The potion had taken a lot of his time lately and it wasn't until Friday afternoon he managed to ready everything else that needed doing before the start of term. The last thing on his list had been to restock the stores of cough remedy, which was why he found himself pushing open the infirmary doors with his shoulder, careful so as not to jostle the crate of amber flagons in his hands.
He looked around in the hope of seeing Rose, but the room was empty save for a few cartons of neatly folded white sheets.
He quashed the unbidden stab of disappointment and shook his head at himself. That girl… She made him feel frighteningly vulnerable, but she had a way of touching his heart and because of that, he was not allowed to push her away as was his usual reflex.
I must be going soft in the head, he thought, but she had woken something in him. Something that had been buried so deeply that he hadn't even known it existed until she came, skipping along the cold Dungeon floor. He couldn't quite name it, but it was primitive. Something fundamental that was both sweet and dangerous at the same time, and it drew him towards her like a moth to the flame.
He walked down the aisle towards the end. Granger was in her office, going through the student's files and she looked up at him with a smile when he gave the doorframe a light knock.
"Severus," she said, seeming genuinely pleased to see him. "How are you?"
"I'm alright." He nodded at her desk. "Am I interrupting?"
She put the folder down, waving him inside. "Not at all."
He took in her warm eyes and wild hair, quenching a smile when he noticed the quill in it, still dripping with ink. The office was tiny and as he towered over her, all he could think about was that he'd never been this close to her before. She wore a soft-looking jumper, the kind that touched her feminine body in all the right places and it made him feel slightly self-conscious for not having bothered to shower after his most recent bout of brewing. Surely, he must look a fright.
"What's this?" Oblivious, she eyed the crate in his hands curiously.
"Cough Potion," he said, putting it down on her desk. "I'm sorry I'm late with it, but I only managed to finish this afternoon."
"Oh," she said, "that's quite alright." She picked up a flagon with slim fingers, holding it up to the light. "What's the dose?"
"I've altered the recipe to a slightly smaller than adult body weight," he said. "So there's no need to dilute it. And I've put some scurvy grass in there so you need to take that into account when you scan for allergies…"
He noticed a book on her desk he'd never seen before. It was about rare blood diseases in children and he picked it up to look through the table of contents.
"Right." He felt her eyes on him. "Is it effective?"
"Poppy seemed to prefer it that way," he said distractedly. "It should help if the infection is bacterial. Just remember that if you need some for one of the staff, it's better that I make the concentrated dose." He looked up at her. "Would you like me to do it right away?"
"That's quite alright, Severus." She smiled kindly. "I trust we can deal with that if needs must?"
"Very well," he said, "just let me know."
Her book didn't contain any of the information he needed, which was as expected. He put it back down on her desk, meaning to leave, but Hermione stopped him by rising from her chair and coming around to his side.
"Listen… Severus," she said, suddenly sounding a little apprehensive. "I know this might impose on our…" She waved an arm around airily, "…acquaintance, but I find myself in dire need of a new dress." She rolled her eyes. "You know, for tomorrow night."
He raised his eyebrows a little, clueless as to where she was going with this, and she blushed, a delicate pink colouring the area high on her cheeks where her freckles were.
That right there was his favourite part of her face, he decided. It was as though summer had written across her nose its own little poem about sunshine and warmth. A subtle reminder for those who spent too much time indoors. They were on Rose's cheeks as well. At first, he'd thought they must come from the father –a Weasley if memory served, and they had freckles everywhere- but now he could see that they were a slightly darker shade, and all Granger, and the discovery made him feel oddly pleased.
She must have mistaken his contemplation for indifference, because she started to fidget.
"Well, I noticed one in Hogsmeade the other day," she said ruefully, "one that I really liked, and I haven't had an opportunity to go there until now. But the thing is-" She chuckled nervously. "I'd prefer not to bring Rose along because she likes to fly about, and I know you're probably busy, but it's just that, well, she's already spent a lot of time the last weeks in the Dungeon with you, and she really seems to have taken a liking to you and…"
She took a deep breath. "You don't think you could watch her for a few hours tomorrow morning, do you? Just until I get it sorted?"
He blinked, unsure if he had understood her correctly.
Her face fell. "I'm sorry. I was imposing. I'll just-"
"You want me to watch her?" He still couldn't quite get his head around it. This was not the same as stray encounters in the corridors. This was something more. It was deliberate. It was… trust.
"Well… yes." She looked like she regretted having opened her mouth in the first place and he cursed himself a stuttering fool.
"Of course," he said, sounding gruff in his effort to cover his astonishment –which was entirely idiotic in the first place, as Rose had indeed been following him around for quite some time. "Just send her down- I'll be in my office."
