Disclaimer: I own none of the characters to be found herein.
A/N: This story was originally written for the Summer 2006 SSHG exchange. Huge thank you goes to the ever wonderful Vulgarweed for being a brilliant beta.
Note as of 01/03/10: I've edited the story to remove some of the more adult elements as I wasn't quite sure whether or not they crossed the line from R to NC-17 and I really wouldn't want to have the whole thing deleted should the ff dot net mods decide that it does. However, if you'd like to read the original, unexpurgated version, it can be found in my livejournal memories (see my profile for a link to my journal) where anybody over the age of eighteen can read it.
Embarking upon a clandestine relationship was far less exciting and far more fraught with detailed forward planning and a need for good organisational skills than either Muggle or magical romance novels would ever have one believe. This at least was what Hermione Granger thought as she walked through the door into the cosy, if crowded, little Italian restaurant in a discreet corner of Balham. Two of the waitresses - a teenager with bleached blonde hair and a penchant for bubblegum coloured lipstick and a middle-aged olive-skinned woman who wore large gold earrings - looked up from their table clearing, smiled and waved to her.
"Hello," she said, smiling back.
"He's upstairs today," said the older of the two, coming over and ushering Hermione up the flight of stairs that led up to the first floor; which was used to take the customer overspill when the place was as busy as it was tonight. The decor was slightly shabbier than that on the floor below, but she always preferred being seated up there, the lighting was so much more… what was the word? Intimate, she supposed. She briefly wondered how the scene would be described if she was a character in a romance novel.
She stepped into intimately lit warmth of the restaurants upper floor, heart aflutter with a mixture of fear and anticipation.
Ugh, that would have the readers doubled over with a fit of the giggles. Still, the fact that her heart was currently beating much faster than usual had less to do with the liaison she was about to enter into and more to do with the fear induced by the way that poor homeless drunk had screamed when she'd apparated into the usually abandoned back alley a couple of streets away. She hadn't obliviated him. The idea of wiping part of somebody's memory just because you happened to carelessly reveal to them something you shouldn't, had in recent years begun to strike her as morally repugnant. Besides, she doubted that anyone would believe him if he told them he'd just seen a young woman materialise out of thin air. Well, perhaps one of the many Muggle equivalents to the Quibbler would print the story; but only the most hardcore and desperate of conspiracy theorists would believe it. This is at least what she told herself to allay the mild churning in her stomach brought on by anticipation of a summons to a hearing in front of the Wizengamot.
The man with whom she was enjoying the aforementioned clandestine relationship was currently seated at a table in the far corner of the room, clothed in a far more formal fashion that just about anybody else in the building. He might have looked suave if it hadn't been for the fact that his shoulder length hair gave the impression that it did not have a comfortable relationship with cleansing products. Hermione knew that this was misleading. She'd been in the bathtub with him enough times to conclusively deduce that there was really nothing particularly lacking with his personal cleanliness. It seemed more a case that his hair had long ago made the decision that it wanted to be that way and there wasn't a bloody thing that anybody was going to do to stop it.
"Late again, Miss Granger," he admonished, looking up from the wine list as she approached. You had to know him to be able to detect the hint of amusement in his voice. "Your punctuality really is becoming increasingly appalling."
"Ten points from Gryffindor?" she queried, taking the seat opposite him.
He regarded her sternly. "Thirty, at least."
"There were a few problems at work," she said, by way of explanation.
"Two junior research assistants were sent into the room with the enchanted Venus fly traps unarmed and – well, you can probably imagine what a nightmare it was to prevent them from being digested. One of the clerks from Inhuman Resources accidentally owled an obscene memo meant for one of the wizards in Accidental Magical Reversal Squad to the Mongolian Head of International Magical Co-operation. Oh, and the Deputy Director of the Really Dangerous Magical Research Group has somehow transfigured himself into an ornamental garden complete with koi pond and sundial. Nobody's got a clue how he managed it, or for that matter how he can be changed back."
He raised an eyebrow. "And has Mr. Longbottom been fired for any of this yet?"
