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The Haunting Duality of Love and Desire

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When Harry Potter let out a yell, it was only luck that prevented Ron and Hermione from Apparating into the same spot in the gloomy parlour and Splinching themselves together. Harry stood in the window with his wand raised in a defensive posture. Ron immediately comprehended that the situation was not one of mortal peril, retrieved his dropped sandwich from the carpet and wrinkled his nose at it. Hermione stared at the cause of Harry's alarm.

Severus Snape leaned against the mantelpiece, his arms folded and lip curled into a disdainful sneer.

'How typical.' His voice held all its old derision, its resonance emphasising its silken cadence.

'Damn it, Snape,' Harry said, disentangling himself from the curtains and plucking an irate doxy from his head, 'what're you doing here?'

'What does it look like?' Snape asked. 'I'm waiting for a train? Do I truly observe before me the greatest hope of the Wizarding World?'

'Hate to tell you this, but you're dead, Snape.' Ron gave up flicking the grit from his cheese-and-pickle sandwich and banished it. There was no sign of injury on Snape's throat and the translucence of his person rather betrayed his incorporeality.

'Why are you here, sir?' Hermione asked. 'Why are you haunting Grimmauld Place instead of the Shack, or Hogwarts?'

Snape's sneer morphed into a scowl.

'That, Miss Granger, I have yet to determine. Possibly I hoped to encounter someone who could tell me what happened, more specifically,' and here he swept towards Harry, looming over him in a billow of silvery robes, and snarled, 'what he did to fuck up the plan that I gave my life to implement?'

Being who he was, Harry straightened up and glared right back.

'I didn't fuck it up, you arse! Voldemort's banished and we got rid of all the Horcruxes including the one in my scar, and he destroyed that himself with Avada Kedavra!'

Snape subsided slowly, as if unwilling to take Harry's words at face value.

'He's dead?' he asked warily.

'Dead as a doornail, sir,' Hermione assured him, 'so's Nagini; Neville cut off her head.'

Snape gave a soft snort. His eyes, still dark even in his faintly luminous face, fixed upon hers. 'And who else? Bellatrix? The Malfoys?'

Hermione sank onto the sofa and watched as he settled opposite her into an armchair, his robes swirling around him as if disturbed by a draught that she could not feel.

'I'm going to make tea,' Ron muttered and strode off towards the kitchen.

'Fred died,' Harry said with a hint of challenge, daring Snape to make light of their loss. Snape inclined his head.

'My condolences,' he said with surprisingly little condescension. 'Who else?'

'Remus and Tonks,' Hermione told him. Snape's lip twitched, and she knew that he was repressing a sneer.

'Thoughtless as ever,' he muttered. Hermione glanced up at Harry but he remained silent, and she recalled him saying something along those lines to Remus – it seemed like a lifetime ago.

'Molly Weasley killed Bellatrix,' Hermione continued and Snape gave a nod of satisfaction. 'Colin Creevey died…' She listed the names that she remembered, aware that the piercing intensity of his gaze had not declined even in death.

'So Minerva and Filius and all the other professors, did they survive?' he asked. She nodded. 'And the Malfoys?'

'Still with us,' Harry said dryly, 'and no doubt working hard to reinstate themselves at the top of the pile.'

'Be fair, Harry, Narcissa did lie to Voldemort on your behalf.'

'Only because I could tell her if Draco was still alive,' Harry retorted. 'Draco and Narcissa both said nothing at times when either could have betrayed me. Kingsley isn't going to do anything to them, but Lucius won't get off so easily.'

'Beware of punishing Slytherins for being who they are,' Snape said softly, 'as that's how everyone got into this mess in the first place.'

'I know,' Harry said, 'but don't expect Malfoy to get away with attempted murder just because of who HE is. He won't buy his way out of this one so easily.'

'We trust Kingsley to do the right thing, sir,' Hermione stated.

'Why Shacklebolt, Miss Granger?'

'He's the new Minister.'

'Ah.' Snape leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. 'Better than I had expected.'

'Who did you expect, sir?'

'Arthur Weasley,' Snape said, trademark sneer in place. 'An honest wizard, but not a strong politician.' He was watching Harry out of the corner of his eye, but Harry probably didn't see any point in fighting a dead man.

'I'm getting lunch,' Harry said abruptly. 'D'you want a bacon sandwich, Hermione?'

'Yes, please.'

Harry went out, leaving her to face Snape alone.

'How long since I died, Miss Granger?'

'Three months, sir.'

Although she did not see him flinch, the wavering of his robes betrayed his reaction.

'I see. So the funerals have all taken place?'

'Yes.'

'My own?'

'We held a memorial service but not a funeral as such, no.'

Again, she was able to read his reaction in the agitation of insubstantial cloth.

'Is my corpse hanging upon a gibbet as a warning to traitors?'

'Hardly! When we went back to the Shack, we found the pool of blood but your body had gone. We asked the Malfoys but they denied all knowledge. Whether you were carried off by a hungry acromantula or thestral, banished by an enemy or buried by a friend, who knows? We were far more concerned about the injured and the grieving at the time; the dead were in no hurry.'

His robes settled slowly around his thin frame.

'What are you doing here, Miss Granger, in this dilapidated mausoleum?' He looked around the parlour.

'We're living here.'

'You, and Potter and Weasley? Are the Golden Trio still unwilling to go their separate ways – or are the two stooges unable to function without guidance from you?'

Hermione stood up, brushing the cobwebs from her jeans.

'Professor Snape, I'm sorry you're dead and I'm very grateful for your past help, but I don't want to spend my time listening to you insult me and my friends. Good day.'

She left the room feeling a curious combination of satisfaction and regret.

---:---

He did not follow her; Hermione wondered if he was unable to leave the parlour or whether he was sulking. Upon reflection, she found his presence distressing. Snape ought to have gone to wherever the valiant dead go; a place of peace and reconciliation. Why had he chosen this feeble imitation of life?

'I asked Nearly Headless Nick if Sirius would come back as a ghost,' Harry remarked, when she commented about Snape choosing to remain on earth. 'He told me that the wizards who remained behind were afraid of death.'

'I had that conversation with George,' Ron muttered. 'He'd give anything to bring Fred back.'

'I did too,' Harry agreed. 'I'd have tied Sirius to the earth for eternity, just to talk to him. Does George realise that if Fred had stayed with him, they'd most likely be parted forever when George died, leaving Fred behind?'

'I'll remind him of that,' Ron said, 'though I'll wait until he's a bit more stable.'

