A/N – Well here it is, finished at last. I'm so sorry for the length of time it took to get this written and posted. I hope its length makes up for the wait.
The statue of Oliver Cromwell towered above Hermione, but the Lord Protector did nothing to shelter her from the relentless drizzle; she needed an Impervius charm and an umbrella to do that. The monument in the park was, perhaps, not the best choice of venue for a seasonably cold, damp October day, but the place had significance for Hermione and she had no intention of allowing a cool breeze and a drop of rain to spoil it.
It was almost a year since she had last stood beneath the same statue. That day had also been wet, she recalled, though she had endured it for a full hour, waiting with futility for the man she was expecting today: black-clad and punctual to the minute, as always. Although she did not doubt him this time, despite challenging past experiences, Hermione had deliberately arrived earlier than arranged. She simply wanted the pleasure of spotting him as he approached, of savouring the moment, the jolt of excitement as she recognised his form in the distance. She loved to watch his advance, relishing the knowledge that the tall dark figure, striding up the tree-lined avenue towards her would soon be close enough to smile – that rare smile he saved only for her. Remembrances of the first time she had seen it still had the power to turn her insides into a butterfly sanctuary.
The park was almost deserted: an occasional dog walker and a woman with a pram and a toddler passed by, although she barely noticed her environment; she was far too engaged by her own thoughts. Today was another "first". A year ago to the day, Hermione Granger had swallowed a vial of Polyjuice potion and, dressed for enticement, had set out on her task to tempt her former Potions master. She recalled how desperately deluded she must have been to have imagined herself capable of duping Severus Snape. Yet despite her failure to hoodwink him, the outcome, in the end, had far exceeded expectations. Hermione had been looking for forgiveness from him, but instead of his absolution, he had given her insight, and instead of a hard lesson in shouldering responsibility, he had given her his approval, and – implausibly – his affection. She knew that warmth and expressions of fondness were not easily conveyed by Snape, and as she waited for his arrival beneath an ineffective statue and a serviceable black umbrella, Hermione recalled his first struggle to articulate his feelings for her. It was on the evening of the tenth anniversary Victory Day Ball.
Severus and Hermione were making their way back to the castle hand-in-hand, too anxious to break the silence, too exultant to notice the weakening Warming charm, and too intent on their own thoughts and of what the other must be thinking to care about the effect of their sudden departure from the ball. If she could have analysed it, she would have recognised the beginning of that obsessive and irrational state that prevents, for short periods of existence, all awareness of other spectators. A state exclusively enjoyed by two people in the first bloom of newly realised affection, to the detriment of politeness and the irritation of all around them.
The Thestral-drawn carriages were lined-up around the courtyard ready to transport everyone back to Hogsmeade for either their train journey home, or to the nearest Disapparition point. The first few guests were filtering through the front entrance and starting to find their way to the carriages. Hermione slowed down as they approached the first enormous black-winged skeletal creature.
'I had hoped I would never find out what they looked like,' she said, stopping to stroke a long dark leathery nose. 'Though I was curious.'
'This one is empty,' said Snape. 'Perhaps we should claim it before the entire populace of Hogwarts decide it's time to leave.'
Hermione nodded and walked towards the carriage door which he obligingly held open for her. Inside was warm and snug, if a little cramped. Snape took a seat opposite Hermione and they sat for a few minutes in silence as they waited for the carriage to begin its journey.
She waited for him to re-introduce the theme of mutual feelings, but he seemed unwilling to pursue the subject, staring fixedly out of the window and towards the Hogwarts entrance. How was she supposed to interpret his silence? Her first instinct was to read regret in the broodiness of his expression. She had forced him to speak against his will, or at least against his better judgement, and now he was trying to calculate his way out of the mess his words had created. She had almost decided to break the silence with an observation about his successful evening, when he finally turned to look at her.
'I have no experience in this area,' he said. Self-doubt was the cause of his diffidence then.
'I'm hardly an expert.'
'Mistakes will be made. Omissions.'
Was he telling her to expect a rough ride? Was he afraid that he was bound to scare her off?
'I don't doubt it,' she replied. 'You don't have the disposition for romance, but my expectations in that department are not unrealistic, Severus. I don't need constant reminders of affection. Empty words are meaningless.'
'I am likely to give offence without intending to. I am not equipped with the ability to offer compliments. Even when they are due.'
'I would suspect you were Confunded if you did,' she replied, smiling.
'Expressions of feelings are beyond me.'
'Then I will judge you by your actions, not your words.'
He took her hand in both of his and made circles of her palm with his thumbs. He held her hand as if it were a fragile glass trinket he was afraid to break, and she trembled at the tenderness of his touch, so at odds with the harsh demeanour he presented to the world. 'You deserve better,' he said softly.
'Are you are trying to talk me out of this?' she replied. 'If so, I'm afraid you're wasting your time. Once I've made my mind up, I'm quite determined you know.'
That rare smile reached his eyes and banished the intensity usually found there. 'No, but should you at some point in the future complain at my insensitivity, I will always refer to the fact that you were forewarned.'
'Ah! This is your disclaimer then? I think it only fair, in that case, to add one of my own. If I do misinterpret one of your foul moods or bouts of sullenness as a sign of your waning affection, I feel it only fair to warn you that I'm likely to react with an equally foul tantrum. I may even resort to a hex.'
He interlaced his fingers with hers as she spoke, and examined them closely as if he were conducting an experiment on the theme of "possible things to do with Granger's hands". For Hermione, the sensation of her hand in his, accompanied by those smooth, self-doubting words were as intoxicating as free-flowing wine. To be cared for by a man like this must surely be worth all those years of anxiety and unnecessary anguish. Perhaps, she mused, there is some great universal law of symmetry which states that one can only truly find happiness if one has suffered proportionately for it. Surely, in that case, they were both contenders for the title of Lord and Lady blissful.
'It wouldn't do for both of us to react morosely to every perceived slight,' he said.
'You do the sulking; I'll do the foot stamping.'
