The people have spoken! I will write the prequel...eventually. Even though this fic is complete it still requires editing as I go (some chapters more than others), so it will likely be either after this story has been fully posted or toward the tail end. Thank you to everyone who responded.
I now present the closest thing we have to fluff in this story. With plot development. (Pluff?)
"You're having me on."
Hermione shook her head and handed Severus the letter that Leopold had sent. He read it, brow furrowing in confusion.
What the hell was Leopold Clairemont doing in Gryffindor?
Severus had never, ever, misjudged a student's House before. Ever. When Dumbledore had oh-so-tactfully implied that Severus was more Gryffindor than Slytherin, as if being a Slytherin was anything to be ashamed of, Severus had stood there stunned because the Sorting Hat had never, ever, got it wrong. He had even accepted Longbottom in Gryffindor, even though the boy had had Hufflepuff written all over his ridiculous pudgy face for his first five years at Hogwarts. He had accepted Percy Weasley as a Gryffindor, even though his ambition outshone even the most die-hard Slytherin. He had not even questioned Hermione's placement in Gryffindor, as he knew from personal experience that the student with the top marks was not always a Ravenclaw. For most of the seventies, after all, it had been a Slytherin who graduated top of his class.
So if the Hat was always right, this would mean that Severus was wrong. But how? Leopold was about as Gryffindor as, well, Severus was. He had known the boy for his whole life and he had been in his care since he was five years old. Rosier was crafty, he was controlled, he betrayed no emotion. He was mature, for fuck's sake. None of those were Gryffindor traits.
Was it the influence of Hermione, Potter, and Longbottom? Had he mistakenly let too much Gryffindor into the house? Was it catching?
Well, at least the boy would now have a fighting chance. Between his new name and his new house, he was as protected as he possibly could be whilst at Hogwarts. The boy might make it. Might. Severus had given up optimism on the subject.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. He hadn't been sleeping much. His nights with Hermione had brought him the most rest he had enjoyed in decades, perhaps his whole life. But Leopold's departure had created a disruption in the house. For one, Ermengarde Rosier was convinced she'd never see her brother again (like her elder sister) and had been inconsolable for hours until Severus had finally had to give her a calming draught. She couldn't stay in a room alone, so she had moved in with Margaret Macnair, whose panic attacks returned as a result of her new roommate's anxiety. If one wasn't waking up in a screaming fit, it was the other, which would result in two terrified screaming girls for Severus, Hermione, and occasionally Lovegood to deal with.
Severus had taken the children off the sleeping potion for fear that they were becoming dependent on it. If this week was any indication, he had been correct. They were dependent on it, and the additional disruption was only making matters worse.
Severus supposed he shouldn't be too surprised when, less than a week after the Sorting, Lovegood approached him at his makeshift desk at the kitchen table.
"Severus I understand you have a spare room available now that Ermengarde is sharing with the other girls?" she asked without preamble.
He had no idea what she was on about. His reply was to finish the sentence he had been writing and looking up at her with as much disdain as he could muster.
"You've had to floo me every night this week and many nights previously to help you calm down screaming children," Lovegood continued cheerily. "I think logic would dictate that I begin staying overnight, and now that you have a spare room I should occupy it. It would make me the first person they see in the event of an attack and perhaps I can head off the worst of it."
Severus's face remained inscrutable. It probably wasn't a bad idea, but Severus really, really didn't want Lovegood living under the same roof as him.
"I know you're torn because on the one hand it would be nice to have the extra help but on the other, well, you would rather I not live under the same roof."
Merlin! How does the witch do that? Hermione kept saying that Lovegood was merely insightful, but this girl was practically a Seer. Severus wondered for a moment if perhaps she was a Seer. Severus didn't believe in much, but he did believe in Seers. He had learned that lesson the hard way.
"I may be running a home for orphaned children, Miss Lovegood, but that does not mean I accept any lost child," he said as coldly as he could.
"I wouldn't expect you to," she replied. "But you have to admit that you need me. Hermione is here overnight for other reasons and doesn't live here, Neville only comes over on weekends, and Harry will be going to his own home at night to be with his family. So really, you're only accepting one more person, one whose skills you seem to need.
"Anyway," Lovegood continued, apparently oblivious to Severus's private outrage, "I suggest we give it a week's trial and see how it goes. I promise to give you and Hermione your privacy and keep out of the way. Hopefully you'll agree that the positives outweigh the negatives."
