Disclaimer: I do NOT own these characters or the world they live in. I make no money from this story.

a/n I: Clearly I started posting here before the definition of Mature changed, so this is edited heavily for content. I plan post the unedited version on AO3 once I have an account set up there.

a/n II: This is the end, people. 5100 days it took me, but the end is inevitable, isn't it? I hope you enjoy. I know I'm going to enjoy clicking "Complete".

Chapter 21

Snape braved the bakery for breakfast the next morning, but a long night of celebrating had tamed Camila and crew. He received only a nod from Jose and Martin. Their coffee almost certainly had alcohol in it. Having drank far less than they had, he enjoyed his lack of hangover at his kitchen table looking over the rough outline Miss Granger had shown him the night before.

He made a few notes in the margins and wondered when she might make an appearance. He busied himself with making his own notes about the gargantuan project he had somehow agreed to participate in and worked on lesson plans stretching into the near future to make sure he did not fall behind on his other work.

It was midmorning when he heard the knock at the door. He let her in and they set to work as he'd expected they would. He reviewed his notes with her and they discussed various ways to structure the information for clarity and application. She was enthusiastic about the plan and set straight to the task of revising the outline and adding in the details they'd discussed.

Snape picked up a couple of sandwiches from a nearby shop and they broke around midday for lunch.

"Your notes were quite helpful," she said as they tucked in at the kitchen table. "The outline is really coming together."

"Good," he said. "Let's look at it again after we've eaten."

They chatted about various topics as they ate. Snape agreed to contribute weekends and evenings to the project, after he'd finished up his paying work, of course. He also invited Hermione to come and go as she pleased, that way he wouldn't have to let her in and out like a pet cat. She seemed overall happy with the arrangement.

They worked on and off the rest of the day, perusing notes and trying to commit to paper at least the bare bones of the Legilimency and Occlumency-related information hidden within their respective heads. When they returned from dinner, Snape mentioned that he was going to have a drink on the second floor, but she declined to join him, saying that she wanted to get the next section sketched out before she lost the threads of it in her mind.

Although a bit disappointed, he understood and went upstairs by himself. He sat in the armchair, sipping a scotch as he gazed out over the hills and the houses nestled between them. It was a clear, cold night with a blanket of stars overhead.

Relishing the stillness, he thought of almost nothing at all for the longest time. Then he thought of the smiling, young couple, so much in love they could stand across the room from one another and still somehow always be touching. Camila crying through a smile, overjoyed for her only child and to welcome her new son to the family. Ah, to know that kind of unreserved love. To know peace.

Then like always, summoned like ocean water at high tide, in came the memories of the sad years, the lost years, that made his eyes ache and his chest heavy. A sharp blade of sorrow cut through his reverie. Remorse for the things he'd done or not done to earn the trust of those he'd hated. In the grand scheme, the good outweighed the bad, but the ache of it-the shame of it-never stopped. Most days he could ignore it, buried just deep enough in his mind. He had conditioned himself not to look at it. And he'd left behind everything that had reminded him of it. Until now.

He screwed the lid on those memories down tighter and pursued a new line of thought. Was he entertained by the girl's presence or was he using her to torture himself? Could it not be both? He refilled his glass, finished it in a gulp. Then he refilled his glass and tried not to think at all for a while longer.

It was nearly midnight when he decided that he should retire for the night. He had to teach in the morning, after all.

He poked his head into the library and found her sitting in only lamp light again, her face inches from the page. He flipped on the overhead light, startling her. He could relate to the jagged line she'd just scribbled on the page.

"You'll ruin your eyes," he said. "And now that your eyes are safe, I must bid you goodnight. If it gets too late, point your wand at something and turn it into a bed."

She smiled. "I think I'm about done myself. But thanks."

He nodded and took a step down the hallway before he remembered something else. "One last thing," he said, leaning back into the room. He inclined his head toward the wall across the hall. "Touch the wall and envision the original room. As it happens, you are one of the few in the world to whom that door will appear. The sky is clear."

"Okay, good night!" she called as he walked down the hall.

