"Did you talk to her?" Harry's concern was evident despite how quiet he was attempting to be.
"Verity says they aren't there," a worried-sounding Ginny said in an equally low voice.
Severus knew he wasn't supposed to be privy to the conversation, but he paused on the stairs to listen regardless. It had been six months since he had been released from St. Mungos. His health had greatly improved, however he was still stiff most mornings and most activities would still cause him pain after a while. Hermione made him a priority, but she had also started studying for her NEWTs as well as started helping George in the shop, so she left him alone for long periods of time. He passed the time in their room, occasionally chancing a lone walk around the property, and became used to the routine. For the first few months Hermione had been consistently home by six for supper, but in the last month she had been coming home later and later, always arriving with George, and from Harry and Ginny's whispers it was obvious he wasn't the only one concerned about the situation.
"Did she say where they went?" Harry asked.
"No," Ginny sounded irritated. "What do you think they're doing?"
"Whatever it is I bet it's not what we think," he murmured, though it was obvious he wasn't convinced of that fact himself. "Maybe they're looking to expand."
"Hermione told me that, with the hit from having to close for a while, George isn't going to be in a position to expand for at least another year, probably closer to two."
"Do you think they have some meeting?"
"Two or three a week?" she sounded horribly skeptical.
"I just..." he sighed, sounding frustrated. "I don't think Hermione would do that. George, either, for that matter."
"Why? Do you think they're afraid of Snape?"
"No. Because it's not like Hermione to be disloyal to someone, and it's not like George to facilitate it."
"A year ago I would have agreed with you. But neither of them have been the same since the war. He's still so hurt after losing Fred I think he's trying to find some sort of connection. And she's so tied down with Severus... if she's not studying or working she's helping him. I'd be surprised if she didn't need something to break up the routine."
Severus scowled and silently returned to their room, sitting on the bed. Could it be true? Hermione didn't seem to mind spending time with him, she was happy, joking with him, and their sex life, while it wasn't as spontaneous and explosive as it had been when they first started sleeping together, seemed to be going well enough. She told him she loved him, but he hadn't returned the sentiment. He found it difficult, if not impossible, to admit his feelings for her. It made him so vulnerable, and he wasn't ready to admit the power the witch had over him. She always seemed so patient, but maybe he was taking her patience for granted. Maybe she was getting fed up with him, and finding comfort in the arms of another.
The door opened, and Hermione stuck her head in.
"Severus? Dinner is..." she stopped when she saw his face. She entered the room and closed the door behind her. "Is something wrong?" she whispered, coming to stand in front of him.
He looked up into her face, studying her skin, looking for any sign of infidelity.
"Are you sleeping with Weasley?" he asked, face betraying his anger.
"No!" her face went from shock to anger. "What the hell would make you think that?"
"The two of you have been disappearing after work, and coming back at the same time."
"And the only explanation you could think of is that we're fucking each other?" she spat.
"Then what is it, Hermione? Where are you going?"
"There is... something we've been working on."
"Having problems thinking of a plausible story?" he snapped.
She crossed her arms and glared at him. "I need to make a Floo call," she said evenly before storming from the room.
His fingers curled around the edge of the bed, and he took deep breaths to try to control himself. How easily that girl could rile him! And she wouldn't even talk to him. He let his rage build for a while, then decided he had to confront the girl, and the house was not going to be the place to fight. He crossed the room and wrenched open the door, just to find her reaching for the knob on the other side.
"Get your cloak," she said, her voice deadpan. "We have somewhere we have to be in five minutes."
Without another word she turned and disappeared down the stairs, and he stared at the spot for a long moment before snatching his cloak with a frustrated growl, stalking down the stairs, and exiting the house without acknowledging any of the friendly, yet concerned greetings aimed at him. Hermione was already at the edge of the wards, attempting to button her jacket as her fingers shook from frustration.
"You have no right, witch..." he started.
"Oh, shut it, Severus. You don't even know where we're going," she snapped, giving her buttons up as a bad job and tying the belt instead.
"What makes you think I'm going to go with you?" he snarled.
"Because you want to know what I've been up to, even if it means you'll be utterly humiliated when you find out how utterly benign it is," she sighed, holding her arm out.
He studied her for a moment, then snatched her arm and let her Apparate him away from the Burrow. When they landed it was on a small, gravel road. There were tall trees lining the road, and a gate to one side, though it was hard to see what lay beyond the thick brush. As he tried to crane his neck to see another figure appeared in the lane, a woman dressed in red robes and wearing a sickeningly wide smile.
