A/N: Well, I have finally managed to update despite various RL things – many apologies for the long wait.
A big thank you to Droxy for her beta-help, and thanks to those who have previously reviewed.
(This chapter is posted in two parts)
The next day dawned fine and clear. Hermione found herself assigned light gardening duties for this, her last day, and paradoxically felt guilt at the relief upon hearing the news. But the truth was that she didn’t want to be too tired at the end of this particular day.
Hermione did feel a sense of wistfulness though while she weeded a flower bed. Even though her time here had been busy - and often tiring - she had enjoyed herself. She knew that a different environment after Hogwarts, with its books and studies, did her a lot of good in the end.
Don’t forget that a certain Slytherin, who has done you a lot of good, also wishes to do more good tonight, a part of her mind whispered. Her cheeks heated and she determinedly continued with her weeding.
Hermione had dreamed again last night of being alone with Severus, but the dream had taken a bad turn this time when, to her humiliation, he had mocked her body, his sneers still echoing in her ears when she awoke with a start. It was just nerves, she had told herself firmly afterwards, for she knew that Severus would not be that unkind.
Needless to say, she now felt a mixture of jumpiness in addition to the high level of anticipation, and it was driving her up the proverbial wall.
Hermione found herself wondering though if Severus would come to say goodbye to her today before he left the retreat. Her wondering was rewarded later that morning when she heard the flutter of wings and saw Severus-Crow land on the branch of the tree nearest to her.
“Hello,” Hermione called out in a low tone to him.
A gleaming black eye of his regarded her unblinkingly and then to her surprise he gave an abrupt ‘caw’ before flying off a short distance to another tree… one that was by a path that led to a secluded area. The crow then swung his head to look at her sharply in a clear indication for her to follow before flying off down the path.
Checking to see that she wasn’t being observed, Hermione made sure that her hands were clean before casting the Keep Away charm. She then quickly got to her feet and after hurrying a short distance down the path and turning a corner, she paused when she saw Severus standing by a tree and wearing a black travelling cloak over his formal black attire.
“Good morning, Hermione,” greeted Severus calmly as he approached her, though she noticed that his slightly narrowed gaze was focused upon her face as if searching for... for what? Perhaps for any indication that she had changed her mind about tonight, Hermione thought, her heart suddenly softening. Surely he couldn’t be feeling anxious as well? She was not going to break her promise to Severus Snape to spend the night with him.
“Hello, Severus,” Hermione said as she smiled at him and saw the Slytherin relax ever so slightly.
Severus stopped only inches away from her and cleared his throat.
“I came to say farewell, for now, as I am obliged to leave at this time,” he announced abruptly.
Hermione nodded in understanding. Guests at the retreat were required to leave on the morning of the day that they checked out, whereas as an employee, Hermione would be required to work to the very end of her last day.
“Have you enjoyed your holiday here?” Hermione then asked with a smile.
Severus looked sardonically at her.
“Inquisitive lady… I will only say that this has been one of my more… memorable holidays,” he replied.
Then, he eyed her intensely.
“You, on the other hand, would hardly call this a holiday,” he added in a faintly disapproving tone.
Hermione appreciated his way of showing concern for her, but part of her still thought it was ironic that the Potions master would think working in a garden to be far worse than doing the amount of homework he had excelled in handing out.
Hermione shrugged philosophically. “It’s been all right,” she stated candidly. “I didn’t think I would run into a certain wizard, though,” she added blandly.
Severus gave her a severe look before he took one of her hands, rubbing his thumb gently over her palm.
“You have not changed your mind… about tonight?” Severus then spoke quietly, his other hand moving quickly to brush a hank of black hair away from his face.
“No, of course not,” Hermione said honestly as she looked up at him. “But…” she found herself saying and then grumbled at herself for the slip.
“But?” Severus was quick to echo, the lines on his face deepening for a moment and a dozen negative thoughts rushing through his mind.
“I’ve just been a bit, well, nervous at times,” she confessed quickly before looking down at the ground for a moment. “I know that’s a silly thing to say,” she then hastily added as she looked back up at him.
Ah, Severus realised, a feeling of relief inside him as he quickly closed the distance between them to embrace her.
“You will have nothing to fear,” he assured gruffly as he held her tightly. “I promise.”
“Thank you,” Hermione mumbled, putting her arms around him in return. “I do really know that, so don’t take any notice of me.”
But the truth be told, Severus thought, he was the one who should be feeling the most anxious as he was keenly aware that it had been far too long since he had been with a woman. Last night he had dreamed that Hermione had been in his bed with him, only for him to feel humiliated when she had started laughing at his body.