Snape felt distinctly odd trying to sleep with another person still in his house. He lay awake for quite a while listening to the scratching of her quill, reminded of sleepless nights spent at Hogwarts while doing the same. For as long as he lay listening to it, he was almost certain she would still be there when he awoke.

To his surprise, he found his house both quiet and empty in the morning, so he started the day like any other. Stop off for coffee, a long day in the classroom. All normal, until he arrived home. When he opened the door, he heard the scratching of the quill once more.

"Oh, good!" she called from the library as he stepped through the front door. He paused long enough to remove his coat before heading into the library.

"Oh, good!" she repeated when he walked into the room.

She met him at the doorway with a piece of parchment in one hand, a quill in the other, another quill behind her ear, and a smudge of ink on her cheek.

"I'm stuck on the section related to Variable Memory," she said so quickly that her words ran together. "And I need your input about three changes I propose we make to the Advanced Occlumency section of the outline that we already sort of locked down yesterday. Well, additions, really. Would you take a look?"

Snape blinked. "Now I know how the editor of the The Guardian must have felt each morning when he arrived at work," he said. Glancing around the room at the stacks of parchment, he added, "In the year 1867." He walked to his own desk and dropped off his bag, then turned to face his shadow. "Good afternoon, Miss Granger. Now please repeat everything you just said, but slowly."

Their work routine followed roughly this same pattern for the rest of the week. He helped where he could while teaching a full load of classes, they discussed the current highlight of the project over dinner, then she worked into the small hours while he listened to her quill scratch from the next room over. As much as he anticipated finding her slumped over the desk each morning, she was always gone before dawn.

By Saturday, he had grown concerned about her level of dedication to the project. It was one thing to enjoy a hobby. It was quite another to develop an obsession.

He was reading a book at the kitchen table to prepare for next week's lessons when he heard the door open. It was nine o'clock sharp. She stepped into the kitchen carrying a box with two cups and a white sack that looked disturbingly like the ones from the bakery.

"Good morning," Hermione said. "Camila says hello."

Snape stared blankly for a moment. "You went to the bakery?"

"Of course," she said nonchalantly. "I've been going there all week. For coffee. Well, espresso. I really shouldn't because it makes me jittery, but boy am I productive. I'm giving it up now that the outline is finished though. It's just not a healthy habit for me."

Snape suddenly understood why she'd been off kilter and why the bakery bunch had been quietly smug all week.

"I assumed they would tell you," she explained innocently.

"Oh, they did," he said. "Just not in so many words."

She smiled. "If you like, next week I'll start feeding them false information about your time in England. When he was in MI6...uh oh, I've already said too much."

"While I appreciate the offer, they can have their fun," he said. "They have so little to entertain themselves." Then what she'd said before finally sunk in. "Wait, you finished it?"

She grinned. "We finished it, with the generous help of a gallon of espresso. Nevertheless, I think we are ready to start putting meat on the bones."

They reviewed the outline once more for luck, then each claimed a few sections to write.

"And the False Memory section needs to say more than just 'Think it'."

"It worked," he answered.

"Hmm," she replied, her eyes still on her work.

By late afternoon, they had both written as much as they could stand and began to discuss whether to take an extended break for an early dinner or to keep working.

"Andre begins serving at seven," Snape explained. "We have a couple of hours still."

"Alright," she said, "we need something that won't take too long and that doesn't require me to think too hard because I'm still coming off my caffeine binge." She pursued a bulleted list on her desk. "Oh! I'd like to take some notes in real time, as it happens. Fancy a practical demonstration?"

She gathered up a small bale of parchment and the auto-quill before they headed upstairs. As Snape reached the top step, he quickly realized she was going to be distracted for a while. They both were. Huge white snowflakes floated from the sky, all around. It was like standing in a snow globe.

"The challenge is describing what to do in enough detail to make it practical," she said as she ascended the stairs cautiously, staring at her feet over the stack of papers. As soon as she looked up, her features softened. "Oh," she said, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape.

"Beautiful, isn't it," he said softly.

She nodded slowly. "It's so peaceful."

They shared in the spectacle for a few long moments before they got back to work. Hermione set up the auto-quill while explaining that she wanted to review the basic Legilimency steps from both perspectives, then make some notes in between.

