A/N: Here is the next chapter, once again brought a bit later than I planned… I hope you will all enjoy it though.
Apple-Jac's-Heart, bamboo, Cynthia in West Virginia, droxy, Harriette, heartnut, Kateri, Julie, lacey weasley, laiagarien, penpen2, Systor, Winna – Thanks!
Because Severus was still slightly tired this morning, the desire he felt for Hermione was tempered into a more gentle sensuality towards the Gryffindor in his arms. This was something as well that he was not accustomed to experiencing on a regular basis, but it was certainly easier to monitor, he thought. Of course it would be.
His sharp eyes had noted that the complexion of Hermione’s face had changed slightly since she had left the confines of Hogwarts for employment at this retreat, and now the dusting of new freckles over the lightly browned skin of her cheeks were worthy of further exploration.
“Such a distraction you are,” he murmured, tilting his face so as to softly kiss her cheeks, savouring the slightly salty taste of her skin, glad as well that he had put a ward upon the door (you always had to remember details like these).
There was something about the way he said those words that made Hermione sigh softly despite herself, making her hold his thin body that much closer to her. A faint smile fleetingly passed across his harsh face before his mouth eventually sought hers again, bestowing lingering kisses upon her and so their breathing eventually came in soft pants. Though they had put a limit on to what types of touch were ‘appropriate’ between them, they still found much pleasure and even an odd sense of comfort obtained within those limits, even if it was just holding and gently kissing the other.
Hermione reached up a hand to caress his cheek and feeling darkly playful, Severus moved his head to kiss her palm in response. She involuntarily laughed at the unexpected tickling sensation of his lips against her skin there.
“That tickled,” she promptly informed him.
“Is that so,” he murmured, pleased anew at her laugh. This certainly was a new thing for him – feminine laughter that included him but was not aimed at him.
However, the glint in his eyes told Hermione he was filing this newly revealed aspect of her away in his mind for future reference… and so to distract him she kissed him. She thought she heard him mutter something like “witch” but did not seem inclined to protest further, a hand of his restlessly clutching her robe at her waist.
When his breathing obviously became a bit too ragged for his liking Severus paused and then kissed her with an air of determined finality, drawing firmly back from her. He looked away for a moment as if he was disconcerted by the flush in his sallow cheeks, the faint tremble of his pale hands.
Rather than feeling offended by this apparent coldness, Hermione sensibly concentrated on pushing strands of her bushy hair away from her face and adjusting her slightly rumpled robes as well. She felt that her cheeks were flushed and that there was a distinct tremble of her hands too, but managed in the end to restore a semblance of calm to her being (and a restored appearance as well).
Then she felt Severus’ hand at her shoulder as he silently but deftly adjusted an errant fold in her robes, his mouth pursed for a moment in concentration.
“There,” Severus murmured in satisfaction when he had finished, appearing once again to Hermione’s eyes as someone controlled and severe in all aspects of his life. However, when she looked at his eyes she saw that they still retained a hint of dark warmth for her.
Severus was relieved though that he had quickly regained a measure of control over himself this time. It was unnerving to realise how little it could take from her to start sending him over passions edge again, but a dark corner of his heart was grimly determined that when (and not if) he would make her truly his, he would damn well ensure that he brought her over the edge as well. Several times. It would be the sweetest of revenges as well upon the infuriating and beloved Gryffindor who had slipped into his heart. Damn her… and bless her too, he thought.
Hermione gave him a smile of thanks and it was an oddly deep and sweet silence that passed between them then. What was it about his touch that made her feel that she was a blossoming flower under it, Hermione wondered.
A steady pattering sound on the roof alerted Hermione to the fact that she – no, they - had been too busy to notice it had started raining. Glancing out of the window she saw that the sky was a dull grey, with the gathering clouds there having that mutinous ‘we’re staying here until we’ve dumped every rain drop, nyah, nyah’ appearance. Well, it had to rain on the garden at some times, but an end was put to any ideas of going for a walk outside.
