A/N: The story is now complete.

I aimed solely to rewrite the piece from before, in order to improve the quality of writing. It means that the premise itself is flawed in spots, as I didn't have time to change the plot along with the writing, but - overall - I'm happy with how it turned out. In terms of the 'ending':

Originally, I remember that I picked that point to end as it was a point where Severus and Harry had come together. The story was initially designed as a way to explain how the couple could conceivably get from point A to point B, but - had I time - I would have loved to expand past this, enough to follow their entire relationship and perhaps even the start of a family between them. I might write another HP fanfiction, or maybe rework this into a novel-length piece, but - for now - this will be it in terms of this fiction.

Chapter Three

"I'm not asking for your permission, Ron!"

Harry cast a dark look to Ron. There was a sharp pain in his temples, which was sign enough that a stress-induced headache was on its way, and he could even feel the scar on his forehead throb with the frustration at the situation. He thought – for one horrible moment – that Voldermort had returned; the pain was nowhere near as intense, but the residual fear stuck with him and likely would until the day he died. It was just awful that his friends of all people caused this feeling, because he expected some understanding.

The tension was thick in the air, which made it difficult to think clearly. He could understand why Ron would feel the way that he did, but he couldn't help other than to feel a stab of anger at how unfair it all was, because it put him in a very awkward position. It felt as if he were being given an ultimatum: Severus or Ronald. Harry could remember the times when they fell out in the past, but – in all honesty – he wasn't sure that he could go through all that again, not least when he needed support. How could Ronald have finished the war with the same prejudices as when it started? Ronald felt like an anchor; he weighed him down in the past, when all Harry wanted was to sail into the future. Why couldn't Ron grow up?

Ronald sat opposite Harry with something akin to a pout. It was childish, but it wasn't meant contemptuously or patronisingly as it may have done from anyone else, even if it reminded Harry of Draco in that moment. Hermione sat between them like a physical buffer; it was almost like being back in school, especially when she was the only one willing to see both sides to the situation. It was equally unfair upon her, of course, due to her relationship with Ron and her friendship with Harry, but there was little that could be done about that.

"Ron, can we not do this right now?"

"Do what?" Ron shrugged. "I'm just calling it like I see it."

"You know what I mean! You're like a brother to me," said Harry. "The very last thing I want to do is to get into an argument, especially when we know from the past how they usually end up. We fought together. We grew together. I just –! I respect your opinion more than anything, but I refuse to let things get like they were just because you can't accept my choices! You -! God, you can be such a prat!"

"Oh, I'm the prat? Says the guy trying to get into Snape's trousers! He cursed my brother; George is still missing half an ear, which isn't funny no matter how many jokes he tells! Yeah, I'm the prat . . . well, at least I'm not planning to marry Dumbledore's murderer!"

"Sod off, Ron! We haven't even been on a date yet," snapped Harry. "Hell, if you would just listen to me, you'd know that I'm pretty sure that he doesn't even want to date. We're just – well, we're just getting to know each other, even that he's pretty reluctant about. You're my best friend . . . you're supposed to support me and stand by me, not lecture me! You can't control me. You can't just snap your fingers and tell me what to do! It never worked in the past, so why the hell would it work now?"

They sat in an awkward silence. The way that Ron curled his lips spoke volumes about what he thought about the situation, but – having matured a little – he knew better than to voice his exact thoughts to a tense audience. It was such an expression typical of Ron, which was worn so often in their youth and often reserved solely for Harry, but it was one of conflict . . . filled with both the pain of betrayal and the affection of love. Ron tried to hide his concern by affecting a sneer, but behind those pursed lips and reddened ears was a distinct pain.

It was unusually quiet in the Hog's Head, which meant that there was very little distraction from everything that they felt, and – in fact – the only patrons that day seemed to be just the three of them and no more. The only break in the silence was the bartender's shuffling. There would be a little shuffle of Hermione's feet on occasion, and as she rustled it would send a cloud of dust and dirt to lift and rise, due to the fact that the pub was kept in less than perfect condition and even just to breathe the air left one feeling dirty. The disgust in Hermione's expression was evident, especially by how she fidgeted and tried her best to touch nothing, but it was a vain effort. The dirt seemed almost sentient and infiltrated everywhere.

