Hello, all! Trudging forward... What did Hermione do with the advice she received from Flitwick about talking to the house-elves?

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Hermione was livid.

That rat bastard. She couldn't believe that Severus had pulled the wool over her eyes with this stunt of his. Not only had he known what was causing the magical blackouts in her rooms for days, but he had also seen the holly on her bed when he dropped and maimed her. Ignominious wanker.

Oh, she was relieved to finally have an answer to the mysterious curse placed over her quarters. It wasn't terribly mysterious in the end. Had only she asked Tilly earlier, she would have known that the diminutive elf was just following out her hastily scribbled note as a set of instructions or a contract of sorts. The young elf exhausted herself to please Hermione in everything she did, always going beyond the call of duty to provide for her mistress at Hogwarts. The first time Hermione had asked Tilly for anything, it was for dark chocolate to relieve some terrible cramping. She expected a small piece of the stuff on a plate, but Tilly had left an entire gateau, rich and gooey and covered in raspberry sauce and real whipped cream, on her table. Hermione was fairly certain she'd packed on half a stone with that one, but it had been worth it. When Hermione asked Tilly for a stash of tea in her quarters, a hamper with a dozen varieties of herbals and blacks appeared in her kitchen. She also changed the towels everyday until Hermione insisted that they only needed laundering once a week. Tilly didn't mess around.

Hermione had fixed a pot of the elf's favorite tea, a nice oolong, and invited her to a chat. In a mere ten minutes, she had learned everything she needed to know.

"Headmaster Flitwick tells me that you elves have some incredible powers over the castle," Hermione said, laying the groundwork.

"We is capable of many things, Missy Hermione. For starters, there is no need to Floo when one is an elf. And we can make things disappear and reappear anywhere we wishes."

"Can you perform localized charms on sites in the castle, like a Silencing Charm on a classroom or a darkness spell on the Great Hall?" Hermione asked.

Tilly looked confused, tilting her head to one side. "Like the ones I is doing on your rooms?"

"So you were the one changing the lights and the Silencing Charms on the rooms?" she asked Tilly. She hadn't meant it to sound harsh, but the words came in a rush, sounding like an accusation rather than a question.

The elf's lower lip trembled. "I is following the list that Missy Hermione and the Mister Severus wrote for me."

"Yes, of course." Hermione tried to keep her expression blank as she processed this news. "You are a thoughtful helper, Tilly."

The elf piped up. "When Mister Severus asked me to change the magic, I did just as he asked."

Hermione blanched. "Oh, did you now?" she asked. Severus hadn't mentioned a thing to her about this. In fact, he had pretended to be completely in the dark on their mystery, and hadn't volunteered even a suspicion that it was house-elf magic at work. "How exactly did you change things, Tilly? I didn't notice a thing."

"I let Mister Severus see you so you wouldn't hurt each other anymore." The elf nibbled away at her biscuit. "I is doing it so quietly so as not to embarrass you, Miss."

Her mind racing, Hermione backtracked over everything she had done in his presence. Had she done anything terribly embarrassing in Severus' presence? She didn't think so, but maybe she walked like a duck when she was naked and simply had no idea. She honestly didn't remember much of the specifics when she was in the dark with Severus. It was just a frenzy of clothes and hands and lips and bed.

"When did you change the magic, Tilly?" she asked. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer. Had Severus been hiding this from her all along?

"Just yesterday."

Ah. Well, that was better than what she had feared. Truth be told, it was easier to avoid accidents when at least one of them could see the other. Although he had dropped her on her bed filled with holly when he knew very well what he was doing. Bastard, bastard, bastard... She was lost in her own thoughts when a high-pitched voice pulled her back to the present.

"Missy Hermione, you is still wanting me to do the magic on your rooms?" she asked.

Hermione had to think about it. She had the opportunity to turn the tables on Severus if she played her cards right. She could confront him right away; really let him have it. The part of her that wanted immediate retribution called out for it. Had it been Harry or Ron, that would have been her response. But she was dealing with an exceedingly clever man, not one of her boys, and she needed to make him feel her wrath and learn to be honest with her.

"Yes, Tilly," she replied. "Please do as you have been doing."

"And it's all right that Mister Severus can see you now?" the elf asked, visibly worried that she had done something wrong. She was wringing her hands, looking up at Hermione with big eyes. "He said you two is getting into accidents when you isn't seeing each other."

