Hermione Granger
Drama Romance
Multiple Eras
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 03/19/2002
Updated: 09/01/2005
Words: 220,150
Chapters: 28
Hits: 163,807

Falling Further In


Story Summary:
The story begins in the summer holidays before the sixth year. After her parents are murdered by Voldemort Hogwarts becomes Hermione's home. She joins the staff in the fight against Voldemort and learns more of the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom. Will *eventually* be Snape/Hermione. Lupin is again the Professor teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has a black dog who lives with him - Sirius Black in his animagus form.

Chapter 27

Chapter Summary:
Hermione learns more about the man behind the dark sarcasms of the classroom
Author's Note:
Consider me duly spanked - not in a good way - about chapter 23 re-posting as 27. I've no idea what happened. I've been reminded that if I delete the last chapter I delete the lot, which is why this chapter is numbered 28 in the index.


The unconventional hours she and Severus had been keeping had taken their toll on Hermione; just before four in the morning she admitted that she was wide awake and likely to remain that way. Severus was blissfully asleep under three-quarters of the bedclothes, with only some spikes of black hair visible above the sheet. She had already learnt that he was a nervy bedmate, starting awake at her slightest movement, and so she eased from the bed with exaggerated care.

He shoot up in bed, wand already in his hand.

Her heart pounding, Hermione had the sense not to move. "It's only me," she said, when she trusted her voice."

Snape returned his wand to where he kept it out of sight, at the side of the bed frame, and fell back against the pillows. "I nearly hexed you this time," he muttered, avoiding her gaze.

"But you didn't. It isn't as if either of us have had much time to get used to this. Go back to sleep." "It seems..." He had to break off when he was ambushed by a yawn.

Hermione kissed the top of his head, drew up the covers and marvelled how fast he sank back into sleep.

Snow light enabled her to locate the robe of Snape's which she had adopted. After a quick visit to the bathroom she returned to warm herself by the fire, taking care in the placement of the logs she was adding to it to avoid making undue noise.

"Not sore then?" said a familiar voice as she rose to her feet.

Her back to him, Hermione gave an involuntary smile before returning to perch beside Snape and draw down the covers so she could see his face. "I suppose it was optimistic to think I wouldn't wake you again. Sorry."

"It doesn't matter." He reeled her in for what had been intended as a brief kiss. "Your nose is cold," he noted.

"Along with the rest of me. Move over," she commanded, insinuating her way back under the covers and only then pulling the robe off over her head.

Snape obligingly shifted. The alacrity with which she snuggled against him would have been more flattering but for the fact he suspected it owed more to wanting to leech heat from him than affection. He tucked an arm around her and only winced slightly when icy feet settled over his shins.

"Couldn't you sleep?" he asked, in what he hoped sounded like a casual inquiry.

"Yes, and I've had plenty. Unlike you, I haven't been sleep-deprived for months," Hermione pointed out, enjoying the reassuringly steady thump of his heart under her ear.

"You didn't answer my first question."

"I've forgotten what it was," she admitted. She was just wondering how tired he really was when he slid a warm hand over her torso, the side of his thumb caressing her lower belly.

"I asked if you were sore - although I already know the answer."

"A little," she conceded. "I intended to get up - before you distracted me." Her breath caught. "On the other hand..." she said, adjusting her position. "Only make sure we don't lose the covers this time - it's so cold that warming charms would be counter-productive. Besides, I can't really concentrate on charms while we're having sex."

"No? No," he conceded with a grin, when he saw her open her mouth - undoubtedly to puncture his conceit. "What?" he added, fidgeting when he realised she was still watching him.

"I was just wishing my eye-lashes were as long as yours," said Hermione.

She took advantage of him being off-guard to push him back against the mattress and slid over him with a serpentine move worthy of any Slytherin. Perched lightly over his midriff, most of her weight taken on her knees, she looked down at her prey. "Share and share alike. It's my turn to play," she explained cheerfully. Not that Severus looked as if he wanted to resist.

"Could you warm your hands up first?" he requested.

If Hermione's hands were cold, her mouth was not.

"Are you able to talk yet, or will you be conversing in grunts for while longer?" inquired Hermione, still pink and glowing with goodwill to most wizards and the one sprawled beside her in particular.

Snape reluctantly opened his weighted eyelids. "There's no mercy in you," he noted, sounding unsurprised.

"None at all," she confirmed cheerfully. She ran a finger the wrong way up the crooked line of black hair that ended just beneath his navel, then back down again.

"I haven't got the energy," protested Snape feebly.

"Oh, please."

His mouth twitched. "You could be right." More alert than he appeared, he traced her profile with fingers that smelt of them both, caressing her just parted mouth with the side of his thumb. "'If anyone asks you/how the perfect satisfaction/of all our sexual wanting/will look, lift your face./and say/Like this.'

"Merlin, it's cold enough to freeze the bollocks off a mountain goat," he added in a different tone.

In a touching gesture of unity he and Hermione inadvertently summoned the bedding at the same time, burying them under a generous supply of sheets and goose down quilting as clean linen shot out of the linen closet.

There was the sound of muffled swearing, followed by Hermione giggling.

They took their time emerging.

It was only when Hermione coaxed him awake that Snape appreciated he had fallen asleep again.

"It's nothing important. Just that I'm off to have a bath," she said. "I thought I'd wake you with a kiss." She nipped him where it wouldn't show and got out of bed in a distressing show of energy, quickly bundling into a warm robe.

"Go away," he groaned, before he opened one eye to see her loitering at the bedside. "What?"

"Is it all right if I help myself to your toiletries?"

"You mean you haven't been?" he mocked.

