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Pride of Time

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Big, enormous thanks to my brilliant beta, SSB!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.


When she stumbled out of the floo yet again, coughing from the ash and soot that she'd inhaled-thinking that she needed to learn just how other people managed to do this without being reduced to a hacking cough-she found herself in a place that was just about as unfamiliar as it was dusty.

The floors and walls were covered in a fine layer of dust and cobwebs. There was a musty old couch in front of the fireplace that Hermione didn't even want to touch, for fear of breaking it and simultaneously setting off a dust storm. The room was incredibly sparse, and there was hardly any light to see by. Hermione managed to carefully walk across the room without disturbing anything with her touch, and slowly opened the door.

"Severus?" she called warily. The room she was peering into was as dusty and woebegone as the one she was standing in. A moment later, there was a flurry of dust and cobwebs and all manners of other things flying through the air and she let out a scream of surprise and stumbled into the door, smacking it open.

"I didn't think you would be flooing in—I was waiting in the living room for you to knock," Severus said, holding his hand over his mouth to avoid inhaling the dust swirling around them. "This place hasn't been lived in for nearly four years—Colligere!" he commanded. The cobwebs and dust in the room, whether they had remained untouched or had been disturbed moments before, suddenly pulled themselves to the tip of Severus's wand, collecting itself into a tightly packed ball. Hermione stood up and wrinkled her nose at it, and let out a sigh of relief when Severus promptly Vanished it. The room was now clean of the three-inch layer of dust and spidery designs that it had otherwise been encased in, and it looked better for it, though admittedly not by much.

A moment later, the couch suddenly let out a rattling shudder, gave way, and collapsed into a heap in the middle of the floor. A dozen doxies crawled out from holes in the fabric, and took to the air, angry at having their nest disturbed.

"Damn it. We'll deal with the little buggers later—come here," Severus said, pulling Hermione into the next room slamming the door shut. "Maybe I can collect their wings for potions ingredients."

He lazily flicked his wand again, collecting the dust that had been now twice-disturbed in the second room, collecting it into another compacted and enormous, gross-looking dust bunny before magicking it away. This room was thankfully free of any furniture, but for the wall which was lined completely with bookshelves.

"Please tell me you don't own a house elf," Hermione pleaded as she glanced around. "Last time I had to clean a place this filthy, we had to deal with a cranky old house elf, and as much as I have pity for them and their plight—"

"No, I don't," Severus sneered, looking around the room with distaste. A moment later, his expression dissolved into one of mild curiosity. "You've cleaned places like this before?"

"I'm fairly certain that it's safe to say that it was much worse than this place," Hermione said, grinning sheepishly at him now. "Things got a bit mad, really—it was more like waging war on the house than any sort of cleaning."

"And the house elf was no help, I suppose?" Severus enquired dryly.

"I'm afraid he did his best to make it known to us that we were not wanted," Hermione said with a sigh.

"In this case, I suppose I am for once grateful that I don't own an elf," Severus said, sounding amused. He strode over to one of the bookcases, running his finger alongside one of the shelves before he pulled out one of the books. A door slid open, and he gestured for Hermione to follow—who was then grateful that she had, for the room he led her into was far cleaner and more welcoming. Severus had clearly taken pains to rid it of dust and at make sure that the furniture was rendered serviceable. The bookcase slid closed behind them, and with a sigh of relief, Hermione took a seat on one of the armchairs.

"How big is this place?" she asked, pulling her bags out of her pocket and enlarging them at her feet, before using them as footstools.

"It's not all that grand, but it's comfortable enough—or will be, once it's livable again," Severus told her, taking a seat in the only other armchair in the room. He crossed his legs and leaned back, bracing his elbows on the side and proping his chin against one hand. "Three rooms downstairs and a kitchen. There's a basement that I dread having to confront, but I plan to use it as a potions lab, so that must be taken care of. There are three bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom, none of which have seen the light of day in several years and have undoubtedly collected all manners of obnoxious and mildly dangerous things."

"I guess the thing to do would be to go one room at a time," Hermione said, rolling up her sleeves. "We should probably start with the kitchen and then go back to the room with the bookshelves and doxies," she added thoughtfully, as she stood up. "I don't think some doxycide would go amiss, either."

Severus waved it off. "We don't need doxycide—Stunning Spells will do the trick."

Hermione raised an eyebrow at him. "Not if we're facing multiple doxies, and they are awfully small targets."

Severus lifted an eyebrow in return. "We're both quick with our wands. It should be fine."

"I disagree, but we'll go with your assumption for now," Hermione said. "Shall we begin?"

~o~O~o~

Taking care of the room with the bookshelves was rather easy. It required extensive cleaning, and Hermione had to get down on all fours at several points to poke her wand behind the bookcases, where she drove out several critters who had made their homes there. Bugs, mostly, were the culprit, although a lone doxy did worm its way out, followed closely by an enormous, two-foot long, flat centipede-like creature that Severus immediately shot dead. Some of the books had been nibbled on by mice, and Hermione helped Severus go through them all and figure out which ones were irreparable and needed to be disposed of.

Several of them contained Dark Magic. The books themselves did not appear to be dangerous, but the spells and instructions they held most certainly were. They numbered the minority amongst the other finds, however. Most of the finds were old textbooks and more benign spellbooks. Hermione chanced to open a few of the darker texts to have a look inside, and was met with instructions on how to liquefy a person's brain, how to apply deafening pressure on the eardrums, how to spell-cut a person's heart out, and a variety of other gruesome ways to maim or kill a person—some of which had notations that suggested that some of the methods were essential in the collection of ingredients needed for certain potions. Overall, it was more disturbing than the time Hermione had looked into Moste Potente Potions.

That single room took them nearly all day. By six o'clock, they were both quite hungry, so they took a break to visit Diagon Alley for some food. They returned an hour later, quite refreshed and in a much better mood than the cleaning had left them in, and got started on the room Hermione had flooed into. Hermione had to admit that Severus had had a fair point; while she, Harry, and the other Weasley kids had been unable to clean Grimmauld Place with only magic, she and Severus were perfectly capable of doing so. Stunning doxies was not an easy task at first, but it proved to be entertaining; they took down several within the first few seconds, and then threw up a Shield Charm that the remaining dozen or so promptly crashed into, and bounced off of, causing them to go spiraled dizzily to the floor. Stunning them after that was a piece of cake. Severus Conjured up a box to stuff them all into, and kicked it aside to deal with later.

The couch ended up being levitated through the now-clean library and the living room, and was then bodily tossed out to the curb. Hermione thought the room with the fireplace to be a second sitting room. The first one was rather small but serviceable; the only way into the rest of the house was to know how to open the bookcase in that room. It was almost like a cell for receiving guests rather than a proper living room, to be honest. The room that Hermione and Severus had just eradicated of doxies was a good deal larger and better-designed for the purpose. An old rug, the drapes, a collection of out-of-date copies of The Sunday Prophet, and a strange vase that made odd clicking noises when approached summarily joined the dilapidated, musty, broken-down couch on the corner of the street.

Without the drapes blocking it, the windows were able to let in some light, although by the time they got that far, the sun was going down and what light that did filter through was dim. They repaired the lighting on the old iron chandelier hanging over the room—which required a bit of pest removal, since a pair of juvenile lethifolds had made their home there. Hermione's silvery otter cornered them near the ceiling, and Severus made use of a rather handy spell that destroyed them both.

By the time they were done, and had turned on the lights in the room to examine their handiwork, it was past ten o'clock and they had not yet gotten to the kitchen. The two rooms they had cleaned were sparsely furnished and despite being quite thoroughly clean, they were almost depressingly spartan.

Severus retired to what Hermione now thought of as the entrance hall instead of a sitting room. She decided to sleep in the room with the fireplace, and she managed to transfigure a blanket and a pillow for herself. The hard wooden floor was distinctly uncomfortable, so Hermione gave up and moved to the room Severus was sleeping in.

He'd had the good sense to transfigure both of the armchairs into a single, comfortable mattress, and he raised an eyebrow at her when the bookcase slid open. He was lying on his side, reading, and seemed more amused than bothered by the fact that she'd disturbed him.

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, having thought that she might be able to borrow one of the armchairs for transfiguration purposes, but saw clearly at this point that that would not be possible. She tried to think of something to say, but Severus beat her to it.

"Hard wooden floor not doing it for you?" he asked dryly.

"Hardly," Hermione retorted. She was sleeping in her Muggle clothes, which had made her predicament more uncomfortable because of the way the waistband of her jeans dug into her sides when laying down. "I was actually going to ask if I could borrow an armchair, but seeing as you've used them both…"

"We could share," Severus suggested, sitting up a bit straighter. He was shirtless, though he had finally seemed to discover how useful comfortable muggle trousers could be; he was wearing a pair. The Dark Mark was visible on his arm from where Hermione stood.

"You must be joking," Hermione said, crossing over to examine the drapes that Severus was planning on throwing out last. He'd taken care of them before she had even arrived, and they were thus de-doxied, if still rather mangled, and they afforded a level of privacy from prying eyes. Still, they might be a temporary fix, if she could transfigure them into a thick enough mattress. "That's not happening."

