firewhisky into a nice red," he offered. "The effects will last long enough for you to drink it, but I make no assertions as to the state of your hangover later."

"I'll consider myself warned."

He suited the action to the word and sat down opposite her on the couch.

She nodded to a pair of photos on the side table next to him. "Is that your daughter?"

"Sperantia." He nodded. "She's three."

"And the woman's her mother?" He inclined his head in silence. "She's pretty. And young," she added with an approving wink.

He didn't answer. He wasn't in the mood for banter about his imagined conquest of a much younger woman, nor did he intend to tell Matilda about the Battle of Yule. All of his wounds were too fresh right now.

Matilda said mildly, "I'm not going to ask if you love her, because it's clear that you do, and I'm not going to ask if you want to talk about it, because it's clear that you don't."

"I appreciate that. On both counts."

She took his drink from his hand. "What I can do is help you forget a little."

He looked down at his hands. "I don't want to forget, Matilda. I have little enough of her left as it is."

She shrugged. "Then think of her, Severus. I don't mind. You can even call me her." Added kindly, "It wouldn't be the first time."

He stared at her. "I...what?"

"Haitch, right? That's her name?"

In mortification, he recalled the time - oh, all right, times - he had sank his head to her shoulder, closed his eyes, and thought of Haitch. Let himself drown in his own longing, just for a moment. And apparently, at least once, maybe more, he'd whispered or breathed or called out her name.

He closed his eyes for a long moment. "Oh, Merlin, Matilda. That's...that's unforgivable. I'm sorry."

Matilda shrugged again. "I'm not your girlfriend, Severus. I don't mind. You and I, we have fun. We pass the time. As for whatever goes on in that messed-up head of yours, well, that's for you to sort out." She downed the rest of her drink. "So, do you want me to stay, or not?"

He felt very bruised and sore. Slowly, he nodded.

She flicked off the Muggle lamp, and she found him wordlessly in the dark, and for a while, the darkness was kind.


The Daily Prophet got ahold of the story when Sperantia was three.

They had never tried very hard to hide it, really. Lucius and Bellatrix had committed other, equally indecent assaults that night, and Haitch was seen killing Bella in defence of Severus. There were dozens of eyewitnesses to Haitch's stunning intervention at the Battle of Yule. There was an iconic picture of people embracing after Voldemort's fall, and he and Haitch had been among them, her hands at his neck, cradling his face in her palms as he threaded his hands through her hair. Nine months on, Sperantia's birth had been announced as Ronald and Hermione Weasley and Severus Snape welcome a daughter. The clues had always been there for anyone who cared to put them together.

But there had been no shortage of stories after the war, and the Boy Who Lived was far more interesting than the temperamental professor and the smartest witch of her generation. Catchier name, too. And public appetite for war stories had faded long before the stories themselves ran out. People wanted to forget and to heal.

Haitch and Ron's marriage had been a minor blip on the social pages. It was noted, and never denied, that her ex-partner Severus Snape had graciously attended the festivities and given the couple his blessing, but the story had died for lack of comment. The straightforward birth announcement had squashed any speculation about paternity. As far it appeared to the world, he and Haitch had been a (somewhat unlikely) item in the last days of the war, then she had taken up with Ron, and all parties had amicably come to an arrangement about the child in the middle. Conception out of wedlock was only a minor scandal in the wizarding world, so long as a suitable marriage was made well before the birth.

The Weasleys and the Lupins knew, of course, along with a handful of others. Harry knew, and Draco Malfoy had guessed. It was his father's descent into madness that had driven him over to the Order's side in the final year of the war. That had been the only good thing to come from the tragedy of Lucius, who had once been a loving, if obnoxious husband and father. Severus had also confided in Kingsley Shacklebolt, taking the view that the Minister for Magic had a right to know the truth of the Battle of Yule.

It was Draco, in the end, who unwittingly broke the story. He was in the habit of drinking heavily at Yule, and that year, he blurted out his sorrows to Rita Skeeter (who, damn her, had pursued Severus for his side of the story ever since). Draco's account had been a garbled and grieving mix of presumption and fact, peppered with self-reproach for failing to save his father from self-destruction, but there was enough to set Rita on the trail. Before long, the Prophet's headlines were screaming, The Prodigy And The Professor: The Stolen Moment That Saved Our World. Follow-ups included Love Conquers Darkness: Snape And Granger's Ancient Magical Secrets and Reunited: Yule's Child Brings War Heroes Together. At that point, Severus asked for his daily deliveries to be put on hold.

Haitch and Ron owled him, presenting a rare united front. Would he take Sperantia for a couple of weeks until the fuss died down? He owled back that he would, and within an hour, Nymphadora was on his doorstep, Sperantia on one hip and Portkey in her hand.

