A/N: This isn't the first time I've opened with notes along the lines of 'I'm sorry for the wait', and whilst I always mean it, this time I really mean it. I could list off many reasons why the wait was over three months long but I'm sure nobody actually wants to read that. I will say that it will not become the new normal and I intend for it to be a one off.

I'm in a better environment to write now so the wait in-between chapters should return to my preferred 1-2 weeks (less if I'm feeling really productive).

Thank you to those that have left reviews, marked this story as a favourite, and followed it.

Even during long waits I'm very good at checking in on how the story is being received. All the positive reviews that have been left really spurred me on to continue writing this story, even when the long break made it feel unnatural to do so.

Please let me know your thoughts for this chapter.

Chapter 18

It was Saturday 10th August and Severus was climbing the steps of 12 Grimmauld Place, on his way to the drawing room. In an entirely uncharacteristic bout of madness he had agreed to stay for dinner. He never stayed for dinner. Well, almost never. Certainly not when he had a pantry full of food back at his home. On the only other two occasions he had agreed to stay he had fallen behind on keeping his groceries well stocked.

Molly had told him to expect a 40-minute wait for dinner. Noticing Black had lingered in the kitchen to mingle with some of the other Order members, Severus had decided to head to the drawing room in a bid to salvage what was left of his sanity. He couldn't stomach an entire evening spent with that mangy dog, even if he had nobody to blame but himself.

Hopefully the room would be empty. He didn't fancy spending the better part of the next hour dealing with Potter and the younger Weasleys, even if that did encourage the possibility of running into Hermione.

Severus had noticed that she had slipped away at the end of tonight's Order meeting. In an ideal world she would be curled up on one of the sofas by herself, granting him the opportunity to talk to her again. It could be just like the pair of them being back in his rooms at Hogwarts.

Knowing his luck, he would find her in the drawing room, but surrounded by her half-witted friends instead. Not only would he then not be able to talk to her, but he wouldn't even have a quiet place to settle before dinner.

The drawing room door was ajar, so he gently pushed against it. In a rare display of good fortune Hermione was indeed there, solitarily. She was sat cross-legged on the floor using the coffee table as a work bench. Since the meeting she had tied her hair away from her face and had somehow managed to smear ink on her left cheek. There were loose pieces of parchment scattered across the worktop, and a pair of muggle notebooks to her right.

Her face was contorted in concentration as she scratched away at her parchment with her quill; her focus only broke when she heard the sound of the lock turning in the door. Hoping to discourage others from disturbing their privacy he had non-verbally locked them in and ensured to muffle the sound from inside the room.

"Are you sure that's wise? If someone tries to come in they might have a couple of questions as to why we've locked ourselves away." She asked softly.

"I'll just tell them the truth – I fancied some peace and quiet, and you just happened to already be here." He answered confidently.

"There I was, hoping you'd come in here because you valued my company." She said placing her hand on her chest, her voice exaggeratedly wistful.

"I value it more than anyone else living here." He replied, walking towards her.

"I take it your being here means you've let Molly convince you to stay for tea?" She asked, putting her quill down.

He hummed in agreement. "It keeps her in good spirits if I agree every once in a while." He said flippantly, not wishing to reveal she was the real reason behind him staying. He reached down to pick up one of her notebooks on the coffee table, turning it over in his large hands to inspect it.

"You're being nosy." She said in a singsong voice, chiding him playfully.

"I'm a spy – it's my job to be nosy." He retorted.

Hermione laughed. "My apologies, I wasn't aware you needed to keep an eye on me." Extending an arm out towards him she asked, "Do you mind helping me up?"

He placed the notebook back down on the table and reached forward to help her to her feet. To steady her he placed his right hand on her hip. Severus knew he should've let go of her once she was standing but he chose to let his hand gently linger on her side.

"So, what is it exactly you're doing here?" He asked, nodding his head towards the mess on the table.

"Well, I believe you already know I'm graduating next year?" She asked.

