A/N: My dearest readers. I have fallen behind in answering your reviews again. Please feel free to blame my sons. My sixteen-year-old has his Junior Cert (state examinations – like GCSEs or OWLs) in five weeks, and so he has been excused from housework while he is studying. Alas, I have had to take up the slack. But he is quite the Hermione Granger, so I'm sure we'll be rewarded with bucket loads of As in return. In fact, he has started giving grinds (extra lessons) to his classmates at the cost of €2 per student per class, which I'm sure is against school rules, so he's more like something of a Weasley twin/Hermione mix. It's all my genes, of course. ;)

A few of you have left reviews suggesting I make the story go one way or another. Please remember that this story was completed four and a half years ago – and I promised that the story would not change. In editing it, I am merely changing the language with which it is told (the original was, to my mind, rather heavy and over-written in parts), and not the story itself. And in answer to another frequent question: Denial was originally 33 chapters long. Now, with the addition of The Ring of Fire, it will be 34. So, after this chapter, we will only have another eight to go.

One or two of you have also bemoaned the lack of lemons. You get one in this chapter (hurray!), but this story was never really about the sex scenes. It was never the kind of tale that was going to have a detailed sex scene every single chapter after Severus and Hermione got together. If that's what you're looking for, I'm afraid this story is not for you. If you want nothing more than fluff, again, it is not for you. Denial is a story that looks at some tough issues for people in tough circumstances, and examines how they might feel and cope. But if you've made it this far in the story, I beseech you to stick with it and trust me. Our couple have a rocky road ahead of them, but I will be kind. And again, remember, I am not changing the original story, so I will not be adding lemons as I go, although there is a scene in one of the later chapters that I will lengthen and elaborate.

And finally, thank you, again, from the bottom of my heart. When I've had a hard day and the last thing I want to do is wade through another chapter of the original manuscript, I read over your reviews and it makes every second of it all worthwhile.

LB x

Walking with you and another lady

In wooded parkland, the whispering grass

Ran its fingers through our guessing silence

And the trees opened into a shady

Unexpected clearing where we sat down.

I think the candour of the light dismayed us.

We talked about desire and being jealous,

Our conversation a loose single gown

Or a white picnic tablecloth spread out

Like a book of manners in the wilderness.

"Show me," I said to our companion, "what

I have much coveted, your breast's mauve star."

And she consented. O neither these verses

Nor my prudence, love, can heal your wounded stare.

Seamus Heaney, A Dream of Jealousy

ssSss

It was the second week of September, and it already felt like autumn. The long summer evenings would soon be no more, and as Severus gazed across Kensington Square, he wondered what the colder months would bring.

It was Monday evening. He hadn't seen Hermione all day, and as he looked through the yellowing leaves of the trees towards her house, he imagined what she might be doing. Maybe she was having dinner in the company of Lance and Moe. It was possible that she had gone to visit friends: Harry and Ginny, perhaps, or Padma and Dean. He was envious of all these imaginary dinner companions.

He was annoyed with himself. Cordelia had left for Edinburgh the previous Friday, and so he and Hermione had enjoyed two nights together instead of one. It was ridiculous that he was missing the girl, having spent the entire weekend with her. He had slept beside her on both nights, and on neither occasion had he been revisited by his recurring nightmare.

There were two possible explanations for this: either the knowledge that there was someone beside him had been enough to keep the nightmare at bay, or he found comfort in the presence of her warm, naked body pressed against his own. He felt that, somehow, the former explanation was infinitely more acceptable.

Six weeks had passed since they'd embarked on their passionate affair, and with each day he was finding it increasingly more difficult to keep his professional and private lives separate. On more than one occasion, Hermione had arrived at the laboratory, her ponytailed hair swinging behind her, and he had been almost overwhelmed by her exquisiteness. How he had longed to cross the room and take her radiant face in his hands and kiss her until they were both dizzy with breathlessness.

With increasing frequency he watched her work at her bench, recalling the morning they had first made love on the yellow-spattered surface with such desperation. How badly he wanted to take her on that bench again, but they had agreed that it was unacceptable, and there were potions to be brewed.

He tore himself from the window of his study and crossed the room to his mahogany drinks cabinet. As he took a crystal decanter of brandy from its shelf, a small glass phial at the very back of the cabinet caught his eye. He had almost forgotten it was there: One dose of Exostraserum. As he took it out and fingered the delicate bottle, he remembered Hermione's definition of the effects of the potion: "It provides clarity of thought and insight into one's own beliefs and feelings."

The past few weeks had confused him. He had entered this liaison with Hermione fully cognisant of the difficulties it would bring, but he had not bargained on one of those difficulties being the turmoil that was his own feelings. He wanted to relegate her to nothing more than a mistress, but she deserved more, and he knew it. But neither of them was in a position to pursue anything other than their adulterous affair, so contemplation of an impossible future was pointless.

