The political views expressed herein are solely those of the characters and do not necessarily represent those of the author. If you disagree with them, don't yell at me.

"Poppy?" Neville called as he entered the hospital wing. Poppy Pomfrey was busy trying to re-grow the heads of three Hufflepuff third years; they had been hit by a curse that shrank their heads to the size of billiard balls. Their cries sounded like mice.

"What can I do for you, Professor Longbottom?" Poppy was always brisk and preferred the use of each other's titles in the presence of students, rather than first names. Neville disliked it; it reminded him too much of his school days, and being one of the youngest professors on staff was already enough of a reminder that his colleagues had been his teachers.

"I'll wait in your office, shall I, I have something to discuss with you."

"But of course," she said. Neville walked to her office as Poppy attempted to re-size their heads.

After some high-pitched squeaks, screeches, and sobs, she sat behind her desk and looked at Neville expectantly. "What can I do for you, Neville?"

Visibly relaxing at the use of his name, he began to speak. "Poppy, if I were to propose something to you, you would keep it in the utmost discretion?"

The mediwitch nodded.

"What would you say to a spot of moonlighting?"

"Harry!" Minister Kingsley Shacklebolt's deep voice rang out in greeting. He walked briskly to Harry and enveloped him in a friendly hug. "And Hermione—lovely to see you too," he said, turning to her to give her a hug as well. When he released her, he paused as he took in the third figure standing in his office.

"Severus," Kingsley said. He walked slowly to the tall wizard and offered him his hand. Severus hesitated but eventually accepted it. "It's very good to see you," Kingsley said honestly. "Please, everyone, have a seat." Hermione and Harry took the two chairs directly before Kingsley's desk whilst Severus seated himself on one in the back of the room.

"I must say I was surprised to hear that all three of you wanted to see me. An unlikely alliance, is it not?" He gave them all a thoughtful look in a way that reminded Severus uncomfortably of Albus Dumbledore. "Perhaps not so unlikely."

"Kingsley," Hermione began (all of them had agreed that she should be the mouthpiece), "We wanted to talk to you about what the Ministry is doing for wizards and witches who have been left homeless and jobless since the war, and have some proposals for you as well."

Kingsley sighed in the manner of all politicians when hearing the plight of their constituents. "It is a terrible problem that I have been attempting to address."

Hermione cocked an eyebrow in a way that reminded Harry far too much of Severus. "In six years the Ministry has not introduced a single program or administration to address this problem, and the number of people who need it grow by the day."

If Kingsley thought he could act like a politician around them and not be called out on it, he had been sorely mistaken.

"People out there are unable to get jobs or loans to start their own businesses as a result of their actions in the war. They end up on the streets and turn to drugs and prostitution and crime," Hermione's nostrils began to flare as her volume increased. "This includes everyone from the children of Death Eaters to those acquitted of war crimes to those whose right to carry wands was revoked by the Muggle-Born Registration Commission."

"Everyone whose wands were destroyed under the Dark Lord's regime had their convictions overturned and their right to carry wands restored," Kingsley said defensively.

"That's not really true, Kingsley," Harry said, jumping in. "Dolores Umbridge ordered their magic destroyed in addition to their wands; many have still not recovered yet they do not wish to return to the Muggle world."

"And not only that—no one accepts them as Magical, either!" Hermione protested. "They may not have liked Umbridge or the Ministry at that time, but to be honest the Prophet never accurately detailed what happened and many of the trials were closed and the records sealed, if there even were trials, so people never got their vindication!"

They had decided before the meeting to focus on the other Wizarding populations who needed assistance after the war, rather than their own interests.

"And then there are the people who lost everything in the war—people who lost their homes and their property and their livelihoods," Harry continued. "They need assistance too. The Ministry is still sorting out who owns what to this day, and in the meantime there are many people still trapped in limbo, unable to settle or hold a steady job for fear that they will have to leave it once they get the ones they rightfully own returned."

