Hermione carefully filled out the details of the latest batch of potions to be sent to the Apothecary - the concentration syrup again, just the thing for children with learning problems, twenty tiny bottles; thirty larger bottles of the Sleeping Draught, which was finding favour as Just The Thing to keep on hand for the odd sleepless night; and forty extremely small bottles of an old potion she'd found in one of Severus's old books, which had actually made him blush when she suggested it, and which had resulted in two litters of babies when they tested it on the mice. Slightly indelicate, but men being men, wizards or not, she was sure it would sell.

She dated the page carefully, and was just about to close the book when the date registered. Blinking, she looked it again, and then looked up. At the other end of the dining-room table, Severus was frowning as he worked his way through a complicated translation from one of the older books. "Severus?"

"Mm?" He didn't look up, as he scribbled a line and then crossed it out, scowling.

"Do you realize I've been here for eight months today?"

He blinked, looking up. "Has it been that long?" he asked, sounding surprised. He frowned, clearly counting it all up. "So it has."

"It doesn't seem that long," she agreed, tapping her pen against her lips thoughtfully. Quills were very pretty, but she wasn't at Hogwarts any longer, and one of the first things she'd done when the money started coming in again was to buy a couple of good-quality fountain pens. They were less messy, they were less fiddly, and she could chew on them without making herself ill. "That means it's been almost eleven months since the last battle... and, even though it doesn't make sense, that seems as if it's been much longer..."

"It does." He scowled. "We should probably start working on the hangover-remedies now," he said, sounding rather resigned.

She was used to following his train of thought now... there were days when they didn't really seem to need to talk at all. "The anniversary partying," she agreed, making a sour face. "If ever there was an occasion that didn't make me feel like celebrating..."

"I agree," he said quietly, and he gave her a sympathetic look. "The day would seem better suited to quietness and remembrance."

"Yeah." She looked down at the book. Nearly a year since Ron had died... and the thought didn't hurt the way it had at first. She grieved for him, and she would always miss him... but he had been part of a life that had ended nearly a year ago. The world she'd rebuilt for herself after Voldemort's destruction was a separate thing from the world she'd had before it. Disassociation. Normal, for someone who'd survived such a massive trauma. She knew that, but it didn't keep her from feeling a little guilty, sometimes, at having moved on.

The silence stretched out, until she shook her head and pushed the unhappy thoughts away. "I'll take the new batch of potions to the Apothecary in the morning," she said firmly. "I can stock up on new ingredients at the same time, and ask him about the hangover-cures - we won't bother if they're already stocked up."

He nodded. "We need a decent Elvish dictionary," he said, scowling at the translation in front of him. "I'm not getting anywhere working from the German, I might get further with the original text."

She nodded. "And you need some new robes," she said, looking at him thoughtfully. "You're getting scruffy." His robes had been old when she'd first arrived, and Winky's best efforts couldn't keep them looking their best anymore.

He gave her a startled look. "I am not."

"You are. Look at your elbows."

He looked at the rubbed-grey patches on the backs of his sleeves and scowled. "I suppose if I must," he muttered. "Black."

"No, really? Do you like black? I hadn't noticed!" she said, widening her eyes and affecting a girlish simper.

He scowled at her, then grinned suddenly. "I would settle for grey, if you really must have a change," he said, with the air of one making a great concession.

She laughed. "And deprive you of your trademark? Never." She gave him a thoughtful look. "Although... hm... what about dark blue?"

"Dark blue is a possibility," he conceded, giving his sleeves a thoughtful look. "Wool, for preference."

She nodded. "I need a winter cloak and things, too," she said thoughtfully. "So do you. I'll try to get everything at once. Ingredients, clothes... what else do we need?" She scrabbled for a spare piece of parchment. "I'll make a list."

The house felt empty without her.

He wasn't being sentimental, of course. Severus Snape was never sentimental. He was... bored. That was it. There was no work to be done, nobody to talk to except Winky, who was loyal but not much of a conversationalist, and he'd read all his books. He was bored. Not missing her in any way.