He gazed at the colourless liquid in the tiny glass bottle and slowly removed the little cork with which it was stoppered, knowing it could help him examine his emotions. He raised it to his lips, but before he could drink it, he lowered it again and replaced the stopper.

Now was not the time: he was certain that Theodore Nott would return. He was, in fact, stunned that his stepson had put up with the inconvenience of his burning ring for such a long time. But Theo's return could cause events to spiral out of control, and the time might yet come when the Exostraserum would be vital.

Uttering a sigh of relief, he pushed it to the back of the cabinet shelf once more. The idea of exploring his deepest emotions was not one with which he was comfortable. There were many skeletons in his particular closet, and he had no wish to confront them face-to-face.

ssSss

On a Thursday morning some ten days later, he watched Hermione make her way to her workbench. He knew it was her birthday today, and he wondered why she hadn't mentioned it. He was well prepared. For some reason, he had always remembered Hermione Granger's birthday, even when she had been his student. On her first day at Hogwarts he had been presented with a list of all the incoming first-years in order of their age. She had been the eldest in her year, the first newcomer to turn twelve, and as a result her name and date-of-birth had been top of the list.

She didn't look particularly happy today, and he wondered if she'd been upset to discover that there was no gift from him among the presents she'd received that morning. He had thought long and hard about what to buy for her, but he had no intention of presenting her with her gift before their working day was through.

He remembered watching her in the Great Hall on the morning she had turned twelve, aware that none of her classmates had wished her well. She had not been popular among the first-years, and he had rather thought it served her right for being such a know-it-all. She'd only received two small gifts by owl, and it had occurred to him that she had, in all probability, been every bit as ostracised by her Muggle classmates as she was by her magical ones.

"Hermione?" he asked, thinking that she looked exceptionally pretty this morning. "Did you find it difficult as a child, being a Muggle-born?"

She looked up, surprised. "What do you mean? At Hogwarts?"

He shook his head. "Not at Hogwarts. What was it like to be a witch brought up as a Muggle? What was it like before you received your letter from Hogwarts?"

"Very difficult," she said with a shrug. "Frustrating ... I felt like something was wrong with me. My parents were concerned: they even went so far as to bring me to a child psychologist when I was nine. It's nothing any other Muggle-born hasn't gone through. You know—making things explode when you get angry; making things Levitate when you're happy—that sort of thing. It's easily explained when you are a pure-blood or a half-blood, but pretty frightening when you have no idea that the magical world exists. I think my parents were relieved when I got my letter and we had our visit from Pomona Sprout to explain everything."

"How did you get along with your peers?" he asked, genuinely interested.

Hermione frowned. "Not terribly well, although I'm not sure if it had anything to do with my being a witch. It was possibly just my 'know-it-all hand waving' as you've described it." She grinned at him. "I never felt like I fit in when I was in a Muggle school. I had hardly any friends, and I believed it would all be different when I went to Hogwarts ... I thought I'd be accepted. I was sure the fact that I was clever and so far ahead of my Muggle classmates was because I was a witch, but after a few days at Hogwarts, I realised things weren't very different there."

He couldn't help but draw a parallel between Hermione and the only other Muggle-born with whom he had ever had any sort of relationship. Yes, Lily had spoken of the fear in her parents' eyes when she had performed magic as a young child, but she had never had such difficulty with children her own age. The difference was that in her youth, Hermione had lacked the charm and self-confidence of a young Lily Evans. She'd only gained that confidence later on in life.

"You seemed to get along infinitely better with your male classmates than you did with the other girls," he said.

"I got along with Neville from day one, but the other guys only accepted me because of Harry and Ron. The girls in my year, Parvati and Lavender in particular, just weren't my type at all. I always got along well with Ginny, but again, that was more to do with my friendship with Harry and Ron than anything else. She was always sporty, confident, and fantastic on the Quidditch pitch; I don't think we would've been friends if she wasn't Ron's sister. Padma was my first true female friend, I guess."

He watched her for a moment. "I can't believe you ever thought you were suited to Ronald Weasley: a less well-matched pair I've never come across in my life."

She gave him an embarrassed smile. "Yes, you're probably right. But I think, in a way, it was his family I loved rather than him. With Harry and I being only children, it was easy to become smitten with the Weasleys. Their family life was chaotic, loud, disorganised, but warm and welcoming, and so much fun. I loved the summers I spent at the Burrow. It worked out fine for Harry: he's well suited to Ginny. They're both sporty, clever—well, Harry can be when he puts his mind to it."

Severus snorted in disbelief.

"I only have two cousins," she continued, "so the Weasleys' home life was something of a revelation to me. I suppose it's the reason I can't imagine having anything less than two or three children." She realised what she'd said and lowered her gaze, her cheeks colouring. She hadn't meant to let slip something so personal.

