CHAPTER EIGHTEEN:

No Surprises

"I'll take a quiet life...

With no alarms and no surprises..."

-RADIOHEAD

It didn't take long after falling into bed that they fell into a routine.

She would visit sometime between lunch and dinner. They'd share at least one meal together with Eileen, and then, before the child's bath and bed, Hermione would leave, only to return hours later once the child was certain to be asleep. Then they'd typically chat a little and drink a little before ending up in various stages of undress, enjoying each other physically, and pretending nothing was happening between them. He did make an effort to teach her while providing her the pleasure he'd promised, encouraging her to try new positions and techniques, to talk to him about what she liked and wanted, and to release her remaining inhibitions.

He wouldn't admit it, but she was teaching him, too. Teaching him to open himself emotionally, as their best and most intimate conversations tended to follow their most intimate encounters... and, eventually, to precede them. He came to rely on her presence during the days, and, on occasion, secretly pretended they were family, especially when out and about with Eileen.

Which was dangerous.

This routine bled into a new routine, one with less pretense, in which she stopped leaving after dinner and returning once Eileen was asleep, and started helping with bath and bedtime and book reading, only to retire with him to his bedroom once the girl was out. They remained careful to avoid being caught together in bed, though. Most mornings she left by sunrise before Eileen was up for the day, but over the last week she'd taken to simply moving to the kitchen and making coffee or, when completely exhausted, passing out on the couch for a few hours after leaving his arms.

They were only a fortnight away from Christmas. The temperature had dropped considerably, they'd neither revisited the "mystery" of the ancient runes nor found another reason for her to continue staying in the city for research, and both knew she was expected to move on by the first of the year, which seemed to be approaching more rapidly than the calendar should allow.

It wasn't only the sex that they were enjoying together. Severus couldn't deny that she was a 'better than adequate' conversationalist (a high compliment from him) and Hermione found him equally fascinating. They talked of both magical and Muggle things, of the news and the world, of the war of history, and, after a particularly difficult day or night with Eileen, they talked about the child, her condition, his fears regarding her future, and how they might work together to help her heal, though truly both were at a loss as far as that was concerned.

All was going well, all things considered.

Too well.

Until...

It was exactly two weeks to Christmas Eve. Hermione had stayed the night, as usual. They'd been up late, past eleven, playing a card game she'd recently taught him called Hand and Foot, taught to her by her father, who learned it from an exchange student who'd spent a semester living with his family when he was a teenager. Severus, being a naturally competitive person, would not concede victory, thus he with every loss he'd request, "Three of five," or "Five of seven" until he thought he could manage a win, carrying them well into the night.

They finally abandoned the cards on the kitchen table with their empty wine glasses, checked on Eileen, who was sleeping peacefully, and retired to his bedroom.

"I am not looking forward to your imminent departure, Miss Granger," he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind and nuzzling his nose into the crux of her neck. "Surely you could write to your superiors explaining your need to remain in Rome for another month or two?"

"I've already extended my time here with no valid reason... no reason my superiors would consider valid, that is." She bent her head to grant him better access to her collarbone as her hands settled over his across her abdomen. "Should I ask for an extension on the grounds that I've come to rely on nightly sexual encounters that bring me to such a point of exhaustion because I'm sleeping better than I have since before the war?"

"Sounds valid to me." He kissed her shoulder, neck, jaw line, and cheek, pressing forward with his groin, hoping she could feel how hard he was for her already. These nightly encounters were having a profound positive effect on him, too. He felt less stressed, less surly, and, like her, better rested each morning than he had been in years. "Surely they wanted you well-rested."

Though she knew they'd have to face reality sooner rather than later, she was not content to do so tonight, thus she swiveled around, kissed him soundly, and began undoing each of the many buttons on his shirt, eager to have him naked.

He was not opposed to forgoing conversation in favor of a good fuck, thus he allowed himself to be distracted by her fingers and tongue, as she made quick work of divesting him of his shirt and trousers. He did the same to her jumper and jeans and the two collapsed onto the high bed in only their undergarments.

"What do you want tonight?" he asked, his voice low, as his fingertips brushed lightly over the soft skin spilling from the cup of her bra.