Bristling slightly at this she shot him a brief glare. She had long ago come to terms with the fact that Severus was and always would be prone to making snide asides about Harry and Ron; but throwing jibes in Neville's direction, even if he wasn't actually ever going to hear them, just seemed like unnecessary cruelty. "Actually, Neville was the one who rescued those two people from the fly traps." She considered it a triumph that he merely radiated an air of disbelief rather than commenting on the possibility that had Neville been kidnapped and replaced with a super competent pod person. It was bad enough when the Quibbler had run with that particular story as its headline. Poor Neville was still being forced to endure repetitive teasing at the hands of his fellow herbologists.
"Hermione, what on earth possessed you to work for these people?"
"Somebody from the Ministry said that they were going to fund a new program of intensive magical research and asked me if I'd like to work for the Experimental Charms Committee. I didn't think that I could cope with another year of teaching at Hogwarts - I mean, you'd have thought that none of the students wanted to learn anything – so I decided to take it up."
He gave a faint but amused smile. "Yes, I do see your point. But why stay; surely you could find an occupation that doesn't involve interacting with half-wits on a daily basis?"
Hermione found herself at a loss for an answer. She wasn't quite sure what made her stay in her current occupation. She supposed that part of it was the responsibility she'd come to feel for some of her more rationality-impaired co-workers. They needed somebody around to point out that trying to crossbreed Manticores and Hydra possibly wasn't the most sensible or effective use of their time, even if it would get them a paper published in the International Journal of Curious Fauna. If she was to leave she'd most probably spend a substantial portion of each evening wondering if tomorrow would be the day upon which one of them would enthusiastically hammer on the metaphorical red button marked Warning Apocalypse Activation System: Do Not Press.
That was the thing about possessing near-pathological amounts of reliability, you rarely seemed to get a moment's peace. There was always somebody who wanted to ask her for help, reassurance or a suggestion on how best to reverse the badly executed sticking charm they'd placed on the Department's ill advised mascot (an elderly Niffler by the name of Alberto).
She supposed that this was part of the reason why she liked spending time with Severus so much. Well, there was also the matter of the undeniable – and until recently, aggressively repressed - attraction she'd felt towards the man since her fourth year at Hogwarts. But what was truly refreshing about being around him was the fact that they both placed a high value on competence, thus meaning that he was unlikely to ever require her help in, say, retrieving valuable objects from neighbouring dimensions after he'd accidentally banished them while attempting to get rid of fairy squatters in the basement (she'd never quite forgiven Seamus Finnegan for roping her in to help with that one).
Unfortunately, the fact that Hermione had somehow become the first port of call for friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances and sometimes even complete strangers, in crisis was making it extremely difficult to continue the relationship in secret. If it wasn't somebody sending her an express owl about a minor accident in the office, it was somebody trying to get in touch via the floo network to ask for help with one of the more obscure levitation charms. For this reason she'd tonight opted to switch off, leave at home or if all else failed, purposefully break every device that rendered her magically contactable, which she usually kept on her person.
It often seemed absurd to her that she and Severus were still sneaking around like this. After all neither of them were married, engaged or even casually seeing someone else. But the fact was that the thought of Harry, Ron or even Ginny finding out about it made her feel faintly nauseous. The Wizengamot may have acknowledged that Severus had killed Dumbledore on the headmaster's own orders, but she knew that Harry was never likely to forgive him for taking away both his mentor and the closest thing he had to a grandfather; and Ron and Ginny, while not quite in possession of the same degree of loathing, had developed a strong dislike of the man based on both his unfair treatment of them at Hogwarts and the hurt his actions had inflicted on Harry. Hermione might have felt the same way, if she hadn't spent a sizable portion of the previous year accidentally bumping into him in various improbable and unconnected locations. She was not somebody who, as a general rule, put much faith in the idea of destiny, but it did seem like fate had been prodding its sticky fingers into both their lives an awful lot over the past twelve months.
She blinked, suddenly aware that she'd drifted off into introspection without answering his question. "I…er… I suppose it's an obligation. I did tell them that I'd stay on for at least two years." This wasn't entirely true. She'd once told a colleague that this was how long she planned to spend in her current job, but she hadn't actually committed to it. Still, she knew that 'I'm afraid that if I leave something terrible will happen to everyone' would probably make her sound a tad neurotic.
