Hermione had always been the one to make the first move, to openly show her interest, whether it be by her words or actions. At first, he'd ignored it, then stopped it, then allowed it. Today was entirely her doing too, so maybe it was finally time he take that step forward himself, that he show Hermione her feelings were reciprocated. She didn't seem insecure, far from it, but he knew how it felt to be in her position and be faced by a wall of indifference, even if he had done so to protect her, not to be cruel, but there was no point now in keeping her at arm's length.
Today, Hermione was officially healed, master of her own mind, body and heart. Only his own doubts, insecurities and fear were in the way. He could let his past continue to shadow his happiness, or he could take a leap of faith… he knew Hermione would catch him. She could probably do it literally, too.
"Hermione," he said as he took a step forward and it was okay if he sounded sappy.
Fools in love. Or rather, love makes fools of everyone.
Hermione hadn't moved. She was waiting for him and her smile hadn't slipped one inch while he'd been mulling things over. He cupped her face, gently tilted it up and kissed the corner of her mouth where her scar twisted it downwards even as she smiled. Her skin was warm and smelled of something sweet. Cake probably, he thought with some amusement and wondered if she tasted of sugar and vanilla too. Hermione hummed and pressed herself closer to him, but he realized she was holding herself back, letting him take the lead when it had to be against her nature.
He buried his nose in her hair, closing his eyes, overwhelmed by the smell of her shampoo, less sweet but reminding him of the plants he used in his potions, of fresh cut Wiggentree leafs and Moly flowers. He nuzzled closer to her neck, pushing aside curls that tried to ensnare him so he could whisper in her ear.
The shift was instantaneous. The tension he had felt throughout her body snapped and her hands moved eagerly against him, up his back where they'd been resting and over his chest until she could pull him down by the front of his robe. This time, for the first time, they met halfway and Severus knew everything would be fine.
Severus felt like he'd played through a day long Quidditch match when he woke up hours later. It was hunger that had pulled him out of his blissed out coma, he realized when his stomach grumbled anew.
Sure enough, he'd missed breakfast, and lunch apparently. Judging by the sun, it was around tea time, but he'd gladly miss any number of meals just so he could laze about in bed with his lovely - and naked - Hermione in his arms. However, he was rather disturbed to see Voldy was curled up against her because he was pretty sure she had locked the door with him on the other side, so just how had he found his way in? As if feeling eyes on him, Voldy glanced his way, judged him of little interest, snorted and resumed his soft snoring. Severus decided the mutt might have the right of it and dismissed him from his mind too.
However, he was surprised Hermione was still sleeping since food was usually paramount to her, but she looked peaceful and dare he say, happy. He noticed scars on her shoulders in the golden light coming through the window that he had never seen before: old, some deep but most rather shallow. More tokens from her life in the Forest, no doubt. He traced them lightly with his fingers, committing the network of white lines to memory until her eyelashes fluttered and she looked back at him with her goofy grin.
Once awake, Hermione couldn't keep still and barely took the time to dress she was so hungry. She could apparently smell food wafting up from downstairs and was worried the boys would eat everything, which was ridiculous because the house-elves' cooked ridiculous amounts while Draco picked at his plate like a bird and Krum was watching his weight before the nearing Quidditch season. As it was, Severus barely had time to throw his outer robe over Hermione's shoulders to cover her a bit more before she barged into the living room half dressed, startling the two wizards sharing tea and conversation in quite tones.
"Told you," she said smugly around a mouthful of pie.
"Such a Gryffindor," Draco tutted disapprovingly. "I'd ask how you're feeling since this morning but I think the answer is quite obvious."
"Never better," she replied anyway, not the least bit bothered by his allusion to their… activities, or by their curious stares.
Severus put on a blank mask. It had been a long time since he'd felt the need to call upon his occlumency, but he didn't want to let anything slip, least of all a blush. They already knew more than enough of his private affairs.
"Ve vere discussing your return," Krum said, visibly as eager to get away from the topic of their relationship as he was. "My cousin vill arrive a day early. He had a little trouble at his last stop and moved up his schedule. But Draco tells me Hermy-own-ninny has taken the last memories quite vell?"
Hermione nodded, swallowed a mouthful and nodded.
"I think I'm ready to go home and see everyone. At least, I known I won't bite anyone's face off this time… unless they deserve it, of course."
"Of course," Draco chuckled. "Maybe you should avoid the Weasleys then, and remember not to push yourself too much. When people get wind of your return, it's going to be complete and utter madness."