Severus obviously thought the same thing for he enquired smoothly, “Would you care for a game of chess, Hermione?”
“Do they have the game here?” she replied, surprised at his offer.
“Indeed. I found a set here in my last visit to this particular room. You do play adequately I assume? I recall seeing you on many occasions playing with Weasley in the Great Hall.”
Or rather, being beaten thoroughly by Ron who approached the game with the same zeal that Hermione had applied to her studies, she privately thought. She had only learnt the game once she arrived at Hogwarts and despite her best efforts it had taken her a long time before she could hold her own against her friend. Just.
Nevertheless she countered, “I would say it is a bit more than ‘adequately’, thank you!”
His black eyes glinted down at her; the space between them charged with the air of imminent battle, be it only confined to a chessboard. It was though as if the restrained but ever present simmering energy between them, denied its natural release (for now), demanded an outlet through another avenue.
“Challenging words, but are you prepared to prove them?” Severus said with deceptive softness, feeling quite alert now.
Hermione raised a defiant chin at him – there was no way she was going to back down.
“Without a doubt!” she said forthrightly. However, she cocked her head slightly at him.
“I didn’t know you played this game, Severus,” she queried in a milder tone, her brown eyes curious.
“Then there is obviously much you have to learn about me, Hermione,” he informed her silkily.
Although it was not widely known, on the long winter nights at Hogwarts Severus could sometimes be found playing chess with Albus in the Headmasters tower (when the biting cold made even Severus seek a warmer place than the dungeons).
In an innocent tone Hermione said, “Such as the fact that you perhaps can play an adequate game of chess?”
“For that, I will make you eat your words, my dear Hermione,” he breathed and a look of almost unholy anticipation in his eyes. He would teach her to tilt her chin at him at that way, the infuriating Gryffindor that she was. He would show her that he was the Master in this situation!
Her and her big mouth, Hermione thought ruefully to herself.
There was a small table for two in a corner of the room, and having being waved at imperiously by Severus to sit down while he retrieved a chess set from a nearby cupboard, Hermione reflected as she did so that it would be a surprise if he hadn’t already examined every book, nook and cranny in this particular library. Of course, with her curiosity she would have done the same… or might plan to do so, she thought as she noticed a couple of interesting tomes that caught her eye upon a nearby shelf. Despite her firm resolve to avoid books of an academic kind on her holiday it was a resolution that could be hard to maintain in a room like this.
The table was made of a dark, slightly battered wood whose surface was shiny from the touch of countless hands, and the padded seats on the accompanying chairs were comfortable to sit on.
Severus came back to the table with a box of honey-coloured wood and a faint, ‘What a pity you won’t win a single game’ smirk on his sallow face, managing to seat himself without too much fuss despite his voluminous black robes. Hermione gave him a deceptively sweet smile in return as she reached out to help him unpack the chess set. Severus immediately chose the pieces in the compartment that were carved from dark wood, leaving her with the set carved from ivory, the individual pieces feeling coolly smooth under her fingers as she placed them carefully upon the board.
Like most sets of chess in this world that she moved in, the individual pieces seemed to come alive upon the board once they were placed there, comically stretching themselves for a moment as if to take care of a perceived stiffness from their inactivity in the box.
When Severus seemed satisfied that every piece (including her set) was in its right place on the board he said to her (with the air that he was being exceedingly generous), “You may begin.”
How kind, Hermione thought drolly as she reached out to move her first piece.
As the game started in earnest, it soon became clear to Hermione that regardless of the way he felt for her, there would be no mercy shown to her on the chess board. He was clearly a clever player, Hermione thought, and devious in his playing as well. However, she knew a few devious strategies of her own that she had learnt from Ron, and was able to see where she could seize an opportunity for victory.
The only sounds to be heard as time went by were the crackling of newly-kindled flames in the tiny fireplace that was countered by the faint pattering of rain on the roof, plus the vigorous thumping a chess piece would give to its rival in conquest. Hermione had sensed that Severus had put a charm on the door to keep others away, but this fact only served to make her feel, well, cosier than most people would at the thought of being confined to a room with Professor Snape.
