Negotiations about their next date were made by owl; Hermione felt more comfortable discussing the matter by post, and she had the impression that Severus did too.
He had initially written to her to thank her for a pleasant lunch, and to suggest that she might like to do it again sometime. She had replied with her acceptance, and a description of the earwigging she had given the boys. She had reiterated her offer of the cottage, and assured him that her parents were agreeable, perhaps he would like to have lunch there?
He would be happy to have lunch there.
Perhaps next week?
Indeed. The Wednesday?
Wednesday would be acceptable. Shall we say noon?
The date, time and place were all set. Hermione had arranged for the cottage to be put on the floo network, and had arrived early that morning to set dinner in motion. A simple casserole was sitting in the Aga, being slowly warmed through, and an apple pie was resting on the side, ready to be slipped in the oven once the casserole was ready. The food was simple, and couldn't be ruined by over-cooking, which was always a worry with the temperamental Aga. More importantly it didn't require constant supervision, so she could spend her time talking to Severus, rather than stirring complex sauces.
She hadn't gone for fine linen, candles and flowers on the table. She didn't think Severus was that kind of a man, and she thought it would be too much for lunch anyway. A simple tablecloth, the usual crockery, and a bunch of flowers placed in a vase on the sideboard made for a welcoming, if not precisely romantic, atmosphere.
He was prompt. He arrived in a flurry of robes, and spent an inordinate amount of time brushing imaginary soot from his clothes, a process she watched with mild amusement.
He smiled at her, a little shyly; she decided to take the initiative and, standing on tiptoes, she kissed his cheek. She was rewarded with a quick squeeze of her hand, before he pulled back, nose twitching. "Something smells nice," he said.
"Just a bit of beef casserole, and apple pie for afters, nothing much," she replied.
"Ah, so you're not trying to impress me with your wifely skills." His eyes widened in horror at what he had said. He didn't know what was worse, bringing marriage into the equation at such an early stage, or insulting her cooking.
Fortunately she just grinned and said, "I'd better come clean then, my mother made them both; I wouldn't want a proposal under false pretences."
"If they're really good, I might consider proposing to your mother then."
"I think my father might object."
"A mere matter of detail," he said with a studied air of indifference. "It's simply a question of choosing the right poison."
It may be unorthodox to threaten to kill your girlfriend's father so you could marry your mother, but Severus was pleased to see that Hermione appreciated his sense of humour. Too often his sallies were greeted with blank incomprehension or the suggestion that he was being nasty.
He accepted the glass of wine he was offered, and sniffed at it gingerly. He was pleasantly surprised; it was rich, and heavy, perfectly suited to the beef. "Your mother again?" he asked.
"My father chose it; does it warrant a reprieve?"
"I'll reserve judgement until I've tried the casserole."
"I'd better check on it," she said, opening the door to the Aga. The casserole was clearly ready; it was bubbling away nicely. She cast a quick charm on the over gloves - no need to burn her fingers - and eased the dish out of the oven, slipping the pie in to take its place.
I hope you're hungry. Mum seems to have cooked enough for eight."
He suddenly realised that he was indeed very hungry, and he was aware that Hermione was assessing him in the manner of a farmer checking whether the pig was ready for the kill. She added another hefty spoonful to his bowl.
She put the bowl in front of him, topped up his wine glass, and then sat down at the pine table.
"You look tired," she said, "and you don't look like you've been eating properly. You need to take care of yourself better."
"Isn't it a little early in the relationship to be telling me that I need to be taking care of myself," he asked wryly. The casserole was very good indeed; he was trying to eat as much of it as quickly possible without obviously bolting his food. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt this hungry or eaten this well. Perhaps she was right and he needed to spend more time away from Hogwarts, maybe have a holiday.
"Not when you so obviously aren't looking after yourself. Anyway, you should look on it as enlightened self-interest. I have plans for you and you need to be fit for them."
"Haven't you heard the expression that there's no such thing as a free lunch?"
He looked puzzled; obviously a Muggle expression that hadn't crossed the cultural borders yet then. "What .... plans .... did you have in mind for me then," he asked, investing a wealth of meaning into the question. Whatever her answer, he was fairly certain that it wouldn't involve 'coffee'.
"You'll only find out if you eat all your lunch up, like a good boy." Her tone was just as suggestive as his had been.
Like the good boy he was, he wiped his bowl clean and then accepted the offered second helping. "Are you always this bossy?" he said.
"Oh yes, just ask the boys."
Ah yes, the boys. "Did you find out what they thought they were playing at, following you around like that? I've never seen such a pair of poor disguises."
She looked amused, her eyes dancing with enjoyment. "They weren't disguises; they wanted to be noticed. It was apparently in the nature of a warning to you: treat Hermione right or else."
He snorted at that, as if there was anything that they could do that Hermione wasn't perfectly capable of doing herself, up to and including hexing him into the middle of next week.
"I know they're annoying, but they do mean well."
"And you think that makes a difference?"
"Of course it does," she said simply.
He thought about it whilst Hermione bustled around clearing the table and serving the apple pie. Slytherins tended to focus on ends and not means. He supposed there was something to be said for good intentions; he just didn't think that he knew enough people who had good intentions to be able to tell. Which was, on reflection, something of a sad thing to say about his life.
He sighed. He supposed that this meant that he would have to be more tolerant of the boys in future. No one could deny that the pair of them was annoying, but they had stuck by each other for seven years of danger and aggravation.
