The library seemed like the safest retreat. He tiptoed in and shut the door, allowing the uproar to continue without him. There was little else to do—it seemed what was left of the Order was bound to continue in their debate, regardless of his own opinion. He was used to that, to being invisible. Perhaps it was better that way.
He wandered around the room, trying to find a suitable distraction. The Black library had always been one of the more legendary collections, with a few tomes even Albus had been hard-pressed to find. But for the moment, really, a simple history would suffice, perhaps The Rise of Grindelwald or—no, Shakespeare would do. Richard III. Easy to read a play about a cripple. Maybe even find some of that righteous indignation in himself.
He settled in the wing-backed armchair and had started the first scene before he noticed her, dozing on the sofa in front of him. Hermione must not have heard the ruckus downstairs, tucked as she was underneath a quilt that looked home-made, her hand curled under her chin. Good God. The rest of the world was arguing about whether to believe him or not, and she was sleeping in the same room as he, without a care. Without any concept of how dangerous everyone else seemed to think he was. How dangerous he knew he was.
He couldn't help it. He stared.
It was ten minutes before she stirred, looking up and around until her gaze finally lit on him. "Professor, goodness—if I had known you wanted the library I would have moved, so sorry!" She made to gather her quilt.
He lifted a hand. "No, stay. Go back to sleep—as long as you don't mind me here. I'd leave myself, but there's quite the argument going on downstairs about my fate, and I would rather not be a part of it."
She grimaced as she lay back down. "I don't see what there is to argue about. They should be celebrating your miraculous recovery, not bickering about whether or not you're a hero. Honestly—some of those people are worse than children." She tried to smile at him, but yawned instead. "They'll see eventually, Professor. They can't ignore your hard work forever. Lock the door, would you? No-one will disturb us that way."
He rose, turned the key in the lock and dropped it in his waistcoat pocket. She smiled, stretched, settled. "Sweet dreams," she barely heard him say.
"Mm," she replied. He opened his book again, though it was difficult to focus with her soft breathing, a constant reminder that she felt safe with him there. Safe enough to sleep. At her most vulnerable, there before him, one slender hand stretched over her hip, curls cascading everywhere. Watching her sleep, emotion could sneak up on him—the need to protect her, to see her defended, from anyone who had hurt her—himself included. Good God, how he had treated her. Careless. Short-sighted. How had he not seen what was right in front of him? Trust like this, he shouldn't've ignored.
No-one came looking for them, even after the faint sounds of discussion had faded. When she woke, stood, folded the quilt, he held out the key to the library to her. She kissed his cheek when she took it. "Don't worry, sir. The rest of the world might be morons, but I know what good you've done, and, well, I'll be behind you a hundred percent." She tossed the key back to him and disappeared. He pressed his hand to the place where her lips had touched, stared at the last place he'd seen a vanishing curl. Oh, gods. He was in quite a pickle, wasn't he.
The worst part, he had decided, was the way she beamed at him. Everything else he could pretend to ignore—the brushes of her fingers on his shoulder, the way she always seemed to find space to sit near to him without really touching, just close enough that he could feel her warmth, the quiet way she hummed when they were alone. But the way she beamed at him, just radiating joy and relief and thankfulness, he couldn't avoid, couldn't ignore. It was everywhere, seeping into his very bones, filling him from the inside out, and he was overflowing with it. Sometimes, when it was the brightest, when they were sitting at dinner and she nudged his foot with hers under the table, just to let him know she was there, or when she sat on the arm of his chair at Order meetings, to which he had grudgingly been re-invited, or when she ran into him in the hallway late at night when neither of them could sleep and couldn't help twisting a curl around her finger as they spoke softly, exchanging good nights—sometimes, he was afraid it would burn him, and that was when he wanted it the most.
There were more naps in the library, days when he couldn't read a page for watching her, protecting her sleep. Summer was hot, and residual Death Eater activity was minimal. Sometimes he wondered idly what the Order was doing still living in Grimmauld Place—but then he thought of George, who still wandered the halls as if waiting for someone to finish his sentence, of little Teddy Lupin always running underfoot, clinging to Molly and Ginny Weasley alike, and he knew why they all stayed. It was the same reason he stayed in a house with people who had never really liked him anyway. Nobody knew how to suffer alone, or anywhere else. And through it all, Hermione took library naps in the afternoon, when the sun lit up the dust motes with golden auras and fell squarely on the lower patch of her blanket, and Severus was the only one who knew that it was the only time the nightmares would leave her be. She got so little sleep—he had to keep those afternoons safe.
On some level, he was certain he was losing his mind. To become so attached to a girl who was simply kind to him felt dangerously like forming a habit, and he tried incessantly to shake it off. Of course, as soon as he was certain she hadn't reached him, she would bring him tea and a biscuit or sit next to him at the trencher table, and he'd be spiraling again, right back to where he started. Watching her sleep. Arching an eyebrow when she looked up at him. Steadying the small of her back on the arm of his chair, hoping no-one had noticed. It occurred to him he might actually love her.
He wasn't sure whether to vomit or turn tail and run away.
