Disclaimer: JKR owns all recognizable characters and settings. No copyright infringement is intended.



A/N: As it's been so long since I've updated, just a reminder that this story is not DH-compliant. The previous chapter left off with a depressed and guilt-laden Hermione, and our dear professor was wondering what the hell he'd got himself into. In this chapter, he'll find out.


Between the Sand and Stone
by sshg316

Chapter Five

*

Severus frowned as he stared unseeingly at the evening Prophet, unsure as to what to do next. Although he'd needed to awaken Hermione for supper, she'd immediately retired after, saying that she was rather done in after the day's events. He couldn't blame her; he was exhausted and he hadn't been the one who had spent the afternoon in hospital. Now, some hours later, he gave up his attempt at reading. It wasn't as if he had actually been able to process the words; his mind was far too preoccupied for that. He tossed the Prophet onto the small table beside his chair and then extinguished the fire.

The house was dark as he trudged up the stairs to the first floor. He knew sleep would be long in coming, despite his tiredness. Hermione's grief and depression, not to mention her pregnancy, weighed heavily on his mind. Severus suspected that, during Draco's illness, Hermione had set aside her fear, anger, and sadness in order to appear strong for her husband's sake. After his death, she had kept herself numb by working herself to the point of utter exhaustion, thereby denying herself any opportunity to deal with the turbulent emotions lingering beneath the surface. He worried what would happen, now that he'd taken away the only tools at her disposal, and how she would react when those carefully constructed walls began to crumble. Now there was the additional guilt over what could have happened to the child. Severus suspected that would be the harder obstacle for Hermione to overcome.

Standing in the narrow hallway between the doors to the two bedrooms, he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. His gaze drifted to her closed door. She had eaten more at supper than he'd seen her consume since her arrival. That had to be a good sign. He scowled. The witch had been his guest for less than a week, and already she had invaded not only his home but now his thoughts. He disliked that his mind continued to return to her time and time again, but there was little he could do to change that. Her temporary stay was now indefinite, and he'd best get used to the idea sooner rather than later because she was his problem now. There remained one aspect of the entire bloody situation that he could control, however: he might have been honour-bound to accept her into his home and to take charge of her care, but that did not mean he must accept her into his life.

He preferred to remain unscathed when their association came to its inevitable end.

With a sigh, he turned toward his room. A troublesome thought came to him, however, and his hand lingered on the doorknob. Straightening, he pulled his wand from his sleeve. A few waves of his wand, accompanied by a murmured incantation, and his mind found some semblance of peace. Satisfied, Severus glanced once more at the guestroom before heading off to bed, wishing for nothing more than the mindless oblivion of sleep and hoping Hermione would not follow him into his dreams.

~o0o~

Five days 'til Christmas …

Hermione lay atop the white quilt in the guest bedroom, propped up against a mound of pillows. A book was loosely held in her left hand, but she wasn't reading. Her head was turned to one side as she stared blindly out the small bedroom window, her thoughts elsewhere. The fingers of her right hand ghosted over the roundness of her abdomen, grateful for the tiny flurry of activity.

It had been a week and a half since her fainting spell at the Ministry, and while she was eating better and attempting to get more sleep, she was still plagued by guilt as she considered the damage she could have caused her child. She'd been lucky that her thoughtless actions had not caused any irreparable harm, and she would not take such chances again. She would do whatever was necessary in order to bring her and Draco's child into the world safely. To that end, she had asked Professor Snape to send for Healer Parkinson. Pansy would be arriving shortly to perform a routine examination, and Hermione was anxious for reassurance that the baby remained in good health. With a shuddered breath, she hoped that all would be well.

As she turned her head to one side, her eyes fell upon the small calendar she kept on her bedside table, next to her wedding portrait. A tear slid from the corner of one eye, and with trembling fingers, she dashed the moisture away.

Christmas was in five days.

And she missed Draco.

Numbing herself to the pain, she returned her unseeing gaze to the window.

~o0o~

Severus paced back and forth in the sitting room, glancing every so often at the clock upon the mantle. The last ten days had found him floundering for how to help his new charge, and he was anxious to speak with someone who might be able to shed some light on the subject. Since the Healer was coming anyway, he'd asked if he could speak with her before she checked on Hermione.

Finally, at precisely one o'clock, he heard the anticipated knock.

"Healer Parkinson," Severus said in greeting as he flung open the door.

"Please, call me Pansy. How is she?" she asked, briskly entering the house, her eyes immediately searching for her patient.