'I do not sulk.'
'Yes you do, but I've decided to find it endearing.'
The compact seating arrangements forced them into close proximity which was highlighted by the fact that they were leaning towards each other. His knees were parted to accommodate hers and their hands remained locked together.
'I intend to let you get away with that in lieu of omitting to compliment you on your appearance this evening,' he replied.
'Well I did promise to judge you by your actions, rather than your words.'
His lips were cold; his nose was a block of ice against her cheek. She was more conscious of him this time without the awareness of a crowd to inhibit her. She could experience the moment as a complete expression of desire and realization, crushed between his body and the leather seat of the carriage. His arms surrounded her, and his hands gripped her as if she would disappear like a snowflake if he let go. Her own arms found their way around his waist as their mouths became locked in a kiss that disregarded etiquette, sense and reason. Desire and longing and a lifetime of regret seemed to be unleashed in the single motion of one man and one woman united in an act so commonplace that half of Hogwarts at that very moment were likely to be similarly engaged. But none of them could match the fire and intensity of two dark figures, oblivious to their environment, and fixed only on each other.
The rain had finally stopped. Hermione closed her umbrella. She shook the handle vigorously, until bat-like wings shed fine droplets of moisture onto the stone steps of the statue. With only ten more minutes to wait, she glanced around her environment to check for observers. Seeing none, a Drying spell quickly followed by a Cushioning charm made a comfortable seat of the bottom step. The promise of afternoon drizzle looked to be another inaccurate prediction, as fat grey clouds thinned out into a willow pattern high above, and the sun's pale yellow light seeped through the gaps, replacing cold, damp dreariness with warmth and optimism.
Water from Oliver Cromwell's left foot dripped onto a step above her. A man in a blue track suit jogged casually past; white ear pieces disconnected him from birdsong, distant traffic, and the detached voices of a nearby playground. Hermione, lost to her own thoughts, was as ignorant of her surroundings as the runner with his synthetic method of tuning out of one world in favour of another. She unbuttoned her coat to make sitting less restrained and brought her knees up to chest level, wrapping her hands primly around them. Her silver bracelet caught her eye and almost instinctively her hand went to her throat to check for the matching necklace she rarely removed.
The necklace triggered a new train of thought – another first, another instance of fretful apprehension and awkward insecurity, wrought from desperately wanting to please and be pleased.
Hermione had been unable to remember the last time Christmas day had been anticipated as an event to be enjoyed rather than endured. As it turned out, Christmas was to be their first meeting since the night of the ball. Two weeks had elapsed following that day, during which time the return to the wizarding world of one of its lost sons had meant a diary-full of meetings, engagements, interviews and official visits.
Ministry officials had been around to inspect Snape's premises for suitability in order to declare it a legitimate place of business. The fact that he had neglected to make his business "official" for the past ten years did not seem to weigh too heavily on the insincere minds of Ministry might. It seemed that their proclivity for discriminating on the worthiness of those deemed fit for prosecution was as arbitrary as ever, and fortunately for Snape, he now fell into the category of "turn a convenient blind eye".
Hermione had received an owl on the morning of December 24th.
I trust you are well? I regret that my time has not been my own since we last saw each other at Hogwarts, and I now find that Christmas is upon us already. I presume you have plans for tomorrow by now? I had hoped we could agree on a mutually suitable day to meet. I have provisions to purchase in Diagon alley next week; perhaps you would be free to accompany me? We could have lunch in the Leaky Cauldron; I hear it is much improved now that Tom, the barman, has retired,
Hermione had been as relieved as she was overjoyed to receive an owl from Severus. She was beginning to doubt the whole thing again and had almost reached the point of turning up on his doorstep to request an explanation; but images of an irate, indifferent or surly reception prevented the visit.
Hopes of a romantic, Severus-filled lead-up to Christmas had been dashed by his first owl-post which had arrived two days after the Ball; it had wished her well, assured her of his own continuing good health, and promised her another owl with an update on his busy schedule. She wondered if they would ever reach the kind of casual comfort with each other that is borne of intimacy, time and mutual understanding. Hermione tried to picture the two of them as a couple so used to each other's quirky little ways that provoking misunderstanding was no longer a possibility. How she envied blasé Severus and Hermione: that mythical future couple who had lived through the difficulties, learned some important lessons and now enjoyed the contentment of easy understanding.
She read his five lukewarm lines several times. On first reading she decided that he had already tired of her and was looking for a gentle way to let her down. Fortunately, she recalled that Severus Snape did not do gentle let-downs. After some study and a great deal of agonising over an adequate interpretation, she decided that he was the unsure one. He did want to see her; he just didn't know how to ask. He hadn't mentioned his own plans for Christmas day, therefore she wondered if he had any. Hermione had been invited round to Harry and Ginny's for Christmas dinner on the understanding that she may very well cancel at the last moment if a better offer should arise.
She sent her reply by return owl.
As a matter of fact my plans for the big day didn't work out, and it turns out that I have none. I don't suppose you are free? I have a very forlorn turkey and a Christmas pudding that I have no chance of getting through by myself. Plus I'm very curious to hear of how you've been coping with all those Ministry Officials running riot over your much-loved privacy. I hope you've managed some degree of politeness; I almost feel pity for whichever Junior Minister they sent to check up on your cauldrons and store cupboards.
If you can't make it, I would love to accompany you to Diagon Alley for shopping and lunch; if you can, be at mine for three o'clock.
She had folded up the piece of parchment, tied it to an impatient leg and watched it fly away, before she began to have second thoughts about the addition of a single kiss after her name. But it was far too late for futile worrying now.
Her reply had arrived by disgruntled owl less than an hour later.
See you at three.
By the time 3pm on Christmas Day had arrived, Hermione had worked herself up into such a state of nervousness that she had surpassed terror, gone beyond agitation and had actually reached the most glorious of all states, aided along by a large glass of sherry. With the edges of sobriety gently rubbed away, she was now experiencing a delicate balance between severe apprehension and utterly undaunted. And as she had no idea what to expect from her dinner guest, she dismissed any stomach-clenching fears of him turning up sullen and uncommunicative with a ruthless determination that Godric Gryffindor himself would have been satisfied with.
