AN: All Characters belong to JK Rowling. This is intended only for entertainment, not profit.


He walks into the staffroom, pinching the bridge of his nose to try and calm the tension headache that is brewing. He knows it will be worse after an hour of his coworkers nattering, and berates himself for leaving his office without a potion. His sighs. He never would've done such a thing in the old days, but peace has brought many changes to his life, not the least of them being a slowly decomposing sense of self-preservation.

He is among the last to arrive, and so the only seat left is between the two newest professors. Balthazar Aspic took over as Potions master last year; he'd married Aurora Sinistra this past summer. Isobel Doucet had started this year, taking over for the now-permanantly retired Sybil Trelawney. Doucet was a petite woman in her early forties, pleasant and warm in a way that made him uncomfortable.

He takes his chair, returns a few greetings, and closes his eyes.

When he opens them again, he is unaware of how much time has passed. He only knows that he has been nudged under the table, and that his name has been called. He looks over at the Headmistress and tilts his head to the side, forcing her to repeat herself, without having to admit his own failing.

"About tomorrow," she reiterates. "Filius needs someone to cover for him in the morning. He has an appointment and won't be able to escort the children down to Hogsmeade."

"I will be unavailable in the early morning," he intones. "However, I could take over for someone by ten o'clock, if that helps."

Minerva's brow raises. "Thank you, Severus. That would be helpful indeed. In that case, I shall escort them down with Pomona, and can meet you on the green at ten."

He nods and turns away. Filius catches his eye and sends his unspoken thanks as well, and this sends Severus off into another of his increasing bouts of introspection. It occurs to him that he likes being a contributing member of the staff. He likes the increasing camaraderie. It was never there in all his years of teaching before the war, but it has been developing at a glacial pace in the year since he'd returned. The slowness suits them all. After the upheaval of the war, change is best done in small doses.

He doesn't realize he's tuned them all out again until he hears the scraping of chairs.

"Anyone know what's on the menu for dinner?" Poppy Pomfrey asks. "I've got a taste for roast pork for some reason."

"It seems like ages since we've had it," says Vector. "Perhaps your taste buds have taken up Divination. What say you, Isobel? That's you're department. Could she be having precognizant cravings?"

The Divination professor smiles—she always seems ready with an easy smile—and says, "The Mysteries are called that for a reason." Her voice is amusingly vague. She often finds humor at her own discipline's expense, as if trying to prove she's not Trelawney. He's embarrassed to be caught looking as she turns to see if her jest amused him. He gives her a tight smile and looks away, allowing others to take precedence in the queue to leave the staffroom.

"Did you see the article about Granger in the paper this morning?" he hears Filius ask the Headmistress behind him. "She's received another promotion."

"She'll go far. Mark my words, she'll be Minister some day," Minerva avows, as if they hadn't been marking her words since Granger was twelve.

"I worry about her," says Sinistra.

"Oh?" he says before he can stop himself.

"Too much, too young, I say. Where is her youth? It can't all be about taking on responsibility. Where is the balance? She's not had a bloke that we know of since the papers reported she and the Weasley boy had split last year. I fear she's just lonely and overcompensating. Contentment requires an anchor. To be happy, one needs someone to celebrate their lesser achievements as well."

"Not every woman needs a man to prop them up," Minerva says frostily. "I'm very happy you've found contentment with our Potions master, but don't make the mistake of thinking you're the model that all of society draws on."

Snape looks over at Balthazar and sees him pat his new wife's hand conspiratorially. It's obvious the Headmistress' rebuke has bounced off the two. They share a knowing smile that makes Snape feel a stab of envy.

Finally through the door, he bolts for the quietude of his office and the relief of a potion.

There was fresh ham at dinner.

He finishes his rounds, sends a note through the Floo to the Headmistress, and grabs his cloak. Leaving the castle, he makes his way to the Apparition point absent-mindedly. His thoughts are still wandering in circles of introspection, and he finds he can't stop wondering about the direction his life has turned. He can't stop wondering if he's making the correct choice.

Arriving at the small cottage in Lavenham, he lets himself in. A look at the clock on the mantel tells him it's after midnight. He's tired, too tired to stay up to read, so he heads off toward the bedroom. Once there, he strips out of his clothes and slips into the large, comfortable bed. The sheets are cool against his naked skin, and he experiences a frisson of expectation. Dropping an arm across his eyes against the candle he's left lit, he settles to sleep with his other hand lazily stroking her cat.