She wrinkled her nose at him. "I'm looking forward to trying out the singing bubbles this time."

"They were a present from Albus," insisted Snape, looking sorely tried.

Hermione had the tact not to ask why he hadn't simply thrown them away. But the knowledge that he liked bubbles in his bath was almost as welcome as discovering he was a cuddler, though she had the sense not to gloat about that.

"Ah," she said.

Snape gave her a brooding look. "I won't have any secrets left."

"It's only me," she said, giving the reassurance he would never ask for openly.

"There's no 'only' about it."

"No," she agreed. It occurred to her that she hadn't seen him check his forearm since the members of the Inner Council had left them alone. The day before yesterday? The day before that? She resigned herself to having lost all sense of time as she absently tried to flatten the soft, springy spikes of his hair, which were still only about two and a half inches long.

"Did you just spit on your finger before your stroked my hair?" Snape asked with disbelief. He had tried to prepare himself for alien Muggle habits but there were limits.

Hermione had the grace to look guilty for a moment. "Though given all the other fluids we've been sharing I don't know why you're being so prissy about - " Belated tact made her stop.

"It's less the sharing than the sense of being five years old again," said Snape, making that rare explanation because anything was better than being called prissy. He manfully swallowed a yawn and did his best to look alert.

Hermione bent to kiss the corner of his relaxed mouth. "Go back to sleep. I'm off to look for the rubber duck."

Snape fell asleep still trying to make sense of that remark.

Snape started awake several times, only to relax when each time he heard the sound of tuneless humming emerging from the bathroom and more water being added to the bath.

She still sounded...happy.

He tried to remember a time in his life when he could claim to have made anyone else happy - let alone experience that emotion himself. It was all very strange.

He would be writing bad poetry next.

He withdrew his arm from under the covers and studied the pale, unblemished skin. But he didn't need that visual confirmation that the Dark Mark was really gone; he could feel that it had, relieved of some weight he hadn't been aware of carrying until it was gone.

He rolled onto his back and gave a leisurely stretch as he contemplated the thought of brunch, and Hermione - not necessarily in that order - when he became aware that the singing had stopped; water gurgled through antiquated plumbing.

In a surprisingly short time Hermione emerged from the bathroom. Snape tensed when he saw her over-controlled expression; he pushed himself up onto one elbow.

"I need to go back to my quarters," announced Hermione, clutching his old robe to her.

Snape couldn't think what to say for a moment, panic obliterating the ability to think. "I see," he said eventually. "Something you've forgotten?" Guards were visibly snapping back in place.

"My period," said Hermione baldly. "And I don't feel like Accioing sanitary products through the corridors of Hogwarts."

Giddy with relief, Snape remembered just in time that he must not smile. "It's been known to happen." He left the bed, yanked on a robe with an untypical disregard for the way it hung, and steered her towards the chair closest to the fire. "Come and keep warm. Lippy can fetch everything you'll need. I'll go up to my workroom. I think there are still a few bottles of Leniomensis up there."

"But it's such terrible timing," said Hermione, in something close to a whine. "And five days early." Braced for his irritation at best, and with all her lovely euphoria ground up by cramps, she felt hard-done-by and very sorry for herself.

"Don't be ridiculous," said Snape, in a tone familiar to any ex-pupil, but he ruined the effect when he tweaked the robe closer around her, smoothed it over the curve of her breast and briefly kissed her in parting.

Thirty minutes later, mellowed by Leniomensis, Severus' matter of fact acceptance of menstruation and the warmth of the fire, Hermione had left behind the pathetic phase as she was fussed over by an over-excited Lippy. Accustomed to the unobtrusive service of the Hogwarts house-elves, Hermione stared with disbelief at the breakfast table Lippy had prepared for them.

"I can't eat all this," she whispered to Severus as Lippy popped out of view again.

"She thinks you're too thin," said Snape, making inroads on egg, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushroom and fried bread.

"And what do you think?"

"That it's a no-win question which I'm in far too good a mood to attempt to answer."

"You're so sharp it's a wonder you don't cut yourself," said Hermione, before she groaned. "And now I've started to channel Nana Hoskins." She gave a faint squeak when Lippy reappeared with her coffee.

"Sorry," she whispered, when Lippy had gone again. "It's just... We don't usually see the house elves come and go at Hogwarts."

"Lippy isn't a Hogwarts house elf."

"Oh." Distracted, Hermione ignored her breakfast as she tried to make sense of Lippy's comings and goings at the other end of the large bedroom. "I think she's getting carried away again," she said, after a while. "Have you seen the amount of my clothing she's brought over from my quarters? There can't be much left there." "I doubt if there's any. It's her idea of subtlety. Very Gryffindor," added Snape with a disdainful sniff, before his expression changed. "I should have thought to do this before." He set down his knife and fork, took a deep breath, visibly concentrated for a moment, and said, "My home is yours." His hand moved in a small, descriptive arc.

It was his trace of nervousness which alerted Hermione to the fact there was something going on beyond the obvious. "You've already made that clear but... Is this a wizarding tradition I should know about? Muggle," she reminded him, gesturing to herself.

"I keep forgetting that," he admitted. "Yes, it is. 'My home is yours' isn't a meaningless platitude but a statement of fact. It ensures that everything I own is yours, to do with as you will. If you want to stay here - live with me in Serpens Tower - there is no more to be said. If you don't..." He stopped and looked so uncertain that Hermione couldn't stand it.

"I do!" she blurted out, before she made a recovery, of sorts. "If only for your library."

