"All men who live with any degree of serenity live by some assurance of grace."
"Anything yet?" Ron asked.
Harry shook his head. "Not really."
Ron moved off after awhile, but Harry continued to watch, as inconspicuously as possible, the two subjects in question. He had been sure that Hermione and Severus would latch on to each other as soon as they saw each other and had bet accordingly. So far, however, they hadn't done more than smile and nod at each other from across the crowd that had gathered to welcome Hermione home. Harry couldn't credit it. Severus had been in a right state not more than two days ago over Hermione's impending arrival, and Hermione's last few letters had been full of excitement over the prospect of seeing them (in general) and Severus (in particular). Either he'd misjudged the situation, which he didn't think he had, or Hermione had gained a prodigious amount of reserve. Yet the more Harry watched her, the more he thought he'd never seen her so relaxed and open.
"Playing it rather cool, aren't they?" George asked.
"Hmm," Harry agreed with a nod. He checked his watch. "If they don't get a move on, you'll be out of the running too. Your time frame's about up, and that leaves..."
"Kings," they said in unison.
They both looked at the man in question. His golden earring glinted in the light as he turned to look in their direction. There was the barest hint of smug amusement in the grin he gave them.
"Do you get the feeling…?" George started.
"That we've been had?" Harry finished. He looked between the bald-headed black man in colorful robes and the pale, dark-haired man in black robes. Severus was as inscrutable as ever. Actually, compared to the last six months or so, his unreadable blank-face was much more pronounced. This solidified the Up-to-Something theory.
It was a good thing the last two years had trained her to tolerate this sort of milling about with official types. Hermione looked across the swarm people and saw Harry and Ron glancing between her and Severus, who was across the room, with poorly concealed looks of confusion on their faces. She suppressed a laugh and answered the Ministry official who had just posed her a question. At least there were friends in this crowd…and Severus. But that would wait for later.
Every time she spotted the boys throwing confused glances their way Hermione applauded Severus' Slytherin sense of humor. She thought back to her conversation with him through the enchanted mirrors last night.
"I can't wait to see you, Severus. Tomorrow isn't soon enough," she told him.
Severus gave her a smirking grin. "My patience is worn thin as well, but I may have to discover more in the name of a good cause."
Hermione squinted at him. "What do you mean?"
"They have a bet going," he answered. "I overheard mention of it yesterday."
"And the bet entails?" she enquired.
"I think they are expecting something along the lines of our encounter at the club the night of the cure – and are laying wagers on how long it will take after your arrival for such to come to pass."
"Hmm," she pondered. "So we constrain ourselves to a nod and a smile, go about business as usual, and watch the ensuing confusion? I like it. Except that I'll have to wait longer to see you," she complained.
"Hermione, when I see you…I'd like to see you without having to share you," Severus told her. The heat in his dark eyes set her heart to racing, and his next words only added to this. "Can I take you out to dinner tomorrow evening?"
"Yes," she answered.
This plan both increased her anticipation and gave her the patience necessary to enact their ruse. It was proving most amusing.
When the party began to wind down, she left with the boys, hiding her laughter at their confused sideways glances and at the Minister's befuddlement as he twisted his head around to find Severus ensconced in conversation and not leaving with them. She had a fun few hours at Grimmauld Place, truly enjoying the company of her best friends. Hermione was happy to see George doing better than she'd expected, and Harry and Ron doing well and so thrilled to have recently finished Auror training, but as the time drew near to get ready for her date with Severus, anticipation began to ruffle her serenity.
Only his vast experience as a spy and double agent kept Severus from giving himself away. Hermione had done admirably as well - circumspect enough in her greeting and deportment that Kingsley and the boys were at a complete loss. It was harder to keep the inscrutable mask up to hide his longing and his desire to laugh than it had ever been before.
That's what Hermione had done to him, mangled his guard, thrust friendships upon him, and opened him up in general, and when Severus thought about it, he knew he'd always owe her for her loving tenacity. It was still disconcerting to realize how soft he'd gone in the process.
He felt not unlike a puddle the moment he saw her. Other than their short greeting, he'd tracked her in his peripheral vision - had been aware of her the entire time. It wasn't nearly enough.
Conversations with her by enchanted mirror and written word ill prepared him. She was relaxed and sure of her place. That was the best way to describe it. The intelligence, cunning, curiosity and stubborn tenacity were there - easy to see for those who had the wit to see, or he suspected, the misfortune to incite her - but they existed beneath a pervading calm and easy grace. He was glad to see it, but almost gob smacked by the difference as well. She was compelling, even more beautiful than he remembered, and all the more formidable for it.
The worst part of this whole ruse was not being by her side to keep all other men at bay. He'd underestimated that entirely. Hermione handled herself quite well, however, and Kingsley and the boys were also of aid in this regard..
In the face of such obvious reminders of how truly amazing Hermione was and how the world and the men in it lay at her feet, Severus was forced to stamp down old insecurities.
It took every measure of the ease and acceptance that he'd gained to keep his nerves under wraps as he readied for their date.