"Come in," he said, standing aside for her. "It's good to see you, Nymphadora."

"Likewise," she said, looking around. "Light and sunny. I like it. The weather in England is abominable at the moment." Sperantia was struggling to get to him, and she said with warmth, "She's such a Daddy's girl."

"Hello, dear girl," he said, taking her. Then, to Dora, "Can I get you something?" Nymphadora shook her head, and he waved his hand towards the couch.

"Thanks," she said, sitting down. He sat down opposite her. "I won't stay long."

He said, "Well, you're most welcome. How are they holding up?" It had occurred to him that this couldn't be easy for Ron, any more than for Haitch.

Nymphadora said, "They're okay. The biggest problem is the journalists and photographers everywhere demanding a quote. Hermione plans to sign with one and give a few insipid quotes about how much she respects you and what a happy blended family you all are, and then that will be the end of it. She literally won't be able to speak to the others, the charms won't let her. She just doesn't want Sperantia in the middle while they work out a deal."

He nodded slowly. "It hasn't been too bad, has it?" Then, more gently, "You can tell me the truth, Dora."

"I've never done anything else," she retorted, and he supposed that was true enough. "But no, it really isn't. It might have been at the time, but she's older now, a married woman. There's less to sensationalise. They've been really surprisingly delicate about the ritual itself, probably because there's a young child involved. Even the Prophet knows not to push that barrier - it would alienate too much of their readership. The focus is on how brave she's been and the way everyone's pulled together around her and all that. It's a load of sentimental tripe, but it's not nasty."

"That's something." Sperantia squirmed out of his arms and went exploring. He let her; he'd already warded everything that could possibly harm her, or come to harm from her.

Nymphadora was looking down at her hands, fidgeting a little. "Severus, can I ask you something?"

"Of course," he replied, already wishing she wouldn't.

"Do you still love her?"

He held her gaze. "That's not an easy thing for me to answer."

"You mean you don't know?" she said, openly unbelieving.

"I mean, quite literally, that I find it difficult to discuss this with you. So unless there is a reason beyond prurient curiosity..." He trailed off, shrugging his shoulders.

"Oh, Merlin, you know there is," she snapped. "Severus, Remus and I were your witnesses that night. We saw you fall in love. I saw you with her when she had the baby. Every month, I see you together. We've never pried, never pushed, never intruded more than absolutely necessary to support you both. You're private people and we're both painfully aware that we have seen many things that by rights you would not have had us see." More gently, she added, "I'm not digging in order to make you uncomfortable."

He felt a flush of shame. He said quietly, "You're quite right, Dora. You've always been...most delicate and respectful. I'm sorry."

She accepted this with a nod. "Well?"

His gaze slid away from her, out the window. "Of course I do. What of it?"

Nymphadora said, "Her marriage isn't working, Severus. I'm sure you know that."

He kept his focus on the sun-drenched landscape outside. "I know that."

"You know I value marriage every bit as much as you. But this isn't a marriage. It's never been a marriage. Even Ron knows that, I think."

He looked back at her. Her eyes were blazing, challenging him. "So what are you saying, Nymphadora? That I should go in like a warrior and reclaim what's rightfully mine?" His voice was heavy with irony. "Even if I found the distinction between marriage and real marriage persuasive - and I don't - Haitch and I are not on those terms."

Her brow furrowed. "I don't understand."

He said hesitantly, "That night...it was her choice, Dora. Everything that happened, happened because of her strength and her will and her choices. The only reason it wasn't rape was that she willed that it wasn't. The only reason I could meet her as an equal, despite her inexperience, was because of her strength of will. The only reason we have a child is that she willed that it should be so. It's what I honoured in her that night, more than anything, and it still is."

Dora nodded, but said nothing.

He went on, "She chose to marry Ron. I don't pick and choose which choices I honour. I can think that her choice was unfortunate, or not in her best interests - and at this point, I think there's no arguing that's the case - but I will never, ever deny her her choices."

"What are you saying?"

Severus said, "I'm saying this is something she needs to do herself, with Ron. Together, they need to reach a decision to end this. It isn't inertia on my part. They Bound themselves to one another, and until she makes a different choice..." He trailed off.

Nymphadora looked intrigued. "I've never heard you talk like this, Severus." She sobered. "But Severus - what if making that choice is something she just can't do anymore? You've seen her. You know she isn't as strong as she was."

"I know that, and it isn't something I take lightly," he said. "But it's something she has to do herself." He glanced out at the Rock, imbued with the healing power of the ancients. "Nymphadora, if I can heal, don't you think anyone can?"

She gave a bark of laughter. "Severus Snape, dyed-in-the-wool optimist. Who would have thought?"

