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Severus had supposed it was far too much to ask that he and Hermione could continue to…enjoy each other without some half-baked attempt by Ronald Weasley to defend what he almost certainly considered to be his territory. He knew the boy had had designs on Hermione for nearly their entire time at Hogwarts, though he was utterly incompetent and bumbling at it and, in the end, had finally lost her.

Sounds familiar, the voice in the back of his mind told him. Severus tried to ignore it but it continued. He's probably here to tell you to keep your greasy, murdering, Death Eater hands off his ex-girlfriend.

How terribly chivalrous of him, Severus thought wryly. It reminded him of the old song the Sorting Hat used to sing: Their daring, nerve, and chivalry set Gryffindors apart. Why did people persist in considering those attributes as assets rather than liabilities?

In any case, he knew she and Weasley had been involved both during and after the war. It had been front-page Prophet news when they broke up shortly after he awoke from his coma, and nobody ever did learn the reason why. Hermione had never spoken of it, and Severus had never asked. He frankly hadn't cared; he never understood their attraction to each other in the first place. Still, Severus understood the desperation and single-minded focus of a man who has lost a woman he loved and only wants to win her back. He had played that game himself for far too many years of his life.

Still, he had no desire to battle Weasley or even spend much time regarding him. Same dull blue eyes, same ridiculous freckling on his skin, same vacant expression. Weasley had not changed a bit. What Hermione had ever seen in him was beyond Severus, and he stopped that train of thought before he could begin to wonder what qualities or, Merlin forbid, skills the boy might have that would impress her. He preferred to believe their relationship had been an accident of time and place and circumstance and nothing more. Weasley was unworthy of her, plain and simple. And there was no way in hell he was going to discuss their…arrangement with him. Even if Weasley tried to torture it out of him. Which Severus knew even Weasley was not stupid enough to try.

The two men stared at each other in silence for a very long time, each one silently daring the other to speak first. It was a tactic Severus had used for many years as a teacher, cajoling an unaware student to speak first and instigate his wrath. He had used it on Weasley before to great effect. When Weasley did not take the bait, Severus crossed his arms and quirked an eyebrow.

"I don't have all day, Weasley," Severus finally said, breaking the silence.

"I won't be long."


Weasley looked around. "I'm not sure your foyer is the best place to have a chat. Is there somewhere a bit more private we could go?"

Severus gave a theatrical sigh and beckoned Weasley to follow him to the kitchen of Grimmauld Place. When they reached their destination, he once again crossed his arms and quirked an eyebrow in Weasley's direction, daring him to challenge Severus about Hermione.

Severus was a man who prided himself on rarely being surprised by anything, but Weasley's words managed to completely disarm him.

"I'm not here to tell you to stay away from Hermione, or to rail against you for being with her, or to throw all of your past in your face. Hermione is one of my best friends and someone I still love very much. You've made her happy. That's what I'm here to talk about."

Severus said nothing, which Weasley correctly interpreted as an invitation to continue.

"Ever since the war she's been very fragile, emotionally. She hasn't really got involved with anyone, for fear of getting her heart broken, and she hasn't taken on any ambitious challenges, for fear of failure. Helping you is the first major project she has really taken on. Yes, there was that thing with the House Elves, but she didn't have to work that hard because frankly she was Hermione Granger and the Ministry was not going to be seen vetoing a bill written by her. She's…affected, Snape. She acts tough and determined but she is a very fragile person.

"I don't know how serious you are about her, and she hasn't said, but I know her and I know that she's probably serious about you. Hermione doesn't do casual relationships and never does anything only halfway. Not even now, after everything.

"I still do love her. I will not get between the two of you, but I care very much about her well-being. I know I can never be with her again, but I do love her and I want her to be happy.

"If you hurt her..." Weasley took a step closer and put a hand on Severus's arm none too gently. "If you hurt her, you answer to me."

Releasing Severus's arm, he gave a nod and walked out of the kitchen. Severus heard his footsteps as he crossed the sitting room and showed himself out.

Severus leaned against the wall and exhaled. No one was around, so he could let his guard down. He liked Hermione very much, found her company more than tolerable, and found himself growing increasingly attached to her. He was definitely possessive of her, as he was with all things that belonged to him.