"Oh…" She smiled, relieved. "Will you? I mean, if it isn't a bother…?"
"Granger. Do I look bothered?"
He hadn't meant it as a joke. In fact, he was a little vexed with himself for acting like a right old sod, but she broke into a laugh and it seemed to flow around him like a gentle southern breeze. "No you don't," she said, taking a step closer and laying her hand upon his arm. "Thank you. I really appreciate it. And I know that Rose does too." She nudged him. "And it's Hermione."
Her fingers warmed him through his coat. The touch was casual; as though she hadn't even given it a thought, and he breathed in her soft, mild scent and found himself utterly perplexed. No one had touched him like that in decades. It felt like eons.
He never really noticed, but that was when it all began. He suddenly found himself attracted to the bright and airy space and to the smell of medical herbs and starched sheets. He found himself anticipating the skipping of tiny feet, and longing for another opportunity to feel that blessed, gentle hand on his arm.
Subconsciously, without even recognising the dirty trick his heart was playing him, he started to invent reasons for going to the Infirmary.
On Saturday, which was the last day of August, the entire Hogwarts workforce gathered in the staffroom for a shared meal to mark the end of summer, or as Hermione quickly discovered, use the final opportunity to get themselves three sheets to the wind before the students arrived.
Having returned from his journey, Ron had graciously offered to take Rose a day early, and Hermione had dropped her off at his flat with barely any time to spare. As she rushed through the Hogwarts corridors, struggling with her bracelet as she went, all she could think about was that she'd rather spend the night at home with her child. But there was little to be done about that now and she would just have to make the best of it.
She pushed the door open silently, taking care so as not to disturb Filius, who was in the middle of some sort of speech. Everyone else had already found their seats around a large rectangular table that took up almost the entire length of the room. Surreptitiously, she waved to Hagrid and Neville, who both were nodding at her in greeting.
"Ah," said Filius in his slightly high-pitched voice, "there's our last and latest colleague just now. Right on time, Hermione." He waved her in. "Have a seat. We were just finishing off the introductions, but I trust most people here to be familiar with you already."
A little self-conscious, she glanced around the table, meeting the eyes of Neville's wife, Hannah Abbott, who taught Transfiguration and Michael Corner, who had taken up Filius' old post when Minerva McGonagall retired. Sybil Trelawney was there as well, at the end of the table next the ethereal Binns, who floated above his chair, eying the feast before them jealously.
Filius indicated a dark-haired witch with square spectacles who was squeezed in beside Hagrid and Aurora Sinistra. "This here is Catherine Poe," he said. "She is our new librarian. And over there," he pointed across the table, "Cavan Hern, whom I think you've already met, Hermione?"
Hern showed off his dazzling teeth and she gave them both a smile that she hoped was warm and friendly.
"Hermione is the new Mediwitch," said Filius. "And we're all very pleased that she was willing to give up her old post at St. Mungo's to come here and join us. I'm sure she'll be a real asset."
He climbed down from his chair, which he had been using as a speaker's podium. "And now that all the perfunctory talk is over and through with," he said, "let's all just dig in. The elves have made us-" He stretched to scan the overflowing table. "Ah! Beef Wellington and roast lamb. Wonderful!"
Scattered applause broke out, and Hermione walked around the table towards the only available seat. It was the chair opposite from Filius, between Hern, who sat beside Neville, and Severus, who was at the very end of the row, a little apart from the others. She wondered if he had chosen that seat deliberately, or if simply no one else had wanted to sit beside him. Taking in his somewhat irritated expression, she voted for the latter.
"Hello," she said, as she approached behind their backs. "Mind if I join you?"
They both turned towards her and Hern was quick to pull out the empty chair. He wore a black shirt today, with the top buttons undone and his hair slicked back from his face. "Not at all," he said, "I was afraid you'd never come."
"Oh." She smiled. "Thank you. No, I was delayed, that's all. I'm a bit embarrassed to come bustling in like this though. I hope Filius didn't mind."
"Don't think about that," said Hern easily. "We're all just glad you could be here." He glanced at her. "You look great by the way. I like the colour of your dress."
"Thanks." She smoothed out the skirt as she sat. "It's new."
"You want some help with that?" Hern nodded at the bracelet she had been trying to attach to her right wrist.
She chuckled. "Sure. Yeah, thanks." She held out her hand and he grasped it lightly as though to steady her when he fastened the tiny lock.
"There," he said and his hand seemed to linger on hers just a tad longer than necessary. "All done."