And, since he'd read all of his books, he didn't think she'd mind if he borrowed some of hers. He'd seen her with something called 'Muggle Relations Through The Ages', with a rather lurid image of a witch-burning on the cover, which should either be interesting or help him get to sleep, either of which would pass the time.

Her room was rather untidy, quite unlike her work-area, but less of a disaster than her end of the dining room table they were both using as a desk. No cosmetics or anything of that sort on view, but she did favour pink and lavender when it came to socks, he noticed with interest, indulging himself in the urge to poke around just a tiny bit in search of the book. Or any book, really, that looked mildly interesting.

There was one on her bedside table that he didn't recognize, and he picked it up - a battered little paperback which showed signs of being loved almost unto death. 'Jane Eyre' was the title, apparently. Turning it over and glancing at the back, he realized that it was a Muggle novel. He scanned the description on the back. Classic tale... romance...

Hermione was reading a romance novel? He would never have believed it, she'd seemed far too sensible for such things. He turned it over again, looking at the front. A picture of a house - well, mansion, really. Hm. All the romance novels he'd confiscated as a teacher had had fainting women, half-naked men, heaving bosoms, or all three on the covers. He opened it, flipping through the first couple of pages... and then a phrase didn't so much catch his eye as step off the page, grab his pupil, and slam it down on the paper.

"He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions; the servants did not like to offend their young master by taking my part against him, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject: she never saw him strike or heard him abuse me, though he did both now and then in her very presence; more frequently, however, behind her back."

Severus slammed the book shut, his heart suddenly pounding. That had struck too close to home, much too close... how often had he thought those very thoughts? What sort of romance novel would include such passages?

He opened it again turned back, scanning the preceding paragraphs... not an abusive relationship, he realized, as he had first assumed. Jane was a child, bullied by other children. By children indulged and pampered by those around them, who were not punished for their treatment of her... indeed, he discovered, reading on, she was punished herself for fighting back. Close to home indeed...

He flipped back to the first page. Hermione's name was written on it, in the rounded, slightly straggly handwriting she had already been outgrowing at eleven, when he'd first seen it. The battered book must have been a favourite for a very long time.

He opened the book again, somewhat further on, and another phrase caught his eye.

"'If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.'

'No; I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don't love me, I would rather die than live - I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen. Look here; to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse and let it dash its hoof at my chest.'"

He closed the book again, more gently this time, his hands shaking a little. If he hadn't known better, he might have suspected that some Dark Magic was at work, drawing his worst fears and memories from his mind to shape the words as he read them. To be solitary and hated... who would want to live under such circumstances? He hadn't.

He'd glanced through confiscated Muggle novels before. None of them had been anything like this one.

He should put it back. It was one of her favourites, she'd be annoyed if he took it. But, looking down at the book again, he knew he wouldn't. He wanted to know what happened to stubborn, unhappy little Jane, if she managed to escape her fate and be happy. The back of the book had promised romance...

He took it back to his room, settling down to read.

Hermione stepped out of the Weasley's fire, slightly ruffled externally and extremely so internally. "YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE WHAT HE DID!"

Then she blushed, as she realized that Ginny wasn't there alone, as she had been five minutes ago, when she'd called through the fire... Remus and Tonks, obviously having just arrived, were also sitting at the kitchen table, staring at her. "Uh..."

"What happened?" Remus asked anxiously. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine! It's not... he..." Hermione covered her face with her hands. "He took one of my books and he's READING it!" she wailed.

She could almost hear the puzzled glances. "Uhm... is that bad?" Tonks asked cautiously.

"Yes, it's bad! God, why didn't I hide it under the mattress or something?" Hermione flopped onto one of the chairs, leaning her elbows on the table and resting her head in her hands. "Because I didn't think he'd get bored and wander into my room to borrow a book, that's why... damnit, I should have KNOWN he'd start poking that beak of his into things once he started getting better!" She actually quite liked his nose, but she wasn't feeling very fond of any part of him just now.