"Miss Granger, I was so pleasantly surprised to hear you were ready to bring Mr. Snape here!" she stepped forward to shake their hands. "I'm Janice Ewing, magical realtor," she introduced herself to Severus. "Hermione came to me with a very specific idea of what she was looking for in a home. She's been looking so hard," the woman said, using her wand to open the gate. "We've been looking almost a month, but I had a hunch she might return to this one. There was something in her face as we were looking at it..." she kept on, but Severus looked at Hermione.
"I think you're well enough we should start talking about moving you out of the Burrow," she said softly.
He was speechless as he looked at her, then at the cottage they were approaching.
"Hermione has all the details about this house, and she said you would prefer to look at it alone, so I'll wait here and answer any questions you may have," Janice said, opening the door and stepping aside.
Hermione led Severus through the door into a small entrance hall. A set of stairs sent up to the second floor on one side, a comfortable sitting room was on the other. Through a door in the back he could see a cozy kitchen with a small dining table.
"What is this?" he asked softly.
"This would be a house," she replied with a smirk.
"Why are we in this house?" he asked.
"Well, first of all, it's small, because you don't need a lot of space. And there's a beautiful garden in the backyard, one that would be a good size to grow most any potions ingredient you need. We're in an isolated part of the hills, so there's no neighbor within a mile or so, and since it's a magical dwelling you can ward it so no one can see what you're doing, including flying."
Another conversation came to him, one whispered to each other in bed after one of their romps. "You remembered?"
She smiled. "You wouldn't believe how long it took to find this place. It seems like you can get a big house on land or a little house on a small plot, but these cozy little isolated cottages are all occupied."
He looked around with a more appraising eye. The cottage, at first glance, was what he had in mind during their conversation so long ago. There was nothing fussy about the house itself, there was a little room for entertaining guests, but it didn't invite anyone to overstay their welcome with extra rooms or areas that would be comfortable for large groups of guests. The kitchen was efficient, enough room to move around, but not enough room for fancy and fussy cooking equipment. There was a fireplace, not unsurprising with former magic residents. A study was tucked away in the back, with bookshelves built into each wall. There was a cellar currently being used to store elf-made wine and unused decorations, but it was clean and dry enough to set up a potions lab. He cautiously moved upstairs. The place had two bedrooms. The smaller of these overlooked the front yard, the gravel road barely visible through the still-bare branches of the trees. He went to open the door to the master bedroom, but Hermione blocked him.
"I want to remind you, before you go in there, that it can be changed. Don't judge based on the walls," she said.
"What's wrong with them?" he asked, opening the door and expecting damage. Instead he found the walls covered in the type of wallpaper few outside Dolores Umbridge would be able to stomach. The bright pink floral pattern was almost overpowering, the matching drapes were worse, and he was forced to avert his eyes to the thankfully-neutral carpet.
"It's horrid," he smirked.
"It can be changed. It will be changed, if you choose to buy the house."
He held his hand out for the small file she was holding. He opened it up, scanning the mundane dimensions of the home and the lot, and he scowled as his eyes settled on the price.
"I cannot afford this, Hermione. I'm currently without a job."
"Well," she bit her lip and played with her fingers. "The truth of it is... someone has offered to assist in both those regards."
"Who?" he asked, though he could hazard a guess. Few wizards had the money to be buying acquaintances houses.
"The Malfoys," she confirmed his suspicions. "I've spent some time with them recently. They are quite grateful that you helped Draco survive the war."
"That's what I said you would say, but they are quite convinced that Voldemort intended to kill Draco, but when you... took over his job you pleased him enough that he spared Draco. They don't know how to thank someone without throwing a boatload of money their way, and in your case it's a house and a job recommendation with the St. Mungos research department. They say they know the head quite well, and he lost a researcher recently, and they're desperate for a talented potion maker."
"Why didn't they tell me this themselves?"
"You've been avoiding them. They can't just Floo over to the Burrow, nor can they Apparate there. They've sent you a few letters to discuss the situation, but I think they all made their way into your pile," she said softly, referring to a large pile of correspondence he let stack up but hadn't touched in months.
He scowled again as he looked at the price.
"I said you probably wouldn't want charity. Lucius says if that's the case he will purchase the property and work out a payment plan with you once you are employed. He also said..." she stopped and looked unsure of herself. "He also said that you need an isolated place to take your witch so you're not confined to a single room while trying to keep quiet."
The corner of his mouth curled for a fraction of a second. "He and Narcissa have made it their personal mission to utilize every room in Malfoy Manor, including the dungeons, for their little games."
Hermione let off a disgusted noise. She led him outside under the guise of showing him the grounds, but he suspected she needed some fresh air. He walked along the stone path, trying to find some fault with the place, but unfortunately not coming up with anything that would give him some more time to think about Malfoys offer.