She opened the door with a flourish, wearing a slightly revealing black knee-length dress, a matching pair of kitten-heel shoes she'd had to practise walking in and a wry smile.
Severus wasn't wearing black. The revelation that he could, and did, wear what could definitely be considered achromatic was something of a revelation and almost cost Hermione her composure. True, the so-called variation in colour was nothing more than a dark blue shirt under his usual dark jacket, but it was such a rarity that she had to stop herself from pointing out the anomaly.
'You're late,' she said, seemingly referring to the thirty seconds which had elapsed since the clock struck three.
'And you are impertinent,' he replied. 'You said three O'clock.'
'Two weeks late,' she explained, smiling as she led him down a short, brightly lit hallway towards the kitchen.
'An eventful two weeks. It's been some time since my life has been considered so worthy of scrutiny. The excess of fawning Ministry attention makes me wonder if I shouldn't consider a career in politics.'
'I would imagine you've had your fill of politics,' replied Hermione, entering the kitchen and watching his eyes move around the room to take in the unfamiliar sight of an abundance of Muggle appliances.
He snorted. 'I'd rather teach and that's saying something.'
'You mean you're not tempted to return to Hogwarts?'
'Not even if they turned the House-cup green and gave it to Slytherin every year.'
'I bet McGonagall asked you though,' said Hermione waving a burgundy-coloured bottle questioningly in his general direction.
'The question may have been broached.'
He nodded in reply to the mimed offer of a drink.
'Don't be evasive.' She poured out two evenly matched glasses.
'Old habits,' he admitted, taking the proffered glass of wine from her hand. 'Filius asked, as a matter of fact. He offered me my old Potions position – Horace has finally had enough. I assured him that being in the constant company of children was something that should never have been afflicted on me. And I should never have been afflicted upon them. What the hell was Dumbledore thinking of?'
'God knows!' agreed Hermione with feeling. 'Although, in hindsight, a lot of his judgements were questionable – I mean, I thought the world of Hagrid, but he was never teaching material; it's a wonder there weren't more injuries. Draco got off lightly with that scratch he got from Buckbeak in our third year. And as for Lockhart… though at the time I was as taken in by the golden locks and perfect smile as anyone.'
'You were?' Severus raised an amused eyebrow.
'I was eleven. By the time I was twelve, I got it.'
'The benevolent façade has duped many discerning witches,' he replied, and Hermione wondered if he was referring to Lily.
She stopped and smiled. 'Well this is weird.'
'Us. Having a normal conversation.'
'What did you expect, abuse and slander? I am hoping to be fed. Even I am capable of civility when a meal is in the offing. And something smells very appetising.'
Hermione giggled, relieved to know that there was a way for them to be with each other in the aftermath of their declaration of love. She had been harbouring a dread that they had reached a zenith from which there was nowhere else to go but down. Sweet words, soft caresses and professions of longing were never going to be their way. Severus simply wasn't capable of that kind of intimacy, and Hermione was quite certain that she would prefer his continuing reticence in matters of the heart. But how else was there to behave once certain words had been said? He had told her that she was everything to him. Were they now required to treat each other with the adulation expected of two people in the exhilarating, breathtaking period between the elation of first avowal and the humdrum of acclimatization?
But as he had not even wished her a heartfelt Merry Christmas or told her that she looked very nice in her Christmas dress, she had no reason to worry that the floodgates had now been opened and that Severus Snape would now begin quoting sonnets to her.
'What shall we drink to?' she asked.
Severus Apparated in between a tall oak and a horse chestnut. He took a brief moment to get his bearings, then headed towards the open space lined by sparse shrubs and trees that functioned as the pathway leading to the main feature of the park: the statue of Oliver Cromwell. The monument soon came into view as he made his way towards it, and from his position at the end of the long avenue he could just distinguish the slight figure of Hermione Granger, seated on the bottom step. As he made his approach, he could make out her dark turquoise coat which hung open to reveal his favourite dress, the one he had seen for the first time ten months ago on Christmas day.
It had taken a great deal of effort to keep his eyes focused above her neck-line that day; how they had wanted to drift down and linger there. She had asked what they should drink to. He would have liked to suggest they toast whichever god it was who saw fit to ensure she wore the beguiling little number which showed off just enough cleavage to entice but left enough covered up to embrace decorum. Instead he suggested 'new beginnings'. She seemed to like that. Her eyes sparkled like the ruby red wine as it caught the light when she touched her glass to his.
They both took a sip. He noticed an alteration in her expression. A look of uncertainty appeared in warm brown eyes. There was a pause, before she blurted out, 'I think we should get the kissing over with.'
He didn't know whether to laugh or take offence.
'Get. The kissing. Over with?' he repeated, emphasising each word back to her slowly, enjoying the appearance of a pink flush which spread across her chest and neck. 'I take it then. That you find the act repulsive but necessary?'
'Oh! No! No!' she replied, heatedly. 'Not at all! Just the making the first move part.' She took a nervous but apparently reassuring sip from her glass. 'So far, I've found the act to be immensely pleasurable, but I was hoping you might have initiated it by now, and if one of us doesn't make a move at some point ... well it's going to hover between us like some big ... '
'Elephant in the room?'
'Yes. And I think it's about time we were more relaxed around each other.'
He gazed at her intently, daring her to look away.
'So,' he reiterated, 'you want me to kiss you?' He was enjoying watching her squirm so beautifully with embarrassment and determination. She nodded, hardly able to look him in the eye, though he never broke contact with hers.
'Come here then,' he commanded softly.
She walked towards him, and he took her glass from her hand, depositing it on the table beside him, along with his own.
Inches apart, she looked up at him expectantly.
'You're absolutely sure?' he said.