He regarded her for a moment longer, wondering how she could possibly feel, surrounded by friends who either had children or were expecting babies.

"Didn't you ever wish to have a child with Cordelia, Severus?" she asked without raising her gaze.

He arched an eyebrow. "Certainly not. It's not legally obligatory, so why would I wish such a thing?"

She looked up at him. "You've never wanted children?"

He shook his head. "I've never had such a desire. When one comes from a desperately unhappy home and has endured a miserable childhood, one has no wish to visit such wretchedness on an innocent child."

Hermione felt suddenly sad for him. "I don't think you would ever repeat the mistakes of your parents, Severus."

"It seems to me that despite the very best of intentions," he replied quietly, frowning, "human beings have a strange habit of becoming their parents."

An uncomfortable silence fell between them, but as they gradually became engrossed in their mutual tasks, the atmosphere soon dissipated. Moe called them to lunch at one o'clock, and they dined companionably in the kitchen, reading to one another from a selection of recent journals.

At five o'clock, Severus watched as Hermione began to tidy away her ingredients, scribbling in her journal as she sent jars and phials soaring back to their shelves with her wand.

"Have you plans for this evening?" he asked, feigning innocence.

She smiled. "I'm dining out with my parents tonight."

"Do you need to leave immediately?"

She shot him a curious glance. "Not quite yet ... I'm not meeting them until six. Why?"

He withdrew his wand from the folds of his robes and sealed the door with a flick. "I have good news and bad news."

"What bad news?" she asked breathily, wondering if, perhaps, Cordelia had discovered their affair.

"The bad news is that Cordelia informed me this morning that she's decided to spend the weekend at home. It seems you share Narcissa Malfoy's birthday, and she has decided to throw a dinner party for you both."

She groaned, shaking her head. "How did she know?"

"She remembered from last year," he said.

She shook her head again. "And the good news?"

"Well," he said, suddenly uncertain. "It's not so much good news as something I think—I hope—you will enjoy." He opened the press beneath his bench and extracted a large, silver-wrapped present.

He crossed the room, amused at her astonished expression, and placed the gift before her. He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. "Happy birthday, Hermione."

She gaped at him.

"You thought I'd forgotten?" he asked, smirking.

"I just didn't think you had any reason to remember," she said. "I don't like to make a fuss of my birthday." She looked at the gift and grinned. "Can I open it?"

"Of course."

"Ooh, it's heavy," she said, lifting it an inch or two off the bench. She undid the black ribbon and parted the silver paper. When she'd opened the wooden lid of the box she peered inside.

Severus watched her closely, hoping he had chosen appropriately. He knew women were generally fond of jewellery and the like, but he'd never seen Hermione wear much besides her wedding band, and he thought that his gift was, considering the circumstances, every bit as suitable a gift for employer to give an employee as it was for one lover to give another. He couldn't help but give her an uncertain half-smile as she raised her astounded gaze to his.

"Severus!" she cried. "You didn't?"

"Apparently, I did," he said.

She gaped at him before removing the lid and carefully extracting a large, solid gold cauldron. Placing it carefully on her bench with a clunk, she raised her hands to her face in disbelief. It was a Xiao Tiang Mei cauldron, the same size as the one that sat upon Severus's bench. She knew that mere Galleons were not enough to purchase a cauldron like this: one needed serious contacts and a well-respected name in the field of Potions.

She turned to him, her eyes brimming with tears. "Severus, I'm just speechless."

"That makes a pleasant change," he said, taking in her tear-filled eyes. "Are you upset? I wondered if I should, perhaps, have gotten you something more personal. I worried that you would not be content with something that is, essentially, only useful when you are at work. But I want to assure you that this is yours and yours alone. It does not belong to the business in any way. If, someday, you wish to leave, it would be yours to take with you, and—"

She grinned at him and placed a finger to his lips. "Severus," she whispered. "You're babbling."

He smirked. "We seem to have reversed roles."

She looked back at the gleaming cauldron and ran her finger tenderly around the rim, as if it was a new and cherished pet. She could make out the symbols that were the customary mark of a Xiao Tiang Mei cauldron, but there was a set of symbols on the opposite side that she had never seen before. Tracing them with her finger, she turned curious eyes to his face.

"Severus, what are these markings? I've never come across them before."

"It's your name," he said simply.

"My name?" she asked, suddenly breathless. "You had them customise a cauldron especially for me?"

He nodded, nervously fingering his bottom lip with the tip of his index finger.

"But ... but …" she stammered, "It's difficult enough to purchase one of these cauldrons. How in the world did you talk them into putting my name on it?"

He smiled. "I have my ways; I can be very persuasive."

She dreaded to think how much it must have cost him. "You must have ordered it weeks ago!"

Severus nodded. "Two months ago."

Hermione looked at him, confused. "You ordered it before ... before we even got together?"

"Yes," he said. "I rather thought you deserved it."

