Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize belongs to me. Just borrowed. Will be returned. Snape is welcome to stay, though.

A big Thank You goes to my beta-reader and brit-picker, Melusin, who transfers my babble into language, sorts my random punctuation and is a good friend.

This story was written for the snapedom house warming party. It's been on my personal archive since March. Now I'm finally getting around to posting it.

Chapter 2

Everything was dark. Open your eyes, idiot, Severus thought, but found an instant later that he couldn't. He could neither open his eyes nor move any other part of his body. Had he been put under a full Body Bind? Was he dead? Wasn't someone supposed to come and guide you in death, leading the soul on to better places? Well, who would come and guide him on? Severus thought bitterly. His parents had been dead for many years and had probably moved on long ago. There really was no one else who had loved him.

Or, maybe he wasn't dead yet, and there was something there, after all? He felt a touch on his forehead—if he still had a forehead. It was cool and moist. And wasn't there a sound?

Muffled, as if spoken through a pillow, he heard voices. Very slowly, they became clearer.

"I really don't know why you bother, Hermione. Leave him be. He'd be better off dead." Was that McGonagall's voice? He couldn't be dead, then; she would be the last person to guide his soul.

"I can't believe you could say something so heartless, Minerva. After all these years, knowing how much he's suffered for all of us…" That was Granger's voice. What was she doing there? Where were they, anyway?

"Codswallop," McGonagall said. "Everything he ever did was for himself. Don't you think for one moment that Severus Snape ever did anything for other people."

"Of course he did. I really don't understand why you hate him so much."

"Have you forgotten what he did when he was Headmaster? He didn't stop the Carrows, and students were hurt. And he killed Albus…"

"Enough!" Granger sounded angry. "I think of you as a friend and mentor, Minerva, but I cannot allow you to go on like that about the poor man. Harry told you why he had to kill Professor Dumbledore. Didn't you listen? And the Carrows? If it hadn't been for Severus Snape, the students would have been hurt a lot more. He did everything in his power to protect them. He protected you, for crying out loud. He could have easily betrayed you. Did it never occur to you that he never revealed that you were in the Order? And the Death Eaters were hunting Order members; you know that as well as I do. They almost got Kingsley…"

"I don't know what motivated him, and I don't care," McGonagall said. "He probably found my presence helpful at Hogwarts. Don't think for a moment that he tried to protect me. Not Severus Snape."

"There is no reasoning with you, Minerva," Granger huffed. "Why don't you just go and leave us alone.

"Leave you alone with this… filth?" McGonagall spat. "I don't know why you care, Hermione. You almost act infatuated… You don't fancy him, do you?"

"That really isn't any of your business, Minerva," Granger snarled, and Severus would have chuckled if he could. She had used almost the same words he had, in another life.

"If you think I will stand by while he gets his dirty hands on yet another one of my Gryffindors, you are mistaken. I won't let him. A leopard doesn't change his spots…"

"Good thing, then, that he isn't a leopard but human, isn't it?" Granger hissed. "Now, while you certainly know more about, ah, cats, than I do, Minerva, I must ask you to trust my judgement where Severus Snape is concerned. I have seen his memories, and Harry told me what he…"

"Harry is confused—no wonder, after everything he went through. His judgement isn't sound; it never was…"

"Harry is less confused than you are, and I can only conclude that your hatred and dislike is blinding you. Something, I might add, that you always blamed Severus for. And by the way, what do you mean, 'tainting your precious Gryffindors?' You didn't interfere with his friendship with Harry's mother, did you?"

"Of course I did. You don't expect me to have stood by and watched the brightest witch of her age throwing herself away on that awful…"

"Leave us now, Minerva. I don't want to hear another word." Granger's words sounded very cold.

"You're not tainting your lovely cottage...? Alone? With him?"

"It's my house, and I'll invite whomever I want. Besides, in case you haven't noticed, he hasn't regained consciousness yet. Poppy will come and look after him regularly, and he can stay for as long as he wants. The place is perfect for a summer holiday. Term's ended, Minerva; there's nothing you can complain about. Now, go."

"Very well," McGonagall snarled. "But don't come running to me later."

"Never fear," Granger shouted, and the door slammed shut.

The peace and quiet after that exchange was very welcome. There were a few things Severus had to think about. They were at Granger's cottage; he knew that she had a house in Cornwall, close to the sea; she had invited him to come there in summer more than once. Of course, he had always refused.

So what else did he know? Granger was here with him. He couldn't move. McGonagall hated him—now, that wasn't new. Poppy would look after him—he was ill then, ill or injured.

