The cabin felt bigger and uncomfortably empty to Hermione after Severus left. She pressed the hand that he had kissed to her own lips as she checked to make sure everything was tidy. With one last look around, she extinguished the fire and used the port-key back to her flat.
Hermione puttered around for a half-hour, unable to settle down, before she gave up and Apparated to the alley behind her favorite Muggle internet café. Fortified with a steaming mug of chocolate raspberry coffee and some biscuits, she logged in to see if any of her friends were online.
Woolsuit78 was just the person she wanted to talk to.
Wotcher, Remus. Hermione typed.
Hey KIA, Happy New Year. Hermione's screen name was InsufferableKIA.
You too. How's Tonks?
Sleeping. How was your New Year's Eve? Who did you spend it with?
Good. I was with Severus.
Snape? What's that dumb$$ done now?
The cursor blinked for a very long time. Hermione held her breath. Remus probably knew Severus as well as anyone did and she trusted his opinion.
And you didn't run away screaming? ;- ) She let out a sigh of relief and a self mocking chuckle.
No, but he did. Run away, that is.
I'm sure it was because you don't brush your teeth enough.
:-p Very funny, fuzzball. I need help and you insult my upbringing.
Help with what? Making him go away or do it again?
Again, please. I'm afraid he just kissed me because it is a New Year's tradition.
Since the Dark Lord was defeated, Severus never does ANYTHING he does not want to do. I've never heard of him showing interest in someone before. He must really fancy you.
Then why did he go all cold and formal on me? Told me to 'take time to reflect'.
Cold and formal? Severus Snape? Shocking! I think he does it when he is insecure. Sad how often that is, really.
Insecure? The Black Bat of the Dungeons? People frighten their children with tales about him.
Exactly. That's why he fears no one could care for him.
What do I do?
You will have to prove yourself over and over. Take a page from Nymphadora – don't give up, no matter what he says. He will test you – and you know how hard his tests can be.
I'd rather take NEWTS again!
I won't put you on. It will be difficult. You have to decide for yourself if he is worth the effort. If my opinion means anything, I think you two are well-suited.
Thanks, Remus. You've been lots of help. I'm going home to bed – meeting SS for lunch tomorrow.
I have a feeling I will need it. Give my best to Tonks. Goodnight.
The next morning, Hermione woke to sunlight streaming through her windows, not to her alarm.
"Oh, Sweet Merlin!" she yelled when she saw the time. She was supposed to be at Severus' house in 20 minutes. Adrenaline pumped through her veins as she rushed to get ready. Hermione knew this was her one chance to win Severus. If she did not make this date, she may as well forget getting a second try.
Hermione threw her floo powder into the fireplace with just seconds to spare before noon. Her hair was still a little damp and she stepped out of the fireplace at spinners End adjusting her robes. Severus was waiting for her, of course, wearing his customary black layers and scowling.
"Do pull yourself together, Miss Granger," he said disapprovingly. "I am not going to deduct House Points for your tardiness."
"I know that, Severus," Hermione said, mentally noting that he had addressed her more formally. "I just overslept and was worried about disappointing you by being late. I didn't want you to think I did not want to see you."
Severus' expression softened ever so slightly and Hermione thought her reassurance may have worked.
"Anyway," she continued brightly, "I do apologize for making you wait for me. I am glad to see you again, especially looking more yourself. Now let's have a proper greeting – give me your hands."
Hermione walked across the room and took Severus' proffered hands in her own. She performed her usual inspection and then added gentle caresses. She thought she saw his eyes widen in surprise, but the expression was gone so quickly she could not be sure. He was not pulling away, though.
Emboldened by Severus' tacit acceptance of her attention, Hermione decided to continue touching him. She stepped forward, closing the gap between them, dropping his hands, and wrapping her arms around his waist.
Hermione rested her head against Severus' chest. She could hear his heart beating wildly. She breathed in his scent, which she once mistook for Heaven and decided she had not really been wrong then. Severus embraced her hesitantly, as if she might bolt at any moment, and began to stroke her hair.
"I did not think you were going to come," he said quietly, carefully keeping his voice emotionless.
"I know. I'm so sorry I worried you. I was so keyed up when I got home last night that I had trouble falling asleep; then I slept through my alarm this morning. I was afraid you would ward the floo against me if I was late. Look – I didn't even have time to dry my hair properly. I promise I was hurrying."
Severus pulled away from Hermione and looked at her suspiciously.
"Am I such an ogre then? Did you come here out of fear?"
"Of course not." She tried to soothe him. "I didn't want to disappoint you. You've had enough of that in your life."
"I do not need your pity, either!" he snapped.
"Good, 'cause I'm fresh out." She rolled her eyes at him. "This is not about fear or pity. It is about friendship and affection, and an attraction that may lead to love."
Severus took a couple of steps backwards, breaking physical contact while continuing to glare at Hermione through narrowed eyes.
"Love?" he scoffed. "You are either insane or attempting to perpetuate a most unfunny joke at my expense. I am not amused."
"There's no joke, Severus. I really like you." Under her breath, she muttered, "Most of the time anyway. Damn Remus for being right."