"Everyone in the Order knows." He replied with a tight smile. He still felt bitterness towards her not attempting to tell him this herself.

"For my safety, Dumbledore thinks it would be wise to continue on at Hogwarts. He suggested I should try and take on an apprenticeship as a compromise. I've spent the last few months trying to figure out what on Earth I would research and how I'm meant to pitch that to a professor." She frowned.

"And you're sure that's something you want?" He asked softly, squeezing her hip in a move he hoped she found comforting.

"Yes, it is." She answered, smiling slightly. "It'll give me a new challenge – besides, with Vold-"

"Don't say his name!" Severus urgently interrupted.

Swallowing her surprise, she took a second to continue her sentence, "-With You-Know-Who back, it's a bit tricky to start career planning. This gives me a chance to figure out my options and how my future is going to look." She nodded firmly, as if she were trying to convince herself more than him.

"As long as you're certain." He told her.

Dumbledore had spent the last few years dictating to her how she should live. He knew what it was like to feel indebted to the man, to feel like your voice was insignificant – unworthy of being listened to. He didn't want her life to be anything like his own.

Hermione twisted to the side to better look at the coffee table, in doing so she pressed her hip further into his touch. Severus was unsure if considering the movement intentional would be overthinking it, so he tried his best to mute any thoughts that were pleased by this idea.

"I've tried to prepare proposals for two subjects, just in case one fell through. I've hardly been short on free time recently, so I was hoping I'd have two strong presentations by next month. I've spent so much time going over them now that the words don't even look real anymore – they're just scribbles on a page." She said sadly.

Releasing her from his grasp, he turned to look down at the coffee table to scan the pages of parchment there.

"Arithmancy and Defence Against the Dark Arts?" He asked, his brow furrowing. He noticed that the two subjects made a repeated appearance in her clean penmanship – which, in his opinion, was too meticulously tidy to ever be compared to as 'scribbles on a page'.

"Yes, I thought they were the most logical choices. Although, I must admit Arithmancy has been particularly difficult to write for." She said, sounding dejected.

"I wouldn't worry. Septima likes you, I can't imagine she would hesitate in agreeing to take you under her wing." He answered breezily, flicking through the various pages in front of him.

"She does?" Hermione asked, chirping up.

Severus hummed in agreement. "In fact, you'll find most of the faculty is enamoured with you; it's ever so tedious listening to it all." He said wryly.

She grinned upon hearing this, but the smile soon fell to be replaced with the all too familiar sight of her biting her lip in worry. "It's not really deserved though, is it? Not really. Not when I'm two years older than my peers." She said, wrapping her arm around her middle in a self-comforting gesture.

Severus rolled his eyes. "Believe me, they harped on about you before your third year. If you were as unremarkable as you fear I dare say you wouldn't be in this mess."

Hermione laughed. "Delicately put." She said, shaking her head.

Standing back up straight he turned to her again. "I am well known for my tact." He smirked.

Tilting her head to the side, Hermione asked, "I don't suppose you know who the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is going to be this year? It'd be good if I could get them to become enamoured with me too. You're a Slytherin – maybe you can give me some pointers on getting into strangers' good books." She giggled.

Severus raised his eyebrows. "It's funny you ask. As of three days ago, it was confirmed that I would be the one to take over the position."

Hermione's brows knitted together. "So, you're not teaching Potions?"

"Not anymore, no. I can hardly be expected to teach two subjects."

"I suppose not." Hermione frowned. "Who is teaching Potions then?" She asked, flummoxed.

"Horace Slughorn. For whatever reason Dumbledore's asked him back; he was the Potions professor when I was at school – my head of house too."

"Oh… right."

"It's okay Hermione, I'm not the only person in the country that is capable of teaching Potions. Your education is still in safe hands." He teased.

She shook her head. "I know that. It'll just be… strange not having you teach it. I'm not sure I can imagine Potions without you." She replied, confusion still written on her face. "It's good you got the Defence Against the Dark Arts position though. Everyone knows you've been after that for years."

"Do they now? Is this you admitting to having gossiped about me?" He asked, quirking his brow.