"I am sorry for the disturbance, Severus. I won't let her in anymore, don't worry," Granger murmured, and something cool and moist was put on his forehead again. "The Wiggenweld Potion will be finished in a few days, and then you'll hopefully wake up. Please wake up; I couldn't stand it if you didn't." Was that a kiss on his cheek? What was with Granger? Did she care about him? Suddenly, he remembered his third wish. Granger? And what was it with the Wiggenweld Potion? Had he taken the Draught of Living Death? What was going on? He couldn't figure it out.

Three days later, a commotion woke him again from his deep and dreamless sleep.

"I have the potion, Hermione. You know how to administer it?" That was the voice of Poppy Pomfrey.

"Yes. I have to take care not to overdose. It has to be just enough potion to moisten my own lips, and it has to be applied directly to his mouth with slight pressure and friction. With a thorough kiss, in other words, until I have nothing of the slightly fuzzy feeling left on my lips. The potion will have the best effect when it goes through the mucous membranes in his mouth; it will spread quickly and evenly and not be damaged, as it would be by his digestive enzymes if he had to swallow it, right? "

"Right as always. Wait another few hours and then give it to him. His bones will have mended by now, but he isn't young any longer, and with adults it takes a bit longer for broken bones to heal properly. Call me if he is in pain after he wakes up… or if he doesn't wake up. Good luck."

"Thank you, Poppy." Granger again.

Then they were alone. A slight shift on the mattress indicated that Granger had sat on his bed. "Only a few hours, and I'll have you back. And then I'll have to let you go again. Don't be too mad at me for having brought you here." She stroked his face and went away.

Severus was dumbstruck. Granger really seemed to care for him. No one else had ever treated him with such gentleness, except for Poppy Pomfrey, and she did it out of professional reasons.

Hermione Granger. Best friend of Harry Potter. Grown up beautifully but still a know-it-all. Fearless and proud. Beautiful. Intelligent. And as long as you didn't provoke her, she could even be kind. She had always treated him with respect, and as soon as she had become his colleague, she had offered her friendship. But he hadn't been interested and had preferred to wallow in his misery. And now? Did he care for her? He couldn't tell. However, he'd promised himself to take the chance if it was offered. He drifted off to sleep again…

…and was woken with a kiss. A beautiful, tender, loving kiss. It must have been Granger applying the Wiggenweld Potion. Groaning softly, Severus tried to lift his hand to hold her close, but he found that moving his hand was very exhausting. So he just relaxed and enjoyed the way she administered the potion.

After a glorious, long moment, Granger, no, Hermione ended the kiss and looked at him. Her soft brown eyes shone with something that could have been called love under different circumstances. As it was, Severus didn't quite trust his eyes just yet.

"You're awake. I'm glad," she whispered.

"Stating the obvious," he rasped. "What happened?" His lips twitched, but as unused as he was to smiling, he didn't know if he had grimaced or smiled. He hoped that he wouldn't scare her away.

Apparently not. She smiled at him and gently pushed a strand of hair from his face. "I'm glad that your ordeal didn't hurt your sarcasm, Professor," she said. "It's a long story."

He finally managed to lift his hand high enough to catch hers when she moved it away from his face. "It seems that I have time to spare, Hermione."

She squeezed his hand, looking surprised at his use of her first name. But her smile was radiant now. "Once again, you've proven yourself a hero, Severus. One of the students in your sixth-year Potions class poured Erumpent fluid in another's unfinished Draught of Living Death, and the cauldron exploded. But you seem to have a sixth sense for danger, and you threw yourself over the cauldron. You were drenched in the draught—must have swallowed some of it, too—and the explosion broke every bone in your body. But not one of your students was injured."

He looked at her. "So everything was just a dream?"

"What do you mean? You were unconscious, of course. You looked quite dead, but Poppy told us that it was the effect of the draught. She thought it would be better to keep you unconscious until your injuries were healed to spare you the pain. And we had to make some Wiggenweld Potion first; we couldn't find any in your store cupboard."

"I see," he whispered. "And why are you here?"

"Uhm." She lowered her eyes. "I had time, you know, term's ended. And I wanted you well cared for. I didn't trust the personnel at St. Mungo's. They think like Minerva, you know? They'd just have poured the Wiggenweld Potion down your throat and very likely overdosed you. You'd never have been able to sleep peacefully again." She glanced at him from under her long lashes. "I'm sorry…"

"Don't be," Severus whispered, faintly squeezing her hand. "I know what they think, and who would possibly have wanted to kiss me there? I can be thankful that you don't think like them."