"Have you really been bringing Weasley along with you as you looked at houses?" he asked as he heard Hermione coming up behind him.
"He wanted to come. He's looking for a house as well. It's too difficult for him to continue staying in the room he and Fred shared, and he's been unable to spend more than a few minutes in their flat over the shop."
"I should apologize. It was wrong of me to assume the worst of you."
"It hurt me that you did," she replied softly. "I had rather hoped you realized that I am not the type to cheat, and if there was something wrong in our relationship I'd talk to you about it, or at least give you some kind of indication that there is something bothering me."
"I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me in time."
"I'll forgive you right now if you promise to talk to me if you have a concern instead of automatically picking a fight. If I'm doing something that concerns you'd I'd rather not be blindsided when I come to fetch you for dinner."
"I so promise," he nodded, holding his hand out for hers.
"So," she smiled, holding his hand and pressing against him. "What do you think of the house?"
"You picked well. Of course, I'd like a professional to look over it before we make a final decision, but I think it would fit our needs quite nicely."
"Our needs?" she looked up at him.
"If I am to be living by myself, I still have Spinners End."
"Oh, no, you don't. You will not be going back to that place unless it's to retrieve things during the move."
"Then I guess we're moving in here together."
"Most people would think a formal question would be in order."
"Most people don't have the relationship we do."
"Amen to that," she smiled. "And yes. I guess we are."
He smiled and drew her to him, gazing at the house. "Would you be happy here?"
"I'd be happy at Spinners End if it were with you," she replied softly.
"That is such a disgustingly romantic thing to say. And totally false."
"You're right. If Spinners End is half as bad as you claim it would be awful to live there. I'd stick through it, but I don't think I'd be happy with it. But this place is quite lovely. I think we would both be quite happy here."
"Even though you are so far from your friends?"
"The Floo makes that hardly an issue. And we won't be too far. George is buying a house on the other side of the nearest village."
"It has instantly lost some of it's charm," he grumbled.
"Severus," she chastised with a chuckle.
"I suppose I can live with Weasley living within a few miles of me. Just so long as he doesn't make a pest of himself."
"I'll warn him, but I think he would be glad to stay on your good side."
"I have no good side."
"I happen to think you have more of one than you let others believe."
"Potter told me about your head injury, and I will re-iterate my previous suspicions that it has affected your judgment."
"Don't start with that, Severus. Need I remind you have also sustained head injuries?"
"And look what it got me. A bossy little know-it-all who demands my attentions until she worms her way under my skin."
"It took a lot for me to worm there, and I don't plan on going anywhere, Severus," she smirked before rising up on tip-toe to kiss him.
"Severus?" she called, stepping into the the pristine sitting room of the small cottage. There was no reply, but that didn't bother her. Four years after moving into the small home together Hermione knew that Severus hardly ever spent time in the more visible areas of the home. He was either in the lab he worked out of in the basement, in the back in the study where the walls were warded against unwanted sounds, or out on the property tending do some of his ingredients. She carefully hung the bridesmaids dress she had just had fitted, which she would be wearing when she stood next to Harry as he married Ginny in less than a month. Ron had married Susan Bones two months prior, George was engaged to Angelina Johnson, Percy's wife Audrey was expecting their first, and Fleur was halfway through her second pregnancy. Occasionally someone would ask if she and Severus were going to make their relationship official, but Severus insisted, and she agreed, that they didn't feel they needed a grand ceremony to declare she was going to be with each other for the rest of their lives. And Severus wasn't the type for large crowds or public romantic declarations. Even though their relationship didn't seem very passionate to outsiders when they were alone there was an abundance when they were alone.
"Severus?" she cracked the door to the basement, but there was no light to indicate that's where he was hiding. She checked the study to find it empty, then went outside to look for him. He wasn't in the garden, but there was smoke rising from a small copse of trees down a worn footpath. She followed the path into the woods, coming to a clearing where Severus was tending to a small fire, a tent set up behind him.
"Severus?" she called softly, coming into the clearing. "What is this?"
"Some time ago you mentioned that you didn't think I would be good at camping. Now that we both possess the memory, and I am free of that blasted cane, I am proving you that I will have no problems spending a night in the woods," he replied without looking up from the fire.
"Does it really count if you're within walking distance of your house?"
"From my understanding parents take their children camping in the backyard quite often."
"Are you insinuating I'm a child?"
"No, but I will flat-out tell you that you're insufferable at times," he smirked, though she could tell it was playful and not malicious.
"Cantankerous prat," she beamed, sitting next to him. "Did you use magic to put up the tent?"
