Hello my dear faithful readers! Merry Christmas!

I know it's been forever and I have some good reasons (more at the bottom!) I know it's been a long (long, long, long, long, long) time so I'll give you a quick summary and let you get to the story.

Hermione and Severus have returned to Hogwarts, together again at last. Many of their plans are coming together. Dumbledore has been severely injured by the Horcrux, Draco needs to kill Hermione, and Kingsley is preparing to lead the Order. Hermione, Draco, and Severus have planned a fake assassination attempt to placate the Dark Lord, who is impatient for progress. Hermione's birthday was a load of sexy fun. ;) Hallows are fairy tales.

WARNING: There is a considerable amount of sex in this chapter. It's not the whole chapter... but it's at least a third.

Chapter 56

The rest of September fumbled on as the castle residents figured out new routines: new class schedules, Quidditch practice, clubs, friends. The weather held fair, with the bluster of true autumn held at bay by fierce sunshine and teasingly green grass. Students studied by the lake, shivering if they forgot their scarves, and tried in vain to get professors to teach classes outside.

The last week of September Harry finally held the first meeting of the DA. The first meeting was just the old hats first – Hermione and Harry had agreed upon this, albeit for different reasons. Harry wanted a smaller group to start with, Hermione wanted the old crew to feel valued and special. It was the same tactic Dumbledore used for the Order to create the Inner and Outer Circles, to increase loyalty and to keep potential moles at bay.

Once again they used the Room of Requirement, meticulously set up in the exact same fashion as the year before. At the first meeting, the fluffy purple pillows were used as seats, as Harry addressed the group.

"This year is going to be different," he said, his feet firmly planted on the floor and his green eyes serious. "Voldemort is back." Hermione noticed that his jaw tightened the slightest bit at the jumps and sounds from his audience. "Not that he wasn't back this year, but last year the Ministry was hiding it. He had to work in secrecy. But I'm sure all of you have seen the news recently – Magic and Muggle. Giants and Dementors and killing people in their homes – it's all happening, and it's all out in the open. He isn't hiding anything anymore. And so we need to be ready."

For a moment, Harry looked over at the crowd. Then, slightly sheepishly, he gestured toward Hermione and Ron. "I actually wans't going to start this up again, but these two conviced me," he said. "We need to know how to protect ourselves. Last year we had a bad DADA teacher, and this year we have… well, we have Snape." There were a few snickers in the crowd.

"He's almost worse than Umbridge," called out Dean Thomas. "He's not even prettier."

Hermione fought to keep her annoyance off of her face. "But he is teaching us," she reminded them. "We actually use wands in class."

Neville sighed dolefully. "But I can never actually use my wand in class," he said. "I can't make a damned thing come out of my wand with nonverbal spells."

"But that's why we're here, mate!" Ron said, some forced joviality in his voice. "To practice. And to learn the stuff that maybe Snape doesn't want us to know."

Please, Hermione thought. He doesn't want you killed, Ron. He doesn't want anyone killed. Well, anyone on our side. "We are here to practice and learn," Hermione interjected. "And to learn how to work together as units. We don't know what will happen in the near future, and we don't know how dangerous it's going to be." When she didn't get nods from her audience, she scowled at them. "Raise your hand if you're a Muggleborn."

At least a third of the room raised a hand. Hermione surveyed them, her classmates and friends. "Think for a moment," she said quietly. "How many of you are going to graduate this year? Next year? How many of you are going to leave Hogwarts for vacations? How many of your parents are still in the country? How many of you have younger siblings? The Dark Lord hates Muggles, that's not a lie. But his followers, they couldn't care less about Muggles. To them, Muggles are less than livestock, to be used and then nothing more. But Muggleborns…" Hermione let her voice trail off, shaking her head. "They hate Muggleborns. We are the living proof that their ideology is flawed, especially when we perform better than their sons and daughters at magic, the thing that they are supposed to be the rightful heirs to. They don't like the Muggles, they'll kill them for sport for a few laughs, but when they find us Muggleborns, it's a different story. We need to know how to protect ourselves."

