Chapter 31

A/N: My apologies for the lateness of this chapter – I have a chronic illness and writing is a struggle, sadly. Nevertheless, I have not given up on my story. My thanks go to my beta-reader, countrymouse and to those who have reviewed.

Hermione watched Severus as he lay in a light sleep beside her, noting how the lines on his sallow face had eased. For a moment too, she thought she could see an echo of his teenage self from his old photo in his features. If she was going to be honest, then she had to say that she was still fascinated by that photo of his earlier self, if only because it provided a glimpse of what he had once looked like, when he was in her age group.

She doubted though that she would get another glimpse into his photo drawer in a hurry. Besides, even if she had the opportunity to do so again before she left his house, who was to say that the younger Severus would actually be in the frame this time. She could easily imagine the teenager stalking away to… wherever people in wizard photo frames went, when they didn't wish to be viewed.

Hermione smiled ruefully and then closed her eyes, the urge to doze quite strong after their previous intimacies.

She came back to herself after a while when she felt Severus' fingers brush against her waist. She opened her eyes and peered at him through a tangle of her hair, seeing that his black eyes were looking back at her in amusement.

"More pleasant dreams?" he asked, reaching up with a hand to gently brush her hair away from her forehead.

"Wouldn't you like to know," Hermione said, smiling at him.

His gaze softer, Severus then murmured, "I should take care not to tire you out. If I am too… eager, and you are not, you must tell me so."

"All right," Hermione promised as she leaned over to kiss his cheek, touched by his concern. It was true that her body didn't feel like making love again in a hurry, but she still wanted to stay close to Severus. She liked being able to touch him, even if it was only for a cuddle, she admitted to herself.

Severus relaxed at that.

"Shall we go back inside soon, Hermione, where I may or may not serve you afternoon tea at some point?"

"That would be great," Hermione said happily, stretching slightly.

Severus slipped an arm around her.

"I did not say yet," he said silkily.

"Aha, you want some cuddles," Hermione teased.

"Such a word did not pass my lips, madam," he said reprovingly as he went to tickle his witch, and was rewarded with a squeal, and then a un-Hermione like giggle. He would certainly have to have a heart of stone not to currently enjoy the feeling of her warm body by his.

"Now, look here," Hermione said in a scolding tone, trying not to squirm and laugh again as Severus' long, clever fingers sought out and found her ticklish spots. "I'm sure you have a few ticklish spots, too."

"Not at all," Severus said tauntingly to her, mirth in his black eyes.

"Oh, really?" Hermione parried, the light of battle in her eyes, as her fingers reached for him…

After having succeeded in coaxing laughter from Severus, which had been followed by black looks from him that promised dreadful revenge of the ticklish kind, they rested and then got up to get dressed.

Severus couldn't resist from bending down to pick up Hermione's bra, fascinated anew by the feminine item.

"This is yours, I presume?" he said, waving it in her direction.

"Well, it won't fit you," Hermione lightly retorted as she grabbed her bra from the hand of the smirking wizard.

Once Severus had all of his clothes back on, and was doing up his frock coat, a now dressed Hermione approached him.

"Here, let me help with that," Hermione said, her gaze warm as she looked at him.

"Have I mentioned that you are overly… fond of my buttons?" Severus said dryly, noting that she took his words for assent as her hands reached out to do up one black button, then the next.

"You might have mentioned it once," Hermione allowed with a smile.

"One might think that you preferred my buttons to myself," Severus went on, his hands taking the opportunity to run fingers gently through her bushy hair, smoothing any wayward strands.

"Oh no," Hermione said demurely. "I'm just making sure that you are all done up properly. I would hate to see that you had missed a button, and then everything was crooked as a result."

"I see."

"Would I lie? There, all done," Hermione said in satisfaction as she did up the last button at his throat.

Severus looked down at her, his eyes filled with a mixture of amusement and tenderness.

"The next time you want to touch these buttons, you will have to ask me quite nicely," he murmured. "Although I might be open to various means of persuasion."

Hermione felt a pleasant simmering inside her at his words, which was echoed for a moment in her eyes, to Severus' pleasure.

With both of them now properly dressed, though still a bit rumpled looking, Severus transformed the bed back into a bench, muttering, "I will never look at this the same way, ever again."

Hermione turned her face away for a moment to hide her smile, and then regarded the sole entrance that would lead them from this, the secret heart of Severus' maze, back through to the outside. There had been two entrances before, but while they had been, ah, otherwise preoccupied, one of the two entrances had vanished. Or perhaps, both of them had merged into one. Here on Severus' property, either possibility seemed plausible.

Severus' warm, bigger hand clasped hers as they both went to the entrance and walked through it. The path through the maze was greenly dim like before, but as they both walked along the path, Hermione heard little rustlings on both sides.

