Chapter 20: I Want to Hold Your Hand
It was just like returning to the Potions classroom, to the cold Hogwarts dungeons. Severus squared his shoulders and folded his arms across his chest. He stared down his angular nose and surveyed Lavender as if he'd rarely witnessed anything so vile. Hermione recognised the posture and knew a lecture was coming. She was just glad she wasn't the recipient.
"Miss Granger may have the grace to ignore your insults, but I have no such compunction," he told Lavender.
"Yes, sir," she replied meekly.
"I happen to care deeply about this woman, Miss Brown. When you insult Miss Granger, you insult me."
The tenacious smile returned to Hermione's face. It was a bizarre way to find out he had feelings for her, but she wasn't about to disparage the delivery when the message was so welcome.
"I understand, Professor," said Lavender.
"I am sorry for you, Miss Brown," he said with a snarl. "You've obviously failed to secure the affections of another, so you've resorted to the fabrication of malicious lies. I find this behaviour inexcusable. I don't know whether you're jealous, bitter, or just being intentionally cruel. Frankly, I don't care. Belittling others to improve your flailing self-worth is a pathetic strategy, and it will not be tolerated."
Hermione wanted very badly to applaud his speech, but the look on Lavender's face stopped her. Judging from the trembling of her lower lip, they had about ten seconds before the tears started.
"I'm very sorry." She looked suitably miserable.
"And to whom should you direct your apology, Miss Brown?"
Lavender turned, and her eyes filled. "I'm sorry, Hermione."
Hermione inclined her head. Lavender looked at Severus once more, then backed out of the cubicle and fled the offices, leaving a trail of excited whispers in her wake.
"Not that that wasn't fun to watch," Hermione began, "but I'm a big girl, Severus. I can fight my own battles."
"Of course you can," he said with a careless shrug. "But I doubt you derive as much pleasure from it as I do."
"I'm sure you're right."
Jerking his head towards the office door, he asked, "Might I have a word with you in private?"
She nodded and led them into the hallway. They strolled along the corridors in silence until they found a quiet spot, in an alcove behind the lifts.
He reached into his robes and retrieved a swatch of blue fabric. "Guess where I found these?" He dangled the lingerie before her and appeared quite serious as he awaited her answer.
Unfortunately for him, her mood had lifted considerably at his unexpected appearance.
"If I had a Sickle for every time my knickers ended up in the Minister's desk …" she began but stopped when his expression turned murderous.
"Madam, you had best explain why Kingsley was in possession of your knickers."
"It's a long story."
"Find a way to condense it."
"Actually, it's more humorous if you hear the whole thing."
"You expect me to believe this sordid tale has a punch-line?"
He continued to wave her knickers about, punctuating his statements by shaking them at her. She made a grab for them and found herself in yet another tug-o-war.
"Careful," she said in warning. "Need I remind you how easily these tear?"
He tugged hard. She waited for the sound of ripping fabric, but all was silent. "Not these," he said with a smug grin. "They've been charmed to resist quite a bit of…" he stopped to clear his throat, then finished, "… force."
"Is that so?" Her grin spread as she pulled the knickers and stepped closer. When their bodies were very nearly touching, she said, "That's a handy little bit of magic." She slid her tongue across her lips to moisten them.
He seemed to study the move with intense concentration, black eyes narrowed while he stared at her mouth. His jaw flexed over clenched teeth.
"Perhaps we should conduct a test to see how well they work," she offered.
"Perhaps you should explain why they were in the Minister's desk."
She stepped back and shook her head. "You're rather obsessed with this, aren't you? I'd think you were jealous of Kingsley, if the idea wasn't so laughable."
"Do I look amused?"
"You must be, though," she argued. "He's old enough to be my father."
Pursing his lips together, he stared at her pointedly as one eyebrow travelled high onto his forehead.
She held up her hands in supplication. "Right, that's probably not the best argument I could have made."
"Oh, really?" Before she could defend herself, he said, "Try to imagine my surprise, Hermione, upon being handed your knickers and having to endure a twenty-minute lecture on the consequences of breaking your heart."