The crowd was sober. A few people looked scared, and others – the purebloods – looked guilty. Harry pulled Hermione close to him, looping an arm around her shoulders. "Hermione's right," he told the DA. "She's right. When we-" he motioned to the others who had been at the Ministry with him – "were at the Department of Mysteries, they went after Hermione first. They prattled on about not wanting to spill pureblood, but they were perfectly fine with hurting Hermione. Same in the graveyard – they hated her on the basis of nothing but her parentage."

That… and a few other things, Hermione amended in her head. "It's everyone's responsibility to know how to protect ourselves," she told the crowd quietly. "For those of you who are Muggleborn, it's especially important. For those of you who aren't Muggleborn, you need to start thinking about how much you'd risk to protect your Muggleborn friends."

"And speaking of protecting," Ron said, walking to the front to join Harry and Hermione, "Umbridge got to our group last year through one person. You all saw what happened to her."

There were a few uncomfortable shuffles. They were all picturing Marietta's face, either the way it looked last year, covered in angry boil, or the way it currently looked, still covered in angry boils.

"We aren't operating in as much secrecy this year," Harry hastened to add. "But use common sense when talking about the DA."

"We'll sign a new contract at the next meeting," Hermione said, giving the group a sharp smile that made a few people squirm uncomfortably. "But there is a question still to be answered – what level of openness do we want to have as an organization this year?"

"Which is why we'd like to put something to a vote," Harry added. "We'd like put the DA forth as an official club this year. Open to everyone – that way the first years can join, and people who we didn't hear about last year. But we also wanted to keep meeting, just the original group. At open meetings we can go over stuff as usual, and for closed meetings, we can maybe learn some special things. I know a few Aurors who said they'd be happy to come by and show us some more advanced stuff. What say all of you?"

The measure to open the club up to the rest of the school was passed by a wide margin. When the meeting started reviewing shield spells in earnest, Hermione sat back and smiled. Her work there was done – the DA would be loyal to Harry, they would feel special because they were the ones included in the closed meetings, and the club would grow.

There were two things that were troubling Hermione throughout the rest of the month. The first was Kingsley – his slow takeover of the Order was not going quite as smoothly as she and Severus had hoped. He was a busy man, with a full-time, important job at the Ministry. He simply didn't have the time to sit down and go over piles of documents the way Dumbledore always had, which was frustrating for all the parties involved. The second was Severus himself – or rather, a lack of Severus.

The Dark Lord had been possessive of his servant of late. Because Draco couldn't leave the school, he frequently requested Severus' presence to give a report on Draco's progress, and then keep him for the rest of the night, until early in the morning.

It wasn't that Hermione wasn't busy – no, it wasn't as if she was moping around in his rooms, waiting for him, not in the slightest. She was busy trying to make sure Kingsley's transition was running along, that reports that Severus no longer had time to do were being managed, that Harry and Ron's grades stayed as high as possible, and that the hunt for the Horcruxes continued. If there was a word to describe Hermione, it was certainly busy.

But it made her weary and sad to see Severus for small snippets of time, just the few minutes it took to see the weariness in his own eyes, the lines that were growing deeper and deeper in his face, the gauntness that began haunting his cheeks. There was so much that he was enduring and it often felt like there was too little she could do to help.

"Just come here and sit with me," he would say, closing his eyes and beckoning to her. When she would come and sit on his lap, carefully tucking herself into the folds of his body, he would sigh and hold her close, the kind of tenderness that she had once assumed he was not capable of. Then they would sit there, in front of the fire, and he would breathe deeply like he was trying to remember what she smelled like, or what air felt like in his lungs, or even just what it was to take a breath. With his eyes closed and his face as near to relaxed as it could be, Hermione saw the brush of his lashes against his cheek and the jump of his pulse in his neck. Those times were both strained and precious, soothing and unsatisfying. Because too soon, always too soon, Severus would sigh and Hermione would kiss his neck and they would share a kiss so tired it often missed its mark. Then Hermione would drag herself from Severus' warmth and into the cold of the corridors, to her own cool bed.

To her disappointment, there had not been any repeats of Hermione's birthday. There simply wasn't time, or so it felt like. The days rushed by too frenzied to comprehend until at last they paused for those suspended moments of tired haze in Severus' arms, and then the haze would break again and time would speed up, rushing around her, drowning, her, spinning her around and around and around…

Dimly Hermione realized that her use of the Time Turner was doing something – something she didn't understand, something she couldn't name, something she couldn't pin down. Sometimes it seemed that she was time's mistress, that it bent and flowed under her will like her own magic, fizzing and hot and twirling to her whim. And then there were days when the Time Turner, almost like an extension of her body at this point, felt terribly foreign to her, a touch sinister, tempting and horrifying all at once. Then it felt like when she spun through time it was out of control, and each time she let go of the hourglass there was a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach, a worry that she would be spat out in the wrong time or place, alienated from all she had ever known.

