Well, here we are - this is the last bit of it. Thank you again for the follows, favorites and reviews, as well as for giving this story a chance. I still need to clean up the last few grammar errors, but I'm leaving today for two weeks and I didn't want to keep you waiting for that long.
Disclaimer: Still not mine, no money made - I'm putting them back now, no worse for the wear...
The conference room that Coulson directed them to was located down the hall from his personal lab, and Severus was suitably impressed. It was intimate, comfortable and functional with wood panelling, comfortable seating and plenty of space to display exhibits. There were five other attendees, not counting himself or Hermione. Taking a seat, he was relieved when Hermione sat down next to him. She'd said that they were good, but he could tell that she was still a bit unhappy about his having shut her out when she'd only wanted to support him.
As the meeting began, he found himself half paying attention while introductions were made and settled in to listen to the status reports of the other researchers. He gave his own when it was his turn and answered questions when needed. The group was disciplined and didn't waste time or go off topic — he could definitely work with these people on a regular basis. Hermione presented the new timetable based upon the input from the team, and then Coulson stood to wrap things up.
"Well, if we keep to Granger's timetable and don't suffer any unforeseen problems, it looks like we might have a Christmas gift for the werewolf population at large this year." Turning to Severus, he continued. "Snape may not have been available to attend the actual trials, but his extensive, detailed observational notes from the Pensieve records have narrowed the focus of our research significantly." There were nods of agreement, as well as words of appreciation murmured by the other attendees. After a moment, Coulson raised a hand for silence.
"I'd like to make a request of all of you," he stated as he paced the length of the room. "I know that most of you prefer to work alone. The fact that the security of this project basically required that is what allowed me to convince most of you to come on-board. However, now we are down to the last bit of it, so I believe it would be beneficial to all of us if we were more readily available to each other." He looked about to see if there was any dissent before continuing. "The facilities here are extensive enough to allow each of you your own office and lab. I'm hoping that you all will take advantage of that and temporarily relocate your work here for our last push."
Severus could see the advantages and didn't have a problem with the idea. One of the other researchers balked until he was assured that his apprentice would be allowed to work with him. Everyone else gave their approval as well. Coulson smiled.
"So now that the decision is unanimous, we'll end here. I will be in touch with all of you in two days' time with the particulars. I wish you a good afternoon," Coulson said as he walked back to his chair and gathered up his belongings.
Severus waited until most of the others had left before approaching him. Reaching into his robes, he brought out the memory phial. "Coulson, I'd like to thank you for the loan of your memory from the trials. I was only expecting the set that Hermione provided."
"She was primarily focused on subject Three during the most critical moments, and you really needed to see what was going on with Five and Six. I'm not going to hold the project back with the type of professional pettiness you may have been subjected to in the past." Accepting the phial, he opened it and used his wand to place the memory back where it belonged before putting the empty container in his pocket. "Thank you."
Severus gave him a nod and turned to make his way back to Hermione.
"Snape!" Coulson said, stopping him before stepping closer and lowering his voice. "This is a bit awkward, but I need to ask." He glanced towards Hermione and back again. "She's told me that the two of you have an open relationship of sorts."
Severus raised an eyebrow and folded his arms. "So that's what she's calling it in polite society."
"No, that's what I'm calling it. She was a bit more direct," he replied, his expression unreadable. "So it won't be an issue with you if I ask her out?" he challenged.
"As you've probably discovered, Hermione's very much her own woman," Severus stated, giving the other man a sardonic look. "I'm not her keeper."
Coulson looked him directly in the eye and leaned in a bit more to murmur, "Blenkinship would most likely disagree with that statement."
Severus favoured him with a blank stare in response.
Coulson held his gaze for a moment more before turning slightly and calling out, "Hermione — lunch on me?"
She looked fleetingly from Severus to Coulson as she continued to pack up her notes, saying, "I don't see why not. I have a couple of questions about the revised timetable. We can work that bit out now, and then I won't have to bother you with it later."
He shook his head and walked over to where she stood. "I don't think so. I'd just like to make this clear so that there are no misunderstandings." He glanced at Severus before returning his attention to her. "This is not a working lunch. I'm asking you out on a date. You still interested?"
Severus smirked when she looked to him before answering, "Yes. I think I'd like that."
"Wonderful. I'll just meet you outside then," Coulson replied as he walked back and grabbed his briefcase. With another nod to Severus, he left the room.
Hermione stood stock still, staring after his retreating form. "I wasn't expecting that."
"Of course you weren't," Severus replied sarcastically. "I believe I told you otherwise not too long ago. You'd best get moving. I doubt he has any more patience than I."
"All right," she replied softly as she gathered her messenger bag to herself and walked slowly towards the door. "Severus?"
"Later," he snapped. She nodded and walked out, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He had to give the man points for knowing how to handle her. He pulled out a chair and sat, taking a deep breath to calm his sudden restlessness. It annoyed him to feel this way. She had been dating others from the very beginning, and he hadn't been troubled in the least. Not once. So why was this any different?
