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A/N: Well, it seems that I’m starting to update a bit more frequently again (grin). I hope you enjoy this chapter.
Curled up upon the lap of her Black One, the feline instincts of Hermione-Cat were dominant in feeling safe and warm, and oh yes, his hand had just found a spot upon her back that had started to feel itchy. He would do. His caresses over her back were starting lull her into sleepiness though… but that was all right too she thought, as her eyelids began to droop.
Oh no, it wasn’t, Hermione thought in sudden mortification as she managed to gain control over her mind again. Falling asleep on his knees – if she did that, then Severus would no doubt find countless opportunities to remind her of what she had done, with a smirk on his face while he did so. It was just that his caresses felt so soothing… She certainly hadn’t expected him to pick her up before.
She ventured to look up at Severus and saw with an odd thumping of her cat heart that the severity of his features had softened slightly. Then his mouth quirked when he noticed her scrutiny.
“If you are planning to become a… permanent fixture upon me, then perhaps I should produce a collar with a bell for you,” he murmured silkily, moving a hand to brush her lightly underneath her chin. There was a safeness in touching her this way that was quite disarming.
Cat-Hermione looked up at him with a haughty indignation that any other cat would have been proud of, before a delicate pink tongue was pertly stuck out at him.
Severus raised a dark eyebrow in sardonic response.
“No one else would dare to do such a thing to me,” he said dryly. “Now, would you care to prove that you can transform back?”
Cat-Hermione appeared to deliberately consider the matter before she flicked her tail at him and after gathering herself together lightly jumped down to the floor. A few moments later (without any extra fuss he noted) the cat transformed back into Hermione again. Her eyes were the last to alter back into their normal brown, he saw, feeling reasonably satisfied now that Minerva had taught her to the best of her own ability. He could still feel though how soft her fur had been to touch.
Hermione’s first thought as herself again though was the guilty one of whether she had left any cat hair upon his robes.
When Hermione had been taught how to master her transformation by Professor McGonagall, the fact that both of them had a cat as their Animagi form had meant that useful ‘etiquette’ on how to behave as a cat had been passed on to her as well.
A cat was strongly inclined to do what it wanted where it wanted, but there would be no excuse for Hermione to let her basic humanity, and indeed, her manners be overwhelmed by the instincts of a cat. There must always be respect for other people and their possessions (“remember, couches and chairs are not scratching posts, even though they may seem that way to your eyes”), no hissing or scratching, and no fur balls of course (“if you have to, then immediately go outside and do be discreet”).
Leaving cat hair in ones wake was a big no-no as well.
So instead of countering his earlier mocking comment about wearing a collar and a bell (as he deserved) she glanced quickly at where she had sat, or rather, had curled up. She couldn’t see any obvious hairs, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any.
“If I’ve left any ah… hair behind I apologise,” Hermione said immediately to Severus. “Sometimes it can happen and well, you did pick me up,” she pointed out wryly.
Severus looked at her sardonically.
“Only because you were intent on regarding my robes as a new toy… so, you are implying that it would be my fault if there was any hair left behind?” Severus said smoothly, a glint in his eyes. He was enjoying this.
Hermione paused at that, her cheeks pink. Though she tried to behave when she was a cat, she was also aware that she had a tendency to well, act like a child that was nevertheless curious about everything and anything as well. It was a far cry from when she had been a child herself, with her parents often saying what a sensible girl she was, one of the highest compliments they could bestow.
Severus relented. To tell the truth, he would not have needed much of a reason to pick her up – it was the way she had looked at him, as if she trusted him without question, and indeed, wanted to play with him, that had beguiled him. He did approve though that she abhorred the thought of leaving a mess behind so to speak, for he was a wizard who valued cleanliness, tidiness and a sense of order in his life.
“Shall we say that perhaps we both got… carried away and leave it at that?” Severus said blandly, brushing across his robes with a hand. “You were a tidy puss after all – see, not a hair to be found. I concede as well that you have been taught properly,” he added.
Hermione blinked at that. “Thank you,” she said awkwardly. Then her mouth twitched.
