A/N: I included a little nod to the fact that the Harry Potter series takes place during the 1990s, as many often forget (myself included, until I started work on this story). Additionally, if I spend too much time inside the character's heads as opposed to driving the plot forward, feel free to mention it; I'm fascinated by other's thought processes, so it's a bit self-indulgent for me, but I'd hate for it to translate as boring to you, readers. Lastly, I see that a great many people are reading, and I would love to hear from you! Reviews make me immeasurably happy (thanks, as always, to my handful of dedicated reviewers and to guests who also leave comments).

XVII. Nothing Gold Can Stay

By: Calliope Confetti

"This is it," she whispered, holding her finger to her lips to shush him as she withdrew her wand to check for any traps.

It seemed that although Yaxley had once located the house, no one had darkened its doorstep since. They ducked under a garden pergola to hide, until she gestured for Severus to follow her through the gate at the back of the house and through the rear entrance, wands at the ready. They took precautions, once again performing the Fidelius Charm, although this time, Severus consented to being secret-keeper for Hermione.

They reassured themselves that they were finally safe in their new haven, breathing a collective sigh of relief. "So, do I get the grand tour?" Severus asked.

"Of course, only the best for my gentleman callers," she teased, leading him to roll his eyes as she took him by the hand. When he entered the kitchen of Hermione's house, he felt a sudden shame towards his lower-class upbringing, a strange feeling that he didn't quite understand. In the back of his mind, he couldn't silence a nagging voice, a voice that reminded him of his own meager means and the fact that he could never provide her with the type of lifestyle or the luxuries to which she'd grown accustomed; another voice fought back, insisting that, while she grew up in an affluent family, she knew his financial circumstances and would never expect him to match the wealth afforded by her parents' lucrative careers.

Recessed lighting shined on crystal counter-tops sitting atop pristine white cabinetry and spotless stainless steel appliances. The Granger matriarch had tastefully, if minimalistically, decorated the place. The sitting room and the rooms adjacent had all been painted various hues of blue. The built-in bookshelves in the sitting room contained a sizable collection, full of classics spanning the vast canon of literature and an equally impressive span of non-fiction resources; although, these shelves contain too few books to represent Hermione's full collection, he thought, in the same way she'd assessed his potion's cabinet.

She led him through the first floor to show him what had been her parent's bedroom, as well as the master bath and a guest room. He assumed the Grangers' were great hosts, given the fact that they'd furnished and decorated the guest room with as much care as the rest. As Hermione pointed out various objects of interest, he heard her stomach interrupt her with an angry wildcat growl, which led him to remember his own stomach, muted and aching with hunger. "I don't suppose there's any food here?" he asked the question on both their minds.

"God, I sure hope so," she replied with uncertainty. They rushed back to the kitchen, nearly crashing into each other, until they stood in front of the refrigerator, contemplating the mystery of its contents. Severus almost didn't want to open its doors—if his hopes would only be dashed, he'd like to stand there a bit longer, laboring under the illusion of it bearing sustenance. At the same moment, they both lunged for the doors, each of them grasping a handle before standing back as they opened them. The interior lights shined down on the food like crepuscular rays, with almost religious significance.

What any well-fed person would balk at and consider unworthy, they viewed as a surfeit. They had a seat at the dining table in the breakfast nook around a dusty cornucopia centerpiece and enjoyed their meal, a strange assortment under any other circumstances—a jar of artichokes previously unopened, freezer-burnt fare, various items eaten straight from the cans that contained them, tea sans cream, and even a desert consisting of stale crackers spread with jam. Severus found it twistedly amusing how intense hunger rendered any meal gourmet to the starving person.

Hermione insisted they indulge in a bottle of wine to celebrate a successful journey, and with physical tiredness weighing him down, he acquiesced without a word. She knelt next to a wine fridge, which appeared fully-stocked from where Severus sat—and in his mind, he sniped, leave it to the wealthy to have a surplus of alcohol and little to no food. She rifled through the bottles, withdrawing various wines to examine their labels, before she finally settled on a Malbec. Ever the hostess, she arranged two glasses on a mirrored copper tray and motioned for him to follow her into the sitting room, where he took a seat on the divan. She followed suit, sitting beside him and handing him his glass. They performed their classic wordless toast and drank to it, which seemed just as well, words likely couldn't capture all they'd been through.

When Severus gasped after downing his glass in three gulps, Hermione feigned offense. "Hey, now that's a decent Malbec. Savor it."