With that, she left. Having no choice but to agree with her, Severus groaned.
Hermione herself was toying with the idea of moving into Grimmauld Place, albeit for other reasons. She was spending more and more nights with Severus, always in her room, never in his. She actually had never been in the Master bedroom since their change in circumstances. He was intensely private and she didn't want to pry.
It was becoming more and more of a hassle to wake up early and floo home to shower and change for work before any of the children woke up and saw her. It felt like they were sneaking around and hiding something illicit, which they really weren't. It wasn't anything they wanted plastered all over the front page of the Prophet (which it probably would if it did go public) but the friends who knew were discreet. The children had seen enough in their young lives that a pair of consenting adult lovers who were otherwise unattached should not be remotely traumatising. And Hermione spent all her days here anyway. It would make sense.
At the same time, she didn't want to crowd Severus. What they had right now worked for them. It wasn't that they wanted to spend all their time apart, but she suspected that knowing that they could, that they were separately domiciled, was probably a comfort to him. His comfort zone had been pushed so much in the past six months, it would probably be suicidal to push it further.
Anyway, enough about that. Presently she had to open the door and greet her newest colleague, whose full-time schedule began that day.
"Professor Potter!" she exclaimed, opening the door with a great flourish. In the corner of her eye she could see Severus making his way to the kitchen, rolling his eyes.
"Professor Granger!" Harry threw his arms around Hermione and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Between her increased time at Grimmauld Place and his growing family, the two had not had much time to see each other in recent weeks. It was an unhappy yet natural part of growing up, she knew, but she was glad that they would now be spending their days together again, just like the old days back at Hogwarts.
Maybe he'll be the next one to want to move in, she thought wryly. Wouldn't that just be Severus's dream come true—housemates with Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood. Oh well, probably better than, say, a stint in Azkaban.
"Come have a seat, we have awhile before we need to get to lessons," Hermione said, gesturing toward the settee nearest the fire. "You know, you should probably floo in the future—Severus wouldn't like too many people knowing we're here and he's afraid of us being spotted."
"I would have done but it keeps blocking me for some reason."
Probably punishment for his little unannounced visit. "I'll get him to remove it," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "How's Ginny getting on? She hasn't had much time to owl."
"She's doing really well, baby's doing really well—it's going to be another boy."
"Oh Harry that's wonderful!"
"I meant to tell you; apparently if I don't barge into others' homes at daybreak I find myself failing to share news." They laughed. Good thing Severus wasn't out here, though he was probably listening in. He couldn't quite laugh about it yet.
"How is James?"
"Really good, he's sitting up now all on his own, he'll be ready to crawl any day now." He fumbled through his pocket and withdrew a picture of a black-haired, brown-eyed baby sitting before the fire, marveling at a golden snitch flying overhead, batting at it with a chubby hand.
"A born seeker," Hermione said happily.
"Of course he is—he's my son," Harry said with unmistakable pride. Hermione's heart swelled with happiness for her friend. This was all he'd ever wanted: a family of his own. A simple dream for one of the greatest living heroes alive in the Wizarding World. Hermione's thoughts turned to the other great living war hero, the one who'd shared her bed the night before. What were his dreams? What were hers?
"More seriously," Harry said, drawing himself a bit closer to his friend, "How is he doing with all of this? I mean I know I'm hardly his favourite person, and he never explicitly gave me permission to come here, but the fact that I wasn't hexed into next week the moment I put my hand to the door gives me a faint hope that he accepts this."
Hermione sighed and cast a nonverbal Muffliato. If Severus was listening in, there was no reason for him to hear this. She would deal with the ramifications of blocking him out with his own spell later.
"You have to understand, Harry, and I think you do, that he just hasn't been able to move past what happened with your father. Not completely, anyway. You remember what Dumbledore said—some wounds run too deep for the healing? Well, I don't think anyone, including him, has ever attempted to heal this. And there's a lot to heal—in his eyes, your father bullied him, harassed him, publicly humiliated him, and then stole away the girl he loved and married her himself. You know there's some truth to his impression of events."
Harry nodded. He remembered his reaction to seeing Snape's memories in the pensieve all those years ago. How he had agreed with Snape's assessment of his father's character at that moment. How he had had to agree after viewing Snape's memories given to him in the Boat House.