Harry plonked the teapot down on the table and poured milk into three mugs.

'Snape might have been a lot of horrible things,' he remarked, 'but coward wasn't one of them. I don't understand it.'

'Perhaps he'd left things unfinished,' Hermione said, adding ketchup to her bacon sandwich.

'A potion on the go?' Ron suggested wryly. 'Although he desperately wanted to know how the battle all worked out. At least he knows you did it, mate. P'raps he'll move on now.'

But Snape did not move on. When Hermione entered the library, intending to work upon her Transfiguration project for Professor McGonagall, he was trailing thin fingers along the spines of the books; as if attempting to gain, by osmosis, the information that he could no longer acquire by opening them.

'Miss Granger,' he greeted her, 'what happened immediately after I died?'

She sat at the desk, acknowledging that for his sake, she would relive that terrible, heart-wrenching day. He listened intently, asking occasional questions about his Slytherins and the Hogwarts teachers; the people whom he had cared about until the end.

'Will you return to Hogwarts?' he enquired, when her tale eventually wound down.

'No,' she said. 'The castle's being repaired and Headmistress McGonagall hopes to reopen in the spring, but we're doing an accelerated programme, aiming to sit our NEWTs in December. Harry and Ron have been offered places on the Auror training programme if they get acceptable grades, and I'm going for the Department of Mysteries.'

'And are you still doing their homework for them?'

'Not any more. Our priorities have changed a bit, sir.'

He nodded. 'But you're all living here together, aren’t you?'

'This is Harry's house,' she pointed out, 'and Molly kept trying to over-compensate by constantly mothering Ron at the Burrow, so he needed to get away for a while.'

'And you?'

'My parents' house has been sold,' she said. The darkness of his eyes held an eerie glitter of life as he gazed at her. She looked away, recalling that he had been one of the most powerful Legilimens in the country.

'If it is any consolation,' he told her softly, 'your parents' names were high on the Dark Lord's list of Muggles to be eliminated. He sent assassins after them, but they had already left and the trail was cold. No Death Eater was able to penetrate the mysteries of Heathrow Airport and I was fortunately required elsewhere.'

'I completely removed their memories of me, and sent them to Australia,' she whispered. 'I've tried to put their memories back, but they can't be replaced, it's been too long. They don't know who I am. They're happy enough where they are, but I've lost them.'

'They're alive, Miss Granger, thanks to you.'

She nodded, grateful for that tiny spark of warmth amid the cold weight of her loss.

'What about you, sir?' If he could comment upon her personal life, then she could do the same for him, surely? It was not as if he could take house points for impertinence. 'Why did you choose to remain earthbound?'

He scowled, but seemed to be brooding rather than annoyed.

'I feigned death in front of you three,' he told her. Hermione jolted upright in her seat.

'What? But you were bleeding to death!'

'I needed Potter to blindly accept what I could give him, and that was best done by ensuring that he believed me to be dead. There was a chance that if you left swiftly, I might save myself.'

'What did you do?'

'I tried to Apparate to a place of safety, but I was losing consciousness. I stepped into darkness and I awoke here as you see me.'

'So what happened to your body?'

'Your guess is as good as mine.'

'How odd.'

He shrugged. 'An academic question, now, I fear.'

Hermione looked at him, inspecting him more intently than she had ever done in life. She realised that she was seeing him from the point of view of an adult, the man beneath the teacher's persona. He had never been handsome, but his controlled power and grace hinted at repressed sensuality; she wondered if he had ever taken a lover, or if he had been too fixated upon the loss of Lily. She hurriedly averted her gaze. Could he still read her thoughts?

'Can you do magic?' she asked, 'have you tried?'

'I'm merely a ghost, Miss Granger –'

'Yes, but Peeves can throw furniture around the room!'

'I'm not a poltergeist!' he exclaimed indignantly; however, he reached into his sleeve and drew out the glimmering phantom of his wand. He flicked the tip at Hermione's Transfiguration references. The nonchalance of his gesture suggested that he had little hope of manipulating the weighty books; but they rose smoothly into the air. In his astonishment, he lost control of the charm and the books fell with a crash, upsetting the ink pot. Hermione hastily drew her wand and put the desk to rights.

'I apologise,' he murmured, a silvery hue darkening over his cheeks.

'That's excellent,' she exclaimed, amused at seeing the generally reserved and imposing wizard actually embarrassed. 'It means you can read books, doesn't it? And a lot more besides!'

'This is perplexing, Miss Granger.' He narrowed his eyes. 'You didn't by any chance levitate those books, did you?'

'No, I did not! Why would I play a trick like that on you?'

He folded his arms. 'Of course you'd never play pranks on anyone; for example, by setting their robes on fire, or stealing from their stores?'

'Those were hardly in the nature of cruel practical jokes!'

'But you admit that you DID set my robes on fire, AND you stole the ingredients for Polyjuice potion!'

Hermione refrained from rolling her eyes with an effort. 'I did, and I cursed Marietta Edgecombe with boils, I sent Umbridge to the centaurs knowing that they'd attack her, I impersonated Bellatrix, I broke into Gringotts and stole a dragon, and I'd do it all over again if I had to!' She grinned at him. 'And you could deduct a thousand points and d'you know what, Professor Snape? I'm Hermione fucking Granger, Order of Merlin, First Class, and I don't give a damn!'

His robes lashed around his ankles as if he was standing in a personal tornado and his face darkened, then with an abrupt pop, he vanished.

She waited in the hope that he would return, but he did not, and she spent the evening alternately working on her thesis and wondering if she had driven him away.

---:---

She was back in the Shack, listening as Voldemort explained to Snape why he must die, and Nagini rolled through the air in her starry cage, and she, Harry and Ron could do nothing, nothing at all to prevent the scene unfolding in all its bloody horror.

'Miss Granger,' a familiar baritone demanded, 'wake up! It is over, Miss Granger, you are safe, and you're having a nightmare.'

'It's never over,' she muttered, 'and you're dead.'

'Nothing can hurt me now,' he told her, and she sat up, groping for her wand and lighting the tip.

'What are you doing in my bedroom?' she demanded. Her hair felt as if Crookshanks had made a nest in it and she was wearing a frayed nightdress; one that she could not bear to part with because her mother had given it to her.

'I was in the library immediately beneath your room,' he said. 'I heard you cry out.'

'Oh.' She rubbed her face. 'Sorry. I'll put up a silencing charm.'

'I'm not complaining,' he said mildly, 'I was concerned.'

