Author's Notes: Thanks to t_geyer for finding my mistakes, for encouragement, opinions and all the rest, especially putting up with me for so very long.
Thanks also to Bambu, who started out by skimming through these and offering reassurance. Her feedback has become one of the things that keep me plugging away at this.
Finally, I need to thank alwaysJBJ for nagging me on Yahoo.
The characters will never be mine, but JKR hasn't sued me for playing with them (so far).
Unsurprisingly, this is not Deathly Hallows compliant.
"No-o-o-o!" Severus came awake with a start. He rubbed at his sweat-bathed face with both hands and squinted at his alarm clock until it came into focus. It was barely five, but he knew he'd sleep no more that night. He filled the coffee machine and set it to brew while he showered the scent of horror from his body.
If Hermione had arrived at her normal time, all signs of his disturbed night would have been erased, but she arrived early.
"Severus?" she called gently, even though the main room was lit.
The damp bedding he carried betrayed him.
"The dreams are getting worse?"
They both blurted their greetings simultaneously.
Severus's scowl deepened momentarily, but that was his only reply.
Hermione nodded. "I can't stay. I came to let you know I'm going away."
Severus's jaw muscles tightened and he gave a curt nod. "Very well," he answered, as he turned toward the stairs leading to the attic.
"Very well?" Hermione demanded. "That's it? No when will you be back? No good luck?"
Severus closed his eyes before he turned to face her again. "We danced. You're leaving," he answered with apparent equanimity. "I'm not an imbecile."
"No-o? You're just acting like one, then?" Hermione suggested. "I'm not leaving because we danced. I'm leaving because we have a new lead on Dumbledore's mission."
"I see," Severus answered, doing his best not to show the relief he felt.
"I do need to talk to you about the dancing thing, but I'm in a bit of a rush this morning, only I don't want to leave it hanging either."
"Be brief, then," Severus suggested with an ironical lift of an eyebrow, "if such a thing is possible."
"We danced... and it was wonderful, but I owe it to Viktor..."
"Yes," Severus prompted.
"I owe it to him..." She grimaced as she groped for words. "I know we can't be more than friends, and I've even explained that to Viktor, but it still feels like cheating, and if I want things to work out with him, I can't do that... And I need things to work out. You do understand, don't you?" she asked.
Severus nodded gently and reached out to cradle her face in his hand, running his thumb over her cheekbone. "Happiness is harder to find than most people think. Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself to try."
Hermione blinked away the tears that threatened to fall. "Thank you." She looked up at him with a wistful smile for what might have been.
"So when are you coming back?" Severus asked.
"That depends on what we find when we get there. A few days, a couple of weeks, maybe a month... It's hard to be specific. I'll activate my bracelet for a few seconds every morning when I get up so you know I'm okay... if you want?"
Severus inclined his head to indicate agreement.
"And if I miss three mornings in a row, you should contact Viktor."
"Is that advisable?" Severus asked.
"Perhaps not," Hermione conceded, "but if Viktor never knows you're a Death Eater, then the vow won't apply, and I trust you both. If something happens to Harry, Ron and I, then I can't think of two better people to pick up where we leave off."
Severus gave a snort of amusement. "So good to know that I qualify as Weasley's understudy."
"Hardly... You're nowhere near obnoxious enough," Hermione replied, her eyes glinting with wicked amusement. "I can guarantee that my entire day today will be spent listening to him calling me a scarlet woman."
"Jealousy is a terrible thing," Severus observed, "but I wouldn't accept that sort of criticism from someone whose past conquests include Lavender Brown. She may be prettier than either I or young Krum, but she turns vapidity into an art form. Choosing her as his paramour spoke far more eloquently of desperation than discernment."
Hermione almost giggled. "And Luna?" she asked.
Severus tilted his head slightly to one side. "Miss Lovegood has depths to which Weasley will probably remain oblivious, but, more importantly, she also has qualifications that make her and Weasley uniquely suited."
"Thick skin and infinite patience."
"Two qualifications I conspicuously lack," Hermione remarked.
"I'm sure Krum will not give you reason to need them," Severus pointed out, "and if Weasley proves too irritating on your trip, I have confidence you can pull off a Silencing Charm."
"I might have to," Hermione agreed, checking her watch before she went up on tip-toe to kiss Severus's cheek. "It's time for me to go," she explained, making her way to the door and pulling it open. She paused, framed in the doorway with her back to him. "I know we can't afford a repeat performance, but I'll always remember."
Weeks passed, and every day Severus rose early to avoid missing Hermione's signal. And every day it came. He began to wonder if he would ever see her again, or if her mission would keep her from him indefinitely.
Then, one day, as he brewed the Wolfsbane she was unavailable to make, there was a knock at his door.
She was tanned. The sun had brought out copper highlights in her hair, but Severus barely had time to register the differences before she threw herself into his arms.
"I missed you," she sighed as she held him.
"And I you."
"Was your venture successful?" Severus asked.
Hermione's smile wavered. "Yes and no. We eliminated one possibility... and now I need your help again."
"And I thought you missed me, not my expertise." The faint upward quirk of his lips took the sting from his words.
"I did, but I... we need help only you can give."
"What manner of help?"
"I know you keep Polyjuice on hand. I wondered if maybe you have some keepsakes of your fellow Death Eaters to go with it."
"You and your pet imbeciles wish to impersonate Death Eaters?"
"Just one pet imbecile," Hermione answered.