We're getting very close to the 4000th review, so keep your eyes peeled, folks. Now, this chapter should be a lot of fun...
"And sometimes when we touch
The honesty's too much
And I have to close my eyes and hide
I want to hold you 'til I die
Until we both break down and cry
I want to hold you 'til the fear in me subsides."
– Dan Hill, 'Sometimes When We Touch'.
Hermione was awake first on the morning of September 19th, snuggling closer against Severus and listening to his quiet snores as she mused about her birthday. She'd come of age in the Muggle world as well as the wizarding today, but it didn't really feel much different; she acknowledged to herself that the Muggle world wasn't her home any more, and hadn't been since she was eleven. Her thoughts turned to her parents; they had no way of knowing anything that had happened, only that she was alive and unwounded, and would probably have written to Hogwarts again. She assumed the letter would be in the Hogsmeade post office somewhere.
She smiled to herself a little wryly; once the war was done, she was going to have to explain that she was currently... well, whatever she was doing... with one of her teachers. As relationships went, it wasn't very easy to categorise. She knew how she felt about Severus, and had done for a long time now, but his feelings were more complicated; she knew there was more to this than sex, but how much more remained to be seen. She was reasonably sure that he felt something very much like love, but it would be nice to get some sort of confirmation – it would also be easier to explain to her parents, although she was pretty certain that her mother had seen it coming by that mysterious instinct that mothers have and probably wouldn't be that surprised.
Settling deeper into the bed, she wondered how much longer the war would last. There was only one Horcrux left; as soon as they worked out how to kill Nagini from a distance or found out where she was being kept, Voldemort would be mortal, and could be killed. Then... then what would happen? She assumed that they weren't going to be involved too much in the post-war cleanup; that would be for the Order and the Ministry to sort out. Severus had said that Hogwarts would reopen and had seemed adamant that she should go back and take her NEWTs, which sounded good to her; he seemed equally adamant that he wasn't going to go back, which she supposed made sense but did leave her wondering. As for what she wanted to do after school, she didn't have the faintest idea – but she was at least certain that she wanted him there.
Pushing away difficult thoughts, she focused on the more immediate future, namely the birthday party awaiting her at Headquarters. Needless to say, it hadn't been her idea. It wouldn't be a huge celebration as Harry's had been, but Mrs Weasley had insisted they visit for a meal, since she had missed that last gathering. She did want to see everyone again, of course she did, but... not for very long. Only she couldn't think of any way she could tell everyone that actually she would rather be here in Professor Snape's depressing house with him, and she suspected she wasn't going to be allowed to make excuses not to stay very long. Sighing a little ruefully, she looked at the clock; almost time to get up, if she wanted to shower before they left. She wasn't going to get any time with Severus at all today, it seemed, since she was unhappily certain that the party was going to go on for a very long time and would probably last well into the night.
Once she had left the room, Severus stopped snoring and cracked open one eye, listening intently until he heard the plumbing creak to life before sliding out of bed. He had his own plans for today.
Hermione wasn't completely sure of what was going on at the moment. Partly that was because she had never had champagne before and it had gone straight to her head, but mostly because there really was something going on. The Weasleys, and Harry, were the only ones present; Hagrid, Tonks and Lupin were all busy elsewhere, and Poppy and Professor McGonagall had dropped by briefly earlier to wish her a happy birthday. Dumbledore had not, and was apparently still sulking according to Phineas' portrait – the Slytherin had appeared shortly after the party had started and was unofficially commentating, as well as passing on best wishes from Dilys. Right now, the house seemed to be in chaos, and Hermione couldn't quite manage to puzzle out what was going on.
"I believe young Mr Weasley and Mr Potter have managed to arrange a birthday present for you," Phineas reported from his frame. "Namely, they have caused enough trouble that nobody will notice you slipping away; which logically leads me to assume that you have a reason to wish to slip away, especially given the notable absence of a certain Order member."
"I know Slytherins love speaking in riddles, but this conversation would have been a lot quicker if you'd just asked me directly," she retorted, "especially since I'm sure that's what Dilys ordered you to do."
He looked faintly amused. "Well?"
Hermione grinned at the portrait. "Yes, I have a reason to wish to slip away." She was glad it was Phineas and not Dilys; the witch would be able to embarrass her very quickly, although despite that she did miss the other portrait.
"Ha. It's about time. Did you start it, or did he finally find the courage to make a move?"
He snorted. "There's no accounting for taste. How long?"
"Since Harry's birthday."