He wakes as soon as the bed dips under her knee. She'd drunk. He knew she would be—knew she would have been out celebrating her promotion with her friends—just as he knew she'd been flirting with every bloke in the pub. She likes to tantalize them with her perfect body. She gets off on knowing who she has waiting for her in her bed.

There is no greeting, no hello, no 'how was your day?' She just pulls the sheet down and starts kissing his chest, his belly, his cock. She takes him into her mouth, and he hisses in pleasure, just as his thoughts wince in something too close to pain to be comfortable.

"Hermione…" he whispers.

"Shhh. No talking," she replies.

He closes his eyes and threads his hands into her maddening hair, careful not to snag them in her curls. She only likes her hair pulled when she's had a bad day.

There was a time—had it really only been eight months ago?—when this very act had been so overwhelming that she'd barely started before he'd choked her with his release. He knows she wants that—wants to make him lose control again—but it had all been new then. Every touch and taste, every sigh and moan, had all been bright and shining and new. Now? Now he knew her. Now they had a pattern and a rhythm that his body had settled into.

He didn't mind—quite preferred it, actually—but he knew she did. She needed it. Needed to be overwhelming. She needed to blow his mind, as she had when a lingering look had led to a glorious moment of insanity. A mad kiss for the poets to weep over, stolen while her boyfriend's back had been turned. She'd stunned him even more when she'd turned up at his doorstep in Manchester two days later to tell him she'd broken things off with Weasley.

He'd said nothing. He'd been too nervous to say a word. Instead, he'd invited her into his home with a gesture and then led her straight to his bed.

Looking back, that had been the worst response he could have had. If ever there was a moment for talking, it had been then. There had been precious little since.

They'd been swept up in their madness for the entire summer, and when he started back to work in the Autumn, it had only added to the franticness. He could only get away for one night every two weeks, and so they would make up for lost time by fucking each other blind. One would crawl into bed and wake the other, and they would roll together for hours. He used to like it on those rare occasions when she'd been drinking. She would be demanding and experimental, and he would comply with eagerness, getting off on spanking or buggering her while calling her filthy names. However, the novelty does wear off once the dazzle fades, and one realizes it lacks substance.

Once the eyes are reluctantly opened.

Once one has no choice but to face the fact that the person they are in love with doesn't actually want them, only an ideal.

He opens his eyes and looks down. She's beautiful. Breathtakingly beautiful. That hasn't changed with familiarity. Taking her by the shoulders, he hauls her up the length of his body and kisses her. She goes boneless. The only thing she likes more than control, is surrendering.

He rolls them slowly, kissing her, kneading at her body until she is under him, and then reaches down to caress her sex. She'd ready, more than ready, but he resists her urging and takes his time, forcing her to climax first. He knows how to touch her now, what she likes and what she needs. It doesn't take long, she's already worked up. He wonders how far she's taken things in the pub tonight.

He shoves her legs apart before she's finished shuddering and presses himself inside. Her cries escalate, and he fucks her through another climax as she claws at his arms with her blunt nails.

As she surrenders herself to pleasure, his heart swells to bursting. He loves her. God, but how he loves her. When she opens her sweet, brown eyes and looks at him adoringly, he wants to weep. If only she felt that way for him.

But she doesn't.

He strokes himself into her slowly, determined to take his pleasure the way he wants to, now that she's had hers. She doesn't mind, it's part of her twist.

Hermione Granger gets off on being used.

Not by just anyone, no. She's not that broken. She's in love with the idea of being used by him. By Severus Snape, the notoriously misunderstood misanthrope. The noble man who nearly sacrificed everything for the memory of love. The embittered, reluctant hero who hadn't intended to survive…

So, Severus Snape uses her, knowing it's the last time.

He's known it since he'd left her lying tangled in her sweaty sheets two weeks ago. He's thought of nothing since that moment of clarity.

He takes his time, memorizing the contours of her impossibly slim waist, her perfect breasts, and her silky thighs. He knows he'll never see the like again and so he worships her.

She'll survive. This, too, is part of her fantasy, the idea that no woman could ever hold Severus Snape for long… that he will inevitably leave her to continue a solitary life of being misunderstood and underappreciated, forever mourning a memory.

She's been waiting for him to end it all along.

He can't tell her otherwise, she never wants to hear it. For Hermione is in love with a man that doesn't exist, and if he were to wake her from her dream, lay his soul naked and exposed before her… His heart shrivels in dread at the merest intimation of rejection.