'We all have nightmares, Professor.' She realised that Crookshanks was sitting on the bottom of her bed, observing Snape but unperturbed by his spectral presence.

'I'm no longer a professor,' he said. 'I refuse to become an anachronism like Binns, haunting the dungeons to be laughed at by generations of dim-witted adolescents.'

'I very much doubt if anyone would laugh at you, sir. Actually, since you never resigned, you could go back and resume your position as Headmaster!'

'Apart from having no idea if I can even leave this house, why would I want to spend eternity balancing frugal budgets, fielding edicts from the Ministry, being polite to parents and answering complaints from the Board of Governors?'

'Revenge?' she suggested sweetly.

She startled a brief, breathy gust of laughter from him. She had never heard him laugh before. She wished that she could have heard his laughter when he was still alive.

'Was there anything you'd have liked to do at Hogwarts, if you had been Headmaster in reality, without a Dark Lord breathing down your neck?' she asked.

'Of course. I left copious notes for my successor, it is up to Minerva whether she wishes to implement my suggestions. As they derive from the mind of a Slytherin, probably not.'

'She feels guilty about you; she might instigate some as a mark of respect.'

'And you?' In the subtle light from her wand, she could pretend that he was solid and alive as he stood beside her bed. 'Do you feel guilty?'

'We did what you intended us to do. I should have tried to save you, but short of applying phoenix tears, I doubt that I could have healed those wounds. I believed what you meant me to, I just wish that the circumstances were different. I'd have liked to get to know you, adult to adult, rather than as student and teacher. You were wickedly clever, sir.'

He leaned closer and sparks reflected from his black eyes.

'I still am, Miss Granger,' he whispered, and with the dramatic flair for which he had been famed, he vanished in a flurry of ectoplasm.

---:---

'Hermione!' Harry's voice echoed in the hallway and staircase of Number 12, Grimmauld Place.

'In here, Harry!'

He came to the doorway of the library, Ron at his shoulder. Snape did not look up from the text that he and Hermione were attempting to translate.

'We're going down the Leaky,' Harry said, 'are you coming?'

Hermione rolled her shoulders to ease her aching muscles.

'No, I'm finally getting somewhere with this. It's exactly what I need on the misinterpretation of the history of Charms at the time of the Founders for my essay for Professor Flitwick.'

Ron cast a scornful look at Snape.

'Yeah, right. Isn't it cheating to get another teacher to do your homework?'

'This is as new to me as it is to Miss Granger,' Snape remarked, running a fingertip along the manuscript. 'I am helping only as much as would a librarian when asked to supply a text to assist in research. I would do as much for you, were you to bother asking.'

'We think “Miss Granger” ought to come out for a drink with us,' Ron said with increasing frustration, 'in fact, we think she's spending far too much time with a ghost from the past instead of with her friends!'

'Thank you, Ron,' she retorted sharply, 'but I'll decide how I spend my time!'

Harry sighed. 'Ginny's meeting us, she's hoping to bring George, and Luna and Neville promised to be there.' He grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. 'Okay then, have fun. You do know Lavender's coming, don't you?'

Ron muttered something and looked straight into Hermione's eyes. She could see the vulnerability beneath his belligerence, and her heart seemed to slow down for a moment, and then speed up again. Their long friendship had metamorphosed in the moment of euphoria after the battle. They had officially become boyfriend and girlfriend, although they had not progressed beyond kissing and a bit of groping. This was when the fledgling affaire ended, as she saw understanding dawn in his expression, and with it the same combination of relief and regret that she felt herself.

'Tell her I'm glad she's feeling better,' Hermione said brightly, 'and give my love to everyone.'

For once, Harry displayed a modicum of tact by not asking questions despite appearing perplexed. He and Ron turned away and she heard the twin cracks of Apparition as they left for the pub.

Hermione dug her fingers into the bushy mass of her hair, forgetting for a moment that she was not alone. 'God,' she said aloud, wondering if it would soon become too uncomfortable to share a house with Ron, even as large a house as Number 12.

'You would be unsuited, in the long run,' Snape murmured without looking up. 'He will never understand your love of knowledge, your need to be challenged or your passion for justice. You, however, understand him all too well, and he will come to hate being made to feel stupid.'

'You think he's stupid anyway,' she snapped. Snape gave a little huff, surprisingly tolerant for him.

'He has a reasonable intellectual capacity but failed to apply it to anything useful. He suffered from being the youngest of the Weasley sons, never quite able to live up to William's and Charles' all-round talents, Percival's pedantic thoroughness or the twins' innovative genius.'

'Genius?' she queried, momentarily diverted.

'Their genius lay in utilising their talents in the real world. They may have been the bane of their professors' lives, but they were inventive, hardworking and courageous.'

'It sounds,' she said slowly, 'as if you really regret Fred's death.'

'I regret all the deaths.'

'All?'

His lips twitched, not in a sneer, but a slight smile.

'Almost all.' He nodded at the manuscript. 'How well do you remember later futhorc runes? Shall we continue?'

'Yes,' she said, 'please.'

---:---

She had intended to tell Minerva McGonagall that Snape had returned to haunt her, but in the end, she didn't. The Headmistress had enough worries of her own, trying to rebuild the school, assist Hermione and her contemporaries to gain their NEWTs, and put together a new syllabus for the next school year, not to mention find new teachers for Muggle Studies, Transfiguration and Defence. Horace Slughorn was not helping by threatening to retire yet again, leaving her short of a Head of House as well as a Potions professor.

As she left the classroom where Professor McGonagall had held her weekly seventh-years' Transfiguration tutorial, she glimpsed a familiar figure floating along the corridor.

'Sir Nicholas!'

He obligingly paused and waited for her to catch up with him.

'Good morning, Miss Granger. May I help you?'

'Can ghosts do magic?'

He seemed bemused by her question.

'We ARE magic, we don't really DO magic.'

'Can you cast charms?'

'I fear not,' he admitted, looking uncomfortable, 'otherwise we too would have sprung to the defence of our school.'

'Oh,' she said, 'yes, of course. Thank you, Sir Nicholas.'

'You're welcome, Miss Granger.' He gave a vague smile and drifted away.

---:---

Ron preferred to pretend that Snape no longer existed in any form, while Harry reluctantly agreed to keep his presence a secret.

'Just for now, I promise,' Hermione told him. 'I want to look into this. He's a very peculiar kind of ghost indeed. Ghosts shouldn't be able to cast charms the way he can.'

'Can he?'