"He is right," Hermione said. "Thank you for your help, Tilly."

The elf looked relieved, smiling up at her mistress. The word "help" was the most effective one when talking to Tilly. More than anything else, the elf loved to be helpful.

A flash of genius struck Hermione just then. "Say, Tilly?" she asked.

"Yes?"

"Can you lift the speaking ban on Severus so that I can hear him when he talks?" she asked. Hermione was determined to make Severus comfortable enough in her presence over the next month so that he would willingly show himself to her. But she wanted to know something more of him when they were intimate, and this seemed like a fair trade. "Only..." she faltered a minute. "Only don't tell him. It'll be our secret."

Tilly nodded. "Yes, Missy Hermione. So he is seeing you, and you is hearing him?"

"Yes. Consider it an addendum to the original plan. That would be most helpful."

Tilly slid off her chair to her feet.

"And Tilly?" Hermione asked.

"Yes?"

"May I ask you to bring me something new for a bubble bath and put it on my account?" Hermione hesitated. She still hated asking an elf for anything, even though she now knew how happy it made Tilly. "But only if you get yourself something new as well."

"Oh, yes, Missy Hermione!" The elf trotted off for the day, pleased that she was pushing the dark Potions master and her mistress closer together.

Meanwhile, Hermione was plotting Severus' demise as payback for the holly incident. Her patience would be tested in the coming days, but she couldn't act right away. That would make him suspicious—more suspicious than usual—and then, the jig would be up. She would bide her time and wait for the right moment.

It was difficult for her to be angry with Snape about anything now that she was getting to know him better. While she would have preferred that he told her about Tilly's involvement as soon as he discovered it himself, the fact that he asked Tilly to change the rules for him was telling. Severus wanted her. Wanted to be with her, wanted to see her body, wanted to watch her face while they made love. He was still terrified of being exposed, but Hermione assumed that it might take a lifetime to wear him down on that issue. She wished that he would let go of the past, but she knew as well as anyone how difficult that could be.

:

It was the weekend, so there were no classes to teach and no students to reprimand. It was far too cold for her tastes, so Hermione spent the morning luxuriating in her bathtub under a fleet of bubbles instead of going for a walk around the lake or a jog through the Forbidden Forest. She'd found a varied selection of scented bath salts and whatnot in a hamper beside her tub. Bless you, Tilly, she thought. A cup of hot chocolate teetered on the stone ledge beside her, and her book of choice was a classic Agatha Christie mystery she'd read a dozen times before. She already knew who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that didn't stop her from being swept along in anticipation as she progressed through the book.

Soaking in her tub, Hermione was aware of her body in ways she never had been before. This made sense to her, all things considered. It wasn't as though she were some innocent school girl anymore, confused by feminine hygiene products and the irregularity of cramping and the way that she had always wanted to string up Ronald and Harry by their toenails for their juvenile insensitivity for two days each month. No, she had finally come into her own. The side of her that loved efficiency appreciated the fact that she was using her body fully now.

Sex with Severus had been a bit tentative at first, but they were moving decidedly full speed ahead. Really, the plans that she had sketched out on a piece of scrap paper had been ludicrous. She knew that. Of course, she hadn't wanted any of it. She had proposed a steady line of shagging with the man, and he had been the one to insist on all those limitations. Even after the past week, she wasn't quite sure what he was afraid of. Yes, he was hesitant to let her see him naked, but it was more than that. He had wanted a clear separation between their amorous adventures and their working life. She was doing that, wasn't she?

Hermione reminded herself that their arrangement was merely physical. She and Severus would enjoy themselves during their month together, and they would go their separate ways. That is, they would still see each other everyday at work. They would also continue on with their chess nights, if Hermione had her say in the matter. She wasn't about to quit those until she had beaten him at least once. She would then commemorate the occasion and rub it in his overly large nose whenever she needed the leverage.

Yes, she would be able to give him up when January 1 rolled around.

Unless...

Unless maybe she could convince him to keep on with her occasionally. Maybe she could sell the idea to him as physical exercise. But maybe he would want his body and his life back. What then?

She could take Ginny up on one of her offers to set her up with one of her acquaintances. She could date, she told herself. She really could. Ginny was always threatening her with some blind date or other, despite Harry's best efforts to subdue his wife's Weasley breeding instincts and leave Hermione alone.

