These characters and their setting are the property of J. Rowling and her associates and affiliates.

Author's Note: I know most of you thought that I had abandoned this story, and that's understandable since I haven't updated for over two years. A devastating injury put me out of commission for a while and depression from lingering pain and other worries didn't help, but I never wanted to give up on writing. Sometimes it feels like my stories are a heavy weight hanging over me, and all those reviews people have sent have been an encouragement. I don't want to let you down! Please keep me in your thoughts and in your prayers if you are so inclined. I have a long road ahead.

Chapter 29: Let's Party

Severus ascended the steps of Malfoy Manor in a state of wary trepidation that he tried not to show. He had on his best spy-face, his patent look of poised, sneering superiority. With any luck it would fool all the idiots at this party and might even fool Malfoy. Well, that, at least, was the plan.

After an immaculate house-elf in a monogrammed tea towel popped before them and bowed, Severus unclasped both his and Hermione's traveling cloaks and handed them over. The poor little elf bowed again before it disappeared, and Severus walked purposefully into an enormous Grand Receiving Hall, ushering his wife with a hand planted firmly on her back. Her warm, sweet, bare back.

The dress Hermione was wearing made her look absolutely delicious- incredibly, utterly alluring. Snape was sure it had to have been Tonks who had picked out that sexy thing. Considering his wife's serious, bookish, slightly shy and practical nature, it was unlikely she would have selected a garment as stunning as this without help. Unless, of course, he had underestimated her. Which he might have...

Because the coy little minx had kept it a secret! She hadn't let him see what she had bought until this very evening when she had emerged like a siren from their dressing room all dressed and ready to go. It had been a seriously electric moment. He had almost burst his pants at the sight of her.

His fingers caressed her slightly as they moved along, and he felt a thrill of reward as her muscles shivered under his touch. It was a powerful feeling to know she was aware of him. Snape wanted to keep her off balance. He wanted to ground her in reality- his reality. The last thing he needed was for her to forget his instructions and engage in any snooping. Besides, he couldn't help wanting to touch her, to feel her soft, silky skin. He promised himself that once this farce was over, his dear little wife would get a long, hot, passionate reward.

Crowds of overdressed people in various stages of inebriation were milling about like brightly plumaged birds or elaborate floral arrangements. Severus knew his black satin attire made him the most sober looking man in the room, but he took pride in it. Snape had never desired the trappings of society and he had never cared if people knew it. He was glad, though, that his wife glittered as brightly as all the other hot-house flowers here. She made him proud. He wanted to show her off.

Several nearby heads nodded to him in greeting, but he acknowledged them only briefly before making his way to their host. The niceties had to be followed- especially where this family was concerned, and their temperamental host didn't keep them waiting. The senior Malfoy and a youthful, but sadly lackluster witch were advancing to meet them. She must be the newest Malfoy victim.

Lucius was steering along his over-awed Muggleborn wife with a sort of ruthless geniality, and the poor girl was following with a stupid but desperately eager expression. Snape felt extremely sorry for her. She was obviously fathoms out of her league and had no idea of her impending doom.

"Severus, old friend! How very good to see you again. And Mrs. Snape..." Malfoy smiled, showing a feral set of dazzlingly white teeth "Welcome to Malfoy Manor."

Snape hoped Hermione wouldn't do anything so stupid as to be rude to Lucius in his own home, but thankfully his wife merely smiled- a tense kind of smile- and she thanked Malfoy for inviting them.

Lucius beamed again. "It is my pleasure. I'm glad for you to finally see my humble abode. And since this is your first time here, you must allow me to give you The Tour. Come find me after my guests have all arrived and I am temporarily between duties. I may just show you my... library."

Hermione tensed her back at this veiled invitation and Severus rubbed her skin in a steadying sort of way. He sent Lucius a meaningful stare and did his best to appear loomingly possessive.

"I am eager to meet Mrs Malfoy," he inserted. "I don't believe I have yet had that pleasure."

"No, it's true you have not. Unfortunately my poor darling Emma has never attended Hogwarts, else you would have had the joy of teaching her." He pushed his awkward looking wife forward. "Emma my dear, this is my good friend Severus Snape and his lovely wife Hermione. Mrs. Snape, as yourself, is a Muggleborn. And she is still at school." Malfoy smiled wickedly. "Severus was, in fact, her teacher. And a good teacher too unless I miss my mark. Isn't that right, Hermione?"

For a moment, Snape was afraid his wife would say something unseemly but surprisingly, she managed to give a gracious smile. "He is a good teacher, Mr. Malfoy," she replied evenly, meeting his eyes. "I've learned a great deal from him."

But in response to her Gryffindor directness, Lucius only laughed. "Oh I have no doubt that he has, Mrs. Snape," he chuckled, his eyes glinting wickedly. "And I'm sure on occasion he has done so quite... forcefully. Isn't that right, old friend?" He turned to Snape with a knowing smile.

"That is something I shall never tell, and certainly not within mixed society." Snape's tone remained purposefully droll, but he insinuated a subtle shade of warning.

Lucius ignored it. He was looking over Hermione in an appraising sort of way. "Let me compliment you, my dear, on your excellent gown. It shows off your assets quite admirably."

Pushing his cowed wife ahead of him, Malfoy prepared to greet yet another group of guests, but he paused a moment to remark loud enough for them both to hear, "Congratulations, Severus. You've cleaned her up quite nicely. She almost looks like a real witch. A little effort works wonders, doesn't it? Even if you're dealing with... inferior goods." As he strode off with an aristocratic swish of robes, Snape felt Hermione shiver with fury.

Six years of teaching his wife and almost six months of living with her, had given Severus had an instinctive knowledge of her reactions. Moving swiftly, before any sound could come out of her open, outraged mouth, he grabbed her hard enough to be painful and pulled her into the shadows away from the crowd. He hoped the shock from his sudden action would give him another couple of seconds, and thankfully it did. There was a breath of a pause while she rounded on him thunderously, and he took those few seconds to silence her with a kiss.

Hermione's lips were hard with fury and her wide, startled eyes stared at him in a sort of gob-smacked surprise that would have been highly amusing if the setting were anything different. But spying at Malfoy Manor was not a humorous situation. The last thing Snape could allow was for his Gryffindor wife to sound off at their host- no matter how justified she was. He had to shut her up.

There was a moment or two of intense struggle that Snape hoped wasn't noticed before Hermione relaxed a little and appeared to acquiesce to his kiss. When he finally judged it to be safe, Severus released her. His feisty wife had to catch her breath for a minute, but soon she was sputtering angrily.

"That snake! That manticore," she hissed. "How dare he say such things! And in public too!"

"We were the only ones who heard him, Hermione. Now calm yourself. Look. Happy!"