'Severus, just kiss me, or I won't be responsible for my actions.'
'Harpy,' he said as he bent towards her.
'Tease,' she managed to reply as his lips grazed hers.
Once initiated, it seemed that neither was inclined to end it. Her mouth was warm and eager beneath his, and he wondered how he had survived the previous two weeks without her kisses and the feel of her arms around him. As he tasted the sweet wine on her lips, he realised that to be without this, without her body and her hair and the smell of her softly scented skin, would be to truly know deprivation. The fear of no longer having her to touch and hold intensified his hunger and with it surfaced an impulse to possess her, to take her right there on the kitchen floor. It rose in his belly like an old wayward friend: the sort who knows how to access all the exciting, forbidden places, but leaves you feeling remorseful and wretched for going along with the illicit fun.
It was the aroma of a well-cooked turkey that brought him back to the reality of food, the edge of the table digging into his thigh and common decency.
They ate turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, sprouts and gravy with a degree less tension, but neither of them were particularly conscious of what passed their lips or whether or not the vegetables were over-cooked. Conversation, however, was easy enough; there was plenty to say on the subject of Severus's new and legal business enterprise, and almost as much discussion of Hermione's work and her assurance of how much she enjoyed her job as a Muggle school teacher.
After dinner, they moved to a small but comfortable sitting room. Severus was amused to find that it housed several shelves crammed with books. Other than her library, he noticed a television in one corner and several other Muggle-trappings dotted around the place.
'This is not the house of a witch,' he declared.
'It is the house of a Muggle-born witch,' she corrected him. 'There are some things which magic just can't compete with. Television for one.' She nodded her head towards the black, shiny, angular object taking up space in between a fire-place and a small, decorated Christmas tree. Severus raised a derisive eyebrow, but opted to remain indifferent to her statement. He noticed a photograph of a middle-aged couple on the mantelpiece above the fireplace. He mused on Hermione's estranged Muggle parents and decided that her rejection of the wizarding world, coupled with her wholehearted adoption of all things Muggle, was her means of staying connected to them.
Hermione took a seat on the couch and asked him if he would like to watch something on the television.
'Is it an anti-Muggle thing?' Hermione asked accusingly.
'No. Merely that it seems wasteful to spend precious time staring at your television when my attention could be more enjoyably spent elsewhere,' he replied, hoping she would comprehend his meaning without having to say it outright.
She wasn't called the brightest witch of her age for nothing. Hermione smiled as he took a seat beside her. 'Nice recovery,' she replied.
'Well, I wasn't sorted into Slytherin for my inclination for snakes.'
'Hmm. Why were you sorted into Slytherin?'
'I should have thought it obvious.'
'Not really. Not when you look at the facts: you have shown the loyalty of a Hufflepuff.' She ignored the darkening scowl and hurried on. 'You have the wit and intelligence of a Ravenclaw.' He raised his eyebrows in amusement. 'And you know what you take from Gryffindor.' His sneer was as contemptuous as any she had received as a would-be protégée in his potions class. 'It seems to me,' she continued, 'that your sorting could have gone any of four ways.'
'The same could be said of your sorting. It could have gone at least three ways, though you wouldn't have lasted a day in Slytherin,' he replied. Hermione flashed him a challenging look, but allowed him to continue without disagreement. 'In fact, the same could be true of almost anyone. The child becomes the House he was sorted into, no matter how limited his natural capacity for the characteristics of that house. The Sorting Hat either makes a guess or does as it is told. Why else do you suppose Pettigrew landed his spot in Gryffindor? He saw Potter and Black enter the noble house of the brave of heart and had already determined in going wherever it was they were going. There was nothing valiant to detect in his cowardly heart. Like me, I imagine he asked for his House.'
Severus attempted to hide his fascination for her bare ankles, calves and knees and determined not to leer as Hermione kicked off her shoes, folded her legs beneath her and sipped thoughtfully from her wine glass.
'I suppose that makes sense,' she said. 'You know, the Hat wanted to put Harry into Slytherin, but he begged for anything else. Still, that doesn't explain my own sorting. I asked for nothing. I was a Muggle-born, what did I know of House rivalries?'
'You hadn't already read "Hogwarts: A History", even before you arrived?'
'Yes,' she conceded, 'from cover to cover and practically all the other books on the list too. I probably was hoping for Gryffindor, though I rather arrogantly expected Ravenclaw.'
They sat in contemplative silence for a few moments, which Severus was in no hurry to end. Hermione spoke first.
'Do you ever regret your sorting?'
He took his time with his answer. 'You are asking if I regret my life. It is Christmas. I believe it is a day of celebration, not a time for dwelling on what-ifs. Let us just say that my sorting brought me to this point, and I am glad to be here.'
Her smile let him know that he had made the right answer. Perhaps he wasn't going to be as thoroughly inept at relationships as he feared after all.
'That's worth drinking to,' she said.
Another pleasant few minutes were sat in silence. This time Severus was the one to intrude on it.
'I'm guessing that one of those contraptions plays music,' he said, nodding towards the two neat speakers sitting side by side on a shelf by the fireplace.
Hermione had relaxed so completely that she had settled herself snugly into a curled-up position beside him, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder. He had been contemplating initiating their kitchen intimacy again, but was unsure of whether or not she would consider that part of their evening over and done with. How he wished there had been some book he could have consulted on the proper procedure for seducing a witch without committing some enormous blunder and scaring her off for good. He had no experience to help him along, and he was hardly likely to ask any of his male acquaintance, such that he had, for advice.
'Yes,' she replied. 'Why? Do you want me to put some on?'
'I believe I owe you a dance.'
Inspiration had not deserted him. It was an innocent enough gesture that would ensure she would be pressed tightly against him for at least the next ten minutes. He didn't want her cosy and snug on his shoulder, he wanted her eager and willing in his arms. He rose from his seat, took her glass from her hand, and held out his other for her to join him. He was pleased to see her willingness in her enthusiasm for his suggestion.