Severus’s face was impassive except for the occasional twitch of a facial tic at the corner of his mouth, his black eyes narrowed in calculation as he leaned slightly over the table. The little minx would not beat him, he thought with grim determination as he sought to counter her moves; but the tide had started to turn in her favour and in the end he was reluctantly forced to acknowledge this.
When Hermione had won, Severus stared in silence down at his conquered pieces, some of whom were plaintively rubbing their wooden bodies after having being aggressively thrown off their places on the board by Hermione’s pieces. He had underestimated her this time but would not do so in the future…
Then he lifted his head and awarded Hermione a sour smile. “Congratulations,” he said.
Hermione inclined her head, gracious in her victory. “Thank you,” she said politely, though a smile threatened to spill across her face from the pleasure she was feeling at her victory over the Potions Master.
“I see that ‘adequate’ was hardly an accurate description of your playing after all,” Severus went on in a voice heavy with irony. “However, I feel that a… proper evaluation of your skill can only be gained by another game,” he added smoothly.
She had the audacity to smile at him.
“All right,” Hermione replied.
Their second game was played in a far more satisfactory manner from Severus’s point of view, in that he was able to see the strategy that Hermione was using early in the game and counter it with a decisive (and victorious) one of his own.
“I believe the victory is mine this time,” he said in silky satisfaction to Hermione.
Although Hermione’s high-achieving streak was slightly vexed in not having won this time as well, she couldn’t help but compare Severus to a cat who had just fallen in a bowl of cream and wanted to let you know.
“Yes,” she concurred. “However, this means we’re even now,” she added reasonably.
There was a glint in Severus’ eyes. “Another game would give a proper indication of matters… but perhaps not right now,” he added in distaste when he heard his stomach growl in hunger, glowering down in that direction as if that part of his body had purposely betrayed him in this way.
Hermione saw that it was a good time to eat lunch when she glanced discreetly at her watch, which was the ordinary wind-up kind. The prohibition at Hogwarts that prevented any electronic equipment from working also applied unfortunately to the more complex and fancy digital watches. A witch or wizard could learn to develop their own internal sense of time, but when it came down to it, Hermione preferred a down-to-earth way such as a practical watch in telling the time.
“Should we stop for lunch? We could always play chess later on. That is, if you don’t have any other plans for this afternoon,” Hermione added awkwardly, feeling suddenly as if she was monopolising his time here. She knew that Severus was a person who valued his privacy and she didn’t want to be accused of not giving him any peace, nor was he a person you really told what to do (without good reason).
“Yes. Yes. No, I do not have any other plans for this afternoon – if I leave you alone, who knows what mischief you would get up to,” Severus said tartly. Then he gave her a quick, sidelong glance.
“Would you wish to eat your lunch here with me?” he said stiffly. “I have no wish to subject myself to the elements outside, and I doubt that you do either.”
He was still unused to saying things like that, Hermione thought, but only showed a pleased face to him.
“Yes, thank you,” she nodded. It was as if the both of them had begun a dance, but since they were neither really graceful in this particular way there were still bound to be awkward moments where one was intrusive or offended the other unknowingly (or thought they did).
The chess set was packed and put aside for now and Severus (who knew that the house elf here would ‘know’ that he was physically present at the retreat) went to fetch the tray of food that would have been left outside his room. Hermione went to the kitchen where the house elf was happy to present her with a plate that had a piece of chicken pie and an apple, the elf nodding agreeably when Hermione said she wanted to eat at a table elsewhere in the retreat (and duly provided her with cutlery and a napkin to take away).
Hermione Apparated back to the library and saw that an impassive Severus had already returned and was waiting for her at the table, the dishes of food and cutlery from his tray laid out neatly on his side of the table. As a guest he was given a better quality of food than she as an employee was, but that hardly mattered to Hermione as she sat and set out her own food and cutlery - she had no cause to complain about her food and she privately thought Severus needed quite a few good meals in him.