As the predetermined time for their date approached, Hermione snuck down the stairs and into the quiet sitting room. Harry caught her before she gained the floo.
"You look nice," He said from a shadowed doorway.
Hermione jumped a little and then tried to act as if she hadn't by smoothing down her long, summer skirt. It only made Harry smile. "Um, thanks," she answered, smiling sheepishly in return.
"He found out about the bet, didn't he?"
Hermione laughed quietly and nodded with mischief in her eyes.
Harry shook his head. "Slytherin," he accused. "Will you be back tonight?"
Hermione blushed then shrugged a shoulder. "Dunno," she answered with a smile. "What was Kingsley's bet, by the way? I could hardly keep a straight face at his obvious disappointment."
"That you two would wait to come together till the end of the party and then leave together," Harry answered.
They laughed together.
Harry gave her a hug and kissed her on the head. "It's really good to have you home, Hermione. Go have fun." He tossed the floo powder in for her.
"Thanks, Harry," she told him, then called "Spinners End" and stepped into the green flames.
As soon as Hermione stepped through the fireplace, Severus looked into her warm brown eyes and time froze. He was assaulted by awe, nervous tension, and what he could only describe as joy as he took in the person he had missed beyond belief.
"Hermione," he said with an almost raspy voice. He walked to her and cupped her face in his hand. "I missed you."
"I missed you more," she said quietly.
Severus answered her smile with one of his own and shook his head, "Silly Gryffindor. Are you ready?"
"Yes. I'm famished. Feed me please," she answered.
And there she was, different but the same, and so easy to be with.
She took his arm and he took her to the same places they'd gone on their last date - the same restaurant, same meandering through Muggle streets, and a similar musical concert taken in from their tree platform on a warm summer's night. They talked about anything and everything and had a good laugh at Kingsley and the boys.
As they settled onto the tree platform, Hermione sitting between his legs and leaning against his chest, Severus was a jumble, completely at peace, yet completely unsettled and intoxicated with the woman in his arms at the same time.
After a couple of songs, he heard her quietly call, "Severus?"
They continued touching and skimming each other's hands and arms as he answered her. "Hermione."
She twisted around to see him better. "Am I still who you want?"
Severus momentarily thought of calling her a dunderhead but decided it was a fair question as it was one he wanted an answer to as well. "Always," he replied. "And you? Am I still who you want?"
"Always, Severus," she answered in kind. "We have both changed - for the better, I think - but that has not changed in the least. I've travelled the world and not encountered a single person I'm drawn to as I am to you. You are truly unique, a beautiful marvel in my eyes, Severus Snape. I love you." Her gaze was intense but there was also vulnerability.
Severus skimmed her jaw and neck lightly with his fingers, feeling overwhelmed with awe. "I love you," he replied, and he meant it, from the very depth of his being.
They savored the moment for a few heartbeats then she quirked an eyebrow and asked. "Are you deliberately teasing me with your touch, then?"
Heat and humor flashed through him. He avoided the honest answer, 'You undo me and I cannot keep my hands off of you,' and opted for, "Why? Is it working?"
"Yes," she almost growled. "You are driving me crazy. Kiss me?"
"Will it make it better or worse?" he asked in a parody of the last time she'd begged a kiss.
"Better. Definitely better." She barely finished saying this before he leaned in toward her. Severus stopped just before his lips met hers, and their breaths mingled as he lingered, attempting to gather some measure of control. The pause was, if anything, an incendiary tease. Within three seconds his breath hitched and sped, and his heart began racing fit to burst its cage. Severus forced himself to go slowly as he closed the distance and kissed her more thoroughly than all their previous kisses combined. This time, there was no desperation, only promise and fulfilled hope. It was like a hereforeto undiscovered country of bliss.
Off and on the skimming touches and kisses continued until, somehow, he wasn't exactly sure of the details as to how, they wound up back at Spinners End. At just about the point they were both shaking with it, Severus slowed and pulled away. He'd never felt so utterly out of control in his entire life.
Hermione looked at him in question.
After a moment of gathering himself, Severus caressed her cheek and said, "I mean to do honorably by you, Hermione."
Hermione gasped slightly and looked at him as if to divine his meaning. He saw awe enter her eyes the moment she correctly realized his intent. Hermione clasped his hand against her face and turned to kiss his palm. "I love you, Severus."
He didn't have words to express what her love and trust did to him. In the end, he settled for telling her, "And I love you, little one. Which is why you must go back to Grimmauld tonight."
She looked halfway between the angry kitten and a disappointed child as she looked at him with the same frustration he felt.
Severus chuckled. "None of that. Pouting will not work."
Hermione huffed a little and then looked mildly distraught as she steeled herself to go. Her understood. She'd been gone for two years, and the thought of parting again was almost unbearable.
"That either, though that's worse," he mumbled and drew her into a hug. "No looking sad and no tears. Go rest and I will see you tomorrow." It took everything Severus had to send her off, but he knew he'd never be able to sleep with her in the room next to his, he might even...well he was a man after all...subject to the same weaknesses as the rest. He led her gently to the fireplace and kissed her on the forehead. "Goodnight, Hermione. I love you."