It makes him want to scream, to rage at her, but there's no percentage in that. It would only ruin the memories. It would make her hate him. If he has no choice but to lose her, then let her dream on. Maybe she'll get it out of her system and find someone she can be whole with. Be for some other man what was so inconceivable for her to be with him.

A partner.

An anchor.

But he knows that's not in the cards. Not that he hadn't tried. Whenever he'd attempted to show her who he really was, a small man, with large needs, her brow would crease with a look of impending disappointment. She doesn't want that. She doesn't want a boring teacher, she wants a spy. She doesn't want someone who has needs, she wants a man of unfathomable aloofness. She doesn't want him. She wants a legend. She needs to be with that person like she needs the air she breathes.

But he needs more. He needs to be understood. He needs someone who allows him to be simply human. He needs to be with an equal, not some unfinished young woman with her head in the clouds.

He leans down to kiss her, pulling away repeatedly until she stops trying to dominate him, and then kisses her tenderly, longingly. He pulls away again when he's satisfied and finds her looking at him quizzically. There, in her eyes, he sees the shimmer of understanding. He sees the moment she comprehends that this is goodbye. There is a moment of sadness, and then, so soon it's like a kick to the gut, resignation and acceptance.

He closes his eyes against it and uses her perfect body to masturbate to a miserable little rapture.

Rolling off her, he pulls her into his arms as he catches his breath. She clings to him, and he wraps himself around her as she silently spilled tears down his chest and into his armpit. He knows he would give anything to stay, to hold her close for eternity, anything but the truth about himself. That, he's come to realize, he can't live without. He's already tried, and it's been twisting him apart inside. He can't deny his past mistakes, they help define him. He can't pretend he wasn't a foolish man, given to petty resentments and grand idiocies. He can't make believe he's not a man who had let his ambition and anger ruin lives, or that now he's just a lonely man, desperate to belong to someone. That's not the man she weeps for. She mourns a phantom, so he holds her while she does.

He knows this is will make her feel complete. It was the perfect end to the perfect relationship with the perfect man.

She'll weep quietly when she's alone, put on her brave face for work, and enjoy her perfect heartbreak. She'll confide in no one because no one ever knew.

That had been part of her thrill. He was her secret. It had also been his first warning that all was not as it had seemed. Her constant refusal to go out to dinner with him, or meet him for lunch, had at first appeared to be embarrassment. He feared she was ashamed to be seen in public with him. Later, he realized it was something else. A kind of warped covetousness. She'd needed to be the only person who ever saw him let his guard down. She fancied herself as the only person who ever saw him laugh, yawn, or read a book while he ate. She believes she is the only one who is his intellectual equal, the only one who he can hold an intelligent conversation with.

He's never had the courage or the cruelty to tell her she was wrong. Just because his colleagues filled the air with mindless chatter didn't make them stupid. All of them had probably sounded as self-important as she does when they were her age. But they'd all grown sick of hearing themselves long ago. They'd all learned that there was more to life than debating spell theory.

His coworkers all knew he was human. They didn't expect anything else. They twitted him about the dark hero in the paper as much as he allowed. Which was often of late. The man in the paper was a stranger to them all, especially him.

Aside from her beauty, her courage, and her uncontainable giggle when tickled, there was one other thing about his beautiful Hermione that did make her unique among all others. He'd never had the courage or the stupidity to tell her what it was. Her fantastical notions about him precluded any possibility that she was his first lover. That before her, no one had ever looked at him that way. He'll never tell her that the first time she'd kissed him, pressing herself against him in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place, he'd nearly come in his pants like a schoolboy. That he'd stumbled into the loo immediately after and wanked into the sink.

No. He will leave her her fantasies. She needs them to get her through until she finds herself.

She will. She's strong.

He pulls the blanket over them both and kisses her forehead.

When he wakes in the morning, there is no conversation. She makes tea, and he declines with a shake of his head. When she holds out the small bag of things he'd packed, the detritus accumulated over so many nights spent together, he almost breaks. He's so close to begging that he can't unclench his hand to take the bag.

It's the look in her eyes that gives him the push he needs. She's awed by his self-control.

With a sigh, he takes the bag and kisses her forehead one last time. Then he walks out the door and leaves her to the misery that she'd so looked forward to.


Anton chases after the ball, dragging his brand-new cricket bat on the ground behind him. Snape shakes his head, wondering if any father has ever made a success out of sounding like a magpie. He should have bought the cheapest one, but he hadn't seen his son in months and had been unable to resist the primal urge to prove how much he cared with foolish displays. What the hell did a five-year-old know of bats?