"I want to be on top," she whispered, arching her back, thrusting her chest up in a nonverbal plea for him to touch here there more. "I want to ride you. I want... I want..."

Her words died on her lips as his mouth went to her breast, his tongue delving under the fabric of her bra, flicking over the hardened bud in the center of her nipple. They'd been doing this long enough – and frequently enough – that he'd learned what she liked best and vice-versa.

Soon enough, they were both naked and slick with sweat, gasping and groaning, whispering and whimpering. She was indeed on top, grinding her hips with one hand on the center of his chest in front of her and the other on his thigh behind her, using his proud erection as one might a favorite sex toy. The sighs and sounds she emitted were their own turn on, as was her ability to maintain eye contact.

"I need this," she said. "I need you. I need... I need... Oh, Severus!" She arched her back, increasing her speed, and clenched her teeth to keep from getting too loud.

"Yes, Hermione, yes..." he moaned under her, trying to control his lower body, which wanted to buck and thrust and plow mercilessly into her. "You cannot leave me in January."

"I... I know..." She slowed and he could see in her expression that she wanted to talk, she wanted to have this discussion now - but now was not the time.

"Please, Hermione..." he pleaded, urging her on with his hands on her thighs. "Don't stop..."

"I won't stop." She switched from grinding to bouncing, enjoying watching him watch her. She knew he likes the way her breasts bounced along with her, enjoyed seeing her slick sex encompassing his hardness, enjoyed watching as her eyelashes fluttered and her pupils rolled back the closer she got to completion.

She didn't always finish before him. Sometimes she wasn't able to 'finish' at all, though he'd always put in his best effort, which she appreciated. Tonight, however, thanks in part to the glean in his eye and in part to the way his thumb was working over her clit, she reached her peak rather quickly. Her body tensed as her quim thrummed and pulsated around his engorged cock, which very nearly made him spill his seed right then. She collapsed forward, spent and sated, and relaxed into something closely resembling melted butter as his arms wrapped around her back. He remained inside her, his own climax not far off.

"Let's go to Egypt."

"Hmm?" she tried to lift her head from his shoulder but found it too heavy for her neck to support. He flipped them so she was on her back, bent one of her knees up toward her chest, and resumed thrusting.

"Egypt," he repeated. "You said you wanted to. Let's go. For Christmas."

"You want to go to Egypt for Christmas?"

"It could be our... farewell excursion." He hated to say it, but throughout this brief affair, both had been abundantly clear that the arrangement was temporary; They'd even begun preparing Eileen, explaining that Hermione would soon have to return home but would be sure to write. Eileen seemed excited about the possibility of receiving her own mail from owls, like Baba, and Hermione even promised some correspondence would contain candy as well. Severus hoped as long as the child had something to look forward to in the young witch's departure, she wouldn't be traumatized once they'd both moved on. The pseudo-couple had also agreed that he wouldn't tell Hermione which country he intended to take his daughter to after the first of the year. Though they could continue to send letters – for a little while, at least – it was better that she not know where he'd gone, and eventually the letters would... stop.

He tried to put this out of his mind as he kissed her knee and brushed her sticky hair away from her eyes and continued to jerk his hips; his movements were becoming erratic now, as was his breathing. He was losing control.

"Come here," she demanded, reaching up to pull him down to her for a kiss. He released her leg, allowing her to wrap both around his waist, keeping him close. He typically hated this position with the witches he was casually shagging; he saved it for girlfriends, and even then, only after they'd been dating for some time and only because it was requested of him. It was too intimate, this position. He much preferred to mount a witch from behind or throw her legs over his shoulders, thus keeping their upper bodies separated. And he did not typically enjoy snogging during sex, preferring it as a prelude, but with her... with her, he didn't want to stop.

Thus his tongue laved over hers, his hands caressed her thighs, and his heart fluttered in a most worrisome way when she pulled slightly away to whisper his name into his ear, followed by the dangerous words, "Don't let me go."

This was enough to do him in. He exploded inside her with such force he was glad she was no longer on top; she might have been propelled up to the ceiling. Now it was his turn to collapse. His chest crushed down on hers, his face rested on the pillow under her head, and he remained there until he slipped out naturally. He then somehow managed to roll off of her, but their bodies were not disconnected for long; she promptly cuddled up against him, resting her head on the center of his chest and draping her thigh across his lap.