"Calm myself! HAPPY!" she sputtered. "What absolute, utter..."

"YES!" he pronounced quietly through slightly clenched teeth. "And we will smile and pretend that we are delighted, and that the term you were about to utter was complimentary. This is the Malfoy house. Don't even pretend to tell me you don't understand what that means."

Hermione's expression was murderous, and Snape couldn't help thinking that she was even more attractive with her "back up" than she was as an obedient little student. He also noted favorably that though she was glaring daggers at him, she was holding tight to his arms as if to a lifeline. True, her fingernails did appear to be poised to shred through his sleeve, but he found that rather erotic. Excitement always came with a price. Snape began to feel the bone white heat of desire.

"You wanted to know what it was like to be a spy, Hermione. Well this is it!" he whispered. "Now smile, play your part, and we might actually get through this stupid charade in one piece."

Severus expected that she would put up an argument, but his wife surprised him by pulling her face into a hastily assembled smile and standing a little straighter. She took his arm and let him lead her back into to milling mess of party guests. Only Snape could feel the steel tight grip of her hand on his arm and sense the spring hard tension within her.

"That's good, Hermione, but don't smile too hard. Act natural. You are every bit as good as these stupid stuffed robes. Better, in fact. Picture them in their underwear. Or under the Bat Bogey hex."

She looked up sharply at that remark, surprised into shocked little smile. He leaned in close to her to put his mouth next to her ear. "Do an exceptionally good job, my dear, and there will be bonus points for extra credit later on." His hand moved ticklingly down her back again. "Very satisfying bonus points. All night long." He noticed her blush as his fingers caressed her again.

Moving through the murmuring crowd, Severus eyed the few couples that had noticed their altercation and gave them his trademark, superior smirk. He knew that the part of a stern, controlling husband was all too easily accepted in pureblood wizarding society. There were plenty of wizards present who would only see it as his duty to instill discipline in a gauche Muggleborn wife.

And for those that might not... well, he was a newlywed after all, and his wife was a beautiful young witch who was dressed to the glamorous "nines." Why shouldn't he be possessed of the urge to snog her senseless every now and then, even in public? Snape caught the eye of one elderly wizard who was giving him a knowing, lascivious smile. Obviously old Aloysius Groot understood that concept. So did Lavinia Groot, the man's wife, who huffed disapprovingly and looked away.

"I hate this sort of thing," Hermione hissed softly through clenched teeth.

"So do I, my dear. So do I."

As the child of an old pureblood family, Severus had always had to endure his share of parties. When he had been very small, he had, of course, been spared more than a token appearance, but as he grew he had not been able to escape them. Besides being tutored in various magical disciplines, he had also been drilled exhaustively in matters of etiquette and deportment.

Snape remembered being made to stand for hours at attention, forbidden to even cough or scratch. He remembered having to recite the names of every person in his parent's world, giving their status, blood relation, obligations, and mode of address. He remembered having to dance with his horrible Aunts, stepping carefully so as not to raise their ire. All in all, he had learned not only to conduct himself as a proper wizard should, but to endure the crucio as well. Merlin knew it had been used on him enough.

Draco glided his way with a simpering Pansy Parkinson glued to his arm. The young man looked and moved as flawlessly as he did, which made Snape wonder if the boy's training had been similar to his own. Knowing Lucius, it probably had been.

As he steered his wife into the hall proper, he was aware of turning heads. Eyes from all over the room considered them, and Snape stood a little taller and bore their scrutiny with casual disregard. Of course they would look. Most of the guests were only here to see and be seen. Many of the cattle present would be chewing this cud for many months hereafter. There was little else they really had to do.

Eyes raked Hermione from head to toe, taking in her youth, her gloriously revealing gown, and the fact that she was here with him. Hermione knew she was being observed and Severus felt her tension, but he didn't think she'd fall to pieces. Gryffindors generally weren't nervous types. Well, not usually...

He relaxed as Hermione slowly raised her chin and pulled her shoulders back. Her Head wasn't held too high, and he mentally awarded her bonus points. Too much confidence looked like defiance. The trick was to show quiet poise. Hermione appeared to be trying, and Severus smirked a little in pride.

This ravishing young woman was his. Many might think her inferior, but even they couldn't deny her beauty. Most of the wizards here probably envied him his possession of her- especially since they believed he was taking advantage of her- which he was, just not in the way they thought. It was true that Snape had used the marriage Law as an opportunity, but he loved Hermione and was doing the best he could for her. He was doing her a service- no matter what his magical peers might think.

Humph. Peers. What a joke. As if he actually wanted any of these people as peers! Malfoy had invited some worthy individuals but most of the guests here were wizards he despised- dark sympathizers, pureblood supremists, and sycophantic toadies. There was also a number of foreign purebloods here as well. Knowing family connections the way he did, Snape was certain these were all the worst sort.

Since Severus was well known on both sides of the Dark, wizards and witches inevitably came to greet them. Some of these people were the parents of his students or were old cronies from his spy days. Hermione did her best to smile no matter what their reaction was, and tried, however falteringly, to make conversation. Snape knew his wife wouldn't know anyone, but she did seem to be giving it her best. And it was only for a little while as Severus wasn't going to linger. Hermione only had to stay out of trouble while he did some investigating. About an hour later, Snape spotted his first real opportunity.

Waldon McNair and Julian Flint were huddled suspiciously in a corner, two prime targets for questioning. Severus began to move in their direction, pulling Hermione with him, but suddenly he thought better of it. These were truly sinister individuals. They were also exceedingly crude. Snape didn't want to expose his wife to their foul minds or foul tongues, and he knew he'd probably get more out of them if he were alone. One of them also seemed to have a desperate looking wife with him. Snape knew his own kind hearted wife would be moved to interact with her, and he didn't want her to do that. He excused himself and told Hermione to carry on without him. He wouldn't take long.

Hermione kept a smile firmly plastered on her face though her jaws were starting to hurt from it, and she nodded to people in what she hoped was a friendly and engaging manner. Some actually did come over and introduce themselves but most didn't. Hermione tried her best to engage them, but she found it difficult without Severus to pave the way. Still, she kept on trying. It wasn't easy.

No one was trying to make it easy for her either. People looked at her oddly. They quizzed her concerning where she had been born and where she had lived. She was asked over and over if she was related to someone or other Granger from the Extraordinary Society of Potioneers, and though at first she had naively supposed it was a natural question, after the fourth or fifth time she knew that it wasn't.

Everyone important enough to be here knew exactly who she was. She was a member of the "golden trio,"after all, and her marriage to Snape had been publicized. These witches and wizards were baiting her, having a private little joke at her expense. Hermione's cheeks flushed. This pettiness hurt, and it made it hard for her to keep up the friendly act that Severus wanted. But she kept that false smile cemented on her face- even when coming face to face with Cornelius Fudge...