'Of course he can! Come and see.'

She grabbed Harry by the hand and pulled him into the parlour, where Snape sat in an armchair. Hanging in the air before him, at a comfortable reading height, was a large grimoire, its pages turning at the lazy flick of Snape's phantom wand. A reading lamp floated above his head, and a quill scratched its way across a parchment on the nearby table as Snape murmured to it; the spidery writing familiar to any student of potions over the last decade.

'I see what you mean,' Harry said. Seeing them both watching, Snape made a minimal gesture with his wand and the book settled upon the table, the quill slotted itself into the inkwell and the lamp floated to its accustomed place upon the mantelpiece.

'Yes?' he snapped, as testy as the living Professor Snape in his office at Hogwarts.

'You can do charms,' Harry said. Snape simply stared at him. Harry shrugged. 'Ghosts can't do charms like that.'

'Really, Potter? Are you suddenly an expert in the after-life?'

'Well I have been there,' Harry pointed out, which probably did not endear him to the ghost. 'What else can you do, Snape? Do you have the entire range and power of magic that you used to have, because if you do, you're pretty damn unique, I'd say?'

'You want to know what I can do, Potter?' Snape swirled to his feet. 'You once faced a demonstration of my abilities upon the lawns of Hogwarts, do you desire another humiliation?'

'Yup,' Harry said and threw up a Shield Charm as Snape used both hands to cast a flock of sparkling hexes. They converged on Harry, battering at the shield that had protected Molly Weasley from the full force of Voldemort's rage. Harry advanced across the room and Snape surged to meet him, magic pulsing against magic, as each pushed and probed to find a weakness.

'For heaven's sake!' Hermione exclaimed, 'Harry! He's dead, what's the point?'

'The point,' Harry panted, his wand blurring as he cast, 'is to show this stubborn bastard that he isn't a normal ghost! Look, Snape, my hexes go straight through you, I can't win so you're not proving anything here!'

They both paused, and Harry warily stepped back. Snape lowered his wand.

'That's one of the strongest defences I've ever met,' Harry said, 'bearing in mind that I fought Voldemort. All your magic's still there, Snape. What the hell are you?'

'Disconcerted and baffled, Potter,' Snape muttered, somewhat grumpily.

'Can you Apparate?' Hermione asked. 'We've seen you disappear then reappear in another room, so can you move outside this house?'

Snape raised his wand, scowling in concentration, then he swirled on the spot and his shining form dissolved into nothing. They waited for a few minutes, while Harry casually replaced the books and furniture that had been upturned during the duel.

'Let's have a cuppa,' he suggested eventually. 'He'll come back if he wants to. It isn't as if we're keeping him a prisoner here, is it?'

Hermione nodded, swallowing past a sudden tightness in her throat. Of course Snape was not her prisoner, but she would have given a lot to have never put the idea of Apparating into his ethereal head.

---:---

'Got it!' Harry bellowed, striding into the kitchen and waving a roll of parchment in the air. Ron looked up from his potions essay, quill in one hand and mug of tea in the other, and blinked blearily.

'Got what, mate?'

'Snape's acquittal and Order of Merlin!'

'Oh, that. What's dragonwort added to a sobriety potion for?'

'Stabilises the base before the addition of the coffee-bean infusion,' Harry said distractedly. 'Hermione, did you hear me?'

Hermione nodded, forcing a smile.

'That's great news, Harry.'

'The best bit, is that it applies whether he's alive, dead, ghost, zombie, whatever! I got Kingsley to add that after I pointed out that Snape's body hasn't turned up, so in theory, he could still be alive. Has he been back at all?'

'No,' Ron said, 'not a bad thing; he gives me the heebie-jeebies.'

'You were never bothered by the Hogwarts ghosts,' Hermione said.

'He's different. He's a lot more HERE, isn't he? Or not here, of course.' He took a gulp of tea and added, 'Hermione might miss the cunning old git but he's too bloody sarcastic for me.'

'Thank you, Mr Weasley, for those kind words.' Snape took obvious pleasure in floating down from the darkest corner of the kitchen ceiling, brightening and increasing in density until he came to rest upon an empty chair. Ron rolled his eyes and mouthed 'See what I mean?'

'Snape, you've been granted a posthumous pardon for Dumbledore's death and an Order of Merlin, First Class!' Harry held up the rolled parchment in one hand, dug in his pocket with the other and came up with a small jewellery box. He flipped it open. Snape gazed upon the gleaming award with a faint, almost wistful smile upon his lips.

'Somewhat late, I suppose, but I shall attempt to find satisfaction in my vindication.'

'I'll keep them for you, if you like,' Harry offered, and Snape shrugged.

'You could give us a hand with our potions homework,' Ron said, 'since Hermione refuses.'

Snape sneered and did not deign to reply, turning instead to Hermione.

'Miss Granger, did you succeed in translating the futhorc runes?'

'Yes!' she said eagerly, 'Professor Babbling loaned me Burgess's treatise and it all fell into place when I performed her third Arithmantic inversion! I'll show you.'

She preceded him to the library, aware that Harry and Ron were exchanging looks of amusement and exasperation behind her but not caring in the slightest.

---:---

She stood rigid with fear, in the library of Number 12, Grimmauld Place, formerly her place of refuge. Voldemort's cold, high voice reverberated exactly as it had in the Shack.

'I'm back, my loyal followers, I have returned with my full powers and nothing can stop me now, for I'm truly the Master of Death!' He twirled on the spot, a tattered translucent form, both hideous and lithe, oozing power and spite. 'I shall rule forever, for I am dead and alive, real and intangible, merciful and implacable! There is no Horcrux to find, no body to banish, I am spirit and vengeance and death!'

'No….' she whimpered, struggling to escape her bonds. 'No! Harry, help me! Ron, someone, Professor…'

'Miss Granger, wake up.' She heard his voice but it barely pierced through the horror of Voldemort's reappearance. 'Miss Granger! HERMIONE!'

She started awake and sat up, panting, sweaty and shaking.

'Oh god, I thought he'd come back as a ghost!' she exclaimed. 'Voldemort came back with his full power, just like you did!'

Snape perched upon the edge of her bed, his robes undulating gently around his form, his hands clasped upon one knee.

'I think that if he had, you'd know about it by now. Besides, there are ways in which ghosts may be banished.'

She wiped away the tendrils of hair that stuck to her face.

'Do you mean that they can be sent on to where they ought to go?'

'They are simply discorporated so that they can no longer be heard or seen, left in limbo unable to influence the living realm.'