Pushing back abruptly, he stood and grabbed his file folder, casting a Shrinking Charm on it before placing it in his pocket. Who was he trying to fool? He knew exactly why he was bothered. Coulson was the first man to ask her out who he felt was worth his salt. With another irritated huff, he strode from the room, his robes snapping behind him.
Severus was not waiting for Later he told himself as he worked his way through his lab, gathering the things he would need in order to transfer his portion of the project to the new facilities. That it was only seven in the evening, compounded by the fact that the things he was currently packing away might be needed before the actual move, put paid to that concept. Reminding himself as to why it was neither safe nor healthy to lie to himself, he acknowledged the fact that he was waiting.
Right about the time he was considering putting things back, he felt his wards twinge, and Hermione came breezing in with a look of concern on her face.
"Severus, I know that you said later, but I didn't want to leave things as they were."
He watched her move towards him out the corner of his eye as he continued to sort through his knife kit, removing the duplicates and setting aside the few that needed sharpening. He was feeling a bit defensive but was determined to ignore his normal gut response, so he actively forced the tension from his limbs before speaking.
"I only said so because I didn't want you to stand around attempting to justify a situation that we'd already formed an agreement upon at the start of things," he stated mildly. Looking up from his busywork, he registered the shocked look on her face.
"I realise that, it was just awkward. I don't like to seem as if I'm flaunting it." She looked over the knives, walked over to her work station, put her puncture proof gloves on and returned. "Where is your whetstone?"
He pointed out a narrow drawer, and she retrieved it. He listened to the soft susurration of metal upon stone as she worked on the dull knives. He had several things that he wanted to say, but most of them were caustic. He finally settled on the least offensive. "You didn't create the awkward situation. Coulson chose to do so."
Hermione turned as if to comment, but stopped when he glared at her. "Please do not attempt to defend his actions — the man was serving notice. I once asked you what you knew of him, and we never finished that conversation." He calmly went back to sorting his tools and waited to see if she would respond.
She completed her work on the knife she was holding before answering. "I know that he is Muggle-born, that his family fled to the States during the first War," she answered pensively. "He studied at Salem and then the Hellenic Healers Academy in Greece before returning here in nineteen-ninety-eight to take up residency at the newly formed Muggle Imperial College School of Medicine, which also houses a magical branch. His father is British and specialises in oncology. His mother is Greek and practices holistic medicine. That's all of the factual background I have."
As she reached for another knife, he placed a hand on her arm, stopping her. "I want you to pay attention to what I've learned about him." When he saw her frown, he shook his head before continuing. "It's nothing bad. You've said before that he's a good one, and he is, however, his background informs the way he chooses to do things."
"That doesn't actually reassure me, Severus."
With a frustrated sigh, he physically turned her towards the door. "The atrium balcony, if you please. I can't think about this in here." He gently pushed her forward.
"Fine, I'm moving!" she groused, and they soon were sitting together on the window seat, looking out at the beginnings of sunset over the London skyline.
"This is lovely," Hermione noted. "Why haven't we sat here before?"
Severus shrugged, and looked at his hands before looking her in the eyes and responding. "To be honest, I hadn't wanted to share it before."
"Well, at least you've brought me onto the balcony before, so you aren't completely selfish," she said with a smile.
Not completely selfish — that did seem to sum him up rather well. Before he could get side-tracked again, he spoke. "Thank you, I think, but I need to finish my story about Coulson."
"All right, I'm listening."
Taking a breath, he launched into his tale. "Erik Coulson is Muggle-born, however, his mother grew up in a region of Greece where the tradition of the pharmakeia, the sorceress or witch, is alive and well. His parents were very supportive when they suspected he was magical. They didn't wait until he received his Hogwarts letter. His mother took him to the Hellenic Magical Academy when they visited with family in Athens and had it confirmed. Because he was British, the Academy contacted Dumbledore." Severus paused to marshal his thoughts before continuing.
"Dumbledore took them under his wing, and when the War heated up, he helped them relocate to the States. Coulson's parents didn't just flee — they eventually helped twenty other children who were flagged "at risk" by Dumbledore to relocate and formed an enclave in Salem. The children were taught self-defence, both Muggle and magical, along with what to do if taken as a hostage. They also received training in statesmanship; it was pretty much the type of training you'd give to Muggle diplomats' children and other high-profile subjects. The children received regular schooling as well but were never really allowed to have a normal life, even after Riddle was supposedly defeated the first time around. Don't misunderstand me — these children were well-adjusted and otherwise carefree."
"Is that why Dumbledore was so adamant that Harry was kept innocent? He'd watched as these others had their childhoods stripped from them? Or was it that he didn't want to deal with a child as sophisticated as these sound?" Hermione asked wryly.