Curious, she shifted her gaze and even in the dim light, she was able to see that small, bright pink flowers were unfurling themselves in the greenery at eye level, said flowers following their progress as if eager to get their attention. Severus had noted them too, for he stopped to peer closely at a flower, a puzzled stare upon his face.

Unexpectedly, he then chuckled and turned to enfold Hermione briefly in his arms.

"Clearly, you are being a disruptive influence on my garden as well as my house," Severus said reprovingly against her hair. "If I find that my entire garden is flowering all at once now, in response to your lustful ways towards me, I shall be most cross."

"Hello, it takes two to tango, remember?" Hermione said with a bemused smile against his chest. "Perhaps you have wonderful powers of virility under those black buttons of yours, which your garden is responding to, not me."

"Nonsense," Severus said sardonically. "It is you my whole property is currently responding to, madam, not myself."

Hermione relented from teasing him further, and they both began walking again through the maze, with pink flowers still continuing to unfurl with their progress. Needless to say, once they were back outside, they were both secretly relieved to see that the grounds looked just the same as before as they walked back to the house.

Hermione thought as well that perhaps it was really a good idea she was using Severus' contraception potion. As an alternative, she would have used a Muggle method to prevent pregnancy, but the possibility that she could have already been carrying their child right now, or even their twins, was a daunting thought!

The thought of a child, or children with wavy brown hair and intent black eyes running through the property flashed into Hermione's mind and she mentally shook her head ruefully. She certainly wasn't ready to have any children yet, and she doubted that Severus was ready to be a father.

By mutual consent, once they were both back inside, they went back to the new chaise lounge in the living room and made themselves comfortable upon it with some reading material. A light rain had started outside, but Hermione felt cosy and happy as she sat beside Severus, each of them reading a book in companionable silence. From time to time though, his hand would steal into hers to caress it. Sometimes, Hermione would decide that Severus needed a kiss.

"I've been thinking," Hermione said at one point to Severus.

"Indeed?" Severus murmured. "That must be a unique experience."

"Stop that," Hermione admonished him, waving a finger at him. "Remember, I know where your ticklish spots are now."

"Blackmailing wench!" Severus grumbled. "How I let you into my life, I do not know. Go on."

"I was thinking about how we will communicate once I go home – I can find ways to get an owl to send a letter to you, but I thought I should let you know what my otter Patronus looks like too, just in case," she explained.

Severus looked at Hermione speculatively with his black eyes for a few moments.

"When was the last time that you saw your Patronus, my dear?"

Hermione blinked at him and then shrugged.

"The last time I checked, it was at the retreat and it was the same as always."

Hermione thought of the first time she had ever seen her Patronus, half-hoping at the time of her first summoning that it would be something grand and fleet of foot. She had become quickly reconciled to her otter though and had been charmed by the way it had gambolled around her, its flat tail waving in the air. However, a Patronus could alter when one's life had a major change, such as falling in love.

After encountering Severus again and the wonderful experience of their first kiss together, she had checked the status of her Patronus, curious to see if it had altered. But it had turned out to be just the same, and she had accepted that.

"Are you quite sure of this today? Let me see your otter, then," Severus said mildly.

Severus wasn't quite sure why he was determined to put doubt into Hermione's mind over the appearance of her Patronus. It was quite possible that it would still be an otter, but he found himself feeling oddly wistful – and hopeful – that the Patronus of another person, of his Hermione, could change because of him-out of love.

A resolute expression appearing on her face, Hermione nodded and got out her wand after getting up. She pointed it into the centre of the room and thought of something happy… a memory of them making love popped quickly into her mind.

"Expecto patronum!" she said firmly and a white, misty substance sprang from the end of her wand, which promptly formed itself into that of a fruit bat, to Hermione's astonishment. It was somewhat larger than the bat that people usually thought of, when they thought of bats at all. It flapped around the room and then landed neatly upon the edge of the chair. It looked in Severus' direction with glinting, dark eyes and tilted its head before dissolving into filmy white mist, which then vanished.

Hermione swung her head and looked at Severus with a mixture of surprise, bemusement and slight alarm.

"Well, it's now a bat… no, it's a fruit bat," she said. "I remember watching a documentary about them on TV at home once."

Severus sputtered then coughed.

"A fruit bat?" he said, not sure whether to be offended or laugh. He knew what a TV was from Hermione's explanation on the subject, though he was suspiciously sure some sort of magic was involved, somehow. Otherwise, how would the pictures on the box move at all?

"It wasn't that bad to look at," Hermione said in earnest defence as she went to sit down beside him again. "Even though I don't consciously think of you as a, um, fruit bat. Really. But if you look at them in a certain way, they are almost cute looking."