The windows were so encrusted with dirt that even the moonlight seemed distorted, whilst the lights inside were mostly candlelight and wavered too dramatically for his tastes, and he couldn't help other than to let out a low sigh. There was an odd smell from the half-melted candles on the tabletops, which made him wonder whether this had been the best choice to meet Severus later. He hoped the casual atmosphere would suit the older man, whilst the rather ramshackle structure put off most visitors to the village, and he hoped that it would leave them with some privacy. He also hoped that his friends would leave soon . . .

There was a ticking clock somewhere along the bar, but the ticking hands seemed to be broken or slightly off, which created a disturbingly irregular rhythm that only served to make him all the more nervous. It was already a half-past seven, which meant that Severus ought to arrive very shortly, and he couldn't help but wonder whether Ron was trying to rile him so that their meeting would go badly. Ron only wanted what was best for him, but surely the ultimate decision was up to Harry and no one else?

"I'm just trying to look out for you," muttered Ron.

"How? How are you looking out for me?" Harry leaned back and pushed his butter-beer away from him. "How is slagging off Severus and questioning my decisions 'looking out' for me? I didn't hear these kinds of insults from Hermione or Luna."

"Yeah, well, you wouldn't, would you? They're too nice to tell you the truth."

"Well, at least you admit that you're not being nice. Good to know."

"Merlin -! He treated you like scum, Harry!"

"He had to! He was a spy!"

Harry took in a deep breath to compose himself. It was true that Ron had a point, in a way, because Severus had always maintained a rather distant position around Harry, as well as a cruel and belittling façade whenever forced to directly deal with him. Ron cared, which was something that Harry would not deny. Ron had taken time from work to meet them, still in his work robes and exhausted from the day, and yet he was here . . . for Harry.

"Look," Harry said, "I'm not saying he's a great guy –"

"Good! You sound delusional enough as it is, Harry! He might have been a spy, but it doesn't excuse how he spoke to you in private! He's a sadist! You've had bruises from him, plus you cried because of him, and he's pissed you off enough to draw your wand -! I just don't get it! If he's agreeing to meet you, it's just so he can brag about banging the Boy-Who-Lived to his Death Eater buddies! You can't just expect me to stand back and watch you get used up!"

"No, I'm expecting you to listen to me that there's more to Severus than that! He -! Look, he's the only person that's ever seen me for my faults, because everyone else sort of romanticised me and saw me as something I wasn't. He's different."

"Ginny was different too," mumbled Ron. "Can't say there are many girls that make great Quidditch players and can win in a fight, plus she's smart and people tell me that she's pretty, plus you could have been an official part of the family! What can you say about Severus? He's just some greasy, old dungeon-bat. He's mean, he quit his job, he –"

"He saved my life! He's intelligent, he's cultured, and he's exceptionally talented. He stopped seeing me as my father or some amalgamation of my parents long ago, plus he's starting to see me as my own person with my own merits. Do you have any idea how refreshing it is to meet someone that sees you for the good and the bad, but also challenges you to be better than what you are and calls you on the bullshit? I've never met anyone like him. I was just as judgemental as he was, so we missed out on any kind of relationship, but –"

"Now you think you two can just fall in love? You'll replace Ginny for him?"

"Even if we're just friends, I'll be lucky. I'm not replacing anyone."

"Oh for -! Hermione, back me up here!"

Harry rolled his eyes. He would admit that he was scared of what a relationship with Severus represented, but he was not afraid of Severus himself. The fact was that this was a whole new start; he buried his feelings deep in resentment and rivalry, as a student at Hogwarts, so that he had struggled to see those around him for who they truly were. In the past he transferred all his hatred for Voldermort into all those associated with him, including – at the time – Severus. He could finally see Severus as a whole person, distinct from his duties and actions, and he wanted to get to know him properly and from afresh. It was just difficult.