"Both, quite likely." He rubbed his face tiredly. "Anyway, before Dumbledore died, he reactivated Coulson's group. They worked to hide or relocate many of the Muggle-born and Half-blood children, as well as at-risk adults during the second War, especially when the Muggle-born Registration Commission was in power. Erik Coulson was actively involved. I've mentioned all of this to illustrate my belief that what he did today wasn't done in innocence."
He rested his back against the window and waited for her response. She seemed to go away for a bit, and he began to wonder if he should have just kept his trap shut. Finally, she turned and shook her head.
"Just what was your purpose in telling me this, Severus? I believe we agreed that you would keep out of my business unless I asked." Hermione said mildly.
"Levelling the playing field for a friend is not interfering," he stated defensively.
"I'm not stupid and I'm perfectly capable of dealing with Erik without you trying to influence my opinion of him," she pointed out.
"Influence your opinion?" Severus said incredulously. "I tell you that the man is basically a bloody unsung — you're right," he bit off. "Sorry I said anything. Just forget about it. This isn't worth another argument," he stated bitterly, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the cool of the window.
"I'm not trying to be difficult Severus," Hermione replied, tiredly. "And I do truly appreciate your concern. I have to agree with you on one issue. If he's had diplomatic training, Erik knows better. He really could have waited until you weren't around before asking me — we see each other often enough."
Severus looked out the window and frowned. "I thought we were done with talking about Coulson."
"Well, it's not as if I can just conveniently forget what you've told me —" Hermione stopped.
"Don't give me ideas," Severus grumbled.
"Don't you dare!"
Hermione's tone of voice made him turn to her and he couldn't help but smirk when he noticed her sour expression.
"I already have to deal with Erik. I don't need to wonder if I have to start watching my back with you."
"How insulting," he drawled playfully. "I would never, ever warn you," he stated as his smirk grew wider.
"That's it. I'm done here. I'm off!" Hermione announced, standing abruptly. Stepping closer to Severus, she reached out, lightly brushed his fringe and shook her head. "I just need you to be my friend. Please understand this. I'll deal with Erik."
"Deal with? Are you saying that Mr Coulson is up for a telling off?"
"You don't have to sound so cheery about it, and yes, he's earned it. Especially because we've become friends of a sort — he's been holding out on me."
"I hold out on you," he reminded her.
"Well, yes, but I'm well aware of that," she replied dismissively. "I actually know that there are things that you will never share with me, along with things that you will eventually share. I know it sounds mental, but it makes a difference."
"If you say so."
"I do say so, Mr Snape," she quipped. "Erik knows how I feel about friendship, so the things he's chosen to omit make me wonder. If he wants to really be a friend, it's unacceptable."
He couldn't help but snort in response. "How many times do I have to point out that the man is not just interested in being friends?" Sneering at the indignant look she delivered, he murmured, "I am saying this as a friend. Your wilful blindness to this situation is going to end up causing you grief. This man is looking for a relationship of some sort and as much as I hate to admit it, he's the first one I've seen you with that's actually worth taking seriously. If that is not what you want, you need to tell him so."
She wrapped her arms about her and turned to the window, but he still saw the blush that touched the cheekbone that faced him.
"He is not the first man I've associated with as of late that is worth taking seriously. For your information, you hold that position."
Well, that left him feeling completely wrong-footed. But still. "Be as it may, you've said that you aren't interested in a more traditional relationship, so it still stands to reason that he be informed of your feelings on the subject."
She finally turned back and he could see the confusion and vulnerability that fought behind her eyes. Heart on her sleeve. Still.
When she finally spoke, it was in a thoughtful, measured way. "I'll take it under advisement." She stood and rapidly headed across the room, but before she's travelled very far she stopped and turned. "For the record, Severus, at this point in time, I'm not quite certain of what the hell it is that I want."
He watched silently as she continued on her way and he let her go. He didn't know if he wanted to respond to that statement, but he knew that he'd have to deal with it eventually. With a shake of his head he made his way back to the lab to finish what he had started.
Considering the way they'd left things, Severus was surprised to find that life had gone immediately back to the way it had been before "the Conversation," as he'd chosen to label it in his mind.
Severus had made the move to his temporary office and lab, which he found to be nicely appointed and well-situated, located in the same corridor as Hermione's. Both he and Hermione still found each other sexually satisfying and made time to indulge in said satisfaction. Robert was admirably holding the fort at his home office. The project was moving along swimmingly and his new colleagues both liked and respected him. Coulson hadn't made any other overt power-plays directed at him. Hermione dated Coulson occasionally, but also persisted on dating her usual brand of idiots as well, which amused Severus to no end.
So why was he lying in bed at three in the morning, staring at the ceiling when it was Hermione that had blatantly chosen not to deal with telling him what she really wanted from him? His thoughts on the matter were worth fuck all until she did choose to deal with hers. And there was the lie, because like as not, he personally needed to decide how he felt and what he wanted for himself. Throwing the covers off, he refused to lie there as usual and let thoughts run about his head until he'd either processed them or buried them deep enough to no longer matter.