"Please excuse me if I don't feel like channeling my inner sommelier tonight," he drawled with a smirk.

After what sufficed for supper, she led him upstairs, down a hallway, and then entered the last door on the right, before stepping aside to allow him into the room. When Severus entered Hermione's room, he felt a deep sense of shame that left him swallowing against the jagged lump rising in his throat. It felt like he'd taken a step back in time, to her first year. He knew she hadn't spent much time there since she'd received her letter to Hogwarts, so it made sense, but still, he fidgeted in discomfort as he looked around, his curiosity trumping his shame. "Oasis?" he asked as he studied a poster on her wall of two brooding young lads with moppish hair.

"They're like The Beatles," Hermione answered distractedly, searching for something in her desk. Thankfully, he also noticed an album cover of the "Fab Four" on the wall.

"Are you alright?" Hermione asked, noticing him staring blankly at the series of school photos hung upon the wall, remembering his were taken in black and white.

"Hm? Oh, yes. Fine," he murmured, looking away from the bright-faced little girl with large teeth.

"You don't seem fine," she prodded.

"You're so young, Hermione. Sometimes I forget how young you are," he managed, growing paper-pale, crimson creeping into his cheeks.

"Wizards can live substantially longer lives than muggles," Hermione reminded him, "So 19 years is just a drop in the bucket really, inconsequential." With them still standing in the time-capsule of her youth, he found little comfort in her words. "I'm of age, Severus," she added pointedly.

"Yes, I know. Trust me, you've proven that," he stressed, remembering the night before with a flutter in his abdomen as he grasped her hand. In his life, she seemed like a strange yet lovely anachronism, like gladiators wearing wrist watches. As she dug through the drawers of her desk, he studied a collage she'd assembled and hung next to her twin bed, full of postcards from all over Europe, art prints and playbills and pamphlets from classical concerts with clipped articles from the Daily Prophet, including the article he'd participated in when he became headmaster. Bookshelves scaled the remaining walls, without a free space to be seen; he'd expected nothing less.

"Is there a guest bedroom on this floor?" he asked finally, trying not to sound too hopeful.

"Yes." She walked across the hall to the adjacent bedroom with Severus in her wake, with him growing flustered watching the feminine swing of her hips in that shapely skirt. He followed her in and shut the door behind him, before advancing on her and gripping her shoulders as he claimed her lips in a much awaited kiss.

Under the pretense they'd put in place to deflect scrutiny, he had quietly restrained himself, refraining from touching her in any way that could be misconstrued to hold any deeper meaning. After sequestering themselves for days upon days at Spinner's End, where nothing was off-limits, he had to actively set his mind to the task—even in so short a time, he had repeatedly reiterated one fact to himself, the unspoken and unbelievable fact that it was okay to touch her, it was allowed, he was allowed.

For nearly twenty years, he been deprived of affectionate human touch (sometimes depriving himself of the same) and the warmth that accompanied it; under the Dark Lord's reign, he eschewed even platonic relationships to prevent anyone from coming to harm or from being used as leverage, although he'd never experienced even a spark of interest in anyone over that span of years—that was until Hermione entered stage left, shattered his defenses and drew him into her before he even knew what had hit him; in fact, he was still reeling from the force. Over the course of mere days, under the influence of her and her affections, she ensured that at that point forward, he could never live without either. Only intimately experiencing Hermione had also given him the power to make an honest assessment of the extent of his own damage. What he'd written off as a total loss suddenly seemed mendable, perhaps even redeemable.

At Spinner's End, he'd wished that they could've remained there for the rest of their lives and kept their beloved routine of long talks that ended in languid couplings that lapsed into him falling asleep with the feminine curves of her body flush against his more masculine contours, and they would lie like that until his body responded and he woke her for more before the cycle delightfully repeated itself. However, even as a relationship novice, he knew that wasn't an accurate representation of life, it had been almost more reminiscent of a long dream or a fugue state—although, the sheer realness of it lingered in his mind whenever he so vividly remembered holding her writhing form as he eagerly gripped her flesh.

"I've wanted to do that since that dunderhead accosted you on the train," he admitted, withdrawing his wand to undo all the modifications he'd made previously until the Hermione he recognized stood before him once again. "That's better," he concluded, winding his fingers through her familiar curls before tilting his head until he slanted his mouth over hers in a kiss that nearly had her knees buckling beneath her. Seeing as Hermione's unyielding stand-in wand produced slightly shoddy spells, his disguise had already begun to fade.