"Great." She adjusted it on her arm, turning her eyes to the food and willing the blush on her cheeks to calm down. She had always felt a little awkward around flirtatious men, even if they were just trying to be friendly. It probably had something to do with the fact that it never usually happened to her. "This looks delicious."
"You have to try the lamb, Cavan," said Neville, rekindling the old discussion about the supremacy of French versus British food.
With Hern distracted, she turned to the companion on her left. So far, he had seemed quiet and distant and unlike their jaunty new colleague, he was dressed in his usual black, buttoned up all the way to his Adam's apple with just a slim edge of the white shirt beneath peeking up over the edge of his coat.
"What's the matter, Severus?" she said quietly. "Don't you like parties?"
He grunted something unintelligible, eyes on his plate. It was obvious that he'd prefer to be elsewhere.
"I don't either," she said, low enough for only him to hear. "I'd much rather stay at home with a good book. I swear I get less and less sociable with each passing year." She scooped some of the lamb onto her plate. It looked tender and she closed her eyes for a moment to relish the scent. When she opened them, Severus was watching her.
"Me too," he said. "Although that isn't much of a change for me, I'm afraid."
"No." She poked him lightly in the arm. "You never really struck me as an extrovert."
He looked down on the offending finger. "Is that just a nice way of calling me ill-tempered?"
If the crinkles of mischief around his eyes hadn't betrayed him, she might have thought he was insulted. "Oh, stop it." She chuckled. "You're not fooling me. You're laughing, I can tell."
"Still the little know-it all, I see." He started to cut his beef. "So where's Rose?"
"She's with her Daddy." Hermione hesitated. On her other side, she thought she felt Hern turn slightly towards her and she lowered her voice just a fraction. "You know. Ronald. We're no longer seeing each other and… well, Rose, she stays with him every second week."
It still hurt, although the sense of loss was less intense than in the beginning. She never lamented getting rid of Ron, but having to share her daughter like that had been hard and especially in the mornings and evenings, she would be lonely when Rose was away on her 'Dad-week'.
"She seems to have adjusted…" Severus watched her cautiously.
Hermione smiled, as though to reassure both him and her. "Yes, I think she has. But it's been over a year now. She was less delighted about it in the beginning."
"I didn't have the chance to ask you before," she said. "What did you two do this morning?"
"I took her to the forest," he said between bites. "Hagrid had some valerian for me to pick up."
"That sounds great." She suddenly wished she'd come with them. "A much better way to spend them morning then trawling through shops in Hogsmeade. I love autumn, especially when the leaves turn red and yellow."
"Yes." Severus suddenly snorted. It was as though he had meant to laugh, but still felt the need to hold back in front of her. "Rose says the trees are putting their nighties on." He rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "And when we met Hagrid her eyes went big as saucers."
"Oh, no." Hermione covered her mouth with a palm. "I hope she didn't say anything offending… Poor Hagrid."
Severus shook his head. "Don't worry. I think she was impressed. She merely said that I was no longer the tallest person she knew." He turned towards her. "The first time she saw me however, she told me I had greasy hair."
"God…" She winced. "I'm sorry!"
He shrugged, going back to his meal. "It isn't entirely off-mark, I'll give her that. Besides, it sounded like she got most of her information from Potter, not you."
"Yes…" Hermione peeked at his hair. It wasn't greasy, just lank, and looked like he'd showered just before going to dinner. She wondered what it would feel like to the touch…soft probably…and smooth…
"Harry does enjoy telling them stories from school," she said, tearing her gaze from him. "It only got worse since Teddy started here last year. Do you know him, by the way?"
For some reason, Severus seemed to tense up. "Edward Lupin is in my class, yes," he muttered.
She didn't get an opportunity to inquire further, because across from them, Filius was leaning over. "Your daughter Rose is a charming girl, Hermione," he said. "She reminds me a lot about you."
She turned to him, unable to conceal a proud smile. From the corner of her eye, she could see Hern listening to their conversation with rapt interest.
"Thank you." She grimaced. "I hope she's not too intrusive on your work time though? I know she can be a bit…"
"No worries." Filius waved her off. "I hardly ever see her. She mostly spends her time in the Dungeons." He winked at his Potion's Master. "Doesn't she, Severus?"
"Does she?" asked Hern from her right. He wore a slight frown on his face. "I haven't seen her there," he said, "but then again, I'm mostly on the third floor now that there are no students in my dormitories."
"She's down there all the time," said Hermione. "She's always wanted to see a Mereperson."
"Oh, I see." Hern chuckled. "If you'd like, I can ask the Bloody Baron to keep an eye on her. He's already offered helping me look after the Slytherins and he spends most his time in the Dungeons anyway."