Before she could blink it back, a tear slid down her cheek. "I'm so, so touched," she said, her voice choked. She leaned her head against his chest and snaked her arms around his waist, glad that he had warded the door.

He lifted her chin and brushed the tear away with the tips of his fingers. "You genuinely like it?"

She gave him a smile and nodded. "I love it, Severus. I'm stunned."

He pulled her closer to him and lowered his head to kiss her, then whispered, "I intended giving you the cauldron no matter what happened between us, but your second present definitely depended on us becoming lovers."

Kissing her again, more passionately this time, he undid the clasp of her work robes and allowed them to fall to the ground. She pulled away from him.

"Severus," she said, glancing at the sealed door. "I thought this was against the rules?"

"I'm sure we can make an exception for your birthday," he whispered, his breath against her ear. He took his wand from his robes once again and flicked it twice.

Hermione could feel a Warming Charm take effect around her, but even so, she shivered as he placed his wand on her workbench and began to undo the buttons of her shirt. She toed off her shoes and moved her hands to the neck of his coat, but he grasped her wrists and lowered them to her sides.

Her buttons undone, he lowered her shirt down her arms and let it fall to the ground before opening her belt and unzipping her jeans.

He undid the clasp in her hair, letting it tumble loose about her shoulders, and grasped her by the waist, lifting her onto the edge of the bench, the way he had done the morning they'd first made love. He hooked his thumbs over the band of her jeans and she obligingly lifted her hips for him, allowing him to pull them down her legs. She licked her lips in anticipation as he pulled off her socks and tossed them on top of her discarded jeans, and as he raised his lips to hers for another kiss, she reached once more for the buttons of his coat, only to have him remove her hands again.

"Severus, if you think I'm going to sit here near-naked while you get to stand there in your black-clad glory, you're very much mistaken."

He smirked at her. "Shy?" He allowed his gaze to rake over her torso, taking in the sight of her erect nipples beneath the satin of her bra. "You have no need to be."

"I iam/i shy ... I can't help it," she whispered, wrapping her arms protectively around her waist.

He quickly undid the buttons of his frock coat and his shirt and shrugged them down his shoulders until he stood bare-chested before her. "Better?"

"Better," she agreed, moving her fingers to his belt. Before he could stop her, she reached into his trousers with one hand and stroked her fingers up the length of his erection.

"Hermione," he growled, grasping her wrists once more and extracting her hand from his trousers. "Enough! It is your birthday." He put her hands firmly behind her back. "Are you going to do as you're told or will I have to use a Binding Charm?"

"You haven't told me to do anything," she complained, giving him a mock glare.

"In that case let me make it clear: keep your hands to yourself!"

He stood between her legs and undid the clasp of her bra, gazing at her peaked nipples as he eased the straps down her arms. He didn't believe he would ever grow tired of looking upon her full, pert breasts. Taking one of her nipples into his mouth, he smiled at her sudden intake of breath and the way she tangled her hands in his hair, pulling him more surely against her chest. He released her breast and whispered, "Lie back."

She did as she was told with a deep sigh of satisfaction, and he watched as she lay across the bench, her loosened hair spread magnificently around her. He circled her nipples once with his thumbs before sliding his hands down her stomach to remove her black satin panties, then trailed his hands up the inside of her thighs, parting them as he went.

Hermione arched her back as his hands made their way up the sensitive skin of her thighs. She felt vulnerable, exposed like this, but at the same time excited, and as he lowered his lips to the soft skin of her inner thigh, his hot mouth following the path his hands had taken, she soon forgot her inhibitions and moaned aloud.

He reached the juncture of her thigh, his nose buried in her pubic hair, and he smirked at her sharp intake of breath as his thumb stroked her already swollen clitoris. She cried out as he replaced his thumb with his warm tongue and arched her back further, gripping the sides of the bench, her knuckles whitening. She was wet with arousal, and as he slipped first one finger and then two inside her she gave a loud groan, making him glad he'd put a Soundproofing Charm on the room.

She no longer cared that she was naked, exposed upon her workbench as warm waves of pure pleasure washed over her, making her arch her back further still as she thrust herself against his hand. His tongue on her clitoris was blissful, and as his long, slender fingers stroked inside her, she could feel the tell-tale, warm tingle of her orgasm building in her abdomen.

Severus raised his gaze while his tongue still worked at her. He could not see her face—her back was still arched and he couldn't see beyond the peaks of her breasts. While he watched, she relinquished her hold on the edge of the bench and moved her fingers to her own nipple, gripping it between her thumb and forefinger, making him stifle the groan that rose from his own throat. He throbbed with arousal as he felt her clench around his fingers, crying out as she orgasmed.

She grasped the edges of the bench once more, and then finally lowered her arched back, her breasts rising and falling as she panted for breath.

"Godammit, Severus," she said, opening one eye to peer at him. "Your talents are limitless."