But then she would open her eyes and she was exactly where she had meant to be, not a second farther not a second less, and she could shake off that dim fear and go on with her day. I'll stop using it soon, she thought. As soon as I can.

Not in the least of her worries was her appointment with poison – Severus had finally figured out what exactly Draco's mysterious potion did, and had then spent several more long hours in his lab brewing up an antidote. For that she had had to spin them through time together, just so that he could carve out the time to work.

Severus had actually altered the original potion that Draco had given them, making it less potent and inserting an agent that would give him enough time to "create" an antidote and administer it to Hermione. Once that was done, they set a tentative poisoning date for the eighth of October, a Wednesday. Snape would assign a long and complicated homework assignment, giving ample reason for Mariette Edgecombe, Draco Malfoy, and Hermione Granger all to be in the same section of the library at the same time. In class he would find fault with Marietta's performance, and order her to write an extra five inches on Inferi, using a book that Hermione would have conveniently already checked out from the library. Marietta would seek out Hermione in her normally study space in the library, and while Hermione fetched the book, Draco would poison her quills. And then… and then she would knowingly put them in her mouth, and put her life in the hands of Draco Malfoy.

On the evening of the seventh of October, Hermione skipped dinner and slipped into Severus' office and through to his chambers. Her lover was at dinner – appearances to keep up, after all – and his rooms were quiet. There were coals glowing lightly in the fireplace that she stoked into a quiet fire, out of desire for warmth more than light. She could see piles of papers on Severus' desk, waiting to be graded.

"Well, I can do something for him," she murmured to herself. She wanted to spend time with her lover tonight, goddamn it. If something went wrong the next day… she wanted a night in Severus' bed. Already Hermione had told her friends she was feeling ill and was going right to bed, no dinner for her, thank you, and told Lavender and Parvati not to disturb her. Severus, however, she had given no warning. No, she had a plan.

It was habit by now to enchant a quill to mimic the handwriting of Professor Snape, to take the assignments from the top of the fourth year stack and dig into them, red ink flowing liberally. By now, considering the stress that he was under, Hermione had started leaving the easier essays for Severus to do. She could do the third and fourth years with no problems, even the fifth years if she thought back to her own essays that he had marked the year before.

As she graded, Hermione kept an eye on the clock. Dinner would last until eight, but Severus usually left around half past seven, not one to stay much longer than it took for him to finish eating. Unless he was roped into conversation with Minerva or Dumbledore, he would make it back to his rooms at a quarter to eight. Time ticked by slowly, slowly, slowly.

At half past seven, Hermione looked over the finished pile of fourth year essays, then pushed back from the desk and stretched. Her back always got a little stiff when there was a bout of bad weather. Bad weather was one description for the state of the Hogwarts grounds earlier – flooded was another. From the early morning whips of rain had lashed the ground, churning the grass into mud and turning the usually green waters of the lake a foamy grey. But Severus' rooms were warm and the panes of the glass at the windows were think. Despite the thick curtains covering the windows, Hermione could still hear the beating of the rain against the glass and the faint howl of the wind. Far away booms of thunder had vibrated in her bones at regular intervals as she had graded, and now she could see a few flashes of lightening at the crack in the curtains.

There were nervous flutters in her belly as she fiddled with the pearl at her neck. Was she really about to do this? Really? Her, Hermione Granger? Each time she thought about Severus coming home from dinner there was a swooping feeling in the pit of her belly, as if the floor was about to fall under her. In all honesty, it really did mirror the sensation she had felt her first year, trapped in the Devil's Snare, as she had relaxed her body and fallen through to the chamber below.

Firming her resolve, Hermione pointed her wand at the fire, silently ordering it to grow. Warmth spread across her face, and she smiled. Then, taking a breath, Hermione unzipped her jeans, shimmied them off her hips and folded them with nervous energy and banished them to the corner of the room. Her legs immediately prickled with gooseflesh. Next to go was her sweater, following the same fate as her jeans. Hermione stood shivering in front of the fire, mentally willing it to grow larger. The flames obliged her, and Hermione perched on the edge of the sofa in front of the fire.