Fuck.

How had he let this happen?

From a kiss in the kitchen to "don't let me go."

This could very well end up being one of his greatest mistakes, ranking right up there with getting Lily killed and getting Bellatrix pregnant.

"Wake me at sunrise," she whispered. Her breath danced across his chest and though he knew he shouldn't, he wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her close. He very nearly suggested she forgo pretense and simply stay in his bed until morning, but she added, "I need to shower and change and write a few letters, then I'll return for lunch. I've booked us a car for the afternoon. We're going to Vatican City. I've been researching witchcraft and the Catholic church and the ways the rise of Christianity led to our kind going underground all across Italy. I need to have something to show my superiors and I thought Eileen might enjoy the art and statues."

Severus was quite certain she wouldn't enjoy the art or statues for more than a matter of minutes and would spend the rest of the afternoon whining, pouting, and insisting upon being carried, but he did not say so. He simply closed his eyes and stroked Hermione's hair and reminded himself for the two-millionth time that she was too young for him, too good for him, and too smart to let him ruin her life.

"Did you hate dinner tonight? I thought it was interesting, and Eileen smiled a lot. I think she enjoyed the movie, too. I've never seen her sit quietly for so long without flapping or rocking." She played with the thin line of hair dissecting his pectorals as she spoke, following it down to the soft hair above his cock. He caught her wrist and brought her hand back up. He was not seeking a second go tonight. He was getting too old for such things, and had learned from experience that while she might be able to excite him two or three time in one night, it generally meant he was fighting sheer exhaustion the next morning.

"It was her first cinema experience... and her first time eating that American Muggle cuisine. No wonder they have weight issues across the pond. If I ate like that every night, I'd weigh as much as a small bull elephant. Did you see the size of my mushroom cheddar burger? It could have fed an entire family of four."

"And yet you managed to eat it all on your own. Fancy that!" Hermione giggled. "I knew it was a tourist trap, but I went to one in Paris with my parents once when I was little and it was such fun! I'd love to see the real Hollywood someday."

They'd had dinner at Planet Hollywood, a tacky but not altogether unpleasant chain restaurant that seemed decidedly out of place in old world Rome. This was followed by seeing an animate film called Brother Bear at the local movie theatre. The food had been better than expected, despite his teasing. He'd had the giant mushroom cheddar burger special with chips while Hermione opted for sesame ginger salmon and Eileen had opted for macaroni and cheese, which she seemed to like a little too much – he insisted they share a small fresh fruit platter on the side. He couldn't deny that she'd been captivated but confused by the décor, which included a car that looked as though it had been driven through the ceiling and several large cutouts of famous film stars, so when Hermione suggested they see a movie after he hadn't objected.

"She didn't understand a word of that movie, you know." He ran his fingertips lightly up and down her spine from the back of her neck to the top of her bum. "I only understood about half of it."

"You did better than I did, then. But it was cute and had a happy ending and that's what matters in a children's movie."

"We could have gone to a more artistic theatre to see something of substance."

"Or we could go back to see Peter Pan or The Cat in the Hat. Or Love, Actually. There's an actor in that I like, though his voice will be dubbed, which would be a disappointment as it's his best feature."

"I've read Peter Pan aloud to her. That might not be awful."

"It comes out Christmas day, though, and unfortunately we won't be in Italy then..." She sucked her bottom lip for a second before gazing up at him. "If you were serious about going to Egypt?"

"I was. I am."

"When? When will we leave? When would we get back?"

He wanted to answer that they'd leave in the morning and not come back, but he knew such a response would be stupid and irresponsible.

"I'll make the arrangements tomorrow with the intention of arriving in Egypt on the 23rd and returning on the 27th. This was we can enjoy Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day without having to travel. Will that suffice?"

"I'd love it. I already wrote my parents and friends that I was staying in Rome for Christmas so they won't be expecting me. How shall we figure the cost? How much do you reckon I should set aside?"