That made her smile again. "I've seen more than most, and I know what you've done. We owe you, Severus, every one of us. Harry has been asking about you regularly. There are some who know exactly who and what you are, but the rest of the wizarding world…"

"…don't care about them," Severus whispered. He tried to smile but found that every movement tired him out terribly. He felt as weak as a newborn baby. With that thought, he fell asleep again.

The next time he woke up, he felt much stronger. Hermione came into the room, and when she smiled at him, the room suddenly seemed to be much brighter. Merlin, how could he have become infatuated with her so thoroughly so quickly? Well, not quickly, he grudgingly admitted to himself. If that imaginary wish-fairy was anything to go by, Hermione had stealthily sneaked into his heart a while ago already. He had noted her shapely figure and more than once daydreamed about her without realising just how thoroughly the young woman had bewitched him. His eyes closed in pain because of the horrid pun.

"Are you all right?" Hermione's concerned voice brought him back to reality.

When he nodded, she smiled again. "I've brought you breakfast. I hope you like porridge. I didn't think that you could hold down solid food quite yet. It's been a while since you last ate."

As soon as she said that, he heard his stomach rumbling. She must have heard it, too, because she chuckled and handed him the tray.

When he had finished eating, she gave him the Daily Prophet and a few books and magazines. "Tell me what sort of things you like. I thought you might like to read something."

He glanced at the titles: Hogwarts: A History; The Practical Potioneer; Enchanted Encounters. "Nice choice," he grumbled. "There's something for every mood here."

She shrugged. "I can bring you something else."

"These will do for now," he said and picked up The Practical Potioneer.

Two days later, Severus was able to get up. Hermione helped him to the bathroom, and he was very glad that he didn't have to depend on cleansing charms any longer. When he came out, freshly washed and finally feeling clean again, he barely managed to make his way to the sofa in the lounge. Hermione hurried to his side and brought him a cup of tea, a letter and the Daily Prophet.

"You'd make a good little house-elf," he teased.

"Someone's got to do the work when they finally win their freedom, you know?" she grumbled.

"Seriously, you shouldn't wait on me like this; you're not a servant."

"I'm just helping you until you get your strength back. Think nothing of it."

He shook his head. "Thank you, Hermione. You have no idea how much this means to me."

She raised an eyebrow. "Who are you? What happened to Severus Snape?"

They laughed together, and then she sat down in one of the armchairs by the fireplace and opened a book while he opened his letter. It was from Durmstrang.

"They must have lost their minds," he exclaimed.

"What's happened?" Hermione looked up in alarm.

"The Durmstrang Board of Governors are offering me the position of Headmaster in Durmstrang. Don't they know that I'm not allowed to leave the country?"

"Oh–" Hermione said, slightly insecure. "There is something you should know. Uh– why don't you read the Prophet first?"

Frowning, Severus unfolded the paper and read:

"'Ex Death-Eater proves himself a hero once again. Wronged professor saves his students.

By Rita Skeeter

"'War hero Severus Snape, who is still slighted by the Ministry, which doesn't take the testimony of the Boy-Who-Lived seriously, saved the students in his Potions class by risking his own life when he threw himself over an exploding cauldron. But will that make the Snape-haters in the Ministry and Board of Governors rethink their stand? Is there a conspiracy at the Ministry? Read all about the mistreatment of Professor Severus Snape in an exclusive interview with Professor Hermione Granger by your Prophet correspondent, Rita Skeeter, on page 3...'

"Skeeter? You talked to Skeeter?"

"She owes me. Big time. Read on, Severus."

"'Ministry admits mistake. Restrictions on falsely accused war hero, Severus Snape, are lifted. Severus Snape has been granted full wizarding rights again.

"'I think this is a big mistake,' Headmistress McGonagall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry said. 'I never trusted him, and he killed Dumbledore. And now he must have put Hermione Granger under the Imperius Curse; I can't understand her actions, otherwise. He always was evil; he'll never change.'

"'About time Severus Snape got some justice,' Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived-Twice exclaimed when he heard about the lifting of the restrictions. 'None of us would be here without him. We couldn't have won the war without his tireless work and personal sacrifices…'

"Good God, has someone drugged Potter?" Severus asked in wonder.

"You really haven't been paying attention to anyone around you these past years, have you?" Hermione smirked. "Harry's made an about turn where you are concerned. As soon as he saw your memories, learned about your… love for his mother, he was on your side." Her voice faltered, and she looked at him insecurely.

"I see," Severus murmured. "So that's why I got the offer from Durmstrang."