"Easy enough," he said. "Ready?"

"Hang on," she said, looking down at the faltering auto-quill. "Testing. Test." She tapped the auto-quill with the toe of her shoe and it scurried off across the page. "Okay. You first."

He showed her the T. E. Hulme collection that he'd been reading that morning, then she drew back and recited her findings to the quill. Snape stared out at the hills as they blanketed with snow.

"Again?" she asked.

He showed her the night sky as it had appeared on the clearest night that week. The Milky Way resembled a drift of stars in the sky. She drew back, a curious look on her face.

"You missed it," he said.

"I know," she answered absently. She looked concerned. "You were so sad. Unutterably sad. Why?"

He was shocked by her perception. He'd suppressed that well in the memory. "Scotch sometimes does that to me," he explained smoothly. "Again?"

She nodded hesitantly.

He showed her what she'd looked like when he'd arrived home on Monday. Hair frizzed, face smudged, a quill behind her ear.

She drew back, laughing. "Oh, it's no wonder you ran from me."

He chuckled quietly. "Again?"

"No, I'll make some notes. Then we'll switch."

He paced a bit, admiring the white roof tops from different angles, listening to her recit the clinical, boring details of how the magic was supposed to work.

"Alright," she said at last. "Ready."

He reached into her mind and saw her walk into the bakery. Camila smiled and asked several overly-attentive questions about mundane things. Jose translated for Martin, who was telling an involved story about cheese. She ended the memory.

"They were on their best behavior," Hermione said.

"Good," he replied. "Serves them right."

He waited again as she recited her finding, the auto-quill scritching along the page.

"Again?" she asked.

He nodded and looked into her mind. He recognized his street. It was either very late or very early. A bird landed on the fence in front of her. A shrike, its black mask unmistakable. A snippet of thought crept in. Only an instant.

"It's been too long. I need to get out of my head. Find someone up for a shag. Have some fun."

The memory abruptly ended and he felt it this time. It was like getting shoved out of a moving car and back into his own head.

She put both hands over her rapidly reddening face. "Oh my God," she said through her fingers. "Oh my God." She massaged her forehead and started to pace back and forth.

"Ow," he said pointedly as he stared at her, wide-eyed. He managed not to laugh, but it was a near thing. "You have nothing to be ashamed of," he said, his voice quivering with stifled mirth. "You are entitled to think whatever you like."

"What you must think of me," she said as she shook her head.

"I think that I'm impressed by your initiative and wonder whether or not you would like me to alert the townsfolk."

She goggled at him.

"Well," he said, laughing quietly, "plenty would volunteer."

"Oh my God," she said, but she too started to laugh. "You are not helping."

He suddenly and vividly remembered a Rogue Memory that had become a salacious dream years ago, one that had left him similarly embarrassed.

"Miss Granger," he said, trying to sound comforting. "You witnessed my alcohol-induced self pity. Perhaps we can call it even."

She nodded, but she was clearly still reeling from her accidental revelation.

"Did you want to try again?" he asked.

"No," she said, her tone flat. "I think that's enough sharing for one evening."

"Dinner?" he asked with a smirk.

She nodded. "But I may sit at another table. Or under one."

They trudged through the snow to Andre's. The quiet streets were mostly deserted thanks to the snow and the early hour.

Over dinner, she was uncharacteristically quiet. Snape struck up most of the conversation, sticking to safe topics that would get her talking, and soon she was almost back to normal, but they walked back to his house in silence.

"I think I'll head back early," Hermione said. "Try to reassemble what's left of my dignity."

"You have plenty of time," Snape said, unable to resist. "The bar stays open till half past two."

She just stared, her eyes shining and her smile wooden. He'd overstepped.

"I apologize," he said sincerely. "That was overly familiar. But I stand by the sentiment. You should enjoy yourself."

She pushed her hands further into her pockets and started off down the street. "I swear, if you say sow your oats…."

"Good night," he called after her. "And good luck."

"Yeah, yeah," she called back. "See you tomorrow."

He turned toward the door, fishing his keys from his pocket, thinking a number of things that he had to stifle quickly. He shook his head ruefully. "If I were a younger man-"

"You'd what?"