"You have been discussing me with that animal?" Severus really sounded angry now.
"I needed advice on how an interested younger woman goes about getting/keeping the attention of a reluctant older man who's being a git about the whole thing. Of course, it would have been better to ask Tonks, but she was asleep."
"I was not being a git last night."
"No, but Remus predicted you would begin testing me today. Normally I wouldn't mind – swot that I am, I like tests. Yours are almost impossible to pass, though. I suspect you do not grade fairly."
"Of course I don't. You start out with marks against you for your abysmal choice of friends. Then you have to overcome being 20 years my junior, not to mention the awful memories I have of you dominating my classes, never letting anyone else answer a question, and never letting Longbottom learn anything for himself."
"You left out the part where I set fire to your robes and stole from your stores. You also left out the fact that I was the only student capable of answering your questions most of the time and that the hides I protected by preventing Neville's explosions included your own. Maybe your Slytherin sensibilities would better appreciate that I was trying to save my own skin. In return, did I get praise and recognition from you? Of course not. You treated me with contempt during the six years you taught me despite my ability to solve your logic problem at age 12, brew Polyjuice at 13, use your assignment to recognize Professor Lupin as a werewolf at 14, land an international Quidditch star as my date at 15, defeat Ministry Official Umbridge – ride a Thestral I could not see – and battle full-grown Death Eaters at 16. I figured out that you were the Half-Blood Prince at 17 and followed your very cryptic clues to locate and destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes at 18."
Hermione paused, breathing hard as if she had been running. Snape raised an eyebrow at her.
"Finished?" he asked. Hermione glared at him, hands on her hips with a look and stance reminiscent of Molly Weasley.
"Good," he said smoothly. "You know why I could not acknowledge your achievements at Hogwarts. What I want to know is why my opinion matters to you. Surely a gifted young witch such as yourself could do better than a bitter, sarcastic old man. Forgive me if I am suspicious, but no one has ever shown such an interest in me before. Why you? Why now?"
Hermione shook her head in dismay. "Why not? I've already told you you're brilliant and I find your brand of sarcasm to be extremely funny. As for no one showing an interest, I know several women who have admired you from afar, but have been too intimidated to approach you. This is where I'm different. I was the Muggle-born best friend of Voldemort's worst enemy. I have looked evil square in the face. I don't really want to be on the wrong side of your pointed comments, but I'm not afraid of them either."
"You are sure about this then?" he asked incredulously, taking a step towards her.
"Of course," she said, capturing his hands again. "I've respected and admired you for over half my life. I began to actually like you during the week we spent practically glued together by the Relaxis potion. I have always craved recognition for my achievements, but I longed for your approval because you were so miserly with it. Unlike most other people, you hand out harsh words like candy. I knew if you ever praised me, I would have truly earned it."
"You want me because I'm hard to get?" Severus sounded appalled.
"No. I want your approval because it is hard to get. I want you because I like you – Severus Snape, the man – not the former Professor, former Death Eater – "
"Murderer," he interrupted.
"Fine, you can beat yourself up for that forever if you like, but don't do it around me. In a really strange way, I admire you for killing the Headmaster. Don't look at me like that. I loved the old man like everybody else. You, however, proved your love in a way I don't know if I could. I have laid awake at night wondering if the only way to save the world was for me to kill Harry – could I go through with it? Even if he begged me to; I just don't know."
"I didn't know I could until I did it," Severus said quietly.
"I know," Hermione said, wrapping her arms around him again and rubbing his back. "I watched Harry's memory in a Pensive. I saw on your face how much it hurt you."
"That knowledge is what makes you unique in all the world. You know me. You've actually seen some of my worst moments. And you still like me. During the year when I was traveling, I met some very nice ladies, but any time I thought about forming an attachment with one, I pictured myself telling her about my past. Or worse – having her find out from someone else. Those thoughts were enough to cool any ardor I was feeling. I came home just as alone as when I left."
"You do not have to be alone anymore."
Severus could barely hear her whisper against his chest. Her eyes were shining when she leaned back to look up at him.
"You have done so much, given so much for everyone else." Hermione's voice was choked with emotion.
"I'm not a nice man …"
"But you are a good man," she interrupted.
Severus did not hesitate this time as he pressed his lips against hers. He let them say with touch what he could not form into words. When he pulled her tight into his arms, his robes enfolding her like great black wings, Hermione thought how right it felt to be there. She raised her hands to gently touch the angles of his face – the strong line of his jaw, the ridges of his high cheekbones. She reverently traced his prominent nose with her fingers, then twined them into his black hair and pulled his face down further so she could tenderly kiss the deep furrow between his brows.
"I will do my best to make sure you never have to worry so again." Hermione murmured her promise against his forehead.
Eventually, Severus reluctantly pulled away a bit. "The stasis spell I cast on lunch will expire soon. Do you want to eat?"
"Only if you promise there will be more kissing later."
"I believe I can work that into my schedule."
Both Severus and Hermione were content as the walked hand-in-hand into the kitchen and their future.