There's a bit of everything here.

"Courage is of the heart by derivation, and great it is. But fear is of the soul."
– Robert Frost.

"You're late," Neville accused her when she finally arrived at the Three Broomsticks, handing her a drink. "Where were you?"

"Sorry, I guess I lost track of time," she said apologetically, trying to sound innocent.

She failed. General laughter spread around the table, and George declared triumphantly, "I knew it! Pay up, Harry."

"What?" Hermione asked, somewhat baffled, as Harry good-naturedly handed over a couple of Galleons.

It turned out that her dear friends had been laying wagers since they had last seen her just before term started that she was involved with someone – apparently that really did show, although her blush was confirmation enough and more.

"So come on, tell us everything," Ginny said encouragingly, pressing another drink on her.

Hermione bit her lip, her mind racing as she wondered what to say. On the one hand, it was nobody's business but hers and Severus'. On the other hand, these people were friends, and there was no malice in their questions. And she was happy and it would be nice to share some of that happiness. How would Severus handle this? she asked herself, and smiled suddenly. He'd tell the truth, in such a way that nobody guessed it. Time to be a Slytherin.

"Well, I'm certainly not telling you everything," she said, smiling as she took a drink. "I'm not even going to tell you his name, not yet. But yes, there is someone."

"How long have you been together?"

"We used to know one another a long time ago, but we lost touch. Last year we met up again, by accident, and we got talking. We've only been together for a couple of months, though."

"Is he the mystery friend who gave you your ring?"

"Yes," Hermione admitted, all too aware of Luna's suddenly no longer vague stare, and Ginny laughed.

"I knew it! So what's he like? If he knows about your Patronus he must be a wizard; is he Muggleborn too?"

"He's a half-blood."

"Did he go to Hogwarts?"

"Yes; that's why I'm not telling you his name."

"Which House?"

"I'm not telling you that, either. Not Gryffindor, though."

"Ravenclaw," several voices said at once, and Hermione only smiled, neither confirming nor denying it as she fought the sudden urge to giggle. It was so, so tempting to tell them everything, just to see the looks on their faces, but Severus would kill her – if they didn't beat him to it.

"Is he someone from our year?" Neville asked.

"No, he's older. Quite a bit older, actually..."

"How much older?"

Hermione hesitated. Intellectually she knew that compared to the total life span of a witch or wizard, two decades was small change, but part of her still thought like a Muggle. "Twenty years," she admitted.

"Fifty? Bah, he's barely more than a teenager," George, the eldest present, declared to general laughter.

"And is he tall, dark and handsome?" Harry asked teasingly.

Smothering a laugh, Hermione nodded, smiling. "Actually, yes! Well, tallish, although not as tall as most of you beanpoles, and dark hair and eyes, at least. He's not conventionally what you'd call handsome, but I think he is, although I doubt any of you would agree with me. I doubt he would, come to that."

"Did he sweep you off your feet?"

She very nearly lost it completely then, mostly from trying to imagine Severus' reaction had he heard that question. "Um, no, not really! Look, this isn't the romance of the century. I don't even know where it's going..."

"You say that, but your smile says something different," Ginny told her. "You're being dreadfully unfair, Hermione; you won't give us any details."

"Well, what do you want to know?"

"What's he like?"

Hermione considered the question. "He's very intelligent," she said finally, slowly, thinking about her words as she spoke. "Brilliant, really, if a subject interests him. He's quiet; he tends to keep to himself. He has very firm opinions and a bit of a temper – we've had some pretty memorable arguments. He likes music... He speaks Latin... He can be very moody and intense sometimes, and he's not always easy to understand, and there are days when he's impossible to live with..."

"He sounds wonderful," Neville said sarcastically, and as punishment was sent to fetch the next round of drinks.

"I know, but actually, he is," Hermione said when he returned, taking her glass. "Because for every day when he's snarling and sulking, there's a day when he's looked at me and known exactly what I need – don't laugh like that, Ginny, it's disturbing," she added with a smothered giggle. "I don't mean... that. I mean things like – like knowing when I'm upset without me needing to do or say anything, or knowing when he's done something that's made me angry, or just knowing that I could use a sympathetic ear. And when he wants to be, he's incredibly thoughtful and considerate. I don't know how else to describe it. He... he's what I need, right now."