She shivered. 'How awful. Is it dreadful, being like this?'

'I don't suffer,' he stated. 'I can feel emotions – curiosity, anger, relief, satisfaction, pleasure. I'm aware of heat and cold but they don't cause me pain. I feel no hunger or thirst, except…' His dark eyes seemed to fix on something that she could not see. 'I feel a need, a desire for connection, I think. A hankering to not be alone.'

'You were alone for a long time,' she whispered.

'Yes,' he acknowledged, 'I was. And although I have always considered myself to be a solitary man, the loneliness of that last year…'

Without thinking, she reached out for his hand. Walking through the ghosts at Hogwarts had been like a dash of cold water to the face, but touching him gave her a fleeting impression of warmth, of flesh and blood that were just out reach. It was as if she held her hand adjacent to his, so that she connected with the tiny hairs on his skin, and the narrow aura of warmth generated by his body. If she could push forward just a fraction more, she would feel the warm living elasticity of his flesh. She leaned closer, and breathed in the oh-so-familiar scent that wafted from his robes when he bent to peer into her cauldron; the tang of potions, herbs and metallic chemicals, overlaying the citrus and spice from his aftershave. With it came a longing for those bygone years when her concerns centred on exams and holidays and friendships and rivalries.

'Why did you die?' she demanded, fretful from lack of sleep, 'why did you have to go and die?'

'Do I detect a hint of respect in your tone?'

'You know I always respected you,' she reproached him, 'and I'm getting to like you. I like you very much.' She stared at him, a shivery awareness chilling her skin.

'Perhaps because I am safe, child,' he murmured. 'You needn't involve yourself in the messy reality of emotions or sex if you fall for a dead man.'

'I think my emotions are already pretty messy, sir, and I'm no longer a child.'

'My name is Severus; you may use it.'

He raised his hand. Hermione closed her eyes, and felt the spider-web drift of his fingers, their faint warmth skimming her cheek and outlining her lips. 'You're a brilliant and lovely young woman,' he whispered, 'you should go out into the world and find love and happiness.'

'You'd never have said that when you were alive,' she said in a shaky voice.

'No, I doubt that I would, but what do I have to lose now? Perhaps, if I had lived and you had gained enough years that I would not feel like a pervert… but by then, you would be another Mrs Weasley, adding a sprog or two to the clan, happily dividing your time between domesticity and changing the world.'

'Perhaps,' she admitted, 'but maybe I'd indulge my wicked streak, and flirt with the respected Headmaster of Hogwarts, visiting him in his tower late at night to discuss potions and runes and foolish wand-waving.'

He snorted. 'At one time, you did display a weakness for ugly wizards with hooked noses.'

'You mean Viktor? He was just a substitute for the hooked-nosed wizard whom I truly admired.' She shrugged at his sceptical expression. 'Why would I lie to you? Don't you think I'd rather be attracted to a living wizard with whom I could have a future, than to you as you are?'

'I should go away,' he said, 'and allow you to get over this futile crush.'

She tried to grasp him, her hand flailing through his arm and making his form waver.

'Not yet,' she pleaded. 'Let me get over losing my parents and being in a war before you abandon me, Severus, please!'

'Don't beg me, for god's sake,' he muttered, pulling his robes closely around his body, their edges fluttering in response to his agitation.

'Then don't go away yet,' she said, 'allow me your friendship just for a while.'

'You need more than the friendship of a paltry phantom.'

'I'll take what I can get.'

He sighed and touched her face again. 'Sleep, Hermione, you're safe and I assure you, the Dark Lord cannot return. Sleep.'

---:---

Hermione put down her quill and frowned.

'I did ask the Malfoys and they had no idea what happened to your body.'

'What exactly did you ask, and what did they reply?' Snape glided across the room, perhaps in a ghostly equivalent to pacing the floor.

'I can't remember; is it significant?'

'Yes, it is. Something about the Malfoys continues to pull at me.'

'Lucius will be in Azkaban for the next five years.'

'There's a web of obligations between me and the Malfoy family. Draco and Narcissa are in my debt. They would keep my secrets for me even now.'

'I can borrow the Pensieve from Professor McGonagall tomorrow, if you'd like, then I can tell you their precise words.'

'Thank you, I'd be grateful if you would.'

---:---

Hermione lowered the heavy stone bowl onto the desk. She removed the charm that had kept its metallic potion from sloshing around on her journey from Hogwarts by floo.

'Did Minerva ask why you'd borrowed it?' Snape enquired and she shook her head.

'Harry, Ron and I seem to have a pass on anything we want at the moment, within reason. We try not to abuse the privilege.' She glanced at him but he did not rise to the bait, merely raised an eyebrow. She put her wand to her temple and concentrated upon her rather hazy recollection of talking to the Malfoys, then dropped the delicate strand of memory into the Pensieve. 'Are you able to come in with me?'

'I've no idea until I try.'

He placed his insubstantial fingers upon her arm and they both leaned into the Pensieve.

Hermione landed in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, where the majority of the sixth and seventh year students had gathered, together with the Hogwarts staff and a scattering of parents. Headmistress McGonagall's magically amplified voice rose above the hubbub.

'Divination next, please, will all students wishing to take their NEWT in Divination now form a queue adjacent to the left-hand table, where Professor Trelawney will take your names and issue you with the tutorial timetable and course notes.'

Hermione looked around for her memory-self, remembering that she had wandered rather aimlessly while waiting to put her name down for Potions and Transfiguration. Next to her, in all the monochrome splendour of black robes and hair, pale skin and white collar and cuffs, stood an apparently tangible Severus Snape. Hermione gave a shriek and clapped her hand over her mouth. He seemed puzzled by her reaction, until she grabbed his hands. They were warm; the skin, tendons and bones felt solid in her grasp.

'Oh my god! Severus, you're real!'

Around them milled the oblivious crowd of students and staff. Professor Sprout hurried past with Neville at her heels, saying something about the repairs for the greenhouses being delayed by funding issues.

'I have always felt real,' he said.

'Look at you,' she plucked lightly at his sleeve, 'like you always were, to the very buttons on your robes!'

He looked down.

'My teaching robes,' he said, wryly. 'As ever the downtrodden professor.'