"Alright you two," Kingsley said, holding up his hands to stop them. "I am well aware of the shortcomings of this administration. I agree, progress has been slow. You know as well as I do that there are still powerful people in this building who have been able to successfully block or slow legislation and programs to help these populations."

"But you're Minister for Magic—permanent Minister for Magic," Harry said. "What should it matter to you if you do something unpopular, so long as it is right? Why not sack the people who are causing problems?"

"Harry, that would be an abuse of my station. My 'predecessor' in this office did that and I will not have the Wizarding World believe they live under another tyrant. It's bad enough that appointment of the Minister comes from the Oligarchy, rather than through free and open democratic elections.

"If they believe they are under the thumb of another megalomaniac and throw me out, they would play right into the hands of the many Voldemort supporters who are still in this building and still hold considerable influence and power. I do not like that I have to allow much of the corruption to continue, but to attempt stamp it out would be far more dangerous. That's part of why they do it—they are baiting me! They are waiting for me to purge the Ministry so that they can demonstrate that I am not to be trusted with power, that change is in order, that I would be another Tom Riddle or Cornelius Fudge."

"Kingsley, who could ever say that about you?" Hermione protested.

"Many people, Hermione, many people," Kingsley said gravely. "I had hoped it would be easier, but I am telling you, there are many out there who would wish to see another person in power in the Ministry and who would be far less benevolent. Sometimes it is better to have an imperfect system run by someone on the side of the Light than to risk it being turned over to the side of the Dark.

"Severus knows what I'm talking about, don't you?"

All eyes turned to Severus, who merely inclined his head ever so slightly.

"Think about how Hogwarts was run under Severus—it was purged of Muggle-borns, employed Death Eaters, and employed torture." Severus flinched at all of this, but Kingsley continued. "Would you have had the alternative?"

"Kingsley," Hermione said warningly. "I don't think the two are really applicable. If Severus hadn't done what he'd done, it was an absolute certainty that a loyal Death Eater would have been given control of the school, or one of the teachers Imperiused to carry out the Dark Lord's orders. You cannot possibly say that there is the same sort of certainty here."

"But I do, Hermione, and I am very certain of that. You know that I am not a man who exaggerates and that I am not a politician by trade. I truly wish I were exaggerating this."

Harry and Hermione sighed in unison. If the mood were not so grim, they might have laughed about it.

"There is still something you could do, Kingsley," Severus said, causing everyone to turn toward him. Hermione raised her eyebrows in surprise; Severus had come here only reluctantly and said he did not wish to ask the Ministry for anything himself. Had he come up with a way out?

"There is something that might, as the Muggles say, kill two birds with one stone. There is no doubt that something must be done to help these populations, and no population is more needy of this than the children who were formerly in my care and who left Hogwarts prior to the conclusion of their seven years. There are hundreds of wizards and witches who are also in need, as Miss Granger and Mr. Potter have already stated.

"The last two wars were, in effect, a fight between warring vigilante groups: the Death Eaters on one side, and the Order of the Phoenix on the other. The Ministry itself was a bit player in this conflict and the fact that it escalated as such shows that the Ministry was not, and may not still be, a functioning method of government. The Muggles have a term, 'failed state,' to describe a nation or people whose government lacks effective control over the territory and real power is concentrated in the hands of others, warlords or gangs or terrorist organisations or religious groups. I think it is fair to say, Minister, that Wizarding Britain is a failed state and has been one for some time."


"Think on it, Kingsley, if the Ministry had actual control over the population, would either Wizarding war have happened? That a madman could make such a grab for power that would cost thousands of lives over two decades? That is not something that happens in effectively managed states. It hasn't happened in any other Wizarding nation, and you and I both know there were opportunities for it to happen in those other states."

"The Ministry was not a bit player in anything…"

"Kingsley! As a member of the Order, you know that is not true. You joined the Order because you saw that the Ministry was turning a blind eye to a very real threat and that even if it were to engage, it did not have the resources to protect people on the scale required. The Auror Office was far too small to do anything of real note—you know that from your time there."

Kingsley's lips pursed but he did not make to deny anything Severus said.