“But don’t even think about ever putting a collar-with-a-bell on me,” she said meaningfully.
Severus gave her one of those sideways looks of his that contained a hint of dark humour.
“Very well… now, we do have a game of chess to resume, I believe.”
The empty dishes had long since obligingly vanished (no doubt back to the kitchen for washing, Hermione thought) and in the end one game became two, then several, and before either of them realised how much time was passing, it was the end of the day, with both of them having that faintly bleary-eyed look (and the feeling of being a bit wrung out) that comes from spending most of the day playing games.
“It looks like I’m the winner overall,” Hermione acknowledged, discreetly blinking her eyes to rid them of their poached-egg feel.
Severus glowered at her. “Only by one game, madam. Next time you will not be so fortunate… and why are you smiling at me like that?”
Hermione had started smiling because even though Severus was grumpy at the moment, nevertheless he had the look of having genuinely enjoyed himself today in her company. Certainly she had enjoyed spending the day with him as well.
“It’s not important,” she promised.
Severus eyed her.
“Please enlighten me,” he said meaningfully.
Hermione’s gaze darted away from his for a moment.
“Because I like you when you’re like this,” she admitted.
Severus opened his mouth to continue his sly baiting of her but then stopped.
“I believe a compliment was in there,” he observed quietly after a pause. “May I observe that you are… tolerable company yourself away from my classroom?”
“Thank you,” Hermione smiled, though there was a regretful edge to it as she remembered her early years at Hogwarts. “I did put my hand up most of the time, didn’t I?” she admitted.
Severus looked at her. “Was there ever a time when you did not put up your hand?” he said ironically.
Hermione shrugged, a reflective look in her eyes. “I think…”
“Yes?” Severus inquired, his mind keen to hear an insight from her of how she ticked, so to speak.
“I think I was so keen to prove that I belonged at Hogwarts, even though I was a Muggle-born, I felt the best way to do this was to show how much magical knowledge I knew. When my teachers acknowledged me, it made me feel as though I fit in. That I could have a part in this world,” Hermione said slowly, looking down at the table.
Then she looked ruefully at him. “Even though you were the Head of Slytherin you were still the teacher I respected the most – it seemed there wasn’t anything you didn’t know. I tried so hard at times to win your approval – to prove that I wasn’t a ‘dunderhead’ like the others – yet you just ended up thinking of me as that ‘insufferable know-it-all’.”
Severus did not know what to say for a moment, a feeling of regret passing through him. It was odd to realise that all those years she had just truly wanted his approval, even it was only for a moment. But he had automatically assumed that she was just a show-off, an arrogant Gryffindor like most of them were and worse, a firm friend of Potter so that his spite had found a natural target in her.
“I cannot change my past behaviour,” Severus said abruptly. “I said and did what I thought was appropriate at the time… but though you were a Gryffindor, I thought towards the end that you were certainly one of the most brilliant students I had ever taught,” he added.
Hermione blinked and then she gave him a smile that oddly peaceful, as if something had been resolved for her. Then despite herself a tiny yawn escaped her and she quickly clapped her hand to her mouth in chagrin.
“I’m sorry – that was rude of me,” she said sincerely to Severus. As eventful and yes, enjoyable this weekend had been with a Severus who no longer looked at her with cold indifference, she was however, starting to feel as if the weekend had finally caught up with her.
A corner of his mouth twitched.
“You are fortunate that I can no longer deduct points you would deservedly lose,” he said dryly. “But in this case I shall perhaps take it as my cue to depart.”
“I’m not tired of your company,” Hermione said honestly. That was certainly the last impression she wanted to convey.
“Thank you. But no doubt you will have a busy day tomorrow,” he continued, though he felt a sense of cold annoyance that she would be practically slaving away in the gardens here for a mere pittance instead of being able to spend most of her time with him.
At nights however…
No, do not think of that…
His dark eyes noted other telltale signs of tiredness upon her face and his mind treacherously provided an image of a sleepy Hermione curled up contentedly in his arms in his bed, her bushy hair tickling his chin and her breath warm against his skin. For a moment he was filled with a yearning so great that it was almost a physical pain, but he managed to suppress it. He would be in control, and it would indeed be better if they parted now for the day. He was starting to feel weary himself, which had the potential to be a precarious situation indeed around her. Who knew what he would be tempted to say or do.