"It took you that long? Really?"
Half-heartedly glaring at the portrait, she replied dryly, "Well, we did have a few other things on our minds. Plus Harry and Ron clomping around getting in the way and interrupting."
"You left him unable to think of locking and silencing charms?" Phineas shot back, smirking. "Impressive."
"You're so funny."
"So how many times have you had a stupid misunderstanding causing him to storm off in a fit of temper?"
"Actually, none," Hermione replied thoughtfully, and Phineas blinked at her.
"Really?" he asked, doubtfully. "That doesn't sound like Severus, I have to say."
"Oh, we've rowed a bit. All four of us have, stuck inside with not much to do. But..." She could feel the smile crossing her face. "He's been trying so hard, it's adorable. There hasn't been anything major."
The portrait gave her a very long, measuring look. "I hope you appreciate what that must have cost him, Granger," he said softly.
Her smile faded, and she nodded. "Yes. It's getting easier, though. He's learning to relax, a bit."
Phineas nodded and continued in a lighter tone, "As you might expect, Dilys has given me a long list of questions. I don't intend going through the whole lot, especially since you would clearly rather be elsewhere, but I would appreciate a quick summary before you dash off, to make my life easier. She's been unbearable since the school closed; her only other portrait provides a rather bleak and depressing view of St Mungo's and she cannot stand being so out of touch."
"A summary of what?" she asked somewhat fuzzily.
He rolled his eyes. "You don't want to know, frankly. I never intended to ask some of the questions she wanted answers to. The ones I have been commanded to find out in particular, though..." He cocked his head and looked at her steadily. "Are you pregnant?"
"No need to sound so shocked," he told her huffily. "Do you plan to be?"
"I've only been eighteen for about sixteen hours, Phineas. I think it's a bit early to be thinking about that."
"So you haven't discussed it with him, then?"
She sighed. "No. We've not talked about anything that personal yet. It's difficult, with everything else going on. By the way, do you know what Dumbledore's refusing to tell us?" she added, changing the subject with a Gryffindorish lack of subtlety.
The portrait looked awkward. "Some of it, yes. I can understand Dumbledore's position... I'd certainly want to be safely dead before Severus finds out. He isn't going to react well. But Dumbledore should have told all of you last year, frankly."
"And you can't tell me now."
"No, and I wouldn't if I could, not this time. It has to come from him. But..." He hesitated and shook his head. "You spoke to Poppy earlier. Did she mention Dumbledore?"
"No." Hermione bit her lip. "How is he?"
"...Not good, truthfully. I don't think he has very long left. I was telling the truth earlier, he is sulking, but he is also ill, Granger. If Potter wants to say his goodbyes, I'd do it within the next week or two. And warn Severus – we don't know if the Vow is still in force or not." He hesitated, about to say something else, then shook his head.
"...Even if the Vow isn't in force, perhaps Severus should visit anyway, before the end." Phineas sighed. "It's not going to be pretty, Granger. Half the reason for Dumbledore's plan was that he wanted a clean death. Nobody else here is capable of it. Poppy's a paediatrician, she was never trained to deal with a situation like that, and you're still only an apprentice, and the only other one in the Order who might have been able to do it was Mad-Eye Moody."
"You really want me to go home and tell Severus he's going to have to commit murder anyway, Phineas? Thanks for the birthday present."
"I don't care if you're drunk, don't sulk. Of course I don't want you to. And I don't know if he can do it, or if he'd want to – I wouldn't blame him for choosing to leave the old man to die slowly, after everything that's happened to him. Just tell him at some point that it's going to be messy and let him make up his own mind." The portrait shrugged and smirked. "Not today, though. If I know anything about the way Severus thinks, he's awaiting your return quite eagerly. If I were you, I would depart in the next five minutes or so. I imagine it will be several hours before anyone notices your absence, at which point they will feel horribly guilty for driving you away from your own party – because obviously you didn't have anything better to do and must therefore only have left out of unhappiness."
"Obviously," she agreed dryly, standing up and trying to shake off the champagne, pushing away what he'd said about Dumbledore – that could definitely wait until another time; right now she wanted to take advantage of the chance to sneak off back to Severus. It would have to be Apparition, because the only grate connected to the Floo was the one in the kitchen and someone would see her. "Can you keep Mrs Black quiet long enough for me to get out of the front door?"
"Yes. Enjoy yourself."
"I intend to," she muttered, heading for the stairs.