He gave a short laugh as he kissed his way up her stomach. "I'm glad you think so." He gently pulled her into a sitting position, the damp curls of her pubic hair pressed against his stomach.

They kissed, hands tangled in each other's already tossed hair. He moaned as she lowered her fingers to his still-bulging trousers. "Good lord, girl. Do you never do as you're told?" he asked, removing her hands from his groin yet again.

She pouted.

"It's your birthday," he said, giving her a playful slap on the behind. "And as you're shortly meeting your parents, I'm sure a shower is in order after that particular birthday gift."

Hermione laughed as he began to hand her various items of abandoned clothing. "At least I don't have to wash yellow potion out of my hair this time." She pulled him to her for another kiss. "Thank you, Severus."

"You're entirely welcome," he said with a glance at his watch, "but you're going to be late."

In the end she was late, but after a birthday gift like that, she didn't particularly care.

ssSss

Two days later, Hermione was not enjoying the dinner party that had supposedly been thrown in her honour. She suspected Cordelia was hosting the lavish party for Narcissa Malfoy's benefit and that her name had merely been tacked on to the occasion in a hollow acknowledgement of her birthday. The only friends of hers to have been invited were Draco and Susan, and they'd declined the invitation as they were holidaying in Canada.

Hermione arrived slightly late—on Lancelot's insistence—to find that she was seated at the far end of the table from Severus, among the older Mills. On very many occasions, Severus had stopped Cordelia from sitting Hermione in the vicinity of her tedious old aunts, but either he had made no effort tonight or Cordelia had thwarted his attempts. He flashed her an apologetic glance after she'd sat down, so she expected the latter was the case.

Cordelia was very much in her element, seated next to Severus and opposite Lucius Malfoy. She'd started stroking Severus's forearm before the first course had even been served, and her constant tinkling laugh at everything either he or Lucius said grated on Hermione's nerves all through the meal.

When Aunt Jemima leaned forward and croaked, "Isn't it wonderful to see Severus and Cordelia so very much in love?" Hermione was gripped by an insane urge to rise to her feet and yell the truth to the entire room.

That, more so than Cordelia's infuriating pawing at her husband, was what annoyed her most: the fact that nobody, with the exception of Lance, could know about them.

Oh, Cordelia quite obviously had her suspicions—her triumphant glances in Hermione's direction were evidence of that much—but nobody else suspected what she felt for Severus Snape and what he felt for her in return. She was just poor young Hermione, deserted wife.

Feeling enormously sorry for herself, she allowed her gaze to fall on Severus. She remembered the night they had attended Pomona Sprout's retirement party in Hogwarts. He had looked so very dashing that night, far more distinguished than any of the other guests, and even though they were in a room of some forty guests, many of them well-groomed aristocrats like Lucius Malfoy, Severus still stood out from the crowd.

He did not look in her direction even once during dinner, and Hermione began to feel a dull ache in her chest, a longing for something from him, some little sign that she was on his mind and that he wanted her more than the mature, well-dressed women by whom he was surrounded. But as the dessert dishes were cleared away and the coffee was served, her annoyance at Cordelia disappeared and was replaced by jealousy and disbelief. The cause of these new emotions was Hestia Jones, or rather, Severus's attentions to Hestia Jones, who was seated on his right.

Hermione had read, about two months previously, that upon reaching her fiftieth birthday, Hestia had divorced her wealthy husband as she as was no longer subject to the Marriage Law. There had been rumours of an affair with Kingsley Shacklebolt, himself recently divorced, but Hestia's attire tonight suggested she was still very much a woman on the prowl.

From across the room, Hermione watched her. She had never before seen Hestia look so young or so attractive. The robes she wore were almost indecently low-cut, and Hermione suddenly regretted her decision to dress so demurely in an effort to divert attention away from her and Severus.

She eyed Severus's wine glass, which had been refilled numerous times, and she could tell by the open expression on his face that he was in one of his more conversational humours. She frowned as he leaned closer to Hestia, who whispered something in his ear, and her frown deepened as he responded to Hestia's comment with a knowing smirk.

As Hermione tore her gaze away from Severus, she made eye contact with Cordelia, and she knew by her mother-in-law's smug expression that she'd done this on purpose: Cordelia had seated Hestia next to Severus in the hope that it would anger her. Hermione cast her gaze downwards, determined not to look at them again. She had absolutely no intention of letting Cordelia see her so upset.

"Are you all right, lassie?" Lance asked from across the table.

Hermione made a feeble attempt at a smile. "I'm fine, thank you, Lance. Just a little bit tired, that's all."

Lance glanced meaningfully down the table and then lowered his voice. "It would seem there are games being played tonight, young Hermione. I'd remain above such things, if I were you. Our mutual friend might be clever, but he's often a blind fool where the manoeuvres of his wife are concerned."