Snape nodded, seemingly unaware that he was smiling. "Which reminds me. I must introduce you to the books. There are a few volumes I keep locked away because they're so dangerous that I only consult them when March or Albus are at hand. Yes, I thought that would whet your appetite," he added dryly. "You needn't worry about the wards to Serpens Tower, my workshop or my Gringotts vault - they will all recognise you as they do myself now."

"Just like that?" said Hermione, as she tucked into her bowl of fruit.

"Just like that," Snape confirmed. "Wizards might take a few years to make a decision but once they have they don't like to hang around formalising it. It's another form of wizarding contract. It has the added advantage of cutting down on the need for lawyers. What do Muggles do?" he asked, mildly curious.

"Faff around," said Hermione. "How do I give you everything I have?"

"You need to understand the implications."

"Have I ever struck you as slow-witted?"

"I'm serious," he said. "You should discuss this with Poppy - or Minerva. Better yet, with March."

"You mean there's one rule for wizards and one for witches? I haven't seen any sign of it."

"But how much have you seen of wizarding society, such as it is?" Snape returned.

"Fair comment," Hermione allowed. "In Muggle society a number of women find themselves in abusive relationships - physical, mental, or both. But so do men. It's just not talked about so much. As if there's something comical about anyone being abused."

She looked so fierce that Snape wanted to kiss her.

"Our worlds aren't so different in that respect, although magical ability has probably helped to protect women. What?" added Snape, disconcerted to find himself under unblinking scrutiny.

"It just occurred to me," said Hermione. "I've never been afraid of you. Not once. Irritated, angry, furious, disappointed..."

"I get the picture," said Snape dryly. "But speak to March, will you?"

"Before handing over the Granger fortune?" she said flippantly. "Oh, all right," she added with a sigh.

"If you're not going to eat that bacon you could always let me have it," remarked Snape.

"You're welcome to it. It's gone cold. If you're ordering some more get some for me."

When Lippy arrived with their second breakfast Crookshanks was strolling behind her, his nonchalant air betraying his uncertainty about his welcome. He paused in his stately progress when he saw Snape watching him, then batted his large head against Hermione's calf until she fed him. Ostentatiously chewing bacon, Crookshanks stared up at Snape.

Unimpressed, Snape stared back. "Tell that animal to keep out of my workroom."

"Tell him yourself," said Hermione. "It's time you two met."

Kneazle and wizard gave her looks which begged to differ.

"Get over yourselves. I don't play favourites," she told them.

That got Snape's attention. "I'm in competition with a kneazle?"

"I was talking to Crookshanks."

Snape moodily crunched a bacon rind and wished he could believe her. Even more moodily he conceded that he was besotted enough with Hermione to tolerate that damn animal if he must.

"Severus, what's Lippy doing now?" asked Hermione, side-tracked by the sense of movement behind her. She had turned in time to see walls silently and smoothly being rearranged by Lippy, who was bustling around, making small, pleased squeaking noises.

Snape turned to watch. "Making you a dressing room," he said, as if it should have been obvious.

"But... She's rearranging Hogwarts."

"Yes? Oh, Muggle," he remembered. "House elves are always tinkering with the interiors of the building they occupy - not always for the better," he admitted, before he returned to his breakfast.

"I am never going to understand them," Hermione sighed, looking harassed.

"If you have questions, ask Lippy. Only you'll have to promise not to give her clothes."

Hermione glared at him. "Not a slow learner," she reminded him. She was never going to feel completely comfortable being waited on by house elves but over the years she had learnt not to obsess about it. Lippy was obviously happy in her work. "How long have you known her?" she asked.

Snape had already resigned himself to personal questions. "All my life," he said, pouring himself a fresh cup of cold tea. "Just before I was born my parents inherited eight house elves along with a rotting pile of a house in the Black Country. Unfortunately there was no money for renovations. When the Hall became too dangerous to occupy the house elves moved in with us. Given that our house only had eight bedrooms - "

Hermione liked the 'only'.

" - there was little to keep the house elves occupied, except rearing me. When I was eleven and came to Hogwarts my parents moved abroad. House elves need to serve - to feel useful - or they literally fade away. They came to Hogwarts with me and settled happily enough - in the main. When I was eighteen Albus persuaded them all to stay at the castle but Lippy pined and... When I finally returned to teach she insisted on looking after me. She approves of you." "How can you tell?"

"It's never a secret when a house elf is pissed off with you. You'll learn." A look of consternation crossed Snape's face when it occurred to him that wasn't all Hermione would learn.

She grinned. "Don't worry. I don't get sentimental about babies, so stories about how sweet you were as a little boy..."

"I was never sweet," said Snape, looking revolted.

Hermione helped herself to a spoonful of marmalade. "Somehow not a stretch of the imagination," she assured him.

"Once the rest of the castle has begun to stir I must go and see Albus," said Snape, without enthusiasm.

"To do what?"

"Tender my resignation. No, don't say it. While my only regret is that I permitted him to interfere in something which is none of his business, I gave him my word and I broke it."

"But - "

Snape picked up his large tea cup. "You're planning to unman me by saying it was your fault?"

"Am I supposed to be cowed into submission by that glare?" she inquired.

"I don't think anything could cow you for long. Don't change the subject. I have to do this," he added, after a moment.

"But where will you go if you resign?" Hermione gripped his hand, as if afraid he would vanish in front of her eyes.

"Nowhere. Albus can't possibly accept my resignation until Voldemort is defeated - we need everyone we can get. But he will undoubtedly have plenty to say on the subject and... I'd rather get it over with," admitted Snape frankly.

Aware of how much Albus meant to him, Hermione found the control to keep quiet, only to jump when Lippy appeared, her torso tilting backwards the better to balance the stack of mail for Severus, which included a number of book-shaped parcels.