"So he's never been able to get past that, and you're this living, breathing reminder of the fact that she married James instead of him. I'm sure it pained him the first time he saw you in the Great Hall and saw her eyes in James's face. I think he made the decision to hate you right then and there, because hatred is easier to deal with than grief. I think it was easier for him to decide to hate the James in you than to grieve for the Lily that is also in there and evident to anyone who knew her."
She grasped his hand and linked her fingers with his. One of them squeezed; she wasn't sure which.
"I have given up on him liking me, Hermione," Harry said in a heavy voice. "I accept that he never will. But I do want to help him, and I don't think he believes that."
"He does," Hermione said. "Believe it or not, he does believe that you are in earnest. Like you said, you weren't hexed into oblivion for attempting to come here today."
"Did you still his hand?"
"I might have done." She grinned, then lowered her voice to a whisper. "He trusts me and my judgment about you, and so he's letting you help. I guess I just wanted you to understand where he's coming from with all of this."
"He told you all that?" Harry couldn't imagine Snape opening up like that to anyone, even his lover.
Hermione shook her head. "Not in so many words. I've just…got to know him these past few months, that's all."
"Yes, I bet you have," Harry said wickedly. Hermione playfully slapped him on the shoulder.
"I guess I should stop showing him baby pictures then?"
"Maybe for awhile."
"I guess I can live with that." Harry looked away for a minute thoughtfully, then turned to look at his friend. "Do you think he'll ever be able to feel…neutrally about me? He knew Mum so well, and I just…he's the only one left who did."
Hermione squeezed Harry's hand. "I don't know. I hope he can. For both of your sakes. If he could talk to you, he might be able to finally work through his grief for her and his hatred for your father. Maybe not full reconciliation, but at least closure." She sighed. "Would that we all could receive such a thing."
This time, it was Harry's turn to squeeze her hand.
Severus had been aching for any excuse to hex Potter and turn him out of the house for good all day long. But Potter, little thorn in his side that he always was, denied him that.
He did everything Severus asked of him. Everything. He'd even scrubbed a cauldron without magic and without complaint—something that he had never done back when he was a student.
Severus supposed it was all a bit immature of him, but he did not want Potter in this house. Even if it did make Hermione happy. Even if he was not entirely hopeless as a teacher of simple non-magical subjects. All he needed was a reason to curse him, and Potter gave him none.
Hell, even the children responded well when Severus had announced that morning over breakfast that Potter would now be a full-time volunteer on the staff. They had smiled. Smiled! At Potter! Traitors, all.
Next thing he knew they listened to his lessons on maths, taken notes, and done well on his little quiz. Severus had observed from the back, giving him his very best Death Eater glare in hopes of tripping the boy up. Nothing; he had sailed through it all. The equations were even correct.
Potter had left shortly before dinner, saying he needed to get home to his family. He had stood before Severus, green eyes flashing and a smile on his pathetic little face. "I want to thank you, Severus, for giving me this opportunity." And then he'd offered his bloody hand to shake!
Just then Hermione had walked in. "Oh, are you leaving Harry?" she had asked absently. Not wanting to disappoint her (he had promised he would try) he took Potter's hand and gave it the quickest shake he possibly could.
Hermione had beamed. Potter had beamed. Severus had scowled.
After Potter mercifully left and Severus had shut the door behind him with a little more force than was probably necessary, Hermione had placed the lightest of touches on his arm and stood on tiptoe to give him a brief kiss on the cheek.
"Thank you," she whispered. "Remember what I said to you."
I will never betray your trust, she had said.
Yes she will, they all do, the voice mocked.
Severus found he did not want to listen to the voice. Hermione had just shown the first bit of affection outside the confines of her bedroom. It felt…good. If this was his reward for being nice to Potter ("nice" being defined liberally in this case), he might be open to trying it again.
Of course, once he got Hermione upstairs, he might act as if he needed more of an incentive…
Being a Gryffindor wasn't so bad, Leopold decided.
Miss Granger had been positively thrilled when she received his owl and had immediately replied with all sorts of advice and tips and anecdotes about her time in Gryffindor tower. Her enthusiasm for a new Gryffindor was apparently a house trait; he found himself immediately welcomed into the fold. No one asked about his blood status, only about himself. When he mentioned that he lost his parents in the war, he received nothing but sympathy from his new housemates.
He found them loud, boisterous, nosy, and a bit on the dumb side. But he found himself liking the tower and most of the people in it, despite himself.