It would be nice to see Severus; she hadn't even managed to get a birthday kiss this morning, only a rather distracted 'happy birthday' from somewhere behind a book while he tried to stay out of the way of Harry and Ron doing their 'where's my fill-in-the-blank-here' game as they tried to get ready on time. Letting herself through the door into Spinner's End, automatically shoving it where the damp made it stick, she felt the now familiar tingle as the wards parted to let her through and closed the door behind her. "Severus?"
He laid his book aside and looked up when she came into the living room. "Hello."
"You don't seem all that surprised to see me," she noted, starting to smile. "Did you plan this?"
"No, although I did try to think of some way around it," he admitted candidly, his eyes glittering. "Weasley told me this morning he and Potter were going to try and cover your escape, but I admit I didn't expect them to actually manage it. How on earth did they distract everyone, and how long is it going to be before they come hunting for you?"
"I don't think there are going to be any search parties. Ron and the twins have caused enough chaos that everyone's going to think I stormed off in disgust and that I'm angry with them all."
"That wouldn't have fooled Molly..."
"No, but she's a little distracted going absolutely berserk because Harry and Ginny have disappeared."
Severus grinned at that, his eyes dancing with amusement. "Ah, I see. I hope you appreciate the noble sacrifice he's going through on your behalf."
She snorted. "That's pretty much what I said. I'm surprised the boys were willing to help, but apparently Ginny's been driving them all mad pining and I think they're hoping she'll be in a better mood now."
"And that's as far as I want to discuss this particular topic," he noted, rising to his feet and moving forward. "It worked, and that's really all I want to know." He gave her a slightly wry smile. "There's not much here, though. All the traditional romantic trappings – breakfast in bed, candlelit meals and so on – are a little redundant when Molly Weasley has had a few hours to mother you to death."
"God, yes. I won't want anything to eat for days. It was a nice thought, but I don't need any of that. You're here; that's enough."
He snorted. "How much have you had to drink?" Despite the flippant tone, his eyes had softened and he looked quite pleased.
"Funny. Are you just going to stand there, or am I finally going to get the birthday kiss I wanted this morning?"
His eyes glittered briefly. "Well, if you insist," he murmured, moving closer and opening his arms. Hermione stepped into his embrace happily, reaching up to twine her fingers into his hair and lifting her face for his kiss, closing her eyes and melting against him as their lips met. He was gentle at first, but apparently he had been thinking about her quite a lot today, since she could already feel his increasingly obvious arousal as his arms tightened and he deepened the kiss.
By the time they broke apart, she was a little breathless, smiling up at him. "You're eager today." Not that she was complaining. "Miss me?"
Severus made a noncommittal sound in response, stroking his fingers down her cheek and along her jaw. "It's your fault, you know."
"What, because I'm just that irresistible?" she laughed.
His expression was serious. "Yes," he replied, before leaning down to kiss her again. Caught up in the sheer hunger of his kiss, she responded, feeling her heart beginning to race with the now-familiar heat of desire as she moved her hips to feel his hardness pressing against her. He pulled back just long enough to murmur, "Happy birthday, Hermione," against her lips before deepening the kiss once more, his tongue sliding against hers.
When they broke apart to breathe again, she decided dizzily that maybe she was reacting more strongly to the champagne than she had realised; she also decided that if she didn't do something they were going to end up on the floor, which was fine except that there was no knowing when Harry and Ron would arrive and the boys had always had a knack for very unfortunate timing. It took until after some more seriously heated kissing before she managed to pull enough scattered brain cells together to speak, by which time he had pushed her against the wall and had his hand up her shirt as he ground his hips against hers.
"God, Severus," she gasped, all but clinging to him now. "I've been thinking about this all day. Please..."
For all that he was almost as breathless and eager as she was, apparently he still couldn't resist the urge to tease, raising an eyebrow at her. "Please, what, Hermione?" he asked in almost a purr.
"Don't be such a bastard," she protested helplessly. "You know what I want."
"I want to hear you say it," he growled in her ear, sending shivers down her spine and making her squirm against him.
"Say it," he insisted, biting at her earlobe, sliding his hands down her back to her arse and grinding himself against her again.
"Oh, God," she whimpered, digging her fingers into his shoulders. Pulling back, she met his eyes, feeling herself blushing scarlet as she told him shakily, "I want you to – to fuck me." Yes, I'm a lot drunker than I thought I was, she told herself, caught between embarrassment and frantic lust as she watched his eyes beginning to burn and heard his low growl before he kissed her again, fiercely.