Severus took her cloak and placed it on the coat rack. "She is waiting in her room, and she is … better." He turned and ushered her into the sitting room.

Pansy eyed him shrewdly. "But you're worried about her," she said as she sat down, perching on the edge of the sofa.

He straightened his spine in indignation. "Mrs Malfoy and her child have been entrusted into my care—I take that responsibility seriously."

"Of course you do."

His ruffled feathers were soothed by the audible sincerity in her tone, despite her impassive expression.

"Now then," she continued, "what is it you wish to speak with me about?"

With a sigh, Severus all but collapsed into the armchair, weariness evident in his posture. "I am concerned. Physically, she has shown marked improvement. She has followed your recommendations to the letter—she left her part-time positions and is on holiday from the Ministry until after the New Year. I've not given her much choice but to eat in a healthier manner, and she seems to have gained a bit of weight."

Pansy appeared satisfied with that answer. "And her sleeping patterns?"

Severus frowned, his eyes troubled; he ignored Pansy's speculative look. "She cries at night, until she falls asleep. I can hear her from my room," he explained, despite the knowledge that such an admission would pique Pansy's curiosity. After all, he could have cast a Silencing Charm if he had so desired. Shifting slightly in his seat, he barrelled onward. "Even so, she is sleeping a full eight hours, as well as taking a brief nap in the afternoons."

"Excellent." Pansy tilted her head to one side. "What about her emotional state? Has she talked with you?"

"No," he said, knowing that his agitation at the situation could be heard in his voice. He left his seat to stand by the window.

Pansy raised an eyebrow but remained silent.

"That is my primary concern," he admitted after a long pause. "She is subdued during the day, often saying merely a handful of words. Whilst she eats and sleeps, that is all she does. She often carries a book about, but doesn't ever read—which in and of itself may be a sign of the Apocalypse—nor does she busy herself in any other manner. She lounges on the sofa"—he waved an arm toward where Pansy was sitting—"or in her bed and stares out the window. I've attempted to goad her into a reaction, but she has not responded. I am … at a loss."

Pansy frowned. "You dealt with grieving students in the past."

He nodded, turning to face his former student. "Yes, of course. However, they were not solely dependent upon me. They had friends and family to offer support. I merely provided information and a listening ear when needed. It's not something I was particularly good at," he added begrudgingly. "Hermione has no one—no family and apparently no remaining friends, save Potter, who is away on assignment—and given the tenor of our previous association, I don't believe she has the inclination to share her grief with me."

"Then you must forge a new relationship," Pansy said, as if the answer were obvious.

Severus snorted, and Pansy's lips twitched, one corner of her mouth curving upward.

"Yes, easier said than done, perhaps. Still, it must be done, Professor, if you truly wish to help her. She will be staying here until after the baby arrives?"

He nodded.

"Until that time, then, you are the central figure in her life."

Severus' gaze snapped to Pansy's, his expression horrified. His eyes narrowed as Pansy laughed at his instinctive reaction.

"It's true, like it or not," she said. "You must be a friend to her, be her support system, and help her know she's not alone. If you think it necessary at some point, I suppose I could attempt to get to know her, as well." Her nose wrinkled slightly. "Oh, and Professor," she added softly as she rose to her feet, "you were a very good listener—you certainly helped me."

Severus couldn't hide his surprise, although he was quick to school his features into his usual impassive façade as he also rose to his feet.

Pansy smirked and walked to the sitting room door. "If there is nothing else you'd care to discuss, I would like to examine her now. I must return to St Mungo's within the hour."

Her previous words still echoing between his ears, Severus simply nodded and directed her to the guestroom.

Once Pansy had knocked on the door and been admitted by its occupant, he escaped to his office and attempted to lose himself in his work. It was a futile effort. His conversation with Pansy replayed in his mind in an endless loop, and finally he gave up, throwing his quill onto the desk in disgust. Groaning, he dropped his head into his hands. He had been avoiding the logical conclusion to his plight for days now, but Pansy had been correct. There truly was no other choice. He would have to do the one thing he had never wanted, the very thing he had sworn he never would: he had to befriend Hermione Granger Malfoy.

Happy Christmas, indeed.

~o0o~

The ticking of the clock echoed in the sitting room, its rhythmic beat lulling Hermione ever closer to sleep. She knew better than to retire to her room for the evening, however. It was there, alone in the unfamiliar bed, that she felt Draco's absence most keenly; it was there that she would no longer be able to keep the pain at bay. Grief and guilt were her nightly companions now. Sleep, when it would finally cease to elude her, was a welcome, if temporary, escape.