"No owls? You'd better check if there's anything urgent," added Hermione, correctly interpreting his expression.

"For obvious reasons there are no owl deliveries to Serpens Tower. Advertising a secret tower would rather defeat the object. Ah, this is from Albus," Snape added, untying a parchment. "And dictated in haste, to judge by his syntax. He's been called up to London to see Fudge, which rarely bodes well. Last time that happened Albus was relieved from duty. He wants me to remain in Serpens Tower, out of contact with anyone other than the Inner Circle."

"There's nothing for it then, you'll just have to frivol. But you can read your mail first," she added kindly.

While Lippy went to notify her master of his visitor, Professor McGonagall made herself comfortable in front of the roaring fire in Snape's library. It was another bitterly cold day and this brief respite in the warm and quiet was very welcome - her Fridays were a hell of second, third and fourth year Transfiguration and always seemed interminable. She blinked as the mantlepiece smoothly changed back to the image of entwined serpents she was used to seeing.

As she tried not to speculate about what might be keeping Severus her eyes widened when she heard the sound of whistling, which stopped just before Snape appeared in the doorway.

"Good evening?" she said, making a question of it.

He was too nervous to recognise the affection in her smile. "I've come to lay my head on the block," he said, in the hope of pre-empting her.

"Are you sure it's your head we're talking about?"

"Minerva..." But his pained protest was relaxed as he sat opposite her. "Do you have to enjoy this quite so openly?"

"Of course I do. Causes for celebration are something of a novelty around here. Your week off has done you good. You look well," she added with fine understatement. If she had hoped to embarrass him she was doomed to disappointment.

"I am. I got Albus' owl."

"That's why I'm here. Fudge has taken the disappearance of the Dementors as a personal affront. I'm afraid Albus may be away for a while yet. Continue to stay out of sight. The governors are in and out of the school at all hours. Malfoy has already called twice - ostensibly to see Draco, but I'm sure he was looking for you. I've had house elves keeping an eye on his movements but..."

"Which suggests Voldemort knows about the Dark Mark," frowned Snape.

"It does rather, doesn't it. I must say, Malfoy's sneer isn't what it usually is. He looks like you do after a particularly difficult night with Voldemort And Draco has been on edge since his father spoke with him. I've asked Sirius to keep an eye on him. Hagrid will patrol the grounds at night, in case Draco is planning to leave the school grounds. We're warded against intruders, not those seeking to leave the grounds."

"Meanwhile I sit here twiddling my thumbs," said Snape, unhappy at the reminder that his Slytherins were in the charge of Sirius Black - and what was almost worse, that Black was doing a good job under difficult circumstances.

"Not your thumbs, surely?" Professor McGonagall rose to her feet. "Don't forget, stay out of sight. Where's Hermione?" she added, abandoning any attempt at subtlety.

"Wondering where I've stashed the body?"

"Instead of wasting your time on sarcasm, you might want to concentrate on not whistling in the corridors once you're out and about again." With the blandest of smiles Professor McGonagall headed for the door, thought the better of it and returned to kiss him on the cheek. "Enjoy your time off. You can have the weekend as well. After that you'll be marking junior Transfiguration, Charms and Herbology homework," she told him, escaping before he could make his response.

Because Snape's style of commentary did not lend itself to that employed by Professors McGonagall, Flitwick or Sprout it was Hermione who ended up doing most of the marking.

"I wish I could believe this isn't exactly what you planned," she told him, sucking ink from her index finger.

"A cleansing charm - " he began, saw her eyes narrow and in the interests of harmony withdrew. It seemed the perfect time to retreat to his workroom.

Hermione sucked idly at the end of the quill and got on twice as fast without his distracting presence - it had been so long since Severus had enjoyed the luxury of free time that he had forgotten it wasn't a punishment; watching him prowl around the room had been driving her mad. Though it had to be admitted that he was proving to be easier to live with than she had expected - not that there wasn't room for improvement, of course. She was adapting to sharing a bed with a man who appropriated three quarters of the bedding, and who always fell asleep with his arm over her and who had come close to hexing her as he started awake. By trial and error they had established that he was less likely to hex her if she made no effort to be quiet.

She didn't mind the fact he spent longer in the bathroom getting ready than she did - not to mention the mess he left behind him. But if he didn't start taking her hints about keeping the lid of the lavatory seat down she would slam it shut when he would notice it most. Given that most of his clothes were monochrome he had an awful lot of them, at least the twice the amount she did. Still, now they had separate dressing rooms... Not that she was averse to visiting rights.

Sometimes she worried if she wasn't making herself a bit too 'at home' when she contrasted the neatness of his workroom with the sprawl of her belongings. She consoled herself with remembering that his study area was no tidier than hers.

But his mood was so good that she couldn't help worrying. Maybe she would be able to relax when they had survived their first argument...

By the tenth day of his holiday Snape was enjoying the chance to potter in his workroom, busying himself with replenishing some of the school supplies. His mood was further improved by the knowledge that Crookshanks sat scowling in the doorway, having found no way to breach the wards which kept him - and the drifts of loose cat hair - out of the room.

Oblivious to the fact he was whistling off-key, Snape collected the ingredients to make the Pepper-Up Potion.

"I don't want to change anything about your quarters," Hermione had assured him several times over the last ten days.

Fortunately he hadn't believed her.

After some of the most bewildering but certainly the happiest days of his life he hardly recognised the place. Serpens Towers echoed with the squeaky-voiced singing of an euphoric Lippy as she cluttered up his quarters with shabby Muggle artifacts; he had been relegated to the new, smaller North-facing bathroom; and his rooms were full of disquieting paintings and photographs of people seemingly suffering from Petrificus Totalus.