She chose a suitably slow melody that lent itself to swaying gently together in time to the music. His arms snaked around her waist and drew her close as she rested her head on his shoulder again, her arms about his neck.
'This is the best Christmas I've had since I was a child,' she murmured. Her warm breath against his skin was delicious and almost unendurably pleasurable. His fingers drifted beneath her hair and caressed the nape of her neck enticingly revealed by her low-back dress. 'I usually spend them with Harry and Ginny, and it feels as if I'm gate-crashing someone else's Christmas.'
Severus moved his hand to her soft brown locks, stroking her hair languidly as she spoke. Content to listen to her speak without joining in.
'How about you?' she asked, forcing his reply.
'My Christmases have ranged from indifferent to excruciating,' he replied. 'Although, during his tenure as Chief Megalomaniac, the Dark Lord did throw some memorable parties. Of course, the ritual killing of his transgressors tended to dampen the festive spirit somewhat.'
He didn't think he would ever tire of her laugh, though it would never cease to surprise him that she could find something in his dark humour to find amusing.
'Why am I laughing? That's horrible.' She took a step backwards and lifted her head to look up at him. 'Is it true?' Apparently finding nothing to read in his face but the desire to amuse, she slapped his arm playfully, as Severus pulled her back into his embrace.
'You will let me know when it's kissing time again won't you?' he said.
She giggled again. 'I'll write out a timetable for you if you like,' she replied. 'But perhaps today we could be spontaneous.'
He had played it just right so far. They had been together for hours, and all they had done was talk, eat, kiss, dance and laugh. He was beginning to feel confident enough to believe that their foray into couple-dom wasn't so foolhardy, self-indulgent and reckless after all. Perhaps "Severus and Hermione" was not such an incredible concept: the stuff of fairytales and cheap romance novels. He felt an abrupt tension in her body and a lessening in the fervour of her kiss, then she pulled away; a self-conscious expression suddenly apparent in her eyes.
'I have a present for you,' she said, apprehensively.
'A gift?' he replied. 'This is unexpected.'
'Well, it is Christmas.'
'I suppose you were expecting something from me?'
'No, of course not,' she replied, too quickly. 'My present to you is more of a practical thing really; it's... well you'll see.'
Hermione took him by the hand and led him to the small, sparsely decorated tree. She stooped to pick up the only present under it and handed it to Severus. He began to remove the carefully wrapped paper, conscious of her anxious scrutiny of his actions.
'What is it?' he asked, once the wrapping paper was dispensed with, and being none-the-wiser.
'It's a mobile phone,' she replied.
'I see,' he said, staring at the box and wondering what in god's name had given her the idea that giving a wizard a Muggle communication device would be just the thing.
'Owl post is all very well,' she explained, hastily, 'and obviously parchment and ink are far more tangible, but no owl can fly as fast as a text message or a phone call can reach someone.' Hermione paused, as if waiting for a dispute. When there was no reply, she continued. 'And yes, a patronus could never be rivalled for its grace and beauty, but it just isn't as practical as a phone. You can use a phone anywhere and at anytime.'
'Not in Diagon Alley.'
'Almost anywhere,' she conceded. 'I've been longing to know how you were and how you've been getting on these past two weeks and just a line or a word would have done.'
'I sent you two owls,' he asserted.
'I know. I appreciate that, but with a phone there is so much less effort required. And you can put photographs on it and music. Look.' She took out her own phone and scrolled through her photographs of Harry, Ginny and the children. 'I don't have any of you though,' she said.
'I'm relieved to hear it. I don't have a face that begs to be gazed at for any length of time, though I see that hasn't prevented Potter from posing in front of a camera.'
'I'll be the judge of that,' she replied, kissing the end of his nose and once more provoking the urge to resume the intimacy again. He had a feeling that this evening may end better than he could ever have anticipated if he didn't mess it up by saying something to affront as usual.
'Will you use it?' she implored. 'I charmed it to react to a spell which keeps it functioning without the need for electricity. You just have to renew it with the Animatum charm every few days.'
'You seem to have thought of everything,' he replied.
'So you'll use it if I show you how?'
'I'll consider it, if you fill it with pictures of scantily-clad witches.'
'You'll have pictures of me and like them,' she replied, laughing as she began to take the phone out of its box to give him his first lesson.
'Accio Hermione's gift.'
He was amused to see her head jerk up in surprise at his unexpected Summons.
'You got me a gift?'
'Well it is Christmas.'
Once the small packet had reached his outstretched hand, he handed it over to an eagerly waiting Hermione. 'I hope it is suitable,' he said, feeling pathetically anxious over her reaction. He noticed her hand shake slightly as she opened the box and took out a fine silver chain necklace from which hung a silver tear-shaped pendant set with a ruby-coloured stone. She placed it gently on her palm without speaking, her head bowed so that he was unable to gauge her reaction.
'I notice you always wear the bracelet, so I had it copied and made into a necklace,' he explained. 'It can be altered if it isn't to your liking. It was done from memory, so there may be imperfections.' She clearly didn't like it. 'Perhaps the chain is too fine?'
She remained silent and unmoving as he made his speech, which sounded pitiable and desperate even to his own ears. He feared that somehow his brilliant, unique and thoughtful gift had managed to offend. That he had committed some terrible faux pas from which there was no recovery. Severus wished she would at least look at him, but, apparently, meeting his eye was as beyond her as speech.
'If you don't like it, you're quite at liberty to... '
'... It's perfect.'
She placed it alongside her bracelet, and he saw at once, with satisfaction, that his memory had been more than adequate. The match was flawless. 'I don't know what to say. It's... perfect,' she murmured.