"Is it an embarrassing book?" Tonks asked, with some interest. "There isn't smut in it, is there? Because that would be really awkward."

"No, there's no smut!" THAT thought almost gave Hermione a heart-attack. Thank god she'd left hers at home. "But... it's 'Jane Eyre'!"

Ginny, who'd borrowed it while they were still at school, hissed in a breath. Tonks looked bewildered. "Is that bad?"

"It's a literary classic," Remus said, giving Hermione a sympathetic look... although his lips were twitching just a little. "In which... uhm... the heroine winds up finding true love with a tall, dark, unattractive-but-charming man with a dark past who happens to be twice her age."

Hermione whimpered, and let her forehead hit the table with a gentle thunk. "This is the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me!"

"Ohhhh." Tonks nodded, and then giggled a little. "Oh, lord... and he's actually reading it? A romance novel?"

"It's not a romance novel!" Hermione insisted, her head still down on the table. "It's a classic! Jane has a really tragic childhood, and life is hard for her but she maintains her self-respect and personal integrity against all the odds!"

"And she marries a tall, dark, unattractive-but-charming man with a dark past who happens to be twice her age," Ginny added, trying to stifle a grin and failing. "After he happens to be horribly injured and needs to be nursed back to health."

Hermione whimpered again. Louder.

"She was in love with him before that, though," Remus added, and then smiled ruefully. "Which I suspect isn't helpful."

Tonks reached over to pat Hermione on the shoulder. "Why did you even bring it into the house, if it's that... er... obvious?" she asked curiously.

"I didn't NOTICE," Hermione whimpered, sitting up. Her face was so red it felt painfully hot. "I mean... I know it sounds stupid, but I've had that book since I was nine, and I didn't think! I really didn't notice the parallels until I saw him holding the book, and then it all sort of hit me... and he wouldn't give it back!" she added indignantly. "He's actually strong enough to hold me off, now! Of all the times for him to be getting some of his strength back!"

"But that could be good," Ginny said encouragingly. "I mean, if he's getting better, you'll be able to move out, won't you?"

Hermione looked at her as if she'd grown another head. "Ginny, we're runing a business together! If I move out, I'll still have to see him every day, he'll know that I ran away, and I won't be able to go to work in my pyjamas if I feel like it!"

"You work in your pyjamas?" Ginny asked, eyes going wide.

"No! But I could if I wanted to." Hermione hid her face in her hands again. "Oh, god... that's one of my favourite books, and it SHOWS, I'm never going to be able to look him in the eye again!"

"Well... it's not as if you've actually had any intention to... well... is it?" Remus asked rather hesitantly, with just a hint of 'ew' touching his expression.

"No!" Hermione blushed furiously as she blurted out the not-complete-truth. "I hadn't even realized there was a parallel until I saw him with it! And, well, I thought of it THEN, but I couldn't help it!"

"Nobody could," Ginny agreed comfortingly. "It's like when someone tells you not to think about a pink elephant."

"Exactly!" Hermione sighed. "I mean, it's not that I'm not fond of him..." The sudden, yawning silence drew her eyes up from her hands. They were all staring at her. "I am!" she said a little defensively. "What's wrong with that?"

Ginny looked stunned, and Remus mildly horrified. Tonks, who was looking at them too, just looked puzzled. "Why?" she asked, when it was clear that nobody else was going to ask. "I mean, I don't really know him... just a bit from the Order... but he seemed like a really miserable old grouch to me."

"Yeah, well, you would be too, if you'd been him," Hermione said, frowning. "He's been stuck between sides, nobody liking him on either, since he was younger than you. Being that lonely and unwanted would make anyone into a grouch."

Tonks nodded, seeming impressed by this, but Remus shook his head. "He's always been like that," he disagreed. "Ever since we were at school. He was a real little weasel then."

"Harry's mentioned some of it," Hermione said quietly. "I mean, this was Harry, he's not a good observer and, god help him, he's not too bright when it comes to people - sorry, Ginny-"

"I love him, but I'm not blind to his faults," Ginny said wryly.