Belonged to him…did she belong to him? Weasley seemed to think so. Severus wondered briefly if he was brave enough to admit to himself that he wanted her to belong to him.

It's only a matter of time until she leaves you too, he heard the voice say. Are you really putting so much stock into what Ronald fucking Weasley has to say on the subject?

Under ordinary circumstances, Severus would say no, that the opinions and conclusions of Weasley, any Weasley, were beneath his notice. But he had to admire the boy for coming to him, for telling him about Hermione's emotional state (she had been unreadable in this regard), and warning him to tread carefully with her. He was not afraid of Weasley's threat (Ronald Weasley threaten him—hah!) but like all conversations, the real meaning often lay beneath the surface of the words.

Hermione had developed some feelings for him, and if he played his cards right, they might develop into something more.

And Weasley still loves her, said the voice in the back of his head, the one that always filled him with doubt and dread. If you screw this up, he will be waiting.

Leopold Rosier stared at the small parchment in his hands. He had read the letter more times than he could count, but had not yet taken his eyes off the page.

His Hogwarts letter.

While such an occasion would bring joy and excitement to the hearts of any eleven-year-old, it filled Leopold's heart with dread. He would be away from his sister Ermengarde. He knew, knew, that his sister Brigita was not actually at Hogwarts anymore. He knew this because when she was first there, she owled almost every day. After a few months into her second year, they stopped and they had not heard anything from their eldest sister in nearly a year.

Leopold was certain that she was still alive. If he got to Hogwarts, he might be able to find out where she was. He was certain Mr. Snape knew, but he would not say where she was or what had happened to her. In all likelihood, something bad had happened.

Yes, he would wait. Leopold was very good at waiting for good things to happen, and now he would only have to wait a few weeks more.

Hermione sat at her desk in the middle of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement Audit Office checking her references against her report. Every sentence had to be supported by her references, the notes and interviews and documents she had collected during her audit. Even small, obvious things like the orphanage's location had to be referenced and cross-checked. It was a tedious process, to say the least.

She let her thoughts drift to something Severus had said to her the night their…time together began.

You were not born to be a bureaucrat, Hermione. You spending your career there is a waste of your talent and your intelligence.

He had been correct that this wasn't exactly the most stimulating work. But it was safe work. It was for the Ministry. She had had such high hopes of changing the organization from the inside. Instead here she was, cross-referencing sources in an audit report that would be filed away as soon as she was finished and never read. The recommendations would never be implemented.

What was the bloody point?

She didn't want to do this anymore. The problem was, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do instead. And until she did, she should continue working here, writing her reports and cross-referencing them and turning them in and filing them away. Only until she could think of something better.

Hermione looked around the room and recalled that, years earlier, Harry had seen witches and wizards preparing anti-Muggle-born pamphlets en masse in this very room. Pamphlets that had attempted to brainwash Wizarding Britain into supporting the eradication of people like her. She considered how, in the courtrooms down below, she had witnessed Muggle-borns interrogated and then sentenced to the Dementor's Kiss for the crime of having no magical parents. She recalled the posters. Snatchers. "Undesirable Number One." Umbridge. The Department of Mysteries. Fudge. Scrimgeour. I must not tell lies. Arthur Weasley never getting promoted until Fudge was ousted and most of his children had grown. Yaxley. Thicknesse. The statue that had once graced the entry to the Ministry of Magic—wizards crushing the Muggle population.

After the war there was still corruption, still pro-pureblood laws on the books, still endless effing bureaucracy. Death Eater sympathisers still held too much influence. War orphans were abandoned to rot in the bowels of a decrepit building.

Why was she still here?

She stood up, suddenly. She looked around her at the wizards and witches who worked in the Audit Office, writing endless reports that would never be read. Was this where she really, truly, wanted to be?

No. She didn't know where she'd rather be instead, but for now, anywhere but here would suffice.

Calmly she removed her Ministry robes and set them over the back of her chair, leaving her in nothing but the Muggle skirt suit she wore underneath. She picked up her wand, put a satisfied look on her face, and walked out the door.