"I should think so," Hermione whispered. "Will you accept it?"

Severus looked at her thoughtfully. "I don't know, yet. There isn't much here for me any longer, is there? It's either hoping to buy an apothecary somewhere, or go abroad. I shall not return to Hogwarts."

"I understand," she whispered. A sharp glance at her face revealed that she was fighting back tears.

"And you, Hermione? Are you happy at Hogwarts?"

"I…" She swallowed. "I am content. Teaching History of Magic is a good way to teach children what mistakes were made in the past and how we must learn from these mistakes. It is a lot more rewarding than the constant tilting at windmills in the Ministry of Magic."

He nodded. "I see." He didn't know what to say. He wanted to accept the offer from Durmstrang. He knew Durmstrang well, and the people there had little reason to distrust him. Most of the wizarding community surrounding the school had to deal with their own involvement with Grindelwald and Voldemort. They would welcome a wizard who understood their problems and could gently lead their children away from dangerous ideas of world supremacy. It could be the perfect job for him. But leaving Hermione? When he was almost ready to believe that what she felt for him was more than a crush?

"Do you think I could visit you at Durmstrang?" Hermione looked resolved. "I… you… I see you as a friend. I don't want to lose you."

Severus swallowed; his heart was hammering against his ribs. He decided to take the chance and put his heart on the line.

"I don't want to lose you, either. I see you as a friend, too," he murmured. And if you'd let me, I'd like to be much more than a friend, he added in his thoughts.

"That makes me glad." Hermione smiled. "That's settled then; I'll come and visit you."

"I'm looking forward to it," he said and held her gaze. Perhaps it was his imagination, but something like understanding seemed to pass between them.

The following week was spent in friendly companionship. Severus felt himself growing stronger constantly, and he knew that he'd have to leave eventually. He would be able to care for himself again soon. But not quite yet, he thought. There are still a few days…

By Friday, the weather had become very hot, and they spent the day reading, talking and swimming.

Severus tried to keep himself busy. He hardly dared to glance at the young woman who was lying in the sun only clad in a few scraps of fabric, displaying the delicious swell of her breasts and hips, that velvety-smooth skin and her lovely legs. The way she glanced at him from under her long lashes did nothing for his peace of mind. His fingers itched to touch her soft skin, and he had to go swimming to cool down sufficiently to be able to lead acoherent conversation.

After supper, they sat in front of the fireplace, both reading and sharing a bottle of wine. The fire wasn't necessary for warmth, but it lent a cosy atmosphere to the room, and Hermione seemed to enjoy it. Severus' growing feelings for the young woman worried him. Would he really want to get into something as complicated as 'love' once again after finally realising that what Lily had felt for him wasn't love? Only the delirious wish-fairy dreams after the accident had finally shown him the true nature of their relationship, and by now he understood that he wouldn't have been happy with Lily—even if she hadn't pushed him away in their fifth year.

His subconscious mind had given him the message that he should take a chance at love with Hermione. That had been his third wish, after all. But now, with the young woman around, he suddenly was afraid that he'd disappoint her, too. And did she really feel more than a passing infatuation for him? Did he want to risk their precious new friendship for the uncertainty of a romantic involvement? Hermione stirred something deep within him; something he thought had died a long time ago. But it was probably only his gratitude that was messing up his emotions. If only she wouldn't look at him with those warm, expressive, brown eyes all the time.

Severus stood up to fetch more wine from the kitchen. He leaned over Hermione's shoulder from behind, almost touching her while he poured another glass for her. Hermione turned her head, and he found that she was so close that he could almost touch her lips with his. But before he could shut down all reason and follow the impulse, she closed the gap between them and kissed him. After a shocked moment of inactivity, Severus returned the kiss in kind.

Bloody Hell. This was Hermione as he had come to know her: rash, impulsive, brazen, the consummate Gryffindor. And yet… she seemed sincere. Her kiss was shy, almost apologetic for its forwardness, but persistent nonetheless. He couldn't refuse it; he couldn't push her away. It simply felt too good. So be it then, he thought. If she wanted this, who was he to refuse?

When they finally broke apart, he stared at her for a long moment, trying to find signs of amusement or repulsion but only saw the slightly glazed eyes of an aroused woman. He unhurriedly put the bottle on the table, pulled her onto his lap and resumed their activity. Their kisses deepened, became more and more passionate, and soon he had her lying on the carpet in front of the fireplace. He was hovering over her: kissing, touching and caressing.