Although he did not have the most… perfect body, Severus was sure as he held Hermione now that she would not mock him. Here and now it felt both calming and provocative to feel her arms around him, the warmth of her body that was pressed closed to him stirring his senses even though she was in those absurd gardening clothes of hers. A scent of green living things and flowers wafting from her skin made him wish to discreetly sniff her.
Hermione thought it was comforting and yet darkly tantalising to be in Severus’ arms this morning, for she seemed to have a heightened awareness of him at the moment.
Severus had only intended to give Hermione a farewell kiss, but when he bent his head to kiss her he found himself gently nibbling at her lower lip and then soothing it with his own lips, wordlessly seeking to reassure any remaining fears she had. Hermione pressed closer to his body with a pleased sigh and he deepened the kiss before coaxing her mouth to open to him. She obliged him and his tongue slid gently into her mouth to explore and taste its warm depths, feeling her hands clutch at his arms in response. Her tongue then boldly met and twined with his own and Severus groaned and broke off the kiss as he felt his body harden in response.
“If I do not leave you now, I will not go at all,” Severus grumbled and looked down his nose at her though he was fully aware that his face was flushed. “We will be continuing this… discussion later, is that clear?” he added in a deliberately repressive tone as he crossed his arms.
“Oh yes,” Hermione said swiftly, her eyes alight before she made an obvious effort to calm herself down. “Um. Yes, I would like that,” she amended in a more serious tone.
“I do trust you will be able to behave yourself accordingly until I see you tonight,” Severus added smoothly.
There was an impish look in her brown eyes now.
“Well, I’ll actually be able to get some work done for a change now that I won’t be bothered by this stray crow that hung around me all the time,” Hermione said gravely, laughing when his face took on a severe and long-suffering expression.
“Impertinent witch… this bird that you mention was only present to ensure that a troublesome, outspoken Gryffindor was capable of performing a proper days work,” Severus chided as he eyed her meaningfully.
“Oh, so now I’m troublesome, am I?” Hermione sighed, shaking her head regretfully. There was humour in her brown eyes as her gaze met that of Severus', enjoying the way that his black eyes looked when they were filled with dry amusement as they were at the moment.
“You’ll be going now to your home, will you?” Hermione then said in a carefully casual tone.
“Yes,” Severus replied, a wealth of meaning in that one word. “I will have to clean out the cobwebs and release any poisonous spiders and bats I find, I am sure,” he said dryly.
At Hermione’s surprised laugh he gave her a brief smirk when she looked at him.
“Do not think I have never heard students gossip about how my home would be filled with various horrors,” he said.
“I never did!” Hermione was quick to inform him.
Severus raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t have said that your home would be filled with poisonous spiders or bats - that sounds too clichéd anyway,” Hermione lightly retorted with a dismissive sniff.
“Heaven forbid that Hermione Granger succumb to clichés,” Severus murmured and Hermione lightly smacked his arm.
Severus then looked at her and there was an almost-smile on his face. “Now, before I leave I wish to point out that if you are not at The Three Broomsticks by 7.30 tonight at the latest, I will come and fetch you myself,” he said smoothly.
“I’ll be there,” Hermione promised.
“Good. Until then,” Severus murmured and with a final, light kiss on her lips he transformed back into a crow who flew back in the direction of the house.
Feeling considerably cheerier, Hermione went back to her work.
At lunchtime Hermione resumed the packing of her bag - she had begun this task last night but you could really only finish the job on your last day, she thought. As she was packing her clothes she found herself eyeing her pyjamas in speculation as she put them away. Hermione then paused in her packing, thinking further... she had never really been interested in fancy nightwear or undergarments and indeed, living in an often drafty tower at Hogwarts meant that in her mind comfort came a definite first before sexiness. Hermione knew she wasn’t ashamed of her sensible navy blue pyjamas… but it was hardly the sort of thing you wore when spending the first night with your soon-to-be-lover, she thought. Transfiguring the pyjamas into something less practical was definitely a good idea…
After looking thoughtfully at her pyjamas she brought out her wand. She wasn’t a skimpy-lace type of woman, knowing that she didn’t feel comfortable at the thought of wearing something too revealing. Besides, did she really want to see Severus’ black eyes pop out of his head tonight if she was wearing nothing but a few discreetly placed bits of lace?