"-anyway, what he told me was kind of incoherent, but I got the gist." Hermione met Remus's eyes squarely. She'd always liked him, but this was a bone that was way overdue to be picked with him. "The Marauders didn't like him at all, did they, any of them? Of course, you can't blame them. Scrawny little git, not much fun to have to look at, bit of a swot, no sense of humour, always bleating about how you'd get in trouble if you kept doing that..."

"Exactly," Remus said, giving her a rueful smile.

"...exactly like me in first year, in other words," Hermione finished, closing her mouth with a snap.

He blinked. "I... no! Hermione, Snape was different. He was nasty, even then... used to sneak around like-"

"Someone terrified that someone was going to jump him?"

"No! I... maybe, but he was always oozing around, he was a nasty, slimy little git-"

"Personal comments, very nice, maybe you'd like to say something about me next? The hair's always a big favourite."

Remus scowled. "Look, he gave as good as he got, Hermione, he really-"

"Oh, he did? Got three people together and attacked each of you four to one, did he?" Hermione glared at him.

"Look, I know he's got a lot of reasons for his grudge against us," Remus admitted unhappily. "But it wasn't... I don't know what he's told you, but it wasn't as vicious as he-"

"He hasn't told me anything," Hermione said grimly. "I have more respect for him than to pry into his personal life, and he has accorded the same respect to me. But I've heard a little from Harry, and I've seen him and Severus together a hell of a lot. Severus may have been a bastard of a teacher... but he got damn near hysterical every time Harry tried to pick a fight with him. I thought it was strange at the time, but I was too young to understand why at first. I didn't work out that it was a deeply ingrained learned response until much later." They looked blank, and she scowled as she clarified. "He associated that face, that hatred of him, so strongly with fear and pain that he was almost as terrified of Harry as he must have been of James. And that made him angry, and someone who's furious and petrified isn't someone who's going to be very rational."

Ginny nodded. "That's true," she said quietly. They all looked at her in surprise. "I heard a lot about those hysterics from Harry and... and Ron," she said softly. "I always thought they were exaggerating, but if they weren't... and it would explain a lot. I mean, I never had any trouble with him, except for the usual 'you're all stupid and I hate teaching' stuff, but they always carried on like he was Evil Incarnate or something in class..."

"They weren't exaggerating." Hermione's lips tightened. "I've never seen him get that way with anyone else. He's had nightmares about Voldemort that get him less worked up. Only Harry could make him lose it like that."

Remus looked at the floor, his thin face a little pale. "It wasn't... that bad," he said in a small voice, as if trying to convince himself.

"Oh yeah?" Hermione leaned forward, placing her hands flat upon the table. "When I was in first year, hardly anyone would even talk to me. I was scared, I was out of place, I was ugly and unlikeable and I didn't have even one single friend. I nearly got killed by a troll because I was hiding in the toilets crying my eyes out because this big freckled git and his scrawny, oh-so-famous friend had been having a good laugh about how unpopular I was right in front of me! They only rescued me because they felt sorry for me! So imagine me in his place, Remus, all the oh-so-amusing things that James and Sirius used to do happening to me, and YOU TELL ME IT WASN'T THAT BAD!"

He looked at her, his mouth opening... and then he flushed dully, looking down at his hands. He couldn't seem to get any words out.

"I know the two of you never liked each other," Hermione said grimly. "And I know people sometimes have really, really bad judgement when they're in their teens. But don't you ever try to justify that to me, Remus Lupin, because I've been on the receiving end and I know just how bad it is. And don't, for the record, ever talk about him like that to me again. You don't know him the way I do. You haven't heard what comes out of his mouth when he has the nightmares, you haven't had him hit out at you because being touched terrifies him, or had him clinging to you because he can't wake up and he can't stop crying, and you didn't spend seven years at school hanging around with someone who he hated with an undying passion but who he kept saving because he couldn't just stand by and let a child get hurt!"