It was reckless, it was stupid, it was irresponsible. But oh was it liberating.

"So you just…walked out?"

"I walked out!" Hermione spoke with a euphoria that Severus had never seen before. "I can't believe it, I just…I walked out. I set down my quill, picked up my wand, said nothing to anybody, and just…left. And I'm not going back!"

Severus nodded slowly. They were seated by the fire in her bedroom in opposite armchairs long after the children had gone to bed.

It was all very unlike her; the Hermione he knew was a planner, methodical, she never did anything without considering all possible repercussions and consequences.

He knew enough from his discussion with Lovegood and his own research into psychology that such extraordinary actions often resulted from an extreme emotional disturbance. Was she disturbed, emotionally?

Wouldn't anyone be, sleeping with you, said the voice in the back of his mind.

I'm not making her, he thought to himself. She invited him to her bed voluntarily and freely. And, he noted with an internal smirk, rather frequently. Not that he was complaining.

Still, Severus couldn't quite shake the feeling that there was something more behind this. He was not practised at speaking about emotions, but, well, he cared about her. But he knew he had to be careful. Weasley had said she was emotionally fragile after the war. Plus, he was a Slytherin. Everything he did was calculated and carefully done.

"Did anything in particular inspire you to do this?" he asked slowly, keeping his voice low and even.

Hermione shook her head. She was still euphoric and exuding energy, a sure sign to Severus that something was going on. "No, not really. I was just sitting there, cross-checking meaningless references for a meaningless report and just wondered, why am I doing this? It's like you said, it's a waste. I could really do some important things with my life, and I wasn't doing them."

So, what he had told her had in part inspired this. This could be very good or very bad.

"So you just walked out and…then what did you do?"

"I just walked around London. Muggle London. I walked along the Thames, then crossed it at the Millennium Bridge and walked it again on the other side. I was enjoying the fact that, at that moment, I had absolutely nothing to do. It was…nice."

Severus nodded. "It sounds very liberating."

"That's exactly it! That's the word that ran through my head over and over and over. Liberating. I have no job, no plan, no idea what I'm going to do next…" Her face began to fall a bit at the sound of this, as if saying it out loud made her realise the implications of what she had done. When she spoke again, it was slowly and with wide eyes, her face falling further with every word. "I have no job…I have no plan…I have no idea what I'm going to do next…I just walked out of there without notice…oh God."

Her face crumpled and she buried her head in her hands. Her shoulders began to shake and her breathing was slow and labored, the kind of breathing one does when trying to fight back tears.

Crap. Severus was faced with the most frightening of all the terrors in this world: a woman crying. His first instinct was to ask her why she was crying, but immediately threw that idea out as positively suicidal. Think, Severus, think!

Inspiration flashed and in an instant Severus was kneeling before her, gently taking her forearms in his hands and pulling them down to reveal her face. It was flushed and red, her eyes were blotchy, and her nose was running.

Severus still thought she was exquisitely beautiful.

"I've—I've never, ever, ever been so irresponsible," she panted. "Never."

Severus wrapped his arms around her now and rocked her gently, planting a kiss on the top of her head.

"I—now what do I do? I can't very well get a reference, and who would hire someone who just walked out on her job one day because she felt like it? I've ruined everything! I've ruined my life!"

Oh God, don't let her think that I talked her into ruining her life. Alright, old man, breathe, relax, tell her how stupid she's being about the whole thing.

"Idiot girl," he whispered gently into her ear.

Nicely, he hissed at himself.

"You're Hermione Granger, war hero and celebrated member of Wizarding society. Any competent employer would fall over itself for the chance to hire you."

Hermione shook her head. "No, not after this is splashed all over the Prophet, which you know it will be, because it seems my every move is plastered on it for everyone to see."

Severus tightened his hold on her as he rocked her. They'd made love dozens of times now, yet this, holding her crying form before the fire, was the most intimate he had felt with her. Comforting a crying child was very different from comforting a crying lover.

"I am an idiot," she wailed. "I don't know what I'm doing and I don't have the slightest idea of what happens next."