Her voice so close shocked him, but his years of training limited his reaction to an almost imperceptible clenching of his fist. How had she snuck up on him?

"I'd remember where I keep my keys," he replied casually. "Forget something?"

She nodded. "A book."

"Ah, finish another one?" he asked as he unlocked the door.

"Just last night," she replied.

He paused to take off his coat while she went to the library.

"Got one," she announced a moment later as she walked back toward the door.

He stood to the side to let her by.

"Good night," she said as she passed.

"Good night, Miss Granger."

She paused with her hand on the door handle. "Hermione," she said as she turned toward him. "Call me that from now on. If you would please."

He nodded once. "Alright."

She returned the nod and went out the door.

Perhaps he had upset her more than he'd thought. Or perhaps she'd heard him and rightly interpreted what he'd meant. Whatever it was, something in her had shifted. She'd tapped some well of new-found confidence. Sometimes a blow to the ego leads to a revelation. Some lucky man in Toreno was about to have a very good evening.

Snape laughed quietly. He wasn't a vain man, and he was not delusional. He had never won hearts on looks alone. But he had spoken the truth. If he were a younger man, if he were still the man he'd been before he'd cut himself off, he would have pursued someone like her. Yes, if he were a younger man.

He thought about that long enough to think that a cold shower was in order.

Lying in bed, the white ceiling with its blinking smoke detector staring back at her, Hermione wrestled with the covers that were at once too heavy and not warm enough. The entire week, between bouts of intensely focused work, she'd felt like a teen with a crush. It had made her feel alive, invigorated, and incredibly annoyed.

Her fun distraction the night of the wedding had followed her to his house the next day in the form of curiosity. When her eyes had needed a rest, she would watch him work. Study his hands. One day he'd rolled his sleeves up to the elbow and crossed his arms and she missed the first half of what he was saying because when had his forearms gotten all sinewy? Hadn't she seen his damn arms before?

She had only gone to the bakery out of necessity. Where else was one to get espresso in a town that size? But a few visits in, she'd started asking leading questions. As it had turned out, advanced interrogation techniques were not necessary to get Camila to spill the details.

All Hermione had to ask was what had "Joseph" been up to all these years. A few stories about his work at the school and his involvement in the town led almost immediately to his personal life. There had certainly been interest around town, and Camila had heard stories of a couple of flings. She had set him up several times over the years, and while she thought one might work out, nothing ever came of it.

"He is very private," Camilla had said. "But he needs people just like everyone else."

Hermione had felt guilty about digging deeper into Snape's personal life. Because what was she doing? This was a crush. She'd had a crush like this on a professor at university. Nothing had ever come of that, of course, besides some rather satisfying, late-night fantasies. And that was all this was supposed to have been.

She'd even tried to convince herself that the attraction was biological. That she just needed to pick up some man and have some sex and maybe then she'd stop looking at Snape that way.

But the fact remained. She was attracted to him. Once she'd noticed, she could not un-notice. The safe route was to wait it out, see if the feelings faded. Acting on the feelings could go very badly, and that path risked their new friendship. She was loath to jeopardize that now.

She liked him, damn it. She would rather have some kind of relationship with him than none at all. And that was what she had decided before she'd arrived at his house that very morning. No more freaking out. No more entertaining the infatuation. She would spend the last half of her holiday enjoying his company and working on the textbook.

Then he'd heard the thought. She'd meant to show him the bird, but it had been about three in the morning when the little thing alighted on the fence right in front of her and she simply hadn't remembered what thought had been in her head at the time. Not until it replayed in her head of course.

She huffed out a sigh and kicked at the too-heavy comforter again. Dammit.

He had tried to spare her feelings, tried to make her feel better while she'd wanted so badly to Obliviate him and herself. Besides, he was right. She was closer to mid-thirties than she was to mid-twenties. She could think and do whatever she liked.

And she had worked through the worst of the embarrassment when he made the comment about the bar. That hurt, the way it hurts when the person you are interested in is clearly not interested in you. She'd known he meant nothing by it, but it still felt like a rejection.

She pulled all the blankets up to her neck and formed a nest, trying to get warm.

"If I were a younger man."