All three of them were staring at her. Remus was looking miserably guilty, Tonks bewildered and concerned, and Ginny... she had an odd, unreadable expression on her face. "Yeah," she said softly. "He's like you that way."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hermione flared.

"You won't stand by and let someone helpless get hurt, either," Ginny continued, her voice quiet and steady. "Even house-elves... you hate seeing anyone get pushed around, even if they're not human."

"Damn right!" Hermione snapped, standing up. "And he IS human, and he needs me! Book or no damn book!" She looked around. "CROOKSHANKS!" she called. The half-Kneazle, who had been left with Ginny while Hermione went Snape-hunting, sauntered out from under the dresser, and she picked him up, holding him tightly. "We're GOING, Crookshanks," she said, glaring around the table, and Apparated away with an angry crack of displaced air.

"Oh, dear," Tonks said quietly.

"Yeah," Ginny agreed.

Remus sighed. "I had no idea that would happen... I'm sorry," he said humbly. "I know I shouldn't have brought it up."

"Oh, you should," Tonks said seriously. "I mean, we know now."

He blinked at her. "Know what?"

"That Hermione's got it very bad," Ginny said softly. "She doesn't know it yet, but she does."

Hermione hadn't cried, really, since that agonizing month just after Ron had died. A tear or two here and there, but no actual crying. At least not while she'd been awake.

Now, having apparated directly to her room, she curled up around Crookshanks and wept. For Ron, for the young, frightened Severus, for the bitter, unhappy adult he'd become, for the fight, for yelling at Ginny, for everything being different. Crookshanks purred anxiously, rubbing his face gently against her chin, and Hermione cried harder, holding onto him tightly.

Some time later, she wasn't sure how long, the door opened and she heard a familiar, halting step. "Hermione? Are you all right?"

She gulped, trying to stifle her sobs. She hadn't cried in front of him for years, and she would have preferred to keep it that way. "I'm fine," she whispered, sitting up and scrubbing at her eyes with her sleeve.

"Torrential floods of tears are not, so far as I am aware, included in the usual definitions of 'fine'." He sounded uncertain, and after a moment, she felt an awkward pat on her shoulder.

She looked up, and bit her lip hard. He looked... lost. He had no idea how to handle his own emotions, let alone anyone else's, and she doubted he had any notion of how you went about comforting someone when they were upset. The tentative hand on her shoulder, though, meant that he was trying.

And that wasn't helping. Him going around trying to be kind just when she was realizing how confused her feelings about him were... "I'm fine," she said again, sniffling. "I... went to see Ginny, to collect Crookshanks," she explained, stroking the cat's soft fur. "I didn't think you'd mind, and I missed him." She looked up at him, then looked away. Things were too... complicated... for her to meet his eye for long. "It's the first time I've been back to the Weasley house since..." She trailed off.

He nodded, and the hand was quietly withdrawn. "I understand," he said, almost gently. "And Crookshanks is welcome, of course." He limped away, closing her door behind him quietly.

Hermione felt a hundred times worse than she had before the door had opened. She'd used Ron as an excuse, as a way of deflecting the concern of a man who Ron had hated and who she cared about more than she ever would have thought possible. They were friends, closer in some ways than she'd been even with Ron and Harry, because they had more in common. And... and now things were getting complicated, because the unwanted idea had joined the unwanted awareness and she wasn't entirely sure she could make them go away...

She looked around for a handkerchief and blinked. 'Jane Eyre' was back on her bedside table, precisely where she'd left it before it was stolen.

'Pride and Prejudice', which she'd been reading instead, was gone.

Severus closed the slim paperback, and leaned back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully.

The books had been... surprisingly informative. Much attention had been given to the whys and wherefores of people's behaviour, and since both were told from the feminine viewpoint, and written by female authors, they provided a valuable insight into the working of the feminine mind - which had always been a near impenetrable mystery, to him.