He feared this change, simply because – with it – there came a fear of rejection. He pulled his butter-beer back towards him and wrapped his hands around it, where he nursed it with a rather dejected look. There had been a sense of safety in dating Ginny, especially as he knew that it could have easily have ended in a stable family, which was the one thing that he always wanted, and yet he needed to take this risk. He wanted to finally feel happy, not just content, and didn't he deserve that? He wanted to see where this could go.

It was then Hermione cleared her throat.

Until that moment, she remained silent for the most part. Hermione simply listened to what was being said and listened quite seriously, whilst she occasionally intervened only to stop the argument from spilling over into an outright fight. It reassured Harry to know that she was unbiased to the situation, as well as willing to listen to both sides, and he was curious as to what her opinion would be on the situation. He also appreciated her support, even if she did have doubts and concerns about the matter. She was a good friend.

There was one small thing that amused him, however, and that was how she appeared more concerned with the fact that she was forced to skip out on some paperwork to mediate their discussion, especially when she seemed to enjoy dedicating most of her evenings to work. She remained calm for the most part, because she clearly trusted Harry to choose what was best and to do what was right, and – due to that – the craving to get home to finish her work was starting to clearly claw at her, which made him smile. Her brown hair hung loose over her shoulders, whilst she sat with legs folded and a scroll of parchment on her lap. She would glare at Ron every now and again, as if to warn him to behave.

"I think what Ron's trying to say," Hermione said softly, "is that we're worried."

"I know you're worried, but –"

"No, please, just hear me out? I know that you care about Severus, but sometimes . . . sometimes it's not enough to just care about a person. Relationships . . . in any form . . . are about so many things, but sometimes – no matter how much we love the other person – it just isn't enough. Ron wants to make sure you are certain about this, but I would rather know whether either of you are ready for any kind of relationship with the other."

"What do you mean by that?"

Hermione blushed a little in embarrassment. It was easy to tell that she had begun to feel a little riled up, as she cast a firm gaze across to him, but she was less sensitive than Ron and capable of controlling her emotions in a mature manner. Hermione was also fiercely protective of those she loved, which meant that she wouldn't go easy on him, especially if she thought that he would be hurting himself or Severus in the process, and he worried for a moment that she would try to talk him out of it. He didn't want to alienate her.

"He's not long been awake," said Hermione. "He's awoken to find the war over and many of his students and colleagues have passed away, and – as he's dealing with that – he's told that the boy that hated him is now a man that respects him. He's bound to be confused at best, but hurt at worst . . . there's no knowing how he feels for you, but he'll need time to come to terms with his emotions and his grief regardless. Come to think of it . . . are you ready?"

"Of course I am, Hermione!"

"Well, you can't blame me for asking! Severus couldn't even trust you enough to meet you at the party, just as you don't trust him to show up now . . . if you did, you wouldn't have chosen now to talk to Ron and me about this. We're just a safety net in case he doesn't arrive. You're clinging to Severus for something that he might not be able to give, and you're giving him hope for something that you might not be able to commit to giving! Think about it, Harry . . . are either of you ready to see the other? If you can honestly say that are, I'll trust you, but if you have any doubts – any at all – then you need to stop this before it starts."

Harry gave a small wince. He knew that she didn't mean to be cruel, but there was just something so absolute about her words that made him think twice, especially when he knew that she had a good point. It was difficult to say what was right; both men were somewhat broken by the war and by their pasts, but perhaps that didn't have to be a bad thing? A part of Harry hoped that they could help each other to grow and to heal, although another part of him knew that two drowning men were just as likely to pull each other beneath the surface . . .

The air felt cold suddenly, which wasn't helped by the draught from the door. He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand over his face, where he then looked to Hermione with a saddened expression of resignation, as he tried to decide what was right. There was a part of him that wanted to argue it could be no less unhealthy than George dating his brother's girlfriend, but it felt beyond inappropriate to make such an observation. He appreciated Severus for both his flaws and virtues, although it would be difficult to convince people of that, and yet Hermione was right that sometimes respect and love weren't enough to sustain a relationship. Harry drew in a deep breath and watched the mist that appeared before his mouth in the cold air.