"Cute looking," Severus repeated with a sigh, and then giving in to his feelings, he gathered Hermione close and kissed her on the forehead.

"I never know what you're going to do or say next, madam," he said, "but I've been referred to as 'The Dungeon Bat' enough times over the years to cease being offended that much anymore."

"Well, there was that time when you brought that bowl of fruit to me at the retreat," Hermione ventured against his neck. "Maybe that was a cause."

"I see… so it is my entire fault now," he said dryly.

However, Severus found himself feeling somewhat mollified when he thought about the situation; he could not call her new Patronus cute by any standard, but it was not really hideous, either. Also, Hermione's new Patronus would be a clear sign to others where her loyalties now lay, which pleased him… even if it was evident that part of her mind clearly compared him to a fruit bat.

"I suppose I will not mind if you happen to send me a Patronus that looks like that," he commented, "but please tell me you will not call it 'Batty' or anything inane like that."

Hermione laughed. "I don't think so. But maybe I could call it Sev or Sevvie."

Severus growled and wrapped his arms firmly around her.

"No," he said sternly, punctuating every few words with a kiss. "I am not a Sev nor a Sevvie, which sounds worse. Is that clear?"

"Crystal," Hermione chuckled.

When they had both calmed down, Hermione looked at Severus curiously, and in a mild tone, said, "So, what does your Patronus look like, and when was the last time you saw it?"

"My Patronus is…" Severus began, then stopped, his gaze flicking sharply towards Hermione. His Patronus was a falcon, which, like his Animagus, had reflected his deep-seated need to have the freedom to fly like a bird, to be free of everything that bound him to the earth, to his life. The last time he had checked it, it had been just before Hermione had left Hogwarts. He had been grimly pleased at the time that the turmoil she had caused inside him had not altered his Patronus in any significant way.

Yes, but you had not admitted to yourself how you truly felt towards Hermione at that time, that you loved her, a voice was quick to whisper inside him.

Admittedly, he had been too preoccupied to think about the state of his Patronus from the time he had first seen Hermione at the retreat.

His hand reached out to touch Hermione's.

"My Patronus should be a falcon, but I should not be surprised if it has changed now because of you, madam," he said meaningfully, "as well as my front door, one of my chairs, even the maze."

Hermione's hand squeezed his gently in return. "Well, if it has changed like mine has, I'm sure it won't be a bat," she said firmly. "Hopefully it won't be too bushy looking, either," she added with a slightly doubtful look on her face.

Quite determined by now to see what his Patronus looked like, as of today, Severus stood up and got out his wand. It was quite easy to think of something happy these days.

"Expecto patronum!" he said firmly and once the white, misty substance sprang from the end of his wand, Severus stared when it promptly became an elegant (though fluffy looking) cat which sauntered over to Hermione with a 'pay me attention, now' expression before turning into white mist.

There was silence in the room for long moments.

"Well," Severus said down to Hermione with a raised eyebrow, "you seem determined to fill my life with cats, Hermione."

Hermione blinked back at him, feeling somewhat guilty because his Patronus had changed because of her, but nevertheless a warm glow filled her inside.

"I think it is a lovely looking cat," she said firmly. "I'm sorry for you that your former Patronus has gone, though," she added sincerely.

Severus sat down beside her again.

"I suppose it should not be too much of a surprise that both of our Patronus' have altered, since I believe we are no longer the people we were previously," he said softly. "But I trust you will never mention to anyone how the words 'a fruit bat and a cat' rhymes."

A smile appeared on Hermione's face. "I won't if you won't," she agreed.

Severus went to touch her bushy hair, running his fingers gently through it. "I suppose this explains that… fluffiness of the cat," he said, which made Hermione laugh.

How Minerva would chuckle when she saw his Patronus, Severus thought ironically. The thought then occurred to him that perhaps seeing it could convince the Head of Gryffindor that his feelings for her former student were genuine. However, he could just imagine the twinkling of Albus' eyes when he saw it, he thought dourly. Albus would never let him live it down… possibly Minerva as well. There was no doubt about it, he was doomed.

"Well, why don't we have some of that cake now I brought to mark the occasion?" Hermione suggested.

"I can think of other, special ways to mark an occasion," Severus purred, enjoying the way Hermione's face flushed under his gaze, "but that sounds a good idea at this time. Would you care for a cup of tea as well?"

"Yes, please," Hermione said readily. "I'll come and help you out, shall I?"

"No," Severus said firmly, before kissing her. "There is no need to turn yourself into a house elf… I shall not be long."

Severus was true to his word and soon returned bearing a tray of tea and cake for them both.

Later, when the day started drawing to a close, Hermione said carefully to Severus, "I suppose you might feel I've spent enough time here with you."