Not surprisingly, part of her mind enthusiastically said yes, yes, that was a great idea, and Hermione rolled her eyes. Turning her pyjamas into ones made of a lighter blue velvet would still be comfortable but more… sensuous, Hermione thought, trying to stop her cheeks from going pink.
Satisfied at the way her pyjamas looked after they were transformed, Hermione then turned her attention to her ordinary cotton panties, which despite herself did end up becoming more silken and dainty looking. A spare, cream coloured bra of hers was changed into one that had some equally cream coloured lace upon it, which she would change into before she left tonight. The lace was not enough to irritate her skin as lace usually tended to do but it was just enough to embellish the bra... now that she was making herself sound like a cake getting iced, Hermione thought wryly.
She had recently washed her hair and when it wasn’t tied back it was its usual untameable, bushy mass. Hermione found herself strongly tempted to tend to her hair like she had done for the Yule Ball in her fourth year to make it shiny and sleek, but then swiftly put the thought out of her head. Transforming clothing was one thing but changing herself was another - Severus was expecting her the way that she was, not some artificial version of herself. Besides, she thought, Severus seemed fascinated by her hair at times and could often not resist from stroking it or winding a curl or two around his long fingers… all right, her hair stayed the way it was, Hermione thought quickly. There just remained one last thing to do with her attire…
When she had finished Hermione found herself thinking about what Severus’ home would look like and she belatedly realised that it would be only polite to take a gift with her when she went there… perhaps a cake, she thought with a smile. Finding that there was barely enough time in her lunch hour, Hermione quickly got herself ready and then Apparated into Hogsmeade.
Once she was back at the retreat, the rest of the day seemed to pass with an unbearable slowness. But when she finally finished, a lone sigh escaped her when she put away her gardening tools for the last time. James must have overheard for he chuckled and said that she was welcome to come back in the future.
“I’ll remember that,” Hermione said with a smile. Part of her would miss his company, for she had been with a great supervisor.
“I’ll certainly miss this place though,” she said honestly.
“But not the weeds though, I bet,” James said with a wink.
“Go on, admit it.”
“You’re right, no, I won’t,” Hermione chuckled.
James grinned at her. “You might as well go and get ready for dinner, as a little bird told me that Biddy has a special meal planned tonight for some particular reason.”
Hermione looked intrigued at that. “I guess you’re still the boss,” she acknowledged with a smile and then went back to the house.
After resting for a little while as she usually did after she finished in the garden, Hermione decided to have a bath. She was surprised though to see in the bathroom besides the ordinary bar of soap, a leaving gift of a bottle of body lotion that was provided for her to apply after washing herself. Feeling gratified and silently thanking the giver, Hermione picked up the bottle in curiosity. After unscrewing the lid she gave the contents a cautious sniff, smiling at the pleasantly heady scent.
Conceding that it was good timing for her to receive such a gift, after having a bath she happily applied a generous amount to her skin - not enough to make her smell like an explosion in a perfume factory of course, but enough nevertheless to make her smell nice - and for her skin to have that pampered feel to it. Afterwards she dressed with care in her transformed undergarments and then put on a black robe, though once she was about to actually leave the retreat she would wear a different one. After remembering the dark red robe she had worn when she had attended the lecture with Severus (and the darkly appreciative look he had given her), she had decided nothing could go wrong if she wore a similar one again.
After she had had her bath, Hermione saw that a small golden envelope had been pushed underneath her door. Looking quizzically at it, Hermione approached the door and then bent to pick up the envelope.
When she had opened it, she saw it contained a note written by her employer, Hallie Hesterwing, asking if Hermione would come and see her in the parlour as soon as possible. Hermione shook her head ruefully for she had only seen Hallie a handful of times since she had been employed here, and then usually from a distance in the garden.
Once Hermione was sure she looked presentable, she went to the parlour. Upon arrival, Hallie was gracious though slightly condescending to her as she had been when Hermione had first arrived. Nevertheless, Hermione was polite and smiled when she was thanked for her service and personally given her final pay up to today. Not surprisingly it was also made clear that Hermione was to leave the premises after dinner, having made sure first that the clothing she had worked in and other accompanying items were to be left in her bedroom.
Well, she could easily comply with that, Hermione thought ironically to herself. She certainly wasn’t going to miss her working clothes that much.
Afterwards, as James had implied, the dinner prepared by Biddy that Hermione went to eat in the kitchen was as good as anything found at a Hogwarts feast. Biddy had a mournful expression at the prospect of Hermione leaving, though the house-elf brightened when given a bag of chocolate. Hermione felt it was the least she could do (though a part of her had been strongly tempted to buy some clothing so she could free Biddy).