He knew that Severus' trust was destroyed; the older man held no faith in himself or the world at large, and his self-hatred was so severe that the fact he successfully engineered an antidote for Nagini's poison – rather than accepting his inevitable demise – surprised him more than anything. Harry still struggled to believe that Severus strove to survive any potential attacks, as well as fought through his coma, and clearly a part of him wanted life in some form. Severus was fragile emotionally and physically, and it would be a huge responsibility to support him, as the slightest mistake could break him.

Harry needed to be sure that he would never abandon Severus. If he fought to gain the older man's trust, only to break it, then there was a strong chance that Severus would never trust anyone else ever again . . . it was a huge burden to bear. It was possible that with some work and dedication that they could provide for the other what they lacked, so long as they were careful not to become co-dependent, but . . . did Severus even want that?

"I was planning on going slow anyway," said Harry.

"All the longer for you both to get attached," replied Hermione sadly.

"The war feels like it was just yesterday." He drew in a staggered breath. "I guess – for Severus – it really was just yesterday, but I just know that the war has made me really appreciate what I have. I don't want to settle. I want to take risks. If Severus is here –"

"What if he wasn't? Would you settle for someone other than him then? I know that you and Ginny weren't perfectly matched, but you were happy and you could have easily had the family that you've always wanted . . . I'm not saying that you should make do with the status quo, just because it's easier, but clearly you loved her on some level. Do you really want to give that up? What is it about Severus that you'd prioritise him over Ginny?"

"Yeah," Ron chipped in. "I mean, it's not as though you owe him anything! You've paid him back plenty for all he's done! No other headmaster got a portrait for ditching the school, plus you got him exonerated and cleared his name and loads! What's the point in trying to be anything more than that? The old git won't appreciate it."

"I don't care whether he appreciates it," snapped Harry. "Look, I don't really want to think about what could have happened had he died, because it's just too morbid when so many people did die during the war! I may have stayed with Ginny, yeah, but I – I feel stronger feelings for Severus and I owe it to myself to see where they could lead, because it's not fair on Ginny or me to settle. You don't get it, Ron, do you? I have feelings for him . . . feelings. I just want to take a chance. I'd be happy with just his friendship."

"So you'd throw away Ginny for a possible friendship. That's just great."

"Harry," said Hermione, "you can't even trust him to show."

"He'll -! He'll show," muttered Harry.

The uncertainty was clear in his voice. Ron leaned forward on the table, which created a sense of intimacy and reminded him of their friendship, whilst Hermione reached out to squeeze his arm reassuringly. Severus had – for all intents and purposes – been coerced into agreeing to meet him, which probably didn't help with his trust issues at all, and he likely feared arriving only to see a sea of faces ready to mock and laugh at him. He didn't believe he could be forgiven, so he would expect the very worst. It was possible Severus wouldn't show, but he would wait regardless, because to leave would only confirm Severus' beliefs.

"Harry," said Hermione.

"I won't lie," he continued sadly. "I know he might not show, but I knew that was always a risk when I started to pursue a relationship. If something like this bothers me, I'd have no right to associate with him at all . . . I can't change him. I can only be there enough that – in time – he realises that I'm not going anywhere and grows to trust me, but it'll be up to him to make that step and accept what I'm prepared to give."

"Oh, great relationship that is," Ron mumbled. "You can't trust him to show up and he can't trust you to be here. You guys are going to have a hell of a time arranging dates! Plus, you're totally giving him all the control! He's already in charge of it all!"

"Shut it, Ron! It's hard enough without you poking holes in it! If you don't get it –"

"No, I don't get it! That's the problem! Can you blame me for being suspicious? Come on, mate! Even if the old slime-bag isn't using you, he still isn't good enough to date you or befriend you! You're a decent guy . . . even without all the defeating You-Know-Who, you are still pretty cool. I'm not going to call you 'handsome', because it'd be – you know – weird, but a lot of girls seem into you, so yeah . . . you got to be alright, haven't you? I just don't get why you couldn't pick Ginny, that's all. Our kids could have hung out and stuff."