Maybe Hermione didn't want to be left alone anymore.

:

After lounging about in her quarters all morning, Hermione headed down to the Great Hall for lunch. Faculty members were sparse on the weekend, since they weren't required to be at meals unless they were on duty. When she made it to her usual seat, she found herself surrounded by Sybil on one side and Neville on the other. Flitwick was there, too, and Hagrid, but all the other seats were empty.

"Hello, Neville," she said brightly as he pulled out her chair for her. His gran had ensured that he was a consummate gentleman. "What are you up to this weekend?"

"Oh, you know," he mumbled, spooning boiled potatoes onto his plate and ladling gravy over the mash, "just keeping an eye on everyone this weekend. I forgot I had duty until—"

"Your aura," Trelawney interrupted, leaning over to Hermione until her nose was almost touching Hermione's cheek. "It's practically throbbing!" she exclaimed.

Hermione blushed. She knew Trelawney was a fraud ninety-nine percent of the time, but she managed to nail it every once and again. She doubted the old bat knew that anything had changed in Hermione's life, but still, the woman was unnerving. "What does that even mean, Sybil?" she asked as politely as she could muster. She shook her head. "I just ran here from my quarters, so it's probably just my heart beat you're hearing."

The Divination professor began to wave her hands around Hermione's body, mumbling and humming when she found something intriguing.

For her own part, Hermione tried to brush it off, loading her plate with steamed asparagus and chicken pie. She turned her back on the madness and addressed Neville. "You were saying?"

Neville's eyes distractedly followed the Divination professor's moving fingers. "Er... er... Yes. I was saying that I'm just keeping duty today."

Her gaze steadfast on her friend, Hermione refused to be bothered by the fraud fluttering about next to her. "Anything new in the greenhouse?"

"Anything... Er..." He tore his eyes away, blinking at Hermione. "What was... what were you saying?"

Hermione just chuckled. "Never you mind, Neville." Then she turned to Sybil, looking up at the woman hovering over her. "Would you mind? I'm trying to eat."

Trelawney huffed off, muttering something about the "willfully blind" who were "without the Inner Eye."

Good riddance, Hermione thought.

Meanwhile, Neville stabbed his potatoes with a good deal of force. "Sorry, Hermione. I had planned on finishing up all my holiday shopping this weekend, but then I remembered I have to be on duty this weekend." He took a long draught of his tea. "It's just as well, really, since I have no idea what to get for Hannah. We've only been seeing each other a short while. I don't even know what's appropriate."

Hermione swallowed a bite of pie, thinking. She was in a sort of similar boat. Should she be getting Severus a Christmas gift? They weren't dating per se, but they were about as close as she'd ever been with a man before. Would he be expecting one? Or would it put too much pressure on them to even consider a gift? "That's a tough one, Neville." She smiled at her friend. "Do you think you'll be receiving one from her?"

"I don't know," he said, the worry present in his voice. "If I get her something and she doesn't have a gift for me, she'll feel terrible. Or she'll think I have certain expectations about us. If she gives me one and I have nothing to give back, it'll look like I don't care about her."

"Are you spending the holidays together?" Hermione asked. "That could make a difference."

"We haven't talked about it yet," he replied. Neville looked forlorn in a way Hermione hadn't seen since they were students. "Should I bring it up?"

Hermione gave him a stern glance.

Neville gulped. "Yes, yes I should." He made a show of shuffling his peas around on his plate. "I don't want to scare her off."

She elbowed him in his side. "I doubt you will. We've all known for ages that Hannah is wild about you."

A bright flush crept over Neville's cheeks. "I'll send her an owl today. Thanks, Hermione." Dropping his flatware in a clatter, Neville shoved off from the table and headed off to what Hermione could only guess was the Owlery.

Most of the students had cleared out, and at this point, Hermione was the only professor sitting at the High Table. As she finished her meal alone, a pair of ghosts floated overhead, deep in conversation.

"Why, hello, Hermione," called the Fat Friar. "How good to see you today! You're looking quite well."

She waved her greetings at the jovial ghost and his silent companion, Nearly Headless Nick. If Hermione hadn't seen it herself, she wouldn't have believed it.

Ghosts could blush.

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Will Hermione learn anything from getting to hear Severus in the dark? And will she ultimately get back at him for the holly or let him off the hook?