Instead, she had chosen to join the professor in the sitting room after dinner. The latest edition of Potions Weekly was held in her hands, but the words swam across the page, unfocussed, her thoughts elsewhere.

Healer Parkinson's visit had soothed her worried mind. Had she been in better spirits, she might have laughed outright at that thought. Never would she have expected to find comfort in anything having to do with Pansy Parkinson. In this instance, however, Pansy had been able to tell her that that her child was healthy and strong; her stupidity had not caused any lasting damage. Relief had been instantaneous, although it had not assuaged her guilt. Even so, she was profoundly grateful for Pansy's assessment, no matter how stoic her delivery might have been.

"You seem to be inordinately interested in Mr Leatherby's hypothesis regarding the use of dragon's spleen. What are your thoughts on Howsham's rejoinder?"

Hermione's head shot up in surprise, and her brow furrowed as her gaze met Professor Snape's. "Erm, sorry. I've not yet read that far."

"Hm. Pity," he said blandly, returning to his own reading.

Hermione noted with some fascination that the sneer that typically accompanied such a remark was conspicuously absent. Had he truly meant to discuss the article with her? She worried her lower lip between her teeth. It had been so long since she'd had any sort of intellectual discussion, and Professor Snape, she knew, would definitely be a worthy adversary—particularly in the subject of potions. An all but forgotten feeling washed over her. Once as familiar to her as breathing, she could not recall when she'd last felt its compulsive spark.

Curiosity—the absolute need to learn, to know, to understand.

Her gaze returned to the article, the words now crisp and clear against the pale parchment. The spark could not be ignored.

She began to read.

~o0o~

Severus surreptitiously cast a glance across the room and smugly noted that it appeared his guest was actually reading, rather than merely pretending. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth and a small v had formed between her eyebrows as she concentrated on Leatherby's article in Potions Weekly.

As the evening wore on, she asked no questions, but Severus knew it was only a matter of time. Her inquisitive nature would see to that. He merely had to be patient.

It wasn't a particularly auspicious beginning, but it would do.

~o0o~

Four days 'til Christmas …

"Do you think he's right?" Hermione asked the following evening after dinner, her curiosity overwhelming all other thoughts. She had devoured the article, rereading and pondering over it throughout the day. The opportunity to discuss its contents with her former professor had been too tempting to pass up.

Professor Snape, who was reading the Prophet in his armchair, flicked a glance in her direction. "Do I think who is right about what?"

"Leatherby's idea for a filtering process for dragon's spleen. What are your thoughts? Is he right?"

"Ah." He returned his attention to the Prophet. "An extended potion trial would be necessary to determine if his theory is correct."

Hermione frowned. "Yes, of course, but do you think a trial would prove him right?"

"That is the purpose of a trial, is it not?"

She had the feeling he was being purposefully obtuse. Perhaps he was no longer interested in discussing the article with her. Sighing, her shoulders slumped, and she nodded, the spark of curiosity dimming. "I suppose."

~o0o~

Damn. He'd been pleased that she had taken the initiative, causing him to push a little too far in testing her mettle. It was too soon for that. She'd retreat again if he weren't careful. But it had been decades since he had purposely sought the friendship of another—he was bound to be a bit rusty. Attempting to provoke the grieving witch, however, was not a step in the right direction.

Methodically, Severus folded his paper and laid it on the small table beside his armchair before angling his body toward hers. "It is a fascinating theory. Most brewers don't have the opportunity to work with dragon's spleen all that often. However, as it is a component of the Wolfsbane Potion …" He shrugged.

Her gaze swung back to his, and he noted the faint gleam had returned to her eyes. "You've used it many times." She hesitated, then pressed forward. "Surely you have an opinion on his theory."

Severus leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his steepled fingers resting against his mouth for dramatic effect. After a long moment, he replied, "I do. What are your thoughts?"

Her eyes blinked rapidly, and she frowned as if nonplussed. "Mine? Oh, I … Well, I haven't ever used dragon's spleen, so my opinion is solely based on the known properties of the ingredient itself."

Severus leaned back in his chair and nodded impatiently. "And—?"

"Well, I understand the basic principles behind Leatherby's theory, and it does seem sound. The filtering process he proposes would reduce the spleen to a concentrated liquid form, thereby allowing smaller amounts to be used. It would much less dangerous in such small amounts, giving even the average brewer a better chance at brewing Wolfsbane, since the potion would be more stable."

"I agree," Severus said, his tone matter-of-fact. "However, he is also claiming this filtering process could be of use for several garden-variety ingredients, making them slightly more effective."