She knew what she'd heard, and if he meant what she thought he did, then perhaps it was worth the embarrassment. The only mind she couldn't read was his, but what he'd said was perhaps close enough.

She thought about what she wanted to do with the insight. Then she thought about the way he spoke. The way that he thought. The pain that cut like broken glass, even the mere fraction she'd witnessed. How years ago, when he had nothing to gain by it, he had held her close when she had been frozen, exhausted, and terrified.

She dozed for a few hours, but there was nothing for it. She kicked off the blankets, got dressed, and headed to his house. The only way to get this out of her head, out of her imagination, was to think it all the way through. And she wanted to think while looking at something other than the blinking red smoke alarm light.

She'd never arrived before dawn, and certainly not while Snape was still sleeping. She unlocked the door as quietly as she could, then crept down the hall to the upstairs entrance. She summoned the door as he instructed and opened it ever so slowly before creeping up the stairs.

Smoke rose from each chimney in the predawn cold. A nearly full moon blazed over head, painting the snow silver. She sat in his chair, thinking through everything again and again.

It all came down to a choice between two eventualities. She either had to live with the consequences if she acted or she had to live with always wondering what might have happened if only she'd tried.

The skyline brightened, then turned a faint shade of pink. She watched the sun illuminate the hills as the streets slowly awoke to a Sunday morning. Eight o'clock. Nine o'clock. She had changed her mind a dozen times and a dozen times again. But at last, she made up her mind once and for all.

Knowing his routine, she expected to find the house empty. He would be at the bakery. She descended the stairs, strode straight across the hall and into the library, then stopped cold. Snape was home. He was leaning back against his desk, half sitting on the edge, his legs stretched out in front of him, a book in the palm of one hand.

"Good morning," he said, his eyes still on the page. "You got here early."

"Yeah,," she replied, wondering if he'd heard her come in. "I've been here a while."

"Upstairs," he said, sounding vaguely curious.

"For a while," she repeated as she desperately sorted through her thoughts as to where she'd wanted to start. She wasn't ready yet. Of course, she could always wait.

He looked up from his book then, his brows drawn down. "Are you alright?" he asked, concerned. "Did something happen?"

"No," she replied. "I'm fine. Or I will be." She grimaced as she willed herself to explain. "You said I should talk to you. If something was bothering me."

His eyebrows raised slightly at that. "I did." He closed the book, set it on the desk beside him, and crossed his arms. He was giving her his full attention.

"Alright. So." She took a long breath, then spoke quickly but precisely. "I've thought through every scenario, and while they all scare me, I'm more afraid of what might happen if I don't say anything at all. And honestly I'm just so bloody tired of wondering."

He nodded. "About the book."

"No," she said, her breath catching in her throat. "I mean you."

He narrowed his eyes, his expression growing more serious, or perhaps more confused. "As co-author? I do not need my name-"

"No," she said with a resigned laugh. "I've never been good at things like this."

Why could she say things to a stranger in a pub that she couldn't say to him? Then she realized something that should have been obvious from the start.

"Maybe-" Her mouth suddenly went very dry. She swallowed. "Maybe you can just read my mind?"

Now he looked full-on confused. "What? Why? And it is not technically mind reading-"

She sighed loudly, both in exasperation and because she felt like she was about to hyperventilate. Her heart beat so fast that she could hardly feel it.

"I want to show you what I'm talking about," she said softly. "Please."

He looked as though he wanted to argue, but thought better of it. "Alright."

His dark eyes still on hers, she felt him reach into her mind. From her galaxy of stars, she showed him all of it. How he'd looked to her in the suit. Her fantasy. The burgeoning physical attraction. When he'd leaned close and his chest had brushed her shoulder and she'd gone breathless. The infatuation that, if she were being honest, had probably started the last day they'd spent together at Spinner's End. Even her night of agonizing indecision. She shoved it all at him, then shut him out so that she could see whatever damage she'd done.

His eyes were wide and a little wild, but his face remained nearly expressionless.

"Well?" she asked. And waited.

He closed his eyes for several seconds and when he opened them, she saw the fear. His own uncertainty. Or disbelief. She took a step toward him. She could show him how she felt in more ways than one.