Severus woke up from a very odd dream. He had dreamt that he and Hermione Granger had made love, tenderly and passionately… and at that moment, he realised that a head with bushy brown curls was resting on his chest. It was Hermione's head. His arms were wrapped around her, and when she lifted her head, he caught her gaze and smiled. "All right?"

She smiled back, nodded and put her head down again, stroking his chest with one finger. One of his hands came up and played with her hair, stroking and massaging her scalp.

Hermione lifted her head again, sighed, and leaned in for a long, slow, tender kiss. "And you?"

"Hmmm," he mumbled, pulling her down for another kiss.

From the moment Hermione had kissed him in front of the fireplace, he knew that he was deceiving himself. This wasn't just some fling, some release of tension. Somehow, she had wriggled herself into his heart and would not leave it, not without pain and injury. Holding her in his arms had felt like pure bliss, like coming home from a long and lonely journey. And that, old bat, is yet another piece of self-deception, he told himself. He had a hard time believing that this should mean more to her than indulging in a little crush. Her kisses and caresses, however, had held nothing back. He decided to enjoy the moment.

When they broke apart, Hermione cupped his cheek and stroked the short stubble on his chin with her thumb. "That was incredible. Absolutely wonderful." She kissed him again. "Amazing. I wouldn't have thought…" She stopped, looking flustered because he had pushed her away. A favour. She thought she was doing him a favour. He had known that he had been deceiving himself, but the pain in his heart made his eyes sting.

"Is that so?" he rasped, glowering. "And what exactly did you expect, a bloody virgin?"

"No, I…"

"Oh, yes, yes, that's what you expected, isn't it?" He pushed her off, stood up and started to put his trousers on. "There's the old, greasy git, lovesick for a long-dead woman, and he never got some. Isn't that what you thought?" His glare was murderous now. "And here comes Hermione Granger, defender of the downtrodden, liberator of the oppressed, and helps the poor sod out. A pity fuck. My, my, aren't we noble?"

Hermione had stood up as well and stretched a hand out towards him, but was pushed back roughly. Her bewilderment turned into anger. "It's nothing like that, for heaven's sake! Is that what you think of me, that I'd sleep with you out of pity?" Her voice was becoming shrill. "For crying out loud, I was delighted, blown away. You're a wonderful lover, and no, I didn't expect that. I didn't expect anything because I hadn't planned to seduce you, you miserable git."

The woman had the nerve to shout back. Why couldn't she just laugh at him and have done with it? There was no way that he would believe her now, but his unbelieving stare seemed to make her even more furious.

"It's the truth; take it or leave it. I acted on impulse because I can't get you out of my head, because I've been staring at you all day, because I've fallen…" Hermione took a deep breath and seemed to swallow the rest of her sentence.

Severus saw how she swallowed. Somehow, that didn't look as if she wanted to laugh. Her eyes narrowed when she continued, "And what about you? Been laughing much about the naïve woman who fell into your lap like a ripe fruit ready to be plucked, have you?"

He shook his head but still glared. She wasn't bad at retaliation, but she'd gain nothing from it. If anything, he'd only get angrier.

"You're not slow to take the opportunity, are you? Looks like you've had plenty of practice. Tell me, Severus, when you close your eyes while you're fucking a woman, do you think of Lily Potter?"

Severus felt as if she had kicked him in the stomach.

His shocked gasp and stricken look brought her out of her tirade. "No…" he whispered, but she couldn't stand it any longer. She swallowed a sob, turned away from him and ran into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

What had he done? He had hurt her, driven her away. He had ruined everything. He had done it again. Rubbing his face tiredly, he walked to the door and knocked, not really expecting a reply. "Hermione, talk to me, please…"

"Go away," she snarled, and Severus sank to the ground, quite certain that he had ruined every chance at happiness once again.

About an hour later, Hermione opened the door. Gasping in surprise, she took a step back again.

Severus was sitting on the threshold, his head buried in his arms. When he heard her sharp intake of breath, he looked up. His face was twisted in misery; his dark eyes were burning from pain and fear. For a moment, he had the odd impression that he had travelled back in time, and that Lily Evans would come out of that door only to cruelly send him away. However, instead of the angry and hurt face of his former best friend, he saw the surprised and stricken face of Hermione Granger.

"Hermione, please, listen to me," he whispered.

"Of course." Tears were running down Hermione's face. She bent down and pulled him up. "Come. Let's sit on the sofa. Don't sit here like that, like you did…. Of course I'll listen to you." She didn't let go of him while she led him to the sofa and sat down at his side. "I'm here. I'll listen. I just… We both…" Hermione's voice faltered.