Grabbing the dressing gown that lay at the end of his bed, he headed down to his office and started to pace. Since stalking the halls of Hogwarts had also been a ritualistic response to mental turmoil, he broke off and headed to the atrium where he was promptly greeted by Muninn, who settled onto his shoulder and started preening his hair.
"You're confusing me with Hermione, you barmy bird," he groused, but let him continue as he purposely made his way to the stand and forcibly sat on the wall to think.
How did he feel about actually getting the girl, as it were? Because she had inadvertently admitted that if she were in the market for a traditional relationship, she considered him in the top of the running. On the whole, it was unexpected and flattering. Hermione was mostly sensible, highly intelligent and far from being high maintenance. He cared about her. She didn't purposely play the petty head games that most of the women he'd known indulged in. She truly cared about him and enjoyed working with him. She was a delightful and satisfying partner in bed. She didn't push for the most part, and she didn't try to change him. She got his humour, put up with his sulks and gave as good as she'd got when he was out of bounds. She was causing him to grow both socially and emotionally. She was a wonderful friend, regardless of the relationship issue. These were some of the more important positives.
On the other hand, he'd managed to hurt her deeply without even trying, and he knew that it would happen regularly. He was both emotionally and mentally damaged, regardless of how well he'd overcome most of what went with that since the war. She tended to be too forgiving, and that frightened him. She wasn't high maintenance enough — she shouldn't settle, she was worth spoiling from time to time — but she didn't push him for it. She called him out on certain things, but generally allowed him to indulge his baser instincts — did he really need to be with someone who encouraged his moral flexibility? She inadvertently pushed his emotions past what he was capable of processing in a safe manner. And he still hadn't invited her up to his flat. Something made him keep that one space from everyone, Hermione included, and he wondered what that said about him.
He was pulled from his spiralling thoughts when Muninn pulled roughly on a bit of hair. "That was uncalled for," he snapped, and held out his arm to allow the bird to crab walk to his wrist. "Back to the stand for you, it is." Holding up his arm, he allowed the raven to hop to the nearest branch and sighed.
There was more on the plus side of the ledger, even with only listing the more significant things. That was the important bit and what he needed to know at the moment. He wasn't prepared to do anything more than continue being a good friend in return. Speaking of which, she had a birthday coming in a few weeks, and unlike last year, he would actually give her a gift. But what to give? As he headed back up to his bed, he smiled. He knew exactly what he would be giving her.
On the nineteenth of September, Severus joined their colleagues in well-wishing Hermione a happy thirtieth natal day and put up with attending the lunch that was hosted in her honour. Another to-do was to take place at the Potter's home that evening, and she would be spending the next day at her parents for an additional celebration. As soon as it was feasible to do so, Severus slipped out of the luncheon and returned to his flat to retrieve her gift. With great satisfaction, he cast a Shrinking Charm on it and Apparated to her home to await her arrival.
"Severus?" Hermione called.
"Back here," he shouted from her lounge, as he finished the final touches on his gift.
"I'll have you know that leaving me to fend for myself is not on, especially on my birthday when I —"
The bare spaces along two of the walls now had polished Vinewood artistically climbing them, jutting out in places that would serve as a temporary perch while meeting at the top of the intersection of the walls to form a generous bed for her Kneazle. Antigone, much like her namesake, was a moody, contrary, obstinate little thing that still tended to hide from Hermione when she wanted to spend time with her. The little princess was already making herself comfortable in the bed, so there was a good chance that she would now actually stay in the same room as her owner for more than five minutes at a time.
"Severus, this is amazing. Forget everything I just said," she said. Reaching out and following the vines with her fingertips, she laughed. "I wonder what Minerva will have to say when she next visits?"
"I think that I will keep my immediate responses to myself," he replied, satisfied that she was pleased with his gift. "You should know that the wood has been treated, so your little princess can use it as a scratching post without damaging the finish. Happy Birthday, Hermione."
He started a bit when she turned and hugged him fiercely. As he hugged her back, he soon felt a wet spot on the front of his shirt. "Are you going all soppy on me because I gave you a gift?"
"I'm going all soppy because this is one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever been given, and it is supremely unique."
As he continued to hold her in his arms and stroke his free hand along her unbound hair, he felt a warm welling of emotion flood his entire being. Severus tended to make the few gifts he gave due to his background.
He'd never had much in the way of pocket money while growing up. When he became Head of Slytherin, he often used his moderate bonus salary to sponsor some of the members of his House who came from backgrounds such as his, which still left him with little to spend on trinkets for others. Even now with his more than comfortable living situation, he continued to give those he cared about gifts of his own manufacture. But never before had such heartfelt appreciation been expressed.