When Severus walked through the door she would be waiting for him in just her bra and panties. I don't think there's quite a clearer way to say, please touch me again like you did that time, please, Severus, Hermione thought, a red blush flooding her cheeks. Shifting on the couch, she laid down, stretching languidly as the warmth from the fire rolled over her.

Hmmm, how lovely, she thought, arching her back up. How lovely.

She didn't mean to doze, but the warmth of the fire and the sleepiness from her recent hard work caught up with her, despite her anxious anticipation.

Much later than he thought he would, Severus entered his chambers, wearied to the bone. There had been an incident with three of his Slytherins and two Ravenclaws that had ended in boils, antlers, green skin, and a trip to the Hospital Wing. To his surprise his rooms were neither cold nor empty – no, there was a fire roaring in the fireplace, and there was a lovely back facing toward him, a back that as bare save for the slim straps of a bra and panties that really showed more than normal panties showed.

The weariness left him immediately for amazement and arousal. Severus could feel himself hardening in his pants, and he could not tear his eyes away from Hermione's back. The girl was sleeping, although not soundly, and he knew that the moment he made noise she would awake. Her back was graceful and lovely, scared, made golden brown by the fire, everything he had ever dreamed of. As silently as he could, Severus spelled his shoes away, spelled his robes away, and padded over to her side.

"Hermione," he said softly. "Wake up."

His voice brought her to life. With a quiet moan that drew more blood down to his cock, Hermione arched up her back, stretching her arms over her head. Her brown eyes opened slowly, and a smile broke over her face. "Hello, love," she said quietly, voice husky from sleep. "I've been waiting for you."

"You didn't tell me you were here," he said, his own smile emerging to meet hers. She moved her legs, drawing them up, and he joined her on the couch. "I would have ignored all the morons who wanted my attention."

Hermione laughed low in her throat. "I was planning on surprising you," she told him. "I wanted to surprise you, but I fell asleep." There was a kind of shy embarrassment in her face that made Severus feel strangely soft in a way, protective and appreciative of her.

"That doesn't mean this wasn't a surprise," responded Severus. He caressed the smooth skin of her calf. "A beautiful woman waiting for me, mostly naked, is always quite the surprise." He was already reacting to her beauty, to the warm golden skin and the lacy panties and the swells of her breasts.

"But I had a lovely plan," Hermione said, a sheepish look on her face. "More than just lying in wait."

Up went Severus' eyebrows. "Oh? Well, far be it from me to interrupt your plans. Should I exit and come in again?" His tone was lightly teasing, something she hadn't heard from him in a while.

Hermione wrinkled her nose at him and laughed. "No, no. I'll just have to adapt." With a grace that belied her sleepiness, Hermione rose up and swung a leg over Severus' hips, straddling him. Equally as deftly, she began to undo the buttons at his throat. She didn't know that he could see the flutter at her neck that showed her pulse, beating fast with excitement or anticipation.

"And what a wonderful adaptation this is," Severus murmured, bringing his hands to the trim waist in front of him. There was something wonderful about the world when it delivered pretty women into his lap, he decided, something wonderful despite all the darkness.

Soon Severus' chest was exposed, his shirt pushed down over his arms. Hermione leaned forward, pressing her chest to his, reveling in the feeling of his warm skin. She pressed a kiss to the side of his neck, sucking lightly, then gently biting down with her teeth, drawing a slight noise from Severus. She kissed her way up to his ear, nipping his earlobe and drawing her tongue over the shell of his ear. "The bedroom?"

"As you wish," he replied, lifting them both with ease. Hermione wrapped her legs around his waist, and continued to nibble on his neck as Severus carried them across the room. With a brusque command (it was quite thrilling to know that she was distracting him too much for him to use silent magic) the door to his room opened, and they were there.

Hermione wiggled down from her lovers arms, focusing her attentions on his belt. As soon as she could, she pushed his pants down his hips. Then, Severus' surprise, she backed up.