Severus took her hands. "Please believe me, I did not think of anyone else while I was with you. I… There weren't all that many… I led a lonely life, but I took comfort when it was offered, and I learned…. I…" And that was the plain truth. His heart fluttered with hope that things could be worked out after all. Apparently, she had remembered the scene from his memories, just like he had. But this here was no Lily Evans. This was Hermione Granger. Hermione listened and cared, for whatever reasons, while Lily had turned away from him coldly.

"Don't… Please, Severus, there's no need to beg, to humiliate yourself so, I…" Hermione choked out. "Please believe me. I acted on impulse because I…" She swallowed and closed her eyes.

"A little humiliation never killed anyone," Severus whispered. "But too much pride can…. I am sorry for thinking that it was out of pity." There was not much use in pride. He had learned that the hard way many years ago.

Hermione opened her eyes again and looked at him for a long moment as if trying to read something in hisface. She swallowed again and said, "No, it wasn't pity. I couldn't keep my greedy hands off you because I've fallen in love with you, because I wanted you." She looked down and continued in a whisper, "Still do…"

Severus' heart missed a beat. She really wanted him. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers, then held her hand on his chest, over his heart. His other arm sneaked around her and stroked her back. He felt her heart beating rapidly, matching the painful hammering of his own.

"I… I'm sorry for saying that, ah, about Lily. But… is there... I mean, you still love her, don't you?" she choked out.

"Always," he whispered. "But not in the way you think." He pulled her into his lap again and cupped her cheek, pulling her head down until their lips met. Perhaps this was a dream, and he was still sitting outside her bedroom door. She'd turn him away, just as Lily had, but in the meantime, he'd enjoy the dream while it lasted.

Hermione leaned into the kiss. "You don't need to do this," she whispered. "I don't need your pity. I'll get over it."

"But I want to." He smiled and kissed her again. "I want to because I care for you, and because I couldn't take my eyes off you all day, or do you think your running around in a skimpy bikini and showing off your lovely figure left me cold?"

"I don't know," she whispered. "I don't understand…"

Severus closed his eyes. Time to accept reality and act as an adult and not as a love-struck teenager. If he wanted a chance with this young woman, here, he'd better play it straight from the start. "I could kill Potter for showing my memories to you. They were meant for him, Hermione. I chose the ones he'd understand. It was essential that he saw those memories and believed them. Surely you don't think that I gave him all my memories?" In fact, he had only given Potter a summary, something like a digest of some of the important moments with his mother. Half a lifetime of memories of a person would fill buckets, not one small flask. He sighed resignedly and looked at her again.

"I don't know. I didn't think…" Hermione stammered. "But what you said to Dumbledore when you learned that Harry had to die… your Patronus… Lily Potter's picture, your tears…" Tears started to stream from her eyes again. "How can I not be affected by those memories?"

"And so it is true after all; you do pity me and think it's love," he said sadly and wiped her tears away. So much for still being in a dream. He did not want to be pitied by her.

"Not, not like that," Hermione protested. "It's more that I'm jealous of a dead woman. That I'm afraid that you'll never want to feel for me what you felt—feel—for her." She looked at him again, questioning, wanting him to contradict her and being afraid that he would confirm what she just said.

Jealousy? She was jealous of Lily Potter? His heart skipped another beat, and his chest felt as if something that had been constricting it had just vanished. He smiled slightly, stroked her cheek and said, "When I was a teenager, I was very much in love with Lily; that's true. But I knew that she didn't fancy me; I knew it all the time, although it took a very long time until I could admit this to myself. I'd seen her flirt with Potter—I didn't want to believe it, but deep down, I knew that it was true. And then I called her a Mudblood, and she broke off with me—our friendship, I mean. And I still loved her. She was my first friend, my best friend, and as such I will love her forever—just as you will love Harry Potter forever."

"Oh—I don't… No, you're right, I do. But not in the romantic sense."

"Exactly. But everything you did during your school years, all your brave and foolish deeds, you did for Harry Potter, didn't you? He was more important to you than morals, than rules, than your other friends, than your parents, and even more important than school, wasn't he?" Severus knew that the comparison didn't fit a hundred percent, but how else could he explain to her the nature of what had tied him to Lily? He didn't fully understand it himself. He was only glad that he was finally free from it. Hermione's image had replaced Lily's firmly in his heart and mind. She'd have to accept it at face value; there was nothing else he could do about it.

Hermione nodded, understanding dawning in her eyes. "But Harry was up against Voldemort and always so alone. He needed me. And I never fancied him. I loved Harry like a brother; the idea of a romantic attachment with him never occurred to me."