It was a slight let-down when they finally separated, but they had places to be and they would make time for each other when their social obligations were done. With an internal sigh, he followed her out for his next stint of escort duties.
A basic trial with adult participants of various ages was run for the full moon in September, monitored by handpicked medical staff to handle observations, and the success rate rose to ninety-eight per cent. Two participants had extreme allergic reactions, and although they didn't transform, Severus would not count them as a success. The suppression potion needed to be taken monthly, the same as Wolfsbane potion, and when he finally discovered the component that caused the reaction, he found that it was one that could not be substituted. Those with moonstone sensitivity would have to continue taking the recently modified Wolfsbane instead.
After October's full moon trial, which included children, Severus became so involved with fine-tuning the potion that he found he didn't miss working with Hermione, which was disturbing because he truly enjoyed their collaborations. It helped that they still met for morning coffee at least twice a week. Hermione eventually mentioned that she had left off dating idiots and begun seeing Coulson exclusively. That didn't bother him, nor did hearing about Hermione and Coulson's trips to the cinema, the Tate, and Kew Gardens. What did bother him was the fact that Hermione didn't appear to realise that she was permitting Coulson to court her, which was the only way that Severus could explain Coulson's occasionally including his friends and, more notably, his parents, in their outings. Because Severus was so enthralled by his work on the project, however, he didn't confront Hermione about her blind spot where Coulson was concerned.
It was their increasingly more frequent sexual encounters, most of which she initiated, that became the sticking point. Severus wasn't an exhibitionist and rarely engaged in public displays. Hermione knew this. Yet and still, while they were out attending a book signing for a Muggle author they both enjoyed, she'd pulled him into an alcove, Disillusioned the both of them, and proceeded to thoroughly wind him up. He'd finally snaked his hand down her blouse, activated her Portkey, only to almost trip on her damnable cat when they'd arrived at her home. The shagging that followed was invigorating, but Severus had warned her not to do it again.
She'd kept to that, but there were other things that were starting to disturb him. The actual tenor of how they engaged in sex gradually changed. Hermione had always been caring, but now there was a different type of tenderness that went along with it. Tenderness had always been a part of what they gave one another, but it had always been much more aggressive in nature. This was completely different. It was playful in a way that didn't fit with what they currently were to each other.
It was early Saturday afternoon and Severus and Hermione had just left her bath, which was unusual in itself, because candlelit, joint bathing was not a normal activity for them. Now, Severus found himself face down on her bed enjoying the massage she'd insisted upon giving him. As she ran her fingers gently over his skin, he shivered.
"You're not getting cold?" Hermione whispered, leaning over his back to nibble sharply at the skin at the base of his neck where it met his shoulder.
"Not at all," he responded, hissing as she soothed the spot with her tongue.
Severus allowed her to continue her explorations until she licked him along his side, causing him to squirm.
"My, how did I ever miss that? Someone has a ticklish spot," Hermione sang playfully, proceeding to dive in and exploit it.
Severus flipped over and pinned her to the bed by her shoulders. "That wasn't very smart of you."
"That, my dear, is a matter of opinion," Hermione growled, as she reached up, twining her fingers roughly in his hair before licking him on the nose as she began to tussle with him.
They rolled and bit and licked and poked until Severus found an especially vulnerable place — the arch of Hermione's left foot. With a vicious grin, he cast a wandless Sticking Charm on her, pinning everything but her left leg to the bed before tormenting her with his lips and tongue until she screamed.
"Please! I'm sorry. Severus, you win. Please stop!" she howled, with tears of laughter running from her eyes.
He lowered her leg to the bed and sat back on his heels. "I have a clear advantage, why should I?"
"Because I can't breathe?"
"If you can still talk, you can breathe. Not good enough," he told her before casting a Sticking Charm on her other leg to keep it in place.
"What are you doing?" she wailed.
"This," he hissed as he leaned down and licked a slow path up her inner thigh before diving in and sucking on her clit, releasing the Charm just before she came apart.
When they'd both managed to regain their breath, Hermione sat up. She gently pushed him over while situating herself, covering him with gentle yet passionate kisses. This wasn't the way she normally did things — everything felt off. It only took one additional soft, no — loving — kiss, for Severus to twig to exactly what was occurring and realised that he needed to get up before he did something he'd regret. He forced all of the building rage he was feeling down and gently pushed her away.
"Hmm? Why?" she answered muzzily.
He turned away and stood to walk to the chair where he'd left his clothes. "Get up and get dressed. We need to talk. Now."
She sat up with a look of confusion on her face. "Now? What's wrong, Severus?"
"I'll speak with you when you are dressed and not before," he said firmly. "I'll wait for you in your lounge."
With his clothing in hand, he fled the room, quickly dressing before heading back to sit on the sofa. He spent the time awaiting her, Occluding — locking down all of the negative emotion and thoughts — because he was determined to deal with this without resorting to his usual response to betrayal.