"So if what you say is true and that there are those out there who would make a power grab at the first opportunity, and I do not disagree with you that this is a real threat, then you have to ensure that the Ministry will be able to protect itself and its people. The last thing we need is a third Wizarding war, which is what would likely result. Except there is no more Order of the Phoenix, since it was so decimated in the last war, and the population as a whole is still rebuilding from the last one so it would be less capacity for resistance. People are exhausted. They don't want to fight anymore.

"The last war was fought and decided primarily in a school, for Merlin's sake! Children were the Light's foot soldiers, they are the ones who fought and died to stop the Dark Lord. That cannot be allowed to happen again.

"What you need is a Wizarding army."

Hermione and Harry gaped at Severus. When had he come up with this? They shared a look that told each other that neither had any idea.

"What do you mean?" Kingsley asked.

"I mean you need a loyal, trained force who would be on call in the event of a major crisis—a coup d'etat by another would-be Dark Lord, or a natural disaster, or an outbreak of a virulent disease, or an invasion by an outside force, you get the idea. People crave security, but they cannot count on another Albus Dumbledore coming to their rescue with his band of merry fighters like some dues ex machina.

"I suppose 'army' is a bit of a misnomer; it would really be more like a militia. You would retain the loyalty of and train a large population to be called up in the event of an emergency, but you would have a core group of fighters at the ready for smaller things. You and I both know that not every loyal Death Eater was caught, nor have all dark wizards disappeared. You and I both know that more than just the Malfoys bankrolled the Dark Lord. A force would be good and allow the Auror Office to concentrate its efforts on cases more appropriate to their training. Aurors were meant to deal with criminal activity, not political intrigue or war."

Kingsley was nodding slowly. "And I suppose this relates to the problems Harry and Hermione were speaking of?"

"You have in them a ready-made population who could be hired by the Ministry to be the militia. You could do whatever necessary to ascertain their loyalty—wand oaths or other magically-sealed promises, like unbreakable vows or binding magical contracts. This would, of course, not resolve the problem for everyone, but would be an opportunity for some. You would have improved security, which would stabilise the Ministry and, by extension, you. And you would also be taking future criminals, drug addicts, and prostitutes off the streets, thereby also creating a bit of a social services program."

"I'm not sure an army is allowed under Wizarding Law, I would have to take it to the Wizengamot to decide, and there are those who would see the build-up of an army as no different than the Dark Lord building up an army."

"There are some fools who would, but anyone with a brain would see it for what it is. For many years the complaints I heard of the Ministry was that it was at once too weak and too heavy-handed. It was too weak when it came to security and too heavy-handed when it came to civil liberties. One need not be sacrificed for the other. If you were to build up security, you could have better leverage to free up civil liberties since there would be less of a justification for clamping down on them. How many people were sentenced to Azkaban without due process? How many of those who did have a trial were represented by counsel? How many homes have been searched without a warrant? How many contents of wills have been seized? All of these things have been done in the name of security, and you know as well as I do that there is no such security purpose served."

"You assume, Severus, that the mere presence of such a force would create stability. Is military power really the mark of a strong and secure state? I have studied Muggle history as well as you have; you know very well that a strong military often belies a weak state. If the Ministry were to do this, create an army whilst in peacetime, it would look like Wizarding Britain was once again falling into totalitarian hands. It would appear heavy-handed and would not make anyone on the Wizengamot more or less disposed to change laws that curtail civil liberties."

"Kingsley, you sound like you're afraid to take any steps to make any changes," Hermione said softly, the disappointment evident in her tone.

"Change does not happen overnight," Kingsley said sadly.

"Yes, that's what I read in your pamphlets," Hermione retorted.

"I am one man," Kingsley said. "Even if I agreed with everything you say, I cannot force a change overnight that needs to happen gradually. The progress and stability that we do have is very fragile. It could fall apart tomorrow. I am sorry, but I cannot help you at this time. Perhaps in a few years' time, when more progress has been made and hopefully the world is more stable. But today…I'm very sorry."

Kingsley did look regretful.