"Is there something on your mind? You looked like you were drifting off into a daydream?" He frowned. "I'm not boring you, I hope, Miss Granger." She inwardly groaned; there were only two circumstances under which he called her Miss Granger: when he was teasing her or he was genuinely annoyed. They were pretty much the same conditions under which she called him Professor. Right now the absence of any subtle trace of humour in his voice combined with the frown led her to the conclusion that he was feeling slighted.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, I was just thinking about me and you and how we got together." She winced as soon as the words left her mouth. It was the type of horribly corny thing that people said to each other after fifty or so years of marriage. "How strange it was that we kept ending up in the same places like that, I mean."
His frown dissipated a little. "Yes, it was peculiar. There were times when I was certain that Potter had sent you to harass me out of some perverse desire for revenge."
Hermione decided against pointing out that denouncing Harry for doing something like that – not that Harry had done anything like that, of course – would be a clear cut case of pot meet kettle. "Well, you were the one who usually initiated conversation. I think that I mainly tried to ignore you; at first, that is."
"Yes, but you were ignoring me in such a painfully conspicuous way that it got highly irritating. Especially the time when I walked into the Whistling Goblin Coffee Shop and you instantly grabbed that encyclopaedia of Goblin podiatry that somebody had abandoned on the table next to you and started reading it with that deranged look of forced concentration."
She couldn't help but give a small laugh. "Don't remind me. The entry on treating athletes foot in the over three-hundreds did eventually come in useful on a trip to Gringotts though. Griphook hasn't been quite so impolite to me since I recommended that he should try a Gorgon scale and nightshade poultice."
"I suppose that no knowledge is ever wasted. I'm curious though; at what point did you decide that my company wasn't the most unpleasant thing to have inflicted upon you?"
Hermione considered this for a moment. "I think that it was after that argument about House Elf rights we had in that café in Marazion."
Once again he raised an eyebrow. "Really, as I recall on that occasion you stormed off after telling me that I was an inhumane, morally bankrupt bastard with no conscience. Though to be fair I had just called you the most obnoxiously self-righteous and stunningly naïve do-gooder I'd ever encountered in my entire life, so I suppose that I can't really hold it against you."
"Yes, but it was the first time in ages that anybody had been willing to discuss the subject with me in an honest fashion. Well, you didn't seem to want to discuss the subject so much as make nasty, clever comments; but usually when I try to talk to my friends about things like that they just automatically tell me that they agree with me and try to change the subject."
"I imagine that you intimidate them."
"Intimidate them?" Hermione shook her head. She knew that she could sometimes be a little zealous in trying to convince people of the rightness of her causes, but she really couldn't envision any of her friends being intimidated by her. Although, there had been that time she'd launched into a tirade at Ron after he'd used one of her old Arithmancy textbooks as a coffee mat and he'd backed away with an expression that looked disturbingly like terror on his face.
"You can be very forthright in your opinions…. That's a compliment, by the way."
"What about you?" she asked. "When did you decide that I wasn't the most obnoxious person on the planet?"
"Before Marazion, certainly. I think it was when I saw you in Atropa and Nettles in Knockturn Alley and we had that conversation about the uses of powdered scarab beetles. Though, I must admit that at Hogwarts I always detested you marginally less than most of your fellow Gryffindors. Even if you did insist on being an insufferable know-it-all."
"But if I hadn't been an insufferable know-it-all you would have probably called me an incompetent half-wit."
The corners of his mouth curled into what seemed to be a proto-smile. "You truly are an insufferable creature, Miss Granger."
"Professor, you're clearly just saying that to avoid responding to the point I was trying to make."
"And what point would that be?"
"That for a Gryffindor there's really no way to win with you."
"I see no problem with that. A valuable lesson in the inherent unfairness of life, for those who care to learn."
"I had a small crush on you for a while at Hogwarts, you know."
It was clear from the way his eyes widened that this statement surprised him. "Really?"
She nodded, unable to keep herself from grinning slightly. "I felt terribly guilty about it at the time, especially when I had that dream in the fifth year about you keeping me in detention and taking me over one of the desks in the potions class."
For one delicious moment he looked as though he was going to splutter. Composure however won the day. "I do hope that you realise doing that would have been highly impractical given the things that have been spilled onto those desks over the years. You would have had to wear at least three kinds of protective clothing."
"Well, things like that never seem to matter in dreams. I also think that the risk of the Bloody Baron passing through just as you were about reach climax would be enough to put anybody off in real life."