As he watched, eyes hungry, she unclasped her bra, willing her hands to still. Hermione let her bra drop to the floor, relishing the intake of breath from her lover. She didn't miss the twitch in the hard shape in his underwear either – although that caused a flutter of nervousness in her belly. Slowly she turned around, hooking her thumbs in her panties, drawing them down over her bum and down her legs, keeping her legs straight.

Severus' eyes were fixed to her backside, to the flash of deep pink that appeared between her spread legs as she bent down.

"Come here," he ordered. His cock was getting painfully hard.

Hermione turned around, eyes mischievous. "Didn't I say I had a plan?" she asked teasingly.

"Then act on it, instead of just tempting me," he growled, snagging an arm around her waist and pulling her to him, eagerly bending down to finally put his mouth on hers. Hermione received the kiss with equal enthusiasm, winding her arms around his neck and matching his tongue with hers.

Severus lifted them onto the bed, immediately sliding Hermione under him, letting his lower body rest on hers and bracing his upper body with his arms. Hermione, for her part, lovingly caressed his back and sides, wound her hands through his hair, and kissed back just as eagerly.

After a few moments, however, she pulled away, lightly pushing on his shoulder to get him to turn over.

"Do you want to be on top?" asked Severus. "Was that your grand plan?"

"Wipe that smirk off your face," she said lightly. "No. I want to look at you. Lay back."

Eyebrows raised, Severus did as she asked, laying back against the pillows with uneasy grace. She could tell her scrutiny perplexed him. "Why?"

"Why do I wanted to look at you?" she asked lightly. "Because I like it."

He was certainly a sight – his hair was out of his face for once, and dim light highlighted the crags and furrows of his sharp face. His eyes were hooded, his nose harsh, his mouth surprisingly full. Severus had a long neck, surprisingly broad shoulders, and a leanly muscled, slim body. His skin was pale, marked with silvery scars in more places that she could count. His arms had slight bulges of muscle, but she knew exactly how strong they were.

She drew a finger from the notch at the base of his neck down his chest, noting the small brown nipples and the sparse black hair on his chest. Down the finger went, down his sternum, down his belly. She circled his bellybutton, then traced the waistband of his boxers.

"Do you like these ones?" she asked.

Severus' brow furrowed. "Not particularly."

Wordlessly, windlessly, she Vanished them. Up bobbed Severus' cock, red and thick. It jutted out from a thick patch of wiry black hair, strangely intimidating. Veins stood out on the side of it, and the head bore a bead of liquid.

"You can do more than stare at it, you know," Severus said wryly. "You're blushing."

Hermione met his eyes, a laugh on her lips. "This is really the first – the first –"

"Cock," Severus supplied helpfully. "The first cock…" God she was innocent. He could forget sometimes, when she straddled him, but when she looked at his cock in sudden apprehension it was impossible to forget that she was a virgin, that she had never even seen a man's cock before.

She glared at him. "The first cock I've seen, you know."

Grandly, Severus gestured to his member. "Then by all means, take your time." He, for one, was enjoying the chance to examine Hermione's lovely breasts.

Willing her hand not to tremble, Hermione reached out and touched the base of his cock, drawing her fingertip up the length of it. Severus sucked in a breath – the touch was gentle and barely there, but it was still one of the most erotic things he thought he had ever felt.

Gingerly Hermione wrapped her hand around it, clenching her inner muscles as her hand accessed the girth of his member. She knew it had to go there, she knew it must fit, but somehow that seemed a bit painful. Well, at least that's for another day. The skin on his cock was smooth, warmer than the rest of his body.

Carefully she moved her hand up to the top, swiping her thumb over the bead of liquid at the tip. His cock jerked again, and she jumped.

"Don't be scared of it," Severus said quietly. "It won't bite."

Hermione could feel her cheeks flushing. "What do you like?"

Severus reached out, stroking her cheek and tucking a curl behind her ear. "What was your grand plan?"

"Touching you," Hermione said honestly. "I wanted to see you, wanted to touch you, make you feel as wonderful as you made me feel on my birthday." Almost absentmindedly, she was trailing her fingers up and down the length of his cock.

Severus leaned over and kissed her deeply, holding the back of her head in one large hand. When he pulled away, his eyes were dark and her mouth was still red and open. Wordlessly he grabbed his wand from the nightstand, and tapped her palm. A glob of clear gel appeared there.