Hermione glanced out of the window. “Yes, I will,” she said ruefully in agreement. The rain had increased in intensity during the afternoon and looked likely to continue through the night if it had its way. At the very least the ground would be a sodden mess once the rain had cleared, and she didn’t like to dwell upon how many branches might have fallen down already… she would have her hands full tomorrow that was for sure.
She thought that Severus probably wanted to eat his dinner in the privacy of his own quarters, and knowing what she did of him, she didn’t think that would be surprising.
“However, I am surprised I have abided your company as much as I have today,” Severus said in a smooth tone, but there appeared to be an unidentified something else in his voice as well.
Curious, Hermione turned to look back at him and thought she saw a fleeting emotion in his beetle-black eyes for a moment before it was gone. If it had been there at all.
Once again the… energy between them seemed to be at a level where she was starting to feel more aware of him than was really safe for her peace of mind, and so to defuse it she dared to made a face at him.
“It’s a wonder I put up with you at all,” she retorted lightly.
“I almost wish I didn’t have to resume working tomorrow,” she then admitted in a quieter tone, glancing at Severus with eyes that he saw were pensive. It would be near impossible to spend time with him during the day, for as far as the people at the retreat were concerned, he was a guest while she was only here to work.
Despite himself, Severus felt a sudden warmth inside him that she would miss his company, for he had long become accustomed to being the kind of man that few women would truly want, need or miss if he was absent.
“In the evenings I may be found here after 8.00,” he said, watching her with hooded eyes. “For the playing of chess, naturally,” he added stiffly with a hint of colour in his sallow cheeks.
“Of course,” Hermione added quickly in her turn, though she was sure Severus saw that her cheeks were slightly pink as well. “I would like that. Of course, you will probably find another way to keep an eye on me during the day,” she added wryly, thinking of how he had watched her in his Animagi form.
The corner of his mouth twitched. “May I remind you that I originally came to this place for what I now realise was a well-deserved vacation away from teaching dunderheads?” he said dryly but with a sardonic glint in his eyes. “I have other things to do with my time rather than to monitor the doings of a bushy-haired know-it-all.”
“I’m glad that a greasy git like yourself feels that way,” Hermione retorted sweetly.
“Slytherin. Head of Slytherin.”
“So?” he taunted her, his eyes glittering.
“So, it means you’re twice as…”
“…clever, cunning and ambitious, I believe you were about to say?” he added silkily.
“Among other things!” Hermione retorted, but smiled.
“Impudent girl,” Severus murmured sardonically to himself as he started packing away his chess pieces.
Hermione shook her head before she starting putting her own pieces away. Despite having played many games, the pieces looked up at her with various expressions of reproach or woe upon their delicately carved faces as she did so, as if they had firmly expected her to keep on playing until the wee hours of morning. Not this time, she thought in amusement, though the idea of playing games of chess with Severus until the first one keeled over so to speak had a peculiar appeal.
When the game was put away and the fireplace quenched of its flames, they stood in self-conscious silence for a moment, words of polite farewell refusing to come easily to their mouths. To Severus, effusive goodbyes had always been a good example of how people could be swept away by sentiment, while Hermione momentarily felt awkward.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Hermione then said steadily.
“You will,” Severus said matter-of-factly, as if this was something that was unquestionable.
“Sleep well,” Hermione found herself adding quietly. Although his sallow skin was looking a bit healthier, she felt that he still had the look of one who could do with the catching up of sleep.
The corner of his mouth twitched and there was something in his stare that was unfathomable and yet sent a pleasurable shiver through her.
“I will try,” he said cryptically, concealing the pleasure he felt that she would say such a thing to him.
Then he made an impatient noise and said, “Come here.” He advanced upon Hermione and she found herself being embraced tightly by him.