"It seems to me that the necessary filtering process would be cost prohibitive for use in the average potion. It would simply be too expensive."

"Precisely my thoughts. Why, then, do you suppose Leatherby is making such claims?"

She pondered his question. "Perhaps he's searching for investors for his trial. By claiming there could be potential uses other than for the Wolfsbane Potion, which is subsidised by the Ministry, he may garner more attention from investors."

"That is my opinion."

She frowned. "Of course, it's rather obvious, don't you think? No one who knows a thing about potions would fall for such a transparent ruse."

Severus laughed, startling his guest. He raised a sardonic brow. "You would be surprised."

Hermione's answering smile was small but gratifying.

~o0o~

Three days 'til Christmas …

Hermione fidgeted as she watched the kettle, waiting for the telltale whistle. Her stomach rumbled loudly, and her nose wrinkled at the reminder. Usually the professor was in charge of afternoon tea, but he had obviously been caught up in his work, as it was now half past four with no sign of the taciturn wizard. When she'd realised the time, she'd instantly closed the book she'd been absorbed with for the better of the part of the day and set about the business of preparing afternoon tea herself.

Her stomach growled again, and her eyes drifted to the upper cabinet to the right of the stove. Inside, she knew from previous kitchen forays, was a small tin of shortbread biscuits. She caught her lower lip between her teeth and glanced at the closed door that led to his office. Knowing that the professor could make an appearance at any moment, she quickly nicked a biscuit from the tin. He wouldn't approve, but just one wouldn't hurt anything.

Greedily chewing her pilfered treat, she prepared a tray with two teacups and a small plate of cucumber sandwiches. Placing three tea bags inside the ceramic pot, she rested her hip against the counter and returned to her vigil over the kettle.

The past twenty-four hours had been enlightening. The previous evening's discussion on Leatherby's hypothesis had led to a debate regarding Horsham's rejoinder, which had ended with Professor Snape lending her several rare texts in order to assuage her budding curiosity. Despite the whirling of her mind, sleep had come quite easily, and Hermione had awakened feeling rejuvenated. Breakfast remained her responsibility, and she'd cooked with the professor's copy of Medieval Potions and Their Modern Uses charmed to hover at eye level. Once her host had descended into his office, Hermione had spent the better part of the day in the sitting room, eagerly soaking up the material like a sponge.

It had been ages since she'd felt so much like … well, so much like herself. It was as if a switch had been flipped on in her mind—at least intellectually. Emotionally, however, she still felt tightly strung, as if she might snap at any moment.

But that didn't matter, because this was better. Better than before she'd come to stay with her erstwhile professor.

The high-pitched whistle of the kettle interrupted her reverie, and she quickly moved to pour the steaming hot water into the teapot to allow the tea to steep. Professor Snape would surely be hungry by now, and she really wished to discuss what she'd learned in her reading.

~o0o~

Severus read through the parchment one final time, ensuring that the wording was to his satisfaction, and then scrawled his signature across the bottom. The nib of the quill had hardly lifted from the parchment when it rolled itself up into a tight scroll and disappeared with a pop.

His work for the day now complete, he arched his back, stretching the tense muscles in his back and wincing at the audible crack in his spine. His head ached slightly, and he was about to fetch a headache-relieving potion when the door to the basement creaked open.

"Professor? May I come down?"

Hermione.

He glanced at the small clock on his desk and groaned. He'd been so caught up in his work, he'd forgotten about tea.

Severus cleared his throat and called out, "I'm coming up."

He paused at the top of the stairs, his eyebrows rising as he noticed the tray of sandwiches and pot of tea already sitting on the table.

"I could have brought it downstairs," Hermione murmured as he fully entered the kitchen.

"Nonsense," he stated firmly. He pulled out a chair and motioned to her. "Sit down."

She appeared confused by the gesture but sat in the proffered chair. Severus took the opposite seat and watched with barely contained surprise as she poured him a cup of a tea and then prepared him a plate of sandwiches. He was so caught up in the idea of her actually doing something rather than imitating a bump on a log that it was only when she said his name that he realised she had been talking to him.

"—do you think, Professor?"

"I beg your pardon?" he asked, hoping that his inattentiveness would go unnoticed.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so chatty," Hermione said, then pursed her lips and gently blew a stream of air across the surface of her tea.

He shifted in his chair slightly. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm afraid my mind is still on my work, and I didn't hear your question."