Severus sighed. He'd almost forgotten Hermione was such a celebrity and that they couldn't keep her hidden forever. Hell, if she wanted to resume her life, complete her studies, find a job, a place to live, even just apparate on her own... they were going to have to officially resurrect her and that meant a paper trail. Even if they used favours and bribes, he gave it three days before the whole of Britain knew of her return.
"You can't be serious," Draco said while Severus eyed their ticket back home with some curiosity. They had all apparated to a nearby lake and looked on as their transport swayed in front of them in all its creaking, wooden beauty, tattered sails and tangles of ropes. So many ropes everywhere: dangling, pulled taught, coiled like snakes, knotted… Krum gave Draco a flat look, not bothering with an answer when the boat was so imposing and quite literally dripping on them. "You're serious. Alright. Well… it's not like we have much of a choice anyway."
Severus slapped him behind his too blond head. Lucius had raised his offspring to be a prat, true, but Severus wouldn't let him get away with it, not on his watch.
"Just say thank you, Draco. There's a good boy."
Draco rolled his eyes but mumbled a thank you to the Krums, even if it clearly wasn't as heartfelt as it should be. The other Krum, the new one who had demanded to be called 'Captain' looked nothing like Viktor: he was tall, blond and tanned, he actually reminded Severus most unpleasantly of Gilderoy Lockhart and he could only pray the captain was competent in his chosen trade contrary to that other fraud. The ship was undoubtedly magical since it looked like the twin of the one that had brought the Durmstrang delegation to Hogwarts for the Triwizard tournament.
"It is smaller," the Captain told him when he asked about it. "Which only makes this beauty better as it is faster for our discreet delivery service."
Severus chuckled at how the smuggler chose to call his trade.
"There are only two magical ships left in the world unfortunately. They ran out of fashion after portkeys became available through ministries. Durmstrang holds one of course and the other is displayed in Budapest's Museum of Magical Transport."
Severus furrowed his brow. Surely the man could count, or this trip might be more dangerous than he imagined.
"Or so they think," the Captain added with a wink and laughed heartily.
Severus smirked and nodded approvingly at the Captain. If he had managed to pull off a theft of that magnitude then he couldn't possibly be a dunderhead. He would keep a close eye on their belongings and on Hermione though, because he might be Krum's cousin but he seemed to be a thief at heart and might not be able to help himself to a little extra galleons or a King's Ransom.
When it was time, Viktor shook his hand solemnly.
"Take care of Hermy-own-ninny."
"I think she can take care of herself now. Thank you for your help and for hosting us."
"Anything for friends," he replied and went in search of Hermione to say goodbye.
Friends. Severus raised his eyebrows at the revelation. He had somehow become friends with a world renowned Quidditch champion, and only Hermione could have gotten them to get along. He was sure this was only the tip of the iceberg of the changes to come. He could kiss his old life as a grumpy recluse goodbye if he wanted to keep Hermione in his life, but the sacrifice didn't feel so awful in comparison to what he gained, even if it did involve a whole lot of socializing and Gryffindors.
"Keep in touch," Krum was telling Hermione as he approached and she hugged him.
"Of course I will. We'll always be pack, whatever the distance."
Krum looked like he might cry, but he rounded on Draco who was still staring with disbelief at the boat and gave him a mighty tap in the back that almost sent him toppling into the water.
Apparently that was all, but Hermione rolled her eyes with a muttered "boys" that everyone pretended not to hear.
The Captain hollered something incomprehensible and everyone save Viktor climbed the gangplank. Silver grey sails were let loose, filling with wind that was not there and a translucent bubble started surrounding the ship. Hermione waved at Viktor and suddenly they sank deep into the waters until even the highest mast was under. As they dove deeper into the waters, the Captain blew a whistle he had around his neck and bubbles of iridescent light began floating inside the larger bubble containing the ship. Out of curiosity, Severus poked one which had wandered too close to him with his index finger, half-expecting it to burst, but it simply bounced away, hovering around the head of a nearby crew member who was coiling a rope as large as his arm at his feet and completely ignoring the clingy little bubble of light.
Hermione loved the boat, she said it was like sailing the midnight sky amidst the stars, except she didn't have to worry about falling down. Pertinent, if a bit too poetic for his taste. She also loved watching the fish and they caught sight of mermaids when they approached the Mediterranean sea except they looked a lot more human than those in the Black Lake next to Hogwarts. Severus was relieved when they stopped in Bastia, on the small Corse Island south of France. The Captain apparently had a lot of goods waiting for him there that had to be delivered en route to England. Severus did not ask questions because the dockers looked shifty and there was an alarming amount of galleons exchanging hands so discreetly it wasn't discreet at all anymore. They might as well be wearing masks and hoods.