Professor Longbottom had sent him an owl asking him to "check in" once a week or so to make sure everything was going alright. Leopold had agreed (it was a teacher, after all) but also knew that it was far less likely that he would be harassed or singled out as a member of Gryffindor. He also got the impression that the staff would be more willing to provide him with some measure of protection based on his house alone. He just couldn't figure out why he had been placed in this house. What about him was Gryffindor? He felt welcome, for sure, but he also didn't feel as if he could really relate. Regardless, he decided to make the best of it.
"Making the best of it" was a chore much improved after his third day.
"Can I sit here?" Leopold looked up to see a girl with curly red hair and glasses standing next to him at the house table in the Great Hall. She wore a crooked Gryffindor tie and looked a bit nervous. Leopold nodded and indicated the seat to his right. She sat down.
"I'm Clara Phillips," she said softly. Merlin her eyes were so blue.
"Leopold Clairemont," he replied as if in a trance.
"Are you reading for Charms?" she asked him, indicating the book open before him. He nodded. "I like Professor Flitwick," she continued. "Wasn't it exciting how we could just make things fly in the air?"
Leopold had Mr. Snape do it nearly every day of his life, and so failed to see what was so exciting about it, but instead just nodded. "Real magic," he said.
Clara exhaled breathlessly. "I had never properly done magic before this week." She looked at him nervously. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do it properly."
"I saw you," Leopold said without thinking. "In class. You were the first one to do it. You were brilliant."
Clara smiled at this. Leopold smiled back, trying not to blush.
"Do you want to sit next to me in Charms this afternoon?" she whispered, not quite meeting his eye.
Leopold nodded. "Yes, please," he whispered. The little girl positively beamed at him, picked up an apple from the table, and scarpered off with a little wave.
Leopold watched her go. He hadn't much thought about girls before, but…well, he could see himself thinking about Clara Phillips quite a lot during his time at Hogwarts, however long that time might be.
He only hoped that no one learned his secret.
"All right, Severus?"
Severus looked up with a scowl as Potter invited himself to sit down next to him during lunch. Severus and the others always ate with the children but Severus was often off to the side, immersed in his own thoughts or paperwork, not unlike the way he had done at Hogwarts.
"Potter," he replied in a dispassionate voice, not meeting his eye. This passed for polite with him, at least when it came to Harry Potter.
"Listen, Hermione and Luna are spending the lunch hour in Diagon Alley to do a bit of shopping so I figured this would be a good time to tell you."
"Tell me what?"
Potter's voice dropped to a whisper. "It's Hermione's birthday next Thursday, and knowing her she probably hasn't mentioned it."
Severus felt the blood rush from his head.
"No," he said slowly. "She hadn't."
"I thought as much, she never does, don't worry. Well, now you know. I'll let you decide what to do with the information."
Severus set his fork on the table a little too roughly, causing Potter to jump and the children to all turn in his direction. One glare from Severus was all it took to get them to turn back to their plates.
"That's it?" he hissed. "You drop this bombshell on me and then decide you'll let me 'decide what to do' with the information?" Not even a hint as to what he would be expected of him? Was Potter playing some sort of fucking joke on him? Not even Severus at his most evil would have left an enemy out to dry like this.
"Nervous, are you?" Potter gave a sympathetic smile. "Relax. Hermione doesn't expect anything on her birthday. With blokes for her two best mates, she hasn't exactly grown up sentimental about it, has she?"
Severus could kill Potter for this. So she didn't expect anything from her friends. Severus thought rather he was more than a friend to her. That would create expectations…wouldn't it? But what would she expect?
You fancy herself as more than a friend when you're probably even less than one, the voice said. She probably hasn't mentioned it because she would rather spend it with anyone but you. Severus shook his head to silence it.
"Potter…" Severus said softly. "I am not exactly...just a friend to her, am I?"
Potter's eyes lit up and a smile crossed his face. "No, I guess you're not. Well, right then, you probably will want to do something for her. I'd be happy to, you know, help in any way that I can…"
Severus racked his brain for every escape route he could think of, finally drawing up a blank. He would rather not ask anyone for advice on this. But Lovegood was probably useless with regard to this, Longbottom was useless with regard to anything, and Potter knew her better than anyone. But he really, really didn't want to have to ask Potter for help. He did not like owing anyone favours, least of all Potter.