He stared at her for a moment, and then he laughed too.

 

[HERMIONE - THEN] [OR: IT'S ALL OVER BUT THE CRYING]

 

"Daddy!"

Severus swooped Sperantia up into his arms, her long black waves flying. She was three now – no, four today. Old enough to be adorable in a little-girl rather than baby way, and she had both her fathers wrapped around her little finger.

Hermione held out her hand for the customary kiss. "Hello, Severus."

He lifted it to his lips, his eyes meeting hers, dark and watchful. "Hello, Haitch." He let go, and the moment dissolved. He said with matter-of-fact cheer, "Molly, Arthur, good to see you," and fielded kisses from Molly. He said to Sperantia, "Happy birthday, my dear girl. Where's Daddy Ron?"

"In here," Ron called without turning around. He was fussing in the kitchen.

"Harry and Ginny and the Lupins are out the back," Hermione said. "We thought we'd eat outside, since it's such a nice day. Bill and Fleur are off visiting Charlie, so they're not coming, and Fred and George are busy with the shop – something about an exploding prototype. They might make it, they might not."

"Messrs Weasley should engage a potions expert to consult on their prototypes," Severus said. "It would increase their life expectancy by a factor of ten."

There was a clatter from the kitchen, and Hermione shot a glance. Ron's back was turned, but he was holding himself stiffly. She gave Severus an apologetic look and said, "Why don't we head out and say hello to the others? I know Remus is keen to see you."

Molly said hurriedly, "That's an excellent idea, Hermione, dear. Arthur, why don't you help Ron in the kitchen?" The two older Weasleys exchanged a meaningful look, and Hermione suspected that Arthur had been instructed to have a heart-to-heart with Ron.

Lunch was pleasant, if noisy. Remus and Tonks had brought Teddy, who would be four in a couple of weeks as well, so the air was filled with small-child babble. Ron put on a civil face, mostly for Sperantia's benefit. He adored her. Hermione reminded herself of that every time she was tempted to curse him, or worse.

They caught Severus up on the English wizarding gossip – not that he was likely to care, but it was an easy topic of conversation. Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom were getting married. Susan Bones had arrived back from several years apprenticing in France and was about to start work at the Ministry. Parvati Partil, who had lost a leg in the war, had travelled to the Muggle world and come back with a quite amazing artificial limb that had given her a new lease on life. Molly was a born gossip, and she could carry the discussion with little help, no matter what undercurrents were going on around her.

Sperantia crawled around their feet and ran in the corn with Teddy (and for a moment, she remembered kissing Severus there in the snow). She came back filthy. She clambered up onto Severus' lap, smearing him with dust, but he didn't protest. He had too little time with her to worry about trifles.

"Mummy has a ring like that," she said. She was playing with the platinum and emerald ring on his hand.

There was an uneasy silence, then he said matter-of-factly, "She does indeed, and for a very good reason, Sperantia. It's in case you ever get sick, or you need me in some way, so she can always find me. It's a magical object, not for wearing." Hermione gave an inward sigh of relief at his deft handling, and thanked Merlin she had never worn it in front of Ron.

"It's like Mummy's bedroom. Green and silver," she went on. "Daddy's room is red and gold."

Hermione and Ron both found things to look at on their plates. They had slept in separate rooms for nearly a year now, and had managed to keep the fact private. Harry shot her a sympatihetic look. Everyone was deadly silent, except for Teddy, who was talking to a Godric Griffyndor doll with considerable animation.

Severus said awkwardly, clearly trying to rescue the situation, "Well. What colour's your bedroom, Sperantia? Mine's green and silver, too."

Ron snorted and rose.

"Bloody hell," he said disgustedly. "It bloody would be."


How it happened doesn't matter.

What matters is, she was with Ron at the Lupins', and for whatever reason she decided to send a Patronus with a message. It might have been to Molly; Sperantia was just gone four now, old enough to make a mess of other people's homes, and Molly often minded her when they went visiting.

She remembers calling up a joyful memory (fire and water and I trust you, Severus), remembers the meticulously-controlled swish and flick of her wand that was her trademark. Remembers her confident "Expecto patronum." And then her light spread out before her, bigger than it ever had before the Yuletide Battle, and condensed.

Into a dragon.

She dropped her wand, her message forgotten. It landed on the coffee table with a clatter. The dragon vanished as her concentration broke. She backed away. Began to tremble.

"Ron," she whispered, "my Patronus has - changed -"

Ron said very quietly, "No, Hermione, it hasn't."

She whipped around to look at him. "My Patronus is an - otter - Ron -"

Ron was looking at her, an unfathomable expression on his face. "You cast a dragon at the Battle of Yule, Hermione. You both did. They drove Bella's Dementors away. We saw them."