To Hermione’s pleasant surprise afterwards, James gave her an unmarked packet of flower seeds as a farewell gift.
“They’re different kinds you see, so you’ll have to find out what they are when you plant them and let them grow,” he said gruffly, masking he was sad seeing her leave.
“I’ll do that - thank you,” Hermione said warmly, knowing she would remember him if only for the flower seeds.
When the last goodbyes were said and with enough time before Severus' ‘deadline‘, Hermione went back to her room. Crookshanks giving her a suspicious look, she brought out the cat carrier which had been previously shrunken and stowed away. At the sight of said carrier, Crookshanks hissed and looked grumpy. Without being asked, Biddy had happily seen to the feeding of Hermione’s cat with many choice titbits provided. However, the resulting problem was that the look on her cats face now plainly said there was no intention in leaving this Paradise where there was Food fit for a Cat.
So it wasn’t surprising that the job of ensuring that Crookshanks got into the carrier took quite a lot of coaxing on Hermione’s part, Crookshanks then curling into a ball in the carrier and pointedly ignoring her after that.
Hermione shook her head ruefully and after removing her black robe, she then transfigured it into a dark red robe that would cling gently to her body before putting it back on. Deciding also that tonight some extra effort would be required in making herself look presentable, Hermione carefully pinned her hair upon her head and applied a little makeup, though she ended up having to reapply her lipstick after mistakenly making a mess of it the first time. "There was no point in being nervous," Hermione said scoldingly to herself, for she wasn’t going to a detention. The last touch was putting on the necklace that Severus had given her.
After checking that her bag was completely packed, she shrunk and put it in her pocket. She put on the good black cloak she had brought with her, and then she was ready to leave…
* * * * *
Since it was a Friday night, The Three Broomsticks was filled with people and Hermione could practically feel Crookshanks bristle in the confines of the cat carrier. It was to Hermione’s relief though that she did not see Harry or anyone else from his crowd in the establishment, feeling a pang inside her as to how quickly she had made categories such as ‘her‘ and ‘them‘ (apart from Lavender, of course). Hermione did not care what they would have thought of the fact that she was meeting Severus here, but on the whole she was glad that she did not have to see their hostile eyes.
Every table had a lit candlestick upon its surface, the cheerful golden flame of each one giving the place a cosy air, while in a corner a witch decked in frilly yellow robes was singing songs with more enthusiasm than talent.
After quickly scanning the premises, Hermione saw that a cloaked and watchful Severus was sitting at a table near the door, his sharp gaze promptly catching hers when she looked in his direction. An odd mixture of excitement, anticipation, and shyness ran through her and she hoped it wasn‘t too visible upon her face as she approached him. Although Severus did not return her smile in such a public setting, his face softened for a moment and he inclined his dark head towards her, putting down a goblet of water he had been drinking from on to the table.
“Good evening, Hermione. I see it was not necessary to… fetch you after all,” Severus said smoothly. A tingle went through her when she saw a glint in his black eyes that suggested he would have enjoyed the chance to do so.
“Hello, Severus,” Hermione rejoined with a smile as she went to sit down opposite him, carefully placing her cat carrier beside her. “No, of course not - I always like to be punctual.”
“So it would seem,” he murmured.
Severus could still hear the overly-effusive words of Mrs Hesterwing when he went to check out earlier today, of how she would always welcome the chance to see him again. Twit, he had silently thought in irritation. But apart from her, he had appreciated his holiday and the unexpected opportunity he had had to woo Hermione. Even his familiar, Asherath, had not relished the return home, the small snake sulking for a little while in its enclosure.
“Have you been waiting long?” Hermione asked him.
Severus’ mouth twisted slightly as he turned his attention back to Hermione again. “Long enough to want to make a certain individual,” and here he nodded briefly towards the singer, “write out a hundred times, ‘I must learn to sing before I actually do so.’ ”
Hermione laughed. “She would certainly learn her lesson after that,” she said gravely.
His mouth quirked and she felt his leg brush gently against one of hers. “You have only been here a few minutes and already you are being impertinent,” Severus informed her in a severe tone.
“Yes. This is your fault, of course,” Hermione agreed, her leg managing to gently brush one of his in return. She could feel the energy between them start to simmer, an extra sparkle now present in her eyes.
Severus eyed her meaningfully. “My fault? The only fault of mine I see is having become overly fond of an impudent Gryffindor.”