"Thank you, Cavan," she said, caught off-guard. The offer was unnecessary as Rose was usually with Severus in any case, but apparently, he'd missed out on that part. She felt it would be rude to point it out. "That's kind of you…"
She glanced to her other side in the hope of catching Severus' eye, but he had drawn away from the conversation and was scowling into his pudding.
"No problem." Hern was smiling brightly. "So are you coming out with us tonight? You mentioned you needed a babysitter."
"Yes, I am," she said. "I'm a bit concerned though. I haven't been to a pub for ages and I'm afraid I'll get properly sloshed if I don't watch it."
"The students won't arrive until afternoon," said Filius. "The train leaves at ten, and it takes a full four hours for it to get to Hogsmeade. We'll all have plenty of time to sleep it off."
Hermione laughed. "I don't know if that makes me more or less concerned."
The rest of dinner passed with light chatter about the upcoming year, mainly driven by Hern and Filius, but with the occasional comment from Hermione. To her dismay, Severus didn't say another word.
But after dessert, they moved out into a nearby atrium where a house-elf served homemade sloe gin and cheese. It was a lovely spot, open to the blue sky above and with a few planted trees with low stone benches beneath them. Despite it being so far north, the late August sun warmed her back and it was pleasant to leave behind the stifling staffroom.
She walked over to the drinks table and cast her eyes around for Severus before taking two glasses and heading in his direction.
He was sitting on a bench beneath a young birch. As she approached, a leaf, already autumn yellow, detached itself from the tree in the light breeze and landed in his shoulder-length hair. She offered him his after-dinner with a chuckle and leaned in to pick it off him. "You're gathering dust already," she said, holding it up for him to see. "Are you really that bored?"
He smiled again and it was the same smile she'd seen him give Rose; a softening of his eyes that made the skin there crinkle at the corners. It was only the second time she had ever seen him do that and there and then, she made it her mission to make him do so more often.
"Not anymore," he said gently, taking a small sip from his glass.
"This garden is beautiful." Hermione sat next to him, looking up towards the sky through the green and yellow branches. "I can't believe I've never noticed it before."
"That's because it used to be a broom closet," said Severus. "It was only after the war when they rebuilt the school that Minerva decided to have it redone. See that?" He pointed to a fountain near the back where clear water trickled merrily from the mouth of a small gargoyle.
Hermione leaned back to look around him. "Yeah?"
"She transfigured it from one of Argus' old wash buckets." Severus lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Don't tell him I said so, but if you watch it closely, it takes on the face of Mrs. Norris."
"That is…" She studied the gargoyle attentively, laughing at the way the water seemed to turn into soap bubbles. "Severus, that is some impressive magic." She turned back to him. "She sure has a wicked sense of humour though."
"That," he said, "and a great flair for architecture. Hogwarts needed both after the war."
"Of course." She smiled. "It's a lovely place. I can't wait to show it to Rose." She watched him for a moment. "I hope you don't mind me asking," she said quietly, "but why did you return? After…Voldemort, I mean."
"I don't mind…" He looked down on his hands for a moment before replying. "I suppose the easy answer is that there isn't many jobs out there for someone with my…reputation."
She raised her eyebrows. "What? I bet many people would have hired you." She would.
"Mm. Maybe. I just never tried for another job." He looked up. "Truthfully, I stayed because it was easy. Teaching is the only thing I've ever done and I like the predictability. I've had more than enough of excitement and stress."
That was certainly understandable… She watched the tiny leaf she was still holding, twirling it between her fingers. "I guess you only wanted some peace and quiet then?"
"I don't think that's too much to ask." He huffed wryly, the movement of his shoulders caught by her peripheral vision. "Although most of the students seem to disagree."
Maybe it was just the wine, but there was a playful, almost giddy feeling forming in her stomach as they spoke. It made her want to tease him and joke with him; to stroke that spark in him whenever he grew amused. She looked at him askance, eyes wide. "Surely, they can't be worse than we were?"
"Huh." He somehow managed to put both exasperation, rueful hesitance and humour all into a single grunt and even as his face grew more serious, the glint in his eye remained. "No, probably not," he said. "Maybe it's just me that's getting old."
She snorted into her drink, feeling only faintly self-conscious about it. "Don't be a dunderhead. You're not old."
"Actually," he said more slowly, tracing the rim of his glass with a strong-looking finger, "I've already started to think about retiring. If everything goes… well, as planned, I only have a couple of years left…"
"Retire?" She frowned. She couldn't quite picture Hogwarts without him. "Why would you do that?"
"I…" He seemed to hesitate, looking around as though in search for words, but all of a sudden something vanished from his eyes and he got up from the bench.