Severus relaxed. He had spent too many nights lying awake in the hopes that the early hours would bring inspiration. The right gift seemed imperative. His instinct had been to give her a book, but he had dismissed that idea as uninspiring: the offering of one friend to another, not a gift from a lover, or rather, a hopeful lover-to-be. She had promised to judge him by his actions not his words, in which case his actions needed to be beyond reproach. His experiences of gift-giving may be inadequate, but his ability to know what was due was not. Being lackey to a Dark Lord and having the unenviable status of triple-agent, honed one's ability to rise to the occasion. Severus had seen the bracelet often enough; she was always fiddling with it. She had even worn it to the Yule Ball, and he remembered it on her wrist when she had inhabited the form of Heather Gunn. The idea of duplicating it and having it made into a necklace had popped into his head while routinely checking on his store cupboard ingredients for Polyjuice potion.
'The bracelet was my mother's,' explained Hermione. 'I took it as a keepsake before I left them. It was part of a set, but she always wore the necklace.'
She handed it to him and turned around. 'Will you put it on?' she asked, lifting her hair so that he could place it around her neck. His fingers lingered on the curve of her shoulder and he couldn't prevent himself from leaning forward to kiss her perfectly-formed collar bone. She turned around to find his lips for a long and heartfelt thank you.
'If I had known how well it was going to be received, I would have got you the matching earrings as well,' he said.
'You've set quite a precedent, you know.'
'I knew there'd be a catch.'
Severus walked towards Hermione, lost in thought and memory. He saw her notice his appearance and knew she wouldn't raise a hand to wave acknowledgement, or shout out a premature greeting. She would remain still and silent and watchful. How much a year of intimacy had taught him. He prided himself on being able to second-guess her every response, reaction and thought these days, though that had not always been the case, he recalled. He was reminded of another meeting which took place two weeks after their Christmas day date.
The only frustration to have arisen from what was an otherwise perfect first date was its conclusion. Severus had left her house at midnight without plucking up the nerve to take their physical intimacy beyond the stage of mind-blowing kissing.
They had spent their second meeting after Christmas on a Diagon Alley shopping trip, and their third entwined on Hermione's couch, drinking wine, listening to music and going over their unconventional courtship.
'There were so many low points that I'm finding it hard to choose just one,' said Hermione mischievously.
'I'm sure you could find something suitably excruciating to torment me with,' he replied.
'All right then, I'm going to go for the time you asked if I intended to stay for the prostitute.'
'Granger, if you are going to remind me of every abusive remark and personal insult, we're in for a long night,' he replied. Though he was relieved to find that she had now relegated his past indiscretions to nothing more worthy than amusing anecdotes to be viewed together as examples of how far they had progressed. 'Would a blanket apology and general retraction suffice?'
She giggled. 'Possibly. Do you take back calling me an insufferable know-it-all?'
'No! You were an insufferable know-it-all. Fortunately, your adult self seems to have developed attributes which off-set your ridiculous need to prove yourself,' he replied, pulling her into another long, languid kiss to make his point.
'Attributes?' she reiterated playfully, once they had parted. 'Such as?'
'Apart from the obvious physical ones, which I don't need to point out, your tolerance for being slobbered over by an ageing, charmless wizard is to your credit.'
'True!' she replied, 'But I am a Gryffindor.'
'Still insufferable,' he replied with a raised eyebrow and an amused smirk.
'Even your belongings managed to insult me,' said Hermione moments later. 'Your mirror,' she added in response to his inquisitive look.
'Well I'm not assuming responsibility for my mirror's reprehensible behaviour – I have plenty of my own to deal with – although personally, I have always found the object to be insightful and discerning.'
'Oh really? Well your discerning mirror told me that I wasn't as pretty as the other girls from the agency.'
Severus snorted. 'The woman from the agency. There has only ever been one, and she is hardly in her first bloom of youth.' He was surprised when Hermione pulled away, wearing a troubled expression.
They sat in awkward silence for some time until Hermione apprehensively said, 'And she still comes to you?'
'Why wouldn't she?' he asked.
Hermione shot him a censorious look. 'Well I... ' she stuttered. 'I presumed since. Well since you and I... ' Her hesitancy was maddening. Why couldn't she just say what she wanted to say, instead of behaving as if she had just turned up for one of his detentions?
'Since you and I what?' he asked.
Hermione rose and walked over to the fireplace as if to find courage in the dying embers. 'I just thought that... I mean I know you and I haven't yet... ' She hesitated again.
'Haven't yet what?' he prompted, unable to grasp this inexplicable change of mood.
'You know perfectly well what,' she said impatiently, spinning around to face him.
'I can assure you, I have no idea what you are talking about, but I suggest you spit it out soon, so that I can get on with explaining away whatever it is I am supposed to have done.'
'SLEPT together! Yet!' she hissed.
Severus was rarely astounded, but Hermione's candid statement not only astonished him, but also gave him hope: that small, inconsequential final word was the most encouraging thing he had heard in a very long time. Regardless, he was still unable to work out the cause of her obvious anguish.
'Ah!' he replied, hoping to get this latest hitch sorted out so that they could get on with rectifying the 'yet' problem. He cleared his throat. 'What has our not having slept together... yet got to do with Madame Laverne?'
Hermione looked as if she would very much like to throw a blunt object at him. 'You have to ask?' she yelled.
'My God! I know you can be insensitive, cruel even, but even for you, this is beyond belief. I do have feelings you know!'
'Believe me, I do. I feel I know them almost as well as you do. However, I am still waiting to be enlightened as to what it is that you seem to think I am guilty of.'
Hermione let out an exasperated moan along with an expletive or two. 'You have an agency woman visiting you on a weekly basis, and you have to ask why I am upset?' she replied heatedly.
'Do you expect me to shun the entire female populace on the basis that you and I have become an item?' he replied, also rising from his position and crossing the room to join her. 'I can assure you that although Madame Laverne does an adequate, or rather, more than adequate job, she is hardly well-placed to replace you in my affections.'
Hermione glared at him as if he had announced that he had just found a new Dark Lord to follow. 'And that is supposed to make me feel better? Knowing that she is skilled, but that you still like me best? 'Just not enough to... give her up.'