He had read a few of the romantic novels and lurid magazines he'd confiscated at the school, although he'd been ashamed of giving in to the impulse. They had merely reinforced his opinion that romance - and, by extension, love - consisted of a mixture of treacly sentiment and frantic pawing. Treacly sentiment set his teeth on edge, and although frantic pawing had its moments, it certainly wasn't worth getting stuck with a sentimental idiot for the rest of one's life. His parents had been miserable together, and his father had never allowed the young Severus to forget that it was his fault that he had been burdened with them, that his mother's pregnancy had ruined Tobias Snape's life. No; sentiment, romance, love, passion - they were all snares for the unwary.

It had come as something of a shock to realize, at almost forty, that there might possibly be more to it. He flipped the book open, and relocated the phrase that had particularly struck him.

'If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth's change of sentiment will seem neither improbable nor faulty.'

Esteem. It was a word he'd never before associated with love. Gratitude he was more wary of, it being unreliable to say the least, but she used 'respect' as well; Elizabeth's father, later, had held it as nothing that Mr Darcy was 'a proud, disagreeable man', but had anxiously begged his daughter not to marry a partner she could not respect. And Jane had, despite her love for Mr Rochester, refused to be with him under any circumstances which would tarnish her respect for him and for herself.

He had envied both men bitterly, fictional characters or not; all the more because, despite sharing many of his bad points, they had secured love and happiness with two very intelligent, loyal young women. And that had led him to other thoughts which he should have stifled at once, but had not...

Hermione had a great deal in common with both Jane and Elizabeth. She had a fiery temper, but worked hard to keep it in check. She was honest, and very loyal. She had a strong moral sense, and was not afraid to do what was Right even if it was difficult or unpopular. She had integrity, courage, and fortitude.

In short, she was an admirable young woman for whom he had great respect. And esteem. He wasn't going to admit to the gratitude, but that was there too. And if, as the books seemed to believe, it was possible to couple respect and companionship with love - then he wanted it. More than he had ever wanted anything in his life.

He wanted her.

The idea wasn't impossible - she obviously loved and treasured both books, and had read them almost to pieces. Surely that signalled a certain willingness to at least consider someone with the failings of one or both heroes? The age-gap between them was no greater than that between Mr Rochester and Jane. Both men had been bad-tempered, rude, and proud on the surface, but had improved on closer acquaintance. Darcy, true, had been handsome - but Rochester had not, and it hadn't seemed to put Jane off at all. Darcy had been abominably rude to Elizabeth at first, and Rochester casually dismissive of Jane, but their early unkindnesses had been forgiven.

Neither of them, however, had had to contend with the memory of a heroically deceased First Love. Severus had never thought that Ron Weasley was worthy of Hermione, even when he'd been teaching them both and determined to dislike the brats. Ron had, it was true, been brave and loyal. He'd also been stupid. Hermione would, surely, have eventually gotten tired of doing his metaphorical - and literal - homework for him, and wanted an intellectual equal. But she hadn't had a chance... the boy had died, and if the evidence of her sudden fit of tears yesterday was anything to go by, she had not yet been able to let him go.

So... theoretically, he at least had a chance, but not now. It had been less than a year. Perhaps if he gave it another year or two, she would be recovered from her broken heart, and might...

Lose her mind so profoundly as to be interested in him? Allow herself to be spurned by all her friends, as she surely would be, to be by his side? Care for the broken gargoyle of a man that he'd become?

He scowled, his hand tightening around the book. He had strayed dangerously towards self-delusion, for a few moments, something he would not permit himself to do again. He should enjoy her friendship, and not imagine any hope for more. He had her companionship, could see her and spend time with her every day... what more, really, could he ask for? Well, his libido did have a few suggestions, but he'd lived like a monk for the last eighteen years, he was used to it. And he'd rather remain celibate for the rest of his life than lose her friendship.

So. He simply had to return this book, and continue pretending - as she had, after her attempt to get the first one back - that he'd never read them at all. He had been happy enough, beforehand, with her friendship. He would simply have to force himself to ignore the other, pointless hopes that the books had raised.

He could do it. He'd deceived Voldemort, how difficult could it be to deceive himself?