"I'll try to bear that in mind," Hermione muttered, glad he'd confirmed she wasn't just being paranoid.

But as the meal came to an end and many of the guests rose to retire to the drawing room, Severus and Hestia remained where they were, apparently content to continue flirting with one another. After another hour of engaging in meaningless small talk with Cordelia's aged aunts and people from the Ministry of Magic that she barely even knew, Hermione had had quite enough. And then, as she watched, Severus lifted Hestia's hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.

Ignoring Lance's warning glance, Hermione rose from her seat and made her way to the far end of the table, aware that Cordelia's gaze was upon her.

Severus could see Hermione approach in his peripheral vision, and with a growing feeling of panic, he raised his gaze to hers, silently pleading with her not to cause a scene.

"Excuse me," she said, gracing Hestia with a brittle smile. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Severus, but I haven't spoken to you since Thursday and something came up while I was visiting clients in Vertic Alley yesterday. I wonder if I might have a quick word?"

"Certainly," he replied coldly, casting Hestia an apologetic glance. He pushed back his chair and followed Hermione to the bar at the other side of the room, where he prepared them both a drink in order to hide his annoyance.

Hermione discreetly cast Muffliato so they could not be overheard.

"What is the meaning of this?" Severus hissed.

"What is the meaning of this?" she countered, irate. "Severus, are you actually trying to hurt me or are you just pissed out of your brain?"

"Excuse me?" he spat, furious.

"Are you deliberately trying to hurt my feelings? Because if so, I've no idea what I've done to deserve it." She gave him a false smile, conscious of the fact that Cordelia was still watching them from across the room.

"And what, exactly, have I done to hurt you?" he asked, black eyes flashing with anger.

"You've spent the entire evening flirting outrageously with Hestia Jones who, it would appear, has recently become single and has decided to bare her breasts to the entire room."

He gave her a smirk. "Do I detect a hint of jealousy?"

"Yes, you do. Can you blame me?"

He was angry that she'd cornered him like this, but even so, before his next sentence had left his mouth, he knew he should not say it. "I believe I'm well within my rights to flirt with other women, my dear, because I don't remember ever agreeing that you and I had embarked on a mutually exclusive relationship."

Hermione felt as though she had been slapped across the face. After staring at him for a moment, she clenched her jaw and gave him a wounded look. "Goodbye, Severus," she said, before turning on her heel and fleeing the room. She couldn't help but notice the satisfied smile on Cordelia's face as she went.

Severus watched her go, a sinking feeling in his chest, knowing he had injured her terribly. With a sigh, he crossed the room and sat next to Lucius Malfoy, the image of her shocked and hurt expression still on his mind.

Some ten minutes passed, and he presumed she must have gone home, as she did not reappear in the dining room. He became agitated, filled with regret at what he'd said and unable to concentrate on his conversation with Lucius. Lance eventually hobbled towards him on his ebony cane, an unmistakable expression of fury on his normally placid face.

"You!" he snarled, pointing his cane at Severus and then at the door. "Outside, now!"

Severus raised an indignant eyebrow, and Lucius chuckled as Lance shuffled away from them.

"Quite the character, old Lancelot," Lucius drawled.

"Yes," Severus agreed, rising from his seat. "Quite the character." He followed the old man out through the door and into the hallway.

"What the hell do you think you are playing at, you fool?" Lance said, poking him in the chest with one bony finger.

"What on earth is the matter, Lance?"

"I saw her face, boy. You've said something to upset Hermione, as if your pandering to your wife's silly games wasn't bad enough!" He poked Severus in the chest again.

"What are you talking about?" Severus said, his anger rising. He had never seen Lance like this before.

"You let that idiotic niece of mine paw at you all evening, and then you fall into her little trap and spend the night carrying on with that dreadful Hestia woman. It upset Hermione, and then, when she was talking to you, you said something awful, didn't you?" he asked, prodding Severus again.

"Will you please stop poking me in the chest, Lancelot? I admit that I made an unkind remark to the girl, but I'll apologise when next I see her. Now, would you please calm down and allow me to return to our guests?"

Lance shook his head. "Have you any idea how lucky you are? Have you any idea at all what is staring you in the face? That girl is worth her weight in gold, and you, my boy, are going to lose her if you don't put her before Cordelia, and appearances, and Hestia bloody Jones, and everything else that is not important. What did you say to her?"

"That's none of your business," Severus spat.

Lance glared at him. "If you were any sort of man at all you would cross that square and apologise to her before it's too late."

"I can't just leave! I'll apologise to her tomorrow. I'll even send her a note tonight if that will make you happy."

"It's not my happiness that's on the line here, Severus Snape. How do you know she isn't packing her bags as we speak? If you lose her tonight, it will be entirely your own stubborn fault." He lifted his hand and poked him once more for good effect.

Severus opened his mouth to reply, but hesitated, finally realising he might have ruined everything.