"Put your hand around me," he instructed, voice low. She did as he asked, and he wrapped his larger hand around her smaller one. He guided her in the motion and the pressure, then released her hand and let his head fall back, groaning with pleasure. It had been such a long time – such a long time – since anyone's hand but his own had touched his cock. This hand was small and smooth, free of calluses and scars.

Hermione watched her lover in fascination, watched as his muscles clenched and his face flushed. His breathing grew harder and groans escaped his mouth. Then, before she expected it, his cock jerked in her grasp and suddenly, both of them had ropes of sticky cum on them. Hermione resisted the urge to laugh – she wouldn't have liked it if he had laughed as she came – and watched him.

With groan, he waved his hand and it all disappeared. "Come here," he said, pulling her down to lay next to him.

Hermione burrowed into his side, pressing a kiss to the side of his neck. His member looked odd now, deflated, wrinkled and tired. His arms were strong around her, and she loved the feeling of his warm, human body against hers.

"That was interesting," she said, kissing the skin of his chest. "I've never seen you so… absorbed, before."

Severus chuckled. "That was the first time in a long time for me," he told her. "I wasn't expected to react quite like that either." He grew serious for a moment, kissing the top of her head. "It's been so long since someone has touched me with such – such tenderness, Hermione."

It brought tears to her eyes. Love for the man next to her rose up from her belly, tinged with sadness. Merlin, why had his life been so hard?

His mouth was on hers then, kissing her deeply. Then he was over her, his lower body pressed against hers. Hermione could feel his member stiffening again, but her mind was occupied by the kiss, his hands, his warmth. He nipped at her neck, caressed her waist, suckled at her breasts. It was hazy, it was terrifyingly sharp, it was lust and fire in her bones.

She felt his hand at her thighs, urging them apart, then lightly brushing her center. It was like little ripples of electricity shot through her, sending her hips up, making her arch on the bed. He did it again, the barest of touches, and Hermione felt a sound escape her mouth, but was so caught up she didn't hear it.

"What did you say?" asked Severus, a wicked grin on his face as he did it again.

"Please," she mewed, "please touch me." Her body ached for him, that space inside of her yearned to be filled, she wanted him in that moment.

Then he was touching her, his fingers were circling her clit and one finger slipped inside of her, and then she was lost to everything but the sensations he was pulling from her. Dimly she recognized when one finger became two, when the curled inside of her, touching a place that made pleasure spread through her abdomen. When her orgasm came, it was in waves, every movement of his fingers prolonging the warm rushes of pleasure. Hermione collapsed back, exhausted and weak in the legs.

A moment later, when she opened her eyes again, she saw Severus looking at her, a grin on his mouth. It was such a foreign expression she had to smile back at him. Then she looked down, and her eyebrows rose in surprise. "You're hard again," she said, almost an accusing note in her voice.

"It wasn't very difficult after watching you," he said, continuing to stroke himself as he had been doing.

With more confidence than the first time, Hermione reached for him, grinning in satisfaction as he groaned and came again, more quickly this time.

A quick spell cleaned them up, removing the evidence of their activities. They both collapsed into the bed, resting above the covers to cool down.

"That was lovely," Hermione said, squeezing Severus' hand. "I love when you touch me like that."

Severus squeezed back. "I'm glad to know I still remember how." There was a hint of seriousness to his joke. "You were also… lovely."

Hermione rolled on to her stomach, raising herself up on her elbows so that she could look at him. "I also like touching you," she said seriously. "I like making you feel so much good."

Severus reached up and caressed her cheek from her temple to her jaw to her chin, savoring the feeling of her soft skin under his fingers and the feel of the delicate ridges of the bones of her face. "I feel – I feel very close to you right now, Hermione. Very – very tender, toward you."

Slowly she ducked her head, kissing him from above, her lips barely touching his. She mouthed at his lips, then applied more pressure, smiling into his lips as he responded. "I also feel very tender toward you," she whispered. "I love you, Severus."

She could feel him stiffen. "Hermione-" he began, but she laid a finger over his lips.

"Hush," said Hermione. She then lay down, tucking her back into the curve of his body so that he would curl around her, spooning her. His body was warm and male and comfortable behind her, and the feeling of being held was precious.

For a long few moments they were quiet, enough so that Hermione wondered if Severus had fallen asleep. But he shifted behind her, and she could both feel and hear his intakes of breath, as if he was about to speak, because his chest was pressed to her back.