"No, but you fancied your other best friend, didn't you?"

"Yes, for a while. I'm surprised you know that."

His lips twisted. "It was, ah, rather evident. And now you don't love him any more?"

"I'll always love… Oh! But it still isn't the same." She was smiling now.

"No, it's not. But it isn't as simple as it appears in those memories either."

"How was it then? I mean, you loved her, love her still, with such devotion, such intensity… and she didn't really treat you all that well." A frown flickered over his face. "I'm sorry, but that's what it looked like…"

So she had seen the shallowness in Lily, too. A shallowness and selfishness he hadn't wanted to see for so long. "I didn't put many of our good times together into those memories for Potter to see; he'd have run screaming if he had seen a more tender moment between Lily and me," Severus said, lips twisted in a wistful smile. "I wanted to keep those to myself. Lily was a wonderful girl, brilliant and funny, and we did have good times together. We spent most of our holidays together, got into mischief and laughed a lot…" For a moment he was lost in his memories. "But then she started to fancy James Potter, and they danced around each other constantly… I think I might have accepted her going out with anyone else but not with Potter. He was my enemy; we loathed each other, and she knew it, but in the end, he was more important to her than me." He looked at her, his smile fading. "And then she died. Because of me, she died. I would have done anything to save her… and all that was left were the memories, and they had to be enough."

Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. "And you idolized her, didn't you? You were treated so badly by everyone else, you were in so much danger all the time that you held on to her memory, to your love for her, as the only bright thing in your life. And she was the only one you cared about because she was one of the very few people who showed you any kindness."

His heart felt as if it would explode. "You are very perceptive." He stared at her pensively. "I'm sorry if this is giving you so much pain, Hermione, but this is who I am, and it won't change. I don't want it to change." Severus wondered if Hermione could accept that. He imagined that no woman would take it kindly that her love interest (he was her love interest?) had a dead love he didn't want to forget. But maybe, just maybe, he'd be lucky for once, and she would understand?

Hermione sighed. "If that is how it was… then, I don't see why you should change. As long as you are open… as long as you want…" She closed her eyes again. "Your memories don't cause me pain as much as longing, you know." He gave her a puzzled glance, and she continued, "When we learned that you weren't a traitor but on our side all along, you became a bit of a model for male bravery to me. Maybe I did idealise you a bit, too. But I don't anymore," she added quickly when he looked sadly at her. "I've seen a side of you, now, that I didn't know about before. Look, I knew you as our teacher, and you weren't exactly nice to us."

He snorted at the understatement, but she continued, unfazed. "Your role in the war showed you as a true hero, as the bravest man we'd known. And your devotion and love for Harry's mum showed you in yet another light. When I saw that, I actually started to long for something similarly intense. I thought that if I could find someone who would feel so deeply for me as you did for Lily—then I'd be incredibly happy. And I knew that Ron's love for me wasn't like that; his love was a lot more selfish. I knew that he'd never give me that kind of devotion and passion."

Merlin, she was idolising him as he had Lily. What a mess they were in. And she was talking about love as if anyone really understood what love was. He'd have to bring her back to reality. "And you think that a love that has to stand up to everyday life can give you that?"

"Yes. Not the idolized part, of course not. But the devotion, the passion—the intensity, the wish to make it work. Imagine, instead of just falling in love––a passive act––you turn it into loving, into something active? You'd have to make an active, conscious choice for the person, for the relationship, again and again. Shouldn't people who love each other also work for this deeper kind of love together, to keep the love alive—wouldn't that be incredibly fulfilling and satisfying?"

"And that isn't idealised?" He smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. His gaze was piercing hers as if he were searching for the truth in what she'd said. He had underestimated her depth. He should have known. What she'd just described was something he had wanted all his life but had given up hope of ever achieving long ago.

Hermione smiled. "Perhaps it is idealised. But aren't ideals there to aspire to? What's their purpose, otherwise?"

"And you think that I…?"

"Yes. You seem to be one of the few who know what love is; how it's done…" She smiled sheepishly at his raised eyebrows. "You know how the prophecy said that Harry had the power the Dark Lord knew not?" Severus nodded. "Harry knows nothing about love compared to you. He took more and more of Dumbledore's ideals to heart over the years, and that is counterproductive to love."

"You, ah, don't agree with Dumbledore's ideals?" Would the surprises never end?

"Agree? With that scheming bastard? Never again. I was such a fool to trust him—don't look so surprised. I saw how he treated you." She had, at that.

