For renitaleandra—first posted on my LJ before being betaed because sometimes, when a friend feels down, you can't wait and a story is the best way to say I love you, man.

Extreme Fluff warning.

Thanks to djinn and bambu345 for their betas and lifeasanamazon for her Britpick.

Hermione sat on Snape's rickety kitchen chair, prattling away about how he needed to plan for his future, one in which she certainly wasn't included. Perhaps he could conjure a Patronus to chase her away? But without a Pensieve to relive the happier episodes with Lily, Severus found those times with her draining from his mind and making him wonder if a Patronus was now beyond him. He tried to ignore Hermione by bringing Lily to mind, erecting a barrier behind which he'd be safe, but looking at Hermione's lips moving at an ever faster rate, all he could dredge up was a memory of Lily he didn't want to share even with himself.

Not every interaction between Lily and him could go into that bundle of memories meant for her son. He'd spent much of that last year Dumbledore was headmaster picking among his own recollections. Emptying out months of his memories from his brain into Dumbledore's Pensieve, using a charm to index just those that would help the "Chosen One" understand. Severus would empty the Pensieve of the strands afterwards without putting them back into his mind. The memories would grow back, but for some hours at least he'd feel light, purged, like a diver come back up from the depths. Even when the memories returned, if he reviewed them in his mind they seemed distorted, as if viewed through water. Of course, he'd have the memory still of what he had seen within the Pensieve, but for that time it would be distant, like something he'd watched in the cinema or on the telly as a boy, not part of him.

For a while, until the memory reformed, he wasn't the boy who, catching up to Lily at the greenhouse the year after the Word that parted them, had pulled her to him for a quick kiss. He had recalled the slap afterwards, of course, hard enough to snap his head back and leave an imprint on his cheek, but it wasn't until his dive into the Pensieve that he'd seen how she'd wiped her mouth and muttered, "You're disgusting."

"What are you thinking about?" he heard a voice ask, and it was all he could do to pull himself upward from where the memories tangled and dragged him down.

He blinked, shifted in his chair and focused on a face framed with bushy hair and lit by eyes the colour of fallen leaves, of mud, he thought with a wry twist of his lips, so different from Lily's vibrant colours. Yet the more time he spent with Hermione, the harder he found it to recall Lily's face, even with the photograph he stole from Grimmauld Place in a frame by his bed.

Hermione leaned forward, propping her elbows on the table, her head in her hands, and gazed directly at his face, remaining, for her, uncharacteristically silent.

"Tut, tut. Why not just tell me what I'm thinking, or haven't the Legilimency lessons worked?"

She frowned, seemingly taken aback, but didn't ask how he knew she'd been taking lessons. He wasn't sure himself. Perhaps just the way she would stare so intently into his eyes, then pull away, as if tempted to peek. So many times over the months he'd caught her stealing glances at him, studying his face, and he had been tempted to peek into her mind to discover the subject of her fascination.

"I don't intrude."

He huffed. "Right. Or meddle. That's why you keep Flooing into my home uninvited." And for the past year into the Malfoys' stately home—to their delight, he was sure. Her position with Magical Law Enforcement seemed to be akin to a parole officer. He'd remembered visits from the one assigned to his father when he'd been a boy. Hermione seemed to have created the wizarding equivalent for herself, straight out of Hogwarts. But then there wasn't much that would be denied one of the few living recipients of an Order of Merlin, first class, no matter how seemingly unqualified for a position. Yet he had been given his wand back, his assets returned, his licenses reinstated, and still she came here to Spinner's End.

"You don't tell me to get out anymore."

"That is because I don't keep repeating behaviours doomed to failure."

"You could have fooled me." She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at him. "Or did you really mean to tell Slughorn you wouldn't trust any potion he brewed? Honestly, he has a lot of connections in the Ministry that could help clear your way to selling your potions to St Mungos, and given you won't even answer the headmistress' owls...well, I saw the inventory of your Gringotts vault. The sickles in it won't last forever. I thought Slytherins were supposed to be ambitious."

"My sorting was almost thirty years ago, Hermione. And I have it under good authority I was sorted too early."

"Fine, I'll tell your 'fellow Ravenclaw,' Healer Palliative, to expect you tomorrow morning at nine."

"I don't need—"

She shrugged. "Quite, I won't bother myself further. I've learned from my experience with the house-elves not to waste—"

"I have an appointment with George Weasley tomorrow. You might have tried asking first."

"But the twins always hated you."

"They hated the teacher, but not all I taught them apparently." Rising from his seat, he gripped the table. "I've danced to others' tunes for far too long, Slytherins and Gryffindors both. Voldemort. Dumbledore..." He gave her a pointed look.

She stood up and faced him. "I'm not your keeper. Or not anymore. I'm not trying to—"

"I'd hope you wouldn't mind my trying to manage on my own? I'll also be meeting with some Slytherins tomorrow who are willing to invest in me—on my terms. Ones still willing to speak to a blood traitor and who didn't have their fortune confiscated by the Ministry. Some are quite grateful I managed to save their progeny and that none ended up fighting on Voldemort's side." He snorted. "As if I had anything to do with that."

Reaching out to him, Hermione placed her hand on his arm. "Somehow, some way, I'm sure you did if anyone did. And maybe I shouldn't be so surprised about George. Slytherins weren't all you kept safe. I'm sure no Weasley is going to forget you protected Ginny from the detention the Carrows would have loved to have given her."

"Even your Ron?" he asked with an exaggerated purr.

She rolled her eyes. "Ron and the possessive pronoun don't go together very well. He's not mine. I'm not his. Maybe in twenty years or so he'll grow up and be ready."

"And you'll still be waiting?"

She shook her head. "I'm glad, really oh so glad you're making a new's don't have to do this alone. I mean...I'd like...that is..."

Very quickly she darted in and pecked him on the cheek. He felt the blood rushing out to every part of him when she then lifted her hands to his shoulders and pressed her mouth to his, hard, then very quickly sprang back and away.

He lifted the back of his hand to his lips and saw her flinch. He realised then how similar his gesture might have appeared to the one Lily made so many years ago. As Hermione turned away, he grabbed her arm. Any bit of flotsam would do a drowning man, surely. But he didn't believe that really. Hermione could sink him with one word in this moment—he had been feeling the waters rising above his head for weeks. She was loosening Lily's hold on him, pushing her down, dragging her under. He cradled Hermione's face in his hands and kissed her, and she let him in, tangling her fingers in his hair as if tethering him to her.

Later, he owled Minerva to explain why he was turning down the teaching position. He couldn't go back. He needed to let the memories of Hogwarts sink to the bottom, to wait for the memories he'd make with Hermione to rise and lift him above them.

Hope you liked this Renita, even if I couldn't fit the baby bump in. Feel free to imagine Severus and Hermione someday took up house, shagged like bunnies, and begat Artemis, Hannibal and Merrick—or Gemma, Emma and Emily—which Severus of course took care of when they were young, having laid in his supply of Pepper-up.