"I'd do this as a favour to her, not to you," Potter offered. "I know the idea of owing me any sort of favour is abhorrent to you."
Was he really getting this easy to read? Lovegood was bad enough, but now even Potter could guess what he was thinking.
He had to agree with the voice on this one.
Potter patted Severus on the shoulder. Ugh. "No worries, Severus, I'll help you through this. I had a first birthday to get through with Ginny once, and believe me, I was up all night in a cold sweat hoping I wouldn't screw it up. But you're in luck in that Hermione doesn't know that you know, so her expectations are probably pretty low, so by doing anything, you will have done right."
The presence of fourteen young children was all that stayed Severus's hand from hexing Potter's tongue out of his bloody mouth.
Hermione dashed down the steps of Grimmauld Place after lessons on the evening of her birthday with her head buried in a book when she bumped into two warm objects holding a third, squirming warm object.
"Harry! Ginny! What are you both doing here so late?"
"Baby-sitting," Ginny said, handing James off to Harry in order to give her friend a hug. "Happy birthday love."
"Thanks, Gin," Hermione said, still not comprehending why her friends would be here. "But what do you mean, baby-sitting?"
"You and I have plans elsewhere," said a deep voice behind her. She turned to see Severus, wearing a coat and holding hers in his hand. "And we'd best get going if we are going to make them."
"It is your birthday today, is it not?"
Hermione stood there, dumbfounded. She had not told Severus it was her birthday, and had not expected him to do anything if he had known. He wasn't quite smiling, but his eyes were light—he looked like he genuinely wanted to do something with her, or for her. She gave him a smile and accepted her coat as he pulled it over her shoulders.
"I guess we'd better get a move on, then," Hermione said. Severus said nothing as he opened the door for Hermione and gestured her to go through it. She missed him and Harry meeting each other's eyes, Harry offering a smile and a wink and Severus responding with an eyeroll.
"If anything should happen, I will know," Severus said in parting.
"I have no death wish," Harry replied.
Once they got outside, Hermione felt Severus take her hand in his and pull her close into an embrace.
"Happy birthday," he whispered, and then Disapparated them both.
Potter had told him that Hermione was neither materialistic nor interested in grand romantic gestures. She apparently hadn't been before the war and had become even less so afterward. Perfect. Severus was good at neither.
Potter had also told him that Hermione loved nothing better than to eat good food and be in a safe, quiet, peaceful place. No forests, she had sworn them off after their months in the tent hunting Horcruxes (Severus had been surprised to realise just how long the three of them had spent in a tent—had it really been five months?). She was leery of both large crowds and enclosed places where she could not easily spot an exit. In public, she was constantly monitoring the people around her and prepared for any trouble.
No gifts, no nature, no strange open places, no enclosed spaces, no crowds. Severus had decided that there was really only one option.
It was becoming colder even in London at this time of year, but the seaside in Brighton was experiencing some unseasonable warmth. The moon was at three-quarters and waning, so there would be no need to fear werewolves. He had everything he needed tucked into a trouser pocket (no robes, not tonight) and Hermione in his arms. He hoped that he had chosen wisely.
"Where are we, Severus?" Hermione asked after the world stopped spinning. He took her hand and led her forward out of the alley where he had Apparated them.
"Brighton," he said softly. He squeezed her hand and said, "Don't worry—we're perfectly safe." He led her silently through the streets and down to the seashore, which was mercifully empty of people. He surreptitiously cast a few Muggle-repelling charms to make sure it stayed that way. One had to be cognizant of security, after all.
The sea was calm that night, the only noise the quiet lapping of waves against the sand. The moon was alight in the soft twilight; the sky was periwinkle and fading into an inky black. Mercifully, there seemed to be no clouds in the sky. The stars would be on fire out here before long, particularly if Severus were to dim the lights on the street, which he planned to do.
He led her toward the shore, far enough back that they would not be enveloped by the tide as it came in, and took a handkerchief from his pocket. With a flick of his wand it had transfigured into a large blanket, which he lay upon the ground. He took Hermione's hand and invited her to sit with him. He removed a small basket from his pocket that he had shrunk to the size of a thimble; after another flick, it had resized. A picnic basket.
Severus told himself he was not being sentimental or romantic. It was merely a way of taking Hermione out that did not set her on edge. Even Potter had agreed it was probably a good choice for her. But Merlin if he didn't wonder if he had fallen head-first into a romance novel.