"But he always knew what was right; he was always on the side of good…"

"Rubbish. Apparently, you never learned about his involvement with Grindelwald…"

"There were rumours in Slytherin House, but who'd ever seriously doubt the Headmaster, the hero, the only wizard the Dark Lord was afraid of?" Clearly, she had come to the same conclusions about Dumbledore as he had. His heart felt as if a heavy burden had been suddenly lifted from it. Who was this young woman?

The young woman in question nodded. "I admired him, too; oh, how I admired him! I was under the illusion that Dumbledore had our safety at heart—that he cared—for Harry, for everyone, for you. Instead, all he ever cared for was his own overblown sense of self-importance. The way he treated you was despicable. He should have helped you, given you guidance, helped you get over the trauma of the Shrieking Shack, and instead he let James and Sirius get away with it, allowed them to bully you, allowed them to strut around the school as if they owned it because they were his precious Gryffindors. You know, I'm almost ashamed to have been in the same house."

She was unbelievable. She was too good to be true. Severus stroked her lips with his thumb and smiled. "And for the first time, I can actually start to see the true value of what Gryffindor bravery can be; when it is combined with a thinking brain and a feeling heart."

Hermione swallowed, tears threatening to flow over again. She sniffed and continued, "But what really made me doubt him was when I saw his cowardly plea to you to kill him. He demanded that you kill him, so he wouldn't have to suffer a drawn-out, painful death. And he didn't give a shit about your feelings, about the consequences, about your soul. What a coward! A brave man would have taken care of that himself."

Severus was shocked. "I never saw it like that. Is committing suicide bravery? Is that what you're saying?"

"I'd say it depends on the circumstances. He could have chosen the suffering, you know, without coldly putting your soul at risk. I'll never forgive him for that, and I can't understand how Harry could forgive him so easily."

Severus studied her while her emotions were flittering over her face. Who would have thought that not every Gryffindor saw Albus Dumbledore as the epitome of goodness? He did have to defend his old master a bit, though. "It was a strategic decision as well, you know. Dumbledore knew that this deed would advance me in the Dark Lord's ranks. He used me; I knew that all along, although I was in denial for a long time. But my soul was already damaged, Hermione. Lily died because of me. If I hadn't betrayed the prophecy, her son wouldn't have become the target."

"Can't a soul mend—with lots of love and patience?" Hermione asked. "If Dumbledore had been a mentor, a guide… but instead he chose to be a self-imposed guardian of virtue, a purveyor of his own questionable moral standards, of double standards. And Dumbledore knew that you had heard the prophecy. Harry told me about the incident at the Hog's Head. You were caught, and Dumbledore didn't Obliviate you. He could have, easily. And he knew that you had become a Death Eater; there's no way that he couldn't have known, and yet he let you go and report to your master. Neither of you knew that the prophecy referred to Lily's unborn son at that time. And I have the nagging suspicion that Dumbledore wanted Voldemort to know about the prophecy, to bait him, to make him afraid. Only it didn't quite turn out as he planned… the scheming old bastard."

Severus was very quiet, hardly daring to believe what he had just heard. "You've given me a lot to think about, Hermione," he finally said. "But that can't take the guilt away from me. It was still my doing."

"Yes," she said. "But maybe it's time to accept it as something for which you can eventually forgive yourself. You were very young, and at that age, we're all idiots. Dumbledore, on the other hand…"

"His guilt doesn't negate mine…"

"It doesn't. But you acknowledge yours, and he never did acknowledge his, at least not openly. He should have shared this with you, dealt with it together with you, but he didn't, the self-righteous bastard."

"You really do hate him."

"Yes, and I won't forgive him as easily as Harry did, or as you seemed to have."

Severus sighed. "I didn't know that there was something to forgive—you are the first person who's actually tried to see things from my perspective." And that was the plain truth. No one, ever, had tried to get into his mind that far, to find out what would move him, make him happy or hurt him. No one had shown so much interest, so much devotion like this young woman had. His young woman? His heart started to hammer painfully, and once again, he became very aware of her warm, round backside in his lap.

"You are quite remarkable, you know?" He looked at her admiringly, adoringly almost. "Would you… May I make love to you again?"

Hermione closed her eyes, catching her breath. "Please do…" The rest of her words were kissed off her lips when he carried her to his bed.

Their second round of lovemaking was even more intense and tender than the first, and Severus whispered her name constantly. Hermione would never again be doubtful about to whom he was making love. When she started moaning and whispering his name in ecstasy, he suddenly realised that the old festering wound in his heart wasn't there any longer. He truly had come home.

The end.