However, the comparison between both of their meals seemed to matter to Severus.
“Is that the type of food you are given to eat?” Severus demanded, the frown line between his eyes deepening.
Hermione raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Yes, but there’s nothing wrong with it,” she pointed out, for indeed there was a very nice smell coming from her chicken pie.
The next thing she knew a portion of his food (from a potato dish that had had cheese cooked with it) was on her plate. She immediately opened her mouth to protest when Severus gave her a forbidding look to silence her.
“Do not argue - you are still a growing woman and need to eat,” he said sharply.
“No ‘buts’, please.”
“I can’t take your food!” Hermione doggedly insisted.
“Nonsense,” Severus countered. “Besides, I loathe eating too much potato. This way I am doing myself a favour by giving some to you,” he said smoothly and with a glint in his eye that said he really was not going to take any more backtalk from her! So Hermione contented herself with giving him a mulish look in return and set to eating her food.
However, it was with wry humour that she considered that eating her lunches with Severus was a habit she could become accustomed to.
She was also curious to know more about his shape changing ability – was it something that he had inherited from his family? Had he have to work hard to develop the ability like most people or had it manifested naturally by itself (as could happen in some cases, usually to the astonishment of the witch or wizard). When she had finished her meal and aware though that he might not welcome too many questions about his ability, she asked him carefully, “Can I ask you something?”
Having finished his own meal Severus raised an eyebrow.
“The one and only Miss Granger asking permission before she questions me – you are ill, perhaps?” he said sardonically. “Very well.”
“Are you the only one in your family who is an Animagus?” Hermione then said directly.
He looked at her closely for a second as if he was privately debating whether to answer her, then he shook his head.
“There have always been wizards with the ability to be an Animagus in my family,” Severus said guardedly after a moment, “though sometimes this gift has skipped several generations. A snake or a spider have usually been the common forms for Snapes… I apparently broke with tradition in being a crow.”
“Oh?” Hermione said, her eyes alight with curiousity. “Do you know why?”
“The Animagi form is based upon the essential nature of the wizard, as I’m sure you know, Miss Know-Everything-All-The-Time,” he said dryly (Hermione looked at him in a challenging way for a moment and he smirked at her in reply). Then he was silent for a moment.
“When I was young all I wanted to do was fly, and not just on a broomstick,” he said quietly, staring down at the board.
Hermione thought that every time Severus revealed something about his past, it was like peering into a shadowed room where feelings of unhappiness had lingered longer than happy ones, and that the furniture there was heavy and uncomfortable to sit on, so to speak.
Certainly being a crow gave you the ability to fly, as well as a sharp beak and claws for defence or attack…
“You got your wish, then,” Hermione observed diplomatically.
“Yes. My form does have its uses.”
Hermione said in a non-committal tone, “What form do you think I would take on if I was an Animagus, Severus?”
His thin mouth quirked at her.
“While your Patronus is an otter, is it not, I do not feel though that it is an accurate assessment of your character. You have an insatiable – some would say annoying – thirst for knowledge. A curiosity of everything around you. A bird?”
His eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at her, and Hermione found herself unable to look away from their black depths. He had a way of holding you with his gaze even in the middle of a tirade when all you wanted to do was flee, and drawn as she was now into his orbit it was harder for her to resist. It seemed now as if he was looking into her, and through her as well.
“No, not a bird,” he murmured almost to himself, as if this had progressed from a light-hearted discussion into something more meaningful. “You are earth-bound and so the air is not for you. An animal fleet of foot, curious and clever. A cat… perhaps? Yes.”
Hermione looked at him, her eyes wide and so in the contemplative state Severus was in he was able to see a flicker of acknowledgement in her brown eyes. He had spoken truly after all, he thought, startled.
“Is there something you wish to tell me, Hermione?” he said meaningfully. “Or, show me?”
Hermione felt pinned to her seat by his sharp gaze as if she was a student again who was about to be accused of doing something questionable.