"Severus," she laughed, protesting, "I'm all sweaty from the train."

"Doesn't bother me..." he whispered through clenched teeth between insistent kisses. When the need to breathe forced their lips apart, his hands dropped from her hair to encircle her waist, before they quickly migrated lower to grip her arse in that damned distracting skirt. Another long-awaited kiss left her face and lips flushed a deep red. The latent excitement coursed through him when he realized that everything had gone according to plan—they had succeeded—followed by a breathless rush of exhilaration when he realized the fact that, in his mind, he'd cheated death yet again, and consequently, he'd never felt more alive. When he turned to Hermione, that excitement quickly turned amorous.

Although he longed for the swiftness and efficacy afforded by magic, he began removing her clothing the old-fashioned way. She held her hair up and away from the teeth of the zipper on her blouse as he slowly pulled the closure down the length of her back before pulling the garment over head and off to land forgotten on the floor. In one fluid motion, she gripped the collar of his blazer and jerked it down to bring him to her level for a quick kiss, before ripping it down off his shoulders in the same manner. She bit her lower lip with a look of feigned innocence after, a look that sent a rush of libidinous thoughts to his brain, not a single one appropriate to voice in polite company.

A little light-headed, he hadn't noticed her unfurling the scarf from his neck. With one tug of her hands she'd un-tucked his shirt, maintaining her look of innocence. He threw off the turtleneck and leaned into her to stare appraisingly at the curve of her breasts spilling into a lacy black bra, an obstacle to his eyesight he simply couldn't tolerate. Upon seeing the bandages around his neck, she experienced a sobering moment of gravitas, remembering the complication that smoked them out of their former haven. She flushed beneath his gaze and lightly kissed him over-top of the bandages, assuring herself that they'd soon have the wound examined by one of her parent's friends in the medical community.

When his hands searched for the zipper closure on her skirt, she batted them away and brought the focus back to him as she worked to undo the button-fly on his trousers with a coquettish smile and averted eyes, before pulling them over his narrow hips and off completely—in her now narrowed eyes, a challenge. She ran her fingers over the length of his desire, relishing in watching his eyes roll back and hearing the quiet groan escape his lips. With him fully undressed, she had the advantage, but he didn't dare let her hold it for long.

He caught her off guard when he managed to pin her to the wall again, this time with her back flat against his chest. Now, he finally had his chance to divest her of that damned skirt, his hands moving to her waist to unzip it until it fell to the floor in a ring of fabric at her feet. "There's only so much a man can take," he commented silkily, and she marveled at how his sonorous voice lent itself to sultriness as effectively as it did to insult. He threw one arm across her breasts, while he wrapped the other around her rib-cage in order to gauge each panting breath.

The control he'd exercised thus far had left her in a state of constant anticipation. She felt a quiver of arousal in her abdomen when he slid his hand down her stomach and dipped his fingers just below the waistband of her knickers, where he abruptly stopped, a move that made her arch against him, her head lolling loose.

He moved her hair over to one side and kissed the nape of her neck, making the downy hairs their stand at attention. The sound of the breath catching in her throat led him to slip his hand just a little lower. She squirmed against him in attempt to urge his fingers even lower, but he denied her. Aware of the hot length of his erection pressing against her back, she felt shiver of excitement, knowing he wasn't as composed as he let on. Finally, when he could no longer stand it, he dipped his fingers just low enough to part her slickness, teasing a low moan from her as he bit back his own response. When he slid his fingers into her tight passage, his mouth went dry and his flesh pulsed with rigor upon discovering just how aroused he'd made her. Swallowing thickly, he drawled, "Ah, Miss Granger, it seems that I have an effect on you."

"So it would seem," she replied, her voice strained as she arched her back as fully as her restricted range of motion would allow. Sliding his fingers up and down had the desired effect when she threw her arms up, pressing her hands to the wall with little noises of pleasure. "Please," she panted, "Please, Severus, no more control." The desperate knife-edge to her voice when she implored him to surrender encouraged him to acquiesce.