The small smile that had graced her face the previous day returned, and he relaxed, knowing that he had not offended her—and that he had avoided telling her where his thoughts had truly been. He turned his attention to the small repast, hoping that she would make the effort to continue the conversation.

She glanced at him over the top of her teacup, her brow furrowing. "What sort of work do you do, Professor?"

Pleased by her initiative, he leaned back in his chair and tilted his head to one side. "I am currently employed by the Ministry of Magic."

Her eyes widened in apparent surprise. "Really? But you work from here."

"I am contracted as needed by various wizarding governments, profiling Dark wizards and the like."

"Sort of a … hired wand? That sort of thing?"

A bark of laughter escaped his lips, and her smile widened minutely. "Something like that. More the equivalent of working for MI5, I would think."

"Fascinating. I had assumed you still worked with potions."

He arched an eyebrow as he took a sip of tea. "Actually, I haven't been interested in the field of potions for quite some time. I had my fill at Hogwarts."

She frowned. "You were an exceptionally brilliant Potions master. Do you no longer enjoy brewing?"

He nodded deferentially. "Thank you. I do brew occasionally, but only for my own supplies. The brewing process remains a way to alleviate stress, but I have no desire for it to be anything more than that. I do, however, enjoy keeping up to date on the current theories and such, which has at times proven helpful in my current line of work. I've also remained an adjunct professor at Hogwarts, giving the occasional lecture on the subject."

She hummed a response and picked up a sandwich. "So that's why you're still 'Professor Snape.' I had wondered."

They were silent for a few moments until Severus realised perhaps he ought to show some interest in her work. "And how do you enjoy the Department of International Cooperation?"

Her gaze snapped to his, as if surprised that he was aware of her place of employment, and then returned to her tea. "Oh … it's … it's fine, I suppose." She sighed and then rolled her eyes. "It's boring as hell. I have no idea what I was thinking when I accepted the position."

As she sipped her tea, Severus' mouth curved into a slow smile; she was acting more and more like herself. "Potter said that you'd been thinking of leaving the Ministry before—"

Hermione coughed, choking on the tea she'd just swallowed.

Damn. He hadn't meant to go there. She didn't seem to notice his blunder, however; her attention had been caught by something else he'd said.

She stared at him incredulously. "Did you just say Harry told you?"

The tension eased, and Severus smirked. "Potter and I have worked on several cases together, he in the field, of course, while I usually prefer to do my work from here."

"Well," she said, appearing slightly dazed. "I certainly never expected to hear that you and Harry were working together."

His lips twitched. "Neither had I. However, Potter has matured a great deal since his school days. Actually, we work quite well together, and he is one of the few people, other than yourself, of course, who has been invited into my home."

To her credit, she did not appear visibly shocked by that revelation. "Harry has been a guest here?"

"Only because he was too pissed to Apparate home."

That got her; her eyes were wide and her jaw dropped before she snapped it closed. "You're friends, then?"

He looked at her shrewdly. "Not at all. He visits twice a year—once on Halloween and again in May. We drink ourselves into a stupor, and in the morning, I give him a potion to relieve the hangover. Then he leaves. Other than that, our interactions are solely work-related."

A sad smile appeared as she grasped the significance of the dates. "I see."

Yes, he was sure she did. Uncomfortable now that the focus had switched to him, Severus rose to his feet. "I have an errand to which I must attend. I shall return shortly."

Before she could utter a word, he was in the sitting room and stepping into the Floo, eager to put some distance between them. He tossed down the Floo powder and left the house in a burst of green flame.

~o0o~

Two days 'til Christmas …

Hermione cocked her head to one side and stared at the bare tree stuffed into the corner of the professor's sitting room. She wondered when it had arrived; it hadn't been there that morning, she was certain, and she hadn't seen Professor Snape since the very awkward evening they'd shared the night before.

After his hasty departure from afternoon tea, he had reappeared to prepare supper. He'd been in a strange mood, and Hermione had determined it was best to leave the man to his thoughts. She'd hoped to see him at breakfast but had only found a note on the kitchen table, along with a plate of eggs and toast, stating he had gone out for the day. It was now almost time for supper, and she hadn't been aware of his return.

Given the presence of the tree, however, it appeared he had returned after all.

She turned on her heel and was preparing to go and search for him when a large box floated into the room, followed by the wizard himself.

"I apologise for my absence," he said, lowering the box to the floor beside the tree. He sheathed his wand inside his sleeve and turned his attention to her. "I thought perhaps you might enjoy having a tree."

"Oh."