"That," he panted when he pulled back, "can be arranged." His mouth found hers again, and she felt her brain dissolving completely.
Barely clinging to the last remnants of sanity, she pushed weakly at him. "Upstairs, Severus," she managed breathlessly, shuddering as he moved to her neck.
He nipped at the sensitive bit where her neck and shoulder joined, his hand sliding further under her blouse, and growled something indistinct that was clearly a refusal. Pleased that she seemed to have rendered him speechless, she shuddered against him before reaching up to tug lightly at his hair. "Harry and Ron," she reminded him. All right, Harry wasn't likely to reappear before morning, but Ron probably would.
Severus lifted his head enough to glare at her, blinking and trying to clear his head, before muttering something that sounded like it was decidedly impolite, kissing her again before reluctantly disentangling himself from her.
How they made it up the narrow stairs without incident was a mystery. Neither of them was in any fit state to pay attention to where they were going, stumbling and barely catching themselves against the walls, already pulling at one another's clothes long before they reached the bedroom. She had no idea what had happened to his shirt, but he wasn't wearing it by the time he fell back onto the bed and dragged her down on top of him, thrusting his tongue into her mouth again as she struggled out of her blouse and ran her hands over his chest, pinching his nipple and drawing a sharp gasping moan from him that turned into a growl of pleasure.
Sitting up to shrug her blouse off her shoulders impatiently, Hermione shuddered at the feel of his erection straining against his trousers, shifting to straddle him properly and shamelessly grinding her hips down against him. He groaned and bucked his hips to push up against her in return, and the resulting friction felt unbelievably good even through their clothes. Biting her lip to hold back a moan, she almost writhed in his lap as he sat up, breathing hard, and wrenched at the clasp of her bra before impatiently tugging it away and tossing it somewhere over her shoulder.
Half out of her mind on a combination of lust and champagne, she cupped her breasts in her hands and offered them to him, drawing another growl from him. Lowering his head, he kissed the scar on her chest and ran his tongue along it before nuzzling at her cleavage, moving lower to take one erect nipple between his teeth and biting down very gently, his teeth scraping just hard enough for her to feel it. Whimpering, she ground against his erection again and heard him groan once more before his hands dug into her hips, wordlessly encouraging her to continue moving against him as he started licking and sucking.
The next few minutes were a little hazy as they tore at one another's remaining clothing almost desperately, gasping and shuddering and pushing against one another. She was pretty sure she'd torn a button off his trousers, and he chafed her skin a little as he yanked her knickers down, but it really didn't matter. If she knew a way to wandlessly remove clothing she would have done, although it was doubtful she could concentrate enough for any sort of magic. Finally he rolled on top of her, his weight pinning her down, staring down at her with such fire in his eyes that it took her remaining breath away.
Long past being embarrassed now, she reached up to push his hair back from his face, staring into his eyes; she had never wanted him so much, never wanted anything so desperately, and she ached for him more than she ever had before. "Fuck me, Severus," she breathed, arching her back and lifting her hips almost pleadingly. "I need you. Please, please..." He shuddered, and if anything the intensity in his eyes increased, before he did as she asked – he entered her with a single powerful thrust, hard enough to jolt her body up the bed, and she cried out as the ancient springs protested; then he began to move. It was hard and fast, almost brutal, rougher than it had ever been between them, and it felt so incredibly good as she cried out again and tried to match his rhythm.
She didn't scream his name when she climaxed, but only because she couldn't form the syllables; instead she just screamed in wordless pleasure, raking her nails down his back and bucking wildly beneath him as he drove into her one final time. Gasping and shaking in the aftermath, she blinked as the world came back into focus, and shivered as she saw the look in his eyes; clearly, he wasn't finished with her yet.
Leaning down, Severus kissed her briefly and bit gently at her neck before rolling off her, still hard. Drawing her with him, he wordlessly pulled her down on top of him, kissing her again before urging her to straddle him once more. Getting the idea, she managed to regain a little breath as she wriggled her hips against him, both of them shuddering at the almost agonising friction without any clothing in the way, before she sat up astride him and reached between them to wrap her hand around his slick length.
She hadn't been on top before, they had been too wrapped up in one another to spare much time for experimenting, and it took her a moment to find the right angle, carefully guiding him into position until she could remove her hand and sink down onto him. The last vestiges of her orgasm faded, her mind clearing a little as she started moving, slowly at first as she worked out which movements felt good and which movements got the best response from him. It felt deeper and more intense in this position, as his hands slid up her thighs to her hips and the pressure of his fingers subtly helped to guide her into a rhythm.
