Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling and a whole bunch of other people that aren't me. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

"In that dark silent hour"

Ginny knew the moment Hermione opened the front door that they would not be going to dinner as they had planned that afternoon. It had happened so many times before that she knew all the signs and all the symptoms of the situation.

"I'm sorry," Hermione murmured, after a perfunctory greeting, her eyes strangely luminous in the dim light. She had only opened the door a few centimeters, just enough for her face to be seen, a ghostly visage against riotous, loose hair. "Something's come up."

Ginny, lion-mane hair bright in the dimness, frowned at her friend's quietly voiced excuse. "Exactly what's come up this time, Hermione?" she asked sharply.

Hermione shook her head. "I...I just can't go tonight, Ginny. I'm sorry." She shifted and a pale hand could be seen, clutching the silken fabric of a robe against her chest.

"Of course," was Ginny's disbelieving reply, the flicker of her ire tightly contained.

The dark-haired girl flinched at her friend's tone but said nothing, simply moved back and tried to shut the door.

But Ginny was too quick and she grabbed hold of Hermione's arm, forcing her way into the door's threshold, into her friend's space as the door creaked open.

"Ginny..." Hermione's voice was still low, still controlled -- hushed, as if she were guilty of something. Which, in Ginny's mind, she was.

"It's him, isn't it?" she asked, painful and precise. "He must be coming."

She didn't deny the charge; she bent her head in silent acquiesce and jerked her hand away from Ginny. "Please, Gin, just go."

"This isn't right," Ginny argued, even as she was pushed out into the hallway, over the threshold. "You shouldn't let him -- use you like this. It's wrong."

The door was half-closed again, although a wide swatch of Hermione was visible from head to toe as she stood behind it: wild hair, dark robe, big shadowed eyes, delicate ribbons of white skin visible in peek-a-boo places where the silk slid and gathered over her frame. "It's my life," she told her friend fiercely, the first time her voice rose above a pitched whisper. "I'll do as I please."

Ginny shook her head, sadly, an elegant shimmer of fire-red hair and sky-blue robes. "No; you'll do as he pleases."

"Good night, Ginny," Hermione sighed, eyes closed. "I'll talk to you tomorrow." The heavy door fell shut, leaving Ginny alone in the near-blackness, alone in the silence and woodsy odor of the charming, old building.

The young witch turned away, against her better judgment, down the twisting stairs to the front entrance, out onto the streets where the yellowed lights cast everything in a jaundiced glow. After a few clicking steps of her boots against stone, Ginny dared a glance up at the highest curtain window where she could make out the silhouette of someone waiting, only the vaguest impression of shadow and shape.

She had no idea how long she watched until that first shadow was joined by another, but when she did, she turned away and continued home, feeling as if she were leaving a lamb for slaughter.

-

He always came at night and always must the flat be in darkness before he came. Hermione had learned early on in their association that preparation was paramount. The first night -- now years ago, before the end of the war -- she had had none, and it had been frightening in some aspects, the manic frenzy begging darkness and silence and compliance. Now, she knew to provide all of these beforehand and things went more smoothly.

The lights, all but one precious lamp in the window, were darkened as she waited for him, nothing on her body but a robe easily removed. She'd learned the wrong way, also, that anything more restricting that the ridiculous sensuality of a kimono-style dressing gown -- a gift, from her mother, from Japan, too beautiful sometimes for its task -- was likely to be ripped and torn, left useless in his wake.

Behind her, as she stared blankly into the white-hot depths of the lamp's flame, she heard the crack of Apparition and she knew that he had come, as the cryptic message, "I will visit tonight," had said he would. Hermione didn't turn to face him as she heard his ritualistic movements, heard the rustle of his garments being dropped away, felt his heat as he moved closer to her. Finally, his heavy hands found her shoulders, slipping over the silk, as lips found her neck, his nose pushing away the uncontrolled waves of crimp and curl to find the tender flesh waiting beneath them. Hermione closed her eyes and sank back against him, any resistance long ago tamed out of her body. Like liquid, she melted against him, head tilted and lips parted.

She said nothing, nor did he. Again, Hermione had learned in those years -- years of odd, clandestine meetings, furious couplings, haphazard passions -- that he welcomed speech no more than he welcomed light to invade upon this strange outside-place and outside-time they shared. Except for quickening breaths and shallow inhalations, the quiet sputtering of the oil lamp was only noise in the tiny flat. Even the delicious glide of the silk between his fingers as it fell to the floor was silent.

Darkness. Silence. Compliance. She gave them all to him as she gave him herself.

Before and after, Hermione was quite cerebral about what was happening. She knew that he came to her out of some dark need, some compulsion to release suppressed emotion in a harmless eruption. She understood that need in the context in which the meetings had begun -- war time, death at every corner, double and triple lives weighing on him -- and she had been oh-so-willing to indulge him. Still was, in fact. Never once did she refuse him. And Hermione had become used to the biting edge of violence in him as he touched her, knowing that it was what he required. Never did they come together in something other than feral, brutal heat; gentleness was no more in his sexual vocabulary than it was in his teaching one and Hermione had learned that there was a dangerous similarity in conduct between the teacher and the lover.