Hermione laughed. 'Hardly, Severus.' She stared into his face, seeing the tiny crinkles in the skin at the corners of his eyes, and his black lashes, and the delicate shadow of stubble on his jaw. The insane juxtaposition of this intensely private moment with the oblivious crowd made her feel giddy. She reached up, standing on tiptoe to kiss him. She felt his mouth move just a little, and saw his eyes widen in surprise. Yes, here in the Pensieve, he was real, his lips were warm and supple. Then he pulled her against his body, grasping her upper arms, and his mouth descended, demanding and deepening their kiss, his tongue twining with hers. She made an embarrassing whimpering noise in her throat. Harry had once described kissing Cho Chang as 'wet', and so was this, but it was also arousing and wicked and daring, and she didn't want it to stop. She wrapped her arms around him and pressed closer.

He wanted her! He wanted the plain, insufferable know-it-all; the hard evidence of his desire pushed against her hip. Something she had intended as a sweet, affectionate kiss was turning into highly erotic foreplay. She had never desired more than light snogging with Ron but she would eagerly do whatever Severus Snape wanted her to, right here, in the Great Hall of Hogwarts.

A brisk wind picked her up, spun her around and deposited her, out of breath, in the library of Number 12, Grimmauld Place. The memory had ended. Snape flew in a whirlwind of robes across the room, halting with his back against the fireplace. He stared at her, eyes wide and dark, and then he gathered himself and folded his arms.

'We should view the memory again without becoming distracted,' he said coldly.

'Yeah,' she croaked, and cleared her throat. 'Yes, we should.'

More than anything in the world, she wanted to retreat into the Pensieve with him and stay there. Not only was that a very dangerous idea indeed, but she knew that he would refuse to kiss her again; she could read it in the hollowness of his eyes and his implacable expression. She nodded, and walked back to the Pensieve on heavy feet.

---:---

This time, she found her memory-self chatting with Harry and Ginny, and followed her as she left them and went to the refreshment table. At all times, Snape kept a careful two feet of space between them. Draco was pouring pumpkin juice for Narcissa, he glanced at memory-Hermione with narrowed eyes but nodded politely enough.

'Excuse me,' memory-Hermione said, 'do you know who took Professor Snape's body?'

Draco sneered at her, and she remembered his antagonism as he demanded, 'Why does he suddenly matter to you?'

This time, she was free to watch Mrs Malfoy, who lowered her gaze and toyed with her goblet of pumpkin juice.

'Someone took his body from the Shack where he died,' memory-Hermione said with what she had thought was commendable patience, 'we want to ensure that he's given a respectful burial.'

'No, Miss Granger,' Mrs Malfoy said quietly, 'we have no idea who took Severus.'

'Oh, okay, thanks,' memory-Hermione said, and reached to pour her own drink and pick up a sandwich. The Malfoys exchanged a glance and walked away. There followed a brief and inconsequential chat with Luna then Hermione and Snape were ejected from the Pensieve.

'Yes,' Snape breathed, his face fiercely intent, 'do you see?'

Hermione was still struggling to regain her equilibrium after the emotional roller-coaster ride of arousal, revelation and rejection. She collapsed into the nearest chair and shut her eyes.

'Just give me a minute, Severus, please.'

She replayed the scene with the Malfoys over in her head, resolutely ignoring the urge to remember the touch of Snape's hands and the astonishing magic in his kiss. When she opened her eyes again, he was seated opposite her, and a mug of freshly brewed tea hung in the air in front of her, kept aloft by the power of a charm. She grasped the mug and gulped at the hot, soothing liquid.

'Thank you, I needed that.' She sighed. 'Yes, I see. All I asked was, if they knew who had taken your body. I didn't ask if they knew where it actually was.'

'Exactly. I believe that no-one took me anywhere; I took myself, in which case, they told you the truth. The last thing that I recall was attempting to Apparate. I had to decide whether to come here, and rely upon the mercy of the Order and that decrepit elf, or to go to the friends who owed me.'

'The Malfoys' home, Malfoy Manor, where you believe your body ended up. Shit!' She exclaimed, causing his eyebrow to rise in admonition. 'Severus, you Splinched!'

'I Splinched.' His robes lashed around him. 'My body and soul parted company and went two separate ways.'

'Your magic remained attached to your soul, that's why you're not a normal ghost.'

'If the elves put a stasis charm on my body –'

'Then it might still be alive.'

'The Malfoys would have done all they could to keep it going. There are charms for nutrition, assisted respiration, elimination…'

'Shall we go there now?'

'What time is it?'

She glanced at her wristwatch. 'Just gone seven o'clock.'

'Dinner is at eight. They will be home.'

'Did you ever manage to Apparate?'

'Oh yes, Hermione, I Apparated.' His smirk was positively feral. 'I even visited the Manor, although I didn't reveal my presence and I had no reason to search the place; I merely ascertained that Draco and Narcissa were well. I'll meet you at the gates.'

'Whoa, if I've got to face Narcissa Malfoy, at least let me change into respectable robes first!'

'Ten minutes, Miss Granger, do not make me wait!'

She Apparated to her bedroom.

---:---

In Wiltshire, early autumn was rather beautiful. The setting sun painted everything in shades of gold, from the trees to the sky to the stones of the aristocratic old house. Hermione shivered and pulled her light travelling cloak more closely around her body. Beside her, Snape was a wavering outline in the waning sunlight.

'What's wrong?' he asked. Out of doors, his voice had an unexpectedly thin quality that unnerved her.

'I was tortured in there by Bellatrix Lestrange.'

'Should I go alone?'

'No! No, I was just letting you know so you'll understand if I kind of lose it a bit.' She lifted her head and grasped her wand more firmly in her hand. 'Let's do this!'

'Miss Granger, you never fail to surprise me.'

She snorted. 'Can I have that in writing?'

'With your foolhardy Gryffindor impetuosity, of course.'

'Thank you, Professor; let's just get this over with.'

A house elf directed her into a drawing room, which she did not recognise at all, and made her wait for five interminable minutes until Draco sauntered in.

'Granger,' he said, 'what an unexpected pleasure. Any particular purpose to your visit or is it just a courtesy call?'

'I'm looking for Professor Snape.'

'Professor Snape,' he echoed, with an air of perplexity, 'do you mean the Professor Snape whom Potter assures us expired dramatically in the Shrieking Shack?'

'That's the one, yes, Severus Snape.'

'Really? Why here?'

'Because you have him,' Hermione said in a reasonable tone, 'still alive, I trust.'

'No, Granger,' Draco's grey eyes were as cold as the arctic. 'He's completely brain-dead, no magic and no mind, only his involuntary systems are still working.'

Her heart seemed to plunge inside her. She swallowed and forced her tongue and lips into speech. 'But do you still have him, and is he still breathing?'

