In the silent hours before sunrise, when nighttime animals tucked in, sated and weary from their hunt, Severus and Hermione curled up together in a tree notch, their wings bowed together to find sleep.

He was cramped …everywhere, and was there any skin left on his knees? No, possibly not. Severus cradled Hermione gently into his reclining form as she slept against him. She'd need more healing than he would. So help him, if they ever emerged from this nightmare intact and human, he'd heal every bruise and kiss every scratch – if she ever allowed him to touch her.

Doubt momentarily clouded his mind as his heavy eyelids struggled to remain open. Would she reject him? Severus lovingly traced her form, committing to memory the tiniest details of his woman – her pebbled toes and shapely calves, the slight swell of her tummy and round fullness of her womanly hips, her small breasts and elegant column of her neck. Hermione rested her head against his shoulder, her dark and wild hair tangled and dirty, and matted against his cheek.

Was it wrong to wish to stay a Pixie forever? If it meant that she'd take hold of her senses once human, he'd build their burrow and pick the forest clean of acorns for her.

Content to hold her, Severus bowed to the inevitable and closed his eyes, protectively clutching his mate.

There was a sharp pain that lanced up his shinbone and through his groin, but the sensation of pain wasn't as overwhelming as the toppling fall through branches that followed.

Severus hit the ground hard; the painful impact forced the breath from his lungs.

Ooof!

Hermione toppled onto him, knocking skulls in a jarring crunch.

He winced and rubbed at his sore neck. It was morning and he was still naked. Although this time he was his usual fish-belly white, a sickly pale and pasty color except for the dark blotches of forming bruises. His hair felt greasier than usual and stuck to his skull. Hardly a Prince Charming – and definitely not what he supposed Hermione imagined waking up next to.

Slowly, as his abused body and age protested the movement, Severus sat up and took stock of their location. It was morning, they were no longer protected by the rubbery blue skin that shielded the Pixies from cold, and Hermione gripped the earth, moaning. One glance at her battered back and arms sprung Severus into action.

An odd assortment of joints popped as he stood, and his trick knee did not want to function at all, but Severus bundled Hermione into his arms, sweeping her from the forest floor. She was a complete mess with dry leaves stuck in her hair, and she was dirty from head to toe. Severus suspected he didn't look any better, but he didn't care much for his own welfare.

Hermione's head lolled against his shoulder as she moaned, leaving a smear of blood.

Desperate and panicked, Severus gritted his teeth and struggled to focus on a modified wandless 'Point Me' spell. While fleeing from cackling mad Pixies they'd left their trail. He breathed a sigh of relief as a thin silvery thread stretched through the trees; neither of them was in any condition to wander the forest for days, wandless and unclothed. Frosty leaves crunched beneath his frozen toes as he followed the thread, a prayer for her safety on his lips.

She shivered and turned closer to the warmth that cradled her. She felt the sensation that she was moving, held tight and carried as her father had once done when she was a child who'd fallen asleep before bedtime. Feeling safe and content, a small smile crept across her lips.

A twig snapped, dispelling her foggy head. Hermione jolted in his arms, and Severus pressed her to him firmly with a gentling plea to relax.

"We're almost there. Stay with me, Hermione; don't go to sleep."

Her muffled reply was not coherent, but she accepted his protective comfort, snuggling into the embrace. When her toes touched the frosty earth Hermione awoke fully. Severus set her down at the heap of their clothes, jar of Pixie dust, and dropped wands. She shook, pale and even more fey-like than the night before, naked and shivering amongst the dry winter brush. But her wand was warm in her palm.

Severus didn't wait for her to cast a warming charm and performed it for her, then followed it with a spell to reveal injuries. He breathed an audible sigh of relief when it displayed her injuries to be superficial. The cut on the back of her head was just a scratch, not a concussion, but he took the time to heal it slowly, parting her hair and allowing himself to treat her tenderly in silent apology for how rough he'd been with her. Then they dressed woodenly, Severus averting his eyes, unwilling to assume liberties he wasn't free to take. She smelled like the forest, of pine needles and wood smoke, a scent he committed to memory and vainly hoped would never wash off.

"Look," Hermione whispered, momentarily breaking his concentration.

Her fingers jabbed towards the Pixie-laden trees.

Severus harrumphed, adding "Fucking Pixies," under his breath for good measure. The blue miscreants were all sprawled out along branches, snoring heavily, obviously sated from a full night of carnal debauchery.

"Fucking Pixies," Hermione repeated with a wan giggle. "But I bet we can finish collecting now."