Actually, she didn't know if she would enjoy one or not. It was something she hadn't considered. She had lovely memories of Christmas, the last several of which had been spent with Draco, who had adored the holiday. She was uncertain if she could enjoy the day without him—she didn't know that she wanted to.

"These were my mother's," he said, indicating the box. "I'm afraid the selection is rather eclectic."

Glancing at the professor, she caught a slight tightening around his eyes. He was trying to do something nice for her. The least she could do was show some appreciation. She knelt beside the box and opened it cautiously; if there were wizarding decorations involved, who knew what might be inside.

She gasped in delight as the contents became visible. Inside the box were gobs of tinsel and garland, fairy lights and ribbons, and countless bows and baubles. It was enough to cover the entire tree from top to bottom. It would be garish and tasteless … and absolutely wonderful.

A slow smile spread across her face, and she looked up at him. "Can we use it all, do you think?"

His posture visibly relaxed, and Hermione felt her own heart lighten minutely.

After a quick supper, they found themselves knee deep in decorations and creating the most fabulously gaudy Christmas tree she'd ever seen.

~o0o~

Severus glanced at Hermione as she stretched to place yet another bauble in one of the upper branches. The tree was quite a sight—she was determined to use every last decoration, and the result was horrifying. He shrugged it off, however; she seemed happy.

A frown tugged at his lips. Perhaps happy was too strong a word. She was beginning to come out of her self-imposed shell—cracks were beginning to form—but she was still a far cry from the stubborn, bossy, determined know-it-all he'd once known.

Regardless, she was enjoying herself for the moment, and that eased some of the guilt that had been sitting on his chest for the past twenty-four hours.

It wasn't that her reaction to his drunken bouts with Potter had bothered him. No, it was the realisation that he'd forgotten something very important about friendship: it was reciprocal in nature. If he were her friend, she would expect to be his, too. It was something that somehow hadn't occurred to him prior to that conversation, that he would have to share part of himself with this woman if he wanted her to share herself with him. The revelation had sent him reeling; he didn't want that. He had accepted that he needed to be her friend—for her health and that of her and Draco's child—but he had no interest in her being his. Now he had realised he had no choice, and that knowledge had sent him running.

Coward.

"Is there a star or something … you know, to put on top?"

Thankful to have been shaken from his melancholic thoughts, he shifted his attention to his houseguest. "No. It broke when I was a child. My mother never replaced it."

"A repairing charm didn't work?" she asked innocently as she peered at him from between the laden branches.

His temper flared, as it always did when he was forced to remember his dismal childhood, but he held himself in check. She didn't know of his background, had no idea what dangerous ground she was treading. Perhaps if he told her something, she'd be more willing to share with him.

"My father didn't allow magic," he said tersely.

Her eyes widened. "But your mum—"

He shrugged and attached a bow to one of the branches.

They worked in silence for a while, but he swore he could almost hear her thinking.

"What happened to them? Your parents, I mean."

He flicked a glance in her direction. "They're dead."

Part of him was hoping to hear an impatient huff at his brief response. He was to be disappointed.

Hermione nodded. "Mine, too."

His hand stilled its movement, the glittering bauble dangling from his fingers. "Yes."

"Do you have many friends?" she said suddenly.

"No."

"Do you have any friends?"

His jaw clenched at her impertinence. "Not anymore."

She nodded sadly, her eyes on the bit of glittering tinsel she was draping on the tree's branches. "You're alone, then."

Severus felt the words like a blow, and his spine stiffened with indignation. How dare she—

"Like me."

His anger disappeared in an instant, and he looked at her. Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Then she turned away from him, wrapping her arms about her torso, the tinsel held in her hands twisting with her. She looked so damned lost, so fragile.

So alone.

Like me.

"We still need something to put on top," Hermione said, false cheerfulness infusing her voice. "I—I think I have the perfect thing. I'll just be a moment."

The tension in his chest left with her departure, and he raked his hands through his hair. She was slowly opening up, which was a good thing, he reminded himself. But damn it! He'd meant to maintain his distance from her, to protect himself. It was clear now that it would not be possible.

Reciprocal.

Severus sneered as the word came to mind, but grudgingly accepted it as truth. Lowering himself into his favourite chair, he acknowledged that of all people he should be forced to admit into his life … well, he could have done worse. Hermione Granger Malfoy was loyal to a fault, intelligent, and courageous. Yes, she was stubborn and impertinent and brash. Even those traits, however, were in her favour—he wouldn't want a friend who couldn't stand her ground against him. It could be nice to have someone in his corner for once. It could be nice not to have to be alone.