Hermione was taken aback for a moment by his spontaneous action but then hugged him back, feeling for a moment as if his arms and outer robe were like dark wings that surrounded her.
“I trust that you will use the cream I made for your hands?” he said brusquely, a hand moving up despite himself to wind gentle fingers through the curls of her hair.
Hermione smiled against his chest, though her pulse was speeding up slightly at the feel of his hand through her hair. “I’ll use it every day,” she promised.
“Good,” he replied and realising that he was becoming distracted by her nearness (yet again) pulled his hand away from her hair, drawing back from Hermione as well and frowning slightly down at her. Why could he not prevent himself from practically groping her? Touching her hair isn’t ‘groping’ you twit, a voice inside his mind mocked. To his vexation he realised that there was a sparkle in her eyes as if she had deduced his thoughts. Wretched girl.
“Your hair,” he found himself saying abruptly.
“Yes?” Hermione enquired, a slightly wary look upon her face.
“Keep it long,” he said in a gentler tone.
He liked her hair, Hermione thought in surprise, and feeling obliged to give him a goodbye kiss so to speak (and because she relished kissing him again, she admitted) she leaned up and kissed him softly on his mouth. In reply he made a soft hiss and a hand of his reached swiftly to wind into her hair again, keeping her close to him as he bent and kissed her hungrily despite himself for a seemingly endless moment. Then he released her, and there was a twist to his mouth.
“This is where I most definitely say goodbye… until tomorrow, Hermione.”
He stepped back unfalteringly and then Disapparated, leaving only a hint of a spicy smell behind him.
Well, she did have to fall in love with a Slytherin, Hermione thought, a faintly rueful smile upon her face as she Disapparated back to her room.
In Hermione’s absence her room had become cold. Feeling disinclined to stay (and because it was just about time to go and have her dinner in the kitchen) Hermione washed her hands and tidied herself before she went to have her meal. There was a soft look in her eyes when she withdrew the hand cream Severus had created for her from her pocket, placing it in pride of place amongst her other toiletries. The least she could do was give him something in return.
A quick look in her mirror before she left her room made her pause for a moment in surprise – there was a lingering sparkle in her brown eyes and a overall glow to her face despite her tiredness. Not to mention a faint puffiness to her lips that hinted of recent kisses. Hermione had always looked askance at girls at Hogwarts who were starry-eyed in the presence of their boyfriends (or when they were heard discussing them in an equally starry-eyed manner), and it felt a bit disconcerting to see that she could be put in that same category.
Hold on, she thought firmly. She felt herself to be an eminently practical person, with what she felt to be a rational and logical mind. She was not given to wild flights of fancy, nor would she be the type to start daydreaming about one Severus Snape when she wasn’t in his company. Or recalling how velvety his voice could sound at times… no, it was more like smoky velvet. Honeyed velvet… no, that description sounded silly…
She shook her head in vexation at her behaviour as she left her room, but nevertheless there was a smile upon her face.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, as if in apology for the previously wet day, and for Hermione it was the start of another working week. She was glad that after a restful sleep she felt fit to start the day, though she was also aware that she seemed to have an extra bounce in her step as well when she went to have breakfast. Of their own accord her thoughts dwelled on Severus and how he was today, the thought of ‘accidentally’ encountering him in the garden admittedly making her heart beat faster as well.
But if he wished to see her at some stage during the day then he would (or would not), she thought firmly, and no amount of wishful thinking on her part would change things. The fact that she was wearing her brown work clothes served to remind her that her thoughts should be focussed upon her work, not that of a certain someone.
James was in the kitchen drinking what seemed to her nose to be a strong cup of coffee. Though the wizard world kept a distinct difference between itself and the Muggle world with its culture, the drinking of coffee was something that had easily crossed the cultural barrier.
“Morning, Hermione,” he said easily, though his eyes had a slightly bleary look to them. “Looking forward to another stimulating day in the garden?”
“Hello James,” Hermione said with a smile as she sat down at the table, a plate of scrambled eggs placed happily before her moments later by the house elf (whom Hermione thanked). “Of course I am. However, after all that bad weather yesterday I suspect it will be a busier day than usual,” she added feelingly.