In mounting horror, she looked at Tonks and Remus, who seemed totally unsurprised by this account. Remus gave a tight smile. A slight nod.

"I thought you knew." Ron's voice was filled with pity.

She couldn't speak. Couldn't breathe. She had to get out of there.

She fumbled for her wand. Trembling, she broke for the door.

"Hermione. There's something else."

Ron's voice still carried that trace of pity. She stopped in the doorjamb, but didn't turn around.

He went on awkwardly, "As long as you're feeling awful anyway, I might as well tell you. Otherwise you'll find out later and it will upset you again."

She comprehended his Ron-logic and understood that he meant no harm. "What is it?" she asked. Her voice sounded like it had aged a thousand years.

"The dragon is a Druid fertility symbol. It's also associated with the snake and the basilisk. It's a mark of Slytherin."

Tears filled her vision as she ran out into the night.


Christmas Eve at the Weasley's.

Fred and George with their latest creations from the shop. Veritaserum cigarettes, fun for family gatherings.

Excellent. Just fucking excellent.

"Do you love me?" Ron asked mildly as they ate Molly's dinner.

She wasn't even surprised. She always knew he'd take the opportunity if he got it.

"Yes," she said; he was still her dear friend, in spite of everything. She shot a look at Molly, who was biting her lip, worried. "Do you really want to do this here in front of everyone?"

"Yeah, I really do," he rejoined. "Why not? They all had a hand in it."

"Well, I wish you wouldn't," Harry snapped. "Come on, mate, it's a bit rough on your mum and everyone. Everyone knows it's not exactly happy families for you two." That was less tactful than Hermione would have expected, but then, he was breathing in the cigarettes as well.

"Well, you can take your perfect marriage to my perfect sister and leave, if you like," Ron said without rancour, his gaze never leaving Hermione's. "Do you love Severus?"

"Yes," she said with more than a hint of exhaustion. Ron exhausted her. This whole thing exhausted her.

"Why won't he come at Yule?"

"Because Yule is dangerous. Our blood...calls out to one other." She was thankful, at least, that the question was phrased in a way that she didn't have to tell what she and Severus had almost done. She didn't want to do that to Ron, even if he was being a bloody great git by doing this in front of his family.

Ron's mouth settled into a thin line. "And if you had to choose one of us?"

She put down her napkin. "Ron, I didn't have any real choice about either of you. I've no idea whether I'd choose either of you or neither of you." That was true as far as she knew it; she hadn't touched Severus or been alone with him for four years. It was possible that the magic would be less intense if she finally got that chance after all this time. Anything was possible. Suddenly on the offensive, she added, "Any more, I'd wager, than you know if you'd choose me or Susan Bones."

He countered, "I've never said anything to her you couldn't have heard."

"And sometimes whether you've done anything is the least important part of all."

"That's very true."

At this impasse, Molly opened her mouth to speak, but Arthur shushed her. Frowning, she rose and began to take up the plates. Hermione handed hers unseeing.

"Maybe it's time to find out," Ron mused, the Veritaserum cigarette still giving off fumes in his hand.

"What do you mean?"

"We'll get a divorce," he said. "And then I'll court you. And so can Severus. And I'll court Susan. And then...we'll all choose. Like we should have in the beginning." He shot a resentful look towards his mother.

"But Sperantia -"

Arthur said gently, "No one will ever withhold love from Sperantia in this family. Or you, either." She was provisionally encouraged that no one argued.

"Listen, you're being a bit over the top, here, mate," Fred said. He gathered up the Veritaserum cigarettes and put them away, with a guilty look around the table. Ron still had one, though, and he held it out of his brother's reach. Fred made a couple of shots for it, then conceded defeat, sitting back down.

Hermione gave a sound of exasperation. "But Ron, this is silly! Severus wouldn't even come anyway - he has a life in Gibraltar, and he really loves it there! He's got a woman there and everything!"

And that was when she realised she had lied about choosing Severus. Not to Ron - that was impossible under Veritaserum - but to herself. She would choose Severus - had chosen him long ago, on the Battle of Yule, when he reclaimed his old Patronus, and she gave him hers. The truth was, she was no longer convinced he would choose her.

Ron laughed, really laughed, completely without rancour. "Hermione, have you looked at what you're wearing?" Automatically, she glanced down at the necklace she wore. It had arrived by owl that day. "In case you hadn't noticed, that's a thestral tear. They mate for life. It means lifelong love."

She really could have throttled him. "Oh, Ronald, honestly. If I know Severus, he bought it at the very last minute, and didn't even look at it close enough to see what it was. He just thought I'd like it because it was pretty, for heaven's sake."