"Bed," he whispered, gripping her hips as he drew her toward the bed until he had her on her back, at his mercy once again. The feeling of his tongue encircling her nipple soon earned him a sibilant, "Sss-severuss," from Hermione's lip as she pressed her palms against his head, her fingers curling when he began suckling on it gently. He kissed the supple skin of her stomach before lowering his head between her thighs; just the scent of her desire sent a dizzying deluge of blood downward. The sweet taste of her, her flesh slick against his tongue, had his body begging him to cut to it, to lift her hips and bury himself inside her. It seemed Hermione was of similar mind, her fingers buried in his hair as she tried to get his attention. "Severus," she panted, "I want to feel you inside of me." Although he found her candor surprising, he found hearing her vocalize such needs unbelievably arousing. Then, another word passed those moist and parted lips with such urgency it aroused the same urgency in him, "Now."

With a vested interest, she watched his shoulders bow and shake with those first thrusts—the fact that she and her body gave him such pleasure made her proud, and a strange sense of power came over her, which she embraced when she gripped his hair and whispered, "Come here," bringing him down to kiss him. She realized that this time, they weren't simply succumbing to some carnal urge; with the raw emotion she felt and the strength of sensation, she knew they were making love. Whereas he'd been supporting himself with straight arms on either side of her, he dropped onto his elbows, the weight of his body pressed heavy upon her—with the synchronicity flowing between them, he had to experience it skin-on-skin, teasing her with the friction of their bodies, so close as they copulated in the dark. She threw her head back with a whispered whimper of his name that hit him with a visceral quake of arousal in his core as he pressed a kiss to her delicate throat.

Without the purchase afforded by his arms, he could only move his hips with long, slow strokes up to the hilt. She gripped his backside as he stroked delicious places inside of her until she could no longer form a coherent sentence. She made a sound, half-moan, half-gasp, which had his hips moving in earnest; she felt herself letting go, her lips brushing his ear with quiet clips of exhortation on her panting breaths. So close to finishing, he wanted to hear her to say it to push him over the edge, and the words spilled from that secret part of him where he kept his vulnerability, from whence few words had ever come. "Tell me, tell me, tell me…" he implored, whispery and breathless. Hearing those words with the husky begging strain in his voice sent a shuddering thrill through her that lingered in her mind long after the moment ended.

"I love you, Severus. I love you. Ah, I love you." She could feel his body shudder in anticipation as he chanted it back to her, until he made a strangled growl, moving with an urge beyond the higher mind. Those final moments left her riding out their completion, moaning the words he longed to hear against his ear over and over again. Finally, when they lay spent and shaking, they were each able to catch their breath and calm down a little. Severus lingered inside of her, not wishing for it to end, occasionally lifting his head to kiss her.

"Where did that come from?" she asked appreciatively, running her hands up and down his back.

"Every time could be the last. I intend to make it count," he quietly replied.

"Mission accomplished and then some," she responded in quiet awe. He smiled where she couldn't see it; although she'd probably assumed it was a dark joke, the thought weighed heavy on his mind. After a time, he withdrew from her and moved to lie behind her, where he held her long after she'd fallen asleep. He found it agonizing—waiting for the other curse to come and curtail his hard-won happiness. In his life, nothing gold could stay; it was only a matter of time for him, and the sands were falling fast. There were circumstances far beyond either of their control, ones Hermione all but refused to acknowledge, that could forever wrench them apart. After scaring her earlier with all his predicted scenarios, the last thing he wanted was to force her to face things she wasn't ready for—but how else could he prepare her?

If the Wizengamot ruled that he should be sent to Azkaban, no magic—even the strange magic of love—could change the reality of that ruling. If her friends and fellows reacted the way he predicted, they'd make certain that she'd never come within a mile of his wretched clutches ever again, in spite of her own wishes and her protestations. One catastrophic outcome terrified him far more than the others—to a Death Eater out for revenge, she'd look like the perfect prey. If they wanted to hurt him, their quickest recourse would be by hurting her, because her lifeblood pumped through his veins too, and when she hurt, he bled—a thought that plagued him constantly.

With two circumstances combined, he could be dementor-fodder rotting away in Azkaban, unable to offer her any protection, a thought that filled him with intense dread. Under any other combination of circumstances, he'd unleash all his magic and all the physical force he possessed if they even took an untoward step in her direction. He knew she was a formidable witch who matched him nearly strength for strength, although he possessed the wisdom only time affords, and he knew he should trust that she could take care of herself; it was not some sort of twisted chivalry—but what he knew on an intellectual level was wiped out by the blind rage at the mere thought of her being captured by a Death Eater, leaving him incapable of rational thought.