Maybe this time, if he were lucky, things wouldn't end badly.

He groaned, his head flopping on to the back of the chair.

When had luck ever been on his side?

"Would this be all right?"

Opening his eyes, he turned his head to look at Hermione. She lingered just inside the room. In her hands was a silver peacock, its long tail feathers twining about her arms. He arched an eyebrow.

"For the top of the tree," she explained as she shifted from one foot to the other. "It was Draco's favourite. I thought maybe it would be nice to … you know." She shrugged and looked up to the top of the tree.

Severus slowly rose to his feet and crossed the room to where she was standing. "An excellent idea," he murmured. "May I?"

Hermione nodded and allowed him to carefully take the fragile bird. When he finished placing the peacock atop the tree, it became obvious that it was a magical decoration. The plumage lengthened, wrapping itself around the tree like a ribbon.

Severus moved to stand beside Hermione as they took in the fruits of their labour.

"It is …" He couldn't complete the utterance; there were no words.

"Gloriously tacky," Hermione offered.

He looked down at her and nodded sagely. "The peacock is perhaps a tad much."

While a tinge of sadness still lingered, the small smile that appeared on her lips bespoke her amusement.

He felt his own lips curve upward in reply.

"Thank you," she said, her gaze still fixed upon the tree.

"You're welcome." Without thinking, he added, "And thank you."

Before she could say anything more, he gave a terse "Good night" and then swept from the room.

~o0o~

One day 'til Christmas …

Hermione woke up the next morning, her stomach rumbling with hunger and the baby sitting on her bladder. Heaving her pregnant body from the bed, she hastened to the loo. She performed her morning ablutions and then went back to her room to dress for the day.

As she dressed, she smiled as she recalled the previous evening's activities. Decorating the tree with Professor Snape, whilst occasionally discomfiting, had been enjoyable. In fact, she had enjoyed the past few days especially, as they had moved from discussing intellectual pursuits to more personal matters. Whilst he was still taciturn and often moody, she couldn't help but be pleased whenever she caught a glimpse of the man she'd seen in his letters to Draco. Now she wondered if they could move beyond their shared history. Perhaps they could even be friends.

Perhaps neither of them had to be alone any longer.

Yes, it was clear that Professor Snape needed a friend as much as she did. Actually, they were quite alike in many ways: both were intelligent and thrived on learning; both had difficulty making friends but were fiercely loyal once the bond was made; both had been betrayed by those they believed to be friends.

Both had known loss. Both had lost Draco ….

A sudden thought came to mind, and her jaw dropped in surprise as she put the pieces together.

Maybe this was why Draco had insisted she go to Professor Snape. It was his way of trying to take care of them, to ensure they would be all right after he was gone.

So that they wouldn't be alone.

Tears filled her eyes, and she smiled tremulously. Draco had loved them both, his wife and his friend. It wasn't at all farfetched to believe that he would have wanted them to become friends, even if it was after his death.

Once, she wouldn't have thought such a thing possible, but now … Yes, she believed they could be friends.

She didn't realise she was smiling until she looked into the mirror as she began to tackle her wild mane of hair, but there it was. As she looked, the smile widened, and a rough laugh escaped her lips as she noticed a small sparkle return to her eyes.

Feeling lighter than she had in ages, Hermione quickly finished dressing, then left her bedroom, smile still firmly in place. She missed her husband—she always would—but she was still here. Her fingers drifted to her pregnant belly, and she paused on the stairs to listen to sounds of Professor Snape moving about the kitchen.

She was still here, and she wasn't alone.

She all but skipped down the rest of the stairs to the kitchen.

Professor Snape's wary expression told her that her rare good mood—particularly in the morning—had not gone unnoticed, but she merely continued to smile as she prepared breakfast.

After they'd finished eating, the professor went down to his office, telling her that he would be busy until lunch, and left Hermione to her own devices. She did the washing up, and then found herself at a loss as to what to do next. She supposed she could continue to research medieval potions, but for some reason that wasn't appealing. It was Christmas Eve, after all; surely there was something …

Christmas Eve!

Hermione's face fell. Professor Snape had been so patient with her, had been so unbelievably kind to her, and she hadn't even thought of getting him a gift for Christmas. She looked at the closed door to his basement office, catching her lower lip with her teeth as she sat at the kitchen table and contemplated the idea that was forming in her head.

