Disclaimer: No money, fame or glory made here. Only admiration.
AN: A huge thanks to Ariadne, who, yet again, proves to be the best beta in the world. May the wind always swish your cloak threateningly.
Severus was not entirely surprised to find Hermione absent when he returned to the rooms. It only served to worsen his mood.
When a knock came at the door, Severus cursed and sat in a chair by the window. "Enter!"
Harry entered and, following the impatient wave of Severus' hand, took a seat across from him.
For a moment, Severus only stared at Harry as if measuring him. "What happened tonight, Potter?"
Harry looked down at his hands, running them over each other. "I was distracted, I suppose."
"Distracted? By what?" Severus asked, trying to keep his patience.
"It's... personal," Harry muttered, embarrassed.
Severus sneered, waving a hand dismissively. "Nonsense, Potter. As you can plainly see from tonights events, everyone knows everything in this bloody castle."
Harry shrugged and continued to look anywhere but at Severus.
Severus set his jaw, preparing to deliver another sarcastic remark, but reconsidered. Slowly, he settled back and ran his hands along the arms of his chair before taking a deep breath. "Harry?"
Harry looked up, startled to hear Snape use his given name.
"It's not difficult to see I have a vested interest in your success as does the rest of the wizarding world. That being said, it's important to me to understand how to strengthen your skills. I cannot do that if you won't share with me what the problem is," Severus said, looking uncomfortable.
"It's just... tonight with Ginny there I just got distracted," Harry said, mostly to the floor.
Severus nodded. "Bit of stage fright, if you will?"
Harry shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so."
After thinking for a moment, Severus said, "Perhaps separating the two is in order. You will take Occlumency lessons as well as dueling. We'll then blend them. If you can achieve the key aspect of Occlumency concentration you will be able to avoid distraction. We will start in the morning."
Harry rose from his chair, assuming he was dismissed.
"One suggestion, Potter. You care for the Weasley girl?" Severus asked, raising an eyebrow.
Harry blushed furiously, a startled look on his face. "Yes."
"Why, then, aren't you with her?" Severus asked, as uncomfortable asking personal questions as Harry was answering them.
Severus watched Harry repeatedly run his hand over the back of the chair. He waited, knowing he had no right to demand an answer.
"I thought it was best if I went on alone," Harry said sadly.
Severus met Harry's eyes for the first time and said seriously, "If you haven't noticed, you are not alone."
Harry shifted his weight and examined the chair, unsure of what to say.
"Dumbledore was correct in telling you that a major difference between yourself and Voldemort is your capacity to love. Voldemort cares only for immortality and power. Nothing more."
Harry nodded slightly, still stunned. If he told anyone that he had discussed love with Snape, they would think he had gone mental.
"You may..." Severus started. He frowned before continuing, searching for the right words. "If you wish, I do believe it would be acceptable for you to resume your relationship with her."
Harry looked suspicious. "You think so, sir?"
"I do. Nothing would drive Voldemort out of your mind quicker than thoughts of love," Severus said with a trace of a smirk.
Harry seemed to consider, then said, "I'll think about it."
Relieved that this awkward conversation could end, Severus said, "Fine. You may go now. Return in the morning and we'll work on your Occlumency."
Harry started to leave, but hesitated. He turned slightly, then shook his head.
"Say it," Severus growled.
"You love her?" Harry said before he could even think. When Severus didn't answer immediately, Harry's face darkened. "If you're playing with her, I swear I'll" He trailed off when Severus narrowed his eyes and started to stand.
Severus rose from his chair, taking brief pleasure in how Harry took a step back.
The two of them regarded each other for a moment. There was no hatred, only reluctant recognition of a common interest.
The sound of a clock whose job seemed to be to keep track of awkward silences ticked loudly.
Dropping formality for a moment, Severus said, "Yes, Potter. You needn't worry."
Harry visibly relaxed and nodded before turning to leave.
Before Harry could close the door, Severus said, "Oh, and Potter? Another word of advice..."
Harry froze, his hand still on the knob.
"Never threaten me again."
"You love him?" Ginny asked.
Hermione knew she was trying to be a supportive friend, but thought this would be more effective if Ginny didn't look like she had smelled something very bad.
"Yes," Hermione said mostly to herself. Saying it aloud somehow made it real. "I do."
Hermione then recounted what happened between them on the Astronomy Tower and how she had both asked Severus to watch his temper and dismissed him.
"Hermione, that's priceless!" Ginny said, smiling.
"Oh, Ginny, I just couldn't give in too easily. He has to learn to watch his temper or we'll kill each other," Hermione began seriously, but slipped a smile. "But yeah, the look on his face when I dismissed him was amazing."
"I'm sure," Ginny said, grinning. "Are you going back? Put the poor bloke out of his misery?"