He just laughed again, this time with that inflection of pity she'd come to hate so much over the last year. "Said under the influence of Veritaserum. You really believe that," he marvelled. "Tell you what, Hermione, let's owl him. I guarantee he'll come."

So they owled him, and he came.

 

[SEVERUS - NOW] [OR: CHOICES AND SENSIBILITIES]

 

My dear Haitch,

I should like very much to see you. However, I am conscious of the propriety of doing so while you are married, regardless of whatever agreement you and Ronald might have reached.

Remus and Nymphadora have kindly agreed to host me for the time being. Conveniently, they have also agreed to serve as chaperones as needed. (I believe they may impose on me to babysit as quid pro quo, but that is neither here nor there. I am, after all, experienced with four year olds. Quite apart from being the father of one, I taught a number of students who would qualify during my career at Hogwarts. Not to mention a couple of teachers. But I digress).

I will not pursue you while you are bound to another, Haitch. I hope you understand. Until such time as you are free, I will see you only at your instigation, and only as a friend.

Always, Severus


Her reply comes by owl within the hour.

My dear Severus, (it began, seemingly to mock his own salutation)

You aggravating man, you're positively medieval. Chaperones? Won't pursue me while I'm bound to another? You gave me a great bloody thestral tear while I was bound to another. Honestly.

I've half a mind not to talk to you at all, but I suppose since you came all the way from Gibraltar that I really must. I will come to Remus and Dora's for dinner, if they agree, and they can watch us and we will sit six feet apart as though I were a Victorian maiden and not the mother of your child conceived in front of five people during a pagan fertility ritual. Not to mention your career as a Death Eater, during which I'm quite sure you were chaste and untouched, you utter great bloody git.

Oh, and I shall bring Sperantia. I'm sure she'll be much better company for Teddy than you. Did I mention you're a git?

Always, Haitch


Remus is laughing.

Severus says coldly, "I'm glad my predicament amuses you, Wolfman."

Nymphadora is laughing too. "What predicament, Severus? She's quite right, you *are* a bloody great git. No one would ever know you were born in the sixties."

Remus cuts in, quite seriously, "Severus, you couldn't be named as a co-respondent in the divorce no matter what you did. As the father of her child, conceived before the marriage, you have a prior claim on her. You could shag her right there in the Ministry and they still wouldn't give a finding of adultery."

"Very funny." Severus gives a snort of annoyance. "I'm sure you have a point, Lupin. Feel free to reach it any time now."

"My point, Severus, is that if you're going to be a coward about this, you don't have marriage law or protocol to fall back on as an excuse."

Nymphadora chimes in, "And frankly, her unhappiness is so utterly palpable that even her husband and her in-laws would like to see you together."

"Which just leaves you, old man. Do you want the girl, or not?"

His glare is silent and mutinous.

Dora sighs. "You're not fooling anyone, you know. You can carry on about chaperones and propriety and basically be as much of a stuffed shirt as you please, but at the end of the day, you threw in your life in Gibraltar on her say-so. You're accustomed to heroically keeping your feelings to yourself, or some such rot, because once upon a time it could have gotten you killed. But the war's long over, and the only thing that might happen if you fess up now is you might actually get the girl. Isn't that what you want? Isn't it why you're here?"

Remus says gently, "We're all adults here, Severus. Wanting to be with someone isn't the shameful secret it was when we were schoolboys. It's just life."

Severus bursts out in exasperation, "Oh, honestly, Lupin, is that how you see me? Do you really think I'm that juvenile?"

"Well, actually, yeah," he says awkwardly. "I mean, let's face it, we all had a pretty serious case of arrested development during the war. I'm not excluding myself from that statement, by the way. Most people outgrow their boyhood rivalries long before we did."

Severus gives a gruff sound that might, might, be a reluctant sound of concession. "Well, as you've noted, the war's long over."

"Which leaves the question of your dear Haitch," says Remus, stressing the pet name a little.

Severus can feel his wand hand itching, and stays it. "Just stay here and chaperone, will you?"

A smirk from both of them, damn them, but Nymphadora just says with a twinkle, "Of course, Severus. We're more than happy to facilitate your polite and utterly irreproachable pursuit of the lovely Miss Granger."

His face is a thundercloud, but he manages to spit out a chilly thank-you before leaving the room.

Their peals of laughter follow him up the stairs.


"So, when's the big day at the Ministry?" Remus asks.

Haitch is sitting exactly six feet from him, wearing a Victorian ballgown. It's to mock him, of course, and she has Transfigured the most alluring and sensual dress of the era she can contemplate. A corset accentuates every curve, and her shoulders and much of her décolletage is bare. She's teasing him and making a point all at the same time. He isn't sure whether to throttle her or carry her off to bed, chaperones be damned.