"Why not?" Severus asked, setting his book aside. "It seems perfectly reasonable."

Hermione laughed. "To you, perhaps." She was feeling the curtain between her fingers now, trying to gauge its potential as a mattress, when she felt Severus's arms come to wrap around her waist. She twisted around enough to look at him, trying to suppress the flush of red that was rising across her face as he held her in place and nuzzled the back of her neck. "Severus!"

"I wouldn't do anything you didn't want me to," he purred.

"The fact that your hand is on my bum is not exactly encouraging on that front," Hermione pointed out wryly, sighing as she turned her attention back to the curtains. Really, they were bit too tattered and thin for her purpose, but they might still make it as a spring-less mattress…

"Look," Severus pointed out smoothly, the hand that had been resting on her backside now moving back across her belly, tracing ticklish, caressing circles underneath her shirt. "We're both adults now. You're not in school—we don't have to keep our activities… restrained." The way he said the last word, brushing his lips along the juncture of Hermione's ear now, made her shiver. Then his voice turned serious. "You trust me, Hermione. I know you do. Believe me when I say I won't do anything more than what we've already done unless you want me to."

"Oh, I trust you," Hermione responded, shifting slightly in his hold as the teasing of his fingers across her stomach finally got another reaction out of her; she was growing wet, though she hoped her face was not an instant giveaway of this fact. But what Hermione's fingers had managed to accomplish with a great deal of difficulty and the awkwardness of trying to silently frig oneself in bed had been sparked by just a few light touches of Severus's fingers elsewhere. It seemed her body was determined to side with him instead, even if her brain was recalcitrant. "But you're a Slytherin through and through, Severus—and when you want something, you're very good at finding loopholes."

Severus had the temerity to smirk at her. "So?"

Hermione managed to pull herself together enough to glare at him.

"No loopholes tonight," he promised silkily.

"You just wrote out a gaping loophole for yourself in that statement," Hermione remarked.

"But not for tonight," he countered. His hold around her tightened slightly, and he took a moment to suckle on the juncture of her neck and chin, causing Hermione to instinctively lift her head back to give him better access. "And I've wanted to do this for a long time—to just… hold you, while we sleep."

Hermione sighed, and glanced back at the drapes once more.

"You have a silver tongue, you know that?" she said, twisted around in his arms to face him.

"I do now," he purred as he dipped his head forward to kiss her thoroughly. Hermione let him, even responding playfully by dragging her fingers down his chest, before she pulled away.

"Not a chance," she told him, giving him a mischeivous smile. "But if you'd be a gentleman and give me something substantial to transfigure, I'd be quite appreciative."

He scowled blackly at her, but Hermione stood her ground as he reluctantly untransfigured his mattress back into two separate armchairs and then retransfigured his mattress, though it was noticeably smaller and less springy than the previous one. She knew that if she let him have his way, they would be having sex inside a week. Not tonight or the next night, perhaps; but they had not crossed certain lines while she was still in school, and Hermione had no intention of rushing into this and crossing them. They had not had any kind of romantic relationship while still in school together, and their interludes when they did see each other had been short. Hermione wanted to know if they could stand—if they could really stand—living with each other in such close quarters outside of school. They had barely been able to tolerate each other when they had first met; they would never have become friends had they not been very scholarly-oriented people.

Outside of that, what did they have other than their Order duties? If they could make this relationship work—and Hermione desperately wanted it to work—then she would be happy to take things to another level. But they were only just now spending time together like a real couple.

She thanked him with a kiss on his cheek, and though his scowl lessened slightly, he still watched her leave with her prize with a sullen expression on his face.

~o~O~o~

The next morning, Hermione woke up rather early and got dressed in a timely fashion. She slipped into the entrance room, and seeing Severus still asleep, quietly snuck up on him. She watched his brow furrow in his sleep as she approached, and she stood over him, silent and unmoving, until his senses finally got the message to his brain that there was someone else in the room, and his eyes snapped open.

Hermione couldn't help giggling at the startled look on his face. She bent down to kiss him, and then straightened up.

"Breakfast?" she asked, grinning at the bewildered look on his face. "We can Apparate to Diagon Alley and then tackle the kitchen."

His brows knit together into a glare, and then he sat up tiredly, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. His hair was mussed up and rumpled from sleep, and Hermione watched with something between surprise and amusement as he shook his head several times to get it out of his face.

"What time is it?" he growled.

"Seven," Hermione responded promptly.

He groaned and flopped back down on the bed. "Come back in an hour," he muttered, dragging the pillow over his face to block the sunlight streaming into the room.

Grasping both ends of the pillow, Hermione pulled it away. "We're starting work in an hour. Get dressed."

"Its summer," Severus snarled, yanking the pillow back and turning over on his side, his back to her. He was clearly not a morning person, with that attitude. "I'm sleeping in."

Hermione began wrestling the pillow from his grasp. "Severus Snape, just because the leaves are green doesn't mean you get to keep your lazy arse in bed until you feel like gracing the world with your presence. Get up!"

Severus let out a sound very much like that of an animal warning competitors off its territory, and yanked the pillow back. Hermione, who had not let go of the now much-abused pillow, tumbled forward on top of him, still clutching to object of their contention. They fought over the pillow for a moment, Severus sitting up to wrap his arms determinedly around it while Hermione straddled him in an effort to hold him down and get the upper hand.

"You—are most definitely—awake— by now—" Hermione ground out.

"I am not!" Severus gave the pillow another particularly hard yank, nearly ripping it out of Hermione's hands. He gave her a withering glare when she continued to hold onto it with determined tenacity, and then he stopped pulling; Hermione's only warning was the smug smirk curling up his lips, before he promptly let go of the pillow, causing Hermione to fall backwards onto the bed. He grimaced at this, wriggling his legs out from underneath her, before he attacked her throat with his lips.

And his fingers had gone directly to her stomach.

Hermione was then subjected to the experience of having the life snogged out of her while being tickled mercilessly.

"Oh god—Severus, stop—ah—stop this right—ah-haha—now—oh god, stop, stop stopstopstop—mrmmpf!"

She tried to push him away, but he was significantly stronger than her, and she was unable to muster up the energy when she could barely think straight. She was horribly ticklish, and Severus had her half-doubled over with laughter—laughter which was muffled by the fact that he was kissing her. He pulled away a moment later, and dragged her to him, spooning her back against his chest and locking her arms to her sides with his wrapped firmly around her.

"We've wasted fifteen minutes with our quarrel," he purred into her ear. "That means that you owe me the remaining forty-five minutes."

"Doing what?" Hermione countered.

"Snogging." He leaned back onto the bed, dragging her with him, and loosened his grip enough for her to twist around to face him. He reclaimed his pillow, and after a moment of fluffing it up, lay back comfortably with his hands buried in her hair, curling it around his fingers. He wearing an infernal, victorious smirk, and pulled her towards him, his mouth latching onto the base of her throat and suckling on it before moving up gradually to meet her lips. She folded her arms across his chest, laying half on him as she responded with eagerness, conceeding victory to him this round.

He kissed her lazily, enjoying the taste of her mouth, her neck, what little part of her shoulder was exposed, and even experimented in nibbling on her ear. Hermione returned the favor by dragging her nails lightly down his chest, curious as to what his reaction would be. His chest was only very sparsely covered in black hair, mostly centered in a thin treasure trail down his belly, and Hermione found she rather liked it.

What she liked even more, though, was his reaction. At first, it was minimal; he shivered a little underneath her touch, still nipping at the column of her neck. When she happened to drag it across the little coin-sized nipples, however, his head fell back and he bit his lower lip to bite back a moan. Mischievously pleased by this, Hermione continued to research, observing how his breathing quickened even as he regained enough control to drag her head down to his so that he could kiss her.

She felt something poking into her belly, and it grabbed her attention long enough for her to glance down at her watch to check the time. Seven fifty-seven. She gave Severus a smug, triumphant smirk of her own.

"Time to get up. Breakfast," she clarified.

He shifted underneath her, looking slightly uncomfortable for a moment before masking it with a scowl. "Fine. Leave for a few minutes, will you?"

Hermione slid off of the bed, and he winced at this momentarily before sitting up and throwing his legs over the other side. Hermione stumbled and shook the circulation back into her feet for a moment, and then left, the bookcase sliding shut behind her as Severus stood up to retrieve his clothes.

When she knocked again, and there was a muttered, "Come in," to let her know that he was decent, she saw he wasn't wearing robes.

"Good grief," she said, leaning against the doorway in a pair of Muggle jeans. "You penalize me for wearing Muggle clothes, and then wear them yourself? Hypocrite."

Severus gave her a withering look. "It's too hot for robes."