He spoke softly when she finally joined him on the sofa, watching Antigone leap from place to place along the network of vines before turning to her.
"Just exactly what are you playing at with Coulson?"
Hermione frowned at him. "I don't understand what you mean."
"I never thought I'd see you resort to this type of behaviour," he said softly, holding her gaze firmly. "You've been using me and I want to know why." When she made to look away, he reached out with both hands and gently grasped her face. "Explain to me what's going on." Her lips began to tremble, so he released her. "I need to know where we stand," he demanded. "Now start talking."
She shrugged helplessly in response, causing Severus' patience to snap.
"You, my dear, are dangerously close to ruining our friendship. You can either talk, or I can walk out that door, reset the wards on my property and only deal with you professionally until this project is complete. You have your deal-breakers and apparently, I've just recently discovered one of mine. Decide."
"I'm falling in love with him," she whispered mournfully.
Severus flung himself back gracelessly, putting a bit of space between them and laughed bitterly. "All of this drama and that's all you have to say?"
She looked at him and shook her head. "I don't want to be in love with him, I'm already in love you!"
He closed his eyes to shut out the pain of that declaration and opened them to watch as tears ran down her face. Then he made a declaration of his own:
"No, you aren't."
"How dare you say that I don't love you?" Hermione shouted, leaping to her feet to pace. "I loved you first and if you'd ever given me the least hint — I kept hoping that you would want more from me, that you would actually say that you wanted a go at a normal relationship with me!"
"You were the one that created the rules of engagement and I am a man of my word," he stated coolly. "I asked you not so long ago what you wanted, if you'll recall. You never got back to me."
"I didn't know what I wanted!" she screamed, and started towards him in anger.
He stood to meet her. "And you obviously still don't," he said in clipped tones, as he took a step forward and forced her to back up. "I've had enough time to observe, so I'm going to help you out. What you want is what you've been getting from Coulson. He respects you, admires you for your intelligence, your beauty, your joy of life itself. He adores making you happy and he's interested in the things that interest you. He wants a future with you and is willing to stand up to someone like me to have it."
"What if I want a future with you? Had you ever considered that?" she asked desperately as she took another backward step.
"If you had honestly wanted that, you'd have said so. Pull the other one, or better yet — don't. Since you can't seem to figure it out, I'm going to tell you what I see happening: You've been letting Coulson create an itch and then you've been coming to me to scratch it. Instead of being with him, you've persisted with me because I'm your designated fuck-buddy. I refuse to be used like that, even unintentionally — especially by a friend," he sneered, watching her face as it lost all colour.
"Erik Coulson is in love with you. He's young, emotionally healthy and wants the world for you. You've done everything with him — gone on silly outings, met his family and friends. You spend more time with him than with any other person of importance to you. I'm nothing more than a safety fuck at this point."
"It's not like that," she whispered. "I still need you."
"No. You. Don't." Looming over her, he quietly said his final piece in all of this. "You have done everything with that man except fuck him. Do us both a favour — take care of that little chore. Take care of it tonight if you can, and then I dare you to look me in the eye tomorrow and tell me the same lie."
Turning swiftly, Severus walked out the door.
Somehow, he made it home and went straight to the atrium where he proceeded to sit woodenly on the wall. Both ravens immediately came to him, Muninn once again perched on his shoulder while Huginn took up position on his knee. Severus suffered a brief flashback of Hermione sitting in the same position and brutally Occluded, shoving the memory into his mental dustbin in response. He'd have a horrible headache later on, but for now, his sanity was more important.
"I let Hermione go today."
He spoke in a gentle, gruff voice that he didn't quite recognise as his own, but continued on.
"I'm not quite certain she'll ever speak with me again, I wasn't exactly gentle."
Huginn moved closer and butted him gently in the chest.
"I most likely would have done better if I'd confronted her before it came to this, but I was selfish, I just wanted to hold onto the fantasy just a bit longer. I accused Hermione of wilful blindness, but truthfully, I was no better. I eventually did what was best for the both of us, I think, but it doesn't feel that way."
Severus closed his eyes on the pain that was starting to encompass him and shook his head, refuting it. He reached out a hand and slowly stroked Huginn's crown, and sighed when Muninn softly tugged at a bit of his hair. Rolling his eyes, he spoke.
"You're upset with me because you think I gave up too easily?"
Muninn hopped down to the wall beside him and looked up, causing Severus to snort.
"I didn't give up. I love her, yes. But I'm not in love with her and I'm not prepared to be in love with her. She was using me as a form of security in the end because she was afraid. I know you both like her, but I wouldn't have been a real friend to her if I'd allowed the situation to continue."
He watched as both birds cocked their heads as if they were truly listening. Since it appeared he had an attentive audience, Severus said aloud what he'd been thinking for a while, stating it as an affirmation of sorts, his tone of voice reverent.