"Stop worrying about Cordelia and what the rest of those hypocrites in there think," Lance said, gesturing to the dining room. "Go to her. I'll think of some excuse to cover your absence."

He limped back to the dining room, turning to Severus once more. "Go!" he said, pointing to the door.

They looked at one another, and then Severus turned and strode to the front door, his black robes billowing behind him.

He slammed the door behind him, no longer really caring what Cordelia might think. When he reached the house across the square he let himself in, his heart hammering at the thought that she might not be there, that he might be too late. Shame overcame him at the memory of what he'd said to her. He hadn't meant it; he had no idea what had made him say such a despicable thing.

He quickly crossed to the stairs and proceeded to the basement, and he closed his eyes in relief as he heard noises coming from behind her bedroom door. He tried the knob, but it was locked. Leaning his head against the door, he realised with a pang that Lance was right: the sounds coming from within were of clothes being removed from hangers. She was packing her bags.

"Hermione?" he said urgently.

"Leave me alone, Severus," she said, her voice quivering. "I've nothing to say to you."

"Please, Hermione. Let me in."

"No!" she snapped. "I want nothing more to do with you."

"I'm sorry. I am truly sorry. I didn't mean what I said," he pleaded.

"What's said is said."

No noise came from within for a second or two, and he knew a moment of panic, wondering if she had Apparated upstairs and left quietly through the front door. His shoulders sagged with relief when he heard drawers being pulled open.

"Hermione, I'm begging you: Please don't do this. I cannot excuse what I've done; I can only apologise and ask for your forgiveness."

"Well, you don't have it!" she shouted. "You can't just behave as you did tonight, say what you said, and then expect me to forgive you at the drop of a hat."

He closed his eyes and recalled the night he had threatened to sleep at the entrance of Gryffindor Tower unless Lily came to speak with him. This all seemed sickeningly familiar.

"I'm sorry for the way I behaved at the dinner party, and I apologise profusely for the things I said. It was completely uncalled for, and I did not mean it in the least."

"Why would you say it if you didn't mean it?" she said. He could tell she was close to tears. "How could such a thing just slip out if it's not truly how you feel?"

"Hermione, I'm unpleasant man; I have always been an unpleasant man. I do not mean to excuse myself in any way, but when I'm angry or threatened I'm likely to say hurtful things." He sighed deeply, not knowing how to convince her. He could hear her snapping her trunk closed. "Please don't go. I've no idea what I would do without you."

Hermione stopped, leaning on top of her trunk. She closed her eyes; she had no idea what she would do without him, either. She turned and sat on the edge of her bed and put her head in her hands. Should she give him a chance? Did he even deserve another chance after such a deeply wounding remark? She picked up her wand and pointed it at the door.

"It's open," she murmured, putting her head in her hands once more.

He opened the door and slowly crossed the room to kneel in front of her. He reached forward to take her hands.

"Stop," she whispered, lowering her hands. "Don't touch me." She knew if he touched her, if he took her in his arms, she would crumble, succumb to tears and forgive him anything, and she had no intention of making it that easy for him.

He retracted his hands. "I'm sorry, Hermione," he whispered.

She looked into his eyes, the windows to his soul that were so often unreadable. But tonight the shutters were open, and she could see he was sorry. "Severus, how can I possibly trust you after what you said? How can I carry on as normal? I don't ask for very much; I know there's only so much either of us can offer, given the circumstances. You've implied I'm nothing more than a convenient shag, and I cannot be a part of this if there's a chance you have feelings for somebody else."

"How can you even suggest I might have feelings for Hestia Jones?"

"What about Lily Evans, Severus? Do you still have feelings for her?" He had said that Lily would never be on the agenda, but she had to know that she was something more than just an easy option.

He sighed and sat back on his heels, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Hermione, I have always had recurrent dreams. Now, I have nightmares about Albus, but before Voldemort was defeated, I dreamt nightly of Lily. It would begin in the playground where first we met, and the dream would end each night with her dying by my wand. But somewhere along the line, somewhere in between being attacked by Nagini and waking in St. Mungo's, Lily Evans stopped holding me hostage. I stopped having the dreams. I stopped seeing her face everywhere I looked. I stopped worshipping the memory of a dead woman and made the decision to live a life instead. You've seen my Patronus: you know it's no longer a doe. I assure you: I harbour no feelings for her."

She looked at him, surprised he'd been so honest. "Why couldn't you have discussed this with me sooner, Severus? Why do you have to wait until my trunk is packed to tell me this?"

He shrugged. "It's partly habit. I'm not comfortable speaking of such things, Hermione. I don't believe I'm entirely unique among my gender in that regard."

She looked away from him, still seething. Lily was one thing. Hestia was another. "Why did you behave that way tonight? Did you try to make me jealous on purpose?"