"Well, he certainly seems to have made you happy, which is wonderful to see," Ginny told her sincerely. "Do you love him?"

"I don't know. It's still early days, and I don't want to rush and risk driving him away."

"He's likely to run if you get serious?" Neville asked.

"I don't know. I don't think so, but I don't want to take the chance. It's complicated... we both have some issues to deal with. He has... a bit of a history. We're working on it."

"Do you think he loves you?"

"I don't know that, either. He's not openly demonstrative – I think in his own way he's scared of making a mistake. We're taking things slowly. Neither of us is in a hurry; if this is going to go anywhere, it will. But I am happy."

"Was he in the war?" Harry asked very quietly. They all knew the question meant more than it seemed.

"Yes," Hermione agreed equally softly.

"He's someone from the Order?" George asked, lightening the mood. "I knew it! It's Mundungus Fletcher, isn't it?"

"Don't be disgusting!" Hermione protested, laughing despite herself. "Mundungus is a lot older than that, and about as intelligent as a Flobberworm! And no, he wasn't in the Order." That wasn't, technically speaking, a lie; Severus had never been formally accepted into their ranks, and had sworn to Dumbledore personally rather than to the Order. It was a technicality, but one she was prepared to hide behind.

"But he saw action?"

"A lot. It didn't do him any favours. That's one reason it's a little complicated. As I said, we're working on it."

"Do you see him often?" Ginny asked. "It must be difficult, with you at Hogwarts all the time."

"He went to Hogwarts too; he understands. And I see him more often than you'd think," Hermione replied, and was aware of Luna trying not to choke on her drink. Judging by her smile, the Ravenclaw was enjoying this game; judging by the look in the usually-dreamy eyes, Hermione had a lot of explaining to do later.

"I'm glad Ron's not here for this discussion," George commented cheerfully. "I don't want to begin to imagine the sulks."

"I'm going to give him an earful tomorrow," Ginny said, shaking her head. "He should be here."

"It's all right," Hermione said, smiling a little wistfully. "If he has to work, he has to work. Yes, I know he probably could have got out of it, but... we don't have much to say to each other these days, and I don't want to fight with anyone tonight. It's my birthday, and I'm having fun with my friends."

"And you have a tallish, dark and possibly-handsome wizard waiting for you afterwards?" George teased.

"Yes, Hermione, share. What's he like?" Ginny asked eagerly.

"You already asked that," Harry said, and flushed when everyone laughed. "Oh. Right. That."

"That's personal," Hermione retorted, but she could feel her face burning, and only blushed harder when her friends laughed. "Oh, all right. He's wonderful. Now stop it."

"Yes, please stop," Harry agreed hastily, looking nearly as embarrassed as she was.

Neville came to the rescue. "Let's ask the really important question; what does Crookshanks think of him? We all know that's the opinion that matters!"

Hermione laughed. "Actually, Crooks adores him."

"Oho, it must be serious!" George cried, grinning.

In the bathroom, Luna cornered her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were in Portugal, busy hunting monsters."

"Oh. Fair enough," the Ravenclaw conceded cheerfully. "Why didn't you tell me afterwards, then?"

"Because... oh, lots of reasons. Because I couldn't quite believe it was real. Because I didn't want to tell anyone while it was still so new. Because I've never liked talking about my private life; and because I know he won't want anyone to know. You're the only person who knows enough to even guess, and I trust you not to tell anyone, but... oh, I don't know, Luna. I always meant to tell you eventually, but the time never felt right. I was telling the truth out there, I'm not sure where this is going. There are so many problems..."

"You're very good at problem solving," Luna said mildly. "I'm not offended."

"You're not even surprised, are you? Did you know this would happen?"

"Not really. I remember thinking after we'd talked about him a little that the two of you had a great deal in common and that you might be good for one another, but I don't think I expected it to happen, at least not so soon."

"Yes, it was a bit sudden," Hermione admitted wryly.