"Hermione has helped me actually integrate into the future. I spent all the years after the war trying to do it, but it took her patience and knowledge to help me find the right pathways. For the first time, I feel as if I have a future that I'm actually interested in pursuing. I couldn't have done that without learning the true meaning of friendship."
Huginn bobbed his head as if in agreement, but Muninn appeared to be giving him a questioning look.
Severus smiled bitterly. "What? I can't go back. There's nothing to do now but wait and see if I still have a friend at the end of all of this."
This time, both of the birds butted him in the chest before they hopped off the wall and flew to take up position on the stand above him. Severus shook his head and sat in silence, seeing nothing. He hadn't felt this alone in over a year.
When Severus next saw Hermione, she looked at him and paled before rushing away. He made certain to pay closer attention to her movements so they wouldn't easily cross paths after that. It was two weeks into his active avoidance of her that Coulson dropped by his temporary office, closing the door as he entered. Severus snorted humorously.
"Am I supposed to be afraid?" he asked as the other man approached his desk.
Taking a seat uninvited, Coulson sat back casually and crossed his legs before responding. "I didn't come here to play games, Snape. I thought I'd let you know that I've proposed to Hermione and she's accepted. I didn't want you to hear about it in the halls when we make it known to everyone else."
"How magnanimous of you," he sneered, as he felt his heart stutter a bit. He'd known that she would most likely accept the other man's suit, but it still hurt to officially let go.
Coulson uncrossed his legs and sat forward. "Listen. She wanted to tell you herself, but you've managed to play least in sight when it comes to her and she thinks that you don't want anything else to do with her." He gazed steadily at Severus and continued. "In all truth, I wouldn't mind it in the least if you continued to make yourself scarce, but Hermione misses your brand of friendship and I don't enjoy seeing her unhappy."
"I don't enjoy seeing her unhappy either," Severus replied honestly. "I'll not seek her out, but I won't avoid her if she wants to speak with me. Will that suit?"
Coulson stood and leaned forward on the desk. "Yes, just one thing more. She's mine now, completely. You can have your friendship, but in all else, she's completely off-limits to you," he stated calmly with a smile that promised retribution in spades if he was crossed.
Severus stood as well and gave him the smile that had made even Bellatrix think twice before crossing him. "She may be yours, but if you hurt her, you will have earned my enmity."
Coulson straightened and held out his hand. Severus took it and they shook. "So glad we understand one another," he said and exited the office, leaving Severus certain that he'd made the right choice.
Severus made a point of being readily visible the rest of that day, so he wasn't surprised when Hermione finally plucked up her courage and approached him. He was sitting in the staff room drinking a cup of coffee while finishing up his current crossword puzzle.
She took the seat across from him and fidgeted a bit before speaking. "Erik told me that he spoke with you earlier," she said, the nervousness in her voice clearly evident.
Severus looked up and sighed. "Hermione, will you please relax, I'm not going to shout at you."
Placing her hands on the table in front of her, she shook her head. "Maybe you should. Shout at me, that is."
"What exactly will that accomplish?" Severus asked, leaning back in his seat.
"Oh, I don't know — maybe it would make you feel better," Hermione mumbled, looking away.
"I'm pretty certain that it wouldn't, but thank you, all the same," he replied before returning his attention to his puzzle.
They sat there in the uncomfortable silence with Severus pointedly ignoring Hermione until she started to wring her hands. He reached out a hand without looking up and grasped them.
"Don't. As angry as I still am about how things happened, it still bothers me when you do that, so just don't." Looking up, he pulled her hands toward him and took in the ring that now adorned one of them.
"Marquise cut and a sizable one at that. You must be pleased. I suppose congratulations are in order," he stated indifferently before releasing her and picking up his pen.
"Severus, I'm sorry," she said. "I know you don't want to hear it, but I never meant —"
"Don't — it was hard enough the last time."
"But I —"
"No. We'll do this my way or not at all. I was really too permissive. When Coulson's formally courting you started to bother me, I should have said something instead of waiting for you to broach the subject. I was trying to avoid another argument over interference, but I would have done better to have risked it. Our friendship had become unequal by that point. Friendship isn't about always letting the other person have what they want — I've finally learned that," Severus stated calmly as he gathered his things and stood. "You once told me that you needed time to get over yourself, even though you claimed to have forgiven me. I granted that request. Now, I'm calling in the debt. You'll have to allow me the same courtesy."
"All right. I can do that," Hermione whispered sadly, sliding her chair back to stand as well.
Nodding, Severus headed towards the door, stopping at the threshold before speaking. "I plan on attending Astoria's fundraiser for the Hogwarts Scholarship Fund on the twenty-eighth. If you'd like, we'll speak more at that time." Without waiting for a response, he strode out into the corridor and headed for the nearest Floo.