"Not a sickle." He brought her hand up from his chest to his lips to kiss her palm. Damn it. He was treating her like a girlfriend. Girlfriends get invited on holiday abroad. Casual fucks do not. Part of him wanted to tell her he'd made a mistake, but a greater part of him again assured himself this would be their 'one last hurrah,' so to speak, a memory to replay in their minds after they parted ways just days later.

"I can't keep my eyes open." She snuggled closer, if that were possible, and sighed contentedly. "Wake me at sunrise?"

"I've already set the alarm," he said, gesturing toward the digital clock on the bedside table beside his wand. "Sleep well, Hermione."

"Good night, Severus."

-0-0-0-

She hated having to wake at the literal crack of dawn to return home, but understood why he insisted upon it. It had been a good night. Not only had she thoroughly enjoyed their dinner date and the trip to the cinema, Eileen had not fought against her bath, went to sleep easily, and did not wake screaming hours later. Hermione, therefore, thought their first official date had been a success.

Not that she told him she was considering their first official date.

She reckoned he had no idea she viewed it as any different than any other night they'd spent together with Eileen, having dinner and finding ways to pass the time until the child was asleep, but she thought nothing seemed more 'date like' than dinner and a movie. At least, that's what other movies she'd seen in the past had led her to believe.

She hadn't told him as much, but she was dreading leaving Rome. Leaving him. Leaving Eileen. Sure, they promised to write, but how long would that last? And what good would it do, aside from keeping the child from feeling abruptly abandoned? That afternoon he'd kissed her in the kitchen and sworn whatever happened between them would be strictly physical, completely meaningless, and unquestionably temporary, she'd known in the back of her mind she was incapable of adhering to such an arrangement.

But she couldn't see herself living as he did, fleeing from country to country whenever the real world got too close, hiding the fact that he survived the war and toting around a child who may or may not actually be his, always looking over their shoulders, always ready to run. She needed help, advice, from someone she could trust, someone they both could trust... but who?

Minerva, she decided.

She'd pen a letter to Minerva. He trusted Minerva, which meant she could too.

But what to write? What to ask? What to... confess?

She hated walking home at this time. In order to keep the wards up around her temporary home, she had to apparate to an apparition point about a ten minute walk from the flat. The sun was still pink and dim, not having fully risen yet, and the streets were almost abandoned. She walked briskly, holding tightly to the bag slung over her shoulder. A man had tried to rob her on this route not two weeks ago; she'd quickly glanced around and, seeing no witnesses, hexed him away before wiping his memory. She knew such a response could earn her an infraction from the Ministry, even jeopardize her return to her job, but she hadn't much time to contemplate her next move while staring at the blade of his knife.

She'd gone home, warded the flat around her, and collapsed to the floor in a sobbing mess. Not because he'd threatened to slit her throat if she refused to part with her purse, but because the knife, the blade... it brought back memories. Memories of a similar knife, a similar blade... a sharp touch, sinking into her skin, etching letters into her arm, a wound inflicted by a sick, twisted sadist with threats of her own.

She hated this.

She hated that she wasn't okay.

Harry seemed alright. Ron seemed alright. Luna and Ginny and Neville seemed alright. They were happy, fulfilled, living their best lives. They hadn't needed extensive therapy after the war. They weren't still plagued by nightmares.

Was she really so much weaker than her friends that she couldn't get past what had happened five years and seven months ago?

It wasn't only boredom that chased her away from the UK a few months ago. It was fear. And stagnation. And depression. And emptiness. It was that she hadn't managed to pick herself up and move on with the same apparent ease as those around her. The only ones who seemed to be struggling five years out as much as she was were Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and George, Andromeda Tonks, and, she suspected, Severus Snape.

But they all had reasons. Valid, legitimate reasons. They had personal losses, significant ones. The Weasleys lost Fred, which hit his parents and twin hardest, as one might expect. Andromeda had lost her husband, daughter, and son-in-law, and was now raising a small child alone. And Severus – well, he wouldn't talk about the war at all unless he had at least three glasses of whisky or wine in him first, which Hermione reckoned spoke for itself.