Gradually getting the hang of it, she began to ride him in earnest, letting her head fall back for a moment and moaning as her pleasure began to build again. His fingers dug into her hips briefly as he moved beneath her before he released his grip and his hands stroked along her arms until he could link his fingers through hers, squeezing gently as they moved together. Hermione looked down at him, at the lean wiry strength of his body stretched out beneath her, feeling his hips rise and fall to match the rhythm she was setting; she tightened certain inner muscles and watched him react. The feeling of power, of being in control of this man just for a little while, was dizzying. And from the look in his eyes when he opened them and stared up at her, he liked relinquishing control to her, even if only briefly.
He bent his knees, bringing his legs up behind her to add a little support, his eyes boring into hers with fierce intensity as she found just the right angle to feel him grinding against what felt like every nerve ending in her body. Tightening her grip on his hands as though for support, she shivered, right on the edge as he thrust up into her again. "Severus..." she groaned, rocking against him, before her hips jerked as the first tremors of her orgasm took her and she cried out, throwing her head back. Distantly in the midst of her pleasure she heard his voice as he cried out her name in answer, his hands tightening on hers and his hips bucking beneath her as he came at last.
Blinking sweat out of her eyes, Hermione leaned forward slowly and lowered herself onto his chest, unable to even think of moving just yet and too breathless even to kiss him. She could feel his ribs rising and falling under her as he panted and his body softening inside her as he let go of her hands and half-heartedly draped an arm over her. Resting her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes, she exhaled shakily. "...Wow."
"Yes," he agreed unsteadily, his heavy breathing stuttering for a moment in a vague attempt at a laugh. "Wow, indeed."
"Should I move?"
They lay quietly for a little while, regaining their breath and cooling down. His hand stroked down her spine gently, his touch no longer sexual, his fingers tracing lightly over the curve of her hip. "I am sorry if I got carried away."
She half-laughed and nuzzled against his neck, tasting the salt on his skin. "We both did. You didn't really hurt me; it was what I wanted. And it was fantastic." Now that she could think straight, she did ache a bit, but she wasn't truly sore and it had been well worth it in any case. Finally, reluctantly, she rolled off him and they both slowly shifted position to settle down, facing one another; he was still watching her surprisingly intently. "What?"
Half-closing his eyes, Severus looked away from her. "I was trying to think of something to give you for a birthday present," he said slowly, sounding rather unsure of himself.
Pleased, she pushed her hair back from her face, smiling a little. "You don't have to get me anything."
"I know that," he told her tartly with a brief flash of his usual impatience, softening it a little with his familiar crooked half-smile before hesitating. "The problem is," he said slowly, looking away from her, "that I don't seem to have much to offer... no, don't interrupt me," he snapped, glancing at her for a split second before looking away again. The look in his eyes wasn't one she had seen before; partly the blankness of Occlumency, which was quite rare these days, and partly something else she couldn't identify.
He seemed to have lost the thread of what he was saying, faltering and frowning slightly before sighing impatiently and trying again. "I don't know what's going to happen. I have already said that I don't know what we do next, nor do I know what Dumbledore has planned, or what the Order are doing..." He paused again, clearly struggling to find the right words; she had never seen him so unable to express himself, and watched his face in growing concern.
Licking his lips, Severus spoke again; his voice was very quiet now, and he was avoiding eye contact. "I told you once that I wasn't sure what promises I would be able to make..." He hesitated, and Hermione realised that the odd expression was at least partly nervousness; he actually looked scared, before shaking his head with a frustrated sound at his inability to say whatever it was he was trying to say. "Damnit," he whispered, so quietly that she barely heard him, quietly enough that she knew it was directed at himself and not her, before he lifted his head jerkily and stared at her; he had gone pale and still had that strange look in his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he hesitated again before blurting suddenly, "Marry me."
What? A thousand thoughts began tumbling through her head at once. Shock, mostly, because she sure as hell hadn't expected this. She wondered why he was asking now, why he was even asking at all, what this meant for the two of them; she tried to work out what this could tell her about his feelings, wondering briefly and irrelevantly what other people might think or say if they knew. A completely irrational part of her was reminding her rather shrilly that he was her teacher. She replayed his words in her head, trying to find some sort of sense in the fairly dispassionate tone of his voice; his eyes looked uncertain, but the rest of his expression was as stony and unreadable as ever. She tried to sort out her own hopelessly tangled feelings about this man.