No matter how desperately he tried to dam his stream-of-consciousness, the thoughts surfaced rapid-fire to the main stage of his mind to further trouble him and prevent sweet sleep from calling curtains on his consciousness, unable to quiet the thoughts of the trials to come. Theoretically, he presumed any relationship, no matter how unstable, could prosper under perfectly controlled conditions, like being sequestered together in a safe haven invisible to all but them—placed in an Eden-esque terrarium, suspended in a globe of glass, its barrier impenetrable to the reaches of the wider world and its testing temptations and interloping influence.

The future had thrown down the gauntlet, but could any love withstand the trials to which fate had resigned them and survive with the integrity of their bond intact? Were they blinded to the-fast approaching impasse in their path? Some things thrived in adversity, his mind reasoned. A particularly tenacious flower can grow through the smallest crack in the concrete. A fire feeds off its own ashes. Diamonds only form under immense pressure. They'd already faced so many complications and come out stronger and better for it, perhaps preparing them for the trials to come. With love came a strange sense of faith, and he decided to take that mental leap and trust in the idea of their bond's ability to weather the storm, at least for now.

Unable to sleep, Severus left the bed and a sleeping Hermione and wandered to the sitting room, where he took a seat on the plaid divan and examined the photos of her parents lined across the piano; she'd told him that she enchanted them to reappear when her parents weren't present in the home, so she could still fondly look upon them, an aside which had saddened him. His thoughts on the Obliviate spell eventually segued into thoughts on memory itself. Memory is a strange beast, he mused.

The attraction that sparked that day in the forest had kept him in thought for the duration of the return journey, and when his head finally hit the pillow that night, memories of her consumed his mind. Memories he hadn't ruminated on in years flashed to the forefront, imbued with new meaning and reinvigorated with purpose. Memories he once could view objectively had filled him with doubt when he recalled them again through the distorting lens of his newfound fixation. The knowledge that he loved her didn't seem new to him when he realized it; it seemed like it had always been so, like he'd known it from the genesis of his sentience. Before, in the midst of a barrage of more pressing concerns, he wondered if it had been a flight of fancy deeply wanted yet un-entertained, eventually banished to the depths of his consciousness to be suffocated under strain until their forest encounter.

The memories came to him with a newfound clarity that he found suspicious—as the mind so often bends to our unconscious will. A memory of the Yule Ball resurfaced; in it, Hermione descended the staircase in slow motion, her arm linked to Viktor's, although his mind had cropped him from the shot; even before they became involved, he'd found her transformation striking (although then and now, he preferred her dressed-down), but now, when she cast a flirty look her one-time suitor's way, it seemed as if that look had been meant only for Severus, and he realized the edit occurred because he wished she were looking at him. Had he loved her since that day?

Pinpointing the moment his affection for her morphed into something deeper, stronger—love—proved nary impossible—the moment must've occurred in the subconscious, a split-second metamorphosis of the heart, a fraction of a moment so evanescent it rendered recalling it at all an exercise in futility. Another memory projected itself on his mind; it took him a few seconds to place it, as he watched from third-person, much like if he'd placed it in the pensieve—a girl sank into her chair as if she hoped it would absorb her as he paced the room, clutching a copy of the Daily Prophet while reading an article aloud, to a class divided in their reactions—half glaring at him, half of them laughing uncontrollably. In the memory, the audio seemed warped until the sound of his voice suddenly boomed, restoring clarity.

The article he'd been reading aloud to mixed fanfare, the one he'd mentioned the previous night, had centered on Hermione's supposed indiscretions, juggling the hearts of famous boys. Originally, he'd been so caught up in humiliating Potter, he hadn't noticed Hermione's roundabout humiliation; in recall, something about the article bothered him, something that had nothing to do with Potter—the assertions that gossip hag had made in the article had hit a raw nerve, but why? The potential veracity of the article had riled and incensed him; had he masked his true motives so well that he'd managed to conceal them even from himself?

Had his theoretical budding desire for Hermione been dealt a fatal blow when he learned that she was interested in superior suitors? Had he unknowingly punished her, not for being in possession of forbidden materials, but for daring to choose to be interested in others when neither of them had any idea he harbored any interest in her in the first place? Had he suppressed his rationality in favor of falling victim to emotions totally foreign to him? Had he inadvertently followed that oft-spouted bit of horrible advice—had he made a mental return to the schoolyard when he teased and tortured the girl he fancied? Perhaps.