Hermione eyed the plain black cotton shirt he was wearing. One sleeve had been cut off at the shoulder, and it would have looked like a normal short-sleeved shirt if it were not for the fact that the other sleeve reached down just short of his left wrist, hiding the Dark Mark. He had changed into another pair of trousers, though these had been cut off just past his knees. He had no doubt gone out and found some Muggle clothing and altered it to his liking. For now, Hermione thought it looked ridiculous: all he needed to do was put on some metal and he would fit right in with an east coast rock band. It was completely absurd. It looked good on him, but was still eminently incongruous with his personality all the same.

To top it off, he was putting on a pair of black dragonhide boots. She placed a hand over her mouth and tried to refrain from giggling, but it was largely futile.

"Do control yourself," Severus snapped, not at all pleased with her amusement at his expense. He finished tying his boots, and straightened up. "Let's go."

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, sniggering behind her hand as they stepped toward the door, "But does it have to be black?"

~o~O~o~

"We shouldn't be doing this," Hermione told him unconvincingly as they stopped by Fortescue's for an after-breakfast treat. "It's not healthy."

"It won't kill you, either," Severus remarked, as Fortescue cheerfully handed Hermione a double-scoop of dark chocolate ice cream with a friendly, 'Here you are, Miss Hermione!' before turning around to take care of Severus's order.

If Hermione had thought Severus would stand out in Diagon Alley, she was quite mistaken. Some wizards who were most certainly strict, older-generation traditionalists insisted on wearing robes, but many were standing around in short-sleeves and pants. This month of June had hit one of those rare bursts of ninety-degree weather, and it was all anyone could do to stay cool. The only odd thing about his clothing, really, was that he was one of those mad nutters who insisted on wearing black.

When they returned to Spinner's End, they finished up their cold treats quickly and then ventured into the kitchen.

At first, its occupants seemed benign enough. There were several dead puffskeins that looked as though they had had an unfortunate encounter with the stove, and when one of the kitchen cabinets started rattling, Hermione and Severus had been forced to deal with a boggart. The boggart, confused by their double presence, and by their Occlumency shields, came out with the snarling jaws of a werewolf, its lower half fading away into a long sleeve of parchment, covered in exam questions, with a big fat 'T' at the end. It flopped and writhed on the floor, its canine head snapping impotently while the tail flipped and flapped uselessly. Hermione turned it into a stuffed toy, and banished it with little effort.

Severus had raised an eyebrow at this, but made no comment.

An infestation of chizpurfles was summarily purged by the rather unorthodox measure of summoning a horde of tiny splinters to stab and impale them all, but it got the job done. A dugbog had somehow gotten trapped in the oven, and Severus had wordlessly grabbed it by the tail and hauled it outside, tossing it toward the distant moor, where it scurried away. Flobberworms were extracted from the drain, along with an unholy amount of slime and gunk, and the rat and spider infestations were taken care of shortly after. A nest of yet more doxies had made themselves at home under the sink, and they joined their cousins in the box Severus had conjured earlier. The kitchen took longer than any of the rooms Hermione and Severus had previously cleaned, and they spent a good deal of time wrinkling their faces in disgust as they came across various problems.

Old food, or what was left of it, was thrown out. Broken shelves and termite-eaten wooden legs were repaired or thrown away. They stripped the place until it was completely spartan and bare, and then at long last stepped back to admire their work.

"Well," Hermione said, sitting down in one of the chairs that had survived the purging. "We could start stocking food here now, if you want. The entire downstairs is completely clean. "

~o~O~o~

Cleaning the four rooms upstairs took far longer than the first floor had. For one, there was more furniture, and secondly, the creatures that had fled the downstairs upon Hermione and Severus's arrival had set-up shop upstairs, and had made the decision to not go without a fight. The erklings roaming the upstairs bedrooms were a particular problem. It took them the rest of the month to get past the upstairs hallway, and in all that time, Severus was only summoned twice.

The first time was two weeks after they began their project, and he was gone for the entire day. Hermione had spent the time nervously milling around the kitchen, putting in new shelves and stocking up on food. When he was gone for more than four hours, she had begun to worry.

Please, she had thought as she turned and leaned against the pantry door. Please just let him come back in one piece. Why has he been called away for so long?

When he came back, he was perfectly fine, although he nearly cracked the back of his skull when Hermione turned her wand on him in surprise at his sudden appearance. He had Apparated directly into the kitchen, and was blown backwards with a reflexively-cast Blasting Hex.

"I'm sorry!" Hermione wailed, quickly moving to check that he was alright. He staggered to his feet, tearing off his mask and gritting his teeth in pain. "I'm sorry—you caught me completely by surprise—I thought you were a Death Eater!"

"I am a Death Eater!" he had snapped at her in irritation as she helped him into a chair. He brought his hand to the back of his head, and withdrew it, examing the sticky blood and hair clinging to his fingers. To be fair to her, he was dressed up in enemy garb, but he was still rather irate with the welcome he had received in his own home. "For Merlin's sake woman, pull yourself together and get me some ice. Fetch your notebook while you're at it—I'm fine!"

First day in, Hermione violated Professor Dumbledore's orders. She fetched his ice first and then collected her notebook to jot down his report, her justification being that his injury was technically her fault.

The second time was the morning of July first. Hermione had begun sleeping in the same room, their mattresses side-by-side, both because she wanted his company and because she was tired of being awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of laughing erklings. It was difficult to deal with their haunting cackles and attempts at luring her to follow them when one woke up alone, and if she was in the same room as Severus, his presence made her feel safe.

The previous night, the erklings' calls had gotten louder, more bold, and more disturbing, causing Hermione to sit up on her mattress and scream out a string of elaborate threats which all ended with their sticky, painful demise if they didn't fucking shut up. This quieted them for all of five long minutes before they started up again. Hermione rolled off her mattress and crawled onto Severus's, and after yanking his pillow out from underneath his head with a startled yelp of protest from him, she used both pillows to try and block out the sound. Silencing Charms only stayed in place for so long, and though they had placed strong wards to prevent anything from entering their room while they slept, they still did not want to risk allowing themselves to be snuck up upon in their sleep.

Instead of yanking his pillow back and lambasting her for weakness, Severus pulled her against him, rubbing soothing circles on her back and, pulling one pillow away from her ear so that she could hear him, promised that they would take care of the master bedroom where most of the maddening creatures were holing up tomorrow. Hermione snuggled against him gratefully, and that was how the next morning had found them.

But instead of their planned erkling extermination, Severus had leapt out of bed before Hermione was fully awake with an exclamation of, "Bloody hell!" as he rushed to get dressed, clutching the writhing snake and skull tattoo on his arm. He was gone in less than three minutes, leaving Hermione to make breakfast for herself, alone.

The erklings made themselves known all throughout the morning, cackling and taunting her, and Hermione nearly snapped and went after them. She refrained; if it had been just one or two, she would have been able to handle herself just fine. But there were nearly a dozen of them, judging from the noise they were making, and Moody and Kingsley had taught her a valuable lesson in not throwing herself into unnecessary danger without backup.

Tomorrow's tragic news, she thought dryly as she took a sip of her morning tea. Hermione Granger, duellist and spy handler, found half-eaten by a herd of rampant erklings. Investigation still pending on details concerning her demise…

When Severus returned, he Apparated into the kitchen with his hands in the air to show her he was unarmed, no trace of prestidigation in his demeanor. Hermione nearly tore his mask off to kiss him, had him out of his Death Eater robes in one minute flat, and was dragging him upstairs moments later, wand at the ready and a slightly wild look in her eyes. The room of erklings was as populated as they had suspected, and Hermione threw her sense of ethics aside and stood behind Severus to cast a Shield Charm around him as he promptly cast the Avada Kedavra curse on the whole lot.

Later, she would blame it on insanity caused by listening to the cacklings of the now-dead erklings, insanity that was not much different from extended exposure to Fwooper song. But as soon as they were done, she pulled Severus into a passionate snog and told him how much she loved him.

It was only afterwards that they sat down and actually discussed the details of the meeting he had been summoned to.

The rest of the day was spent exterminating the remaining creatures that had taken up residence in the master bedroom. Infestations of all kind were to be found in the bed, dresser, nightstand, picture frames, shelves, and even cracks in the wall. Every single piece of furniture was blown to bits in the process of the extermination, and Severus had the honor of setting the bed in flames before disposing of the ash while Hermione worked at repairing the floor. The drafts in the room were repaired after several parts of the wall were knocked down to extract creatures that had otherwise thought themselves safe from expulsion, and by the time they were finished, they had done a rather thorough job: the room was completely devoid of furniture or anything remotely alive other than themselves.

"You know," Hermione said with a sigh as she took a seat on the floor, "I swear that after this, I am never stepping in a haunted house ever again."

"Don't relax now," Severus told her, smirking. "We still have three more rooms to take care of. And then there's the basement."

With the absence of the erklings, they finally got a good night's sleep, and taking care of the remaining bedrooms was a comparatively painless task. The basement was another matter entirely, and to avoid being ambushed in the dark, Hermione had ingeniously thrown in several barrels of hay soaked in Muggle lighter fluid and set the entire room on fire.