Most of her brain was occupied with the chaos of all those thoughts jumbled together at once. A small corner of her mind, the instinctive quick-thinking area that Severus himself had taught her to listen to, ignored everything going through her head right now and while she was caught up in mentally panicking she heard her own voice saying clearly and calmly, "Yes."
Hermione was possibly almost as startled as he was by her answer, as she slowly raised her head and looked at him. Her racing thoughts had stilled the moment she'd spoken and her mind was suddenly very quiet as she watched his expression change, his eyes widening and his pupils dilating as his face lost a few more shades of colour; obviously she had shocked him badly. She could see behind his rather fragile shields and as she watched his eyes she understood just how terrified he had been before he'd asked; in hindsight, that probably explained a little of his unusual ardour earlier.
There was a hint of agonised confusion in his face now as he stared at her uncertainly; she could see a shadow of the boy he had once been and he had never looked so vulnerable. Clearing her throat to dislodge the lump suddenly blocking it, she smiled rather shakily at him and repeated, "Yes."
He swallowed. "Yes?" he repeated uncertainly, as though he wasn't sure he had heard her correctly.
Blinking tears out of her eyes, she smiled properly and laid her hand over his. "Of course, yes, damnit." He still looked rather lost, and she shook her head. "You daft man, did you really think I'd say no?" Meeting her eyes, he nodded wordlessly, shadows of old pain creeping through his gaze. "Then why did you even ask?"
"I..." He wasn't looking at her now, but his fingers had laced through hers and she could feel his hand trembling slightly. "I don't..." He swallowed again. "I don't want to lose this. I don't know what's going to happen, but..." He trailed off helplessly, shivering and still avoiding her eyes.
Reaching out with her free hand, Hermione touched his face gently; her own thoughts had calmed and she had never felt so certain of anything in her life, not since the day Professor McGonagall had arrived at her house and explained to her and her parents that she was a witch. She felt the same feeling now, of something falling into place with an almost audible click and the world suddenly making a hell of a lot more sense. Pressing lightly on his jaw, she turned his head and made him look at her. His very lack of expression told her everything she needed to know.
"Yes, Severus," she told him quietly. "Yes. Whatever happens at the end of the war, if we survive this, yes, I'll marry you." She met his eyes and said softly, "I love you."
That very nearly broke him. She saw her words hit him with far more force than they should have done, and his hand tightened on hers and he turned his face away, ducking his head a little so that his hair fell forward to conceal his expression. A few more pieces of the puzzle that was Severus Snape fell into place, and for a moment Hermione felt a completely irrational surge of sheer murderous rage directed at everyone who had hurt and damaged this man to the point where he thought so little of himself. Pushing it away, she ran her fingers into his hair and turned his head back and down to make him look at their joined hands, gently running her thumb over his bony knuckles.
She heard him draw in a deep breath and said quietly, "Don't you dare ever ask me whether I'm sure, or I'm going to slap you. If I wasn't sure, I wouldn't have answered you. If I'd needed time to think about it, I'd have said so. I told you, this isn't a game, Severus."
He tried to smile; given the state he was in, it wasn't a very successful attempt and looked more like a grimace. "That isn't actually what I was going to say," he replied in a slightly hoarse voice, lifting his head and staring past her. "Accio."
Reaching out with his free hand, he caught whatever it was he had Summoned to him and sat up, gently pulling his hand out of hers to look at what turned out to be the bag he had taken from his Gringotts vault, what seemed another lifetime ago. Hermione watched him pawing through the contents; his expression was still impossible to read, but he was visibly trembling and clearly not his usual self right now. That was understandable; she felt a bit shaky herself. Finally he pulled out a rather distinctively shaped small square box and held it out to her mutely, tossing the bag carelessly onto the floor, and she stared for a moment before reaching to take it from him. How long has he been planning this? Silently she opened the ring box and looked down at the ring inside.
The gold was obviously antique, with a depth of colour that only showed in very old jewellery, set with three stones – two small diamonds either side of what she thought at first was a piece of onyx but on closer inspection proved to be a very dark red stone that she didn't quite recognise; it looked too dark to be a ruby. Whatever it was, it was absolutely perfect, holding something of the same glittering black fire as his eyes, and the ring as a whole was beautiful.