"Not Mr. Bletchley and Miss Greengrass."
"You mean that they actually did it in your classroom? That was… brave of them."
He nodded. "Brave? Not the term I would use. Idiotic and foolhardy would, I think, be more appropriate. I believe that Miss Greengrass had to be sent to St. Mungo's owing to the fact that shortly afterwards she developed bright purple scales on her back and buttocks. I had no sympathy, of course. If they were intent on engaging in their irresponsible teenage fumblings in my classroom, they should have at least made sure that they distilled some kind of cleansing solution beforehand. In fact I believed that I reduced their overall marks for potions on the grounds of gross stupidity."
"But they were Slytherins."
"I've always believed that house favouritism should only go so far."
Amused, Hermione took a glance at the menu. It was strange but this blatant admittance of favouritism didn't rankle her as much as it once would have. Mind you if somebody had told her a year ago that she was going to fall head over heels for the former Death Eater and ex-teacher she would have thought that they a) were trying to be funny or b) were in dire need of a trip to St. Mungo's. Yet here she was enjoying the banter and looking forward to a night that would hopefully end in very passionate fashion on the king sized bed in the hotel room they'd booked… Well, truth be told it didn't have to be the king sized bed, it could also be the shower or the whirlpool bath or the floor or - if they were feeling particularly adventurous and it was warm enough - under a concealing charm on the balcony.
It was, she frequently thought, a shame that they couldn't really go anywhere in magical Britain together. Unless they were both to don heavy duty glamours they'd both be instantly recognised. She doubted that either of them would relish looking at the other and seeing the face of a complete stranger. Plus there was the fact that a great many individuals possessed gifts and enchantments that would allow them to see past the disguise. There was also the problem of Severus not being particularly welcome in many of the more upstanding establishments in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley (though he'd once told her that the owners of said establishments were not above placing custom orders with him for potions that, while legal, would raise a few eyebrows was said custom order to be made public). And those places that still welcomed Severus tended to utilise mandatory House Elf labour; thus guaranteeing that Hermione would refuse point blank to spend a Knut therein.
Still, they had at least found a few places in Muggle London to visit, even if Severus did disparage them on general principle. This restaurant was one of them, as was the quiet little pub a few hundred metres down the road. It had been difficult at first to find things to do in the Muggle world that Severus wouldn't feel obligated to cast too much derision at. The theatre had been a complete failure. He'd spent the entire performance gritting his teeth and resisting the urge to fire a silencing charm at the next member of the audience to start a loudly whispered discussion with the person sitting next to them. The cinema had been an even greater debacle. For a few moments she thought she'd have to physically prevent him from giving the teenagers on the back row, who had decided to start an impromptu popcorn fight half way through the film, a good hexing.
Three courses and a bottle of very good red wine later they paid, Hermione leaving the waitress a generous tip, and left the restaurant. They couldn't apparate to the hotel owing to the fact that neither of them was quite sure where they could materialise unnoticed. They place was quite probably crawling with CCTV cameras. The situation therefore necessitated that they catch a taxi. It hadn't been a prospect that Hermione had been particularly relishing and the reality turned out to be even worse.
After hailing the first black cab that came along it quickly became clear that neither of them were going to enjoy the journey: trapped as they were in a vehicle with Chesney the cheerfully chatty cabby from Clapham.
"Blimey, is she your daughter, or what?" said Chesney, whose name was on the ID badge on the dashboard, in an overly upbeat cockney accent, as they got into the back seat of the car.
She could almost hear Severus's teeth clenching. "No she is not."
"Bleeding hell," he chortled. "Better be sure to get her back home in time for school tomorrow then."
Hermione was torn between deep annoyance at the lack of manners on the part of the presumptuous little bastard in the driver's seat and guilty amusement at the irately rigid manner in which Severus was sitting, fists clenched in what was clearly an attempt to prevent himself from reaching for his wand, and expression utterly furious.
"Nah, I'm just jesting mate, just jesting," Chesney said hastily and in far less buoyant tones, as he noticed the look that Severus was giving him. It was a look, Hermione had long ago noticed, that was capable of putting nearly everybody in mind of that one teacher who'd scared the shit out of them at high school. "Where to then people?"
"The Preston Hotel," Hermione said.