"Ginny's right, though. I've never seen you this happy. And I'm happy for you; both of you."

Hermione blinked as her eyes stung. "Thank you, Luna."

The two hugged, before George's voice broke the mood as he shouted from outside the door, "Come on, birthday girl, champagne time!"

The dungeons were in darkness as she made her way unsteadily through his rooms. Of all the nights for him to suddenly decide to go to bed at a normal time, Hermione thought fuzzily, opening the door to his bedroom and slipping inside – having had the foresight to remove her shoes in the living room so she would make less noise. Given the state she was in, there was no way she was moving with any kind of stealth, so she was a little surprised that Severus was actually still asleep when she reached the bed. There was just enough light filtering in from somewhere to show his face, slack in repose. No sign of tears tonight – either he hadn't reached that phase yet or he'd been through it already; she had learned by now that it happened almost every night. Nearly losing her balance twice, she shed her clothing, watching him the entire time.

He didn't wake even when she slipped into bed beside him and pressed close against the warm curve of his back, which was unusual. As was his habit – at least when she wasn't there – he was wearing a pair of faded tracksuit bottoms in lieu of pyjamas, and no shirt; resting her cheek against his back, she gently kissed one of the worst scars on his shoulder blade, sliding an arm around his waist and trailing her fingers down his stomach.

Severus stirred. "Hermione?" he mumbled sleepily, and she smothered a giggle.

"Who else would it be?"

"Hmph. Good night?"

"Yes, actually; it was fun. You should've been there."

"Whatever for?"

"I'd have liked it. I missed you."

"You were only gone a few hours," he pointed out, stifling a yawn.

"Too long," she insisted, her hand sliding beneath the waistband of his trousers.

"You're drunk."

"Probably," she agreed cheerfully, stroking him. "Does that matter?"

"It might, in the morning."

"Then worry about it in the morning," she told him, kissing his back again as she fondled him, feeling him responding despite himself. "It's my birthday."

"It's after midnight. It was your birthday yesterday."

"I don't really care." She heard him draw a breath to argue and promptly put her free hand over his mouth, feeling his lips move against her palm before abruptly his tongue flickered over her skin. Surprised, she started to draw her hand away, and he caught her wrist, turning his head a little and drawing her fingers into his mouth before sucking them gently, his mouth hot and wet.

He was swelling rapidly under her hand, impossibly soft skin in vivid contrast to the hard length it enclosed, and she concentrated more fully on touching him, feeling the veins and ridges – yes, and the scars – as though it was the first time she had done so. When she brushed the head of him and teased the foreskin gently he stopped suckling on her fingers and groaned, arching back against her; she drew her hand out of his mouth, tracing his lips before stroking the scarred skin of his back and making him shiver. Sliding her other hand down his shaft once more, she moved lower, and he shifted his legs further apart to allow her to cradle his testicles in her palm.

Hermione kissed the side of his neck gently and felt him shudder, and she knew it wasn't entirely from pleasure. He was astonishingly vulnerable at this moment; the trust he was showing by making no effort to pull away was almost unbelievable. Coupled with his willing submission earlier in the day, it was nothing short of miraculous, and she wondered briefly what it was costing him to do so.

Her fingers still damp from his mouth, she traced his throat, feeling his pulse fluttering under her fingertips before stroking over the delicate structure of his trachea and finding the snakebite scars; he swallowed, and she gently squeezed his erection with her other hand to distract him, making him shiver again. They could both imagine the damage she could do in this position before he could stop her, and she felt oddly emotional to confront the proof of his trust in her, fragile though it was, especially given what he had been through in the past.

Knowing that this was making him uncomfortable, she let go and drew away, allowing Severus to roll over and look at her. His eyes held a peculiar blend of relief and disappointment that she had stopped, and it made her smile as she moved into the circle of his arms and allowed him to take control once more. After some seriously intense kissing, he broke away to catch his breath, and asked, "You're not as drunk as you seem, are you?"

She grinned at him. "You've seen me drunk before – you've got me drunk before. What do you think?"

"Witch," he muttered, not sounding as if he minded the deception too much.