"Not purposefully! You can't expect students not to talk though."

"Don't worry, I've been teaching long enough to know that's an impossibility."

"There is of course one obvious upside to you being awarded the position." Hermione smiled.

"What would that be?" He asked, eyebrows raised.

"That you must know if you're already enamoured with me, or if it's something that needs a little more work." She said playfully, now struggling to suppress her smile.

Severus chuckled, surprised by her brazen words. "Your presence is manageable." He said with a firm nod.

"Manageable?" She repeated with a grin. "Tell me, do you make a habit of locking yourself away with people you merely find manageable?"

"Only when the alternative company is as unsavoury as it is tonight."

Hermione nodded, "Sure." She said, in a tone that made it clear she knew he was lying.

She moved to crouch beside the coffee table and began organising her notes together into two neat piles.

"You don't believe me?" He asked, talking to her back.

"Why would you stay behind for dinner if you didn't like anybody here?" She answered.

"Well, a man has to eat Granger." He countered, using her surname from old habit. "Besides, I never said I disliked you."

He noticed that upon speaking her name she hesitated for a second, pausing her tidying for the briefest of moments. Once she finished organising her work she stood back up to face him.

"No, just that I'm 'manageable'." She replied, the humour now missing from her voice as her lips thinned.

"I didn't mean to suggest-"

"-It's fine." She interrupted, her clipped tone making it clear that it most certainly was not fine. "I need to put this back in my room before dinner." She said, referring to the pile of papers now tucked underneath her arm.

"I see." He said through clenched teeth.

She continued to look at him for a second or two, before turning on her heel to head towards the door.

Well fantastic, that's going to make for a perfectly awkward dinner, Severus thought to himself in frustration as he raked his hand through his hair. What could I have said? Yes Hermione, I suppose I must be enamoured with you – so much so I've committed to spending the evening in the home of a man I hate, on the slim possibility I could spend a mere five minutes talking to you.

Severus flopped backwards onto the nearby armchair. Forget it. She wouldn't just the leave the room if she heard that, she'd leave you entirely, came a bitter voice within. He leaned forwards to cradle his head in his hands, his elbows supported by his thighs. What a miserable life you lead, he told himself, closing his eyes.

It was Monday 12th August at 8:30am and Hermione was stood in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place talking to Ginny, Fred and George about the twins' new joke shop opening next week. They were tucked away in an alcove by the kitchen cabinets, whilst the rest of the household bustled about preparing for the day ahead.

Last week it had been confirmed that Sirius' trial would take place over the next five days. It would determine his involvement in the muggle attack 15 years ago, and if he had ever been a follower of Voldemort.

In the chaos that had followed the Ministry attack Dumbledore had managed to secure a hearing for Sirius in front of the Wizengamot. Sirius had been sighted helping the Order the night of the battle, and Dumbledore believed it would take years before a better opportunity would present itself. If proven innocent then his only crime would be escaping Azkaban, which could easily be swept aside if he agreed not to seek compensation for being wrongfully imprisoned.

It was a risky manoeuvre by Dumbledore. If it failed not only would Sirius be incarcerated, it would further discredit the Headmaster and the Order as an organisation. It would appear as if Dumbledore was rubbing shoulders with known, dangerous criminals.

Sirius did not hesitate when he was presented with the possibility of being a free man again; he had leapt at the opportunity to better his and Harry's life. This time around, he wasn't struggling with the raw emotion of feeling responsible for his best friend's death. He knew what was at stake now, how important this was in securing a 'normal' future for himself and Harry. The benefits were tangible now.

The intricacies of the trial hadn't been detailed to Hermione. She knew that the trial would begin today, and that the Order would have the verdict by Friday. She was one of the few who were being left behind at headquarters.

The twins, Remus, and Molly would be attending the trial to boost morale. Arthur had managed to get the Friday off from work to join them, but Tonks hadn't been so lucky. Harry would be used as a character witness, but Dumbledore did not want him there when it wasn't essential. The risk was considered to be too great; his presence could bait the Death Eaters into attacking.