Severus kissed her head again, smoothing his hand through her hair. What would you say to a Slytherin in this situation? I'd use logic, lay out all the facts. Will that work with a Gryffindor? No choice but to find out.

"I know it can be a bit daunting to not have a plan. Especially for you." She huffed a breath, which he took to be a small laugh. "But the beauty of this situation is that you don't have to decide anything tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day. You don't really need the money, do you?"

She slowly shook her head.

Logic seemed to work, so he decided to go for broke.

"And you do have something going for you—what about this project here? Helping fifteen scared children learn what it is to be human, something that no one else in this world has been willing to do."

"Except you," she squeaked.

"Yes, except me, which makes you so extraordinary," he punctuated this with a kiss, "that I want to be first to claim you for my project. Spend your days here. Help teach the children and prepare them for the world, for Hogwarts. Merlin knows that I need more hands here, and to be perfectly honest, Hermione," he drew back to take her face in his hands and meet her eyes. "You are the best teacher I could have wanted for them."

She laughed and cried at the same time and fell into Severus's arms, kneeling with him on the floor.

"Stay here and help them," he whispered into her ear. "Stay here with me."

He hoped that she couldn't feel how much faster his heart was pounding as he awaited her answer. She nodded, not looking up at him. He was grateful she didn't.

But she said yes, she agreed to stay with him. He had broken a rule, he had asked for what he wanted directly, and she had said yes.

Now that was liberating.

The next morning, he couldn't tell whether he'd fallen asleep due to exhaustion or fainted with relief.

Hermione had panicked when the realization of just what she had done the day before, picking up and leaving her job without a word. Severus's calming words had been just what she needed. She had spent so much time after the war inside her own head, repressing feelings so that she wouldn't have to feel them, wouldn't have to feel any pain. She had felt much pain in her young life. When the realisation hit her last night, she had all but collapsed under it. The shame and surprise at her own actions overwhelmed her, and for the first time since the war, she found herself without a plan. She felt exposed. She did not feel safe. And feeling safe had been her first and foremost objective ever since the war.

But then he had been there, had wrapped her in his arms without judgment, and told her that she was going to be okay. He had encouraged her to come join him at Grimmauld Place full time, to help him help them, at least for awhile. She liked the idea. This had been her brainchild, in a way, and she wanted to see it through. She had felt guilty that, despite her role in creating this arrangement, she had only been present in the evenings to read the children a chapter of a story. Now she could help them full time, get to know them individually.

And he had asked her to stay. For his sake. She was sure he hadn't meant for it to slip out, so she did not acknowledge it. He likely was just trying to stop her breakdown, her crying. She did not think Severus enjoyed holding crying women. She made it a point to never cry at all if she could help it, and never in front of others if she couldn't help it. There had been only one woman in Severus Snape's heart for over thirty years, and judging by the Patronuses he had left in the corridors to watch over the children as they slept, she was still the one in his heart. There was no sense in getting emotionally entangled with someone who could not reciprocate.

Mutual passion, a desire to help a needy population, and a sympathetic ear. That was safe. That would be enough.

Hermione threw herself into her work. She discovered that the children followed a regular daily schedule; Severus explained that schedules gave children a feeling of stability, particularly those who had lost their parents. Kreacher served breakfast on the long kitchen table at nine; in the morning, the children eight and older had counseling with Luna whilst the younger ones had lessons with either Neville or Severus (soon to be either Neville or Hermione). In the afternoon, they switched; the older children had lessons and the younger ones had counseling. Dinner was at six, followed by reading with Hermione at the usual time of half seven. By half eight the children were to go upstairs for bed.

Hermione was struck by just how self-sufficient they all were. For children too young for even Hogwarts, they were very independent. They managed to wake up, shower, dress, and put themselves to bed without any additional help or monitoring from any of the adults. Severus explained to her that this was done for two reasons: one, he had been in no position to monitor or assist in such activity back when he was doing it all on his own; and two, his job was to teach them to be self-sufficient. It would make for an easier transition for them once they arrived at Hogwarts.