She really wanted to get him a gift. She already knew the perfect thing—a lovely raven-feathered quill she'd seen when she'd been working at the stationery story in Diagon Alley. Yes, she had promised not to Apparate from her room, but she'd been feeling much better now that she was sleeping and eating regularly. Her mood had improved greatly over the last few days. She felt much more herself, and the baby's near constant squirming was proof of his or her good health. Pansy had also assured her that the baby was doing well and had even agreed that she could return to her job after the holidays, so long as she continued taking care of herself.

Surely it would be all right to pop out for a bit; she'd only be gone fifteen minutes at the most. The professor wouldn't even notice she was gone, and it would be a wonderful surprise, a way to thank him for all he was doing for her.

Decision made, she went to her room to collect her cloak, as well as a quill and a piece of parchment. Perched on the edge of her bed, she scribbled out a note, so that he wouldn't worry should he come upstairs before her return, assuring him that she had popped out for a quick errand and would return shortly. A wave of her wand folded the note into an airplane and sent it sailing to the kitchen table.

That done, she pulled her cloak about her shoulders and then grabbed her bag. Excited about the task at hand, she turned on her heel to Disapparate.

Nothing happened.

Frowning, she tried again.

Again, nothing. She remained in the professor's guestroom.

"What in the world?" she wondered aloud. She'd never had any trouble Apparating before. Why now? Her magic seemed to be fine, so if it wasn't that …

Her eyes narrowed. Furious, she barrelled down the stairs as quickly as her pregnant body would safely allow.

~o0o~

The stomping footsteps overhead alerted Severus that he was about to have a visitor even before the angry rapping at his office door. He leant back in his chair to await her arrival, curious as to what had brought this on given her good mood at breakfast. Not that it mattered; he was pleased by the show of true emotion on her part, be it humour, contentment, or anger.

The door was yanked open, and she called down, "Professor Snape!" as she stormed down the stairs.

Smirking, he settled into his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. This was bound to be amusing.

"Professor Snape," she repeated she entered his office and stood before his desk, hands on her hips and eyes blazing, "did you place an Anti-Disapparition Jinx on my room?"

"No," he answered truthfully, pausing a moment for effect. "I placed an Anti-Disapparition Jinx on the entire first floor."

Her mouth thinned into an angry line. "I appreciate what I am certain were good intentions. However, I am not a child to be coddled or told what to do. Now, am I or am I not a prisoner in this house?"

"You are not," he replied deferentially. "However, given your history of gallivanting off, even to your own detriment, I considered the jinx to be a prudent safety measure."

"Be that as it may," she snapped, "I have every right to leave this house as I wish. Now, I have an errand that I wish to run—although why I should currently escapes me. Remove the jinx."

His lips twitched with amusement. "Do you speak to all your friends in such a manner?"

That brought her up short. She sputtered a moment, then folded her arms across her chest. "Yes."

He couldn't hide his satisfaction at her response. "I see." He merely watched her, waiting until she shifted before speaking again. "I will remove the jinx after lunch and accompany you on your errand."

"I don't need you to accompany me," she said through clenched teeth. "I don't want you to accompany me. It's a surprise, damn it, and I am perfectly capable of going on a fifteen-minute errand by myself!"

Her face had turned a fascinating shade of magenta, and with an angry growl, she turned on her heel, undoubtedly to storm off to her room.

"Hermione," Severus called.

She paused with one foot on the bottom step, her posture rigid and her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

"Now that we're friends, you may call me Severus."

After holding up two fingers in his general direction, she resumed her angry ascent up the stairs to the kitchen.

Severus let out a bark of laughter at her audacity, and then, grinning smugly, returned to his work. Glancing up at the door she'd just exited, he shook his head and chuckled. It was good to see her acting her old self again. "Welcome back, Hermione."



A/N: I apologize profusely for my long absence. Between real life events, running the SS/HG Awards, and a horrible bout of writer's block, things just didn't come together as quickly as I would have liked. This chapter is a turning point for the story, with much ground to cover, and I wanted it to be just right.

There are more notes on this chapter here, if you're interested (take out the spaces): http :// sshg316. livejournal. com/ 208565. html

Thank you to richardgloucester for allowing me to use her family's Christmas tree topper for this chapter. It was too perfect!

My unending gratitude, as always, to my beta readers, Subversa and DeeMichelle, and my Brit picker LettyBIRD. I'd also like to thank Annie Talbot, machshefa, and Lady Rhian for pre-reading for me when I was so nervous about posting.

I'd also like to say thank you to those who voted for this story in the SS/HG Awards! Between the Sand and Stone was nominated for Best WIP and was voted runner-up for Best Angst! Thank you so much!