The paintings were the most difficult to live with. He didn't claim to be an expert but whether Muggle or witch the portraits painted by Hermione's mother were the worst he had ever seen. Not that he had said so, of course.

And his reward for tact above and beyond the call of duty? A tower full of Muggle tat - and a happy Hermione.

All things considered it was an equitable exchange, even if it felt as if those motionless eyes followed him wherever he went.

Part of the trouble was that he couldn't leave Serpens Tower. Snape had reluctantly admitted that he wasn't coping well with the concept of free time; he lacked the practice at filling it. Left without any demands on his time he felt edgy - as if something was missing. It had been several days before he had ventured up to his workroom, uncertain of the behaviour expected of a new lover.

Of being a lover at all, come to that, he reminded himself as he picked up the pestle.

The truth of it was he was scared to death of saying or doing anything that might drive her away. He wasn't used to being responsible for another person's happiness, let alone caring what someone else felt.

Becoming aware that he had ground the lace wings to near-invisibility Snape made a sound of impatience and started again. He had never really considered the realities of living with anyone, let alone with Hermione. He hadn't shared his quarters with anyone since his schooldays and excluding a couple of nights last summer it had been twenty years since a lover had shared his bed - and none of them had been for more than a night or two.

All things considered he thought he was adapting quite well on all fronts, he thought smugly. He hadn't actually hexed Crookshanks the night the kneazle had jumped on the bed and Crookshanks now knew better than to startle him awake or sneak up on him.

When he had time he might think about a potion that repelled animal hair.

Of course, there were minor irritations to sharing his living space. She drooled in her sleep - on him, more often than not - and her feet were like ice. She seemed to regard him as her personal hot water bottle - not that he objected to Hermione wrapping herself around him.

While she wasn't exactly noisy she filled the tower with life and warmth - and mess. Her possessions were everywhere - included the few areas designated as his own. She talked a lot, of course, throwing out questions and arguments and drawing him into the oddest discussions. Life with her would never be dull... She had an intriguing mind, even if some of her references escaped him. He was beginning to think he should have done some research on Muggles.

He would put up with all of this and more for the way she smiled at him, sometimes when she didn't know he was watching her.

Though quite why she should regard the position of the lid of the lavatory seat as so important...

Hence the new, second bathroom - smaller than the old one, and north facing, with everything in the wrong place. And he still didn't know why Lippy had banished him to that one. It hadn't stopped Hermione from muttering about that damned toilet seat, or from helping herself to his toiletries, or strolling into his bathroom to perch on the edge of the bath to discuss some theory she was investigating. Though that often had the benefit of her deciding to join him in the bath...

His toiletries smelt wonderful on her, although how she could have failed to realise that what she called his 'green' smell came from the soap and shampoo he used....

He wondered when he could tactfully reclaim the clothing she had appropriated - although it had to be admitted that she looked very fetching in nothing but one of his silk shirts. It almost made up for her sucking the ends of his favourite quills - not to mention ruining their nibs... Perhaps a tactful hint? Or he could just increase the size of his order from Flourish and Blotts.

Aware that his concentration wasn't all it should be Snape decided to abandon his preparations for potion-making and go downstairs to Hermione. He paused as Lippy arrived with the most recent copy of 'Potions Tomorrow'. A quick glance couldn't hurt, he thought, reaching for it.

Two hours later, mentally quilling a vitriolic rebuttal to a cretinous columnist, Snape headed into his study, busy checking on the final paragraph of the article which had so infuriated him. He was vaguely aware of Hermione's voice, just before he tripped over something and fell flat on his face.

When he was comfortably seated beside the fire in Snape's library Dumbledore gave a sigh of satisfaction. "Thank you, my dears. This is sheer bliss after all those interminable meetings. But thanks to Molly Weasley galvanising the parents we finally won agreement that the Dementors should be kept away from Hogwarts." He took a reviving sip of tea, stroked his long beard and glanced from Snape to Hermione and back to Snape again.

"Severus, I am the least curious of men but I can't help noticing that you seem to have broken your nose since I saw you last..."

"I said we should have called Poppy," muttered Hermione, looking harassed.

Snape could have groaned at her lack of guile.

"It was my fault," Hermione told Dumbledore. "It was an accident," she added indignantly, anticipating whatever witticism he had been about to make. What could be seen of his face beneath the beard grew pinker and pinker as he began to wheeze into his beard. "Albus? Severus, is he all right?"

"He's fine, more's the pity," said Snape callously. "He's just trying not to laugh in my face. If you must know I tripped over her damn kneazle."

Dumbledore fished for his handkerchief in a cascade of sherbert lemons while inwardly marvelling at the change in Severus. No one enjoyed ridicule or humiliation but Severus had always hoarded small hurts, brooding over them for months and years. This reaction was new. So too were the rolled up sleeves and air of relaxation, of course.

"Yes, yes, I'm sure it's hilarious," said Snape with resignation. "Get it out of your system. I'm fine. We both are," he added pointedly. He hadn't appreciated he and Hermione were touching until he unlinked his fingers from hers. Then, because he was damned if he would allow Dumbledore to believe he had any influence where she was concerned, Snape took her hand in a firm clasp; he felt her thumb circle the back of his hand and spared her a brief glance.

Dumbledore mopped at his eyes with his fuchsia coloured handkerchief, his half-moon spectacles perched on the very tip of his long nose. "Oh, my dears. To see you two together is a joy... I admit I was wrong."

"About what?" demanded Hermione, but she was poised for attack rather than defence.

"So fierce," Dumbledore noted affectionately. "I've known Severus since he was fifteen years old and this is the first time I've seen him look - " He paused but after years at Voldemort's feet Snape didn't even twitch " - happy."