Severus turned to her, his eyes narrowing for a moment. When he spoke, it was with a deceptive mildness.

"Have I said as much to you, at any time today?"

"Well, no," Hermione admitted.

"Have I done something or implied in any way that your continued presence would be unwelcome?"

"No," Hermione said.

"Indeed, am I currently doing something that indicates I want you to depart?"

"Of course not," Hermione said roundly. "It's just… I don't want you to feel that I'm outstaying my welcome in your home."

Severus looked at her, his gaze measuring, and then his voice was low.

"Your parents… they will arrive at your home tomorrow?"

"Yes," Hermione nodded.

"Then stay… stay until tomorrow morning. Stay with me another night, Hermione," he said abruptly.

His face then flushed; he had always had a scornful view towards those who begged or pleaded to get their own way and he did not want Hermione in this instance to see him using such tactics. But the thought of being left alone in his house tonight before he returned to Hogwarts tomorrow made him feel hollow inside.

It was too easy to say yes, Hermione thought.

"I will," she promised, sealing that promise with a kiss on his lips, her arms moving to embrace him.

Severus wound his hand into her hair and returned her kiss hungrily. He pulled her more closely towards him so that she was almost straddling his black clad form on the chaise lounge, his caresses and touches wordlessly expressing his pleasure in her words.

When the evening came, Severus got up to make sure the curtains of the house were shut and the appropriate lights lit. When he returned, Hermione had lit the fire and the room looked warm and welcoming. Later on, with the fire prevented from throwing out sparks, they ate dinner in the kitchen. With the extra candles that Severus produced and lit, the effect was magical in its own way, Hermione thought in appreciation.

Crookshanks came into the kitchen afterwards and headed straight for Hermione, ignoring Severus. In response to his presence and his meows for her attention, Hermione cooed and fetched him some water as well as transfiguring some scraps of food into food that her cat would enjoy.

Somewhat mollified, Crookshanks curled up afterwards underneath her chair, though his tail moved restlessly whenever he looked in the direction of the Black Man.

When Hermione found herself nodding off despite herself, Severus was there at her side, gently urging her to her feet.

"Time for bed madam, I think," his voice murmured by her ear.

Severus was pleased to note that the cat had fallen asleep by the feet of his mistress. However, he was not completely heartless towards the cat and would transport him (without waking him) to where it had slept last night. Certainly, the magical barrier that kept the cat from going upstairs was still in place.

"Mmm," Hermione sighed, blinking a few times against Severus' chest once she was on her feet. "Yes, that's a good idea," she said with feeling.

Not wishing to make a bigger fool of herself, she then went over to the sink and splashed some water upon her face.

"I shall tidy up down here and let you use the bathroom first," Severus went on, the corner of his mouth twitching. "I shall even tend to your cat, since he should not be sleeping on my kitchen floor."

"Thank you," Hermione told him, retrieving what she could of her dignity. "I'll see you soon, then."

"Indeed."

Hermione made her way upstairs, lighting her wand for illumination as she did so. Once she was in the bedroom, she lit the candles to provide additional light to the room. Repressing a yawn with her hand, she went to the bathroom to clean her teeth and other necessary things, feeling sleepy and happy at the end of the day.

She had to admit that she was glad to be spending another night under Severus' roof before she had to return home. At least the time spent here together had helped to bring them closer as a couple in more ways than one, she reflected with a smile. Severus was a passionate lover, but also a considerate one as well. The thought of Ron or Harry having been the first in her bed made her feel uncomfortable and she pushed such thoughts hastily from her mind. Why spoil her time here, after all.

Hermione went back to the bedroom to get undressed, and as she was doing so, she heard Severus' footsteps on the staircase. She had left the bedroom door open and a quickly indrawn breath behind her told her that he was there at the doorway. She turned towards him to see a hand of his stretching out to her undressing self, before he drew it back with an effort.

He cleared his throat abruptly.

"I shall go and use the bathroom then," he said gruffly.

"All right," she agreed with a smile.

Her eyes were still amused as she put on her pyjamas and put away her clothes. When everything necessary had been done, she got into bed (which promptly squeaked) and lay down.

Not long afterwards, she heard Severus return. There was the rustle of various fabrics as she heard him get undressed and into his nightshirt. The candles were extinguished with his murmured words and then in the darkness the bed dipped as Severus got in besides her.

Hermione turned over towards him.

"Good night, Severus," she said sleepily.

He reached out for her in the darkness and enfolded her in his arms, kissing her.

"Good night, Hermione," he said softly. "I trust that you will not be snoring or talking in your sleep- oof!"

Hermione chuckled after having poked him.

Severus grumbled but nevertheless kissed her again. Hermione then snuggled against him and it wasn't too long before they were both asleep.

TBC