Hogwarts. Only one student would be going this year: Leopold Rosier. He was a quiet boy who stuck by his sister's side constantly. The hippogriff in the room, of course, was the fact that his older sister was a prostitute in Knockturn Alley, something that Severus had absolutely forbid Hermione from mentioning to Leopold and Ermengarde.

"They will learn the truth eventually, Severus," Hermione had protested. "Wouldn't it be best to learn it from someone they know and trust?"

Severus had shaken his head, his eyes burning and his voice too calm. "If they learn what typically happens to people who leave my care, they will be broken before they even have a chance to begin. I will not have them giving up before they leave. They deserve that innocence."

"But that's just the thing, Severus, none of them are innocent." He did not deign to respond to her comment.

"Would it really be so impossible for you to bring them back here?" Hermione had asked softly.

Severus turned from her and slammed his fist against the wall, a rare outburst of physical aggression from him. "Yes," he said in a tone that conveyed much more than that single word. It conveyed a warning: do not ask me again.

So Hermione had not. She had turned on her heel and walked away without another word.

He hated losing his temper, really losing his temper, in front of anyone. As a professor, he had actually never really lost his temper with a student. The insults and sneers and other, well, torments had become so ingrained in him that they had merely become a reaction to life's little annoyances.

And they effectively kept people at arm's length, always good when one is first and foremost a spy. And when you know that it's only a matter of time before they leave you—before she leaves you, said the voice.

Still, he was disappointed in himself for losing it like that in front of Hermione. It was more than he had ever shown even when she was a student, even when Potter was being his most aggravating and Longbottom his most idiotic on an already trying day. He had expected her to react, to tell him to sod off, to tell him that nobody speaks to her like that.

To leave, said the voice.

It would probably be mad for a man to tell his own brain to shut up, wouldn't it?

But Hermione hadn't left. She hadn't yelled at him. She hadn't even replied to him. She just looked at him, her eyes full of both understanding and disappointment, and left him alone without another word. That he had not been expecting, and it was exponentially worse. Disappointment was always worse than anger, no matter the source.

Still, he couldn't dwell on it now. Start of term at Hogwarts was fast approaching, and he had to have a talk with Leopold.

He was a smart boy, kept to himself, took care of his younger sister. Severus dared to hope that he might be capable enough to fly under the radar of others and last longer at Hogwarts than many of his recent predecessors. If he could at least make it through his OWLs, he would have a better chance for a future than any of them.

Severus had also decided to take advantage of his new legal status with regard to this boy and propose something that he had not yet tried with any of his prior charges, one that he could now legally do and might just be able to buy the boy some peace. It was something Hermione and Potter had suggested months earlier when they first began this endeavour: a legal name change.

Severus agreed that it was probably the boy's best hope, and if it worked for him, he would insist on all the others doing it. But he would never force him or anyone else to do it. Family names were of great importance in the Wizarding world, and blood lines were still considered and emphasised, which Severus thought was ridiculous. (Says the so-called Half Blood Prince, snickered the voice.) To ask a wizard at any age to give up a family name was to ask him to give up something sacred, even if it was tainted by war and terrorism. It had to be the boy's choice. He owed him that much.

They found themselves sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. Severus considered the boy. He was thin, much too thin, despite his improved living conditions, with deep-set grey eyes and sandy blonde hair. Severus thought that he looked a bit like Remus Lupin during their first year of Hogwarts, when his young body was being rent apart by violent transformations and he was already being shunned by polite Wizarding society. It was a shame to see it again. Same hollow eyes, same careworn face of a life that had seen too much in too few years. The narrow shoulders that carried burdens that would be heavy for a grown man. And now he was about to (literally) enter the lion's den.

Severus began the speech that he gave every charge prior to leaving to Hogwarts. It changed very little from year to year.

"I know that I do not need to sugar coat things for you, Leopold, so I will not. Your name—your father's name—is known already to most of the students in that place. Some of them lost relatives to his hand. I tell you this not to make you feel bad, for I know that you know it already. I tell you this because I want you to be prepared.

"Hogwarts is not the safe haven it once was for all students. The war is fresh in everyone's memory, and do not forget that the accounts of the war were written by the Order of the Phoenix. However you remember your father, know that every other person in that school knows him only as a Death Eater who murdered innocents and followed the Dark Lord. He is one-dimensionally evil to them and, by extension, so are you.