"I still can't believe you're keeping the WonderWitch branding." Hermione said, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

"Why wouldn't we?" Fred asked.

"Sold like a charm in Hogwarts." Grinned George.

"We're just giving the people what they want." They chimed together.

"It is a bit sexist though, you must admit." Ginny countered, taking Hermione's side.

"Plenty of men throughout history have used love potions – it's certainly not exclusive to women." Hermione added.

"In our experience it's always the girls that want to trick their lovers into their clutches – never the men." George said all-knowingly.

Hermione rolled her eyes, rising to their bait. "Oh, for goodness sake-" She began, but the voice of Molly Weasley stopped her.

"Right! Anyone wishing to come to the Ministry, we're flooing there now from the downstairs hall." The matron announced.

"That's us Hermione, we'll have to continue this conversation another time." Fred winked at her. She released a sigh of annoyance, lamenting the missed opportunity to explain the history of love potions throughout the ages.

"What's he doing here?" Hermione heard Ron ask obnoxiously. She turned her head to see who he could be talking about, but a scathing reply answered her curiosity before she could scan the room.

"I'm here Mr Weasley because I've been awarded the luxury of making sure you children don't come up with yet another inventive way to get yourselves killed." Severus practically snarled. He was stood in the corner of the room, on the other side of the dining table. His arms were folded against his broad chest, a look of disgust marring his features.

Surprisingly, he was wearing a thin dark navy jumper over black trousers. On anybody else it would be a perfectly boring choice, but on him it was striking in its abnormality. Casual clothing was a novelty, but colour was a revelation.

"Yes Dear, Professor Snape will be staying here until the weekend, just so we've got an extra person on hand if anything goes awry." Molly said, a polite smile plastered on her face. Her wavering voice gave away her nervousness; she had clearly been unsettled by Severus' unsavoury mood.

"If he gives you any grief boys, don't hesitate in telling me." Sirius said loudly to Harry and Ron, ensuring that Severus heard. His lip curled further, revealing his heightened displeasure.

"Hermione, perhaps you could show Professor Snape to his room?" Arthur said diplomatically, in a thinly veiled attempt to ease the tension in the room. "It's the last room on the second floor."

Nodding, Hermione answered, "Yes of course. Follow me, Professor."

The two of them walked out of the kitchen and started the climb in the direction of the second floor. When they had reached the first-floor hallway, Hermione turned her head to glance in Severus' direction. His expression was stony-faced and just as unwelcoming as before.

"You didn't tell me you would be staying here for a week." Hermione said conversationally, breaking the silence. She had waited until they were out of earshot of the others – it wouldn't do well to have prying eyes question their familiarity.

"I didn't know either until yesterday evening." He answered churlishly.

"How familiar are you with the layout of the house?" She asked, coming to a stop by the staircase that would lead them up to the second floor.

"I know where the kitchen, drawing room, and first floor bathroom is." He said, sighing irritably.

"Well, it might benefit you to know that on this floor we have Harry and Ron's bedroom, Ginny's bedroom, and the twins' bedroom." She said, pointing to the corresponding doors to indicate precisely where each room was.

"Why in Merlin would that 'benefit' me?" He asked harshly, his lips thinning.

"Look, if Ron or Sirius has put you in a bad mood, don't take that out on me." She chided. "Let's take a look at the second floor, shall we?" She said, forcing a lighter tone. With her back turned to him, she rolled her eyes as she began her ascent to the next floor; he could be tricky to handle sometimes.

"On this floor we have an ever so charming collection of artworks. All three pieces show muggles being enslaved – a classic display no self-respecting pureblood home would be complete without." Hermione delivered drily, flourishing her arm in the direction of oil paintings that took centre-stage on the second-floor wall.

Severus snorted a laugh. "Certainly. It would be improper to suggest otherwise." He said, leaning into her humour.

"The room on the left belongs to Ron's parents, the one along is Sirius', and then there's Remus' room. This is where you will be staying." Hermione explained, coming to a stop outside the fourth door.