Hermione felt so much antipathy for the Minister that she didn't even want to look at him. Her painful smile felt like a gag as she wished the odious man a good evening. Fudge, on his part, barely spoke to her. He gave Hermione the usual pleasantries, but moved quickly away to talk with someone else. The seething Gryffindor knew it was irrational, but she couldn't help resenting the snub.

It was galling to be here, galling be paraded about like a prized cow to be judged! There had to be thousands of magical folk in Britain, but the best that could be said for ones here was that they were rich. Even in the Muggle world Hermione had never followed the doings of the rich and the famous, and she saw little to admire in these "wizarding royalty." Most regarded her dubiously, or with frank amusement. Some glanced pointedly at her mid section, surprised at its obvious flatness As a Muggleborn bride, of course, she was supposed to be pregnant. Hermione found it degrading.

Everyone around her was dropping names. Wizards here knew each others' connections, yet they still seemed to feel the need to wave them about like flags in the war over magical pecking order. Hermione had never wanted to play such silly social games, and this verbal dance was only half intelligible to her. It probably always would be. Someone like Lavender Brown would be a natural at this. So, also, would Ginny. Luna would have serenely ignored most of it, but would still have somehow conveyed the idea that she belonged. It was Hermione who would always be an outsider. She was completely out of her element.

Had this been a convention of swots it would have been different, but sadly for Hermione, the people she felt most comfortable with didn't cluster at functions requiring elegant dress or deportment. Still, ever tenacious, she kept on trying, even though her awkward conversation attempts fizzled. Most of the time she was simply ignored. Those who did condescend to speak with her let it be known (ever so gently) that they were, indeed condescending. It was very, very dispiriting.

Severus, naturally, had no problems. He was a pureblood and he had been raised to this. Having left her on her own for a while, she could see him, a tall dark pillar of elegance and refinement, conversing very coolly with some unknown, rather creepy looking, wizards. Hermione knew she shouldn't expect him to stay safely at her elbow the entire night, but she couldn't help but feel abandoned.

"Oh come on!" she chided herself. "Why should this be so hard?" She had fought deatheaters! Surely a bunch of ridiculously over-bred snobs shouldn't be a problem! She was a Gryffindor. She was bold. She should just put on a bright smile, walk confidently up to people and pretend she was welcome. Then she could look interested and respectful, nod her head a lot, and act as though everything they said was wonderful. That was spy work at its best, wasn't it? Piece of cake.

But she sighed. Who was she kidding? Since when had subtlety been her strong suit? Or cunning for that matter? Or the sort of long suffering patience one absolutely had to have to succeed at conniving? She was a Gryffindor, not a Slytherin. If she tried "sleuthing" among these cultured elites she'd just make a fool out of herself. No wonder Severus didn't want her to do it. She felt like a failure.

Then suddenly she noticed someone else who seemed just as lost and uncomfortable as she was- the present Mrs Malfoy. The poor young witch was standing by herself looking lonely and awkward. It appeared she too had been abandoned, not only by her husband, but everyone else as well.

Hermione felt a wave of compassion. This poor girl had it worse than she did. Imagine being snubbed at your own party- and in your own house! How awful was that? She decided to go over and talk to her. They were similar in age and background so they might actually have something to talk about. Besides, the young Mrs. Malfoy was probably the only person here who wouldn't snub her...

"Hi," she said walking up to her companionably. "It's Emma, isn't it?"

The young witch seemed to blossom in front of her.

"Yes! And you are... I'm sorry. I can't seem to remember."

"Hermione. Hermione Gra.. um.. Snape."

"Oh. Yes," she replied brightening with recognition. "You're the one whose still in school."

For some reason Hermione felt a stab of shame. Malfoy's nasty comments had been remembered by his wife. There was a tense moment of mutual awkwardness, but Hermione perceived that Emma was actually embarrassed for her, not ashamed of her. She decided to try again.

"That's a beautiful gown," she ventured encouragingly. "I like the color."

Emma robes, a diaphanous creation of rose pink and white, made her look rather sweet and virginal, but they suited her rather childish face and soft coloring. Hermione thought the poor witch looked more like a schoolgirl than she did (and she really was a schoolgirl,) but she knew there were plenty of men that found innocence attractive. The human equivalent of wolves, for example. Malfoy had dressed up his child bride like a sacrificial lamb. It was beyond tragic. It was sick.

Emma actually blushed in response to Hermione's compliment and seemed to warm a little. "Oh thank you. It's the nicest dress I've ever had, even if the Lady picked it out for me. She said it was perfect."

"The Lady?" Hermione couldn't help but ask.

"One of Lucius' friends. Although I think she might actually work for him. She's always around the estate and she's... well... she's rather bossy. She and Lucius are always discussing business, and she makes my potions. I wish I could make them myself but I never learned how to in school. Lucius says he's going to teach me. I hope he teaches me and not her. She's... scary."

Visions of a black clad Mrs Danvers came into Hermione's mind and she shivered in sympathy.

"Is she here tonight?" she asked, looking around to see who the sinister witch might be.

"No, thankfully," Emma sighed. "She set up the whole party but didn't stay as a guest."

"Hmm," Hermione sniffed dismissively. "She must not be important enough. Try not to let her intimidate you too much. Umm... what potions are you taking?"

"Fertility potions mostly. Lucius is eager to have more children. That's the reason he married me."

Emma's frank answer made her tragic situation all the more poignant. She knew her value in the Wizarding world and, though not exactly happy, had accepted it. Like Hermione, she'd had no choice.

"But what about you?" Hermione pressed. "Do you want children?

"Oh, yes. I've always wanted a nice home and a family. It might be sooner than I had thought, but it would give me something to do, and then... well, then Lucius might actually be happy with me..."

Hermione decided not to press. She had promised Severus she wouldn't snoop, and there were things it was probably better not to know. Instead she asked Emma questions about her Muggle home life.

She learned that the young witch never had much magical training. Unlike the middle class Grangers, Emma's family had been too poor for private tuition and when her Hogwarts letter had come, she had been forced to decline. Instead, she had gone to a part-time magical day school which had taught her only enough for a career as a magical servant. Marrying into the Malfoy family had been like Cinderella marrying Prince Charming. Too bad that Malfoy was anything but charming.

Poor Emma questioned Hermione eagerly about the school she had never been able to attend. It was painfully obvious that she longed for the types of experiences Hermione had had as well as the sort of life she had led. Hermione answered question after question and she wondered if she could get her new-found friend away from the crowd. She was just about to ask her to show her someplace where she could "powder her nose" when she felt an almost suffocating sense of a sinister presence.