Merlin damn everything, it was Lily all over again, even though it wasn't.
He thought he'd worked through this kind of impossible admiration, and while alone, he certainly had. And then she'd walk by, and he'd smell her perfume, and the insufferable itching, the nervous breathing, the self-deprecating sneer would all begin again. He hated this part. He hated all parts, actually. He hated every minute he was around her, and hated the time without her even more. It was all he had ever known of love. It made his skin crawl, burn when she touched it. He took to hiding, even—especially—from her.
It worked, for a while. He spent time in his room, came in late at supper, sat next to Molly Weasley instead of in an armchair, where she couldn't follow. She knew, certainly—knew that he was avoiding her, possibly even knew how he felt, but he kept his eyes down and his mouth closed, except when necessity demanded he speak.
To her credit, she said nothing. Just kept beaming when she thought he might be able to see it. He saw it every time.
A man like Snape was long used to sleeping light. The slightest rattle of a creaky doorknob had his eyes open and his hand on his wand, even in the days after the war, even in the months after his return. Some habits just never go away, and his sense of self-preservation was one of them—although he thought that such a sense was misplaced, now that he had outlived his usefulness. So when the door to his room burst open and a white-gowned figure launched itself onto his bed, he was sitting up straight with his wand at Hermione's throat before he knew what had happened.
"Professor, it's me, please don't—oh for God's sake, hex me if you must, you're alive!" His wand was lowered, wand-hand forced down to the mattress for support as she threw herself onto him, embracing him fully. He was uncomfortably aware of her breasts beneath the nightgown, of her distinct lack of a wand anywhere on her person, of the smell of her hair. He put his left hand on her back, held her in return.
"Miss Granger—what is the meaning of this." She pulled back.
In the moonlight from the window he could see her face, pale and drawn, and the tear-streak running down her cheek. She looked horrified. "Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry—I woke you up, this is silly—I just had to make sure you were still here, I had a dream—I never have nightmares as bad as this—it was awful, I couldn't see it but I just knew you were—you were gone, you were gone and I couldn't breathe—I couldn't breathe." She shook her head, as if clearing it of the nightmare. "I'll go—I'm sorry, again—it just frightened me so much—I—well. Thank you for not hexing me, Professor."
He caught her wrist before he could think about it, before he could talk himself out of it. "Hermione," he called. "Stay," he said, a little hoarsely, trying to rationalize, trying to keep his hand from shaking. The look on her face changed, from apologetic to surprised, and he tugged a little on her wrist until she came closer towards him. "I want you to stay."
She shook her head. "N-no," she fairly whispered, and he could feel his escape window opening again. "I'd impose, you're only doing this to pity me—I don't want your pity—I just want you to want my company again, not empty comforting after a bad dream—I, ah." She tried to pull her hand away, but he kept his fingers around it, loose enough that she could leave if she really wanted to.
He said it again. "Please, Hermione. I want you to stay." It seemed only honesty would keep her with him, and her resolve was strengthening again. Words were necessary, in semi-long sentences, and much as he loathed speeches about feelings, he knew by now there was nothing he wouldn't try to keep her from walking back to her own bed. "I know it seems like I've been avoiding your company—I know you must think I despise you. Hermione, I do not despise you. I do not want to frighten you. I do not want—I cannot—there is no way for me to say what I feel, what you've given me—I am doing this wrong. I apologize. I can only ask you to stay with me, not because you had a frightening dream, and not because I was the victim of it—but because I have avoided you long enough, and it is time to stop being cowardly, time to stop falling back on old habits and old feelings. Please," he said, and opened his mouth to speak again, but nothing came out. The words were gone. "Call me Severus," he found it within him to say, and the non sequitur made her smile. He pulled back the duvet.
"You mean it," she said, like a question.
"Yes," he said.
Her lips were on his in an instant, his brain processing them a split second later. She seemed to do that to him often, catch him by surprise, and his torso fell back against the pillows as she twined her arms around his neck. He kissed back, reveling in the feeling of her body against his, in the taste of her mouth, the small, kittenish noises she was making. He wrapped a hand in her hair, cupping the back of her neck, tilting his mouth for better access to her own. Every sensation was new, every moment a surprise. It was nothing and everything like he had thought, like he had imagined, like he had wanted. For a while all he could really do was focus on the fact that she was really there, not a ghost or a dream.
He pushed her back, hands on her shoulders. Her lips were swollen, cheeks flushed enough that he could see it in the light from the window. "Hermione."
Breathing heavily, she brought her fingers up to her mouth. "Yes," she said softly.
"I don't think we should—not tonight. Do you agree?"
A smile flickered at the corners of her mouth and she leaned in again, but only briefly. "Yes," she replied, against his mouth. "Yes, I do."
"I've never had a woman who wanted to stay," he said, as she slid her feet under the sheets and started to lay back. "Forgive me if I kick you."
She giggled softly, and for a moment he was struck by how very young she was, and how very young he was not—but she scooted closer to him and laid her hand on his chest, pillowing her head on his arm. "Oh, Severus. Don't you know by now you'll never hurt me?"
It took him a long while to fall asleep.