Between her and the children, he almost didn't recognise himself anymore.
Hermione, for her part, looked calm and happy. She had clearly not expected him to mark the occasion at all, let alone on a dinner for two under the moonlight by the sea.
Severus considered that this was probably their first real date.
"Severus this is…" Hermione's voice trailed off as he heard the emotion tinged in it. "I'm very touched." She let go of his hand and peered inside the basket. "You've gone to a lot of trouble."
"I wish I could say I had, but it was no trouble at all. That accursed House Elf prepared the food and I merely thought of a place we could enjoy it privately. I am sorry that it is not more."
"Don't be," Hermione said. "It is everything I would have wanted."
For a long while they said nothing, eating their food in a companionable silence. They sipped the wine that Kreacher had packed and, after awhile, cast a refilling charm on it and drank some more, both ever mindful of what had happened the last time they had shared a drink. The sky darkened and the stars appeared twinkling, one by one.
"What do you normally do on your birthday?" he asked her finally, slipping his arm around her shoulders.
She sighed and leaned into him. "Since the war, nothing. I hadn't really wanted to draw attention to it or think about it. Even if you asked me my age right now it would take me a moment to remember it."
"Because in my head, most of the time, I am still an eighteen year old fugitive losing friends and family by the day," she said sadly. "And every year older I turn the more time I realise has gone by and the further away I am from all of them. The fact that so much time has passed scares me sometimes. So if I don't pay attention to my birthday, I can ignore it."
Severus panicked and thought that he really shouldn't have listened to Potter.
"But," she continued. "This is really wonderful, I've never done anything quite like this before. There's a simple beauty in this—in the sea. Something eternal. It makes me think that…maybe I shouldn't feel guilty for living. Maybe I should enjoy my life. I know that if I had died I would have wanted my friends to live as they had before. I mean, what's the point of life if we are going to be afraid to live it, right?" She gave Severus an earnest smile and tilted her head up to give him a soft kiss. "So thank you, Severus. It is the best gift you could have given me."
"Something like that."
"I'm glad," he said. The night grew darker around them and, rather than light a fire that would attract attention, Severus relied on the light from the moon reflecting off the water. Darkness, shadows, were security to him. Darkness made him uncoil just a bit and access the emotions he buried so deeply and so unconsciously that he often forgot they were there. Here, in the moonlight and starlight and the gentle darkness of the sea and emboldened by the red wine staining his lips, he knew he could speak safely, honestly, just as he had that night in front of the fire.
"You deserve to be happy, Hermione…I want you to be happy."
"You do make me happy," Hermione said.
Severus thought of something else Potter had told him: "Hermione is fragile. She doesn't do casual, but she also doesn't want to be hurt. If she is more than just a friend with benefits to you, this might be a good time to let her know that, if you haven't already."
He was also mindful of something his mother had told him decades earlier, when she had seen him dejected over Lily. "Faint heart never won fair lady, Severus."
"And you make me happy—happier than I have been in many years. But…there is something that I must tell you."
He felt Hermione tense beneath his arm and he gave her a reassuring squeeze. She thinks you're going to end things with her on her birthday of all days, said the voice. You have a hell of a reputation, Snape.
Screw your courage to the sticking place, he told himself, trying to ignore the voice's taunts.
"For these past months our…time together is something that we have kept confined completely to the bedroom. We have yet to put a label on it or really talk about it. And while that has been wonderful, for me it is no longer enough." He turned her in his arms to face him, hoping that his courage would not fail him now. "Hermione, I want a real relationship with you. I don't want open affection between us in public or in front of the children, and I don't want to go on double-dates with the Potters, and I make no promises about the future, but I do know that I would like us to be a couple in every sense of the word."
Hermione looked surprised but her eyes bespoke nothing but happiness. She nodded. "Me too, Severus. I want all of that. But I'm…"
"I care about you," he said softly, cutting her off, afraid of what she might say if he allowed her to continue. "I care about you deeply, and want to be the one who makes you happy, who makes you forget all the horrors you lived through."
"I want that too, Severus. But…"
"But?" He held his breath, bracing himself for her rejection. At least I went down fighting…
"I'm afraid," she said in a small voice. "I'm afraid of getting hurt." She was as nervous about this as he was.