"Say whatever you need to say, love," Hermione murmured. Their legs were intertwined, and she rubbed his hairy calf with her foot.

The warm air of his sigh was hot on her neck. "You're worried about tomorrow, aren't you?" he asked. "That was what this was about."

"Don't get defensive and doubting on me, Severus," Hermione said, a hint of a warning in her voice. "Of course I'm worried about letting a boy who hates me poison me and not do a thing to stop it. It feels something akin to considering suicide. And of course when I'm worried about my life I think of you. You are the biggest reason I want body and soul in the same place, Severus."

Severus shifted again behind her, drawing her body even closer to his own. "I'm not thinking you used me or anything of the sort," he said mildly. "I'm rather pleased you would want to come to me for comfort."

Hermione rolled over, nestling her head in the space next to his shoulder on his chest. "Of course I would, Severus. I think it goes without saying that you are the person I am closest to on this Earth. Of course I would want comfort from you."

"But that's not the only thing you wanted?" offered Severus. He thought he had heard something else in her voice, something he couldn't quite place.

"I wanted to spend the night with you," admitted Hermione. "I wanted to feel this close to you again, like I did after my birthday. I wanted to enjoy the night if there was a chance it would be my last. Sex seems better to me than reading or writing reports."

Severus chuckled, and she felt his chest rise as he did so. There, in that moment, skin pressed against skin, his heart thumping quietly in her ear, she felt closer to him than she perhaps had ever before. "I would say that I agree with you," he replied.

"Can we make time for this?" asked Hermione. "Make time for each other, for interacting with each other, for making each other feel good? When things are this uncertain I want to feel close to you, Severus. I want to feel like I have something that'll last this war. I want to-" her words failed her as she struggled to name what she felt.

"I want to just be you and me, with nothing else in between," Severus finished for her. "I want that too, Hermione."

What wasn't said was the contradiction of the statement. It was impossible for them to be just a man and a woman alone in a bed, with nothing else between them. They had both been forged by the war, shaped by the war, thrown together by the war. There was nothing normal or natural about their coming together. In normal times they would have been sleeping on opposite ends of the castle, with no more feelings in their hearts for each other than a teacher normally has for their student.

But they could pretend, at least when it was just Hermione and Severus and their bodies were languid and tired and them could whisper to each other and press body against body as if it was just the two of them in the world.

And so ends Chapter 56.

Great grand apologies for the delay. I was stumped for a long time on this one, in addition to real life, so it took longer than it might have otherwise.

THAT BEING SAID. It is not appropriate to bombard me with nasty messages telling me I'm an awful person for not updating as regularly as I used to. People, I started writing this when I was 15 and I started posting when I was 16 or 17. I could post every two weeks back then because a) I had a buffer of 15 chapters and b) I was a teenager who was living at home and therefore had a grownup cooking for me and doing my laundry and working to buy me clothes and internet. Now I am a grown up. I have to cook and do laundry and work (academia is work folks). I also have a lot of homework- sometimes upward of 1,000 pages of reading in a few days - and volunteering and side projects and doing academic writing for publication, and fretting about the state of my country post-election. I have family in ill health, I have professors taking me to conferences, I have editors who want my revisions back, and I have awesome friends who I like hanging out with. I also have a lovely girlfriend who I enjoy spending time with because she means the world to me. Fanfiction is not as big a part of my life as it used to be, but it is still something I enjoy. That does not mean I deserve to have people calling me names, insulting my writing, and insinuating I'm making everybody wait to take pleasure in it. Someone even said that I had completely ruined this story that they were incredibly passionate about- it's my story. If anything, that makes me not want to do this anymore. If you feel so pissed about it, drop it. I don't want to hear it.

I'm sorry, but my life is busy. You'll have to wait for chapters. This summer I'll be spending two months in Madagascar doing research - I'm not going to have time to write fanfic. I'll do it when I can, but I can't always find the time. That doesn't mean that this story isn't incredibly special to me, or that I hate all of you and am withholding chapters purposefully. (And if anyone is from Madagascar, I'd love to hear from you!)

The next chapter will be up when it will be up. I appreciate each and every one of you who reviews - you remind me why I should keep working on this monster of a story. Until next time!