“Too right,” James replied, looking sour for a moment. “I only put in some new seedlings the other day and now probably half of them have been washed away.”
He shook his head. “That weather shield of ours keeps out the worse of the weather, but every so often some persistently wet day will get through somehow, and they can be just as bad sometimes!”
James then gulped down the last of his coffee and after putting the empty mug down firmly upon the table he got up.
“Pardon my bad manners, but the sooner I get into the garden, the better,” he said resolutely. “Come out once you’ve eaten, and if you can start by clearing leaves and any fallen branches away from the paths, that would be right on.”
“All right,” Hermione nodded.
James nodded politely to the house elf and then he left the kitchen at a near hurry.
Hermione shook her head ruefully for a moment. Despite the fact that James already had a girlfriend, it was clear that gardening would always be his first love, and woe betide if one of his plants was ruined by the weather.
She ate her way steadily through her breakfast, and although from time to time she found herself glancing out the window she failed to see a certain crow on a branch outside. Once she had finished her breakfast and had rested for a short while, she went back to her room, and after another check that she looked presentable and that her teeth had been cleaned, she went out into the garden.
She saw outside that the paths and gardens were indeed covered in places with a muddy mess of leaves and other vegetation, with some plants looking sadly bedraggled. With a frown in her eyes and a metaphorical rolling up of her sleeves, Hermione gathered her bucket, a rake and a gardening pan to gather leaves up in and began working on the nearest path. She had become fond of the gardens in her time here so far and so needed no incentive to do her best to try and restore them to their previous state.
As well as clearing leaves from the paths it was also necessary to clear leaves away from bushes and delicate flowering plants that could easily become choked. In some places branches had fallen, and if they were too awkward to comfortably lift, Hermione would use her wand to shrink them to the size of a twig. Magic wasn’t something that was used a lot here in gardening; for one thing Hermione felt it was a waste of magical energy that could be better used on other tasks. Besides it would seem like cheating if she used her wand where physical labour would achieve the result just as easily.
Despite the mess though, the gardens had that ‘freshly washed’ appearance due to the rain yesterday, with leaves and blossoms gleaming as if they had just been polished to a jewel-like finish. The air was redolent as always with the smell of growing things.
However, despite being single-mindedly focussed upon her work as Hermione was, her attention was diverted later that morning by a dry sounding ‘caw’ close by. Hermione paused in her raking of a path and upon turning and lifting her head towards the sound her features lightened when she saw a familiar crow watching her from the branch of a nearby tree.
“Good morning,” Hermione murmured though her sense of caution made her keep her voice at a tone that only Severus-Crow could hear. She didn’t want to attract any attention from others who might start wondering why she was talking to this particular bird.
His replying ‘caw’ was slightly softer and an intent black eye studied her for a while before the crow looked away and (as seemed to be his habit) appeared to ignore her. But it also seemed clear that the crow had no immediate plans to fly away and a wry smile played upon Hermione’s mouth as she went back to her work.
It was needless to say that Severus had dreamed of Hermione last night, but instead of his dreams bringing him unfulfilled torment they had for once brought a sense of attainment, and for the first time in a long time his sleep had been truly restful and deep.
Hermione knew that she hardly looked her best doing this kind of work and was slightly surprised that Severus-Crow remained near her as much as he did as she continued with her gardening (to keep an eye upon her? to keep her company? both?). At first she felt somewhat self-conscious of being the object of his scrutiny so to speak, and for a while she was reminded of being back in Potions class where if she or any other student dared to raise their head from their assigned task inevitably found the professor’s narrowed stare upon them.
But after a while she found herself welcoming his observant company, feeling that his presence was an interesting facet of his courtship of her, and though the very word ‘courtship’ seemed to be a relic of the Victorian era like the fashion sense of Severus was, it nevertheless felt quite appropriate in connection to him.
Severus had originally told himself sternly this morning that only a brief visit to Hermione in his Animagi form would be appropriate; after all wasn’t he here on a holiday for himself as well? But once as a crow his complex feelings towards the Gryffindor had crystallised into the strong instinct to watch over his nest-mate and be on alert for the appearance of rivals (this last part arising from Severus’ naturally suspicious nature).