"You're in no position to complain. You're the lightest sleeper I've ever known, and I may not be completely drunk but I'm definitely not sober enough to move quietly, and that's without considering all your wards and security measures. You woke up the moment I walked into the Potions classroom, never mind when I got into the bedroom, didn't you?"

His only response was to kiss her again, which rather answered her question anyway. Laughing softly, she reached down to help him squirm out of his trousers, wondering in some amusement if he had ever been asleep at all and whether the only reason he had even gone to bed was because she had suggested that he might have planned to wait up for her. Then the question ceased to matter, because his fingers had slid between her legs and his mouth had closed over her nipple and the rising heat quickly stifled all thought.

When he finally entered her it was clear that the teasing had gone on a little too long for both of them. His movements were quick and harsh, his breathing heavy, and she was no better as she writhed under him and clutched at his buttocks to pull him deeper, harder, biting at his neck and shoulder. He shuddered and turned his head to catch her lips with his, kissing her with almost bruising force before growling against her mouth, "Not the neck."

"Sorry," she managed to gasp, belatedly realising that he had some very good reasons to dislike having his neck bitten, even in play. Ignoring the apology, he kissed her again, thrusting into her once more; his pace was growing more erratic and she could tell from the sound of his breathing that he was close.

He shifted his weight, and she realised after a moment that he was trying to free one hand so that he could touch her, but his right leg couldn't support him in this position and he needed both arms to hold his body over hers. He made a frustrated sound and she arched her back, tightening her muscles around him. "It doesn't matter," she said breathlessly, "I'm almost there..."

"Almost..." he answered indistinctly, gasping and closing his eyes, biting his lip and trembling with the strain as he fought the inevitable. Tangling a hand in his hair, she brought his head down and kissed him, gently suckling on his lower lip where he'd just bitten it, and felt him shifting his hips as he drove into her hard and fast.

"Oh, God, Severus," she groaned, breaking the kiss and throwing her head back to concentrate on the fire rapidly building. Her saying his name proved to be his undoing; he moaned softly, deep in the back of his throat, and shuddered convulsively before his body stiffened and he cried out as he came. If there were any words in that incoherent sound, she couldn't tell, but his climax triggered her own release and everything dissolved in the haze of pleasure that followed.

Life settled back into a comfortable routine, weeks drifting by in a strange parody of domesticity. When she didn't have classes, she read or worked quietly in his rooms, marking essays, drafting exam papers and planning her future syllabus. He was teaching most of the day; he spent his few free periods either doing paperwork or down in the lab brewing Infirmary potions as well as his own private stock. The evenings were their real time, when they settled comfortably side by side on the sofa in front of the fire and read or talked before she spent the night in his bed.

Hermione was going through her post one morning when a letter made her curse. "Damnit!"

"What?" he asked absently, doing up his shirt as he got ready for the day – his first class was in less than an hour.

"It's from my landlord; he's increased my rent again."

"You pay rent all year round?" he asked, turning to look at her. "You live here all but two months of the year."

"That's why he keeps increasing the rent; he wants me to move out," she replied sourly.

"Then move out. You don't need anywhere until the end of June, and it seems a pointless waste of money to pay for somewhere you don't use."

"And what do I do in June? I'll never find anywhere during the holiday season."

Severus hesitated before turning away and attempting to busy himself with threading his belt through his trousers, not looking at her as he answered in a carefully neutral tone, "You spent most of your time at the van last summer."

She froze, staring at his back. He can't possibly mean what I think he means... Trying to keep her voice from shaking, she replied slowly, "That's true..."

He shrugged, still not looking at her. "Well then, logic would seem to dictate the obvious solution," he said, with a masterful display of apparent total indifference, doing up his belt.

"And you don't mind?"

"Doubtless you intended to be there for much of the time anyway. I have been meaning to sort through my possessions for some time; there will be space." The somewhat awkward silence that followed was broken by Crookshanks, who moved to sit at Severus' feet and meowed, staring up at the wizard. He looked down at the cat and raised an eyebrow. "I may even be persuaded to put a cat flap in the door," he added sourly.

Trying not to laugh at that, she crossed the room to stand in front of him, touching his face. "And I won't be in the way?"