They did receive a visit from the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes for this one. Hermione and Severus had waved off the officials who had stopped by to investigate, informing them that they were just "Spring cleaning." Raised eyebrows notwithstanding, they shut the door in the Ministry's face on this one.

They returned to the basement an hour later to find the walls scorched but otherwise undamaged and easily repaired. The room was beneath a single foot of ash, which was easily scourgified away, and as soon as they installed torch brackets on the side for lighting, it was quite useable. Severus made it his personal project to set up his own Potions lab, and Hermione nicked quite a few of his new tables from the Room of Requirement.

While in the end, their summer project of making the house safe to live in was not completed until after the first week of July, they were now only left with the much easier task of making it comfortable by adding furniture and amenities. In one of Hermione's visits to Dumbledore, he offered her two cozy red chintz armchairs for the living room, which she gratefully accepted.

Severus took one look at the armchairs and jabbed his wand at them, charming them dark green before he allowed Hermione to help him decide where to place them.

Lucius Malfoy, in a show of apparent goodwill, had two of his house-elves drop off a new kitchen table that he claimed he had found in the wine cellar of Malfoy Manor. It certainly smelled of wine, though it looked nice enough that Hermione made no protest when Severus replaced the old table with the new one. Hermione stopped by Diagon Alley several times to browse through new rugs for him, returning with one that was in dark jewel colors. They placed it on the floor of the living room, a blood-red and black diamond-patterned one that Severus allowed to remain since the colors were tasteful enough.

Cheap but comfortable four-poster beds were acquired, though Severus enlarged the one for the master bedroom into a double. New furniture was collected on a daily basis, and now that the house was clean and safe to roam around in alone, Hermione took what had been Severus's old room as a child while he took the master bedroom. She was finally able to fully unpack her trunks and store her clothes in a dresser and her odd ends and things in a closet, and was grateful for it.

The house was still sparse, but it was starting to feel more welcoming and more like a home than a dilapidated lair, though the color scheme was a bit dark. Still, there was plenty of light afforded in the bookcase-hidden rooms by lamps and windows with open drapes.

Hermione had spent the entire month and a half on good terms with Severus, becoming quite comfortable in their relationship. They rarely fought, if ever, though there were certainly a few near-disasters, such as the one wherein Hermione hexed Severus after the first time he had returned from being summoned. In fact, without schoolwork to dictate their lives, they actually got along with more ease, able to dedicate their time to the discussion of other topics of interest. In addition, while Hermione never tried to dictate Severus's choice in furnishing his home, he often listened to her suggestions, even if he did not admit it outright. It was astonishing how well they got along—where Hermione had been worried that they would be snapping at each other at every turn, much as she and Ron sometimes had, they rarely found themselves in serious disagreement.

Without the added stress of exterminating pests, and given the rarity of Severus's summonings, the two of them had a great deal of time to spend together. Often, to get out of the house, they would stop by Diagon Alley to visit the bookstore or Fortescue's. Other times, they would Apparate to Hogsmeade for a visit to The Three Broomsticks, where they would find a booth together, pull out whatever they had brought to read, and relax over a hot drink, despite the fact that it was still summer. Despite the season, the temperature had dropped one week into the mid-sixties; the English summer was fickle, and a spot of something warm at those times was much-warranted. Other times, Severus would shut himself up in his Potions lab to be alone, and Hermione would entertain herself with the newly-restored library.

Throughout their time together, Hermione had become more exploratory and certain in regards to their relationship. Thus, kissing had progressed to bouts of full-on snogging, with added instances of groping. Sometimes, Hermione would be standing in the library, browsing for a book, and Severus would come up from behind her and wrap his arms around her waist, pulling her to him and kissing her neck. On one particular, memorable instance, he had murmured things into her ear that had gone straight to her groin while his hand unzipped the front of her jeans enough to slip inside. He had tugged aside the crotch of her knickers, and drew a single finger along her seam in a way that had her moaning and panting rather wantonly before he went one step further and pressed a finger into her, while the other hand moved to cup her breasts, squeezing them through the fabric of her shirt.

He had never done anything quite like that before. There had been exploration, yes, but never anything so bold, and Hermione found she loved every minute of it. As soon as he had withdrawn his hand, examining the moisture on it and giving it a sniff before placing it in his mouth—and deciding he quite liked it—Hermione had turned around and grabbed the crotch of his trousers, where a slight bulge had already made itself visible. He nearly choked on his finger at that moment, and Hermione used the opportunity afforded by his surprise to return the favor and take apart the placket of his trousers.

They had not gotten further than that, for at that moment, there had been an untimely Floo-call from the living room. Swearing profusely, Severus had quickly pulled away, making himself presentable before striding out to see who had the audacity to disturb him. It was Lucius Malfoy, as it turned out, and as Hermione watched from behind the doorway, she could tell it was taking all of Severus's self-control not to hex the blond man.

His message, however, had been important.

"I just thought I should warn you that the Dark Lord is holding a gathering of the inner circle," Lucius had told him conversationally. "Make sure you have no plans for July 31st."

After that, Hermione had been busy bringing her record of their conversation to the Headmaster and discussing the implication of such a gathering. She did not return until very late, and she was too exhausted to do more than kiss him good-night.

"Sleep with me tonight," Severus coaxed her, running his hands along the curve of her shoulders as she undressed for bed. "Keep me company."

"Not tonight, Severus," Hermione said tiredly, thinking he would want more than just her company. She simply wasn't up for it tonight.

She was grateful when he did not argue, but slowly turned her around to face him and dropped a kiss on her forehead before leaving for his own room. The next morning, however, he woke her up with a kiss on the cheek, an uncomplimentary remark about the tangled mess that was her hair, and the suggestion of getting downstairs for breakfast before her toast turned cold.

As it turned out, her toast was cold by the time she got down; getting dressed had been quite difficult, thanks to the fact that Severus didn't seem to want her to. She was forced to laughingly bat his hands away as she tried to clip her bra on, and pulling on her shirt was quite difficult to do while trying to prevent his fingers from undoing her pants while his lips kissed her neck. He had even had the temerity to grind himself slightly against her hip, subtly dragging the waistband of her jeans down a bit. Smirking infernally with amusement at her predicament, he nevertheless allowed her to make it down eventually.

"You are an arse," she told him, laughing, as she took the stairs.

Later, she returned the favor by making lunch and then knocking on the door of the basement to let him know. He didn't come up until some ten minutes later, and when he finally emerged, she tackled him. He let out a grunt of surprise as his back hit the door, but was standing upright a moment later, running his hands under her shirt while she had her arms wrapped around his neck, suckling on his earlobe in a way that made him involuntarily groan.

Hermione pulled back to smirk up at him victoriously, and was about to pull away and return to the kitchen when she found herself being pinned to the floor, and peppered with kisses, with something familiarly hard pressing against her thigh. Not at all fussed by this turn of events, Hermione responded eagerly, burying her fingers in his hair and pulling his lips down to hers. His hands had begun working insistently on her shirt, and she let out of a muffled yelp of protest when she realized he had gotten impatient and was now tearing it off, ripping it in half with both hands in short, quick, jerks. He did the same to her sleeves, and then yanked the entire thing off of her.

Hermione beat him to her bra, pushing him off for a moment so that she could sit up and reach behind her back to undo the clasp. She slid it off, and he tossed it aside before turning his attention to her breasts, burying his face between them before taking the tip of one in his mouth. Hermione found herself squeezing her eyes shut and arching underneath him as he suckled, licked, and swirled. Her eyes snapped open when she felt him retreat, his hands moving down quickly, impatiently, eagerly toward the waistband of her jeans. Hermione allowed him to unzip them, wriggling out of them of her own accord before turning the tables on him and attacking his shirt. Eager to leave his clothing intact, at least, Severus pulled back and quickly shrugged out of his half-sleeve black cotton shirt, and then began working frantically at his trousers.

It was at that moment that Hermione realized how far he was planning to go. She watched him, using the brief interlude to ask herself if she really did want this—and when his hands returned their attention to her breasts, cupping and squeezing them, she decided that yes, she did. She most certainly wanted it. Satisfied with her choice, but now insistently eager to go through with it, she began pulling off her knickers, and let out a moue of surprise when he pushed her back down against the floor, attacking her neck with his lips. His hands were still at work stroking and pinching her breasts—she had long since pegged him as a breast man—and then her eyes opened in surprise when she felt him grinding against her.

It felt good, when he rubbed against her, but it did not last for very long. Without warning, he entered her, and Hermione's eyes flew open in surprise and she gasped for breath, trying to adjust to this new, foreign invasion. He stilled for all of one moment, his face curtained by his greasy black hair, and then he began thrusting.

It was as awkward as it was heated. Hermione wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his hips, trying to adjust to the new sensations while also trying to meet his movements so that she could garner more friction and pleasure for herself, but Severus could not seem to do it. He was too lost in his own haze of pleasure to notice that she did not seem to be getting quite as much out of it as he was. His eyes were closed as he panted hard, holding her to him, pounding into her with such force that he seemed to think it was the last thing he would ever do. He was insensate to everything but the feel of her around his cock.