Or rather, one possible rival in particular.
After James had visited her at one point to see how she was going, Hermione had heard Severus-Crow caw in a low but distinctly crabby way after the retreating gardener.
He was jealous, Hermione thought in surprise. She was in a secluded area of the garden at the moment and had been carefully clearing leaves away from a small rose bush. She got to her feet and cast a quick cleaning charm upon her hands before approaching Severus-Crow, who was currently sunning himself upon a short stone wall. A watchful black eye was quickly cast upon Hermione though as she drew near.
Hermione paused, for it seemed that when he was in his Animagi form he was less likely to want people in his personal space. She decided to sit down upon the wall, though at a discreet distance from him. To be on the safe side she cast a Keep-Away charm to protect them both from inquisitive eyes.
“James is a nice guy to be with and I’m sure his girlfriend would agree with me,” she said calmly as she looked down at the crow, noting how his black feathers gleamed in the sunlight. Her hand absently ran over the small pieces of quartz that were embedded in the stones of the wall.
Severus-Crow tilted his head to the side and appeared to be startled for a moment, then quickly took on the appearance of being indifferent. As if I would care, his posture seemed to imply. Nevertheless he was satisfied to know that James had his own mate.
“Besides, I find that older wizards are more appealing,” she added innocently.
At that she saw the crow deliberately pace along the wall until the bird was close enough to gently peck her arm in mock reproof.
“Stop that,” Hermione scolded, though there was laughter in her voice.
Severus-Crow was close enough to touch and out of curiosity Hermione found herself reaching out a hand down to him. A wary black gaze was immediately fixed upon her hand and she paused. It was important to remember that Animagi in their transformed state were nevertheless quick at regarding unusual movements from others as being threats.
“Sorry,” she said awkwardly and quickly withdrew her hand. His gaze then rested upon her face for a moment and then Severus-Crow deliberately ruffled his feathers.
Hermione’s mouth felt unexpectedly dry at his tacit invitation and she carefully reached out again to the crow. She couldn’t stop from trembling slightly but her hand was gentle when she laid it upon Severus-Crow’s back, marvelling at the feel of the individual black feathers and bones underneath her fingers. Then in a way that mimicked the way Severus had touched her when she was a cat Hermione gently ran her hand down his ‘back’, carefully smoothing some of the ruffled feathers back into place as she did so, hearing him utter a soft sound in response. She let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding – despite his sharp claws and beak he seemed oddly vulnerable in this form.
Severus then could only quiver after the caress from Hermione’s hand – if he found her touch distracting enough when he was himself then the feeling now seemed multiplied a hundredfold in this form, a wave of overwhelming sensation sweeping through his body that left him feeling momentarily helpless in its wake.
Once again he felt himself to be at the mercy of his passions and impotent anger swept through him, giving him the urge to once again leave the one that both ensnared and tormented him.
Hermione saw an involuntary quiver run through Severus-Crow’s body after her caress and cautiously drew back her hand. She was startled, but not unduly surprised in the end when she saw him take wing moments later, leaving her sitting alone on the stone wall and the sound of a harsh caw in her ears.
She looked down at her hands with a momentary despondency as if she would find the answers there. She knew that the innate feelings of Animagi were sometimes expressed in a stronger way in their other form than their human one, and it was clear that Severus still felt in some way that to be touched, to take enjoyment from being touched, was a weakness. A failing, even. It would be nice to think that she could wave her wand and make Severus ‘better,’ but this wasn’t a fairy story. And besides, would she have any right to do so if she could?
As well as trusting her, she realised that in the end he had to trust himself first.
A/N: Oh dear, it does seem to be one step back for a step taken forward for Severus at times, doesn’t it? Never fear, there will eventually be light at the end of the tunnel for our improbable couple (with perhaps a nice soft bed nearby, hmm?). Many thanks to those who think I have kept Severus in character and I’m planning (or rather, hoping) that the next chapter will have the appearance of Harry and others…