Hermione thought for a moment. "Maybe."
Her amusement at hearing that Hermione had put Snape in his place faded quickly from Ginny's face. Her expression was one of barely concealed loss.
Turning serious, Hermione asked, "Have you talked to Harry more? About... you know?"
"No," Ginny said sadly, tracing patterns on the bedspread. "It's hard to be around him any more. Tonight during his duel with Snape, he seemed all distracted, and he failed horribly. I'm sure it was because he didn't want me around," she said with a shrug.
Hermione took Ginny's hand in hers. "Maybe he'll come around."
"Yeah, I don't know. Mum and Dad say that we'll be staying here for a while to help the Order. They say the Burrow isn't safe anymore. I just don't want to get in the way," Ginny said, pained.
"Ginny, you'll never be in the way," Hermione said, giving her hand a squeeze.
Severus remained sitting by the window for several hours. It was the first time he'd been truly alone since returning to Hogwarts, and he was hating every minute. The ease with which hed spent his days alone before had deserted him. He tried to read, but couldn't absorb anything, his eyes merely skimming the pages. It occurred to him to return to the lab and research the potion, but if his concentration wouldn't hold there was no point. Besides, Potions was hardly an activity to take up when in a state of high frustration.
No reason to deny what was bothering him. He missed her.
Severus picked at the arms of the chair, asking himself how he could have fallen so quickly. Part of him resented never having been given the opportunity to decide whether he wanted to love. It simply happened. Why?
You know very well why. Because she's the first to tell you off to your face and put you in your place. She sees right through your bad temper, sarcastic tongue and intimidation and still loves you. That's why and you love her for it. No matter how much you hate to admit it.
Looking down, Severus saw that he had nervously picked the upholstery off the arm of the chair, exposing the stuffing.
"Oh, hell!" he growled and stood, at a loss for something to calm himself that did not include a bushy-haired Gryffindor.
Hermione walked the halls after leaving Ginny, the sound of the rain outside keeping her company as she contemplated. From time to time, faraway lightning would overpower the torches, illuminating the portraits for a moment before plunging them back into the shadows. She knew where she was going; her heart had already decided.
After a while, she glanced up to see Harry approaching.
"Hermione, hey about earlier we just didn't know" Harry said, looking genuinely embarrassed.
"Oh, um yeah, it wasn't your fault," she said. After an uncomfortable silence, she asked, "The duel? Ginny tells me it didn't go well?"
Rubbing the back of his head, Harry said, "If you call blasting the Great Hall ceiling open and having Snape take a Sunday stroll around my memories then yeah, you could say it didn't go well. He wanted to talk to me after."
"Oh?" Hermione said, trying not to look as interested as she actually was.
Harry shrugged, "He told me I should get back with Ginny."
"Really?" Hermione said hopefully, "Will you?"
"I don't know maybe," he said, shrugging.
Hermione placed a hand on his shoulder and said, "Harry, no matter what, know that you're not alone."
Smiling sadly, Harry said, "Thanks."
"Ok, I'll see you tomorrow?" she asked.
"Yeah, I have an Occlumency lesson with Snape, so I'll see you then," Harry said.
Her expression quieted when she said, "You're taking this better than well, you know."
Harry looked at her seriously, "I hate the git, but I know. We need him."
Before turning to go, Harry asked, "Hermione, are you... ?"
Hermione looked at him seriously and said simply, "Yes, Harry. I am."
Harry nodded and turned to go.
Severus finally felt relaxed enough to consider the prospect of sleeping. He could feel the muscles in his back and legs loosen and his consciousness slipping away. Closing his eyes, he cast another warming spell on the water and concentrated on his breathing. He thought he heard something in the other room, but dismissed it.
Probably the house-elves.
Thoughts of Hermione had permeated his dreams in recent nights, driving away all but the most stubborn of nightmares. Each night when she would leave, he would lie awake, telling himself he was foolish for wanting her to stay. For wanting her company too much.
His thoughts undulated in a dreamlike state, falling, moving from logic to pure emotion, resistance to surrender, then acceptance and silence. A feeling of a presence in the room, slowly, his mind anticipating the approach.
Severus was not startled when he opened his eyes slightly to see Hermione sitting on the edge of the tub watching him.
With a faint smile on his face, he looked at her through hooded eyes and whispered, "Hermione..."
"Yes?" Hermione smiled as she brushed his hair away from his eyes, thinking his voice when half-asleep was even more attractive, unguarded, honest.
Thinking abstractly that dreams do not speak, he said slowly, "You've come back?"
Shaking her head gently, she said, "I never left."