He looked at her astounded, as she pried the wide-mouth jar from his fingers. Hermione scooped several slumbering Pixies from a branch in one sweep and vigorously shook their dust out as Severus watched gobsmacked. She worked with detached efficiency and without giving much thought to their comfort.

"Is this an act of vengeance?" he asked archly.

Hermione glanced up from her nearly-filled jar, "I'm just not feeling particularly charitable towards those horny little tosspots at the moment." She made a slight moue of disgust, at the sticky residue that coated her hands. "Especially now that I know they don't need the dust to keep them warm."

Severus was unable to argue the point with her; their night had been quite heated.

Once she ruthlessly finished collecting every last speck of dust and sparkle they required, he gathered her to him, for warmth, for assurance, and Apparition. His next thought took them straight to his upstairs bedroom in his modest home.

Hermione immediately slumped on the edge of his bed, arms crossed about her and shivering. She stared vacantly at the floor without as much as a reassuring glance up to him. He could see the wheels turning, thoughts shaping behind her eyes. Severus strongly suspected whatever pronouncement she had in store for him, he'd not like it.

Not that he blamed her.

For every scrape and bruise she had on her back, Severus had a scratch from her nails on his own back. She had desired him. Begged for him, and taken him on like … well … a Pixie in heat. But that hardly absolved him. Once discovering that his purplish pecker was always at the ready and utterly indefatigable, he'd barely given her a moment's rest.

Fear propelled him from her sight, sent him scurrying to the hallway bathroom, just before he opened the door he heard her sigh heavily.

"Shite," Severus murmured with a wince. He should have broken off his wings when he had the chance.

In the bathroom he rummaged for every healing unguent, salve, and potion he had, double checking expiration dates and triple checking counter indications – not that he was stalling for time. And though the store stocked plenty of ready-made potions to prevent conception, he didn't have any at his house. Thirty minutes brewtime and a handful of ingredients could solve that problem, he was considering it just as he heard her move about in the bedroom, and realized he was delaying the inevitable.

Coward! he mentally admonished.

With his arms laden with supplies, he trudged back to the bedroom like a prisoner to his execution. She'd grabbed his tartan throw, one of Minerva's daft ideas of a birthday gift though he'd been unable to part with it, and slung it across her shoulders to snuggle in its woolen warmth as she worried her lower lip. Her lips were still puffy and reddened from his kisses. The reminder of her hot lips sliding against his gave him the urge to kiss them again, but the grim reality of their situation made that impossible. Hermione only worried her lip when she was deep in thought, and most likely mentally preparing herself to crush the shards of his heart beneath her grubby trainers.

Slowly with deliberate movements, he set each bottle and jar on the bedside table in the appropriate application order.

"Look," she cut across his thoughts and movements, her eyes wet with unshed tears as she looked up with him. Severus' hand stilled, gripping painfully the muscle relaxer. "You're not going to like what I've got to say, but I think it needs to be said."

Severus nodded in understanding, unable to speak.

"I don't think we're cut out for harvesting rare and dangerous potions ingredients."

The muscle relaxer dropped from his fingertips.

"It's too dangerous. I manage to get bitten every time I go out. You manage to get yourself sent to Saint Mungo's for at least a day or two. And though it sells very well – when it sells – where does it really get us? I love the Apothecary Severus, you know I do. And I love you, you should know that too, but honestly…" her plaintive brown eyes searched him for understanding, pleading with him. "I can't keep seeing you get hurt."

He coughed drily as his throat had closed up, slowly processing her words.

"What would you have me do?" he asked.

Hermione shrugged haphazardly and in a way that on any other day he would have found maddening. She didn't understand, she probably couldn't understand the true meaning of his question. She needed to only say the word, and he'd do it. Besotted, lovesick fool that he was… his mate had confessed that she loved him.

"I don't know," she said honestly. "Maybe refocus the shop – start selling trendier potions. I know how much you abhor vanity potions, but that's what sells. Or… I've been offered a very lucrative research grant in Leicester. I'm sure there would be a spot for you on the team. You could come with me, maybe? Hopefully?"

Sinking on trembling legs, Severus knelt before her to throw his arms about her hips and lay his head on her lap. Her thighs were warm beneath his cheek, and her fingers lazily trailed through his stringy locks, stroking his skin with such tenderness he had no words to respond. Pulled from one emotional extreme to another, he was crumpled from the inside, but relieved, infinitely relieved – and not rejected.

Severus nodded.

"So you'll do it?" she asked, her voice full of surprise.

He nodded again.

"Which option Severus?"

"Does it matter?"

Her fingertips rifled affectionately through his inkspill hair. "No, my love, I suppose it doesn't."

A/N: Beta'd by the amazingly talented christev and alpha-read by the extraordinarily mischievous mischievous_t.