Just feeling glad to see him again, Hermione smiled at him sweetly and refused to rise to his baiting.
After a moment she then eyed him.
“Have you eaten any dinner?” she said enquiringly.
Severus’ lips quirked. “Yes, madam, just as you surely have. I can cook for myself, you realise.”
Hermione looked sheepish at that. “I wasn’t implying that you couldn’t… I just thought I would ask.”
Severus was still not accustomed to being fussed over by Hermione, but couldn’t find it within his heart to be offended.
They both found themselves increasingly unwilling to look away from the other, with Hermione noticing that Severus’ hair looked freshly washed as it hung in black curtains on either side of his face. In fact, she thought, it seemed that on the whole he had a freshly scrubbed air about him, with his black attire looking as if even the tiniest speck of dirt had been ruthlessly removed.
The thought of Severus going to such effort on her behalf brought a tiny smile to Hermione’s lips, though the image in her mind of Severus in a bath - or perhaps a shower with water rushing down over his body - made her mouth feel dry. Unconsciously her tongue darted to the corner of her mouth.
Hermione had undoubtedly found a fresh way to torment him, Severus thought in response as his gaze was promptly drawn to her lips with their delicately applied colour; his blood started to feel heated as it coursed through his body. Surely it was bad enough that he could see that she was wearing a dark red robe again underneath her cloak, one that looked similar to the enticing one she had worn recently when he had taken her to a lecture.
In what he considered the most devious action of all on her part, Severus could also detect with his keen sense of smell a new and sweet scent emanating from her skin. His eyes narrowed as he considered that a detailed, intimate investigation of his witch would be required on his part later.
She had also pinned her mass of brown hair upon her head, a few errant tendrils having escaped their confinement to brush against the gentle curve of her neck. He was certainly pleased to see that she was wearing the necklace he had given her…
“I bought you a cake,” Hermione said almost diffidently.
“A cake?“ Severus queried as he raised an eyebrow, distracted and pleased for a moment by her words.
“If I’m going to be your guest, then it’s only fair that I bring along a present,” Hermione said sincerely. “And I thought this might be a good contribution to your dessert,” she added innocently.
Severus’ lips twitched at that last remark, but there was nevertheless a faint but unmistakable look of pleasure in his eyes. Hermione thought to herself that she should buy him presents more often.
“That was not necessary… but thank you,” Severus replied gruffly.
“This cake would not happen to be one of… chocolate, would it?” he inquired with amused interest.
“How did you guess?” Hermione said with a smile in her eyes.
Severus raised a dark eyebrow interrogatively at her.
“You would not be trying to bribe me, would you, Hermione?” he murmured.
“Of course not - can you stop thinking like a Slytherin for a change?” Hermione said spiritedly.
“What would be the point of that?” he said dryly. “I assume this cake is in your pocket with the rest of your belongings… shrunken, I assume?”
“Yes,” Hermione replied. She had shrunk her bag with its belongings and it now resided in her pocket for convenience, but she could have hardly done that to her cat, of course. “Unfortunately Crookshanks would have objected if I did the same to him,” she added wryly.
“Indeed,” Severus said sardonically.
Severus was almost glad when he then heard the low, disgruntled yowl from her cat in its carrier, the sound clearly meaning that it was hungry for the food that its human slave was obliged to provide whenever said cat wanted. It was the ideal excuse for him to suggest that they both leave without giving the impression that he wished to almost literally toss Hermione over his shoulder and carry her off to his home.
He saw Hermione give a quick, sympathetic glance down to where her cat was and then look back at him, a question in her eyes.
“I think Crookshanks would rather be somewhere quieter,” she said diplomatically. Severus heard her unspoken words of ‘And so could I’, and a sense of dark anticipation ran through him.
“Then would you care to follow me?” he asked softly as he looked into Hermione’s brown eyes.
Hermione felt her mouth become dry again. “Yes,” she answered.
Severus rose to his feet, and after picking up the cat carrier, Hermione did so as well.
No one really paid that much attention to the couple as they left, for the austere looking wizard was hardly a Witch Weekly pin-up, nor was his ordinary looking female companion. But there was a certain something about them that would have made anyone casually looking at them nevertheless consider a second glance.
As soon as they left The Three Broomsticks, Severus murmured, “Hold on,” to Hermione before wrapping an arm tightly around her waist. He had the scent of cedar about him, Hermione thought in pleasant surprise as she quickly put an arm around Severus’ waist, her other hand firmly clasping her cat carrier. Moments later she felt the familiar sensation of being Apparated away.