"Well, well." said the senior Malfoy from almost right over their shoulders and Emma's face suddenly paled. She looked terrified. She ducked her head a little and smiled timidly up at her husband like a child who didn't know if it would be caressed or slapped. Hermione's heart constricted with pity.

Lucius eyed them both. "Having a nice little.. chat? How interesting that in a house full of guests that the two of you should happen to find each other." He looked significantly at Hermione.

Emma wrung her hands but faced her husband earnestly. "We.. we were just getting to know each other. Hermione and I are the same age. You... um... you wanted me to meet people."

"What I wanted, my dear wife," he hissed coldly, "Was for you to circulate among my guests- ALL of my guests- to be a proper hostess and make them comfortable. It is, after all, your duty."

"Oh, but she was!" Hermione broke in brashly. She couldn't just stand by. "I was all by myself and having a hard time mingling. Emma was trying to make me feel comfortable."

"Really?" The word had a sinister tone. "You were conversing for a full twenty minutes. What could the two of you have found so interesting to talk about?"

"Yes," said Severus just arriving. "I'd like to know that myself."

Snape's intense black eyes could have melted steel. His disapproval could have wilted a rain forest. Hermione hadn't done anything wrong, yet somehow she was now in trouble. Now it was she who twitched with nervousness, and unfortunately, when Hermione was nervous she tended to babble...

"Well, honestly, really, nothing important. Like she said, we're the same age. We were talking about school, about Hogwarts, and I was telling her about my classes. I was telling her about the four houses and about Quiddich and Peeves, and Hogsmeade and the sweet shop. And I was just about to ask Emma if she could show me where to freshen up a bit. I'm so lost here and I don't know where the lavatory is. Females always go to the lavatory in groups, you know. It's a girl thing, I suppose..."

Malfoy smirked cruelly. "You do realize that it is the height of bad manners to expect the mistress of the house to escort you to the.. a... Ladies facilities, do you not?" He turned to Snape who was looking more murderous than ever. "Really old friend, I thought you had taught her to be civilized."

Poor Emma appeared horrified. She literally started to shake as she looked fearfully between her husband and the two Snapes. Hermione had terrible feeling that she had harmed Emma by talking to her. God only knew how Lucius would punish her for it later. And Severus looked like a stern, black thundercloud. She had embarrassing him in front of Lucius, and she didn't want to think of what he was going to say to her when they got home. She had disappointed him.

Hermione wished she could disappear. She didn't want to be here, hadn't wanted to come at all, and was only here because HE had insisted! And what did he expect? He knew she wasn't a socialite! Besides feeling guilty about Emma and embarrassed for Severus, she felt frustrated and more than a little angry. As far as she was concerned they could all just SOD IT! Like a nuclear reactor finally reaching melt-down Hermione wanted to give them both a piece of her mind. They saw her as an uncivilized Muggle cretin? Well, she'd throw it right back in their faces...

Schooling her features into a mask of pretend fear, she stared wide eyed at at Emma's cruel, imperious husband and in a mock horrified voice gasped, "Oh no! It IS? Oh dear me, I didn't know! I've said the wrong thing AGAIN! I'm always saying the wrong thing, always putting my foot in my mouth. I've probably managed to offend everybody here! I shouldn't have come. I should have just stayed home!"

Both wizards gave her stony stares and poor Emma now looked confused. But in for a penny. In for a pound. Or galleon. Silly things knuts and galleons. This whole world was silly. Well if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. She wanted to bury them in stinking piles of it.

"I am SO sorry!" she gushed earnestly. "I mean I've READ about Wizarding society. I've read every book I can find, but it's not enough is it? It'll never be enough! All these little things. I just can't cope! But please don't blame Severus. It's not his fault. It's mine. My lack of upbringing. Bad blood! I was raised by Muggles and what do THEY know? Maybe I should have asked a house elf. Oh, DO forgive me!"

Severus looked gob-smacked- almost the way he had all those years ago when he had rushed into a wrecked girls bathroom to hear a first year telling them she'd been hunting for a troll.

Malfoy too looked stunned. He looked a little confused. (unless he was just considering how to hex her. One never knew with a Malfoy.) Then, suddenly he started laughing and a sea of heads turned to stare. Considering the fact that the man was a cold blooded killer, Hermione found his laughter chilling. Lucius slapped Severus on the back and shook his head in mirth.

"Ah, Severus. You need to bring her here more often! For however long it lasts, at any rate. Such eloquence! Such debasement! Who would have believed she could be so amusing?"

He held out his arm to Emma who took it gratefully not seeming to notice the burlesque quality of the gesture. "Come, my pet. Let's make the rounds again, shall we? There's a few more important people who have not yet met you and..." He looked pointedly at Hermione in a condescending way and then snapped his finger. "Mindy!" he called sharply and a cowering female house elf appeared.

"Mindy. Escort young Mrs Snape to the Ladies guest toilets. Wait for her there and then bring her back. It wouldn't do for her to get... lost, now would it?" he smiled toothily as he led his wife away.

Severus rounded on her as soon as they were out of earshot.

"Just what did you think you were doing?" he hissed. "Didn't I tell you not to play detective? Why is it that the first time I turn my back, the first time I leave you alone..."

"I wasn't!" she shot back heatedly, feeling stressed now almost to the point of madness. "I know you don't want to believe me. You never do! But I wasn't. Everyone was snubbing me. I felt awkward, odd, and stupid. Then I saw poor Emma all by herself and she looked even worse than I was so I said hi. I was being NICE." She tried to match him glare for glare.

"And what exactly did you talk about?" he asked stonily.

"Not much," she huffed grumpily. "Girl things. We compared dresses. We talked about schools. She told me she's taking fertility potions and that she's intimidated by one of her husband's servants, some manager, retainer, or something, and it was so sad. All I could think of was Daphne du Maurier's 'Rebecca' or that awful Vincent Price movie where he poisons his wife to marry the governess and..."

Snape was giving her a blank look and she huffed in exasperation.

"Oh why do I bother! Of course wizards don't watch movies! They don't do much of anything, do they? They just sit in their overstuffed Gothic mansions pouring over their family trees-"

"I have read 'Rebecca' Hermione."

"Well, you're probably the only one."


"And even YOU haven't seen the movie, which you should because in some ways it's even better-"


"Missus! We must go, Missus. Please!"

Hermione felt an urgent tug on the hem of her dress and looked down. She had forgotten about the elf.

"Mindy has to take Missus to the toilets. Master be watching!" Her homely little face was scared.

She sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound, indeed.

Snape motioned dismissively. "Well, go on then. Just don't be long."