Severus mumbled something and closed his eyes. She watched him, the harsh lines in his brow smoothing out, the constant concern leaving him. Hermione gently took his hand from the tub's edge, tracing the faint outline where his Mark once laid. She could feel his muscles relax, the weight increasing, almost measuring his descent into unconsciousness. She pressed his hand to her chest, watching as a cloud of confusion passed over his face, then ease.
When he didn't wake, a devious smile slipped onto her face.
Leaning forward, Hermione lightly cupped his cheek, then trailed her fingertips along his jaw. Feeling brave, she laid a series of small kisses along his neck, pausing for a moment between each one, taking care to stay light enough to avoid waking him. When he moved his head towards her and groaned softly, she placed a hand on his chest and took his lips to hers. He slowly began to return her kiss, his heart speeding up under her hand. She felt his hand caressing her hair, guiding her closer, his kiss gentle at first, then moving towards desire, urgency, demanding.
Breaking only when the need for air demanded, Severus glanced down at her hand on his chest and asked, "What brought you back?"
Hermione sat up, swirled the water with a finger for a moment and said teasingly, "You're terribly irresistible. Can't stay away from your incredible wit, intelligence and even temper."
Severus rolled his eyes and shook his head in disbelief. "Indeed."
She reached out and ran her fingers through his hair. Tilting her head, she contemplated with a smile, saying, "Wonderful disposition, kindness devastatingly good looks."
"Now you're just playing about," Severus growled, trying to ignore the almost hypnotic pattern she was tracing on his chest.
"Oh, and that voice. You know the girls would whisper about that voice," she said, loving how flustered he was becoming. She ran her hand across his chest, dragging her nails lightly.
"That cannot be true," he said, secretly loving how she was talking to him.
Leaning over, she added, "And quite a body I may add."
After Severus twitched and quickly cast a spell to make the water opaque, Hermione laughed. "Oh, come now, I didn't look." Ok, maybe a little.
Scowling, Severus said, "That's a lie, and I do not enjoy being laughed at."
Hermione smiled and kissed his cheek, noting how his face was burning. "I wasn't laughing at you, Severus. You look like a first year when you pout like that."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "I do not."
"You do too, and it's quite adorable," she insisted. "You may not think so, Severus, but I see the young boy in there, especially when you are being devious. There's a look in your eye that's unmistakable."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, and I am not adorable," Severus said, running his hand across the water's surface.
"Oh, I think you do," Hermione countered, studying his face. She smiled when the smirk she had come to love appeared on his face.
After a pause, Severus said, looking down at the water, "This look. You say it appears before I'm about to do something... how did you word it? Devious?"
"Yes?" Hermione said slowly, wondering just what he was plotting.
Severus nodded to himself, then quickly reached up and grabbed hold of Hermione's arm, pulling her into the bath. She let out a scream as she fell sideways, plunging into the water and sending a wave over the edge. He groaned loudly as she landed directly on his leg.
"Severus!" she cried pushing her mass of hair out of her eyes and kneeling on either side of him. At the sight of Severus openly laughing she couldn't help but join him.
"Can't resist me? Even as I attempt to drown you?" Severus said, grinning with a glint in his eye even as his leg raged in protest.
Trying to catch her breath, Hermione smiled and said, "You remain hex-free, so I'd say 'yes'."
"Not angry with me?" he murmured as he leaned forward slightly, breathing on her neck.
Hermione gripped the edges of the tub to steady herself, the heat of him and the chill of her wet clothes battling for her attention.
"No," she breathed, hanging her head as he kissed her lightly, moving higher up her neck.
A low chuckle against her ear. "Pity."
They kissed slowly, savoring each touch, so much more slowly than before. Hermione could feel him shudder under her as she leaned in to kiss him deeply. His breath was becoming shallow as she moved to wrap her arms around his waist. When she dragged her nails lightly down his back, he groaned and kissed her even more aggressively.
As they both tried to catch their breath, Hermione said, "You're driving me insane."
Smirking, Severus moved closer, intentionally dropping his voice lower. "Am I? Oh, that certainly is regrettable. You see, I assure you that is not my intention. Allow me to apologize profusely for any discomfort I may have inflicted upon you."
Hermione let her head rest on his shoulder as chills ran down her spine.
"I have a more agreeable solution. Allow me to show you," he growled, biting her neck with gentle insistence, then, suddenly, harder. He then kissed her with more passion and fire then she had ever felt before, holding her almost painfully tight, winding his hand in her hair.
When he finally allowed her air, Hermione let out a whimper as he moved his kisses lower down her chest. "Severus... I... oh"
"Yes?" he whispered against her skin. He could feel her trembling.
Hermione sat up and said quickly, "I we oh, it's awfully late."
"Yes, of course," Severus said almost casually, barely concealing a smug grin. Oh how the predator has become the prey.
Severus couldn't avoid a laugh at her flustered condition as she left, avoiding his eyes.