"I understand, Kingsley," Harry said. He offered him his hand. "I appreciate you taking the time to listen to what we had to say. I know you understand our concerns, and I know that when you can, you will help."

Hermione and Severus weren't sure they believed that, but they sorely wanted to.

"I am glad to see you all," Kingsley said. "You all made very good points, and I will not forget this conversation. When I can, I will."

They all exchanged thanks and good-byes and returned to Grimmauld Place.

"That was disheartening," Hermione said, setting herself on a settee in the sitting room. Severus sat next to her and took her hand, rubbing it gently. For Severus, this was a very public display of affection, and it almost pained him to do it. Harry tried his best to hide his smile when he saw it. "So much for the so-called 'future of Wizarding Britain.' I never thought I'd see Kingsley Shacklebolt so resigned."

"I expected the Ministry would not be our best avenue to pursue," Severus said. It wasn't quite an I-told-you-so, but it was close enough.

"Well we had to try," Hermione said. "At least we can say that we tried."

"Any other Minister would have hexed us into the next millennium if we stormed into his office, criticised all of his accomplishments, and demanded broad social change," Harry mused. "Really, that was pretty bold of us, wasn't it? Kingsley has more patience than I think any of us ever gave him credit for."

"The more things change, the more they change the same, Harry," Severus said softly. "It is the nature of every Minister to promise sweeping changes, only to revert back to the way things have always been done."

"I thought he was trying to overcorrect for Fudge and Scrimgeour and Thicknesse," Hermione said. "The pendulum, if you will, is swinging too far in this direction to compensate for the fact that it once swung too far in the other direction. The Ministry we grew up with was very heavy-handed and concerned with self-preservation and there was more intrigue than in Caesar's court," Harry and Severus thankfully had the Muggle background necessary to understand this reference, "so I can understand Kingsley not wanting to appear to be more of the same. Small changes over time are more likely to stick and appear more democratic. Really, it's not a bad strategy to preserve stability."

"Stability can be overrated," Severus said.

"In any case," Hermione said, "this avenue is closed to us now. We'll have to figure out another way."

Severus shook his head. "No, we are done. I agreed to take this to the Ministry, I did not agree to pursue it further from there."

"But Severus—" Harry protested.

"But nothing, Harry," Severus said in the same tone he used to silence a classroom. "It's over. It went exactly as I expected it would, so I am not disappointed. I will continue to do what I have always done. It is an imperfect solution but is far better than the alternative, which is nothing."

He rose and stalked up the stairs without another word.

Hermione shook her head. "Infuriating man."

Harry nodded his agreement. "Yes, but he's your infuriating man now."


Harry took Severus's vacated seat and put an arm around her shoulders. "There's always another way. I know he doesn't see one, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to see one. I think he just is used to shouldering it and Kingsley's rejection only confirmed that he has to take this one alone."

Hermione sighed. "I keep telling him that he's not alone in this anymore, and he keeps saying he understands."

"But old habits are hard to break, aren't they?" Harry said. "Think about it—he was doing this all on his own for five years. We've been involved for, what, eight months? And then consider his previous life at Hogwarts, where he basically held the balance of a war in his hand, and if he didn't do everything exactly right, all hell would break loose. I think he understands he has support now, but it's ingrained in him to still go it alone."

Hermione nodded. Who would have thought that Harry Potter of all people would one day be explaining the psyche of her romantic partner? For that matter, who would have ever thought that Severus Snape would be said romantic partner?

Hermione was awakened early the next morning by the sound of Severus quietly getting dressed in the light of the dying fire.

"What are you doing up so early?" she asked sleepily.

"I have to go to Azkaban," he said flatly.

"Why, did something happen?"

He shook his head. "I have a former charge there whom I try to visit at least once per month."

Hermione frowned. She didn't remember him ever going to Azkaban since their relationship began, and that was going on three months now. As if he could hear her thoughts, he replied, "I typically go during the day when you were at work or teaching here. But I want to go early today so that I can free up my afternoon."

Hermione nodded. "Can I come with you?"