Severus stepped forward and pushed the bedroom door open. Looking over his shoulder he brusquely asked, "Where is your bedroom?"

"I'm upstairs on the top floor. There's a second bathroom up there too – it's smaller, only room for a shower and a toilet, but it's practical enough." She answered, shrugging. "It's the first door on your right, if you wish to use it."

"Why didn't they give you this room? Wouldn't it make more sense to keep you with everyone else?" He asked contemptuously.

"I don't really know… this room was already being used for guests. Maybe they thought it would be a bit rude to isolate a visitor?" She answered, her brow furrowing. It wasn't something she had thought about before.

Following him, she stepped inside the bedroom. Once past the threshold, he turned to reach over her, closing the door behind them. The action helped to put her at ease. If he was irritable, this at least suggested it had nothing to do with her.

"I don't know, I'd much rather isolation than sharing a floor with Black and Lupin." He muttered under his breath.

"Well, you're hardly going to see much of them whilst you're here – I mean, you wouldn't have been asked to stay otherwise." She said, trying to put him in better spirits.

He didn't answer, however. Hermione watched as he took his shrunken suitcase out of his pocket, and non-verbally enlarged it to its standard size.

"Are you going to tell me what's wrong?" Hermione asked, frowning.

"I don't want to be here." He answered frankly, not bothering to look at her. He lifted the suitcase onto the bed and started to unpack his belongings into the chest of drawers opposite.

"Well that's obvious." She snapped back; his attitude was starting to bother her.

He inhaled deeply through his nose, clearly frustrated. "You're taking this so personally-"

"-You're making it personal." She interrupted him; voice hard. "You've been nothing but difficult since you've arrived. I didn't ask you to come here, so don't talk to me like I'm your problem." She said, looking him up and down in disapproval.

"Don't be so dramatic." He said derisively, finishing his sentence with a firm slam to the drawer he was closing.

"I've got better things to do than put up with you when you're like this." She sighed, exasperated. Her hand had closed round the handle of the door, opening it about an inch before it came slamming shut again.

Severus was stood directly behind her, his tall frame towering over her own. His hand, which was a foot above her head, remained on the door even once she had let go. He leaned in towards her, leaving only a few inches of space between their chests.

"You don't need to leave." He said. His brows knitted together, concerned.

"You're going to be nice then?" She asked.

"As nice as you need me to be." He answered softly, the lower volume emphasising the baritones in his voice.

She was certain he didn't intend that to sound as suggestive as it did, but it didn't stop the fluttering pulse of warmth that travelled southwards from her stomach.

It was difficult to keep her mind clean when he was this close to her – almost touching her, but not quite. It was too easy to wonder what the stubble on his cheeks would feel like if she touched the skin there, how the roughness would feel if she kissed him.

Hermione felt her eyes flutter shut, and she had to force herself to quickly open them again. Don't let your mind go there, she scolded herself.

"That's all I needed to hear." She smiled at him, not able to quite meet his eye. "It might help you feel better though if you told me what is bothering you."

Severus took his hand away from the door and took a step back. Sighing, he pinched the bridge of his nose and turned his head away from her.

"I'm sure I don't need to tell you of all people how… challenging Dumbledore can be." He paused, swallowing thickly. "I could cope if he just told you what he wants from you – if he made it clear that his 'requests' are nothing of the sort, that they're demands." He explained, voice taut. He walked back to his suitcase to unpack the last few items.

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Hermione quietly agreed. "I've tried to explain it to Ginny what he can be like… but if you've not experienced it, I don't think you could understand."

He laughed, but it was devoid of humour. "That's because the version of himself he presents to the world is different to the one you're greeted with in private. I learned that the hard way a long time ago." He said through clenched teeth.

"Are you upset that you're stuck here, or more specifically that it was Dumbledore's order?" She asked, concern twisting her countenance.