Her chest tightened. She was touched to learn Kingsley had given Severus a similar warning to the one he'd bestowed on her earlier.
"Stop smiling," he commanded. "I don't relish having to tell the Minister of Magic about my intention to court you, and I certainly don't enjoy him handling your undergarments."
He stood staring down at her, waiting for her response, but for once, she was completely speechless. She took a moment to ponder the absurdity of their timing. Just when she'd accepted she'd never hear the words 'mutually exclusive' from him, he brings up courtship.
"Well?" he prompted. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
"You wish to court me?" she asked.
There appeared the slightest of smirks on his face, softening his features. "We were speaking of your knickers," he reminded her. "And what on earth do you find so funny about this?"
She hadn't meant to start laughing, but she couldn't help herself. "Courting. It just feels so … formal. We've already shagged each other senseless. Isn't it a bit late for the courting phase?"
"Nonsense." He dismissed her protests with a wave of his hand. "Since we're going to do this, we had best do it the right way."
"I didn't think there was anything wrong with the way we did it on Saturday." She approached him again, and this time, his arms came around her instantly, pulling her in tight.
"I'm surprised at you, Miss Granger," he said quietly. His smirk turned into a smile better suited to the bedroom. "I would have thought someone with your voracity for knowledge would be eager to see if the method could be improved upon."
"Hmm. You're absolutely right, Professor," she agreed. "Further study is most definitely in order."
His fingers cupped her chin and pulled it closer, until his lips found hers. The kiss was over too quickly, but it held the promise of more.
"I believe our extracurricular activities will require sustenance. Eight o'clock for dinner tonight?" he asked.
His head dipped lower for another brief kiss. He placed his hand against her cheek and stared at her, his brows drawing together. His smile grew distant—almost nostalgic—as he rubbed his thumb along her jaw.
"From the first moment I saw you, I knew you were going to be trouble."
"You say that like it's a bad thing." A nervous laugh escaped her lips. "Are you sure about this, Severus? About us? In an exclusive relationship … with each other?"
"I'm certain the thought of you in an exclusive relationship with anyone else is intolerable."
"To me, as well."
"And I'm confident we'll never grow bored with each other. You have an uncanny knack for keeping me on my toes."
"Wait until you hear my plans for keeping you on your back…"
"Naughty girl," he chastised and gave her bottom a playful swat. Then he circled her waist again and grew serious. "Are you sure about this?"
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"Why am I sure?"
"No … Why me?"
His sigh was impatient. "Yes, seriously. Why did you choose me when you could have had any man you desired?"
She smiled. "Because you're quite endearing when you say things like that. Completely mistaken, of course, but endearing nonetheless."
"That's hardly an enlightening answer. Come now … give me one good reason."
"Because you taught me how to fly."
"You taught yourself how to fly—I merely provided a catalyst."
She shrugged and filed the comment away for later debate. "Because you read the newspaper while you Apparate."
"Now you're being flippant."
"Because you gift me with indestructible undergarments."
The smirk returned to his face. "Tell me, Miss Granger, are you striving for extra credit by providing three reasons, when I requested but one?"
"Old habits die hard, Professor," she said. "Is extra credit available?"
"Well then," she said as she moved her lips closer, "after dinner, I'll show you all my other reasons."
"I look forward to that," he whispered before his lips closed the gap.
Contentment settled over her, as if she was whole for the first time, as if she had only been waiting for this moment to arise. She thought about the cruel prank that had led to their chance encounter, and wondered if they ought to have thanked Lavender, after all. No point rewarding bad behaviour, though, especially when living well was the best revenge. Smiling against his lips, she contemplated the future and lost herself in his kiss.
A/N: It was a long and winding road, but they finally made it! If you read the original prompt this story was written to, you'll realise what an odd path I took to fulfill the gift recipient's request of Severus realising he's free to court Hermione. Strange where the muse will wander when I allow it. :~) Many thanks to Karelia, my lovely beta, for super-fast turnaround and invaluable support, encouragement, and love. Yay! My first completed, multi-chaptered story! Thanks so much for reading and leaving reviews. I loved the feedback!