The only upside is that they discovered Hermione could understand French fairly well although she was having trouble speaking it. But she did confirm their dealings were very shady and that they should leave before "gendarmes" arrived whatever the hell that was.
Draco made note of her French abilities and tried other languages on her, not that he knew any himself, but the sailors certainly did. However, Severus had a sneaking suspicion they were mostly saying swear words and salacious jokes because they laughed in that way men do when they think they're being clever.
They were slowly navigating west with regular stops to exchange merchandise and amass galleons: Marseilles, Barcelona, Lisbon, Brest. They were almost home and Severus couldn't wait to sleep in a real bed instead of the hammocks they'd been given with the rest of the -mostly snoring- crew. Only the Captain had a cabin, which explained why he was the only cheery person on the boat, except for Hermione who said she'd slept in much worse conditions in the Forbidden Forest. Draco looked even worse than he did. His hair matted and greyish instead of its usual shiny platinum. He hated sailing and couldn't keep his food down, even after Severus sought out a potion in Marseilles with Hermione's help as a translator.
His only consolation was that Voldy hated the trip too and usually lay curled in on himself in Hermione's hammock.
Throughout their voyage, the Captain always told them when they were stopping and resurfacing so they could breathe some fresh air, so Severus was mildly curious when his hammock stopped swinging in the dead of night. He'd gotten so used to the motion putting him to sleep that the lack of it snapped him awake. He hoped he wouldn't have to enchant his massive poster-bed at Hogwarts to rock him to sleep. He'd never live it down if anyone found out.
Currently, he was more worried about the complete and utter stillness of the boat. Everyone else was still asleep though: the snoring sailors, or most of them anyway, Draco and even Hermione. He crept slowly up to the deck and was met by a cloudless almost full moon shining brightly over the calm waters. It was beautiful, he had to admit and the feeling of being so isolated and so small in the vast sea made him feel more at peace than insignificant. Quite the opposite of when he looked up at the stars. He soon spotted a lone figure leaning against the railing and he hesitated whether the approach him or spy on him. If he wasn't mistaken it was the Captain, but this would be the first time he saw him without his feathered hat. It was evident he was up to something. He cursed Viktor. Damn him for trusting second-hand parties. Severus disillusioned himself and kept at a distance but close enough to see what he was up to. The Captain was looking through a long-view staring at the same spot. What Severus had taken to be one of the moonlight's reflections on the water at first was moving at a steady pace towards them. A lantern? Was this just some exchange between the smuggler and a client? But in that case, why be so secretive about it? He usually surrounded himself with his crew so no one would try to rob him during an exchange, but tonight, he could only see a couple of his men lurking around, staring at the same point with greedy grins that glinted in the moonlight.
Well, it was the Captain's business he supposed, so he would stay out of it, but Merlin help him if he put Hermione in harm's way just to make an extra galleon or two. Out of curiosity, he approached when the smaller boat was within shouting range so he could hear the exchange. They would be somewhere between France and England now, so he had a fifty-fifty chance of understanding what would be going on..
"Greeting, Captain of the Speedy Siren!"
Ah, a fellow countryman then.
"You the guy goes by James?" the Captain asked, only it wasn't the real Captain but one of his sailors wearing his ridiculous hat.
Curiouser and curiouser. It was probably meant as a decoy… Severus tightened his grip on his wand.
"Depends, Captain. You the guy with Avalon Crown?"
In answer, the sailor held up a cloth bag that could be the size of a crown, but whether it contained that or a brick was anyone's guess.
"It's gonna cost you a pretty penny!"
"Or not," the man in the small boat replied, now close enough that he didn't need to shout. "Stupefy!"
The fake Captain went down. Now was a good time to fight off the stranger, even more so because he'd been hiding his own men in his tiny boat somehow. An expansion charm no doubt. Were they being accosted by pirates? He'd had no idea there were still pirates on the sea, but he wouldn't let them go anywhere near the cabin where Hermione was sleeping. Disillusioned as he was, it was child's play to stupefy the first pirate to set foot on their boat but that gave his position away and he had to take cover. Meanwhile the Captain roused his troups using a sonorus charm and soon, an all out battle took over the larger ship. Hermione was in the fray, having the time of her life apparently as she dangled from the ropes and kicked a couple of the invaders oberboard. He knew then he didn't have to worry about her falling to sea. Not with her skills.