Hermione felt him tremble over her, shuddering as though someone had poured ice water down his back. His hips jerked out of rhythm for a moment, and then he slumped over her, winded. His hips jerked again, and she felt him softening inside her before he braced himself partially on his elbows, resting his cheek on her shoulder. She twisted her head to the side to glance at him, and found herself confronted with a look of completion on his face. He looked so relaxed, so calm, so thoroughly satisfied. And there was an underlying layer of greedy appreciation, satiation, and awe in his eyes as they locked onto her.

Hermione found herself to be pleased, but also severely disappointed. After all those weeks of pleasurable foreplay and teasing leading up to this, it turned out that those instances had been far more enjoyable than this one moment. She sighed and leaned back, resting her head on the rug and wondering when he was going to get up, because the rolls were certainly getting cold now, although the bacon sandwiches were probably still salvageable…

Her thoughts were interrupted shortly when her lover lifted up his head to look down at her, and wearing one of those trouble-promising smirks that reminded her so much of the time he had convinced her to sneak out of the school for his birthday, he very deliberately began grinding into her again. He had hardened again somewhat, and now Hermione could feel it as he deliberately stroked in her, watching her face with concentration that had been sorely lacking not ten minutes ago.

She blinked when she saw his face pinch into a frown, and then one of distaste, and for one ridiculous moment thought that perhaps she had done something wrong until he pulled out and coaxed her to her hands and knees. He pressed her back to his chest, nibbling on the juncture between her neck and shoulders, while one hand came around her waist and slid down between her thighs, fumbling for a moment before he found what he was looking for. His other hand was busy stroking himself back to full hardness, and in the meantime—

Hermione let out the first real moan of pleasure of this encounter as his fingers began working on her clitoris, experimentally trying to find what got her off best. This seemed to please him, for though his expression became one of difficult, pleasure-distracted focus, the frown disappeared. He continued nibbling and suckling on her neck, before moving to the other side of her face to lick behind her ear, desperately trying to get another visible reaction out of her.

Hermione gratefully obliged, moaning and panting wantonly as sparks of pleasure that had only been random, chance encounters moments ago turned into a consistent build up, a cascade of lighting-shocked water waiting for enough momentum to break through the dam that held it back. He was grinding against her now, and then—

"Oh god," she moaned, when he entered her again, this time from behind. The angle felt quite good—different and new, though everything about this experience was new, really, but it touched more sensitive places inside her than—ohthat felt good… "Oh, yes, Severus, yes…"

His strokes this time were slower, and they hit deeper, and while the latter made little difference to Hermione, the fact was that now she could really feel him when he moved, truly enjoy the sensations, and coupled with the hand furiously playing with the tight bundle of nerves between her legs while the other was braced against the ground to keep himself balanced, she was just now getting an idea of how enjoyable sex could really be. The first time, it had been strange and new for both of them, neither quite knowing what exactly to expect, and it had been over too soon. Now, however, Hermione was doing a quick one-eighty on her opinion of it. Where some fifteen minutes ago she had thought sex would become a chore, she was now of quite the opposite opinion.

The build-up to climax was intense. Several times, Severus stopped moving, presumably to keep from coming early, while his fingers quickened and became more practiced and more knowledgeable about precisely what worked for her. Hermione found herself shuddering, squeezing him tightly within her walls in short, uncontrolled spasms, and just as she was teetering on the edge of something much bigger than before, something very promising, he would start moving again, changing the rhythm of his fingers and causing Hermione to cry out both in pleasure and protest. Eventually, his pace quickened, returning to the point where he was pounding near-insensate inside her, and this time, Hermione was the first to shudder and let go.

Light danced and pulled at her eyes, forcing her to squeeze them shut and clench her teeth together as her body shook and trembled with orgasm. Her arms and legs gave way, and she would have slid to the floor had Severus not held her up. He finished again moments after her, and this time, he pulled out almost immediately, rolling her over onto her back to examine her face closely. He seemed to like what he saw, for after satisfying himself that the expression on her face was one of lassitude and post-coital bliss, he flopped down to enjoy his own, eyes half-shut with lazy satiation.

Hermione felt her breathing slow gradually, and she moved her fingers to wrap in his hair as soon as she had gathered up the strength to move her arms. Despite the fact that they seemed to have the consistency of jelly, she was able to pull his head to hers so that she could angle her lips with his in a lethargic, indolent kiss. She let go after a moment, resting her head against the floor again, and sorely tempted to simply fall asleep there when she felt Severus drag himself away and stand, pulling her to her feet as well.

"I suppose lunch is ruined now," he murmured silkily.

"The rolls are probably a bit hard, but the bacon sandwiches…" Hermione swayed for a moment as she regained her balance, and then flushed red when she felt something warm, wet, and sticky leaking out of her and clinging to her thighs. "Why don't you check to see if you still find them edible while I go clean up?"

Severus gave her a leering smirk. "Don't clean up. Just get dressed."

Hermione swatted his rump, but reached for her clothes instead of seeking out her wand for a Cleaning Charm. "You are an arse."

Severus's expression twisted into one of smug, self-satisfaction.

~o~O~o~

It wasn't until an hour later that Hermione finally remembered to ask Severus to brew a Contraceptive Potion. When the idea had hit her that she had forgotten it, she spent all of three minutes in a panic attack before Severus lazily told her that he already had—and had taken it himself.

Hermione glared at him, secretly pleased and quite visibly irritated by this. "You planned this," she accused.

He raised a single eyebrow at her before returning to the potion he was brewing. His face had turned expressionlessly blank, as it always did when he was either attempting to hide his thoughts or shoring up his defenses. "Of course I did," he said smoothly, tapping his stirring rod on the side of the cauldron once to shake off drops of a thick orange brew before setting it down beside his other implements. "I started taking it before you arrived. Don't mistake common sense for cunning," he quipped back at her.

Hermione covered her eyes with her fingers, silently trying not to laugh, but failing to hide her smile with exasperation. "Unbelievable."

His lips curled into a smirk, and then he returned his attention to the potion. "I'm taking over Slughorn's teaching schedule. The Headmaster was kind enough to send me his notes, but the man was so ridiculously disorganized that he never wrote down his lesson plan for first-years." He peered down into his cauldron to examine the thick paste that was forming at the bottom, and then began scraping it out into a jar. "Do you reckon burn paste is too complicated for them?"

"You can hardly find a simpler potion," Hermione pointed out. "They have to start somewhere."

Severus grimaced. "They'll be melting cauldrons left and right, the little buggers."

Hermione gave him a wry smile, thinking of Neville. "You're probably right."

"I know I am. It was a constant occurrence until half the class was able to drop the subject." He sneered down at the burn paste, and then set the spatula he was using to scrape it out aside. "Potter and Black took great pleasure in sabotaging my potions at every opportunity. I might have failed the class if it weren't for the fact that they often did it right in front of Slughorn, so he'd give me another chance to finish the potion with full marks—though they did stop sometime around the end of sixth year," he muttered. "I suppose I should be grateful for that."

"At least they stopped after that time I had to help replace your Transfiguration notes," Hermione pointed out. "There's no point in dwelling on it anymore. James and Sirius are completely different people now than they were then—and so are you, I might add."

Severus snorted. "It doesn't change the fact that they made my life at Hogwarts a living hell."

"I won't contest that," Hermione said with a sigh.

"They may be your friends, Hermione, but they are not mine."

"I don't expect that to change, either," Hermione told him, "but I would like to remind you that James Potter did stop Sirius from letting his prank go too far—"

"By asking you to do his dirty work," Severus snapped. "Why do you keep defending them?"

"For the same reason I always defended you to them," Hermione responded coolly. "Because they're my friends, and perhaps it's a fault of mine, but I happen to see the good in them—and in you."

Severus muttered an oath under his breath, and sealed up the jar of burn paste, setting it aside. He was about to clean up his things when he suddenly gripped his arm, hissing in pain.

Hermione was on the ball in an instant. "Go," she ordered, collecting his knife and stirring rod and moving to put them away after casting a silent Cleaning Charm on them. "I'll take care of this."

Severus gave a stiff nod, and strode quickly up the stairs, still gripping his arm.

~o~O~o~

In the two weeks leading up to July 31st, Severus received an almost daily summons. It was then that Hermione began to adhere to Dumbledore's orders regarding such a routine, and had her notebook ready to take his post-summons report before leaving to notify the Headmaster. Severus always returned unhurt, but deeply disturbed. The Dark Lord spent the majority of his time ranting, and twice Severus had come face to face with a pair of cold red eyes snarling in his face. He was not the only one, however. Voldemort was still human, though there were changes that were distinctly noticeable and would later be exacerbated by his resurrection, and his appearance was frightening. He demanded information on the Potters and Longbottoms, information Severus did not have and that many of his followers simply did not know.

"Which one?" Voldemort would hiss, pacing, putting every present Death Eater's teeth on edge. "Which one is it?"