Nymphadora's mouth had twitched, but she had admitted Haitch without any comment other than a stoically neutral, "Nice dress."

In truth, beneath the wrinkle of irritation, it had heartened him to see it. He'd always loved her strength, above almost anything else, and he had wondered whether it had died in her years with Ron. But now that her destiny is hers once more, it has returned tenfold. She has always challenged him, always stretched him and drawn him out, and it warms him to see that she still can.

Now, Haitch turns to Remus, and says, "We have an appointment on Friday. We're hopeful they will perform the Handparting on the spot. It depends on whether the Ministry will accept a no-fault application; you know what they're like about those. Our lawyer thinks that in the circumstances, it will be accepted. No one wants a messy divorce that could drag three war heroes' names through the mud. The Prophet's interfering last year might actually be in our favour."

Dora says fervently, "Oh, thank Merlin." At their quizzical looks, she adds, "What? I've been bloody babysitting you two for five years. The sooner you shag each other senseless, the better off we'll all be."

Remus says, "I'll drink to that. Firewhisky, Severus?"

Severus buries his head in his hands with a groan.


"What are you thinking?"

He watches her steadily over his glass. "I'm thinking Remus and Nymphadora are taking an unnecessarily long time putting Teddy and Sperantia to bed. What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking you're being quite absurd about all this," she says, just as steadily. "However, you might as well relax and enjoy the evening. I certainly won't throw myself into your arms if you don't want me to."

"I never said I didn't want to," he says evenly. "I just said I wouldn't." He waves a hand at her ridiculous dress. "Is that what this was in aid of?"

She smirks. "I'd say it was twenty percent seduction, eighty percent making a point."

He holds her gaze. It has become a battle of wills, he thinks, to see just how honest they can get without looking away. She has manoeuvred him into this game without him realising she was doing it. Very well; he'll play. "You've never needed to seduce me."

"No?"

"No." He adds simply, "I've always been yours."

The playfulness leaves her then. Suddenly solemn, she says softly, "And I, yours."

"And then what?" he wonders. "I didn't come here to do something so insignificant as date you, Haitch. And I can hardly imagine that you would want to marry me fresh out of your marriage to Ron."

She isn't sidetracked into romantic epithets about his implied proposal; he would have been surprised if she was. "That was different," she says. "Ron was chosen for me."

"So was I," he points out.

"And then I chose you," she counters. "How it happened doesn't matter."

He cocks an eyebrow. "Doesn't it?"

"No, it really doesn't." She goes on, seemingly unprompted, "Severus, did you ever get the feeling that Remus and Tonks knew something we didn't? About us, I mean?"

He thinks about it. He remembers Remus, watching him with an odd look of pity the day after the Battle of Yule. Dora, giving him that same look the day she gave him Haitch's list. "Yes, now that you mention it."

"That's because they did. They didn't mean to keep it from us. They thought we knew, but we turned and ran that night, so we never saw it."

"Merlin's balls, woman, stop being so bloody elliptical. Start at the beginning."

She says gently, "Severus, have you cast a Patronus since the Battle of Yule?" He remembers with a start that Nymphadora had asked about his Patronus, too.

He nods. "It's not a doe anymore," he says, in response to what he assumes to be her next question. "It's a dragon. I assumed, having made some headway in healing from the war, that I had let Lily go enough to regain my original Patronus."

"Quite so," she says reflectively. "But you didn't regain your dragon after the Battle of Yule, Severus. You regained it during the Battle. What we did...it didn't just nourish the world. It nourished you. And I think...even though I didn't know about the Patronus, I knew that about you. I think that's why I let you go. And I think that's why you let me. Because that part of the ritual wasn't complete. Because you weren't whole for me. Not then."

He stares at her. Chokes out, "Haitch-"

"Mine's a dragon too, you know," she adds, almost as an afterthought. "I told you I chose you."

He lets out a rasping breath. Lets go of an old grief that he never even really realised he had. Finally allows himself to believe - really believe - that she's his, and not only by default.

He can't speak. He can only whisper again, "Haitch."

"That's what the ritual did, don't you see?" she says, shining her face up at him, and he can see her eyes gleaming with unshed tears. "It healed us both. Me enough that I could choose, despite what Lucius and Bellatrix did. You enough that you could get well, for yourself, and for me. Severus, tell me – before the ritual, did you once think that when the war was over, your first instinct would be to go and get well? Did you even perceive the need?"

"No." He hadn't really expected to survive it at all. He'd expected to die some rather undignified death, his unrequited love's name on his lips. Failing that, drinking himself into oblivion had seemed like a fallback position.

She gets up and moves towards him, dragging her stupid big skirt around the coffee table. She drops to her knees before him. "I choose you," she says implacably. "Do you choose me?"