Severus Snape was not a patient man; nevertheless, he had been determined to play the part of the perfect guest this evening. His intention was to show her the best of him, as far as he was able, but this explosion and apparent show of jealousy was intolerable. His ego was flattered that he could be the cause of such blatant possessiveness, but he had to conclude that this emotional outburst was not the result of a rational mind. He had endured enough.
'That is quite sufficient, Hermione! You go too far. This evening is over!' He walked towards the door, stopped and turned around. 'You obviously need some time to contemplate this situation. If you feel up to viewing it in a more rational light, please send me word by owl. I cannot tolerate your absurd jealousy. It is misplaced, foolish and beneath you.'
Hermione's face was as pale as his. 'You're leaving? Just like that? No discussion? I either do things by your debauched standards or not at all?'
He was out of the door and had reached the hallway by the time she caught up with him.
'For all you know I might be just as good as she is,' Hermione called after him. 'Have you ever considered that there is more to it than just experience? Real affection, tenderness... passion! The knowledge that someone is there because they want to be, and not because they are paid to be; surely that is worth more?'
He had put on his jacket, and was about to open the front door as she made her fervent speech, but this time there was something about her words that began to make him question her meaning.
'What does it matter whether my cleaner does her job with or without affection? She can dust, mop, wipe and polish just as effectively without caring a sickle about who she does it for. And what is more, I would prefer whoever cleans for me to be emotionally detached. I have no wish to engage in a harmonious and meaningful relationship with the woman who scrubs my bathroom. I equally have no wish for the woman I am engaged in a meaningful relationship with, to use her formidable magical powers on Cleansing charms and Laundering spells.'
Hermione's furious expression had dramatically altered during his speech. Her cheeks still glowed, but her mouth slackened, and her eyes grew to the size of Galleons.
'Cleaner?' she murmured, her expression now showing a strange mixture of growing comprehension and horror.
Severus took in her suddenly altered demeanour: her reaction to what was apparently a revelation.
'Madame Laverne is your cleaner?' she reiterated.
'From the agency, yes.'
'And the name of the agency? She asked, softly. Fine black lines wrinkled up her forehead to complete her look of trepidation.
'"Mrs. Scower's Magical Cleaning Agency", if you must know.'
Hermione attempted a smile which faltered and gave up.
'Granger! I am getting the distinct impression that we have been talking a cross purposes.'
She nodded fretfully. 'Yes.'
'Am I to understand that you are surprised by the fact that Madame Laverne is employed to clean my house?'
Hermione's interest was suddenly stolen by the floor. She dropped her head, refusing to meet his eye.
She lifted her head, and managed to make eye contact with his shoulder. Severus was now fully conscious of the stupendous misunderstanding that had almost resulted in him leaving in a state of anger and confusion. 'Am I, in fact, to understand that you believed her to be employed on an infinitely more informal basis?'
She gave him a sideways glance and shrugged. 'Perfectly understandable mistake to make,' she replied without conviction.
'You mean to tell me that for all this time you have been under the impression that I have been hiring a prostitute once a week? Do you think I'm made of money?'
Hermione winced. 'Well you did mention them quite often.'
'As a device to drive you away; a highly unsuccessful device, I might add.' He watched her mortification with a sense of relief, amusement and wonder. He could hardly conceive that even though she believed him to be hiring whores with all the restraint of an alcoholic in a brewery, she still cared enough to discount his so-called compulsion, until she thought he was perfectly happy to openly continue his indiscretions despite his newfound romance with her. He could not fault her on loyalty. 'I won't deny that I have... on occasion sought the services... but not for some time, and only very rarely. I would never... '
'... You don't have to explain,' interrupted Hermione. 'I'm an idiot, and I feel like a complete fool.'
'Well! At least we are agreed on one thing,' he replied.
'I'm sorry, Severus. Sorry, but so relieved. I was at my wits end. I thought you were angry with me for expecting you to give up your weekly shag with a prostitute. It's just that when I first found you in that Muggle pub and you confronted me in the alleyway, you told me that you'd rather be with a professional than me, and I know you said it to scare me off, but I never forgot it. It was always there in the back of my mind. "He thinks I'm rubbish in bed". Then when your mirror made that remark... well two and two made anything but four, but the numbers seemed to point to the fact that you were hiring a professional, which you are, just a different sort of professional. I suppose I should have questioned the damn mirror more, but it wasn't exactly enjoying my cross-examination as it was and I just wanted to get the Hangover potion and get out of there. I was already feeling wretched; it didn't need much to make me assume the worst. So you can see how I got the wrong end of the stick. And now you think I'm insane as well as an insufferable know-it-all, pathetically jealous and desperate to please.'
'Granger, shut up for one second! How am I supposed to kiss you when you won't stop rabbiting?'
Her bedroom was neat and orderly, almost as if it had been expecting guests. The dark blue covers on the double bed matched the parted curtains, whose sashes were released by Hermione to rectify the privacy problem. Severus could hardly believe his luck; it seemed that he really had finally been favoured by the heavens. At last, the gods had tired of finding amusement in his torture. Had some other unfortunate wretch finally caught their attention? He hoped it was that white-toothed, muscle-bound Muggle bastard who had had his eye on Hermione.
He watched her hesitancy and apprehension from across the room and misread it as a change of heart, despite the fact that she had all but dragged him up the stairs.
'This isn't necessary, Hermione,' he said, berating himself for his pathetic gallantry. 'We don't have to do this now.' The erection in his groin begged to differ.
'You don't want to?' she replied. And even he could see that her disappointment was heartfelt.
'I can't even begin to explain how much. Nevertheless, it can wait until you... ' Shut up, Severus, his ignoble desires screamed at him.