Severus began to distance himself from her at times, shutting himself up in the basement to do his private projects. Hermione gave him his space most of the time: he was carrying a lot of guilt, the majority of which was intensified by the increasing insanity and obsession Voldemort was displaying in regards to killing Lily's unborn son—as well as Alice's—not to mention the fact that when Hermione had the opportunity to check up on Lily a week before she was due, she did not look happy. She was cooped up in a safe house, and would not be going to St. Mungo's. She and Alice would only have an Order member on hand who was a certified healer, but that was not quite the same, or possibly enough. It was simply stressful, and Severus brooded silently in the basement about how it was all his fault—his fault.

When he emerged, Hermione would sit him down and force him to talk to her about it. He had his space, and now he needed to let her do her job and handle him—and his fragile psychological state. At first, he was largely uncooperative, and they would sit in long silences in front of the fire without a word being said between them. Then, eventually, he would talk. Short, to the point, and clearly, teeth-gnashingly irate. All of this had happened in the short space between when they had first been intimate and while they were waiting for the arrival of the yet-unborn but so very important little people. It meant that where Hermione might have otherwise joined Severus in bed and continued to engage in sexual activity with him, the two became too emotionally distant for that to happen.

He wanted to see Lily. He wanted to see her son, when he was born, and tell her that he was sorry. He wanted her forgiveness even at the risk of her forever condemning him instead. He wanted Hermione to let him stew in silence, and he wanted the Dark Lord to do them all a favor and go off himself.

Hermione spoke of the doable requests to the Headmaster, who sat quietly at his desk for a long time before he muttered thoughtfully that it, "Might be possible." These tidings cheered Severus up somewhat, and when the news arrived that Lily had given birth to a baby boy— quite soon after Alice gave birth—he was insistent.

To Hermione's surprise, the Headmaster allowed it. He himself Flooed to Spinner's End, and brought Hermione and Severus to the safe house where Lily was staying until she had recovered. James, who was sitting in the kitchen on a stool, staring into the fire, had jumped up in surprise—first when he saw Dumbledore, then when he saw Hermione, and then a third time when he saw his most hated schoolboy enemy.

"Professor—Hermione—Snape!" He had spluttered, his wand drawn, and uncertain of what to do. "What—?"

Hermione put her hands up. "Just so you know it's actually us and not a couple of imposters, my name is Hermione Jane Granger and I'm the one you came to when you realized that Sirius was pulling a fatal prank involving Severus and Remus." She smiled wryly at him. "You snuck into the girls' dormitory to do so, and practically dragged me out of bed while I was still half-asleep."

James lowered his wand a fraction of an inch. "Only you would know that," he admitted. But then his attention turned to Severus, and he threw the greasy-haired man a dirty, distrustful look. "But why is he here?"

Hermione and Dumbledore both turned to look at Severus. He took a deep breath, and then spoke.

"I'm here to see Lily," he said quietly.

James lost it.

"No you don't!" He roared, wand up again and ready to hex. "You bastard—I'm not letting you anywhere near her! Headmaster," he pleaded, turning to Dumbledore, "Why would you let him? He—"

"Severus has my full trust in this matter," Dumbledore interrupted, his voice calm. "He wishes to see how she is doing, and he has something to say to her. He has something to say to you, as well, but I think that he should speak to Lily first. That is," he continued cordially, "if she is awake?"

"It had better not be a love confession," James growled, but Hermione could see the fear and confusion in his eyes. "If he's got something to say, he can say it to me now, to my face."

Severus sneered at him, about to speak, when Hermione shushed him. She stepped forward to James, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"James, do you trust me?" she asked simply.

"Of course—"

"Then sit. Down."

James sank slowly back into his chair. Hermione pulled out a chair beside him, and took a seat.

"You trust Professor Dumbledore too, right?"

"Yes, but—"

"James, do you really think either of us would bring Severus here so that he could try to hurt or steal Lily from you?" Hermione asked carefully.

James threw one last glance at Severus, and then shook his head. "No," he admitted.

"Then please let him see her," Hermione said, taking his hand in hers and giving it a friendly squeeze. "I promise it's not a secret from you. You'll get to hear what he has to say from him, too. But let him have his moment with Lily."

"He still—"

Hermione cut him off with two quiet words in response: "He doesn't."

James gave her a long hard look, his face pale and drawn from stress and tension, and then he reluctantly turned to Dumbledore, refusing to look at Severus.

"Fine," he said tonelessly. "Go on up. She's awake with Harry—that's what we've named him," he said, his eyes flickering between the three of them. "Harry… Harry James Potter." He gave them a thin smile. "Lily got to pick out his name, since she's the one who had to carry him around for nine months."

Hermione was grateful that Severus merely disappeared through the door leading to the stairwell without another word, followed by Dumbledore. He had worn robes for this occasion, and when they flapped behind him, Hermione was momentarily reminded of him as her professor: tall, dark, intimidating, with his robes weaving dramatically behind him when he walked.

The door closed behind them, and as soon as their footsteps died down, James buried his face in his hands. Hermione grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to her in a comforting hug.

"I know you must be miserable, locked up every hour of the day," she said quietly, trying to be comforting. "I'm sorry that you have to deal with this—you and your family."

"Were you telling me the truth?" James croaked, without looking up. He rubbed at the stubble on his chin with one hand, looking tired and haggard. "He doesn't like her that way?"

Hermione considered best how to answer his question.

"James, how do you see me?" Hermione asked. "Did you ever like me?"

James's eyes flew open. "No! Well, I mean, when I first met you, I admit I thought you were cute—you were pretty, even when your hair was a bushy mess." He eyed her warily. "But I've never—I don't know. I've always thought of you as a little sister. I don't think I could ever see you as anything else."

"You nailed it," Hermione said, squeezing his shoulder. "That's how he thinks of Lily, too. They were friends for a long time, and even if she's not, he still cares for her like one. He doesn't have any interest in her. I certainly wouldn't bring him if I thought that were the case. Dumbledore wouldn't, either, and we both know how perceptive he is about other peoples' intentions."

James looked at her anxiously. "How do you know? Did you just take his word for it? Dumbledore's?"

Hermione cocked her head to the side for a moment to think. "Well," she began thoughtfully, twirling a lock of her hair between two fingers. "I suppose I know much in the same way you know how Lily feels about you."

James looked at her in confusion for a moment, and then it dawned on him. His expression turned into one of horror.

"No!"

"Keep your voice down!" Hermione hissed, glancing at the door.

"We're the only ones here—besides Snape and the Headmaster." James looked at her in distress. "Hermione, tell me you're joking—please. I don't—I can't imagine—Snivellus!"

Hermione smacked his shoulder playfully. "Get that image out of your head! I don't want you thinking about the two of us together. That's our business."

James gaped at her. "Oh, Merlin. I think I'm going to be sick."

Hermione glared at him. "I would think you would rather be relieved at the idea that his romantic interests are otherwise taken."

"Did he force you?" James demanded. "Did he slip you something? Blackmail? Did he… you know… come onto you, and you couldn't say no?"

"No, James!" Hermione snapped wearily. "We're together because we like each other. It's mutual." She raised an eyebrow at him. "That's how relationships work, you know."

"Still… I can't believe… Snape, of all people…" James stood up, still muttering under his breath. "I guess you're staying at his place, this summer? No wonder you didn't want us visiting…"

"Kindly keep this to yourself," Hermione warned, getting to her feet.

"I won't tell anyone else," James promised. He rubbed his face tiredly for a moment, and then headed for the door. "We can finish this conversation upstairs. I want to hear what they're saying."

"James—"

"He's talking with my wife, and you promised that I wouldn't be kept out of the loop. I won't interrupt," James said, stalking up the stairs to reach the second-floor hallway. "I just want to know what they're saying."

Hermione made no more protest, and followed him. They found Professor Dumbledore sitting quietly on a comfortable armchair at the far end of the hallway, reading a Muggle knitting magazine. He barely glanced up at them as they slipped quietly toward the door, where Lily and Severus's voices could be heard faintly.

"I can't believe she agreed to see him," James muttered as their conversation filtered through the door.

"…happy," Lily's voice concluded softly.

"That's good," Hermione heard Severus respond, his tone blank. "I'm… I confess that I still hate him, but if you're happy…" the last word was said with a slight sneer, but Hermione imagined Lily wasn't taking it at face value. "I suppose I'm thankful for it."

There was a pause, as though they were filling an awkward moment with something mundane to distract them from the topic at hand, and then inevitably returned to it.

"I know I never defended you enough in school," Lily responded thoughtfully, her words barely audible. She said something else, but it was unintelligible to the two eavesdroppers, and was promptly cut off.

"Potter and Black chose to make my life a living hell, Lily. Not you. You could hardly be expected to control them when you were barely on speaking terms with them."

"Even then—"

"No, Lily." Severus's voice was smooth, firm on this matter.

"I should have been a better friend." The red-haired woman sounded somewhat unhappy.

"Damn it," James hissed. "He's pulling her on a guilt trip, the bastard—"

"I said no," Severus snapped. "I'm the one who lost his temper. Don't forget it."