"They still can, Ron," said Hermione.

"Yeah? Snape's not even human! He'd probably eat his young after mating or something, like those spider things! Anyway, it doesn't make much difference, does it? Ginny is still ten times better than his ugly mug! Harry needs glasses, sure, but he's not blind!"

"Ron, don't be so rude! Behave!"

Hermione struck Ron across his head. It was not that she particularly liked Severus, but she had always taken a strong position against cruelty and bullying. Harry heard her mutter loudly, despite how she leaned across to whisper to Ron, how that 'physical attributes do not define a person'. They never really thought how their teachers would think of their comments at school, but now Harry knew how bullied and teased Severus had been . . . it must have been devastating him during his tenure teaching. Ron rubbed the back of his head with a pout.

They stayed silent for a moment, as their empty glasses were collected and Hermione raised a hand to signal for some more, but – in all honesty – he felt awkward sitting with them, because he felt as if they had reached a stalemate. He knew that Ron cared deeply about him, even if he expressed it in an awful way sometimes, but his idiotic insult raised a good point, one that lingered in Harry's mind: how did same-sex couples have families in the wizarding world? He shook his head at the thought. It was something that was too far ahead to even consider, but it was something that he needed in his life . . . would he have to sacrifice that, if he were to be with someone like Severus? He needed to think about it.

Their drinks were brought over rather quickly. Harry reached for his butter-beer and raised it to his lips, where he savoured the taste for a long moment; he knew he was legal to drink alcohol, but there was just something so nostalgic about the beverage. He drank deeply and looked to the clock by the wall, but the minute hand stopped and it was difficult to get an accurate idea of the time. He put down his glass and gave forth a low sigh of frustration, before a quick charm gave him an idea of what he needed to know.

"Look, he'll be here any minute," said Harry.

"And if he isn't?" Ron asked.

"Well, I guess I'll have to go find him then, won't I?"

Harry pushed his glass away so firmly that beer spilled over the rim. There were a few droplets that fell onto Hermione's parchment, who let out a cry of indignation, but most fell onto the old wood of the table. He winced at how he inconvenienced her by his gesture, but she only gave him a stern look in return and shook her head. He was grateful that she didn't call him on his behaviour. The room felt colder in that moment and he gave a slight shudder.

"I don't have all the answers, Ron," said Harry. "I wish I did, but I don't. If he turns up, great, but if he doesn't then please don't say 'I told you so'. Just be my friend, okay? Support me. If you don't agree with what I'm doing, fine, but don't hate me for it . . ."

"Mate, I don't hate you at all! I can't hate you! I just . . . I don't know . . . I need time to get my head around it, that's all. You can't blame me for needing time, can you?"

"It's okay, I get it."

Harry understood well. It was understandable that Ron would be worried, but he couldn't help than to feel conflicted about the issue. He smiled warmly as Ron checked the time and finished his drink, before he stood up and cricked his neck and stretched his limbs, and a part of Harry worried why Ron seemed quick to leave. Ron occasionally sent nervous glances to Hermione, but – having so rare few moments away from work – she would likely spend the rest of the evening within the village, even if it meant ignoring Ron's sulking.

They remained in silence, whilst Hermione stood up in turn and began to fuss about Ron, and – if he were honest – it was somewhat sweet to see them both interact. The small acts of intimacy between them spoke of love, including the gentle touches and stolen kisses, and it was endearing to see them act in that way. It amused him how Ron offered a hand to steady Hermione, just as how she huffed as if he were insulting her autonomy, and they had a natural rhythm between them. Ron eventually shook Harry's hand and gave him a relaxed hug, before Hermione followed suit. She whispered for him not to be a stranger during the term-times, as if she expected him to overwork himself.

"Thanks, Ron," said Harry. "You heading home?"