But she hadn't lost anyone closer to her than Fred or Lupin or Tonks . Her parents' memories had been restored, her two best mates had survived, and she hadn't even been significantly wounded in that Final Battle. She had cried at the memorial service for Hogwarts professors Burbage, Sinistra, and Babbling, and she wasn't sure she'd ever properly mourned the passing of Professor Dumbledore, and it haunted her to recall how the Creevey brothers had looked lain out side by side in the Great Hall when it was all over, and she felt guilty for being repulsed by the scars that completely changed the visage of Lavender Brown, but after five years she had no good reason to keep from moving on, moving forward, and living her best life as Harry and Ron were.

She was only about five minutes from home. She picked up the pace. It was bloody cold! She should have performed a warming charm before leaving his flat but her mind hadn't been working properly given the early hour and the little time they'd spent sleeping.

She chose to push her worries from her mind and focus instead on reliving the night before. They'd sat at the table, been handed their menus, and been left alone to peruse them. She'd laughed right out loud at the look on his face, one of mixed bemusement and horror as he took in the décor.

"What do you think?" she asked, smiling. Eileen bounced on her knees, also taking in their surroundings, albeit wearing an entirely different expression from her father.

"It's positively garish," he said after a few seconds. "This is a popular place for Muggles?"

"There's not a free table anywhere, is there?"

"And it's American?"

"All very American, hence the name."

He nodded discerningly. "So it's offensive on two fronts: Muggle, and American."

She couldn't hold back her snicker. "Suppress that snark, sir. It is not welcome here tonight! Do you like it, Eileen? Do you like Planet Hollywood?"

"Love!" announced Eileen boisterously. "Love a Pan-it Hah-hah-wood!"

"Plan-et Holly-wood," Hermione corrected carefully. She smirked at Severus. "Eileen loves it."

"Eileen is six years old. She has a pet bird made of paper, loves eating Bertie Botts Beans that she finds in the couch cushions, and requests I read her books about talking kittens who can't manage to find their own mittens. Her taste is therefore... questionable."

"Don't listen to him, you have fine taste!" Hermione patted Eileen's hand sympathetically, though the girl did not seem at all affronted. She was still glancing around the decorated ceiling, wide eyed, with her free hand tapping at her chin. She hummed quietly, hardly audible over the pop music pumped out through the speakers, and she was smiling.

When the server returned, Severus peppered her with questions before she could take their drink orders. Thankfully for Hermione, she was a French girl who spoke excellent English, so she wasn't left out of the conversation.

"Do you get many Americans in here?"

"Oui, some."

"What are they like?"

"Loud." The waitress shrugged pleasantly. "But zhey tip better zhan Italians!"

"And they enjoy this... food? 'Chicken fingers' and 'Buffalo wings'? Since when have chickens got fingers? And what are buffalo wings?"

"Zhe chicken fingers come from... from zhe wing, peut-etre? I'm afraid I do not know."

"Leave her alone!" scolded Hermione. "We're ready to order now."

Once she'd left the table with their food choices scribbled on her little pad, Hermione set her hand on Severus' knee under the table and grinned.

"For a half-blood, you really don't know much about Muggle culture or cuisine, do you?"

"Not American Muggle culture and cuisine, no. But that aside, it was a valid question. As far as I am aware, chicken do not have fingers and buffalo do not have wings."

"Chicken fingers are boneless wings, and buffalo wings are chicken too."

"Buffalo wings are chicken? Why are they called buffalo? And why aren't they called buffalo fingers if fingers are wings?"

"COKE!"

Eileen's shout startled Severus and Hermione. She was reaching toward a glass the waitress had put down at the next table, practically standing in her seat.

"No, Eileen." Severus guided her back down. "You are having water. Water is better for you than Coke."

To his surprise, she did not argue or even pout. This was likely because her water arrived then in a plastic cup with a neon pink swirly straw that instantly captivated her as the room had upon entry. Hermione and Severus raised their glasses to each other in a toast of sorts (he had a beer, thinking it might go well with the burger, while she was trying an iced tea, not at all her usual beverage of choice) before taking their first sips.

"It's an experience, at any rate," he said, willing to set aside his snark for the time being.

She tried a bite of his burger and ate several of his fries, while he sampled her fish right off her fork, which made her stomach twist in a not unpleasant way. To the casual observer, they likely seemed like any other vacationing family, despite their age difference and Eileen's visible quirks. And she liked it.