"Wait," he said, his voice shaky. "What are you asking me?"

"I'm asking if you want me," she said plainly, and she very much wanted to know the answer.

"If you knew-" He hesitated, gnashing his teeth. "You don't know what you're asking."

"But I do," she replied, her confidence growing now that the initial shock had passed. "I've shown you what I want. Now I've asked you if you want me. It's a simple yes or no question. If you say no, I'll get over it. At least I'll know. And I don't want things to change. Tell me no and we go back to how things were. It'll be awkward, but you're worth a bit of awkward."

He stared, unblinking. The muscles in his jaw clenched and relaxed twice. He said nothing.

Her heart sank. She'd rushed things. She usually did. But she was in it now.

"Just say no," she said, her voice all quiet resignation. "Just say it, and I promise I'll drop this."

He closed his eyes. His breathing quickened. "Ask me again," he barely whispered.

"What?" she asked, not sure she'd heard him.

He opened his eyes and this time they looked angry. "Ask me."

Something about his look made her shiver. She recognized the look then. He wasn't angry. He looked feral.

"Do you want me?" she asked again.

He nodded slowly. "Yes," he breathed.

Her mind racing as fast as her heart, she stepped hesitantly forward until she stood by his side, close enough to touch without touching.

He stood like a statue, his arms still crossed, still leaning against the desk, his eyes fixed on the place where she'd been standing.

His restraint confused her. Should she bridge the gap, she wondered, as she watched his chest rise and fall, his exhaled breaths growing louder and faster. He had sweated through his shirt in places. She'd made him nervous. That made her smile. He smelled like a thunderstorm in an orchard.

She lifted her hand to make a connection, to unfold his arms and see where that might take them. But as soon as she touched him, he uncrossed his arms, took hold of her wrist, and guided her hand flat against his chest. His heart beat wildly beneath. Her entire body flushed.

"Look at me," he said and she felt his voice vibrate against her fingertips.

She shifted her eyes up. His eyes, the darkest eyes, were intent on her. He leaned close. She closed her eyes and kissed him tentatively, leaning in closer until her body rested against him. He kissed her back, first slowly, then deepening the kiss until they were lost in it. Her hand glided down his chest to his stomach.

As soon as her hand moved, he came alive, turning toward her to reposition them with her back to the desk. His breathing rapid, he leaned in and kissed her more urgently.

With his hands on her hips, he slid her backside up onto the desktop. Several books thudded to the ground. With a quick motion of his thigh, he parted her knees and positioned himself between. He pulled her hips forward until she pressed against him, inspiring her to wrap her legs around his hips to goad him on with her heels.

She unbuttoned his shirt blindly and flattened both palms to his chest, sliding her hands around to his back and her fingers just beneath his waistband.

He let out a satisfying growl and then one thing led to several other things until they lay breathless on the desktop.

They stayed tangled together for several long moments as they caught their breath. She slid her fingers up his back, under his shirt collar, into his hair. He gently kissed the nape of her neck then rested his forehead there.

"Are you alright?" he asked against her bare skin, raising gooseflesh.

She laughed quietly. "Oh my yes. Very. Are you alright?"

He nodded, brushing his cheek against her chest. "I can be-" He hesitated.

"Enthusiastic?" she guessed.

"Aggressive," he said. "Did I hurt you?"

"No, absolutely not," she said with confidence. "The pen sticking in my back however-"

"Oh," he said, starting to stand up.

"No," she said, tightening her grip. "Not yet."

He relaxed against her again.

Eventually the cold and the discomfort became too much. They disentangled slowly and dressed, a brief shyness descending on them as they reacquainted with one another on the opposite side of what they'd just done on the desk.

They spent the rest of that day together, but they did not work. They talked. They drank a bit. They grew more familiar with each other. And as the hour grew very late, he asked if she would care to stay the night, and of course she did.

In the following days, he returned to work and she returned to her project. They spent their evenings much as they had in the weeks prior, except that she did not return to her hotel room when dinner ended.

Along the way, she learned more about his initial reluctance. Decades of suppressing his emotions had left him vulnerable to them, and when he let himself feel them fully, he felt them very much. That included desire. And while she made no complaints, even encouraged him to let go so that he might equalize his emotions, she knew he would need time to trust himself again.