He rolled his eyes. "No, you'll be extremely in the way. Without the irritation of your presence I could be throwing wild parties for all my vast array of friends, but once you are a permanent fixture instead of a semi-permanent one my life as I know it will end."

"You're overdoing the sarcasm just a little, Severus."

"And you're overdoing the questions. If I objected, I would not have offered – or did you think I was doing so out of the goodness of my heart?" he asked with heavy irony, looking down at her. "My spare keys are in the top drawer of my desk. This weekend I shall begin sorting through my things."

"Thank you," she said softly.

"I have a class to teach," he replied flatly, turning away and heading for the door – she might have been upset by the abrupt departure, except for two things. One, as he turned away there had been a clear flash of relief and an almost-smile in his eyes; two, his hand brushed hers, just for a moment.

By late October she had noticed his mood changing, and not for the better; he was noticeably more short-tempered and snappish, and his old sleeping patterns were reasserting themselves. He seldom slept for more than an hour or two at a time now, and she frequently woke to find him absent; she would curl up with Crookshanks and the Marauder's Map and watch him restlessly prowling the castle. In his rare better moods, he had apologised – in his own way, i.e. without at any point explicitly saying that he was sorry and yet somehow managing to convey that impression – but it wasn't easy to deal with.

They argued more often; Hermione understood the reasons for this mood and tried not to respond when he baited her, but this only drove him to greater efforts and he returned to something of the sneering viciousness she recalled from her younger days.

"He's deliberately trying to pick fights," she complained to Luna the weekend before Halloween. "I know he's upset, but this isn't going to help, and it hurts. He's starting to be really spiteful."

Luna tilted her head thoughtfully before giving Hermione her most unfocused and dreamy stare and replying vaguely, "Who else does he have to fight with?"

"What?" Hermione asked blankly.

"He's not going to sit and talk about his feelings. You know that. Arguments are safe; if he's feeling angry, he's not hurting. How many people do you know who lash out when they're feeling vulnerable? And you're the only one he trusts. He can't pick on anyone else without revealing how much he's hurting."

She thought about this for a while. In a perverse and twisted way, it made sense; it did seem like the sort of logic Severus would use. Recalling some of their most recent fights, she sighed. "And, of course, he's so chewed up with self loathing at the moment that he's trying to drive me away to give himself another reason to be miserable. I swear he doesn't believe he deserves to be happy."

"Probably not," Luna agreed mildly. "How far is he going when you argue?"

She knew what her friend was really asking and shook her head. "It's not that bad, not yet. He's being spiteful and nasty, but he's not being really personal. I don't believe he'd go that far; he knows I could hurt him just as much, if not more. You're right, he just wants... I don't know, a distraction, or to punish himself; or both, probably. Not that that makes it any better."

"He'll be all right once Halloween's past," the Ravenclaw said encouragingly. She smiled brightly. "And I expect you can make him feel guilty for being so horrible. That always sounds like fun when I hear people talk about it."

Hermione smothered a laugh. "It's not as fun as you'd think. Harry gets sulky, and Ron always looks like a kicked spaniel. I've not tried it with Severus, but I'm certain he'd know what I was doing and either get angry with me or shut himself off and go all cold and distant again. Besides, I'm sure he's got more than enough to feel guilty about... I don't want to play those sorts of games with him."

"Well, then, I think all you can do is wait it out. You could try fighting back, if he gives you an opening to turn it into one of those stupid fights that neither of you really wants and that just gets ridiculous. Or just leave him to it; he's coped alone all these years. I doubt he's comfortable having you see it now."

"Maybe. Thanks, Luna. I just needed to vent a bit."

"Go and vent at him. It'll probably do you both good."

In the end, she had gone with Luna's second piece of advice, and left him to it. Surprisingly, Crookshanks had followed her example – in fact, he had beaten her to it; in the middle of an argument, the half-Kneazle hissed to draw their attention, then gave Severus a filthy look of utter disapproval and walked out.

"Maybe that's for the best," Hermione said quietly as Crookshanks' tail disappeared around the edge of the door. "I don't think either of us being here so often is helping while things are so bad. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"If that's what you want," he replied flatly, no longer sounding angry. He had reverted to the emotionless blank state that she so disliked.