They were sharing a dessert of decadent chocolate cake smothered in hot fudge when he asked whether there was any place she'd love to travel but thus far hadn't seen, and she immediately answered, "Egypt." They spent the next ten minutes talking about Egyptian wizards, code breakers, the Sphinx and mummies, and how incredible it must be to see the pyramids in person. She couldn't believe they were less than a fortnight away from seeing it together. She pictured the two of them standing on either side of Eileen, holding her small hands, staring up at the Great Pyramids, one of the Wonders of the World.

Like a family.

She was so lost in thought she walked smack into the figure standing on her front step. She leapt back, withdrawing her wand, and very nearly sent a hex his way before his face came into focus.

His freckled face.

"Ron?" she gasped, slipping her wand back into her shoulder bag. "What are you doing here?"

"Surprise, Hermione!" He grinned and ran one hand through his purposely untidy ginger hair. "I've got two weeks off for Christmas, so I came to surprise you! You won't have to spent the holiday alone. I'll be here for the next fourteen days! From now through Boxing Day! Are you surprised?"

"Oh... yes." She blinked several times, as if doing so might make him disappear again. "Yes, I'm... I'm beyond surprised."

"Great!" He moved forward as if to kiss her but, perhaps sensing her apprehension, clapped her on the shoulder instead. "Can we go in now? Got anything to eat? I'm starved."

She unlocked her door with her wand first, then the Muggle key, leading him into her flat. She hadn't spent much time there over the last month or so since she'd started... whatever she and Severus had started... and she honestly wasn't sure she had any food, but she directed him toward the kitchen, explaining that she had to use the loo quickly and then would give him a tour.

"Where were you? It's so early. When you didn't answer the door I thought you were sound asleep."

"I... jog... in the mornings. Early in the mornings. I... jog. I just love to... jog." She set down her bag glad her 'on break boyfriend' wasn't the observant, suspicious type of man Severus was; her lover would never believe she'd been out jogging in low-heeled boots and a jumper with an overnight bag slung over her shoulder. "Make yourself comfortable!"

She shut and locked the bathroom door and sat on the closed toilet seat, leaning her elbows on her knees and breathing slowly, deliberately, in and out, trying to keep calm. He was going to be visiting for the next fourteen days? But... he couldn't! That would be through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and Boxing Day, her entire trip to Egypt would have to be cancelled. Trips! She suddenly remembered she and Severus and Eileen had a trip to Vatican City planned for this very afternoon. Severus and Eileen! She couldn't let Ron know that they were in Rome, he couldn't know what Severus was alive, he couldn't learn of Eileen's existence... He couldn't know she'd been sleeping with the former professor while she and Ron were on their yearlong break!

And how could she tell Severus, how could she get a message to him without Ron seeing or hearing it? She couldn't very well send it by Patronus, and sending a message by owl post was impossible without apparating to Pompeii to post it, and if she tried to leave the flat to warn him in person, surely Ron would want to follow.

"Oh, Ronald," she whispered, burying her face in her hands. His presence in Rome could very well ruin everything.

-0-0-0-

Eileen woke up early and climbed into bed with her father, wanting him to be awake too. He was dressed. He always dressed when Hermione left, and kept a pair of pajama pants hanging on the bed post in case Eileen tried to come into the room when he and his lover were still in bed. He had the entire flat warded to warn him if she left her tent so he'd have a few moments to prepare before she found herself in his room, and thus far that had been enough to keep from catching him naked in bed with the witch.

"Baba," she said, tapping the center of his chest where, only an hour before, Hermione's hand had rested over his breastbone. "Baba, mac'roni cheese a breakfast?"

"No, you may not have macaroni and cheese for breakfast." He opened one eye to glance at the clock. "It's too early for breakfast anyway. Back to bed. Go on."

"Night-night," she said, but she crawled under the covers beside him rather than returning to the toddler bed in her tent. "Hahminy back today?"