"Give me a break, Hermione," he said, putting down the stick and wrapping an arm around her. "I am an old man, and inexperienced at camping."
"Well, it does seem nice."
"How is your dress?"
"Fitted. Still a ghastly color, but Ginny is not known for her soft personality."
"I hope Potter knows what he's getting himself into."
"I would think you'd more be along the line that Harry is getting exactly what he deserves."
"Perhaps," he smiled.
"What's the plan for this little trip?"
"You expect me to have a plan?" he scoffed. "I thought part of the point of taking a vacation was not having to stick to any kind of schedule. But if you want to do something, we could start cooking. I could figure it out on my own, but if you want something edible or done before the sun goes down it would behoove you to assist."
"Well, since you asked so nicely," she smiled, setting a grate over the fire and opening the cooler of food Severus had brought out. Before long she had started a thick stew in a pot.
"At least you're not totally worthless," Hermione teased as Severus tipped some peas he had shelled into the pot.
"You have known for a while that cooking is not my strong suit."
"Which surprises me, because you're so good at following potion recipes and getting perfect results."
"There is a difference. Potions done poorly will not work. Food is necessary for survival, but taste is merely for the enjoyment of those eating. Bad food will nourish the same as good."
"So you just lack the motivation to learn to make something delicious."
"No. I merely rely on you, and to a lesser extent Molly, to make something palatable."
"If we weren't around you'd be stuck with half-cooked chicken and whatever the concoction you had for breakfast the other day was. What would you do without me, Severus?" she smiled playfully.
He grunted and looked quickly down to poke at the fire.
"Are there plates and forks in the tent?" she asked, standing.
"Yes," he replied, though something sounded off about his voice, and he looked a little paler than usual.
"Is everything alright?" she asked.
"Of course," he tried to snap, but it lacked conviction.
Cautiously, watching him carefully, she rose and started walking towards the tent. Before she got too far she heard the swish of his robes, and felt his arms encircle her, holding her tightly, pulling her to him.
"You do know what you mean to me, don't you, Hermione?" he whispered into her ear.
"I know, because it's what you mean to me," she replied.
"Must you always sound like some overly romantic movie?" he murmured against her skin before kissing her neck.
"Only when you make me feel like I'm in one," she sighed, letting him kiss her neck, jaw, and shoulder until she felt like melting into him. "What brought this on, and, more importantly, when are we getting into that bed in the tent?"
She felt him chuckle, then suddenly he spun her, backing her into a tree and pressing his lips hungrily to hers. His hands slid down her body, and she vaguely thought that they weren't going to make it to the tent and that was fine by her. She went to tug his robes off when his hand intercepted hers, and she felt something press into her palm. Curious, she broke away from him, and looked down to find her hand clutching a small, wooden box.
"Severus?" she whispered, her voice shaky.
"If you want me to get on one knee so you can feel you're in one of those wretched movies, I will."
She gasped and looked up at him, unable to speak.
He made a few small noises, as though he were trying to start some rehearsed speech, but it wouldn't come. Finally he looked deep into her eyes and asked, "Will you marry me?"
"Yes," she replied automatically, feeling a ridiculous smile plaster itself to her face. "Yes, of course."
He opened the box to reveal a simple band with a small, brilliant stone. She let him slip it onto her finger and tap it so it sized itself. Her wits suddenly came back to her, and she threw herself at him, kissing him furiously as the small box fell to the ground. They lost track of time as they stayed together, until the acrid smell of burning meat broke them apart. Together they looked at the fire, and saw smoke pouring out of the pot.
"First a potion, now this," Severus sneered, and she shook her head.
"This one is all your fault," she shook her head, vanishing the stew.
"Shall I take you out?"
"The only plan I have right now involves you and whatever bed is in that tent," she smirked, kissing him again. "I love you."
"And I love you," he murmured against her lips. He didn't say it often, and it had taken him the better part of a year to say it the first time, but Hermione believed him more because it didn't come as freely.
"I know. I'm charming and irresistible," she murmured against his lips.
"Infuriating," he shook his head, kissing her before leading her into the tent.
A/N: Nice fluffy ending to leave you on, eh?
Thank yous are in order. First, to riabinger, who has put up with my BS and who has almost turned into a Snamione shipper because of my incessant love of all tall, dark, and brooding men.
Next, to Bunnyhops, my Granger Enchanted beta. If you can't find me here, I'll be on there.
Finally, to all of you. As of right now I have 920 reviews, which I never imagined. Thank you all for reading, reviewing, and encouraging me. And, of course, for anyone who votes in the Energize WIP Awards, despite this no longer being a WIP.
Final note: My poll will be up until Friday. Friday or Saturday I will post the first chapter of the story with the most votes.