The final round of trials ended with November's full moon. They now had a version of the suppression potion that worked for ninety-nine per cent of the sampled werewolf population. Severus had completely buried himself in research, to the exclusion of all else, and succeeded in developing a separate potion that cut down on sensitivity to moonstone. It was designed to be taken the day before so as not to interfere with the suppression potion when it was administered. There was still one per cent that still had a mild, but medically acceptable reaction even with the additional remedy, so he still would not call it a complete success.
But, just as Coulson had desired, the werewolf population at large would get their early Christmas present. The Potter-Malfoy Trust, along with other supporting charities would be footing the bill for potion manufacture and distribution to every werewolf they could find. They would even fund the testing for individual moonstone sensitivity and the corrective potion when needed. It wasn't a full cure, but it was the best thing that had come about since the end of the war in Severus' opinion.
On the friendship front, he and Hermione had taken small, slow steps towards repairing theirs, with the support of Potter, Weasley and Astoria Malfoy. The things he had said and the things that she had done had been equally hurtful, so it was taking some time, but they were starting to regain their easy camaraderie.
Currently, they were all attending the celebration that was being held on behalf of the researchers responsible for the success of the suppression potion. Awards had been presented, dinner had been served and currently, Severus watched as Coulson led Hermione in a waltz. She was glowing and had a spark that he hadn't witnessed since before the end of her Sixth year at Hogwarts. He was glad to see it. He was jolted from his reverie by the crowd that he just shown up to take seats at his table.
"Did she ask you already?" Weasley said as he made certain that a noticeably pregnant Marissa was comfortable before he took his own chair.
"Yes, she asked me," he answered with a suffering sigh.
"You did say yes?" Potter chimed in merrily.
"Yes, I said yes!" he snapped in mock annoyance. "Now go bother someone else."
They laughed and left him to entertain Marissa while they went to collect drinks.
"She had Molly and her mother up in arms when she told them that she wanted both you and Harry as her witnesses," Marissa said casually as she looked out at the couples on the dance floor.
"She's always done things her own way," he replied, watching Hermione laugh at something Coulson appeared to have whispered in her ear.
Severus smiled when she spun away from her fiancé and realised she was making her way towards him. He stood to greet her.
"Hello, Hermione. You're looking lovely, as usual."
"Oh, please leave off with the small-talk, Severus. I want to hear the details on the fellowship grant you received," Hermione said excitedly as she sat, pulling him down with her.
Severus turned to Marissa and addressed her solemnly. "I'm afraid I'm being shanghaied."
"Severus Snape — just answer the poor woman before she bursts. I'm too tired to keep up with you two," Marissa said with a laugh.
"You heard her, so tell me."
"I've been authorised to author a textbook series based upon my Defence manuscript, if you really must know."
"Oh, dear, you'll bury yourself and we won't see you until it's completed," Hermione said with a mock sigh.
"Pot, kettle," he retorted, enjoying the repartee as Hermione matched him. Although he hadn't managed to keep the girl this time either, he had learned to recognise true friendship and he knew that he wasn't so damaged that he couldn't be a real friend to those that had earned his trust. That number might be few, but he wouldn't settle for less.
He had a promising career ahead with regard to his Defence manuscript and now that he was done with his part of the project, he was free to travel and explore the opportunities that awaited him. And when he came home, he would have friends — something that he'd never really had before. He was no longer alone in the world and the thought of that made his soul soar. There was hope.
A/N: I think the most interesting thing for me in the construction of this tale was the fact that Snape refused to mature any further in my head past a certain point. He was pleased as punch to have true respect, a real career and honest friendship. The relationship was nice, but it was work of a different sort and tended to stress him out. He didn't need any more at the moment and trying to push him further always left me with writer's block, empty characterization or the need to tell a tale that took 100-thousand words to reach a believable HEA. I didn't have the energy for that, so I let him have his way. :-)
Yeah, I know I sound like a headcase, but there you have it. I even tried it from the "let's have Hermione wait him out" angle and she looked at me and said - 'Do you really think that I'd push him like that and leave that particular sword hanging over his head? Really?' I was completely outvoted by the two major voices in the piece! They finally made me realize that I had managed to heal the both of them and that is what real friends do, and that was the true focus of the story. Hermione didn't have as much damage, so she healed faster and moved on. Snape is almost there, but still has quite a ways to go, but at the very least, he has a chance now. That is where the title of the story came from.
This isn't a popular ending, but it's the right one for this particular scenario. I did two month's worth of research and interviewed forty-two individuals that have been involved in this type of arrangement at one time or another. I chose people that worked and studied at my local universities, and in the sciences in an attempt to match my characters backgrounds and intelligence. Needless to say, I received quite the education! The common denominator in all of this is that this type of arrangement works until it doesn't. People either drift apart, move on amiably, or in most cases, one party discovers they want more than the other and it ends - sometimes amiably, in most cases - not. It is very, very rare for a couple to move on to a more traditional relationship.