"Of course I do. That's not in question."

"I think it is," she says reflectively. "I'm not going to ask you if you'd love me if we didn't have a daughter - I don't know if it's even possible to answer that question. But do you choose Hermione Granger, also known as Hermione Weasley, also known as Haitch? Or do you choose your child's mother?"

He reaches out. Touches her cheek and feels something in himself shatter as she sighs and leans in to it. "I choose both."

She leans up and kisses him, for the first time in four years. Soft and cautious and tender. Leans up against him, and his hands cradle her bare shoulders.

"Haitch, please," he whispers. "Not 'til you're free. I'm only human. And I won't have only part of you."

She strokes his cheek, then draws away. "Very well," she says with a tone that is almost indulgent. "But, Severus?"

He looks at her as she settles herself back into her oh-so-correct position exactly six feet from him. His expression is a question mark. She says:

"You already have every part of me that matters."


"Who's minding Sperantia?"

"Molly," she says. "It's her idea of a peace offering, I think. She feels guilty."

Severus shrugs helplessly. "She meant well. No one held a wand to our heads." If he was ever angry, it faded long ago. It had been an impossible situation, and they'd all muddled through as best they could.

"That was what I told her."

Her gaze is reflective for a moment, and it gives him the opportunity to observe her sidelong. She's striking, hair long and loose, sheathed in a simple red dress that shows off the planes of her back. Her eyes are brilliant and gleaming and the weight that has seemed to bear down on her shoulders the last few years has lifted.

He thinks that maybe, just maybe at last their time has come around.

It isn't only the changes in her. He knows, without a trace of ego, that he's better-looking now than he was during the war, and more importantly, he's whole. The wounds within him have closed. He has something to give her now.

Presently, she says, "Where are Remus and Tonks?"

He doesn't look at her, just keeps stirring the sauce. "Out," he says briefly. "You're free, as of five hours ago, so there's no question of impropriety. So I gave them the night off."

Her tone is mocking, but fondly so. "That's very correct of you. Unfortunately for you, all your efforts are for naught, because I plan to be utterly incorrect with you before the night is through."

He cocks an eyebrow at her. "And if I chose not to cooperate?"

"That would be unfortunate." She nods at the pots on the stove. "I haven't seen you cook before. I wouldn't have picked you for doing it the Muggle way."

"A good meal needs sensitivity as well as mechanics. It's like potion-making. It's best done by hand."

"Rather like a good woman," she teases.

He suppresses a smirk. "Indeed." He shoots her a smouldering look that is entirely calculated, and is rewarded by her lips parting, just a fraction.

He thinks he could ravish her there on the spot, but there are formalities to be handled first. He turns his attention back to the food, and asks, "How was your date with Ron?"

His voice is heavy with irony; it is an open secret that Ron's courtship of Haitch is a token gesture only, on both sides. It's kinder than the truth, which is that both parties would like to be rid of this soul-destroying marriage as quickly as possible. Serious dates are not scheduled for the afternoon.

"Rather good, actually. We agreed never to go on another one." She adds without rancour, "He went off to Susan's with indecent haste."

"I see." Goes on with assumed casualness, "I owled Matilda."

"Ah yes, your witch in Gibraltar." Her expression is a question.

"A courtesy only. Matilda likes to play the field, and I...wasn't really available. She sent a return owl with her best wishes."

"I see." She sounds as if she does see.

Their gazes meet for a long moment.

"Look, Haitch, you know what I want," he says abruptly. Adds awkwardly, "I'm not good at this."

"Then I guess I'll have to be good at it for both of us." She moves closer, gets in his space, between him and the stove. Leans over and breathes in the mingling scents rising up out of the pots. "Smells good."

He draws back her hair before it can fall into the sauce, and then she's twisting, leaning up, hooking her hand up around his neck and pulling him down with all her strength. Bending back over the stove as, urgently, his mouth descends on hers.

He feels heat from her and heat from the stove and tugs her away before it can burn her. They land against the pantry door, her face turned upwards, her breaths coming fast, and he feels his eyes glazing over with need as his world narrows to nothing but her. Her fingers are threading through his hair as she reaches up on her toes to kiss him; he cradles her head with one hand while the other strokes firmly down from her shoulder to her breast to her belly to her hip. It occurs to him that he should undress her - he's never seen her naked - but he needs to see those eyes of hers much, much more.

Her hands are at his waist and she's fumbling with his belt. "Table," she says, her eyes dark. "Now."

They stumble the few short steps, kissing and tugging at clothes. "You know," he says, "I do have some staying power. I swear it won't always be just hard and fast."

"Not tonight," she says, leaning back on the table, her dress half-on, half-off. She's gorgeous, laying there half-undone for him. "I want you."