"Sentimental claptrap," said Hermione, straight-faced, forestalling whatever Severus might have intended to say.

Caught mid-sip of tea Snape choked. He shared his glare between a demure-looking Hermione and Albus, who was twinkling away like a fairy light.

"You're supposed to be on my side," he said to Hermione.

"Whatever gave you that idea?" she asked but her smile was a private thing, uniting them against the world.

Dumbledore set down his cup and saucer and linked his long, thin fingers across his flat midriff. "I was mistaken - no, I was wrong - to try to interfere in your relationship."

"Yes," agreed Snape mildly, "you were."

There was an abrupt silence, during which Hermione held her breath.

"There's no danger of you making this any easier for me, is there?" said Dumbledore acidly.

"Absolutely none," confirmed Snape.

"Have a tea cake," urged Hermione, with more haste than hospitality. Before Dumbledore had a chance to do more than set it on a plate she added: "Much as I'm enjoying having Severus all to myself, he can't stay locked up in Serpens Tower forever."

"No," agreed Dumbledore, amused to see Snape looking pained at her lack of guile. "But Minerva convinced me that you would both benefit from some - er - time together."

"She was right," said Hermione. "But in that case you and Severus will have things to discuss and I should really see March. And Ron..."

"He has been looking for you," admitted Dumbledore, tactfully leaving it at that.

"Ah." Hermione glanced at Snape, who grimaced.

"Trial by Weasley. I can hardly wait."

"Ron's loads better than he used to be," defended Hermione.

"There was plenty of room for improvement," said Snape, unimpressed - and more nervous than he cared to admit. Not that he thought she would place more weight to Weasley's good opinion but...

Hermione, who was learning to read Snape's expression better just grinned and got to her feet. "I'll leave you and Albus to chat." But she continued to hover.

They had been together thirteen days; while she knew they couldn't remain in their cosy cocoon forever, the irrational part of her was afraid that if she left she would wake up to find the last thirteen days had been a dream.

Snape murmured something to Dumbledore and eased Hermione outside the library door. "It's all right," he said gently, stroking the tender skin behind her ear.

"I know I'm being stupid..."

"Irrational, perhaps."

"That was tactful of you."

"I'm hoping it will rub off," Snape explained. "Now go away. I want my house back and I suspect Albus will take some persuading."

When Snape re-entered the room Dumbledore looked up from where he had been studying the salamander.

"When can I resume my duties?" asked Snape without finesse.

"Which duties did you have in mind?" inquired Dumbledore, unfolding himself from the footstool on which he had seated himself to give a slow stretch.

"I knew it!" exclaimed Snape. "Let us be clear. I am head of Slytherin house."

"That has never been in question," said Dumbledore.

Snape nodded his satisfaction. "And I want my classes back."

"Yes." Dumbledore rubbed the side of his nose. "I was hoping we could reach a compromise."

Snape's eyes narrowed.

"Failing that," continued Dumbledore serenely, "I shall have to make it an order. Even you must admit the improvement in Sirius' mental well-being since he has been kept fully occupied. For someone with no training in either teaching or potion-making he has done better than any of us dared hope."

"Yes, yes," said Snape with impatience. "He's also an animagus. Let Minerva give up her classes. She's been complaining about being over-worked."

"You aren't trying to claim you enjoy teaching Junior Potions?"

"I loathe it," said Snape frankly. "But it's essential I take the first years. I've never had a serious injury - let alone a fatality - in my class and I intend to see it stays that way."

Dumbledore seized upon the concession made before Snape had a chance to change his mind. "Very well. You shall take the first years. I admit there have been more explosions and calls on Poppy's time since Sirius took over. I presume you'll want the N.E.W.T. classes?"

"And the O.W.L.s. My pass rate -"

"Has never been bettered. Which almost persuaded me of the validity of your argument for the powers of terror. Rather than you taking back the middle school I thought you might prefer time to devote to S level students. Time isn't of the essence where they are concerned so the loss of this term will merely be an inconvenience. It would also leave you time for personal research."

Undeceived, Snape said, "And?"

"I should like you to take over all the Ethics of Magic classes for the seventh years. And perhaps the occasional lecture to the seventh year Defence Against the Dark Arts class."

"On 'My Days as a Death Eater'? I don't think so. If I agree, the classes will be solely for the purposes of preparing the Upper Sixth for the realities of war. And I can guarantee that you won't approve of my methods."

"You intend practical demonstrations?"

"Of course."

Dumbledore sighed. "I was afraid of that. Very well. On one condition - you explain to Minerva."

"And Sirius, about my taking back - ?"

"I think I'd better explain to him. We're not ready for war just yet."

While Molly wasn't best pleased at the idea of Ron leaving school a year early, she was reconciled by the knowledge of how much Albus Dumbledore valued her son's opinion. Ron's pleasure was muted by the fact he had to lie to people like Dean and Seamus about his reasons for leaving. While he wasn't officially ending his school days until the end of term he was already moving some of his possessions into the suite of rooms on the ground floor which formed the official residence of the caretaker of Hogwarts, and which possessed some of the most complicated wards he had ever encountered.

"I don't understand why," he said to Flitwick.

"Argus was a constant target for childish spite, not least, I'm afraid, because he was a squib. Majolica set up the wards, of course..." Flitwick stopped for a minute, dabbed his eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief and took a resolute breath. "I've been maintaining them for some years. You're quite sure you've got the hang of them?" he checked anxiously. "Because that skin condition in the final hex takes months to clear up."

"Positive, sir. Thanks for finding the time to take me though them."