Nevertheless, in a even voice she said, “Yes. You see, just after I left Hogwarts I became a registered Animagus.”
Severus became very still and his nostrils flared slightly, but his voice was now dispassionate. “I see. Would you care to explain how you achieved this state of affairs?”
Inside he was taken aback to indeed have a confirmation of her possession of this ability. Out of an unfortunate habit he was tempted as well to accuse her of having brought this tricky achievement about in a typically reckless Gryffindor manner. However, he was able to rein back those words; telling himself sternly that it would be fitting to listen to her explanation first.
“It was Professor McGonagall who first took me aside this year to tell me…”, Hermione began in the same tone as before, though there was a hint of wariness in her brown eyes as if she half-expected him to react the wrong way. At the revelation though that it was Minerva who had instigated matters, Severus found himself relaxing slightly. Even though she was the head of his rival house, her tart, no-nonsense manner had led him to treat her with grudging respect that just fell this side short of friendship. At the very least, he could trust that Minerva would have not been satisfied until Hermione could master her ability in a competent fashion.
However, Hermione found herself being thoroughly grilled by Severus in a no-nonsense manner as to all of the aspects of her training by Professor McGonagall until he seemed grudgingly satisfied that she had been thoroughly taught. If he was surprised like her friends had been that she had mastered her ability in a fairly short time, he gave no indication of it.
Then when he was finished he tilted his head slightly and looked at her with a new intentness in his black eyes.
“A final question… Would you please transform for me, Hermione?” he murmured.
Despite feeling slightly self-conscious, Hermione looked at him and then nodded.
“All right,” she agreed and after getting up from her chair and brushing a few stray crumbs from her robe she shifted into her cat form.
Severus had time to note how smoothly Hermione flowed from that of human to animal before he found himself being regarded by a small tortoiseshell cat sitting demurely upon the carpet, whose unblinking and intelligent gaze was fixed upon him. He stared back down at the cat she now was, fascinated despite a lingering irritation that he, the Master of Slytherin, had never suspected or heard even a whisper this last year from his network of seen and unseen spies at Hogwarts that Professor McGonagall had been teaching Hermione to be an Animagus.
After a moment Hermione (or rather Cat-Hermione, he thought) padded over to where he sat and her gaze upon him was expectant this time, her tail moving in a decidedly playful way.
Severus’s mouth twitched.
“Do I look like someone who would fetch you milk?” Severus told her sardonically as he looked down at her. “I think not.”
Cat-Hermione shook her head in a regretful way as if to say there was no hope for him, and after then eyeing his robes (in a decidedly alarming way) as they pooled darkly on the carpet, she sat down and reached out to bat at them curiously with a paw.
This was intolerable.
His eyes glinting, he reached down and Hermione-Cat uttered a meow of surprise as she felt herself being picked up by a pair of strong hands.
“Stop that,” he ordered but his voice was dryly amused. “Your impertinence knows no bounds in this form as well, I see.”
Feeling quite conscious though that this was Hermione he was really handling rather than an ordinary cat, it was with a slight awkwardness that he placed her upon the region of his knees. The warm, fluffy lump that she was immediately curled up and regarded him with bright feline eyes.
Severus stared down at the cat she was, feeling that it was now only really sinking in that Hermione was an Animagus like him. A true partner indeed… although they were bird and cat respectively, as transformed Animagi they would always ‘know’ when they were in the presence of an animal or bird that was ‘other’ than predator or prey.
If she left cat hair on his robes though she would pay for it.
Slowly, almost of its own volition though his hand reached to caress the top of her head, fascinated by the feeling of her fur beneath his fingers. Cat-Hermione blinked and then he heard the soft rumble of her purr in response.
Dear gods, Severus thought but encouraged at this his hand moved to gently stroke her back and was rewarded by the sound of her increased purring. An unaccustomed warmth rose through his heart and for now thoughts of playing chess with a (human) Hermione were put aside as the rain continued its steady patter upon the roof. They could decide the true victor later, he thought.