Chesney gave a long low whistle. "Blimey that's a bit posh isn't it?"
She gave an audible sigh. "We are in rather a hurry." She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. There were more lewd possible follow ups to that statement than she could list. It was testament to Severus's power of glowering that Chesney didn't attempt to use any of them.
For the next half an hour the pair of them were subjected to a near-constant spiel about Chesney's favourite football team - Arsenal - and their prospects of winning their next tournament. It was rather reminiscent of what one might expect Leroy Jordan's Quidditch commentary to sound like were somebody to force magical Britain's favourite sports reporter to snort several spoonfuls of speed cut with caffeine before sending him out to the stands.
Needless to say, they left the cab with only the most perfunctory of thank yous and no tip.
The hotel was, to Hermione's mind, both tasteful and expensive looking. Severus needless to say wasn't quite as charmed by it and dutifully made several acerbic comments about the Muggle hospitality sector. Hermione pointed out that while Muggle hotels may be somewhat lacking in many respects – but let's be frank, who actually needed the option of a Mermish wake-up call anyway - you were at least highly unlikely to find an inebriated Yeti collapsed in the wardrobe at five o'clock in the morning. This, of course, wasn't entirely true. Hermione's Cousin Rachael, who was doing ecology at the University of Kent had, apparently once found Keith the fine arts student in a drunken and stoned heap at the bottom of the bathroom closet in the Lake District youth hostel she and her flatmates had stayed in while on holiday. Hermione had met Keith once, on a visit to Rachael's halls of residence, and she was pretty damned sure that the man could give Big Foot a run for his money in the hairiness department.
Hermione checked them in at reception under the name Mr. & Mrs. Smith – just for the hell of it – and they were led up to the fourth floor by a porter who commented on their conspicuous absence of luggage. Unable to explain how the wonders of the scourgify spell and ability to transfigure mundane objects into items of clothing (even if they did always tend to end up being heavy on either terry cloth or nylon) she told him that their baggage had been mislaid at the airport. Their room turned out to be number 409 and was quite frankly huge. The enormous bed was an attractive cast iron affair and most of the fixtures and fittings looked as though they had been selected by somebody with a sense of aesthetics that tallied very well with Hermione's own.
"I must say that modern Muggle tastes in furniture are, shall we say, a little… peculiar," said Severus, casting a deprecating eye over the décor.
"I like it," Hermione said with a shrug. A mischievous idea that involved one day convincing him to visit one of those truly ultra-modern hotels where the minibar talks, the furnishings are so minimalist they're non-existent and the bathroom fittings have to be operated by remote control, was beginning to form in her mind.
"But, Miss Granger," he said, in a quiet, low and darkly amused voice that sparked some very pleasant feelings in her lower abdomen, "I've always been of the opinion that your tastes are a little peculiar." He closed the gap between then and a hand down the left side of her face, before tilting her chin upwards slightly.
"Even the ones that involve you, Professor?" she asked, a measure of coquettishness that never ever manifested itself in her day to day life being permitted to enter her voice.
He regarded her with a look of what at any other time to any other person would have been frightening intensity. "In that respect I think that your tastes aren't so much peculiar as refined."
Hermione gave him what she'd intended to be a seductive smile but came out as a sly grin. "Some people would call that arrogance."
"Some people possess far more impertinence than is good for them, Miss Granger. Besides, it's only arrogance if it's untrue."
Any comeback on Hermione's part was prevented by the fact that he chose that moment to bring his lips to hers, slip his tongue between her teeth and proceed to devour her mouth with a kiss that could best be described as hungry.
Hermione had never been able to divine quite why she found Severus as blood-boilingly attractive as she did. He certainly didn't have many conventionally good-looking features. He was pallid, but not quite with the smooth brilliance you got from the sexy vampires in Hollywood movies, his nose could probably be called noble – but only if you were doing your best to be kind; his physique was fairly good for a man of his age if you liked that sort of thing, but still nothing to write home about, and less said about his hair the better. Yet her desire for him was indisputable. She supposed that it was probably a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Well, that and the fact that ever since being exposed to Blackadder II at an impressionable age, she'd been inexplicably and sometimes guiltily drawn to men who could be squarely place into the 'clever, sarcastic bastard' category. He also earned major points for being just about the only person she knew who enjoyed debating current events; even if half the time they did vehemently disagree with each other.