'My mother wants to try one more time with a new healer before we allow him to go to his final rest,' Draco said, examining his fingernails, 'I think it’s a waste of time – oof!'

He staggered backwards as Hermione flung her arms around him and hugged him. She let go as he struggled, and grinned at him so widely that he backed away, grasping his wand.

'Are you mad?' he demanded. 'Possessed? Imperiused?'

'Just so relieved you wouldn't believe it!'

'A healer Legilimens confirmed that the wizard's as good as dead! There's no hope for him, Granger!'

'May I see him?'

'Why?'

'Because I'd like my body back, please, Draco,' Snape said, gliding through the door.

'Circe's tits!' Draco yelped, 'What? But – you – fuck!'

'Language, Mr Malfoy.'

Draco stared, panting and positively wild-eyed with shock. Snape looked insufferably smug. Hermione sighed. Boys.

'He Splinched, Draco, his body went one way and his soul and magic the other. We need to put him back together.'

At least Draco Malfoy had grown up in a world of magic, where crazy things happened on a sporadic basis. He sheathed his wand and snapped 'Daffy!' A small elf popped into existence, her ears swivelling towards her master. 'Ask my mother to join me urgently in the emerald guest-room.'

The elf vanished, and Hermione followed Draco along a panelled corridor, up a staircase and along another corridor, before he paused with his hand on a door. 'He doesn't look too good,' he remarked before using a finger to sketch a rune on the door to open the wards.

Snape was very thin, his cheeks gaunt and eye sockets sunken. He lay in a pristine white bed, his hands lax at his sides, and his neck was ridged with purple scars. His chest hardly moved as he breathed.

'The elves have been magically feeding him but he wasn't robust to begin with.' Narcissa Malfoy moved lightly out of the shadows, her robes floating around her ankles. 'I'm interested to know why you revealed our dying friend's presence to Miss Granger, Draco.' There was a hint of censure in her tone.

'I requested it,' Snape said, coalescing at his own bedside. Hermione mentally awarded points to Mrs Malfoy for style; the witch barely quivered.

'Severus, what happened?'

'I Splinched, it seems.'

'Should I call Healer Arnott?'

'Not yet. Please open my eyes.'

Hermione watched, squashing a mild pang of jealousy that Mrs Malfoy should be permitted to touch his face. The eyes that had snapped with anger in life, were dull and blank when she gently peeled back the lids. Ghost-Snape gazed down at himself thoughtfully, then he met Hermione's gaze.

'I may not remember anything,' he said softly. 'I may have suffered brain-damage from lack of oxygen and loss of blood. There is no guarantee that this will work, or that I will live. If I die now, thank you; Hermione, for your companionship; Narcissa and Draco, for sustaining my poor, broken body.'

'What're you going to do?' Hermione demanded, desperate to keep him for just a few seconds longer.

'I will attempt to Apparate into my own mind.' His lips curved into the smile that she had come to love. 'If anyone can do it, I can. Here goes.'

He twirled in a flurry of robes and vanished. Hermione stared at his body until her eyes prickled, seeing no change in his shallow breathing or blank gaze. Then his eyelids gradually slid down until he appeared to sleep.

'Is that good or bad?' Hermione asked, without really expecting an answer. 'Should we get the healer now?' She seized Snape's thin, limp hand, despite Draco's disapproving hiss. 'Severus? Can you hear me?'

His mouth moved, slowly, his tongue peeking out to touch his lips, then the scars on his throat shifted as he swallowed. Draco pushed Hermione aside, slid an arm behind Snape and lifted him up against his shoulder. Narcissa poured water into a tumbler and carefully tipped it to Snape's lips, allowing just a dribble of water into his mouth. He swallowed again, and his black eyes opened.

His expression did not change as his gaze tracked around the room. Draco Summoned an additional couple of pillows and propped him up against them.

'Do you remember anything? Do you know who we are?' Narcissa asked, with concern. He blinked and focussed on her.

'Narcissa.' He had no voice, just a breathy exhalation. 'Draco…' Then he met Hermione's gaze and whispered 'Hermione fucking Granger.'

Draco completely misinterpreted his words and hustled Hermione out of the room, but she did not care. He was alive and he remembered.

---:---

Determined not to act like a smitten thirteen-year-old, Hermione waited three weeks before borrowing Harry's new owl and sending him to Malfoy Manor with a polite note, asking how Snape was. She included two shrunken books from the Black library, which she knew he had intended to read. Three days later, Narcissa's equally polite reply informed her that Severus was making a slow recovery, necessitating complete rest and quiet. Attached to the ostentatious wax seal was a corked vial containing a single silvery tendril. Hermione endured two days of waiting before she could borrow Headmistress McGonagall's Pensieve and visit the memory.

Severus Snape sat amid a pile of fluffy pillows in an armchair, his feet propped up on a matching footstool. He still appeared thin and exhausted, but the scars on his throat were less angry-looking and the smallest ones had faded to white. He gazed out of the window at the rolling landscape of rural Wiltshire, before closing the grimoire supported upon his thighs and speaking to the air in a rasping whisper.

'I'm in your debt, Miss Granger. Without a doubt, I would have wandered aimlessly had it not been for your insightful insistence that I was not simply a ghost, and my physical body would have died before I was reunited with it. What would have become of my spirit then, I don't know.' He Summoned a glass of water and took a sip before continuing. 'I continue to recover, and am assured that I shall regain a voice of sorts, if not quite the one that I had. I am content; I have friends, and books to read, and a life to plan, for which I thank you. March on into the future, Hermione, gain your NEWTs and grab the Wizarding World by the scruff of the neck and shake it up. Whatever you do, be happy. Maybe we'll meet again one day.'

The memory ended. Hermione wept for a short while, then she did what she always did; wiped her eyes, blew her nose, swore a bit and went to the library.

---:---

She told Harry and Ron that Snape had been reunited with his body and was slowly recovering. As far as Ron was concerned, that was the end of the matter; he was too busy with impending NEWTs, amateur Quidditch and going out with Lavender to care. Harry on the other hand, had gained a degree of insight that occasionally took Hermione by surprise.

'Where will you go for Christmas?' Harry asked, as they took a break from revising Charms in the library at Number 12. Hermione had realised that spending Christmas at the Burrow was out. A single Sunday lunch visit, in which Molly was excessively polite, Ron looked acutely embarrassed, Arthur watched her with concern and Harry and Ginny sat on either side of her like body-guards, convinced her of that. Percy had tried to persuade her to give Ron another chance and George flirted half-heartedly, and she had forced herself to smile when all she had wanted to do was cry. Everything was different, and it hurt.