All the potential implications and complications made him feel like he was drowning with no one to rescue him. All his former encounters with her that he'd filed away as less than meaningless were suddenly meaningful and relevant to his current predicament. He wondered if he'd sensed it in her presence, clips of the future, as seers do; had he simply refused to interpret the signs, had he simply ignored or missed them entirely in his state of constant vigilance? Or was he indulging in the farce that is prophesy after the event, as seers are also wont to do? Memories of her sitting in rapt attention as he stood at the lectern had him rethinking her seemingly innocent eye contact—back then, did he miss a knowing gleam of the future in her eye due, in part, to his larger effort to ignore her?

When they'd become reacquainted, his mind had truncated time and condensed memory until they occupied the very same second of the present, lending itself to easy confusion. Another memory surfaced to vex him more than the rest combined. In it, he dizzily came to, only to find himself in a pile of rubble on the floor of the Shrieking Shack with blood trickling from his skull; slow to form, his memories had occurred to him in pieces—his wand pressing a divot into Sirius's throat, the trio's protestations, Lupin's unconvincing explanation, someone raising a wand, and then nothing, fade to black. The howl of a wolf pierced the quiet, and before his conscious thoughts even had time to catch up, his instincts had him grappling for his wand until his hand closed around it and he bolted into the night.

When he'd come upon the trio cowering and huddling together, their fearful stance had failed to register; with admonishments for Potter chambered on his tongue, he gripped him by the collar, but before a single insult passed his lips, he noticing a long shadow stretching behind the three, and he looked up to see Lupin in werewolf form, looming over them with ferocious snaps of his fang-lined jaws. In a split second, he whirled around and threw himself between the werewolf and the children without even a second thought. Lupin raised a paw and slashed it across Severus's chest, bowling him over so that he landed halfway on Hermione. He scrambled to his feet and helped her up before assisting the others.

When Sirius had entered the fray in animagus form, Severus took another step back, urging them to do the same. Soon, Sirius's jaws were clasped around Lupin's throat, with just enough force for him to desist from harming himself and the rest of them. Lupin managed to get ahold of Sirius and hurl him over the embankment before pursuing him into the night with a baleful howl. Potter broke away from the group in pursuit of his godfather, and while Severus had shouted for him to come back, he stayed with the other two. His hands grasped Hermione's shoulders, and he felt her tense in preparation to lunge out of his grasp; when she did, he managed to wrestle his arms around her to keep her from retreating.

In the memory, his own actions perplexed him—the necessity in protecting Potter at all costs had been deeply ingrained, beaten into him by Dumbledore with the bluntest of instruments, but instead of following to apprehend him in his pursuit of the two stupid curs, he held his position, perhaps anticipating that she would likely make a break for it. Instead of keeping Potter safe, he made certain that Hermione remained safely with him, out of harm's way. Had he experienced a sudden surge of long-buried emotion when he sprang into action in attempt to hold her back? The volatility of the altercation and the sense of impending danger combined so that the clear and present danger held his sole focus; the lack of a moment to spare left zero time for emotion and analytics, only for instinct.

When he'd realized that he loved her, he also realized he couldn't remember a time when he didn't, sending him into a mild intellectual crisis—had his consciousness rid of reality to make room for love? He hoped it wasn't so—his self-identity had been crafted around a framework of unfaltering rationality. Eventually, he was able to offer himself some reassurance—love had left his rationality intact; the two had so little in common, they rarely traveled in the same circles. After falling down that rabbit hole of contemplation, it took some time before he reached the surface and was able to crawl out; all those questions and insights culminated in the anticlimactic realization that while he found it interesting, it mattered naught. Regardless of the length of time, all that truly mattered now was the fact that he loved her, and that was that.

The chirping sound of an Audubon clock startled him out of his reverie, unused to the strange night sounds in her home—a coo coo clock, out of time with the first, chimed a moment later. He yawned and began to head in the direction of the bedroom, before he realized that he'd inadvertently created the perfect opportunity to execute stage one of a plan he'd been crafting in secret for a few days' time. Striving not to wake her, he gripped the handle of the door to the back patio, slowly attempting to ease it open without it making a sound, before aiming his wand through to the outside and whispering, "Expecto Patronum." When he dispatched his Patronus to deliver the message, he'd been surprised to find his once corporeal Patronus gone, in its place an amorphous, swirling cloud of wispy silver—something within fought to form, although he could not yet tell which creature. And while he disliked the implication that his abilities in that area of magic had suffered, he felt a burden lifted when the spell no longer confronted him with the dolorous doe of his past.