Pulling away, he took his hand from her face and wordlessly removed her jacket, which he then placed carefully on the bedside chair, before starting on the buttons of her white blouse. It was, quite fittingly the same blouse that she had worn the afternoon that they had consummated their relationship on the battered settee of the small flat in which Severus resided when he wasn't travelling around the country brewing fiendishly difficult to distil potions for people who'd rather not be seen purchasing them in Hogsmeade or any other remotely public establishment.
In this too she suspected that fate had a sticky hand. On this particular day, one of the until now impeccably behaved, taps in the flat's bathroom had suddenly started playing up: making unearthly groaning noises and squirting water in the direction of anybody who walked through the door. In an attempt to identify and banish whatever infernal creature had taken it upon itself to possess the previously unassuming piece of plumbing, they had both, quite predictably, ended up soaked to the skin. There are many charms that one can employ to dry one's clothing after such an occurrence. And most of them can be utilised whilst said clothing is still located on the body. But they had opted to deal with their wet garments in a different way - namely, by leaving them strewn about the bedroom floor. After all, when the universe conspires to place one in Embarrassingly Contrived Pornographic Cliché #5, then sometimes it pays to go with the flow.
As the blouse was discarded onto the floor he leant in for another kiss; right hand cupping the back of her head and left hand running down her back before settling for a moment on her bottom and giving a brief squeeze. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pushed herself closer to him; the sudden confirmation of his growing arousal she felt, setting off a jolt of something half way between pleasure and excitement in the pit of her belly. He then, lips still firmly affixed to hers', attempted to tackle the clasp on her bra. Until this point things had been going extremely smoothly indeed. However, it being a widely acknowledged fact that the line 'he skilfully unhooked her brassiere' would be too much of a stretch of credulity for even books with titles such as 'A Parisian Casanova' or 'Forbidden Love in Hogsmeade: A Tale of Passion', things very quickly descended into the realm of slapstick fumbling.
"Here, let me," she said, pulling away, deciding that in this case the maxim 'if you want something done, do it yourself' did apply. After all, this really wasn't a moment in which she wanted to be put in mind of awkward teenage experiences in the Prefects' bathroom; especially when the event in question was not so long ago that the memories had not yet faded to a point where cringing embarrassment could be supplanted by nostalgia. Slipping a hand behind her back, she quickly undid the fastener and cast the troublesome piece of lingerie to the ground.
Severus drew back and regarded her in a way that gave her an extremely pleasant case of all-over goose bumps.
"Do you see anything you like?" she asked in a voice that she hoped was sexy, but suspected bordered more on comical.
He gave an amused snort, the type of sound that up until a few months ago would have made her tense in anticipation of a snide remark about to be cast in her direction, but which now induced anticipation of an entirely different variety. "Oh a great deal, Miss Granger. Now be a good girl and take the rest off."
She gave a small and very knowing pout, which would have severely disconcerted just about anybody else acquainted with her, were they ever to see it. "Aren't you going to give me any help, Professor?"
"Certainly not, a young lady of your age should have mastered the art of disrobing by now. And if I didn't think that you'd enjoy it so much I'd give you two weeks of detention for that impudent question."
"Will you be awarding marks for aptitude?"
The corners of his lips curled into a very satisfied looking smirk. "Of course. Now I suggest that you make haste, or I fear I'll have to deduct fifty points from Gryffindor."
Smiling in manner that was slightly coy yet very knowing she complied.
When it was over neither of them felt inclined to move, both being too utterly spent to do anything but breathe and allow the afterglow to descend upon them. After about five minutes it was Severus who finally broke the silence.
"Ten points to Gryffindor, Miss Granger," he said, in an utterly worn out voice as he rolled off her and began to remove his now very crumpled and quite possibly damaged suit. Once he'd done this he took the wand from his jacket pocket and muttered the appropriate cleaning spells.
Hermione laughed. "It's a momentous occasion," she said sleepily, trying to find the energy to drag herself into a sitting position, before deciding that she'd perform her own cleansing routine in the morning. "I can't help but think that it would constitute prostitution though."
Severus gave an amused snort. "Not at all, it merely demonstrates a commitment to encouraging academic excellence."