"No, I did not." He rubbed his forehead. "I've no excuse for the way I behaved. It was infantile. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been flirted with in the course of my life, so it is a rather novel concept. I was flattered; I responded."

"That's exactly it!" she cried, her brow creased. "How can I possibly trust you? If you responded to Hestia Jones, how can I trust you won't do the same to the next woman who fancies a shot at you?"

He closed his eyes. He had clearly said the wrong thing. "I honestly believed it was harmless. I would not have behaved in such a manner if I'd thought it would injure you like this."

She stood up and crossed to her trunk, ignoring the alarm in his eyes. "What am I doing with my life?" she asked the room at large. "Padma said I was jumping from the frying pan into the fire, and she was right."

He rose and stood before her, aching to touch her. "All I can do is ask you to give me another chance. Please."

She folded her arms across her chest, glaring at him. "I would never, ever have embarked on this if I didn't think it was a mutually exclusive relationship, Severus. I might technically be married to another man, but you are my only lover, and I cannot continue after the remark you made tonight."

He looked distraught. "I did not mean it, Hermione. Of course this is a mutually exclusive relationship. I've no idea what possessed me to make such a cutting statement. I don't deserve you. I've no idea why a girl like you would want anything to do with me, but I'm grateful that you do." He took her gently by the arms. "I. Am. Sorry," he whispered. "Please, Hermione. Don't leave me."

Tears poured down her cheeks. "How could you say something like that, Severus, after what you did on my birthday? How is that the same man? I don't know if I'll ever understand you."

He pulled her tenderly against his chest and wrapped his arms around her, letting her sob onto his black coat. "I'm not sure I'll ever understand myself," he muttered into her hair. After a moment, he pulled away from her. "Can you forgive me?"

She looked at him for a long moment through her tears. "Do I have your word that this is a mutually exclusive relationship?"

"The most mutually exclusive relationship there ever was," he whispered.

"Then yes, I forgive you."

He sagged with relief and kissed her on the forehead. "Thank you, Hermione. It's more than I deserve."

"I seem to have made a mess of your coat," she said, pointing to his chest.

He looked down. "I think the state of my coat is quite far down my list of priorities at the moment." He took her by the hand and pulled her towards the bed. "Come," he said, sitting against the headboard and drawing her up against his chest. They lay in silence for a while, and he stroked her hair, thankful that history had not repeated itself. She had found it in her heart to forgive him where Lily Evans had not.

Sometime later, Hermione said, "If I wasn't around, would you fancy Hestia?"

He snorted. "Definitely not." He glanced down his nose over her shoulder. "You have far nicer breasts than she does."

Hermione chuckled. "Can I ask you a question?"

Severus grunted. "The absence of my permission has never yet stopped you."

"You said you'd had two lovers since you married Cordelia. Who were they?"

He frowned. "Nobody you know."

She sat up. "Who?"

"One was a one-night-stand as it is generally termed: A woman I met while I was trying to drum up some business in South Africa. The other was a client for a while, and we saw one another for about three months. That was three years ago."

"And who was she?" Hermione asked, determined to find out.

He sighed. "A French woman."

She raised an intrigued eyebrow. "What was her name?"

"Sophie Verrier," he admitted.

Hermione looked disappointed. "No, I don't know her." She glanced at her watch. "I suppose you should go back before Cordelia sends out a search party."

"I've no intention of leaving you tonight," he whispered, kissing her on the head.

She looked up at him in amazement. "You're going to stay?"

He nodded. "If I'm welcome."

"Of course you're welcome," she said. "But won't Cordelia cause a scene tomorrow?"

"Perhaps," he replied. "But perhaps it will be worth it." He wrapped a strand of her hair around his finger and gave her a flirtatious smirk.

If she had needed any further evidence to show that he was sorry, Hermione knew that this was surely it. "You don't mind what they think?"

He shook his head. "I find I'm caring less with every passing week."

"I was dreading not seeing you this weekend."

"As was I," he said, leaning forward to kiss her.

ssSss

They rose early the next morning, and Severus left for his own house as soon as it had grown bright. Anxious about what would come of their flight from the party the night before, Hermione decided to go for a stroll in Hyde Park. She walked for almost two hours, until the sky grew overcast and a light drizzle began to fall. When she returned home, she made for the kitchen and brewed a cup of tea. Taking her steaming mug with her, she climbed the stairs again, intending to curl up in the sitting room with a good book for the afternoon.

Her book in one hand and her tea in the other, she pressed her back to the door and pushed it open. As she turned to enter the room, movement in her peripheral vision made her gasp.

A tall, dark figure was ensconced in her favourite armchair, his long legs stretched out before him.

"Hello, Hermione," he said with a smirk.

She met his dark blue eyes in disbelief.

Theo was back.

ssSss

bA/N: Naughty author, leaving you with an evil cliffy. Don't shoot, please. But if you beg nicely, I'll have the next chapter up asap. ;) LB x