"Yeah, I need to get some rest," Ron replied. "I won't wait up, but tell me all about it tomorrow, okay? You tell him, though, that if he hurts you then I'll hex his balls off. No one hurts my mate, even if they have some old grudge from the past."

"For God's sake, Ron," Hermione muttered. "Harry can take care of himself!"

"I know, but I just want him to know I have his back!"

"I think he knows that, really."

Harry smiled warmly at Hermione. It was reassuring to see her return the smile, but then she took the opportunity to gently take a hold of Ron's arm and firmly led him to the inn's entrance. It always surprised him just how strong she could be; Hermione often projected a sensitive image of someone easily hurt, but she was able to command respect and take a charge of any situation, without ever putting someone down in the process. Even now, she moved with grace and confidence, which was incredibly impressive.

He followed them to the door, where he listened to Ron's muttered complaints with humour, and shuddered as the draught from the door hit him hard. It creaked open in a way that suggested it didn't quite fit the frame, perhaps swollen from damp and a water leakage, whilst snowflakes began to blow inside like their own personal flurry. The light outside was almost disorientating, when inside the inn had been so dark and dreary. Harry huddled into himself to keep warm, whilst they wandered outside to part ways, and Harry desperately hoped they would leave quickly so he could return inside to the relative warmth. It started to seem that this inn was perhaps not the best place to meet Severus for the first time.

The sky outside was black, whilst the stars stood out rather beautifully against its backdrop, and in the distance he could see the moon bright and clear. There were very few clouds in the sky tonight, which meant that the view was not obscured. Harry wondered whether Severus enjoyed star-gazing, which was something that he missed growing-up and couldn't get enough as an adult, but not all people were as 'foolishly sentimental' as he could be. It was easy to get lost in their glow, as he stared upwards with a smile.

"Take care, Harry," said Hermione.

Hermione placed a kiss upon his cheek. It was a gentle gesture, which reminded of him of the days when they were back in school and studied together, and it was enough to make him wish that he stayed for the 'eighth year' as she did. He enjoyed the way that his hands felt in her gloved ones, just as he enjoyed the way her smile seemed so bright and sincere, and he gave a shuddered sigh and nodded his head in acknowledgement of her.

"Let me know how it goes?"

"Sure," he said. "I'll tell you right after Ron."

"You know," she said jestingly, "if I didn't know any better, I'd be rather jealous. It seems that Ron is always the first one to know anything. I have to say that I'm surprised though, seeing that he has the sensitivity of a mule."

"Hey," Ron snapped. "I'm right here you know!"

"You know I'm right, Ronald."

"Yeah, sure," he muttered.

They said their goodbyes quickly, as Ron dashed to the nearest apparition point to return to sign out of work, due to his shift still technically being in progress. Ron had a schedule twice as busy as any of them, so it was understandable that he would be in a hurry, but a part of Harry wished that he could have lingered just a little longer. It was when they stood watching Ron leave that Hermione spotted something in the distance; a small smile graced her features. He followed her gaze and caught sight of what Hermione saw: Severus.

It was clear that Severus was dressed rather smartly. He managed to retain his usual sense of style, whilst simultaneously looking almost like an entirely different person. The cape and robes that he wore were rather old, with the ends slightly frayed and the style dated, but the overall look was one of a timeless classic. There was a subtle silver-and-green pattern along the hem, which made it clear the event he wore it to was a formal one, and – for an insane moment – Harry wondered whether Severus had dressed up for him. There must have been some sort of social event at Hogwarts, one in which Severus was unable to avoid, and Harry was grateful for that. He looked . . . handsome. He had even pulled back his hair so that his face was free and clearly seen, and it only added to his look.

Harry honestly hadn't expected Severus to arrive, but he was glad that he did. The feeling that Severus was there only to set things straight, to tell Harry to leave him alone, was a strong suspicion that wouldn't quite fade, and yet he couldn't quite suppress the hope that this may somehow be something more. Hermione cast an almost devilish gaze to Harry, before she walked confidently up to Severus and shook his hand. It amazed him how unafraid she appeared. It was almost as if she missed the furious expression that he wore, along with the way his hand clenched slightly for his hidden wand. Severus wasn't impressed.