She had to swallow hard before she could say anything, blinking rapidly. I refuse to start crying, she told herself sternly; Severus was clearly unsettled enough as it was, and he'd probably panic completely if she started crying on him now. Clearing her throat, she managed, "It's lovely," gently tracing the glittering gems with her finger. "What's the stone?" That sounded stupidly inane to her, but she had no idea what you were supposed to say at a time like this, and it was frankly a miracle she could say anything at all.
"Garnet," he replied hoarsely, still obviously struggling for control himself.
"Your birthstone," she remembered, and he nodded uneasily. Hermione looked back at the ring, smiling a little; garnet might not be terribly fashionable, or terribly valuable, but it wasn't as if she cared. It was beautiful; more than that, if she remembered correctly, garnet symbolised constancy, which made it the perfect representation of Severus himself. "It looks very old."
"It is," he agreed softly, sounding a little better; the mundane conversation seemed to be helping him get a grip on himself once more. "I don't know how old, though."
"It's an heirloom, isn't it? That's why it was in your vault..." She looked up at him, and he nodded.
"There wasn't much left to inherit. I told you that already. And I sold most of what there was. But I kept a couple of the better pieces... I don't know why, now, but... I'm glad I did," he added in something of a rush, and she smiled at him, blinking back tears again.
"So am I. It's beautiful." Trying desperately to keep her tone light, she held the box out to him. "Well, are you going to put it on me?"
He didn't respond, taking the ring out of the box and staring down at it for a long moment before reaching to take her left hand, running his thumb over her knuckles briefly before carefully sliding the ring onto her third finger. The metal had warmed in his hand and it settled into place easily; it fitted perfectly, as though it had been made for her, although she was certain neither of them had resized it. Taking a moment to look at it, at the gems glittering red-black and white against the gold, Hermione smiled, before turning back to her lover – her fiancé, now. His dark eyes were still very hard to read, but there was something almost frightened in his gaze that she suspected she would never understand; touching his cheek gently, she leaned in and kissed him, trying to reassure him that she had told him the truth.
His eyes were closed when she drew back; he opened them slowly and looked at her, searching her gaze. A little warmth entered his expression, the faintest hint of a fragile and uncertain smile touching the corner of his mouth, before he leaned in and kissed her in return and she shifted closer to press her body against his, wanting to touch as much of his skin as possible as they began to make love again.
After Hermione had fallen asleep, Severus very carefully eased his way out of bed and crept to the bathroom as silently as he could, relieved there seemed to be no sign of either of the boys reappearing yet; he was absolutely not in the mood to deal with either of them right now. Carefully closing the door behind him, he sank down to sit against it, leaning his head back against the wood and starting to shake; as his throat closed and his chest and stomach tightened, he shut his eyes and stopped fighting, letting the panic attack wash over him.
After it eased, he opened his eyes shakily and took a deep breath, holding it for a moment before exhaling, slowly regaining the even rhythm of meditation and calming down again. He had never been so terrified in his entire life, and he had finally spoken without thinking for the first time since his teens – he hadn't for a moment intended to propose.
Swallowing bile as the nausea began to ease, Severus shook his head, grimacing faintly. He hadn't meant to do that. Originally, his shaky-as-hell 'plan' had been to try and get some balls and actually manage to say something concrete about his feelings, because he knew that if he didn't come up with some sort of commitment soon he risked losing her; Hermione wasn't stupid and she wasn't going to hang around waiting to see what happened forever. She was like him in that respect, she liked knowing what to expect and what was going on, and although she'd had the patience of a saint so far he knew it couldn't last.
He'd spent all day trying to rehearse it in his head, trying to find the right words to explain what she had come to mean to him without feeling like a total moron or turning into a stammering, blushing schoolboy. He hadn't been able to come up with anything, and had finally decided nervously just to wing it and hope honesty would work, only to run into a problem he hadn't anticipated. He had known it would be difficult to express himself, but as he'd tried to speak he'd felt the psychological block in his mind and started to panic, horrified to realise that he physically couldn't say it.
Closing his eyes again, he leaned back against the bathroom door, shivering – it wasn't warm enough to be sitting naked on the tiles, but he felt too shaky to stand up just yet. Damn his stupid scarred psyche to the seven circles of Hell. Why was it so bloody difficult just to tell her how he felt? He could think the words – I love you, Hermione – but he couldn't say it aloud, even now when he was sitting here by himself. Maybe it wasn't that much of a surprise, given how emotionally fucked up he was and how warped his life had been, but damnit, she deserved better than having to put up with his complete emotional retardation. Struggling to force the words out, he'd realised it wasn't going to work, and in desperation had blurted out the first thing he could think of that might show the same sentiment.