Isobel had gone home to France for the summer hols, and taken their boy with her. He'd thought it a good arrangement at the time; the boy needed to be with his mother. It hadn't taken him long to find the entire arrangement faulty. A father needs to be with his son. Next summer, they will have to make a different arrangement. Splitting the time seems perfectly reasonable to him.

He has yet to consult his solicitor on the matter, but this first day back together with his boy reinforces his decision. There's no talking reason to the boy's mother. Isobel had grown bitter long before their split. She was a right bitch now.

He gets what he deserves for wool-gathering. Anton tosses the ball back and pegs him in the head. Snape turns a dark eye on his son, and receives only a dark-eyed giggle in return. His heart swells to bursting. That there is a creature in the world that holds no fear of him at all is worth all the cricket bats, noggin lumps, and legal woes life could dish out. Anton loves his father, and is loved fiercely in return.

Snape picks up the ball and gestures for his son to assume his stance. "Steady, see if you can hit this one…"

Snape is lounging on a bench, watching his son race around with some of the other children in the park. He's perfectly balanced on the point between utter relaxation and impending disaster that any parent experiences watching their child at play. There is no room in his focus for the suddenness with which his world is upended.

"Severus?"

He looks up to see her standing over him looking confused. He knows his own face reflects the same expression. "Granger?" She frowns. She'd always hated when he called her that.

He jumps up. "Hermione. What the hell are you doing in Manchester?" He winces at his lack of élan. He'd imagined seeing her again a thousand times, but he'd never imagined being so utterly flustered.

He watches as she looks him up and down, taking in his jeans and jumper, his mundane Muggle trainers, the cricket bat and ball on the bench next to him. Her obvious confusion deepens, and he finds an old defensiveness creeping back into place. Was she expecting him to be buttoned into his robes to take his son to a Muggle park?

She winces; he must have given his thoughts away. Gesturing at a house across the street, she says, "I was just leaving the Conor's. Underage magic, third offense. I was sent to give the usual dire lecture a bit more punch." She folds her hands around the strap on her handbag. "I thought I recognized you." She looks around. "What are you doing here?"

He turns his head to see Anton standing still, ignoring his friends as he stares anxiously at his father. Snape raises a hand and Anton bolts toward him. "I'm here with my son," he says as the boy slams into his leg and wraps his little arms around it.

He watches her, sees her taking in the boy's pale complexion, his too dark eyes, and ink black hair. Her eyes widen, and she looks at him. He's taken aback by the sadness in her eyes. "You have a son," she whispers.

"You didn't know?" he asks softly, stroking his hand through his boy's hair.

She gives a small shake of her head before crouching down. Anton presses himself against his father's leg. "Hello there," she says. "What's your name?"

"Je suis Anton," the boy mumbles.

She smiles, and Snape's heart constricts. "Je m'appelle Hermione."

"Miss Granger is an old friend," he says to his son.

Anton looks up at him, as if testing the truth of his words, and then he relaxes and turns back to her. "You have an awful accent," he says.

Granger wrinkles her nose. "I know. It is dreadful, isn't it? It's what I get for only ever reading French and never saying it aloud. I'm sorry."

Snape pats the boy's shoulder. "Go back to your friends," he says. "Miss Granger and I are going to talk about boring things now."

Anton unwinds his grip and looks up with a solemn expression that conveys multiple meanings. "Can we have the ball? I promise I won't lose it."

Snape rolls his eyes, knowing his son wouldn't have asked if he hadn't had an audience. The little Slytherin's unspoken message is that if his father refuses, he won't give them any privacy at all. He plucks up the ball and hands it to him. "On your honor," he says.

"Can I have the bat?"

"No."

With a dramatic sigh, a nod, and an impish grin, Anton dashes away. Snape watches him return to his little group, holding the ball triumphant.

"He's beyond adorable," she says next to him.

He turns to her with a smirk. "Isn't he? I find I can't seem to reach the end of my pride whenever I look at him. I think it might still be relief. I spent the entirety of the pregnancy suffering from the recurring nightmare that my wife would give birth to a giant nose."

She smiles and then her eyes grow sad again. The unspoken hangs in the air between them, thickening, shoving them further apart. The moment to pass it off comes and goes, and they're left staring at each other. She takes a deep breath and says, "Are you happy?"

He winces, wondering what happened to her ability to not speak of the elephant in the room. He looks to where his son is holding up a ball and being chased by the little black girl with the head full of beads. "I'm happier now that he's home again."