"Both. You'd think after 16 years I'd be used to it by now." He answered, his nostrils flaring. "I have two masters – there is very little left in my life that I get autonomy over." He said flatly as he zipped up his empty suitcase and tucked it in a gap between the chest of drawers and the wall. Turning to look at her, he continued, "I have to watch children for 9 months of the year. I expect to reach the summer and enjoy the peace that comes with being alone – I don't appreciate losing almost an entire week of that time."

"You like being alone?" She asked.

"There's nobody to demand anything from you if you're alone."

"I don't demand anything from you." She whispered.

She watched as his eyes roamed her face, as if he were looking for something. After a moment, he said in a low voice, "No, I suppose you don't."

"So, what are your plans for the day?" Hermione smiled, forcibly bring her voice up to a cheerful sound.

"I've got to make some headway on my lesson planning for next term, so I'll do that whilst making sure you and your friends don't paint another bright red target on yourselves." He answered wearily.

"Well, we are Gryffindors, we're meant to like the colour red." She deadpanned.

Severus raised his eyebrows, "Don't joke about that." He said, no bite in his voice.

"Spoilsport." She smirked.

"What will you be doing with your day?" He asked.

"Reading mostly." She shrugged. "Harry, Ginny, and Ron will want to spend the day – in fact, probably the week – playing quidditch in the garden. Normally, Molly will stop them from doing it for any longer than an hour; she'll tell them to study, clean… anything but muck about outside I guess. With her gone for the next five days they'll want to make the most of that."

"You won't join them?" He questioned, sounding surprised.

Hermione laughed. "When have you ever seen me play quidditch?"

"Just because you haven't made the Gryffindor team doesn't necessarily mean you don't enjoy playing the sport?"

"Goodness no, I'm terrified of flying. I'm quite comfortable just watching it, with my two feet firmly on the ground." She said, feeling a little alarmed at just the thought of being in the air.

"I had no idea you had a fear of heights." He said, smiling at her.

At least he's perking up, even if it is at my expense, she thought to herself.

"No, not a fear of heights, specifically a fear of flying." She explained.

"What's the distinction?"

"I can be up high without floating in the air. I can just about tolerate a muggle airplane – they at least give the illusion of stability."

"You were friends with that Krum boy, were you not? You should have asked him to help you overcome your phobia."

"We were a little more than just 'friends' back then, but he offered a couple of times. I turned him down as it's not something that bothers me." She clarified.

"I didn't know. I had assumed that Rita bint was just looking for another story." He turned his head for a moment, looking as if he were mulling something over. "The part about you being in a love triangle with Potter… that was a lie, wasn't it?" He asked, sounding uncertain.

Hermione laughed at this. "Yes, that part was definitely a lie. Harry and I, we don't think about each other like that. We're just friends – good friends."

"Okay, good." He nodded, appearing relieved at her answer. "You could still sit outside with them, read whilst they play?"

"Are you trying to get rid of me?" She joked.

"I think you know me better than that." He said with a pointed look. "I just thought you would want to spend time with your other friends. You know, the ones you don't have to hole yourself away indoors with from fear of being seen with them."

"Ron and I aren't really getting along at the moment." She explained with a sad smile.

"You've fallen out?" He asked.

"He took issue with me lying about my time-turner," She told him as she reached to fidget with the end of her plaited hair. "He's yet to forgive me."

"That's his loss then. Don't worry about him." He said firmly.

Hermione nodded, "It's okay. He'll come around eventually anyway, he always does." She explained.

"Without wishing to sound like I am trying to get rid of you, we've both been up here a while. They can't think we've been chatting the entire time, so you need to head down separately to me. I'll go to the kitchen now and you're welcome to join me later, preferably after you've checked on your friends." He told her.

"Okay. I'll head to my room to grab a book and then I'll see what they're up to." She agreed.

Hermione turned to leave the room. As her hand touched the cold metal of the handle she heard him say, "I'm glad you're here, just so you know. I don't want to be here, but you make it better."

"Good." She smiled, turning to look at him. Then she pushed on the handle and left the room, quietly closing the door behind her.