But these very philosophical thoughts on the nature of her strange affair with Snape only came to Hermione when he was no longer filling her space with his presence. They came in the grey, pre-dawn hours after one of his visitations when she awoke alone, sore and sated but achingly sad, hoping deep in her heart that it could have been nothing more than a dream and that her reality was not so complicated and impossible as it actually was. There was regret, of course, after every time and heartache and finally acceptance and the self-loathing knowledge that she'd never deny him.

Just like the marks left by his teeth and his hands on her pale skin, that stain of guilt was only left on her the morning after and the thoughts, like the bodily aches, only discomfited her in his wake because during there was no place for thought, or even complex emotion feeling, only primal feeling and physical gratification and pleasure so raw that the nerve endings were never sure if it wasn't actually pain.

No, there was no philosophy or rationalization when his hands and lips were on her, when he was inside her. There was only that dark storm and her own need that pushed aside such unimportant intellectualism in the face of touch and taste and feel. After that moment of surrender, her own hands joined his, leaving her own trail of bites and bruises, mapping her own passionate urges in the trails her lips left across scarred, sallow skin.

It was, ironically, one of the only times she knew of in her own life during which her precious mind could not function, could not absorb and analyze in that clinical way she preferred. And, as much as she fought it when her mind was clear and the guilt was ragged and pinching, she craved it in the way that she suspected he did -- that release and numinous desideration for that mutual give-and-take of control that they found together.

Hermione knew -- as she always knew before thought fled from her tingling, stimulated body -- that she would never be willing to let him go, for as long as he wanted her, even if this was all that he wanted.

And then there was nothing but pleasure, pain, body and friction in the dark silence of their mutual degradation.

-

Every morning-after, Hermione awoke with fleeting memories of his dark hair and searching hands flitting through her mind, and that latest morning-after was no different than the dozens before it. The autumn chill of the morning settled on the parts of her no longer covered by the downy quilt of her bed, and unattractive gooseflesh rippled down the backs of her arms, giving texture of the finger-sized bruises dotting her upper arms.

She shivered and floated into wakefulness, wrapping the quilt around her unclothed body as she hurried into her tiny, ancient bathroom to run water into the claw-foot tub and scrub herself clean of his lingering scent. There was ritual in this, too, just as there was in every element. As she washed her long, tangled hair, she was reminded of ancient, savage rites of sacred prostitution and wondered at that dichotomous description of it.

After those first few times, Hermione had had a difficult time believing that it hadn't, as she'd later wished, been nothing more than a powerfully erotic dream. Except for her own physical state, nothing was ever changed, moved or affected by Snape's silent, midnight visits and she'd been willing to entertain thoughts of her insanity at that time. It had only been that brief flicker of his black-as-sin eyes at her over the kitchen table at the Grimmauld House which had convinced her otherwise, that had cemented the verity of what she experienced. And, except for that flicker of fire which left her as hot as his mouth might have, he never acknowledged her in public with anything more than an unwilling "Granger" when there was no way to avoid it.

The water grew cold and Hermione wrapped herself in sturdy flannel before leaving the foggy cocoon of the bathroom to make herself a steaming cup of tea -- a strong, bitter tea whose taste she'd acquired over the years. Still, there was silence in the flat, although light peeked around the drawn curtains and seeped into the darkness of the unlit rooms.

Hermione waited, much as she had the night before, although she expected someone different to invade her quiet, private thoughts. She knew that Ginny would soon appear in a flurry of bright hair and sparking temper to lecture her about all kinds of things like decency and self-respect and idiocy and mental impairment, all in some kind of attempt to name a more palatable reason as to why Hermione always surrendered, always waited and always rose the next day alone without complaint, without anything other than a few bruises and hazy memories to show for her troubles.

In her own way, Ginny gave the whole strange dance of before-during-after a proper ending because she never failed to arrive, to bluster -- to ask the same questions which had the same answers, just as Snape always arrived in darkness and silence and left her alone fulfilled and unfulfilled and the morning broke guilt and excuses.

Because Ginny would always ask "Why?" in a desperate, pained tone and Hermione would always give her the same, short answer, though it hurt the younger woman and made her shake her head in disbelief. But nothing could change that answer because it was the simple truth at the center of something complex and tangled and because there was nothing else that Hermione could say truthfully in the face of that searing question.

And though it seemed to be a dreadful thing to do to the word "love," Hermione answered with it every time.

The End.

Author's notes: This story was born out of some rather melancholy thoughts I had about places I don't plan on taking in my other HG/SS fic. As my beta, Kel, says -- sometimes the angst has to get out. Here it is, folks.

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