"It's good to see you, Professor Snape."

"I believe it is just Mister Snape now, Miss Granger," he said coldly.

Harry ran across the road and just a little ahead to his friend. The snow underfoot made him slip a few times, before he managed to gain his balance with a blush of embarrassment. He nudged Hermione in her side, although she pretended not to notice and only a slight frown on her expression gave away that she felt it, and she merely nudged Harry back. It was a regret that he left his coat in the pub, expecting to be inside quickly, as he felt both incredibly cold and unable to hide himself within something. He gave a sigh.

"I'm so sorry, Severus," said Harry. "I was just –"

"I'm sorry, Mister Snape," Hermione continued. "It must be strange to no longer be working as a teacher; I know I – for one – will find it difficult to forget the 'sir' and 'professor' every time we speak! You look very smart this evening, were you doing something important?"

"I am sorry, Miss Granger, but I was not aware that I would be meeting with you."

"Oh, I'll be going now. I do hope we can speak properly in future, though."

"Yes, I live to socialise with former students."

Hermione cast a glance to Harry, as if to ask whether he was sure he was certain about this, but he gave a nervous smile back and hunched forward just a little. He put his hands into his pockets in a desperate desire to retain some warmth, whilst he just knew his ears and nose were probably a violent shade of red at this point. Hermione gave a sigh and shook her head, before she resumed her beautifully sincere smile and nodded to Severus in acknowledgement of him, before turning just slightly to make it clear that she was about to leave.

"Well, I better be off," she said. "Have a nice evening, you two."

"We will," Harry answered. "See you later, Hermione."

"Don't get into too much trouble."

Harry watched his friend leave with an embarrassed scowl, although – whilst he knew that she was sincerely trying to social and welcoming – she was also teasing him in a way that he was far from used to experiencing. He watched as Hermione walked to the edge of the village, just to make sure that she made her way safely; he knew that she could take care of herself quite well, but he couldn't help the instinct to look out for her. It was only when she was out of sight that he turned to Severus, but found himself blushing all the more.

Severus commanded attention. He stood in a way that spoke of confidence, with his posture perfect and his head held high. It amazed Harry that Severus could look so focussed ahead, without the slightest hint distraction or disinterest, and – whilst it was an admirable feat – it gave the impression that he was only there out of force. The way he still wore black made it seem that he sought to blend into the night, but there were a few subtle changes to his style that spoke of some deeper change. The war had changed them more than just emotionally: Severus wore an exceptionally high collar, along with sleeves so long that they hid most of his hands, and clearly it was so that he could hide the scars of Nagini. He was self-conscious.

They stood in silence awkwardly, whilst Harry tried to consider what to say next. He felt worried on seeing Severus, because clearly the other man wasn't eating and already his skin seemed so much more sallow and oily, as if he had given up taking care of his body in general. It was clear – on closer inspection – that he had pulled back his hair to hide some of the grease, whilst there was the heavy scent of potions on his clothes. He couldn't have been brewing, if he had been at some formal event, but – had he been at a formal event – he would have relished the chance to escape the crowds. Perhaps Harry was merely a scapegoat.

"Do you often invite your friend to such 'dates'?" Severus asked.

"I think we've established this isn't a date," muttered Harry. "Not really; I mean, not unless you want it to be a date. I just want a chance to get to know one another, maybe see where things can go from there. That's not too difficult, is it?"

"Why don't you tell me, Harry? It is clear – from my perspective – that you distrusted my arrival enough to ask for company as you wait, unless you instead wanted someone to gossip with and help with your mockery of my person? In either case, I do not see why I should trust in a person that does not even trust in my arrival. My behaviour yesterday was – perhaps – inappropriate, but if you are to base all my future appointments upon one mistake . . ."