"Students leaving my care tend to be descended from Slytherins and sorted into Slytherin themselves. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that the rest of the school will treat you the way they treat every other Slytherin, and this makes the House very insular and protective of their own. However, Slytherins are angry that the name of the House will be forever associated with the Dark Lord, and when the child of a Death Eater begins in Slytherin, it spurs them into action. They never miss an opportunity to show that they themselves are not Death Eaters, and they do this by publicly abusing and harassing and humiliating the children of Death Eaters.

"You, Leopold, are a marked man.

"Headmistress McGonagall is nominally sympathetic but has a tendency to look the other way in situations involving students like yourself. Hogwarts protocol decrees that you bring all complaints of this sort to your Head of House, but I am warning you right now that Horace Slughorn is only interested in helping you to the extent that he believes you will one day be able to help him. Since he too will see you as your father, he will not attempt to help you. He has not done so for any student who has left my care, your sister Brigita included, and I do not believe that will change with you. Other students, other Slytherins, will give you every inducement, usually negative, to prevent you from even seeking help. By the time the Headmistress learns of what is happening, the student is usually gone or has retaliated and is being expelled.

"I paint a bleak picture for you, Leopold. I do not wish to give you false hope. You are resilient and I believe that you can survive this. Everyone who leaves my care knows how to survive. They do not last because they choose to give up and they choose to let the assumptions of others define them. Rather than accept that, Leopold, I urge you to overcome it.

"Do not rise to their taunts. If they make mention of your family, do your best to ignore them. If they strike you, do not strike back. Keep to yourself and choose your allies wisely. Be aware that sometimes others will attempt to befriend you in order to lull you into a false sense of security. Be wary, but not paranoid. Keep your ears open. Say little. Keep your head down. Do well in your subjects; teachers are more willing to help a student with good marks than one with bad marks, regardless of your family name. You have extra prejudice that you must overcome, so you must work extra hard to make them forget it.

"Family name is another subject I wish to discuss. You are fortunate in that the private lives of most of the Death Eaters, your parents included, was never made public. There was little interest at the time and there is next to no interest now. People learn when they hear the name and immediately associate it. Most of your relatives have changed their names. I offer you that opportunity. I cannot promise that it will spare you, but it is something that I wish you to consider."

He ended his lecture. The boy did not look afraid of what Severus had just told him. On the contrary, he looked…determined. Leopold Rosier was a Slytherin if Severus had ever seen one; one did not teach at Hogwarts for nearly two decades without learning how to accurately predict what house a person was in or would be sorted into. Slytherins were not cowards. The word was not in their vocabulary.

Woe betide anyone stupid enough to call Severus Snape the C-word. He had a feeling Leopold Rosier was much the same.

Finally the boy spoke. "If I do change my surname, sir, would Ermengarde's change too?"'

"Not unless she makes the same decision. When her time comes, I will offer her the same choice."

Leopold nodded. "You think people will be less likely to hate me if I change my surname?"

Severus chose his words carefully. "I believe that they are less likely to know your true parentage without hearing the name, and therefore you are less likely to be a target. But this I cannot guarantee. There are still ways that others could find out."

The boy sat there thoughtfully for a long time. Severus was about to tell him that he would give him a few days to consider when the boy said, "What would my new name be?"

Severus had given this a lot of thought. If the choice to change the name was to be theirs, so was the new name. "I leave that up to you, Leopold."

"Did you know my mother, sir?"

Severus nodded, slowly. "Yes. Not well, but I did know her."

"What was her name? Before she married my father."

"Vivienne," he said softly. "Vivienne Clairemont."

"Does that name have the same problems? Clairemont?"

Severus shook his head. "No. I believe it is actually a Muggle surname. Your mother was a half blood. She kept it hidden." She hadn't been a Death Eater either, not that it had mattered to the Ministry. It was apparently a crime to be married to one.

"Then that's who I want to be," Leopold said. "Leopold Clairemont."

"You are certain? A surname is a valuable thing, it is not to be disposed of lightly."