"Where's he been?"

Snape frowns. "My ex-wife took him to France for the summer. He returned last night."

"Ex-wife?"

He turns to her and catches the faint trace of hope before she masks it. His heart slams in his chest. "You are out of the loop, aren't you?"

She grimaces and looks away. "Just where you're concerned," she says in a quiet voice. "I'm afraid I made a bit of a scene when I heard you'd married. No one's spoken of you near me since."

He raised an eyebrow and stared at her, unable to read enough into her words for hope. "It must have been quite a scene if no one's mentioned me in all this time. That was seven years ago now."

She sighs. "It was. I assure you. Harry was the first to catch on; my assistant Penny was the next. I'm not sure which of them was the bigger gossip, but eventually everyone knew why I was upset."

"I see," he replies, although he doesn't. Not clearly enough to pin a hope on. He looks back at his son quickly before gesturing to the bench. "Are you in a rush?" he asks.

"Not at all." She gives him a timid smile and sits.

He seats himself next to her, not too close, not too far, and leans forward, elbows on knees. More nervous than he can remember being in ages, he picks up the cricket bat, inspecting the scratches and gouges along the edge. He keeps his face turned away, unsure if he can bear to look and see her expression. "Why were you so upset? You seemed to have no problems with us being over. I recall you taking up with that Jordan bloke not long after." He keeps himself relaxed, trying not to show how much of his soul depends on her answer.

She waves a hand. "I was irrational, let's just leave it at that."

He tightens his grip on the bat until his knuckles turn white. "How's the job?" he asks.

"Good. I'm a Junior Minister now."

"I know," he says, aware that bitterness has slipped through. He knows everything about her. He's spent seven and a half years following her in the papers, listening to every scrap of gossip.

That she hadn't done the same makes him feel slighted. "Have you a fellow?" he asks, already feigning ignorance.

"No," she replies in a soft, sad voice.

He turns to her and blurts, "Are you happy?"

She looks at him, and he's shocked at the tears that quickly form in her eyes. "No," she says. "I've not been happy in… a long time."

He looks away from the pain, unsure what to do, and watches the children at play.

"What happened to the two of you?" she asks. "Isobel, I mean."

He snorts. "Everything. Nothing. It was all wonderful and lovely, right up until it wasn't." Looking back over his shoulder, he says, "Anton is a squib."

He darts his eyes away quickly, afraid to see the pity on her face as well. His hands tighten on the bat. "Isobel ignored the truth as long as she could, filling his head with notions of what a great wizard he'd be someday. I thought it seemed cruel to give the boy an image he might not live up to. When it was confirmed last year, she grew irrational. She wouldn't allow him to leave our rooms, convinced that the students knew and were whispering about the two teachers and their squib son. She was deeply ashamed of him."

He sighs and stares down at his feet. "In the end, I decided my son's self-esteem was more important than my wife's. I resigned, took him with her blessing, and moved back here." He gives a nod to the terrace houses down the street, now gentrified into chicness. "She was happy to see the back of both of us at first, but she's come around with him. He lives here with me during the week when she's teaching, and stays with her on the weekends." He nods to the boy, streaking after the giggling little girl with all the beads. "He's still got a few anxiety issues, but they're not hard to spot. He only speaks French when he's nervous."

He feels the weight of her warm hand on his arm. "I'm sorry," she says softly.

He looks back at her in anger. "That my son is a squib? Don't bother. He's the way he's meant to be," he snaps, shaking off her hand.

She snorts. "Not that. I'm sure he'll adjust to being a squib the way I adjusted to being a witch. Being your son, I'm sure he'll overcompensate spectacularly. I meant I'm sorry your marriage didn't work out."

He should have known she would understand, she'd spent too much of her youth struggling with her own uniqueness. He feels like an utter prat. Now he's gone and tossed away her touch. He wonders if he has the courage to take her hand and place it back.

He doesn't. Instead, he shrugs. "I'd already made a hash of things long before we found out about Anton. I doubt his having magical abilities would have changed fate all that much, only prolonged it."

"How so?" Her voice is full of honest curiosity, and he wonders what it is she hopes to hear.

"Because I never saw her for who she was, only what I needed her to be," he says softly, finally saying the truth out loud. He feels his cheeks burn with shame. The rest spills out unbidden, and he can't make it stop. "I wanted a wife. I wanted a warm and willing woman who didn't think I was more than I really was. I wanted someone who understood me so much, I didn't bother to stop and understand her. After I left you, I threw myself at her and never gave her the chance to get her bearings. We were married within months of our first date." He turns to her and sees tears spilling down her cheeks. He shakes his head. "I made the same mistake you did with me," he whispers.