Hermione turned and followed little Mindy into the bowels of the Malfoy house. She dearly wished she could give Snape a saucy retort (she hated it when he ordered her around,) or make a grand Hollywood style exit, but she knew better. Dramatic exits were stupid. They weren't real life. Real life was lame and disappointing, which was why people loved Hollywood, and fairy tales, and even spook stories. Until, of course, they had to live in one. Like the Wizarding world.

Like now.

The guest bathroom was toward the back of the Malfoy house and the little elf quickly led Hermione through a series of elegant rooms and picture hung halls. Other guests lounged casually and chatted quietly over long stemmed glasses, but the elf didn't give Hermione any chance to look about or listen. Finally she pulled her into a large brightly lit room decorated in elaborate Roman style tile work.

"Here is witches toilets Missus. Mindy will waits while you goes."

Obligingly, Hermione availed herself. Going to the rest room had only been been a spur of the moment idea for getting Emma away from the crowd, and she had only fired it off at Lucius because she'd been babbling out of her mind. But women can always visit the loo. And besides, it was quiet. Here she might just be able to catch a few minutes of peace before venturing back into that shark pool of a party. The bathroom had multiple stalls (marble and gold with statuary everywhere) and Hermione went into one. No sooner had she done so when laughing female voices sounded at the door.

Well, so much for peace and quiet.

"Did you ever see such a pathetic, whey faced, little cow?" It sounded like Pansy Parkinson.

"Little rabbit is more like it," sniffed another voice. "She looked like she was about to die of fright!"

"And her robes! They make her look like Bo Peep. Poor Lucius. He really deserves better."

"Hey Pansy," the second voice continued, this time in a more hushed tone. Hermione recognized her now as Daphne Greengrass. "Do you think Draco has slept with her yet?"

"No, he hasn't Daph. Don't go there."

"But you know the way he-"

"YES I know the way he acts! And I know the things he says! But it's all pretend. He told me so. He's a boy and he sort of has to, but it's all lies. The truth is his father's very possessive of his Muggle tarts and wants to make sure there's no confusion in the bloodline. Draco couldn't get near that little mouse if he tried. Though WHY Lucius wants her I've no idea. Here, help me fix this sticking charm. My chest is about to spill.."

"Can Mindy help Miss?"

"What? Ugh! Get out of here elf! What are you doing lurking about in the witch's loo? Shoo!"

"Mindy has to wait, Miss. Mindy has to escort Missus back to party. Master said."

One of the voices snorted. "Missus? Escort? Oh Merlin, that's funny! Imagine needing an elf to take you to the loo!"

"Like a baby!"

Hermione's cheeks burned. This awful night had just got immeasurably worse.

"Hmm... I wonder who it it is."

"I see green shoes, Pansy. It's Granger! The professor's probably afraid she'll do something stupid like wander off and cause trouble so he has to give her a babysitter. How pathetic!"

"Maybe she'll get a spanking when he takes her home tonight."

"We can only hope! Come on out, Granger. We both know you're there! No more hidey hidey!"

Hermione suppressed the urge to snarl at the unfairness of life. She emerged from her stall with as much dignity as she could muster, smoothed out her shimmering gown (it felt good to have clothing every bit as nice as theirs) and swept past them, head held high, to wash her hands.

Parkinson and Greengrass looked at her, looked at each other, and then giggled nastily. "Better hurry, Granger, dear. Your elf is waiting! We wouldn't want you to...get lost, now, would we?"

She had had enough. "It's not Granger it's Snape. And did it ever occur to you laughing hyenas that since I've never actually been in this house before that I didn't know where the bathroom was? So I did the Muggle thing and I asked someone. So sue me!"

"If you weren't such a jumped up little Mudblood, you'd have been coming here since you were born!"

Heaving another long suffering sigh, Hermione decided to put them straight, and she'd only say it once.

"For your information, dears, I never wanted to be 'jumped up' at all! I don't want your mansions; I don't want your pedigrees; I don't want your servants, your connections, or your snobbishness! I'm a SWOT, understand? I just want to study, make experiments, and maybe have a nice little government research job. Believe me, I don't need you to tell me I don't belong here!"

"Really? Then why ARE you here, Granger?"

"Snape! My name is SNAPE, and you know very well why I'm here! Because some sodding idiot in that stupid Ministry passed that RIDICULOUS, IMBICILLIC Marriage Law!

"Ooh, ooh! Careful Granger, you don't want to let... Severus... hear you talk like that."

"That's Professor Snape, to you," she sniped back acidly. "He may be your head of house, but I'M on a first name basis with him, not you. Remember that!" She flashed them a frosty smile before leaving.

"Oh I wouldn't brag if I were you Granger," Pansy's voice virtually dripped with spite. "You know our professor's just using you for sex. You mean nothing to him! Someone like you never could."

"And maybe he'll spank you tonight after all!" was the parting shot, and cruel laughter followed.

Halfway down the hall Hermione had to pause. Ignorant as she was of wizarding etiquette, she'd still be willing to bet that "keeping up appearances" was just as important to magical snobs as it was to Muggle snobs. I can't let those COWS get to me... She took a moment to wipe her eyes.

"Missus must hurry," Mindy cautioned urgently.

"Wait a moment Mindy. I... I don't want anyone to see me cry."

The little house elf came up to her and patted her gently. "Missus must not cry. Missus is good kind Missus and will leave here soon. Soon no more cry."

Hermione almost laughed through her tears. She couldn't be sure if little Mindy was trying to get rid of her or actually being kind. She hoped it was kind. The poor elf looked like a good sort.

"Thanks, Mindy," she sniffed. "Just let me take it slow for a few minutes. Umm.. maybe you could tell me about the pictures or something. Are these all Malfoy ancestors?"

"Yes, Missus. But we has got to leave! Master will be waiting."

"That's right young lady!" sniped an aristocratic old witch in a nearby painting."You lack manners!"

"Obviously ill-bred," sniffed another.

"Nasty little upstart! What possessed young Lucius to invite her?"

"I have NO idea..."

"What is the Magical world coming to?"

"Oh, I give up!" Hermione snorted in exasperation. "This whole house is against me!"

All down the corridor paintings on either side shook their heads and made disparaging comments. They critiqued her posture, her hair, and her obvious discomposure. They made comments about her dress.

Hermione's hurried on past them. Now she couldn't wait to get back to that party. At least Severus was there, and even though she was sure he was angry with her, just the thought of him was strangely comforting. The thought of him felt like home to her, and she did her best not to think about what that meant. Maybe he was using her for sex- he certainly enjoyed it often enough- but she knew in her heart it couldn't be just that. Severus cared for her- at least enough to make sure she was safe. That's why he was angry after all. The cruel words of those nasty witches still rang in her head, but they only made her more anxious to get back to him. Severus was her only anchor here

Painted people were urging her on, leaving their frames to crowd one another to get near her. Hostility raged at her from every side. Except in one painting which, strangely enough, was completely still.