"Call me March," said Flitwick, beaming up at him. "You're doing fine work, Mr Weasley. I know this can't be easy for you."

Embarrassed, Ron stuck his hands in the pockets of his robe and mumbled something while staring at the floor.

It was something of a relief when Hermione arrived, carrying a basket of Chocolate Frogs. "Ceres told me where I'd find you," she explained, as they waved goodbye to Flitwick. "Here. House-warming present. Old Muggle custom."

"Up with Muggles, that's what I say. Have a look round," invited Ron, too full of pride with his first home to remember his unsuccessful attempts to find Hermione during the last couple of weeks. "After the Burrow it's amazing to have all this space to myself."

Hermione made all the right noises and tried not to notice all the signs of the previous inhabitants' lives. She did her best to avoid looking at the wall-to-wall posters of the Chudley Canons, wondering how anyone could stand living with all that distracting whizzing around going on.

"Are you sure you didn't suggest leaving school just to get out of studying?" she demanded bossily.

Ron flicked his wand. The images of the posters dissolved to reveal the puzzle board. "This is just a copy, of course. I've masses of notes to catch up on. Though I think most of that will have to wait until the Christmas holidays."

Hermione gave him an apologetic pat on the arm. "What does Harry think about you leaving school?" she asked, in a would-be casual tone.

Ron tensed, the strong bones of his long face becoming more evident. "I haven't seen him," he said shortly.

"Don't say he's picked a quarrel with you, too."

"I'm not giving him the chance. If I see him I'll only go spare again. He said things. About mum. And the twins. Mum and dad have always treated him like one of us, you know they have, and he - I'm just glad mum didn't hear him."

"Harry loves your mum," Hermione protested.

"So calling her an old slag who has no business breeding children she can't afford..." Ron stopped, his lips compressed.

"Oh, Ron." Hermione gave him a quick, fierce hug. "Well, that settles it. Harry would no more say that than... Though I suppose he might feel as if his nose has been put out of joint, with your mum having to give so much of her time to the twins."

"You don't see any of us reacting like spoilt five year olds," said Ron, conveniently forgetting some of his private late night battles with the Ron who hadn't quite given up hope of being the first and best at everything.

"No, but then all of you have known you were loved and wanted since the day you were conceived - except perhaps for Fred and George," Hermione anticipated.

Ron thawed enough for a small grin; there was something reassuring about the old, tired jokes.

"Harry's view of family life is warped because of the people he lived with and the way they saw life - not to mention the way they treated him. Have you forgotten, it was three years before it dawned on him that he was supposed to give friends presents at Christmas, or for our birthdays. Even longer before he thought to take your mum something - "

"Bill always said Harry only did that because you'd nagged him," said Ron shrewdly.

"Never mind that. The point is, there must be something wrong with Harry. Voldemort..."

"Oh, no. You can't blame Harry behaving like the world owes him a living on Voldemort."

"Ron, that isn't fair!"

He pulled a face. "Perhaps it isn't, but the way Harry has been behaving these last few months..."

Hermione absently unwrapped a Chocolate Frog, which almost leapt out of reach thanks to her lack of concentration.

Ron caught it just in time, biting off its head before handing the rest to Hermione. "If you're sure you can manage it."

Hermione handed back the remains. "You have it. I'm starving. Come on. Let's find some real food."

"Where are you taking me?" Ron asked, resigned to be yanked along in Hermione's wake. In the bad old days that had always meant boring hours in the library.

"The kitchen. I can't think when my stomach's rumbling. I must have missed lunch while I was in the library."

Made welcome by the house elves, they were soon settled in a cosy corner.

"When - exactly - did Harry start behaving oddly?" asked Hermione, through a mouthful of cheese and pickle sandwich. "Only I don't remember much about the end of last term, after mum and dad were killed."

"He was all right then. We weren't much use to you then, I know. The trouble was, neither of us knew what to say, or how to help. Sorry," Ron added, looking a little self-conscious.

"Never mind that now. Concentrate, will you. Here, have this piece of fruit cake. I'll eat the cherries," she anticipated.

Ron picked out the cherries and set them around the edge of his plate. "It must have been something that happened early on in the holidays because he was hard work when he came to stay at the Burrow. Edgy, like he was spoiling for a fight. But then he was dead embarrassed by mum being pregnant. Half the time he could hardly bear to look at her."

"So it was something that happened between the end of term and Harry coming to stay. He never goes anywhere with those Dursleys - that's the whole point of him staying with them. Did he mention them having any visitors, like that ghastly sister?"

His cheeks bulging like a demented puffball as he coped with too large a mouthful, Ron said thickly, "He doesn't normally talk about his time with the Dursleys at all. This time was no different. He had his birthday, of course. But the only present he went on about was the one mum sent him."

Hermione blinked. "Your mum's! No disrespect, Ron."

"I know, I know. Jumper and toffees for birthdays and Christmas."

"You're sure your mum didn't give him anything different this year?"

"Positive. I wrapped and posted the parcel myself. Ginny had borrowed Pig so I had to Floo to the Leaky Cauldron and use the Post Office at the other end of Diagon Alley. I got soaked because it was pouring with rain. Old Fortescue called me in to dry off and gave me one of his new ice-creams to try out. Though I wasn't keen on it to be honest. It takes a warped mind to think of putting beetroot in ice-cream. Why are you looking at me like that?" demanded Ron indignantly.

"I was just wondering why you could never remember your homework in this much detail."

"Some people are never satisfied. Hey, that's a thought! No more homework after this term," beamed Ron. "It was weird having to lie to Dean and Seamus and the others but I know leaving is the right thing to do. Since I started working with the Inner Circle... I don't feel as if I fit in at school any more."