Severus had been doing up his shirt but paused in the midst of buttoning it up to look at her. He suspected she would want to come someday, but still was surprised that she would offer.

I really shouldn't be, he thought. She's wanted to go everywhere else.

"Hermione…I don't know…have you ever been to Azkaban?"

She shook her head.

"It's not for the faint of heart," he warned. "It's very, very depressing. Dementors are still there and the prison is more crowded than it has ever been. The bodies of people who have been Kissed just…lie there, neither living nor dead. You can hear the screams and cries of other prisoners as they slowly lose their minds. I have no doubt Black related to you all what it was like to live in Azkaban; it is sadly largely unchanged from that time."

"Well, when you describe it like that…" Hermione said, pulling back the bedclothes and walking to her side of the wardrobe and opening the door. The wardrobe they shared was a standard size, but once opened it revealed a large walk-in closet.

"I'm not lying, Hermione, it's a difficult place to go."

"All the more reason," she said determinedly. She debated for a moment whether to wear robes or Muggle clothing, and decided robes would probably be best to keep out the cold that the presence of Dementors invariably created. "They have to live in this environment. The least I can do is visit for an hour."

She gave Severus a look that brooked no response, and with that, she received a nod of his head.

"Hermione," he said after they'd dressed and walked out of Grimmauld Place into the cold, grey morning, "you really don't have to do this. Azkaban…it can be a lot to handle."

Hermione took his hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "I'm not worried, Severus. I am with you."

"Foolish girl," he said affectionately. He squeezed her hand back, then closed his eyes, focused on the Apparition point in the small island on which Azkaban was built, and Disapparated them both.

Hermione always closed her eyes while Apparating; it served to heighten her focus on the Apparition point and also gave her a moment to orientate herself after the trip. A side benefit of this was that she felt a place before she saw it, and thus became very intimately acquainted with the way certain places felt, and how she could tell the difference between them without even opening her eyes.

Upon arriving at Azkaban's Apparition point, the only thing Hermione could feel was cold.

They were indoors in a closed, windowless chamber of what looked like corroded steel. She could see their breath, little white puffs of air. The whole space gave her a bit of sensory deprivation. There must be a door somewhere, someone must have been alerted to their arrival. No exit, no way out, completely trapped in here. At least they could Apparate out…couldn't they? She heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing—nothing but cold. She held Severus's hand a little tighter and he gave her a reassuring squeeze back.

"It's alright," he whispered, cursing himself for not warning her about the Apparition point. He knew she hated enclosed spaces and an inability to find a way out. Stupid.

Suddenly they heard a loud clanging noise and Hermione drew her wand at the sound, spinning wildly and causing her hair to fan out and whip Severus across the face. She looked to see that a door had appeared before them. Severus seemed to have expected this. It opened on its own and Severus led her through the door. They walked down a long stone corridor, lit only by torches on sconces every ten feet or so. It reminded Hermione a bit of the Muggle vampire movies she had watched with her father as a little girl. The memory gave her a little lump in her throat, but she pushed it down and focused on what she was doing. This was no Transylvanian mansion, there was no seductive vampire. They were in a prison to visit a child.

Severus hadn't mentioned exactly who they were visiting here, but she knew he would in due course. Whenever they visited one of his graduates, he typically did not provide much backstory before arriving. She didn't know if it was because he thought she wouldn't come if he told her, or if he knew she would fret before arriving. Hopefully the latter; she would hope he trusted her well enough to know that she'd follow him just about anywhere. Even to the depths of hell. Which is where she thought she might be right now as they approached the guard.

"Wands, please," the guard said lazily. They both laid them out on the counter while the guard weighed and inspected them, ascertaining their identities. Hermione had a bit of a flashback to standing in Gringotts in unfamiliar black robes and being asked to present a wand. She only barely repressed the shudder that accompanied the memory of being Bellatrix Lestrange.

" 'o are you here to see?" the guard asked lazily.

"Lennox Gibbon," Severus replied. The guard tapped some papers with his wand and said, " 'e's up n' about. Floor ten, cell 234. No magic can be used in the cell itself."