After she had gone, he recited a list of potions ingredients in his head for a few minutes before rising.
Severus had taken up residence by the window, allowing the morning sun to warm him. The heat surrounded him, forcing him to relax. After Hermione had forced him to sit there, he now found he enjoyed it. He would never allow anyone else to know, of course.
Hermione said, "What you said to Harry was nice."
"You two don't miss trading information do you?" Severus said with a slight frown. "Let me assure you 'nice' is not a goal of mine. Potter would do better to have her back in his life. It is simple strategy."
Hermione chuckled, "Sure. You don't have to admit you actually did something nice."
"I am not nice," he said, opening one eye before his attention was drawn to a knock at the door.
As Severus brought his feet down off of the chair, Harry entered the room.
Harry and Severus exchanged the type of brief nod reserved for those who are not well liked.
"I'm going to go do some research on the potion. I'll see you two later?" Hermione said, glancing between the two of them and wondering if the room would be in one piece when she returned.
"Of course," Severus said without taking his eyes off of Harry.
Before leaving, Hermione leaned in and whispered in Severus' ear, "Temper, Severus. Temper."
Seeing him nod reluctantly, she went to leave.
Severus sat back and said, "Potter, as you already know, Voldemort is the most accomplished Legilimens in the world. You have shown some promise in closing your mind, but only out of uncontrolled rage. The key to Occlumency is focus. Voldemort's powers allow him to hear your thoughts so easily, even silent spell casting would be the same as shouting."
Crossing his arms, Severus studied Harry. "But we already know that, yes?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said, remembering their duels.
"Close your eyes."
Watching Harry comply, Severus continued, "This will be your process to prepare. The more you practice this, the better you will be able to handle yourself if faced with an attempt at Legilimency in battle. I want you to visualize your mind as a desk covered with paper, books and other objects. In your mind's eye, imagine yourself clearing that desk object by object. Quietly and methodically place those objects away where they belong. Your emotional state remains constant during this process."
Severus waited a full minute while an expression of deep concentration appeared on Harry's face, partially surprised that he was actually taking this seriously.
"Now, open your eyes," Severus said in a quiet tone. "Ready?"
"Yes, " Harry said, his voice hesitant. While Snape was a maniac to duel with, Harry somehow knew that he was being easy on him when practicing Legilimency. Harry realized now that it would be far worse should Voldemort ever get a hold of him, that Voldemort could quite possibly make him wish to die before killing him.
"Are you certain, Potter?"
Harry nodded, steeling himself. "Yes, I am."
Severus whispered, "Legilimens," and was immediately met with strong resistance.
Pushing further, Severus could still feel that fight, the rage against invasion, but could catch emotions as they rose to the surface. He felt an immense feeling of loss, loneliness and a sense of dread at the unknown future. Severus ventured further and was surprised to see himself at what must have been their last Occlumency lesson. His face was white with rage at finding Potter in the Pensieve.
Viewing that memory.
Severus was distractedly reliving the memory of that day through Harry: The life Severus led in school was one of quiet desperation. Sirius and James tormented him endlessly, creating a world of constant alertness. He passed time rather than living, hoping to avoid confrontation, knowing he'd be outnumbered.
In defense, Severus learned the Dark Arts, building a reputation as someone to be avoided. Fear, he found easily enough, is the greatest defense against the pain of rejection. If he could keep people away out of intimidation, it would keep them from getting close enough to hurt him.
Except Lily. She saw through his act, and one evening came to sit next to him in the library. Severus remembered how his heart threatened to beat out of his chest when he saw her approach. When she asked if she could sit with him, he couldn't speak and only nodded. They talked about all sorts of subjects, but mostly Potions, which he found she loved. Hours would pass as they sat in the far corner of the library, where no Marauder would be likely to happen by. Over time, they grew closer, and hed thought he was falling in love with her.
Until yet another time, his temper got the better of him. The look on her face when he called her a Mudblood...
Severus withdrew and found himself looking at Harry again.
"Sir? Are you all right?" Harry asked, sounding concerned. What Harry saw on Snape's face this time was not rage, but deep regret.
Severus muttered, "Yes. Fine."
"Sir, I'm sorry, I was just thinking about the last lesson," Harry started.
Raising an eyebrow, Severus asked, "You pushed that memory forward?"
"Yes, well not entirely on purpose, I guess," Harry said with a shrug, unable to explain what he had done.
"Good, Potter. If you cannot avoid a Legilimens, then your next strategy is to offer what you want them to see," Severus said, trying not to sound impressed.
"Thank you, sir."
"Practice emptying your mind, and we shall try this again tomorrow. You will use your wand to force me out."
Nodding, Harry stood to leave.
Once Harry had closed the door behind him, Severus stared out of the window, feeling that loss all over again.
He would never allow that to happen again.