Hermione nodded. "It's how I felt, too. Though it's no excuse not to do as much work as you can," she added severely.

Ron groaned and mimed snoring before an intent look came into his eyes.

"I'll walk you back to your place," he said. "You were out every time I called."

"Was I?" said Hermione vaguely. "How are the twins?" she added as they left the kitchen.

Ron adored his new sisters and the topic kept him going through the long walk.

It was only when they came to a halt that he realised they were outside Serpens Tower, rather than Hermione's quarters.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" said Ron.

"You can ask," she said. "Then I'll decide whether to answer you or not."

Despite himself, Ron grinned. "You sound as if you've been spending too much time with a certain grumpy bloke we both know."

"Define 'too much'?" said Hermione, bracing herself.

"Ten minutes, in my case." Ron paused. "Well, I would have said that a few months ago. But everything's changed. Unless I'm just getting used to him."

"That's lucky," said Hermione, aiming for nonchalance.

Ron gave her a sharp look, recognised her defensive stance and the expectation of hurt and swallowed all the things he could have said. "So it's like that, is it? I thought I must be imagining things. I just want to say one thing - to get it out of the way. If you ever need help - of any kind, for any reason - you come to me. Or if I'm not around you go to the family. You've been an honorary Weasley for years."

Hermione wasn't a huge fan of Molly Weasley and wouldn't claim to know Arthur but she managed to look suitably grateful. Ron's easy acceptance sank in a few moments later. It meant a lot to know she and Ron stood a good chance of remaining friends.

"Thanks," she said simply, her eyes very bright as she gave him a peck on the cheek. "I've moved in with Severus," she added baldly.

"Really?" Ron coughed and tried again, his voice returning to its usual register this time. "Great," he said weakly. The changes to their lives had come to fast that it suddenly felt as if they were all colliding - with him in the middle. "So everything's...all right between you two?" Her own nerves frayed, Hermione erupted. "Now you listen to me, Ron Weasley. If you think for one moment that I would ever discuss anything about our lives with - "

"Whoa!" cried Ron, holding up his hands in surrender. "That would be absolutely the last thing I'd want to hear about. Well, except perhaps about Malfoy and Trelawney getting it on."

"Thank you very much," said Hermione.

Snape had been eavesdropping for several minutes - not because he mistrusted Hermione's discretion but because he wasn't sure what Ron's reaction would be to their relationship - particularly given his crush on Hermione some time ago. His concerns were forgotten as he watched Hermione's pink-cheeked irritation, experiencing an inconvenient pang of lust.

"Give over," said Ron. "I think I'm adapting very well. All things considered. You know, I can't remember ever seeing you look like this," he added thoughtfully.

"Like what?" said Hermione, her hand going to her hair.

"Happy," said Ron simply.

Snape was almost sure he had wiped all expression from his face before they noticed him propped against the door jamb.

"Mr Weasley," he said, glad to see he hadn't lost the knack when Ron almost fell over his own feet while standing still, "welcome to our home."

"That might be more convincing if you weren't blocking the entrance," pointed out Hermione.

"One step at a time," said Snape, retreating so they could enter.

"I'll just get the presents for Molly and the twins while you and Ron - er..." Unable to think of anything Severus and Ron might want to do together Hermione hurried away.

"You know the way to the library as well as I do," said Snape to Ron. "Lead the way."

Conscious of the sound of his own footsteps, and those of the man behind him on the stone stairs, Ron increased his pace and tried to think of something to say to break the uneasy silence.

"Now," Snape said, when he and Ron were in the library, chairs drawn up to the fire, "what was it you wanted to know, Mr Weasley?" He raised his eyebrows.

His face redder than normal, Ron ignored that provocation to take advantage of the fact that they were alone. Ignoring the invitation to sit he clasped his hands behind his back and squared up to Snape.

"It isn't for me to approve or disapprove of your relationship with Hermione but she doesn't have anyone left to look out for her - except for me, of course - and this needs saying. If you ever hurt her, you'll answer to me," said Ron. Despite his melodramatic choice of words a flat sincerity echoed behind them.

Snape eyed him thoughtfully; it was always disconcerting when an annoying schoolboy became a man. "Agreed," he said, after an unnerving pause.

Less sanguine than she had appeared about the idea of leaving Severus and Ron together Hermione had raced back in the library in time to hear that. Setting down her armful of presents, she released the breath she hadn't been aware she had been holding.

"You took that very well," said Ron, sliding his wand back under his cuff now that it seemed safe to assume Snape wasn't going to blast him into oblivion

"Didn't I just," said Snape with suspect affability. "I'm probably basking in the warm glow that comes from realising I can expect the rest of your family to lecture me on my intentions at regular intervals."

Hermione stalked over to stand between the two men before Ron had a chance to react.

"If you've both finished posturing you might care to remember that I'm quite capable of looking after myself," she said coldly.

Her stony-faced displeasure made Ron shift his weight from foot to foot. "Yes, but - "

"But nothing. I make my own choices, I deal with the consequences. Not that I don't appreciate the thought," she added fairly. "Would you mind going to find Lippy, I'd like a word with Severus."

Which, Ron noted, wiped the smirk off Snape's face.

Once outside the library, Ron paused. The sound of raised voices was apparent even through the heavy oak door; the noise went on for some time. When that was followed by an even longer silence Ron resolutely forbade himself to wonder what might be going on now and went to find afternoon tea outside Serpens Tower.

Author notes: 'If anyone asks you

how the perfect satisfaction

of all our sexual wanting

will look, lift your face

and say,

Like this.'

Rumi: Ode 1826. Translated by Coleman Barks