"Nymphadora is going to kill us for doing this on her table," he says as he settles between her thighs. Her legs twine around him. Her strappy silver sandal is pressed against his thigh and that turns him on far more than it should.

"Are you going to talk all through this?" she demands, but his hand finds her then, pulling aside wisps of lace, and a second later he's inside her. She gives a little gasp and arches beneath him.

"Yes," he smirks, just to be annoying. Settles on his elbows and kisses her soundly. Feels her soften and surrender to him completely with a sigh. Grips her thigh to pull her deeper, and she clutches at his back.

"Severus," she says with her remaining composure, "the only words I want to hear from you right now are 'I love you' and 'I want you.' Otherwise, shut the hell up and touch me."

"I do, and I do."

Then he shuts the hell up, and he touches her, and the only words after that are his name, over and over on her lips.

 

[HAITCH - NOW] [OR: YULETIDE IN GIBRALTAR]

 

How it happened doesn't matter.

What matters is, she's in Gibraltar, and she's healing.

She lives in a sundrenched Muggle apartment with big windows looking out over the sea. She works with Severus by day and twines herself around him by night, and she takes Sperantia and Renata to swim in the Mediterranean every day.

She is researching the old magic that permeates this place. Seeks to understand what makes it special and what makes it work. She is careful, though, to have other pursuits as well. She knows firsthand that old magic can defy logic. Sometimes it's choice when there was none, sometimes warmth where there was cold, sometimes a dragon where there was a doe, sometimes a new child for a man who missed out on raising his first. Sometimes old magic is simply whatever the world needs at a moment in time.

She thinks that the last vestiges of the ritual have finally come to fruition - the restoration of balance and righting of the world, for her and for Severus, and for Ron, too. Susan bore Ron children after they were told it was impossible; she likes to think that is their restitution for the sorrow she and Severus unwittingly caused them. The last vestiges of fertility magic spread out to those who shared in its origin and its consequences.

Then, of course, there is their own very personal brand of old magic.

Their blood still calls out to one another; at certain times in the earth's cycle, their daily loves and needs transform into something deeper and brighter. She has come to cherish those times and draws on them as nourishment in their marriage.

This is one of those times, and she has woken desperately aware of him at her side.

"Good Yule," he murmurs. Shifts a little, lifting his body to cover her back. She feels crisp white sheets and sun and flesh and comforting weight and his breath on the back of her neck.

"Speaking of which," she murmurs back. Doesn't raise her head to look at him. Her voice is muffled by bedding.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Nothing. I was thinking of Yule. And what happens to us."

There is warmth in his voice. "And what might that be?"

"I'd tell you," she says lazily, "but the fact that you're pressing rather insistently into my back tells me that you already know."

He's not listening; she'd be affronted, but she knows he's half-asleep and half-ready and there are precious few brain cells left for anything else. His fingers are threaded through her hair, teasing it up and back. Her head tingles. He dips his face to the back of her neck to kiss her there. Slow and tender. She shifts a little, to ease herself further under him. Wanting him to cover her and consume her.

"Love me," she whispers. Already breathless and needy.

His hand cups her shoulder. Travels down to take her hand in his, and brings it up to rest on the mattress beside her head. Kisses it reverently, then grips her. Hand kneading hers. It's like he's already inside her, and she gasps, kneading back, rising up a little at her hips, opening for him.

He reaches under her to find her warm and waiting. "I do," he murmurs against her collarbone as he touches her there, as every part of her springs to life, poised, waiting. He's slow with her, until all there is for her is warmth and need and being shrouded in nothing but him, and she needs him inside her, needs to lose herself in who he is and who they are together.

"Please," she says, and finally, he does.

They move together, slow and languid, until she's drowning in him, her senses filled with him, kneading hands and his mouth on her shoulder and his clean, salty scent in her nostrils and oh Merlin, the way he melds with her, the way he chokes out her name into her hair, completely undone for her.

"Severus," she breathes into her pillow, "I love you, please -" And she knows he can't hear her, but it doesn't matter, he does it anyway. Brings her release and takes his own, sinking his head to her shoulder and stroking down her spine with one trembling hand. Touching her like something precious, and cradling her as the shudders fall away. Murmurs her name and fits his body to hers as warmth and sleep begin to claim them both once more.

Their first Yule, he covered her and purified something terrible with his love and made her warm in the snow. Now he covers her with sun and celebrates her and makes her see stars.

She no longer questions why they love each other. Perhaps, without the old magic, it would never have happened. Perhaps that's true. But if it is fostered and nourished by magic, it is grounded in what made the magic in the first place: the things they honour in one other.

And how it happened doesn't matter.

END