When he re-entered the room to join her in bed, he stopped in his tracks just past the threshold. The moonlight spilling into the room, rendering her flesh alabaster, left her supine body looking as if an artist had in mind Venus herself when he carved her from a pristine pillar of white stone. The slight twist of her torso allowed him only a peek of the sublime dip of her hips as she supported herself on one hip and an elbow, the fingers of that hand buried in her hair, partly awake but oblivious to his return. Severus saw her spread across the bed like a beautiful echo of an Odalisque, laid out before him in a revelation, struck by the vision of where and who he wanted to be with until death. Re-joining her under the covers, she languidly tilted her head up to look at him, and in her sleepy voice asked, "Where'd you go?"

"Just to fetch a drink of water," he replied, before caressing her cheek and kissing her goodnight. "You're lovely, do you know that?" he drawled, his eyes warm and full of affection. With her eyes half closed and oblivious to how much she and her body affected him, she smiled, and wrapped her arms around him, nuzzling against his chest before rolling on her side to return to sleep, and as he curled against her back and draped one arm over her side, he wondered whether she'd even remember their interaction in the morning.

That morning, Hermione entered the kitchen, arms laden with the back issues of the Daily Prophet that had accumulated on her doorstep. With owls immune to the sanctions of the Fidelius Charm, the deliveries would continue daily, dropped in flight from above, landing on the flagstones that created a meandering path through the garden. Severus reached into the pile of papers to withdraw one, almost like drawing straws, but Hermione stopped him, "We're going to refrain from reading them until you see Dr. Baker. We can't be getting discouraged while that bite still needs taken care of."

"I remain unconvinced of the effectiveness of such a measure," he replied flatly. She watched his eyes scan the bits of pictures and print he could discern through the jumble of news, so she wrapped an arm around him and covered his eyes with her other hand. "Stop that," she scolded as he sipped his tea, pretending not to notice the hand blocking his vision.

After they'd properly disguised and dressed themselves as Sidney and Charlotte once more, they exited the house and Hermione led the way to the private medical practice a few blocks away. They approached a square building with bands of bricks alternating with panes of black windows, and Hermione inclined her head towards it, "It's this building." Severus's anxiety soared and fibrillated his nerves at the idea of putting her plan into action. With the death of the Dark Lord, he leaned towards believing the legitimacy of her claim that the darkness dies with the Horcrux, although he refrained from telling her to deny her the satisfaction, since he'd originally balked at her assertion—but there still existed a chance that the dark nature of the wound remained, leaving muggle doctor's flummoxed, alarmingly declaring him a medical anomaly worthy of press and further study. She gripped his sleeve and pulled him into a small grove of trees bordering the practice and urged him to undo her disguise, so the doctor would recognize her.

Hermione approached the secretary at the front desk and informed her of her desire to speak privately with Dr. Basil Baker, and after a surprisingly short wait, a nurse declared that the doctor would see them now and led them to a private room. The tall, well-built Englishman entered the room, exchanging congenial greetings with Hermione before he turned his expressive face and outstretched hand toward Severus, "Pleasure to meet you, mate, any friend of Hermione here is a friend of mine. I'm Basil Baker."

Hermione cleared her throat before she launched into her fabricated explanation, "Actually, this is my uncle, Sidney. He and my parents don't get on; they had a falling out, but he remained in my life, and now that I'm an adult, it's my decision who I choose to associate with, besides, mum and dad are on an extended holiday in Melbourne, having a grand time. This needn't be any of their concern."

Her ability to craft skilled lies on the spot impressed and alarmed Severus in equal measure. "Yes, and I'm afraid that, at the moment, my circumstances have left me in a bad place, where I can't afford to see another physician," he added, and her heart swelled with empathy—usually, he valued his pride above all else and refused to debase himself, even fictionally.

"Just to prepare you, Dr. Baker, it's a rather gruesome injury," Hermione warned.

"Let's have a look then," he straightened his brightly patterned tie before sitting down, rolling his chair across the room to sit in front of Severus; judging by his cheery tone, Hermione surmised that he didn't believe the injury was as grisly as she described. Before he'd even fully removed the bandages, the doctor's face paled with a look of horror, and she heard him mutter "Oh, Mary mother of God" under his breath. "Do you have any idea of the cause or how this injury was inflicted?" he asked, stunned.

Hermione coughed against the panic clogging her throat before she choked out the only explanation she'd been able to think of, "Brown recluse bite. Untreated for too long. Necrosis."

When she studied his expression, his eyebrows raised far above the thick black frames of his glasses, she sighed in relief when she realized that he'd accepted her explanation.