'Oh, but I am... I do... want to, that is,' she replied. She walked around the bed to reach his side and stood still, nervously contemplating him, waiting for him to make a move. He knew she still feared that he would find her inadequate, but he was more concerned that she would discover him to be so. He should tell her that he was hardly an experienced practitioner in the noble art of intimacy. All of his experiences to date had either been business transactions or the fumbling results of drunken encounters. He should tell her that for him, she didn't need to be proficient. Her willingness and desire to be with him was the most powerful aphrodisiac of all. He did not require skill and a practiced hand – only her. But her anxiety itself fuelled his desire. The need to have her on his own terms was powerful. An animal instinct easily suppressed by decorum, cultural rules and fear of consequences, prowled in his gut. He felt it, nevertheless: the need to overpower her without tenderness or restraint. He deserved her. She was his glorious prize; he had waited long enough; he had been patient, made sacrifices. He had knelt at the feet of a reptile-faced tyrant with treachery in his heart, loathing in his gut and his fingers crossed behind his back. And he had done it for... the greater good? Perhaps. A means of atonement? Without a doubt. His reward could never be his first love – she was gone, but here was a young, beguiling, clever witch before him. She wanted him for reasons that he could not comprehend, but he no longer dwelt on purpose. He could almost smell her trepidation and desire mingled with the soft aroma of her perfume. And she was waiting for him to be the director.
The longing to cover her mouth with hard and bruising kisses rose again; the urge to feel the softness of her skin yield to his grasp was potent. He wanted to forgo ceremony and etiquette and banish that little red dress with a flick of his wand. He had earned that. Surely all those years of servitude had warranted him an unrestrained tumble with the best that Gryffindor's "class of 98" had to offer?
He had almost forgotten the intoxicating force of wielding power over another human being. Not the power of pointing a weapon into a face and threatening violence, nor the capacity to know a weakness and use it to belittle and humiliate; he had exercised his prodigious skills on students for years. But this was a different feeling; it was physical, visceral, primitive. It was the might of the strongest animal over the physically weaker, and the feeling of arousal it provoked was exhilarating; it ripped through him like a Blasting curse, and with it came the urge to display his dominance, to let her feel hot, coarse flesh, sweat and supremacy as he took her without compassion or subtlety. But these were only feelings: sordid, urgent and violent as they were.
He would do nothing to jeopardise this moment; he wanted more than her body, though he wanted that almost as much as anything he had ever craved. He ached to have all of her for his own: body, mind, soul, life and limbs. Yet more than that, he wanted her to be the possessor. He was not a man to take pleasure in variety; all he had ever desired was possession. Fidelity could never be a difficulty for him – he had no interest in sexual diversity: consistency was what he longed for. Stability, repetition, familiarity. He had hoped to find it in Lily.
Lily, the only kindness he had ever experienced, but Lily had feared his intensity as well as his propensity for the dark.
Hermione's eyes seared into his, maintaining his focus, as her fingers reached behind her for the fastening of her dress. She stepped out of the crimson puddle at her feet and brazenly wrapped her limbs around him like a cloak.
Her willingness was his undoing.
Beyond sense and reason, she was begging him. She was some wild, unfathomable creature, full of heat and need and passion. She was impatient. She helped with the disrobing of his shirt and trousers. No, not helped, hindered in her eagerness and he was obliged to stop her again, so that he could remove them more efficiently. The only word that came to mind was 'fuck' as he looked over her gloriously naked body, stared into a face which mirrored his own desperate want so perfectly, and marvelled at his unprecedented nakedness in front of another human being; in front of Hermione Granger. He didn't know whether that one word which was beating out a mantra in his head was an expression of surprise, or a command from his sub conscious. When the word appeared on Hermione's lips there could be no doubt that, from her, it was a plea.
Well, what was a spurned wizard to do?
Severus Snape had been grateful for few things in life, although lately the number was increasing significantly. He was grateful for his magical powers, his survival against all odds, his new girlfriend, and the fact that, far from their first time together ending in her reassurances and his mortification, her orgasm, strident and intense as it had undoubtedly been, happened several thrusts before his own equally vocal and forceful completion. He was not a man to offer himself up to silent prayer or unnecessary epithets of sentimentality, but it took a great deal of restraint not to shout out a thanks to God, Merlin, Salazar Slytherin, Albus Dumbledore, The Dark Lord in all his fetid and decaying ignominy, and anyone else he had ever felt a modicum of reverence for.
What a sight she was: her hair, tangled, messy and damp with sweat and happiness; her breaths, shallow and rapid; her face, blotchy and reddened from exertion and passion. Her smile was contentment itself. He had a feeling that his own smile might just reflect the immense feeling of smugness he was experiencing at that moment. Naked and sated Granger wrapped around his body, head on his chest, exasperating hair in his mouth, and knee uncomfortably placed on his thigh, was almost enough for him to profess that it had all been worth it in the end.
She walked towards him as he approached. She never could wait for him to fully reach her. It was as if those last few seconds of waiting were too unbearable to simply sit there without action.
'You're late,' she said accusingly.
'I'm never late.'
'A year late,' she replied, slipping her arms around his waist and sinking into the sensation of his own pulling her tightly towards him. Their lips met for a rather-longer-than-usual-kiss for a greeting. A peck on the cheek was his usual means of saying hello, but Severus was reluctant to conclude this one. 'Apology accepted,' she said, when they finally parted, oblivious to dog-walkers, exercise-freaks and school-truants.
'Still insufferable, Granger.'
They turned together and thoroughly deserved to see the last rays of the sun firing up the sky, in a haze of glorious fire, before it slipped behind the horizon unseen by the witch and the wizard. Perhaps the perfect sunset didn't quite manifest itself as a final fanfare for Severus and Hermione, but it did begin to drizzle, though neither of them noticed as they made their way to the cafe in the park which sold the best tea and scones in the county.
A/N. I do hope the ending was satisfactory and a fitting finale for Severus and Hermione. This is my first completed longer fic, and I'm very excited to have finished it. I have to thank Sevvy for reading, supporting, advising, encouraging and just all round loveliness, as well as Snapesgirl21/Schadenfreude for reading over the later chapters and giving me her thoughts, advice and encouragement too. Thanks to everyone who read it, and hugs to everyone who was lovely enough to review. I have loved hearing your thoughts over the past year.