"We're even then, aren't we? You made a mistake to ditch me, but I made a mistake not to trust you. Let's call tonight a chance to start afresh." Harry sighed and shrugged. "I guess a line like 'why don't you come inside' really wouldn't work right now, huh?"

"Indeed. You should have wrapped up warmer, Mr Potter."

"I didn't realise we'd be standing here like this."

"Is that so?"

Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

It was clear that Severus was annoyed, as he clenched his hands into tight fists and tightened his lips into a thin line. The cape upon his shoulders fluttered about behind him in the wind, whilst the snow blew about his ankles and collected at the sides, and yet – no matter how angry he appeared – there was an almost flicker of curiosity. He narrowed his black eyes in frustration, but the roundness to them indicated something of an interest in the unfolding events, and it gave the impression that he was testing Harry.

Harry tried not to concern himself with Severus' motivations, because – after all – the important thing was that he was there. If he merely wanted an excuse to leave the party, he could have gone anywhere . . . he could have made potions at home, helped in the infirmary, even simply excused himself without explanation . . . yet he chose to meet Harry. If he were merely curious whether Harry would show up, he could have simply asked Aberforth or sent someone in his place. It may have been wishful thinking, but he liked to think this boded well for any future relationship between them. There was still a lot for them to discuss and work through, but at least Severus was interested in trying to work through them.

Harry couldn't help but to blush, as it felt strange to get to know someone all over again, almost as if this were a date in some ways. He brought his hands together and blew warm air onto them, as he bounced from foot to foot and tried to keep warm despite being severely underdressed for the snow. It was true that he didn't expect to be left long outside, but Severus appeared determined to drag this out and prevent him a speedy retreat inside, and he gave a small sigh as he tried to remind himself that Severus could be so much more than petty, and that he needed to focus on both sides to the older man.

"Are you looking for a reason to go inside with me?"

"I'm looking for a reason why I should befriend you," said Severus. "I admit to being somewhat afraid that I shall enter that pub, only to find a room full of reporters or an army of your friends to point and laugh at me. I shall not be made a spectacle."

"Do you really think that I would -?" Harry drew in a loud hiss of breath. "I'm not that cruel, Severus, but if you think that I am then you can leave right now. I know we're both in a vulnerable place right now, but clearly you have to have some interest in pursuing a relationship, else why would you even be here? Just take a chance. If I blow it, what have you lost? You'll go on your way and I'll go on mine."

Harry folded his arms to stave off the cold. He placed his arms under his armpits for warmth, as he hunched over in an oddly embarrassing way, before he realised that Severus was glowering at him coldly. It was rather intense, because the way he stared almost made it seem that he was staring into Harry's soul, searching for something unseen. It was possible that he was trying to read Harry's mind, but – if he were – Harry had no intention of stopping him, even if it were possible for him to do so.

"Very well," said Severus. He spoke in a terse tone: "I will add that you were the one to coerce me into attending, as such you shall be the one to pay for this fruitless endeavour, and – just so you know – I have expensive tastes."

"I kind of figured that much, but you can pay me back on our next date."

"I thought this was not a date, Mr Potter."

"Well, I thought we'd split the bill."

It was just so typical of Severus to make something out of nothing. It felt like he was determined to prove that he was the same potions master, as if nothing had changed, but everything had changed. Harry also felt somewhat amused by Severus' childish taunt, as if he thought that he could make Harry suffer by paying for the bill of all things, as if he had to get the final word and regain some element of control. A few moments later, after Severus appeared to digest what was said, he spoke once more:

"So you paying makes this a date?" Severus paused. "Very well."

"Well – er – okay, then. So . . . after you?"

Severus paused to consider the gesture. It was as if he thought it an insult to be put first, perhaps it would be akin to weakness to accept it in turn, but the look in his eyes was one more of curiosity and disbelief than anything else. He could have refused to move, just as he could have left to return immediately home, but instead he nodded in acknowledgement and walked cautiously towards the inn with a heavy sigh of breath.

"Thank you, Harry," he muttered.

Harry smiled. That one 'thank you' made it worth it.