"I can't see them putting that subject on the Hogwarts syllabus for next year."
With that she hauled herself under the covers and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.
An indeterminate number of hours later she awoke, a warm body pressed against her back, an arm wrapped tightly around her waist and the tune of As the Saints Go Marching In emanating from the vicinity of the other side of the bed. It took her a moment to realise that it was the sound of a mobile phone. Her mobile phone. The one she always carried in case her parents ever needed to get in emergency contact with her. If they were calling her at this time there had to be something seriously wrong.
Worried, she disentwined herself from Severus, switched on the bedside lamp and scrambled for the phone.
"Hello. Mum? Dad?"
There was no response apart from something that sounded vaguely like slurred singing.
"'Lo 'mione, needa bit of help 'ere." The voice was one she knew very well but it didn't belong to either of her parents.
"Ron, is that you? How the hell did you get this number?"
"Yeah, is me, needa gettinouse can't do it cos I'm to drunk."
"Ron, what on earth's happening?"
It took about six repetitions of the question to elicit a coherent answer. By the time she'd finished Severus was awake looking at her questioningly.
"Ron Weasley's just called me from a payphone somewhere near Grimmauld Place. He's too drunk to pronounce the password for the door correctly and neither Harry or any of his other housemates are in. I have to go and sort it out."
"Can't you just leave him be until a more godly hour?" said Severus. "I dare say it would be a learning experience for him."
"No," she said firmly, as she started to pull her clothes back on. "Anything could happen to him. He could choke on his own tongue or have alcohol poisoning."
Clearly a little too early in the morning for him to be at his sardonic best, he didn't make any further comment about the undesirability or otherwise of this prospect.
"I'll apparate back after I've made sure that he's okay."
As it turned out Ron was in a worse state than she had imagined. His shirt was covered in sick and he had a burst lip which he couldn't seem to account for even after she hit him with her best – though by no means most painless – sobriety charms.
"I'm sorry Hermione," he said as she handed him a foul tasting concoction that would act to soothe his stomach.
"How did you get my phone number?"
"Got it off your mum when you both came to us at the Burrow a few months ago."
Hermione made a mental note to have a serious talk with her mother.
"Couldn't get hold of you any other way. Tried the two-way mirror, but I yours must be broke."
"I've been out."
"You, go out?"
"But you never go out. Well except with me, Harry and Ginny."
"I had a date."
"None of your business."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Why, who is it, Lucius Malfoy, or somebody?"
She knew she shouldn't respond; that she should just refuse to comment and let it go. Unfortunately, she was also extremely annoyed with him.
"Severus Snape actually."
For a moment Ron looked as though he was about to throw up once again, but quickly recovered and started laughing. "Sorry," he said, looking suitably penitent. "I shouldn't have asked like that. Hope you had a good time with the mystery man, whoever he is."
It was then that she realised that even if she, in all earnestness, told each of her friends that she was currently enjoying a passionate relationship with Severus Snape, none of them would actually believe her. It was a strangely liberating thought.
"Apology accepted," she said, irritation fading. "And we did have a nice time, thanks for asking." She gave him a friendly smile. "I need to go now; but before I do, just promise me one thing."
"You'll get Harry to change the password to something other than transcendentalism."
The three of them sat around the table tucking into their main course.
"I bet she was furious about you dragging her out like that," said Ginny, grinning as Ron recounted the tale of seventeen firewhiskies, a fight he couldn't for the life of him remember and the revelation of Hermione's mystery boyfriend.
"She was," he said, grimacing slightly at the memory of the look on her face.
"Well, I can't blame her. I would've refused to come," she said.
Ron looked at Harry and threw up his arms in a gesture of mock despair. "Have you heard that, no sense of family loyalty," he said.
"So you couldn't get her to tell you who this new bloke is then?" said Harry.
Ron shook his head. "Nah, I asked but she just seemed sort of annoyed and told me that it was Professor Snape."
"I remember when the Quibbler ran that story," said Harry. "I think it was over the page from the one about Big Foot having a Snorkack's baby."
They laughed again, this time much harder.
"I don't know where Luna manages to get them all from."
"Well, I suppose they do have some things in common," said Ginny thoughtfully.
"Who, Big Foot and the Snorkack?"
"Hermione and Snape."