"Just because we weren't friends anymore was no excuse for how I treated you," Lily responded calmly. Hermione heard James breathe a sigh of relief, his fears from moments before alleviated by Severus's response. "I hate to admit it, but I spoke rather badly of you to the one person who showed you any kindness. It was Hermione who told James and Sirius to back off, not me."

"What reason would you have had for defending me after what I did?"

"Don't make excuses for me, Severus," Lily bit out. There was a pause, and then she responded quietly, "We both made mistakes. Grave ones, and for the ones I am responsible for, Iam sorry."

There was another pause, longer this time, and then Lily broke it. "I'm glad you have Hermione. She's always been there for you, even before you were friends—she's the kind of person who commits to something and sticks it out to the end. I'm thankful that even if we can't be friends again, we'll always have her as a sort of—connection. A reminder, I think."

"I'm afraid it's my turn to apologize and say friendship isn't possible," Severus responded darkly, "but I'm afraid that if the Dark Lord got wind of such a thing, he would use me—or Hermione, even—as a means of getting to you. Your son, particularly." Hermione heard the faint sound of a baby stirring, and heard Lily making soothing shushing sounds before Severus continued. "Not until the Dark Lord has fallen, at least."

"I understand." There was an audible sigh, and then— "Sometimes, I wonder why you give me so many chances to try and turn things right between us. I probably don't deserve them."

"Considering that it is my fault your family is currently at risk—"

"I've already absolved you of that," Lily argued. "You couldn't have known."

"I should have known to keep my mouth shut!"

"Wait," James said, unable to contain himself as he barged open the door. Severus was sitting on a hardwood chair next to Lily's bed, in a room that was rather sparse with bare walls and wooden floors. "Your fault? What do you meant this is your fault?"

Hermione grabbed James by the arm, holding him back. "Give us a chance to explain—"

"I want an explanation now, Hermione! I've waited long enough!"

"James," Lily said, her tone commanding and imperious. Hermione saw her shift Harry in her arms, who was otherwise sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a red baby blanket. "Sit down. We'll discuss this like rational people for once, and that can't happen if you're waiting for a chance to break his nose." James didn't move, and Lily repeated, "Sit!"

Reluctantly, James summoned himself a chair and took a seat on the other side of the bed, glaring murderously at Severus, who didn't seem at all inclined to defend himself. Hermione moved to stand next to him.

"I'll explain," Hermione began, but Severus cut her off.

"No. It's my story." He sat up a bit straighter, his young and otherwise unlined face looking a bit too weary and resigned for his age. "I'll tell it."

"Severus—" Lily began.

"As you have probably guessed, I work for the Dark Lord now," Severus said, rolling up his sleeve. She saw Lily flinch at the sight of the tattoo, and James looked as though he were about to fly out of his seat. Only the fact that he would have to plow through his wife, son, and her bed to reach his adversary seemed to be stopping him. "He knew that Professor Dumbledore would be visiting the Hogs Head for an interview, and ordered me to make use of the opportunity to prove myself.

"I eavesdropped on him. He was interviewing a prospective teacher for the subjet of Divination—and at one point, the old fraud actually made a real prediction." Severus shoved his sleeve back down. "It was an obscure reference to the Dark Lord's downfall, with constraints that two Order members, unfortunately, fit. Naturally, I reported my findings back to the Dark Lord, who spent many months placing his energy and focus into finding the person destined to dethrone him before his attention turned to your family and the Longbottoms'. This prediction was made before either of the children in question were even conceived, and thus, I had no inkling, absolutely none…" he trailed off, and glanced at Lily, who nodded, signalling for him to continue. "When I realized that the Dark Lord was planning on targeting your family, I… I defected."

For a moment, the room was dead silent, saved for the sound of tiny Harry snuffling in his sleep. Then James slowly stood up and walked toward the center of the room, shaking with rage.

"Let me get this straight," he said, removing his glasses and trying to polish them with the hem of his shirt. "You joined You-Know-Who and did his dirty work. You then heard a—a prophecy made by a batty old woman, and heedless of the fact that you were consigning the person mentioned in it to literal witch hunt by your master, you reported it to him. Andnow you come here to tell me that you're the reason You-Know-Who is out to kill us, the reason why he wants my son, the reason why my son will grow up with a madman's wand searching for his throat!"

Hermione saw Severus swallow visibly, as he got to his feet. "Yes," he responded blankly.

James froze for a moment, and then faster than Hermione would have believed, he took a single step forward, balled his hands into fists, and struck Severus across the face. Hermione lunged forward and grabbed the front of James's shirt, pulling him away before he could strike another blow.

Harry, disturbed by the commotion, had begun to wail. Lily tried to quiet him while also trying to entreat her husband to not go in for another punch, which was what he seemed to be trying to do, but could not for the moment as Hermione was clinging to him.

"James, stop!"

"Hermione, let go—that bastard—!"

"James—!" Hermione grunted, trying to hold him in place.

A strong, imperious voice suddenly cut across the room.

"Enough."

James stopped struggling. Hermione, who had been half-dragged off the floor trying to handicap him, scrambled to her feet. Lily immediately turned to Harry, who had gone very quiet at the command, but now looked ready to start up again. Severus, who was sitting up on the floor and cupping one side of his face with his hand, squinted up at the issuer of the order through a haze of pain. Albus Dumbledore strode into the room, his demeanor serious and—quite possibly, Hermione thought—disappointed.

"I brought Severus here tonight so that he could inform you in person," the Headmaster stated, summoning several chairs and placing them around the room with a single flick of his wand. "This was intended to be an adult discussion, James, not a bar fight." Hermione pulled Severus to his feet and helped him into the chair he previously occupied, and James slowly took a seat on the edge of Lily's bed. "Let us begin again, shall we?"

Hermione swallowed, unable to speak as she pulled out a chair for herself.

"James, because of the terrible mistake Severus has made, he opted to switch sides at a great personal risk," Dumbledore said, his voice restoring calm and order to the room. "He is now a spy for the Order, and Hermione is his handler."

James and Lily both turned to look at Hermione, their mouthes agape, but the Headmaster's next words returned their attention solely to him.

"Together, their work has saved the lives of a number of Muggle and wizarding families," Dumbledore continued, "Including your own. There is no guarantee that your family would have remained safe without the existence or report of the prophecy, but it is guaranteed now that you and your son are well-protected. I think it rather poor repayment to hit the man who has worked so hard to repair his error of judgement."

"Don't make excuses for me, Albus," Severus snarled, drawing his hand away from his face. Hermione saw a trickle of blood running down the side of his face from where James had struck him, and a purplish bruise was darkening just above his left brow. "I bloody well deserved what I got."

Hermione saw James staring at Severus as though he had never seen him properly before. Lily looked as though she wanted to speak, but Harry had begun to fuss again and looked on the verge of screaming. As though by some hitertho-unrecognized instinct, Hermione found herself standing up and walking over to the bed, holding out her hands to Lily.

"May I?" she asked.

Wordlessly, Lily handed Harry over. Hermione adjusted him into her arms and peered down into his green eyes, noting the lack of a lightning-bolt scar, and ran her fingers gently through his black, downy hair before reaching for one of her own curls and offering it to him. Now diverted by something rather more exciting and less disturbing than the yelling that had been going on earlier, Harry grabbed the curl in a tiny fist, no longer interested in wailing. Satisfied, Hermione slowly began to walk around the room, giving Lily the window she needed to lean forward and speak her mind.

"James, Severus and Hermione have been working together to help us," Lily said, placing a hand on her husband's arm. "They're entrusting us with the knowledge of what they're doing—if You-Know-Who found out, they would both be killed. Can't you see what they're doing for us—for everyone else they've helped?"

James gave her a weary, anxious look. "I just don't understand it," he said. "Hermione, I could understand—she's our friend, and she's always stuck by our side, but—Snivellus?"

"Believe me when I say I am not doing this out of the goodness of my heart for you," Severus sneered, glaring down at the bit of blood clinging to his fingers from where he'd held them against his face.

"Then tell me," James demanded, almost desperately. "Why?"

"For Lily," Severus snapped.

"But you don't—Hermione—"

"If you believe for one moment that the only reason I would try to save someone—"

"You and Lily haven't even been on speaking terms for the last four years!"

"James, I already explained this to you downstairs," Hermione said testily, turning around to face him.

"I need to hear it from him!"

"I have the perfect corollary for this," Severus sneered, getting to his feet. "Imagine you said something to Hermione that made her decide to cut off her association with you. Would you still stand by and watch her die if you knew she would be killed because of you?"

James gaped at him. "But…"

"I think James is working under the delusion that anything Severus does it purely in self-interest," Hermione observed dryly. Dumbledore nodded sagely at this.

"Of course—he's a Slytherin!" James protested weakly. He looked tired and drawn, and it seemed to Hermione that to James, the very idea that the person whom he had always hated, and who hated him back with equal vitriol, was capable of human decency had shaken him.