Someone suddenly tripped on a rope behind him and he whirled around, coming wand to wand with…
He leveled his wand down, Potter mimicking his motion. He hoped this was a joke and that they hadn't just been caught in the middle of an Auror investigation, but all evidence pointed to the contrary. Potter called off his men and they retreated very reluctantly to the smaller boat, then Hermione jumped in his arms and hugged the life out of him.
"Hey! I didn't know you were on your way back? Why didn't you tell me?" Potter asked once he'd managed to ease Hermione off.
"The only way I found to efficiently keep a secret is to not spread it around, strangely," Severus snarked. "But I guess you managed to bollock that one up anyway."
"Severus," Hermione tutted. "Harry was just doing his job and you know it. But Harry, you can't arrest the Captain, he was bringing us home."
"He's a smuggler! And a wanted thief if he really has the Crown of Avalon in there."
"Oh, well then," the Captain piped up with a smile. "Problem solved."
He upended the cloth bag and a metal plate fell out, bounced once, then rolled in a circle until it stopped.
"So you were just going to fleece me, then? That still makes you a thief," Harry argued.
"Well, you were going to buy illegal contraband so what does that make you?"
"An auror!" Harry replied indignantly.
"He's Viktor's cousin," Severus said so they'd stop with this nonsensical argument.
The Captain grinned wider when Potter deflated.
"Oh, very well. But do you have any idea of the paperwork this is going to cost me? Tell Viktor he owes me one now."
The Captain nodded and made himself scarce while they discussed how they had come to be on this boat, but despite Hermione's assurances that she liked the boat, Harry insisted on bringing them back to land himself.
"And where's Draco? Did you push him overboard? Is it because he wore that abominable bow tie again?"
"No, no," Hermione laughed. "Pretty is not doing so well. He's seasick. I guess he'll be relieved to get home sooner. I'll go fetch him," she said and ran back down into the cabin.
Severus was packing and summoning their belongings all at once, which made for a distracting spectacle of flying objects parading around the boat before neatly packing themselves into a slowly approaching trunk that hovered inches above the floorboards as if it had tiny legs.
"Hermione has improved a lot, hasn't she?" Potter asked.
Was he making small talk? With him? He should know better.
"Indeed," Severus replied, continuing his work as if he hadn't been interrupted.
"And did she and Viktor-"
"Oh. Okay. So…"
Severus rolled his eyes and closed the lid of the trunk with an ominous thud before whirling around on the blabbering man.
"Are you trying to pry into my private life, Potter?" he asked, narrowing his eyes at him.
"No, Hermione's actually, but I guess that answers my question. Uhm… Congratulations?" he said but his face said he didn't mean it, which he seemed to realize. "Sorry. It's just a bit weird, you know? And I'm taking it well. Wait till the Weasleys learn about it. Or Professor McGonagall. You're a braver man than I am."
Severus actually considered staying on the boat at the thought of Molly and Minerva's hysterics if they knew he had sullied their precious Gryffindor golden girl. But that's not who she was anymore… Besides, they didn't need to tell anyone.
"It's none of their business either," he pointed out.
"Yeah, good luck with that," he said and walked passed him to greet Draco, still green at the gills.
One thing to be said, Potter's little boat was a lot faster than the Speedy Siren, and Draco seemed to be dealing better with a boat that stayed at the surface of the water than one which sank under. They all disembarked in Pool where the Aurors had a naval unit and they finally set foot on British soil again. Severus hadn't realized he'd missed his home country before now. He'd always thought himself above it, but now, he would love nothing more than a "real" cup of tea. It had never tasted quite right in Romania, even when he'd done it himself, and he wondered if it had something to do with the water or the climate.
Draco excused himself immediately and Potter looked at them expectantly. His own home was Hogwarts, but that didn't necessarily mean Hermione wanted to go there. Maybe she would want to leave with Harry. He glanced at her, waiting for her to clue him in and realizing they should have talked about it in private, before they had an audience. But in his defence, he'd thought they had another day on board before they were due to arrive.
"Home?" she asked and yawned.
Which really didn't help him.
"And where is home for you? You can go anywhere you want. I'm sure the Potters or the Weasleys would take you in if you want."
Or anyone really. What a publicity stunt that would be. Maybe Draco should have offered her one of the dozens guest rooms of Malfoy Manor.
"Home is where you are," Hermione said as if it was obvious.
Severus' heart stuttered. Potter's was turning into goo if the ridiculous sound he was making was any indication. He could have, at the very least, pretended not to be listening.
"Hogwarts it is then. Potter, thank you for the ride. I imagine we'll be seeing you soon."
"You can count on it!" he winked, hugged Hermione and disapparated.
Hermione slipped her hand in his and they followed suit.