"Hermione…I know that I told you that I cannot make you any promises about the future. I cannot promise that I will never hurt you, because I may inadvertently do so, but I will promise you that I will do everything I can to prevent your fears from being realised. You know that I do not give out my loyalty or my trust freely, and you have both."
You're making a fool of yourself, the voice warned. She's only going to reject you.
"Severus," Hermione whispered softly. She gazed at him, her eyes reflecting the sparkle of the stars and the moon in much the same way it had the light of the fire the first night they had been together. "I've been living in fear for years now. You already inspired me to take a risk professionally, and I'm very glad you did. I think…this is what I've been wanting for a long while. I want a relationship with you too. I want to think of you as my partner, not scramble for a noun every time I think about you. I've been trying to keep my emotions at bay because I was afraid they would not be reciprocated. I've been hurt before…" she trailed off. Severus knew she was talking about Weasley.
"You don't have to be afraid, Hermione," Severus said, taking her face in his hands. "You promised me that you would never betray my trust, and I believe you. I promise you the same." He kissed her, softly, earnestly, deeply.
"You're making a lot of promises for a man who just warned me that he would make me none," she teased.
He smiled, really smiled, for the first time that night. "You have a way of making me break all of my rules," he said softly. "Perhaps it is time I rewrote them completely." He kissed her again.
"Me too," she said.
"Hermione…may I ask you a question?"
"Of course, dear," she said. Dear. An endearment. He smiled more broadly.
"Move into Grimmauld Place. Full time."
"That's not a question."
"Please. I want you to stay with me every night, in my room, in my bed. Together. Move out of your flat, you're never there anyway. Move out of your room, there's more space and privacy in mine. Be with me."
Hermione's eyes flashed surprise and then confusion and then happiness. She nodded. "Okay," she said softly.
You're only setting yourself up for disappointment, the voice said.
Shut up, Severus told himself. I don't need to listen to this anymore.
The voice disappeared.
Severus pulled her head to his and kissed her fully and passionately, eventually rolling on top of her and pinning her to the blanket, the moan that escaped her hidden by the sound of the sea. Their hands were everywhere. He remembered himself enough, however, to realise that they were still in public, so he was able to muster just enough self-control to pull back before the need for more threatened to overtake him.
"Take me home, Severus," she gasped. He nodded. He vanished the blanket and the basket and Disapparated them both, thinking of nothing but his bed in the master bedroom at Grimmauld Place. The strength of his focus ensured that they Apparated right on top of the bed, eliciting a laugh from Hermione.
"It takes a powerful wizard to break his own anti-Apparition charms," she said with a smirk.
"I think I've shown you before just how powerful I can be."
"Oh yes, you've done that many times. But I would very much like a more...personal demonstration," she challenged. He had been a very fast learner with regard to that.
He swallowed thickly, pushed her down onto the bed, climbed on top of her, and proceeded to do just that. Over and over.
They weren't sure what it was, but something about Grimmauld Place had agreed with James and he had fallen asleep earlier and with less fuss than ever before. Harry and Ginny had taken advantage of this and passed out on the sofa, mouths open, heads leaning into one another, at half seven in the evening. Luna had seen all the children to bed.
Luna had shaken her head when she saw them. These were her reinforcements? Pathetic. She had smiled and covered them with a blanket. Then she had flooed Neville and told him Snape was going to be occupied for the evening. The Potters had not even twitched as Neville loudly bounded up the stairs after his girlfriend and slammed her bedroom door.
And so Number Twelve Grimmauld Place was full that night: fourteen children enjoying a rare sleep without nightmares; Severus and Hermione in his bedroom, celebrating and demonstrating their newly-confessed feelings for one another; Neville and Luna in her bedroom, sharing a few stolen hours before he was due back at Hogwarts; and Harry and Ginny, new parents sharing a blissful sleep in the ground floor sitting room, their son in their arms.
When the Potters woke up the next morning, hair messy, eyes crispy, drool caked into odd patterns on their chins, Harry found a small scrap of parchment on the coffee table with two words written in the small, spiky handwriting of the Half Blood Prince. He smiled when he read it.
"Was Gryffindor catching?" is courtesy of makaem, who put it in her review for the last chapter and made me giggle.
"Screw your courage to the sticking place," is taken from Macbeth.
Coming up: Two of our heroes take a walk and have a talk, and a question many of you have been asking is answered. At least in part. What kind of storyteller would I be if I gave all the goods away at once? ;)