Which was odd...

Ignoring the others, Hermione suddenly stopped to take a look at it, and seeing her interest, the other paintings inexplicably hushed. They whispered and muttered but that was about all.

It was a picture of a beautiful woman, a woman at that mysterious age when she appeared almost ageless. She sat carelessly, yet elegantly on the edge of an embroidered divan, her lovely features set in a haughty smile. Platinum blonde hair spilled down her shoulders in an elaborate, silky arrangement. She obviously looked like a Malfoy. But why didn't she move?

An accusing, sneering voice was suddenly at her elbow. It was Draco. "What are you staring at, Granger?"

Hermione fought down yet another sigh. "It's Snape, Draco. My name is Snape."


"I is taking Missus to the toilets and back to the party," Mindy piped up. "Master says so."

Draco looked down at the elf and curled his lip.

"Why doesn't it move?" Hermione asked intrigued.

Malfoy looked a little uncomfortable and she wondered at it. Was he embarrassed? Was the painting faulty in some way? Was he ashamed of it?

"Is it broken?" she asked. Not that she wanted it fixed. This terrifyingly cold and beautiful Malfoy would probably just sneer at her along with the others. Still, Hermione had always been curious.

"No, of course not!" Draco spat. Now he looked very uncomfortable. "If you must know, Mrs. Snape, it doesn't move because it''s... it's Muggle. That's why!"

Hermione stared at him. For a moment she had a hysterical impulse to laugh. The Malfoys had a MUGGLE picture in their hallowed halls and she had gotten DRACO to admit it? How funny was that? Yet, unaccountably, the look in the proud boy's eyes made the laughter catch in her throat and stick there. There was something about this painting that really bothered Draco, and her kind nature didn't seem to want to hurt him- though why, she had no idea. He really was a git.

Something in her own eyes must have given her away, though, because the boy reacted with a snarl.

"Well, so what?" he almost shouted. "Do you think wizards don't take things from Muggles, that we don't USE Muggle artists and musicians? The orchestra playing tonight is Muggle! We use them and obliviate them. That's if we let them LIVE!" he added spitefully.

He waved his hand airily at the painting. "So what if my great-great-great aunt had a fling with a Muggle painter? She got a free portrait out of it before she killed him." He looked pointedly at Hermione. "After all, that's what you do with Muggles.. when you're done with them, that is."

Ignoring the barb, Hermione decided to smile instead of shout at him. Only a few moments ago Pansy had said something about Draco putting on acts, pretending to be tougher, darker than he actually was. So maybe he hadn't raped his father's poor Muggleborn wives, but only felt compelled to say that he had. Perhaps the rest of his cruelty was an act too.. . Or at least some of it. There was no denying he had always been nasty to her. She smiled in his face knowing that the smile would sting him.

"Well, your Muggle artist was certainly talented. He made his subject pretty." Draco looked murderous. "Or maybe he just captured her beauty. Anyway, this is the best painting in your whole house. It doesn't insult me!" Hermione smiled again as waves of fury practically radiated off Draco.

Mindy broke in frantically, pulling Hermione by the hand. "Missus has got to go! Master is waiting!"

Draco scowled but didn't stand in their way. She could feel his angry eyes follow her down the rest of the long hall as magical portraits whispered and shook their heads.

"Took you long enough!" growled Severus as soon as she was back with him.

Hermione bristled. "What, where you timing me? I was in the loo, and I did have a chaperon!"

"Excuse me for my concern, Hermione, but in case you may have forgotten, you aren't exactly in the habit of going where you are supposed to go or staying where you are supposed to be!"

A flash of guilt assailed the young Gryffindor at that, but it only made her more irritable.

"Oh please, Severus. I'm not stupid! This is the creepiest place I've ever been to, with some of the creepiest people I've ever seen- no matter how glamorous and beautiful they look! I'm not about to go wandering about. I ran into a couple of nasty girls in the loo, that's all."

Thankfully, her husband appeared somewhat mollified. "Hex anyone?" He asked dryly.

"No! Give me some credit! I told them off, though."

Snape gave a snort. "Hexing would probably have made more of an impression."

She tried unsuccessfully to mask a sudden smirk, but her husband's droll had an odd effect on her temper. "Hmph. I'll remember that for next time. I also ran into Malfoy by the portraits."

Severus looked at her sharply.

"Draco, not Lucius."

He visibly relaxed. "Any problems?"

"No, not really." She sighed. "You know I think a lot of his nastiness might really be bluster. I mean, he sort of has to be cruel, or at least to look it. Not that I think he's ever going to treat me with any respect, but... well, maybe there's a lot about him I just don't know."

Snape gave her a fleeting look that might have been approval. Just for a moment, anyway. "Glad to hear it. Someday you may discover that very few people are exactly what they seem."

"Maybe," she said slumping a little. "but I'd feel more comfortable if they were. When can we leave?"

"Not long. An hour perhaps. We need to circulate through the crowd and make sure people see nothing amiss with us. Now would be a good time to pretend a 'dutiful wife' demeanor."

She scowled and Severus tipped her chin to to look at her soberly. "Spy work's a bitch, isn't it? Just stay close to me, keep smiling, and we'll be out of her soon. I hate this every bit as much as you do."

They entered the milling crowd again and Hermione smiled and nodded to people that acknowledged Severus far more than they did her. Many of them could have been individuals she had already been introduced to, but at this point she honestly couldn't remember. And that was strange. She could remember anything she had ever read in a book but when it came to people- putting names to faces, exchanging pleasantries, and remembering idle conversations she was sadly inept. Why was that?

She could remember everything (verbatim) a professor said in class- even if it didn't concern the lesson. There had been times she had recalled whole conversations between her friends, remembering little details that had later turned out to be important. She even remembered conversations she had overheard between her enemies! Why was she floundering here? Some sleuth she was...

Severus led her over to a dancing area where garishly dressed witches and wizards were twirling about like kaleidoscope shapes to music that sounded rather like Mozart. Sadly, she knew very little about music either. And was that really a Muggle orchestra? She peered at them curiously, trying to discern anything non magical about them, but her attention was suddenly commandeered by Severus when he bowed, extended his arms to her, and swept her into the dance.

Inexplicably, once on the dance floor, Hermione seemed to calm. She was with Severus, there was no boring conversation or endless bits of archaic etiquette, and here, at least, she knew what she was doing. She thanked God (and her parents too!) for the dance lessons she had had before fourth year.