'I don't know; I'll think of something.'

'What's that?' Ron asked. Hermione suspected that he was actually reading a Quidditch magazine under the table, but that was his responsibility. 'Why can't you spend Christmas with us?'

'I don't think your Mum likes me much at the moment, Ron.'

'She'll get over it,' Ron said and Harry rolled his eyes. Ron grimaced. 'Yeah, suppose you're right; she's so bloody protective it isn't real. For Merlin's sake, we're all managing to stay friends but she's acting like you dumped me at the altar or something. You'll have to give her time, she's terrified of losing anyone else. My brain hurts, I need a cuppa, anyone else want tea?'

'Oh go on then, there's a packet of Jaffa cakes in the cupboard over the cooker.' Harry propped his chin on his hand and waited until Ron had left the room. 'Does the name Fiorinda Burgess mean anything to you, Hermione?'

'A genius, she combined Arithmancy and Runes in ways no-one even attempted before! Professor Babbling did her masters under Burgess and Professor Vector uses her inversions in preference to Miller-Johnson's or Lloyd's. Why're you asking? She's a very advanced practitioner.'

'I thought so,' Harry said, clearly amused by Hermione's enthusiasm. 'She's giving the guest presentation at the European Union of Spellcrafters' Yule convention in Verona.'

'Is she?'

'Would you like to go?' Harry held up a hand to forestall her automatic objection. 'My Christmas present; I'll buy you a full ticket including travel and hotel. I understand why you don't want to go to the Burrow, Hermione, and whatever you do, you'll always miss your parents, but there'll be plenty of distractions there if you want them, or you can wander off on your own or go to your room without having to explain anything to anyone.'

'Harry, that's incredibly generous –'

'You know I own the Potter and Black vaults, what's the point of having money if I can't use it to treat my mates? I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for you, Hermione. You're the sister I never had.'

She smiled through her tears, and he grinned and handed her a handkerchief that was very nearly clean, and she reflected that they were all growing up.

---:---

Hermione should have realised that Ginny had had an ulterior motive in taking her clothes shopping before Christmas, rather than in the January sales.

Clad in a new Muggle suit and coat, Hermione collected her tickets at London Victoria station, following Harry's instructions, to find that she would be travelling in a beautifully restored Pullman coach to Calais then boarding the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to Verona. Bemused, touched and wishing that she could have brought her friends, she found her seat, thankfully anonymous among the Muggles.

She caught a glimpse of a lean, elegant man through the window, wearing a black trench-coat that billowed around him like a cloak, and told herself to stop fantasising about what would never be. She was going on an adventure, in which she would meet fellow students and academics who shared her passions. She told herself to get a grip; that the wizard of her dreams might be waiting for her in Verona, or even travelling on this very train. This was the Orient Express, for Merlin's sake!

The man in black stepped into the Pullman carriage, looking down at his ticket for his seat number, and then raised his head and met her gaze. Snape stood poised, while around him, his fellow passengers chatted and shuffled to their places.

Hermione's heart seemed to swoop inside her ribcage as if trying to turn over inside her. She dared not breathe or move; she could only hope, willing him to decide, to take a chance on her. His expression barely altered, and yet the skin softened around his mouth and eyes as he edged past a large man fighting to remove his overcoat.

'Good morning, Miss Granger,' he said in a soft growl, and slid into the seat beside her. Inside the upturned collar of his trench-coat, the scars glimmered as silvery as ghosts.

'You knew I'd be here,' she whispered in astonishment, her heart beating so hard that she could feel her pulse in her throat.

'I had my suspicions,' he agreed. He spoke very quietly but his baritone rumble was back, although overlaid with rough velvet instead of silk. 'Perhaps you might suggest to your friend that he restricts himself to dispatching Dark Lords and leaves the plotting to Slytherins? He is incapable of subtlety. I recognised his owl communicating with Narcissa and knew that they were planning something.'

'I had no idea!' she exclaimed. He cocked his eyebrow at her as if to say 'Really?' but refrained from comment. Hermione wanted to hug herself, hug Harry and most of all, hug HIM, but was determined to be adult and sensible, or at least, act as if she was. 'Do you have a ticket for Fiorinda Burgess' presentation?'

'Courtesy of Draco, yes; also McNamee's lecture on how Runes influence Potions.'

Hermione hesitated before giving her opinion of McNamee, then had a wicked little thought. If he really wanted to get into her knickers, verbally eviscerating her for idiocy was not going to help his cause.

'I have my doubts about that,' she said. His lip lifted into a full Snape sneer.

'Doubts? The man's a complete dunderhead. I fondly anticipate listening to you rip his case to shreds.'

Hermione looked around at the gleaming glass and rosewood and luxurious upholstery of their carriage, suppressing an urge to bounce on her seat from excitement. He had changed his mind, or else Narcissa had changed it for him - Narcissa! That supercilious witch had actually sent her friend on a naughty weekend with a Mud-blood half his age! Hermione could hardly believe it.

'Did Mrs Malfoy really set us up?' she asked curiously. 'Me being Muggle-born?'

'She's not as much of a snob as Lucius,' he said. 'She's making tentative moves towards reconciling with her surviving sister, she's aware that I'm a half-blood, and she has been making oblique comments about refusing to allow me to pine away after another Muggle-born witch.'

'After the message in your memory, I didn't expect to see you again.'

'I fear that my baser instincts have overcome my scruples,' he sighed. 'I had persuaded myself to wait for you to gain experience, out in the big wide world, but Narcissa pointed out that for all my twenty years' advantage, I haven't experienced the big wide world either.'

Hermione had been brought up by assertive, professional parents; she had been taught to ask, politely, for what she wanted, even if she did not always get it. She folded her hands in her lap, half-turning in her seat to face him.

'Severus, what do you want from this trip? Because,' she took in a deep breath, 'I want to lose my virginity tonight on the Orient Express. With you.'

'I'm sure that can be arranged.' His black eyes glittered with amusement. He tipped up her chin with a thin finger, leaned towards her and kissed her lips, briefly but with promise of more to follow. 'I shall endeavour not to disappoint.'

Hermione realised that Victoria station's great arched roof was receding behind them as the train pulled away. A bubble of laughter expanded inside her chest, while between them, hidden by their coats, his hand closed around hers in a warm and wonderfully tangible clasp.