She nods, biting down on her lip to try and keep it still. "I know," she says at last. "I know that's what I did. Not then, but after. When you married so soon…" She folds her arms around her stomach and hunches over. "It was so confusing to me, but when I spoke with people that knew you, Minerva or Filius, not a one of them were surprised. In fact, they presented a picture of an entirely different man. That's when I had to have it out with myself and realize that I'd never really known you at all." She shakes her head. "I felt so… stupid. Young and stupid and full of myself."

He reaches over and takes her hand, stroking a thumb across the soft skin he's missed all these years. "Only young, Hermione" he says with quiet emotion. "You were only young. I never told you you were wrong, did I? I didn't try very hard to make you see the truth."

He lets go of her hand and looks back at his son. "You were spared that. My experience is that the truth would have made you slightly ill and then you would be trying to find a way to resign yourself to a future you hadn't seen coming. I wanted to be ordinary so much, that I'd somehow forfeited my right to feel… I don't know, special. What I thought was domestic bliss was actually marital catatonia. I'll confess that when Minerva finally admitted that Anton wasn't in the enrollment book, I didn't waste much time trying to help Isobel work through her issues. Her shame at her own son precluded any interest I had in trying to work through what was already broken."

There is a moment of silence before she says, "I don't think I've been spared much, Severus. The feeling of being slightly ill only grew worse as time marched on and showed me what I'd been too young to see." She snorts. "Gods, how mature I thought I was, and what was I? Twenty? Twenty-one? It all looks vastly different from twenty-eight, let me tell you. There are times I still can't look in the mirror."

Her hands coil in her lap as if lost for the right way to express her frustration. "There's a noise I make, you know. Whenever I think about something truly humiliating that I've done in the past, I can't help but make these strange little squeaking noises." She twists her hands together until her fingernails turn white. "I squeak a lot when I think of you."

He sighs, knowing this is as much as she can admit without further encouragement. He swallows with difficulty before turning toward her and laying one arm along the back of the bench. Picking up one of her curls, he rubs it between his thumb and fingers. "Do you think of me often?" he asks. His voice comes out sounding natural, even, despite the fact that his throat is nearly closed off from terror.

He watches her mouth twitch from a grimace to a smile to a worried frown and back again. "Of course. You were the one that got away. When you turned around and married so quickly, I..." She shrugs, denying him her thoughts again. "I'm probably just as far off base now as I was then." With a sigh, she raises her eyes and looks at him. "I think about you all the time," she whispers. He can see the fear she's had to push through to make this admission.

"As do I," he says, watching her cheeks flush and the smile gain a weak primacy. He takes the final leap, determined not to live any more lies, or live with any more regrets. "Hermione, would you like to go out to dinner with me some time? Perhaps… get to know each other?"

Her eyes are overfull with emotion, leaking insecurity. "I-I would, but… why would you want to?" She lifts her hands, cupping them around nothing. "I was… I wasn't…" Dropping her hands into her lap she repeats, "Why?"

He sighs and strokes a finger down her cheek. "Because I'm perverse? Because, despite how wrong-headed you were about me, you still made me feel like I was special? Because a man can have a difficult time letting go of his first lover?" Her eyes widen, but he plunges on. "You've never left my heart, and I've deeply regretted the day I left your bed. I've regretted how much of a coward I was." He sighs and sets the cricket bat aside to take her hand in his. "It wasn't only you, Hermione. I never allowed you the chance to accept or reject who I really was. I didn't have the courage to disabuse you of your presumptions." He closes his eyes and takes a breath, letting it out slowly. "Now I do. If you're willing, I would like the chance to show you who I really am, and to get to know this new woman that you now are."

She tilts her face back into the palm of his hand, and he caresses it with his thumb. "Yes," she whispers, with teary eyes. "I would really like to get to know you, Severus. The real you."

He smiles, closing his eyes as he curls his hand around the back of her neck and draws her head against his shoulder. He places a kiss on her forehead. "Good," he says. "I hope you like me."

She lets forth with a pained bark of a laugh that dissolves into her irrepressible giggle. Gods, he's missed that sound. He strokes her curls with a gentle hand and feels her body go boneless against his.

As he turns to watch his son again, his heart feels full to bursting.