It hadn't been completely out of the blue, though. Severus had always intended to ask her... eventually. Just not now. He had only got the ring out of his vault because he had no idea when he would next be able to get to it, and also to make sure it did look the way he remembered it and to see if he wanted to use it or if he'd rather go out and find another one. He hadn't planned anything specific but he had certainly intended to wait until the war was over before asking, and had vaguely considered waiting until she had graduated.
In the back of his mind he had decided to marry her quite some time ago, before they had started sleeping together, but truthfully he couldn't quite say why. Because he felt it was expected of him, mostly. He didn't give a flying fuck about marriage as an institution, but it was a way to demonstrate that this was permanent and to show everyone that he really meant it, and he felt vaguely that in some way it made the relationship more legitimate. If left to himself he would be perfectly happy to never, ever tell anyone because it was nobody else's business, but sooner or later they were going to have to start admitting it to at least a few people.
There was a hell of a lot to sort out, though. He'd never been good at thinking about the future – mostly because he'd never believed he had one – and he wasn't really sure what he wanted to happen. They would have to have the dreaded 'do you want children' talk at some point, which really wasn't going to be fun. He was also going to have to speak to the Grangers; somehow he doubted that two Muggle dentists were going to be pleased to learn that their daughter's teacher had proposed to her, especially since they knew he was a Death Eater and presumably had at least a vague idea of what that involved.
And there was still so much Hermione didn't know about him, too. He'd told her what he could – or, more accurately, he'd stopped hiding quite so vigorously and let her figure out a few things – and thanks to Dumbledore she did at least know something of the whole Lily issue, but she certainly didn't know the full story behind that, or about the prophecy, or his parents, or... anything else. What a fucking mess.
Still, it was done now; he'd asked, and he couldn't take it back. And to his total and utter shock, she'd said yes. Opening his eyes, Severus stared at the sink, shaking his head slowly as he thought back over the past couple of hours. Hermione had looked utterly stunned when he'd said it – hardly a surprise, since he hadn't expected it either – but she had barely hesitated for a second before answering. If he had planned this, he doubted he would have expected that. The best he could have hoped for was 'maybe'; if she'd asked for time to think about it, that would have made sense. He wouldn't have blamed her or been surprised if she'd simply said no, either. But 'yes'? Why did she say yes? He shook his head again, confused. She was a very smart girl, she had to have realised she still knew very little about him and he hadn't managed to say anything about his feelings. But she'd accepted anyway, and confused or not, he believed that she at least thought she knew what she was doing.
And she had said she loved him. He had very nearly started crying at that point, and his eyes were stinging now as he remembered her voice saying the words. He'd never heard that before. Nobody had ever said it to him. It had to be too good to be true, just like everything else good in his life had ever been, but he was trying not to be quite so pessimistic. Hermione wasn't the type to play games, and her intelligence made up for her inexperience; she wouldn't have said it if she wasn't certain that it was true. He still didn't understand why, but he did believe her, even if part of him was sure that she was making a horrific mistake.
Severus became aware that his jaw ached; he was confused for a moment until he realised he was grinning so broadly that his cheeks were hurting. Suppressing a snort, he stood up shakily and regarded his rather sheepish reflection in the mirror over the sink; there was a suggestion of startled-rabbit-in-the-headlights in his expression, but the earlier panic had given way to this bloody stupid grin that made him look like an idiot and did nothing for his already poor looks. Mistake or not, she had said yes, and he was damned well going to do everything in his power to ensure she didn't regret it, because he had no intention of letting her go without a fight.
Splashing cold water on his face, he made an effort to pull himself together, relaxing a little. He could barely tell up from down right now, but he'd been feeling like that for months, really; he was used to being utterly bewildered and slightly terrified by now. It didn't matter at the moment. What with panic attacks, worrying himself sick and altogether too much sex, he was exhausted. Time to go back to bed, snuggle up with his fiancée – stop grinning, damnit – and get some sleep, if he could.
Well now, that was a little unexpected for all concerned, wasn't it? Bless him, Severus is so clueless sometimes. I suppose as it's the leap year today, Hermione should have asked him, but God knows what would have happened if she had. Anyway, the Order aren't having a good time at the moment, are they, with Dumbledore finally starting to die? We'll be seeing more of them in the next few chapters.
More fan art, from djfox31: ravenwing31 dot deviantart dot com /art/Chasing-the-Sun-Patronus-286480374