"I want what's going to help you feel better, Severus, and right now I'm making it worse. So I'm going to back off for a little while and let you find your balance again and decide what you want. But I don't intend staying away for long, so make sure you're back to your usual self soon; I want to see the man, not the mask."

Before she had even left his quarters, she heard the door to his laboratory slam so hard that the floor shook, and winced. I hope I'm doing the right thing.

Severus avoided her after that; she might have taken it personally, except that he was avoiding everyone, even more emphatically than he usually did. When he wasn't teaching, he spent the time holed up in his lab, as far as she could tell, and clearly didn't want company. He hadn't changed the password to his rooms, but she knew what her reception would be and stayed clear. It was up to him to make the next move this time.

He was at the Halloween feast, naturally; he wouldn't have revealed his feelings by asking to be excused from it, but he spent the entire meal playing with his food and keeping his eyes fixed on his plate. Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she studied the tension in his hunched shoulders and noted the way he angled his head to ensure that his hair – in need of washing, by the look of it – hid as much of his face as possible, and knew he was hurting badly. She also doubted he had slept at all over the past couple of nights; then again, she hadn't slept much either. She missed him.

That night Hermione woke to the awareness that something had changed, and some instinct warned her to stay still and keep her eyes closed. She strained her ears, trying to hear a sound that didn't belong, but there was nothing except the nagging sense that she wasn't alone. Crookshanks was off hunting, and it wasn't an animal anyway; she knew exactly who it was. There were only two people in Hogwarts who could get into her rooms without her permission, and only one of them wouldn't announce themselves.

"Severus, what are you doing?" she asked wearily. "I thought you wanted to be on your own."

The silence grew more oppressive. She listened to the faint tick of her bedroom clock, counting the seconds, and it was fully three and a half minutes before there was any response.

"So did I," he said finally in a very small voice.

Opening her eyes, she blinked, allowing her vision to adjust to the near-darkness. Just enough moonlight filtered around the edges of her curtains to let her see the patch of deeper shadow near the door. "How long have you been standing there?"

There was another tense silence, although it didn't last quite as long as the first. "...I don't know," he admitted uncomfortably.

Rather than use an illumination spell, she flicked her wand at the window, opening the curtains just enough to allow a little more natural light into the room. Now she could see him more clearly; he was leaning against the wall and staring at the floor. Sitting up, she watched him until it became obvious that he wasn't going to look at her or speak again. "Why are you here?" she asked finally, bluntly.

Severus shifted uneasily, and when he answered he sounded as hesitant and unhappy as she had ever heard him. "I wanted to – to apologise." She considered asking him what for, but decided that it would be petty and spiteful to make him say it. Maybe he deserved it, but it wasn't completely his fault, and he was trying to make amends now. When she didn't answer him, he moved his head slightly, and she caught the gleam of his eyes shrouded behind the curtains of hair as he glanced at her before returning his gaze to the floor. "I'm sorry, Hermione."

It was tempting to ignore it, to throw it back in his face, and maybe he did deserve it, but Hermione knew she didn't have it in her to be that cruel. She suspected they were both thinking of Lily, who had rejected his apology so many years ago despite his best efforts to explain that he hadn't meant it, that he had been hurting and humiliated. If she did the same thing to him now... she couldn't even begin to imagine the damage it would do to him.

"So you should be," she told him quietly. "You've been a real bastard recently."

"I know." She heard him swallow. "I have no excuses," he said quietly, with a catch in his voice. "I just – I'm sorry." He sounded genuinely upset, and raised a hand to his face for a moment before letting it fall to his side once more. "I'm no good at this," he added hopelessly.

"At apologising? No, you're not," she told him bluntly, and he actually flinched.