"And of course, you're a Gryffindor," Severus drawled bitterly. "I must automatically assume you will stick your neck out and get yourself killed every time you step outside to buy groceries. However, if that were true, I would most fortunately be rid of you by now."

"Severus, you're not helping," Hermione snapped. Lily had placed one hand on her face in exasperation, and Hermione could quite keenly feel her pain. They were dealing with two wizards who were as different as night and day—one reveled in the dark arts, the other despised it—and were very powerful in their own right, with quite a number of attitude problems to boot. And, Hermione thought dryly, a little too much testosterone.

James's behavior was understandably predicated by his protective instincts and possessiveness toward Lily as his wife and the mother of his week-old son. As was his former prejudice and discrimination against the raven-haired Slytherin. Severus's behavior was based on protectiveness and a desire for acceptance from a person who he felt responsible for, and who he felt his relationship with was, now and in the past, being threatened by the Gryffindor standing in front of him. They seemed quite ready to go for each others' throats.

"Look," Lily said, pinching the bridge of her nose, eyes closed and one hand in her lap as she tried to be the one more calm and rational person in the room, in addition to Hermione and the Headmaster. "James, Severus cares for me because we were childhood friends. He's doing this for us because he cares. And even if you don't trust his intentions, I do. Hermione and Dumbledore both trust him, and if we can't trust them, then who else can we trust?"

That seemed to stop James cold. He had been standing nose to nose with Severus, both of them looking as though they were quite ready to bite each others' face off, and at this stark statement, he withdrew. His shoulders slumped, and he returned to his seat. Severus hesitated for a moment, until a tug on his sleeve from Hermione made him do the same.

"Now that we've come to an understanding on the matter," Dumbledore stated matter-of-factly, "I would like to discuss what is expected of you—all of you—after the fact."

They all turned to give the Headmaster their undivided attention.

"James, Lily, you will not speak of anything that was spoken here tonight to anyone else," Dumbledore said warningly. "Not even to your friends. Not even Sirius," he clarified, seeing the despondent look on James's face, and continued upon seeing the questioning one on Lily's: "Nor Alice Longbottom or Marlene McKinnon. I have no doubt as to their loyalty and trustworthiness, but it is Hermione and Severus's decision to decide who to reveal themselves to. The more people who know, the more they are put at risk of being discovered and killed. If that happens, we lose our only spy and two valuable Order members."

James sighed, and slumped onto the bed. "I understand, sir."

"Severus will not be able to visit again," Dumbledore continued, addressing Lily in particular, "for the reason he explained earlier. Hermione, however, is free to come and go as you wish her to. You mustn't forget that she is your friend."

James nodded, and then swallowed hard. He did not seem capable of speaking; at the moment, he looked rather exhausted. He didn't look like the James Potter Hermione remembered from school; in fact, he reminded Hermione quite a bit of Harry, when she first saw him after he had come out of the maze clutching Cedric's dead body. Hermione carefully walked up to him and held eight-day-old Harry out to him. James took him with care, looking down at his son's face, and Hermione place a hand on his arm.

"I know you and Severus will never get along unless you have a common enemy," she began quietly.

Severus snorted.

"Not helpful, Severus," Hermione sighed without turning around to look at him. James cracked a smile—the faintest of smiles—at this, and Hermione continued. "But the two of you have a common enemy now, and even if you never become friends, I think you should recognize that you're on the same side." Not unlike when Severus had to shake hands with Sirius, back in the Hospital Wing at the end of fourth year, she thought. "Even if you still doubt his intentions, at least remember what you know of what you know of his past actions, and remember that until You-Know-Who is dead, you are both working to protect the same people. Remember that," she insisted.

James bowed his head. "Fine."

"Thank you," Hermione breathed.

"And—"

"Severus," Hermione said warningly, glancing back to give him a pointed stare.

With one hand pressed against his face, barely covering the purplish bruise that had formed there, it was astonishing how expressive he could be. Particularly when he raised an eyebrow at her. Hermione strode over to him and placed her hand on his arm, facing him so that she had to crane her neck around to look at the Potters once more.

"We'll be going now," she said, wrapping her arm around Severus's as she prepared to leave, so that she was resting her cheek against his chest. "But if you ever want me over, just send a message. I promise I'll make the time to see you, if you'll have me."

Knowing that Dumbledore undoubtedly had more to say to the couple, Hermione gave him a nod in farewell before Severus placed a hand on her shoulder. He glanced down at her once, before lifting his eyes to meet James Potter's as if in a silent challenge—and then with a loud crack, the two of them Apparated away.

~o~O~o~

They landed in the kitchen, where Severus let go of her, pulled out a chair for himself, and took a seat. Hermione set about creating a temporary ice pack for him to help lessen the swelling. He extracted himself from his traveling cloak and set about pulling off his robes so that he was in nothing but his preferred black cotton half-sleeve shirt and trousers. Hermione was beside him a moment later, ice-pack in hand, and he silently accepted it.

"I'm going to see if we have anything down in the lab that might help that," Hermione said, summoning a towel to dab gently at the bit of blood that had caked itself around the part of the bruising that wasn't covered by the ice pack. James was a strong man, and he had hit Severus quite hard; Hermione was genuinely surprised that Severus had not ended up concussed. As it was, he had a thick bruise now well-formed over his left brow, and judging by the way he winced at her touch, she was certain it hurt quite a bit.

"Bring some Murtlap Essence," Severus muttered, leaning back in his seat. "A Headache Potion wouldn't go amiss, either."

Hermione frowned, pressing her hand to his forehead. "A headache could be a sign of concussion," she suggested.

"You're a witch," Severus snapped irritably. "You do something."

Hermione ran a list of spells through her head, and pulled out her wand, running the charm through her head once more before tapping the side of his head with the tip of the vinewood. He flinched from the touch, and then his eyes crossed together in a dizzying manner, before he blinked, restoring his eye positions to normal.

"How do you feel?"

"The Headache Potion may no longer be necessary," Severus allowed, glancing at her wand.

"I'll be right back with the Murtlap Essence," Hermione said, satisfied with her work. She left the kitchen, stowing her wand in her pocket as she did so, and returned several moments later with jar of yellow liquid. She summoned a small wooden bowl, a second towel, and poured out the contents of the jar before dabbing the towel into it.

"You know," Hermione said as she lifted out the towel and gave it a squeeze before removing the ice pack from Severus's face to replace it with the Murtlap-dampened cloth. "You could have been a bit more helpful in there, when I was trying to talk to James."

"There's no point in reasoning with Gryffindors like him," Severus spat bitterly.

Hermione's eyes flashed at this, but her face merely turned taut as she responded. "You carry the same prejudice he does. He believes you incapable of human decency, just as you believe him incapable of common sense. Besides," she continued, as she pressed the Murtlap Essense onto his bruise, "If you truly believe that, why do you waste your time with me?"

"You should have been sorted into Ravenclaw," Severus responded, his tone slightly defensive.

"That doesn't exclude the fact that I am a Gryffindor," Hermione responded softly. "Do you think there's no point in reasoning with me?"

Severus fell silent. Hermione did not press the point, but merely continued dabbing at the bruise with the wet cloth. At last, he spoke:

"It's been stressful," he said, his eyes flickering across her face as she worked.

"That's a fair assessment," Hermione agreed.

"I apologize if I have been… precipitous as of late."

Hermione smiled at him as she pulled the cloth away to re-soak it. "Apology for undue crankiness accepted."

He snorted, but did not contest it.

Twenty minutes later, when Hermione had done all she could do and had put the excess Murtlap away, Severus slowly stood up and pulled her to him, pressing their foreheads together. They stood there quietly for several minutes, and Hermione realized, as she relaxed into him, that the effect of his presence as a means of making her feel secure and protected had not vanished even after their few weeks of deficient communication. They had not slept together, in the literal or metaphorical sense, since the day he had taken her virginity on the floor of the living room, just outside the door to his lab. Their intimacy had come to a halt as a result of the increasing summons and the escalating risk of Voldemort attacking the Potters and Longbottoms as Lily and Alice's due dates had approached, but now that it was over—now that things had returned to a kind of calm—they could reconnect.

"Come to bed," he suggested silkily, his hands sliding over her hips.

Hermione considered it. "Under one condition," she responded, pulling away slightly so that she could look up at him, certain that she had his full attention.

His eyes flickered uncertainly. "What?"

"Next time we run through difficulties—whether it's You-Know-Who or your concerns about Lily or something else—you don't push me away," Hermione told him firmly, pressing a finger to his lips so that he wouldn't interrupt her when he parted his mouth to speak. "You don't just withdraw and refuse to talk. There are times when you'll want to be alone and have some privacy, and I will most certainly grant you that— but you can't suddenly turn unresponsive and then expect me to be waiting here as though nothing has happened." She pulled her finger away, and slid it down his throat, stopping to splay her hand against his chest. "Are we agreed?"

She watched him work his jaw for a moment, and then he nodded.

"In that case," Hermione said, kissing him. "Let's go to bed."


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~Anubis Ankh