Ever since she had seen the words, "dress robes" on her school list, Hermione had known there would be a dance, a formal dance, and she thought, at the time, that she might get a chance to dance with Ron. She hadn't wanted to screw that up, so she had begged her parents for ballroom dance lessons. Those, added to the mini-lessons professor McGonagall had given them had solved the problem admirably.

Except that she had never once danced with Ron. She had only had a few bright moments as a celebrity squeeze before she and Ron had had a row which had left her crying on the stairs at the end of the Ball. Who would ever have thought that one day she would end up dancing in the arms of Severus Snape at Malfoy Manor? Well, strange things did happen sometimes.

And Severus was an excellent dancer. He moved with confident, effortless grace as though he had been doing this all his life- and perhaps he had. Maybe pureblood wizards spent their lives dancing, making effortless smalltalk, and ordering about their house elves- that is when they weren't hexing each other or supporting dark lords. Hermione wondered just how many witches Severus had danced with to have become so proficient. She didn't want to think about how many he had slept with...

It was strange, but dancing with Severus seemed almost as intimate as having sex with him- though not nearly as pleasurable. Hermione felt herself blushing slightly and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to push the correlation from her mind. Severus was angry with her. She wasn't likely to get sex tonight unless it was a nasty little quickie or something far more sordid.

But Snape didn't do sordid, at least not with her. The only time he had ever taken her roughly was when he had woken up from one of his nightmares, and that had only happened once. Thereafter, he had kept himself rigidly in control at such times- unless, of course, she had insisted on offering him comfort. Whenever he was angry he simply gave her the cold shoulder. He didn't debase her.

Hermione wished she hadn't fallen fowl of his temper. Too many people tonight had made her feel inadequate, not necessarily because of their opinions of her, but for her lack of social finesse. She had been snubbed too many times for her ego- not matter how strong- to not be affected. She wanted some positive, pleasurable attention.

Moving smoothly through the dance, Hermione could feel her husband's body heat through his robes. Her hands could feel his contours. Held so close, she could smell his unique, spicy scent. Snape's face wore his inscrutable "public" expression- a sort of dignified superiority. He even appeared to be smiling. But it was impossible to tell what his feelings really were. He was occluding, something he was extremely good at. Hermione couldn't help thinking that his odd, homely face was actually attractive. She wondered if other witches thought so too. If only she hadn't blown it with him!

Looking back, Hermione supposed she really should have known that talking to Emma would cause trouble. She should have known what Lucius' reaction would be- and Snape's too, for that matter. She had told herself at the time that she was only being friendly, but it had been more than that. True, she hadn't wanted to stand alone in a crowd feeling lost and stupid, but deep down she had wanted to learn something. She had been curious. She had been doing exactly what she wasn't supposed to be doing.

She had been spying.

And it had gone belly up- not only for her but for poor Emma as well. She had caused Lucius to be angry with his wife, and he was certain to be far less restrained in showing that displeasure than Severus was with her. Had Hermione really thought she could help the poor witch? How naive could she possibly have been? There was nothing at all she could really do for Emma, and if she had stopped to think, she had always known it. Trying to befriend her had not been an act of mercy.

She should have been cautious. Heck, she USED to be cautious! What had happened? Had years of rule breaking made her overconfident? Had that overconfidence morphed twistedly into arrogance? The bookish little swot she had been at eleven would never have behaved in this way. Or would she?

Hermione remembered how pushy she had been as a young student, waving her hand wildly in every class, showing off constantly, and taking it upon herself to instruct others or inform them of the rules. She had been bossy and headstrong. She was probably STILL bossy and headstrong- except that now she was married to a man she couldn't possibly boss. No wonder Snape didn't trust her. She had as much spy sense as a brick.

Looking out at the masses of people who wouldn't accept her and who she had failed to connect with, she sighed again and looked wryly at Snape. "You know Severus, you were right when you warned me against spying. I'd be pants at it, and this party is proof. I don't have the personality for subterfuge. I'm impatient, not very subtle, and I can't make small talk to save my life. I'm just a brainy swot, but you know, I'm comfortable being that. You don't have to worry. I'll leave the spying to you."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "Truly?"

She sighed again. "Yeah."

"Well, well. Thank God, finally, for that!"

She shook her head at him. "I thought you didn't believe in God."

Lips quirked sardonically. "You do my dear. I'm thanking him for you. In case you somehow forget."

A reluctant smile tugged at her mouth. She'd never understand him, never in a million years.

Severus watched as Hermione began to let down her hair, frowning absently into the mirror while her fingers fumbled with clasps. She looked rather tired and a little pensive, and she was also still wearing that gorgeous dress. He took a few moments to appreciate her. He'd take that dress off her presently and this uncomfortable day would end on a happier note. For now, he enjoyed merely looking at her.

Something good had to come out of this night because Merlin knew little else had. What he had learned tonight was minimal. The odd wards around the Malfoy house had been taken down and there was hardly a whisper of the strange magic he had detected earlier. Lucius still looked too young and healthy for a man his age, but that in and of itself, was not enough to raise anyone's suspicions. Lots of people looked better than their age- especially if they were magical and very, very wealthy. There was little in that to interest any aurors.

And Malfoy knew it. He had been laughing at them all. While that smug, dark wizard had been entertaining the Minister and his senior Aurors (and all the magical gentry he could pack into his nefarious house,), he had been dangling himself and his poor doomed wife right in their faces. He had been practically flaunting whatever sick scheme he was up to- without them having the slightest clue. Snape had found it frustrating in the extreme.

The only thing he had really learned so far was that only Malfoy seemed to have discovered the secret to prolonged youth. None of his cronies showed even a fraction of his oddly renewed vigor and power or displayed as much as a whiff of his unusual magic. Yet they had noticed something because they were starting to cluster about him.

Just like they had once clustered about the Dark lord.

There was a long, uncomfortable road of spying ahead of him, and he would have to go it alone. Snape had no concrete evidence against Malfoy beyond his own feelings and suspicions. Even the fact that Lucius might be gathering followers wouldn't raise any alarms in the current political climate. The man was popular, handsome, and rich, so of course he would have lots of friends. Severus would have to venture into the darkness again to find out what was really going on. Oh how lovely.

Best to call it a night.

Curl after luscious curl fell as the rest of Hermione's hair escaped from its up-do and she pushed it carelessly away from her face as she removed her magical make-up. It was the sort of moment another sort of woman might have used to her advantage, but Hermione didn't. It probably never occurred to her that she could flirt with her husband or attempt to seduce him, or even that she should. Perhaps she truly didn't realize what the sight of her did to him. She seemed to have no idea of her beauty at all.

Hermione's eyes flitted his way for a moment only to direct themselves immediately elsewhere. She seemed a little unsettled, a little self conscious. Severus wondered if she would ever learn to feel comfortable with him.