"Isn't there a visiting area?" Hermione asked frantically. Severus shook his head as he retrieved their wands and coaxed her to come with him.

There wasn't a shred of natural light in the entire place, Hermione decided. The entire place had a distinct dungeon atmosphere—sconces with torches, damp stone walls, cobwebs, sounds of distant wailing. The first time she heard a wail, she thought it was just her imagination; it was so distant and faint. But as they made their way up staircases and down corridors, she heard more and more. It was horrifying and haunting, and to think people lived like this. No wonder most of them went mad. No wonder Sirius had never seemed quite right; after twelve years in this hell-hole, anyone would lose their minds.

The Dementors weren't physically present on the floor (she hoped that the horrible things were removed in the presence visitors as a rule) but their influence on the atmosphere was unmistakable—cold air, darkness, dampness, feelings of despair. Hermione calmed her mind as best she could; she had studied a bit of Occlumency in preparation for the Horcrux hunt and drew on that just now. Hide the thoughts and memories you cherish the most. Focus on the warm hand enclosed in yours. Breathe.

They reached a door marked 234. It was made of steel and full of heavy bolts. A very thin strip provided the person inside with a small window to the outside corridor. Hermione wondered if they should do something to open it, but Severus just stood there, waiting patiently. Given that he had done this many more times than she had, she followed his lead and just waited for something to happen. She didn't have to wait long; soon there was a creak and the door swung open. Severus stepped inside gingerly, tugging Hermione along by the hand.

The wretched creature inside the cell was balled up in the corner, prison robes nothing but grey rags, a thin blanket wrapped around him. He shivered; it was cold in here, and the poor thing had only a couple of thin layers of cloth over him. She felt a sudden urge to go to her wand and transfigure it all into something thicker, but reminded herself that she couldn't use magic in here. Enchantments probably blocked magic of any kind in here. After Sirius Black had successfully transformed into an Animagus whilst in his cell and Barty Crouch Jr. had assumed his mother's form with polyjuice, Hermione doubted the Ministry was willing to take any more chances.

Letting go of her hand, Severus approached the figure in the corner. Gently touching his shoulder, he coaxed him out of his whatever-it-was (sleep? stupor?). The figure was a thin man, though given the age range Severus dealt with he was most likely still in his teens. His gaunt figure no doubt put years on his face that would otherwise not be there. Seeing who was there, the boy fell against Severus, who brought his arms around him without hesitation. The boy began shaking, and Hermione realised that he was probably crying. Suddenly Hermione felt like she was intruding on something very intimate, something private, and considered leaving. A look from Severus changed her mind; he encouraged her to come forward. She knelt on the dirty wet floor beside them.

"Mr. Gibbon," Severus said gently, "This is Hermione." The boy jerked abruptly at hearing the name (no doubt he recognised it—Hermione was a one-name celebrity in the Wizarding World) but Severus stilled him. "She's with me, she's a friend, and she wants to say hello." The boy eyed her warily. She was clearly a threat to him.

She slowly held out her hand to him. "Pleased to meet you, Lennox," she said softly. The boy did not respond at first, but finally reached out a grimy hand to hers and held it limply and let go quickly. His skin was sickly and pale—when was the last time it had been touched by sunlight? He clung to Severus like a life raft; how often was this boy touched by others? And what had he done to deserve such a wretched existence?

"Just remember…only six more months," Severus was saying, soothingly. "Continue to stay out of trouble here, understand?" The boy nodded. "Good."

Severus was always kind and comforting with Hermione, and he was approachable, if not affectionate, with his charges at Grimmauld Place. But seeing him with his graduates was an experience unlike any other. He was compassionate, he was caring, he was…fatherly. It was clear that he cared about the welfare of these children very deeply, yet treated it like a deep, dark secret. Sure, this time last year if someone had told her that Severus Snape, back from the brink of death, had become tender and loving with children, she would have said they were barking.