"A right nasty bite, sir. I've found a few of the little bastards in my basement. After seeing this though, I'm far more inclined to call an exterminator," he chuckled, attempting to add some levity. Hermione laughed along awkwardly, while Severus could only manage a twitch of a smile.

"You'll need to clean the wound twice a day, as well as undergo a few weeks of intravenous antibiotics."

"Weeks?" Severus asked in shock.

"Yes, if you're lucky. With the severity of the infection, you may require a month of the treatment. Don't worry yourself—we have home health people for that. They'll teach you how to do it. To be safe, I'm going to start the treatment today.

When a nurse returned in the doctor's place to administer the treatment, Hermione winced and tensed when she watched the butterfly needle pierce the crook his arm, cringing as if she were the one being stabbed; he'd endured far worse that a large needle over his life, with scars to prove it.

He eyed her with amusement. "Does this bother you?" he drawled.

"Obviously," she answered sharply, growing pale at the sight of his blood winding up through the tubing. He felt and tasted the saline drip, the salient substance irritating his throat. When the nurse left them alone in the small room, he quoted Dr. Baker, hissing, "'Home health people?' How on earth are we going to manage that?!"

"I don't know!" she whined, covering her head with her arms in a futile attempt to disappear. "We will find a way. We can't let that get us down, because, on the plus side, Dr. Baker noticed nothing untoward about your injury. That's great news." Severus appeared unconvinced, but he quietly granted her that to keep from causing her even more frustration.

As they exited the examination room, they passed Doctor Baker on their way down the hall, and he stopped to say goodbye to Hermione, who instructed Severus to wait for her in the lobby. After they'd exchanged clarifying information, additional instruction, and the usual farewell pleasantries, her eyes took on a steely quality as she asked, "Sir, do you adhere to the strictures and uphold the standards of doctor/patient confidentiality.

Her inquiry left the good doctor looking abashed. "Hermione?" he asked, perplexed by her sudden seriousness and her insinuation that he was anything but professional.

"I'm sorry, sir, I know, I just need to hear you affirm it."

He seemed to stumble over his words, stroking his chin with his hand, "Of course, I treat every one of my patient's privacy with vigilance and care. Look, if this is about your parents, I'm legally bound to secrecy, but I wouldn't tell them in the first place. I've zero desire to upend your life in any way, okay dear?" he patted her on the shoulder, before turning to leave, and Hermione let out a heavy sigh, leaning against the wall for a moment with a series of panting breaths. Standing up to authority figures like Dr. Baker affected her own anxiety.

When they returned to the Granger homestead, Hermione bent down to pick that day's paper off the ground, tucking it under her arm as they entered the house; she sat down at the table and unfurled the Prophet, while he set to work on making her a cup of tea. Watching her read the article, he saw her eyes widen and her mouth fall open, heard the rasp of paper in her hands, trembling with rage as she scanned the lines, the fury flaring in her eyes. He removed the page from her grasp and perused it himself, his own reaction muted by prior expectation. The headline read "Snape, Granger Spotted in London!" the writer none other than the gossip hag herself, Rita Skeeter.

The disappearance of Hermione Granger is one I've covered extensively, and it appears we have a startling break in the case! A source, who shall remain anonymous for the purposes of this article, has come forward with the claim that they saw Ms. Granger in London, and in the company of none other than Severus Snape, whose "death" has been a mysterious matter of debate. Remember, you read it here first! My source mentioned that the two were partially disguised but assures me their voices revealed, with near certainty, their true identities; the anonymous informant is convinced that the behavior they witnessed between the two hints towards a deeper relationship. "The girl walked quite closely with him, whispering in his ear...you know the way. And the way he looked at her. It was unmistakable." Fearing they were armed, the informant did not pursue them any further. So, how did this odd coupling come to pass? Knowing what I know of Ms. Granger, she is ruthless. I imagine the former headmaster handed down a grade she wouldn't stand for, so she decided to earn a higher one in a way the lonely man was all too willing to accommodate, sparking the illicit affair that has continued to this day. Seeing as she likely played an instrumental role in his escape and helping him go into hiding, I wonder, how long has she been a part of his plans? How deep does this rabbit hole go, my dear readers? Trust me, loyal devotees of the Prophet, I will not stand until I have the answers. Is the disgraced headmaster a sexual predator with an eye for the bookish fille fatale, or is Ms. Granger a succubus with a secret agenda? Only time (and I) will tell.