"No, not that. At... this. Us. If there is an 'us'. I don't know – how to act around other people. I haven't – haven't lived with anyone since I was a teenager. When I'm on my own, nobody cares what I say or do, it doesn't matter how I feel because it's only me. I'm used to that. But – when you're there, it – it confuses things, because I don't know what's happening any more and everything feels less certain. I don't know what I should be thinking or feeling, and I hate Halloween, and none of my usual ways of coping have worked, and I've been watching myself – being a bastard, and it felt like there was no point in trying to stop it because it's going to happen anyway because that's what I am. I've fucked up everything I've ever done. And this isn't... isn't what I wanted to say, damn it."

"You're not drunk, are you?" she asked before she could stop herself; this was so completely unlike Severus that all she could think of was last New Year and his rambling, inarticulate and pain-filled account of his life.

He made a choked sound that was possibly supposed to be a bitter laugh. "No." After a long moment he sighed, defeated. "I'll go. I'm making this worse. I don't even know what I'm trying to say."

"Well, that makes two of us," Hermione answered tightly, touched despite herself by his obvious struggle. He was trying so hard to explain how he felt, when he didn't know himself, and it seemed that when it came to relationships he was even less experienced than she was. She tried to answer him as best she could, reining in her temper. "There's no rule book, Severus. There's nothing you should be thinking, or feeling. And even if there were... we're not exactly conventional people, either of us. Whatever this is, it confuses me, too. I know you hate Halloween. I know why, at least most of the reasons. I don't even mind you taking it out on me, a little, because I'm here and there isn't anyone else. What I don't like is that you feel you have to be so spiteful and cold because it's somehow expected of you. You're trying to punish yourself, and you're trying to push me away because you feel safer back in your isolation. It's cowardly, it's not fair to me, and it's not worthy of you."

Her use of the word coward had been deliberate. She had seen Harry's memory of the night Dumbledore had died and she had seen how he had reacted to the insult; she knew it remained one of his triggers. His entire body jerked, his breath catching, but she wasn't prepared for his reaction. She had expected rage, fury, perhaps even the threat of violence, and she had her wand ready; what she hadn't expected was for him to say very quietly in a choked voice, "Please don't."

"Don't what?"

"Don't use... that against me. Please."

"I don't understand," she said slowly.

There was a long silence. When Severus spoke again, his voice was surprisingly even, although a little hoarse and rough. "People have been using my emotions against me for longer than you have been alive. I can't bear it any more, especially not from you. You know me better than anyone ever has – you know everything you'd need to break me once and for all. I am a – a coward. I'm scared half out of my mind, because I can't control this and I don't know what the hell I'm doing and I won't be able to stop it when it all falls apart. And it will, because I'm too – broken. I don't have it in me – I can't be what you... what you deserve."

Tears stung the back of her eyes. "Oh, Severus," she said softly, getting out of bed and padding over to him, brushing his hair out of his face and trying to make him look at her. "I keep telling you that you're a far better man than you think you are. And even if you weren't, it wouldn't matter. I don't want some hypothetical perfect man – even if he existed, I'd be bored to death within a month. A friend told me once that I need someone I can argue with, someone who can keep up with me, someone who can challenge me. She was right. I need someone complicated, someone who's intelligent and brave and – and a snarky git," she added, smiling despite herself. "This scares me, too, but... in a good way, I think. You're not broken, not completely. A bit damaged, perhaps, but so am I. If this does fall apart, we'll just put it back together."

He had closed his eyes so he didn't have to look at her, but some of the rigid lines of his face had softened a little. "Just like that, I suppose."

"In between all my other little projects, yes," she said offhandedly.

The corner of his mouth twitched, and he opened his eyes at last. It was difficult to read his expression in the dim light, but he had relaxed slightly. "Insufferable Gryffindor," he murmured, with the faintest hint of a questioning, hopeful note in his voice.

"Obstinate bastard," she shot back. He smiled then, although traces of sorrow remained in his expression. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him gently on the lips. "Come to bed, Severus. We both need some sleep. I'm amazed you haven't killed any students this week."

He followed her docilely in silence, stripping down to his trousers and waiting as she crawled back under the covers before she shifted over to let him slide in beside her. Turning to face him, she wrapped her arms around him and drew him close, and after a moment he turned his face into her neck and settled into her embrace without saying anything. Closing her eyes, she savoured the familiar warmth of his body and the much-missed scent of him, and was soon asleep.