Ron pulled a face. "Ugh, Ginny, I was enjoying the meal until now."
"It's a nice place this," Harry said, taking a sip of his wine.
"I think it's the first time I've ever had an Italian meal in a genuine Muggle restaurant," said Ginny.
"No, you have," said Ron. "There was that one in Manchester."
"No, only one of the owners was a Muggle. Her husband was a wizard and so were most of the customers."
The waitress, a friendly young woman with bleached blonde hair and bubblegum pink lipstick, came over to their table.
"Is everything all right?" she asked.
Harry and Ron nodded.
"Yes thank you," said Ginny.
"Well, just let me know if there's anything you need," she said.
There was the sound of street noise as the door opened.
The waitress turned her head and gave a friendly wave to the newcomers.
The newcomers in question being an attractive bushy haired young woman and a tall, very pale man with a large nose and shoulder length black, rather greasy looking hair.
After croaking out a single 'bloody hell' Ron froze.
Harry seemed to be having a similar reaction.
He was distantly aware of the concerned waitress asking Ginny if they were okay and whether she should phone an ambulance or not because it looked like they were about to pass out. Ron really wished that he could. Unfortunately his mind was too intent on providing him with mental images of his favourite ex-girlfriend and most hated ex-teacher at various stages of intimacy, to allow him to slip into blissful unconsciousness. Hermione for her part seemed to be covering her face with her hands and muttering something about fate being an evil bastard.
"Is Mr. Weasley out of St. Mungo's yet?" Snape asked. He despised the boy, but Hermione had been rather distressed when he'd had what appeared to have been a minor nervous breakdown in front of her eyes.
She nodded. "It was just a precautionary stay, nothing serious. Although it did turn out that somebody at the Hog's Head had spiked his whisky with fairy dust a few weeks ago, which explains the memory loss as well as the breakdown."
They were sitting at a table in the Leaky Cauldron. There was really no point in pretending that they weren't an item anymore, especially when Ron's ramblings while he was under sedation had been somehow overheard by Rita Skeeter – who'd been admitted to the hospital after being inexplicably doused with Muggle pesticide - and had duly been splashed across both the front of the Daily Prophet and the gossip page of Witch Weekly.
"And Mr. Potter?"
"He's sent me an owl with a note apologising for calling me those names."
"I received two more howlers this morning, berating me for taking advantage of an innocent young girl."
Hermione looked vaguely offended. "Innocent young girl? But I'm twenty-five."
"Indeed, but in the hearts and minds of most wizards and witches you'll be forever seventeen." He recalled the distinctly nauseating picture of her, Potter and Weasley looking bloodied but wholesome that had graced the front page of the Prophet for at least two weeks after the Dark Lord's demise.
"I got a howler yesterday as well, from a witch in Aylesbury telling me that I was a hussy and a whore for cheating on that nice Harry Potter."
His brow furrowed. "What?"
"I know, I didn't even go out with Harry at school."
"Still, I suppose that there are compensations for being outed like this."
Hermione smiled. "Yes, suddenly everybody at work seems strangely reluctant to demand my attention for trivial matters."
"And it's quite astonishing how many shop owners have started to allow me back onto the premises during opening hours. Yesterday, one of the salesgirls from that shop those two Weasley boys own even said hello to me in the street; though I don't really count that as a compensation so much as a drawback."
After a few moments of silence a faraway look settled upon Hermione's face.
"Daydreaming again?" It usually annoyed him when she drifted off like that in the middle of a conversation, but today he couldn't help but feel that it looked strangely pretty.
She blinked. "I was thinking about fate and destiny."
"You're not about to start gazing into the tealeaves to uncover the secrets of tomorrow are you? If you are, then I'm afraid that our relationship is over. I spent over ten years being forced to inhabit the same building as Sybil Trelawney and it's not an experience I care to repeat."
She shook her head. "Actually I was thinking about how fate must have a really perverse sense of humour. I mean, what must the odds of Ron, Harry and Ginny suddenly choosing to go to that restaurant – out of all the Muggle Italian places in London - at the same time as us have been?"
"Very slim I imagine."
It was, he thought, very disappointing to think that one of the guiding forces of the universe had a similar sense of humour to Fred and George Weasley; but as he looked at there surroundings and at her smiling at him, he supposed that things could have turned out a damned sight worse.