"For me, sir, it is a chain around my neck that I can't remove fast enough."

He knew he should apologise to her. After his little outburst in the sitting room, she had kept her distance. No doubt she thinks you're about to smack her next, said the voice.

And, it added, weren't you just a little bit tempted to smack her, just to shut the chit up?

Severus was livid at the thought. "Never," he said out loud. He had never laid a hand on a woman in his life, ever, and never would in the face of any provocation, because he was not his fucking father.

He sat down on a settee in the sitting room and ran his fingers through his hair before clutching it at the roots and resting his elbows on his knees. Bugger it all. She had looked so disappointed in him. In the face of all the insults he had thrown her way over the years, all the times he had yelled at her, all the times he had attempted to hurt her just for the hell of it, this had disappointed her.

He found that he did not like the idea of her being disappointed in him. He had never cared about that before, with anyone, not since Lily. How very odd.

He hadn't punched the wall because he was angry with her. He had done so because he was angry with himself and felt so fucking helpless about the situation sometimes that he couldn't take it.

He wondered if she knew that. He wondered if she thought he was angry with her.

An exhausted mind and a lack of relevant experience in the matter told him to wait it out until morning and figure out something then. She still had her flat in Kent; he supposed she had gone there for the night, since she always mentioned to him when she planned to stay in her room here. That would make Severus the only adult in the house, and he didn't fancy doing this via floo or Patronus, so it would have to wait until the morning anyway. By then, he knew, it would likely be too late. If his past experiences were anything to go by, it already was too late. She had likely already written him off as a bad job.

As he trudged up the stairs, with a mind to crack open the bottle he had hidden in his side table to put him out of his misery for the night, he wondered what this was between them. Were they lovers? Shag buddies? Was this a relationship? Severus had never had an adult relationship with anyone so he supposed he wouldn't know one if it bit him in the arse. What did she think they were? That was probably the more relevant concern. He was willing to take whatever she would give him, but it was hard to know what that was. She professed that she was committed to this project they had together, but now that they had this between them…who's to say that if he really fucked this up she would want to continue? The children had begun to grow attached to her; he did not want her to leave them.

And maybe, said the hopeful part of his mind that rarely spoke up, maybe you really don't want her to leave you, either.

What had he got himself into this time?

As he reached the first floor landing, he cast his Patronuses and turned to enter his own room but stopped himself when he saw that her door was ajar and the light was on. She never left her light on unless she was here, and as far as the door…was this an invitation?

The part of himself that was all Slytherin said he should go to his room and wait until morning, make her sweat it out a little and beg for an apology. It would take some of the heat off of him. The part of him that seemed to have a soft spot for Muggle-born Gryffindors told him to swallow his pride and go in there.

There really was no question which side would win out at this stage of his life. He stepped toward her door, knocked gingerly and entered before she could respond.

She was lying in her bed with her back facing the door. He couldn't tell if she was asleep or awake, but judging from the rigidity of her posture and her breathing, she was awake. She hadn't greeted him, but she also hadn't thrown him out. For Severus Snape, this was a bloody welcome mat from a woman.

He shut the door softly behind him and walked quietly across the floor to the bed, just in case she was asleep (no need to add to the list of things he had to apologise for) and toed off his shoes and removed his belt. Climbing in beside her, he spooned up against her and cautiously draped an arm over her waist. Pressing a small kiss to her temple (he only did this in here, mind, never anywhere else) he whispered two words in her ear. Two words he never said to anyone, ever. Two words that usually did nothing to assuage a situation of his own making.

"I'm sorry."

Hermione's eyes were closed and she did not respond, but he noticed that her hand found its way to his and covered it ever so gently.

After a long pause, she whispered so low that he could barely hear her, "I'm sorry too." The grip on his hand tightened.

Deciding that she was no longer cross with him, he pulled her a little closer to him and closed his eyes, the significance of the moment enveloping him.

For the first time in his life, Severus Snape had been forgiven for losing his temper.


I warned you my Ron was mature! And in a duel between them (magical, Muggle, or verbal) I think it's obvious which one of them would have won ;)

Coming Up: Leopold starts at Hogwarts, and Harry makes a move.