In fact, they had a spirited discussion about how to include that long-term side effect in the book. She was of the firm opinion that it was not a negative side effect, as she had benefited from it greatly. He was of the firm opinion that they should talk about it later, after another practical demonstration.

Two weeks went by in a flash. On her last Saturday in town, she woke before dawn. She sipped a cup of tea in the library as she paged through a stack of parchment as thick as a dictionary. They'd completed eleven chapters, but they had almost twice as many still to go. And then there was the editing process.

"You're up early," Severus said as he walked up behind her chair and rested his hands on her shoulders. He was already dressed, but his eyes still looked heavy.

"Morning," she said, leaning her head back against him. "If we had one more month, we could finish this. Maybe two. I might take a sabbatical."

"From the Ministry," he said, his tone skeptical. "Could you do that without jeopardizing your position?"

She sighed. "No," she said. "But I still want to."

He squeezed her shoulders, walked to the nearby armchair, and fell into it. "You know, we have so far largely avoided the topic of your impending departure," he said. "Tomorrow."

Her stomach dropped. She'd been trying not to think about it. "Yes," she said. "Back to the real world. The wizarding one, anyway."

"Will it be so terrible?" he asked, a small smile on his lips. "Long distance is easy for a witch with a direct line to the Ministry of Magic."

"Yes," she admitted, "but my Portkey guy might cut me off if he finds out I'm involved with someone."

"Oh," he said with a laugh, "so that's how you got all those Portkeys to chase me around the globe."

She nodded, suppressing a smile. "My irresistible animal magnetism. It is how I have attained most of my success in life." She thought for a moment, then laughed out loud. "Wait, are you saying you want me to leave?"

He smiled and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Do I want you to leave?" He shook his head. "Hermione, I want you all the time. And I want you to stay true to who you are. You still have work to do at the Ministry. You've said as much. You have a life there. And I have a life here. And your presence in mine has enriched it to no end of late, so I will await your return with unqualified anticipation."

She set him with a hard stare. "You have to stop saying things like that if you ever want me to leave."

He chuckled softly. "I am to wait, though waiting so be hell."

"You say that, Shakespeare," she teased, "but it sounds like you've already packed my bags."

He slid out of the chair to his knees, a wicked smile on his face. "What could I possibly do to convince you otherwise."

She shook her head and grinned. "And I mean, how do I even know you'll be here when I get back?"

"You will pay for that." He shuffled forward and put his head under the hem of her bathrobe.

Monday morning, back in London, Hermione sat at her desk sorting through the stack of business that needed her attention. It was half the size it would have been if Artie hadn't been so good at his job.

Just then, Artie dropped in with another large stack of folders. It had been a busy month, apparently.

"So we're halting the entire Snape investigation," he said. "Even the alerts on his real name?"

"Everything," she said. She dropped her quill on the desk and stretched her neck from side to side. "I have reason to believe that he is dead, and while I cannot reveal the source, the intel is solid. Further investigation would be a waste of time and resources."

Artie nodded. "Well, at least that's an answer. I'm sorry you never found him."

Her face grew warm, but she ignored it. "At least now I know."

"So?" he asked, as though she should already know the question. "What's the story with this bloke you met in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Spain?"

She smiled at his vested interest. "His name is Joseph."

"Wait, the Joseph?" he asked, his eyebrows raised. "From the lead?"

She nodded.

"Uh oh, this isn't another one of those wham-bam-thank-you-violinist-guy-from-South-Africa things, is it?"

She barked out a laugh so loud she put her hand over her mouth to stifle it. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I think this-" She paused and smiled, feeling her cheeks flush again. "I think this could be good. But it will be a lot of travel."

"Well, your secret is safe with me." He mimed locking his lips. "Gotta keep those Portkeys coming." He checked his watch. "Bollocks. I have a meeting. Talk more at lunch?"

She nodded as he dashed out the door.

Picking up her quill, she went back to work. He would be in class about now. She would see him Saturday and Saturday still felt lightyears away. But she could wait. Well, at least until Friday afternoon. But she could wait.