"Yes, Hermione is coming back today." He wrapped his arms around her as he had his girlfr... his compan... his sleeping partner the night before. She asked that question every morning she woke to find Hermione wasn't there. He did not look forward to the day he'd have to start telling the girl, "No, Hermione is not coming back today. Hermione is not coming back ever again."

He'd made a terrible mistake by introducing the young witch into his daughter's life... into his own life. And he had no idea how to rectify it.

He needed advice. Advice from the only person he could trust.

"Let's write a letter to Professor McGonagall after breakfast." He caught Eileen's flicking, flapping hand in the hair and squeezed it, which seemed to calm her need to wriggle. "You can sign your name. Show her how Hermione's been helping you sign your name."

"E-I-L-E-E-N." Eileen had been spelling her name for almost a year, but Hermione had been teaching her to write it properly, with an uppercase E to start, the rest lowercase, all along the same line without huge spaces between each letter.

"Do you like Hermione, Eileen?" He was certain he knew the answer, but hadn't asked the question straight out.

"Like Hahminy," she confirmed. She pulled her hand away from his and stuffed her thumb in her mouth, which he knew wasn't a better habit than the flapping and flicking, but he chose to let it go for now.

"I like her too," he confessed. Eileen fell back to sleep shortly thereafter, still sucking her thumb, but Severus lay awake until the alarm went off again at half-past nine.

-0-0-0-

"Harry and Ginny were looking forward to seeing you at Christmas. I told them they could come here, meet us here when they get off work, but Ginny said Mum would kill her if they miss Christmas at home."

"Won't she miss you, too?" asked Hermione, setting a plate of eggs down in front of him. There had been four eggs in the fridge. She fried them up but had nothing to serve with them, disappointing Ron, who'd been hoping for sausages. "It's sweet of you to have come, but I don't want to upset your mother..."

"No, no she understands about us."

"Does she?" Hermione almost asked if Mrs. Weasley could enlighten her about them, since she didn't understand at all.

"Yeah," he replied with a mouth full of eggs. "Got any toast?"

"Err..." There was a loaf in the breadbox, but it had gone green. She was afraid if he knew she'd been keeping moldy food he'd wonder why she hadn't been home to notice that it had turned. "Sorry, I've just run out. I eat at cafes, mostly. No sense in cooking when it's just me."

"You can show me all around Rome. You've been here so long now, you must know all its secrets!"

"Ohh... no." She poked her fork at her own eggs but found she had absolutely no appetite. "Only one or two secrets, and not any you'd be interested in learning about, I'm sure."

"I'd bet that's not true!" He was really shoveling them down. Maybe he'd want to eat hers after he finished his own.

"What makes you think I've discovered any... secrets?"

"Bloody hell, Hermione, I'm not an idiot! I notice things!"

She tried not to roll her eyes at this. She was still wearing high-heeled boots and he still hadn't thought to question her jogging explanation.

"You've barely even written us since you got here! Something must be keeping you busy!" His fork stabbed at the egg on her plate. "And I want to know what it is."


A/N:

I apologize profusely for the slow update of this fic. I struggled like mad trying to get this chapter out, as I'd deviated so far from my original plot line I couldn't get back on track, then I wrote four completely different Chapter 18s (this is the fourth) because I couldn't decide how to save it. Finally I realized that I was going to have to toss out my notes and re-outline, then I saved some things I liked that were already planned (like Ron's arrival) and threw out things that no longer made sense (like Eileen wandering off and getting picked up by Italian Aurors... long story!). I hope this chapter didn't disappoint and that you'll like where I end up going with this! My goal is to update once per week until my Andromeda fic is complete (by the end of January) then return to twice weekly. Thank you for your support and patience!

-AL

PS: Planet Hollywood in Rome closed in 2003, the year this story takes place, and the food they ate really comes from the menu. Brother Bear opened in cinemas in November 2003 but I couldn't find the Italian release date. Love, Actually also really did come out in December 2003 and stars the actor with the voice Hermione likes so much. It's both a great and terrible movie – great because it's got so many good moments, and terrible because (SPOILER ALERT) I have a ridiculously difficult time watching Alan Rickman's character cheat on Emma Thompson's character; her sobbing scene just kills me. I just spend the whole time wanting to hug her and tell her she can do better even though it hurts me to say so because I adore him.