"So... did you learn anything spying tonight?" she asked casually. The question caught him off guard.

"I thought you weren't going to interest yourself in this." His voice sounded a little more stern than he would have liked.

"I said I wasn't going to spy, Severus, but I didn't say I wasn't still interested." She sighed audibly. "I'm actually just trying to make conversation. You talked to a lot of people tonight and I didn't. I just wondered if anything came of it, that's all."

Snape shrugged. "Nothing of any real significance. I did manage to obtain a few open invitations to the homes of some Malfoy sycophants, but not to worry. I won't be asking you to accompany me."

If he had thought she would be angry or disappointed, he was mistaken. She looked visibly relieved.

"That's good. Tonight was bad enough. Though I suppose tonight wasn't that bad. It's just that I felt so out of place. It's not my fault I came from the Muggle world and don't know any of them..."

"Hey," she brightened suddenly, "did you know the Malfoys actually have a Muggle portrait on their wall? Ha! Draco said a great aunt or somebody had an affair with a Muggle, and then posed for a picture before she murdered him. And she kept the picture!"

"Stranger things have happened," he said dryly. He wondered why he had never heard of it.

"True, but it just seemed so funny. I mean, having it up on the wall with all the others instead of burning it, or something, for being inferior. Draco tried to act as if it were all so ordinary, but I could tell he was embarrassed. I suppose I rubbed it in just ever so slightly..."

"You do know that antagonizing a Malfoy isn't the most intelligent course of action," he had to say.

She sighed again. "I know, but it was the only satisfaction I got the entire night."

"Really? Well, the night isn't over, you know. I do believe I promised you a reward."

"A reward?" she sniffed. "What for? You're angry with me. I shot my mouth off, made a fool out of myself, and generally wound up doing my utmost to embarrass you- all without even trying, I might add. Your 'reward' was only for if put on a good act. I failed" Her shoulders slumped.

Severus moved over to her to where she sat and placed his hands on her shoulders. "It's true that you didn't comport yourself in the manner I would have liked, but you didn't actually act like a fool. You behaved like a Gryffindor- emotional, headstrong, impulsive, and passionate. You acted in character. Had you behaved too perfectly, people would have wondered. As it is, you were exactly as expected."

"Wonderful," she mused with a sarcasm to rival his, "I confirmed to everyone what an idiot I am."

"Not necessarily." He rubbed her shoulders a little. "You did, by the way, say just the right thing to Lucius Malfoy, which diffused a potentially ugly situation and actually disarmed him."

"When I was being flippant?"

"Indeed. He took it at face value."

Hermione looked up at him in the mirror. "You're kidding! Even HE can't be that stupid!"

Severus frowned a little. "No, Lucius Malfoy isn't stupid, Hermione. But he is arrogant. Arrogance nearly always leads to errors. As it was he thinks you are confused, chastened, somewhat humbled, and intimidated. You aren't, of course, but he thinks you are. You put your pride aside and played a role I KNOW you didn't want to in order to try to protect that poor child from her husband's wrath- More of a Hufflepuff action than a Slytherin really, but I applaud you. "

He leaned down so that his mouth was next to her ear and he tickled the side of her face with his nose. He let his fingers slide over her, creeping closer to places he couldn't touch in public "I think we can safely say that you earned your reward."

The brown eyes reflected in the glass looked startled, but not displeased. The corners of her mouth turned up a little as she leaned back ever so slightly towards him. She was a little hesitant as she turned around to face him, yet not hesitant at all as she allowed him to kiss her. Severus took advantage of that and kissed her deeply, tangling his fingers sensually in her thick, luscious tangle of curls.

Presently, he did, indeed, relieve her of her dress, and presently they did go to bed.

After a long, extremely pleasant interval, Severus lay relaxed and comfortable with his sleeping wife in the crook of his arm. He mused over how easily Hermione always fell asleep. It was partly her innocence, of course. But, then again, he had rather tired her out. Snape smirked in the dark. His innocent wife had a prodigious capacity for pleasure. He couldn't help but enjoy exploiting it.

By this time in their marriage Snape had experimented enough with their lovemaking to be confident of success with her. He knew what she liked, what she really, liked, and what didn't excite her much at all. Tonight she had actually been rather eager, if in a shy, almost guarded sort of way. He wished she would actually initiate the act occasionally, try to seduce him, but he knew Hermione didn't actually want him. He should take whatever he could get.

And at least she hadn't held back in that terribly irritating way anymore. She had become accustomed to sex, and possibly more comfortable with him. Perhaps in time she would become more aggressive in bed. Gryffindors were supposed to be fierce, passionate lovers- at least that's what he was told. He wondered what it would take to get her to throw herself at him. If there was any chance of that at all.

Tonight, though, she had thought he was angry with her, and it seemed to bother her that he might be too angry to have sex with her. Of course that might be just another aspect of her "good student" eager to please personality, but it did occur to him that it might also be a positive sign. She cared what he thought of her. He wondered if she would ever want to please him personally.

The look on her face when she had described her "bad" behavior had been rueful, shamed, even a little bitter. Did she really think so little of herself, or think so little of him, that she would believe he would deprive her (and himself) of carnal pleasure just because she wasn't... perfect? Then he thought about how unfair, and downright cruel, he had always been as a teacher and inwardly he cringed.

That was probably how she still saw him. She didn't know that he cared for her. She had no idea that it would take far more than a few simple social gaffes to make him reject her. Hermione didn't realize that he had always intended to reward her no matter what she did. He had held out sex as a carrot, but there had never been a stick.

Snape longed to lose himself in loving his wife. He eagerly anticipated the joy of her response. Evidence of her pleasure was like ambrosia to him- a comfort he desperately needed. Tonight he had waded again into the darkness, and a foul taint seemed to cling to him. It was as if an acrid odor of evil lingered upon him like the pong of tobacco smoke that clung to one's clothing. Clothes, however, could easily be cleaned. There was no way Snape knew of to wash one's soul.

Hermione's sweetness seemed almost like a spiritual balm to him, as though making love to someone so innocent (and making her like it) would somehow cancel out some of his sins. If only it would! He wished he could make her love him, make her need him as much as he needed her. But even if he couldn't do that, her time with him wouldn't be empty. He could keep her safe; he could cherish the time he had with her; he could give her pleasure; and one day, of course, he could let her go...

Cuddling Hermione a little closer to him, Severus hoped that day wouldn't be soon. Much as he loved her, he was selfish, and letting go was not the Slytherin way. Perhaps he could convince her to stay with him even if she didn't actually return his feelings. Many marriages had continued for years from the powers of convenience and convention. Snape wondered what he could do to make sure they both stayed together. He was still wondering when he slipped softly into sleep.