He dismissed them from his mind. There was apple pie in front of him, and it was covered in custard, and he was seriously contemplating murder.
He watched Hermione eat her dessert. She was attacking the whole thing with an immense gusto that he found intensely attractive. She was enthusiastic in everything she did, and wasn't that an interesting thought for the future - hopefully the not-too-distant future either. His gaze flicked to the sofa and did a quick calculation of how long it would take to finish a second slice of apple pie - no point turning down seconds - and have a quick cup of tea - no need for unnecessary delay - and then begin the delicate manoeuvres necessary to establish that there had been quite enough talking.
Ten minutes, fifteen minutes tops.
He was right about the timing, but wrong about their ultimate destination. She suggested taking their tea out into the garden, and his curiosity led him outside. The garden was small, with the typical lawn and deep herbaceous borders full of roses and foxgloves and little blue flowers he didn't recognise. It was very pretty, but the truly amazing thing about it was the view.
Over a low stone wall could be seen an immense mass of blue-green water, held in the curve of a shingle beach. Hermione directed him to a bizarre contraption - some sort of sofa, held on ropes attached to a steel frame, with a large awning over the top. He sat on it gingerly, and was startled to feel it move.
Hermione sat next to him, and started the structure swinging in a steady motion. After a while he found it oddly soothing. The swing, the pleasantly weight of a meal in his stomach, the dancing of the light on the sea, the faint whisper of the breeze all conspired against him, and he found his eyelids drooping. He was dimly aware that his cup had been removed from his slack fingers, and then he was asleep.
He was mortified when he woke much, much later. He squinted at the sun, now painting pretty patterns on the sky, and realised it must be getting on for dinner time. He'd spent the whole afternoon fast asleep; he was relieved to find he hadn't dribbled.
Hermione was sitting on the ground a few feet away, a large pad of paper in her lap, a pencil in her hand, and a frown of concentration on her face. He was faintly surprised to see that she was sketching; he would have expected her to be reading.
He felt reluctant to disturb her, and contented himself on simply watching the play of light on her face in a way he had not been free to do when he was her teacher. He had been furious when he had heard of the bet, and yet he had found himself watching her across the hall at meals, wondering what it would be like to kiss her. She had surprised him with the way she had played her hand; she continued to surprise him, and probably would always surprise him. There was nothing obvious about Miss Granger.
Unlike him; he realised with a guilty start that not only was Hermione aware that he was awake, but she had been watching him for some time. He hadn't noticed because his eyes had slipped from her face and had been admiring other attributes entirely.
He was a dirty old man, staring at a young woman's breasts like that, and yet, she didn't seem to mind. Her glance wasn't reproachful but inviting; he shoved that faint twinge of conscience to one side. After all, she was his girlfriend, admittedly only of two dates standing, and he was allowed to look if he wanted to.
And allowed to do more apparently, because she said in very husky voice, "And are you just going to look, or are you going to come over here and touch as well?"
Not the kind of invitation that had to be issued twice, certainly not to him, and probably not to any man.
Three steps, and he dropped to his knees by her side. He traced a finger down the line of her neck, and dipped slightly under the collar of her shirt. It was fascinating to watch her intelligence, usually so restless and busy, focussing exclusively on the subtle movement of his fingers. She wasn't passive, but she did allow him to take the lead, waiting to see what he would show her next.
He bent and placed a soft kiss to one side of her mouth, then one to the other side. "Tease," she sighed into his mouth, and then he was pressing her down against the soft grass.
He continued with the gentle kisses, mindful of her lack of experience, not wanting to take anything for granted or move too fast. Eventually, frustrated by his tentative approach Hermione took the lead, as he suspected she would, and her tongue was doing some teasing of her own.
Such flagrant incitement deserved only one response. A hand insinuated itself under her shirt and cupped a breast. She gave a surprised squeak when he cast a charm that simply dissolved her bra, no clumsy fumbling for him thank you very much; there were definite advantages to being a wizard.
Then Hermione was making squeaking noises of an entirely different kind. He wondered what sort of noises she would make if it were his mouth and not his hand; no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than his hands were busy with her buttons.
It was the work of seconds, and then slowly to draw out the moment, he was pushing her shirt to one side.
She wasn't shy at all, merely curious about what the next step would be, and what it would feel like. She liked it when he kissed the curve of her breast; she liked it when he took her nipple in his mouth; she liked it when he used his teeth to nip at it; she liked it when he soothed that sting; and then his hand was between her legs, almost without conscious thought, and he realised they had reached the point of no return rather quicker than he had expected.
And they had to turn back.
Reluctantly he moved his hand back to her waist, and his mouth to just by her ear. "We have to stop," he said raggedly.
She gave a large, shuddering sigh and then simply nodded.
"Tea?" she said, still a little out of breath.
"Yes, I think tea would be a good idea." The English panacea, whether for shock, death, doom, gloom, broken hearts, even abruptly terminated passion, anything up to and including the end of the world, and it was true that his mouth was dry.
She buttoned up her shirt, fumbling a bit, and then headed back into the cottage.
Severus sat in the garden for a moment before following her. A holiday was looking like an increasingly pleasant idea.
A/N The recent crackdown on ratings on ffnet has made me delete the next chapter in which Hermione and Severus finally get it together. Sorry and all that. The full version can be found on Ashwinder or Affnet. Links are provided in my profile, but you must promise not to nip off and read them unless you are old enough to do so.