She still knew very little about Severus's upbringing, but suspected that he didn't get many hugs from his parents, and in his darkest days, his late teens to early twenties, he probably did not experience any true affection. How different might his life have been had he simply had someone to hold through that time? What difference might a few hugs have made?

After awhile, Hermione could tell that Severus was wrapping up the visit so she stepped into the corridor to give them privacy to speak to one another without being overheard. Once she did, she suddenly felt a rush of despair wash over her. She had stolen her parents' memories without their consent and taken away their entire lives. As a result, she no longer had a family. Many of her friends were dead. She had no real job. The children she was working so hard to care for had only this horrible place to look forward to once they left the safety of Grimmauld Place. The Ministry was just as corrupt and ineffective as it had always been and not even Kingsley Shacklebolt could save it. She was in love with a man who would forever love a ghost.

Wait, love?

Her hands were shaking and Hermione realised belatedly that she was shivering in the most bitter cold she had felt in years. She hadn't felt this kind of cold since…oh. She hadn't felt this kind of cold since the final battle at Hogwarts when a swarm of Dementors rushed at her and Harry and Ron.

She looked up to find three of the dark, hooded, unholy creatures before her. She had never been up close to a Dementor before; Harry had always cast a Patronus quickly and kept them at bay. The three things just hovered before her. They needed to go away. She had to cast a Patronus.

But…what happy thought could she cling to when all she could think about was everything that was wrong with the world and with her life? She raised her wand in her shaking hand and tried to muster the happiest memory she could.

"Expecto Patronum!" she cried. But only a few wisps of silver escaped her wand, swirling once in the darkness then fading away. She tried again, but the result was the same. The Dementors edged closer to her, towering over her, reaching out for her. Why did she always have to have so much trouble casting a Patronus?

Suddenly a bolt of silver white light shot past her and toward the Dementors, pushing them away to the end of the corridor and chasing them out of sight. She knew Severus had emerged from the cell and cast the Patronus without turning around. Not only was he the only person who could have cast it, she recognised it. Even if she hadn't seen it months earlier, she knew the story well enough that she would recognise it anywhere.

Severus's Patronus was still a doe.

They returned to Grimmauld Place in silence. Azkaban's gloomy atmosphere did not disappear even after they left the black corridor and Apparated away. Even though Severus withdrew two pieces of chocolate from his pocket and encouraged her to eat, the sadness did not dissipate. Chocolate made it more bearable, but did not cure it. Only time and distance could improve one's mood after Azkaban.

Once they entered the house and took off their cloaks and had a seat before the warm fire, Hermione just took Severus's hand and sat there, immobile. The upset she had felt at seeing his Patronus, and what it represented was caused by the Dementors, she told herself. This was a real relationship between them now, and they cared for each other, but no one said anything about falling in love. Besides, he'd loved Lily now for something like thirty-five years now. A relationship of only a few months' duration was nothing to compare to that.

Besides, it's not as if Hermione had grown up with visions of a home and a home and children of her own. Quite the opposite, in fact. So really, a relationship of mutual enjoyment and companionship, which is what she had with Severus, was exactly what she both needed and wanted. They were partners in a great undertaking. Really, it was perfect for her. There was no need for anybody to fall in love.

As they sat there in silence, watching the fire, their respite was broken by the sound of Harry entering the sitting room, looking frantic.

"Did either of you see the Prophet this morning?"

Severus and Hermione shook their heads. They had left before the post owls arrived. Harry looked uneasy as he handed them the broadsheet and showed them the front-page article. Hermione felt the colour drain from her face as Severus's mouth drew tight and his eyes narrowed at the headline.


Five points to everyone who caught that Professor Lasky was the anthropology professor from Saved by the Bell: The College Years.

We're just over halfway through the story now, in case anyone was wondering.

Friends, I have to break my update-at-least-weekly pledge just this once. I will be away from my computer for the next week or so, so no updates until I get back. Hence the extra chapter this week. I will be able to read/respond to reviews and questions from my phone, but won't be able to upload anything. Hope this tides you over.

Coming Up: The new healer arrives to tend to wounds both old and new.