Confused, she followed his gaze to discover that Neville and Hern were approaching them, seemingly in the middle of an animated talk. Severus stiffened, as though bracing himself and she felt abruptly bereft.
"That's just too amusing," said Hern to Neville. Now that they were no longer sitting at the table, she could see that his thin shirt left very little of his toned upper body to the imagination. "You have to tell Hermione as well."
She stood, looking between them. "Tell me what?"
"Oh," Neville said. "It was just a story about once when one of my Slytherin-Gryffindor sets were really behind on the syllabus." He chuckled shyly. "They're a rowdy crowd and so I gave them a speech about what they needed to know for their exams, which ended with something about why they would need the knowledge in real life."
He shook his head. "And this small boy at the back, he's a Gryffindor and one of the worst of them, and can you guess what he says?"
She grinned. Despite her annoyance with them for interrupting, it was impossible not to be drawn in by Neville's enthusiasm for his work. "No. What?"
"You really mean to say that this is the same thing as we use for potions?" Neville rolled his eyes. "Turns out, the kid had no idea why there even was a subject called Herbology. He thought we were just fooling about with plants for the hell of it."
Hermione almost choked on her drink and Hern laughed again. "Can you believe it?" he said, wiping his eyes. "You'd think we're only here to punish them."
"Oh, my," said Hermione. "I'm so glad I'm not going to teach." She looked at Neville with growing respect. "I have to say you have an admirable profession. It must take a lot of patience and self-sacrifice."
"It can be tiring," said Neville, "but it helps to talk about it with your colleagues. And I'm sure you'll have your share of difficulties as well, Hermione. Even Poppy was flagging a bit there at the end."
"Us newbies got to stick together, right?" Hern smiled. "Although you're hardly that, Neville. How long have you been teaching now?"
"Two years," he said. "It feels like forever."
"Better use the opportunity to loosen our hair while can," said Hern. "Is Hannah coming to Hogsmeade as well?"
"Yeah. And I talked to Michael. He'll be joining us later."
"What about you, Hermione?" Hern turned to her, holding out his glass in a small salute. "Do you have someone special in your life you'll bring along tonight?"
"Ah," she said, "no actually. Not unless you count Rose. And she's with her father now."
"Does that mean you're single?"
To her dismay, she blushed for the second time that night. "Yes. Basically."
"Oh, well," said Hern easily. "We can't all have Neville's luck. I'm single as well. But I'm glad it isn't just me who doesn't have a family here. Let me know if you get bored in the evenings and we can lament our dismal love lives together." He rolled his eyes dramatically.
She shook her head. "Alright, Cavan, I will."
"Call me Cav," he said, "that's what my friends do."
"Sure." She smiled. "Cav."
"So should we go?" asked Neville. "I think people are starting to finish off out here and the Broomsticks is waiting."
"Right." Hermione turned to Severus to ask him if he was coming too, but the space beside her was empty.
She cast her eyes around, looking towards the entrance just in time to see him slither silently through the door. His cloak trailed limply behind him on the cobbled floor, a few crumpled leaves scattering in his wake. She sighed.
Hern, who had followed her gaze, leaned closer. "That Snape fellow is a bit odd, isn't he?" he said. "Not the friendliest chap on staff, I'll tell you."
She looked up at him, surprised. "What?" she said. "No, I think he's really nice. Why would you say that?"
"Oh." Hern took a sip from his glass, appearing a little off-balanced by her reply. "Ah, well," he said, "I don't really know him, of course, but it's just that yesterday, he basically told me to go stuff myself."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe we came off to a bad start, I don't know, but he was really curt with me. I only wanted to ask him about last year's syllabus, but suffice to say, I had to get my answers elsewhere."
"Really?" She was genuinely confused. "Maybe you interrupted him. Some potions spoil if they're unattended at a critical stage. I'm sure it was just a bad time…"
Hern lifted an eyebrow, regarding her. "Yes," he said slowly. "Perhaps… Potioneers, hm?" His tone turned brighter. "They're all a quirky sort. Oh, and speaking of potions." He chuckled. "You know our little… research project?"
"Of course." She perked up. "Did you find something?"
"No," he said, shaking his head, "but I mentioned it to Catherine the other day." He nodded towards Poe, the librarian. "And she offered to go through supplier lists for us. You see, for someone to sell that stuff, they'd need clarification for poisonous substances. It has to be a registered apothecary."
"That's good news."
"Yeah…" Hern shrugged again. "But I still haven't heard from my Auror contact. I doubt this can be considered an offence though, at least if the stuff is in conventional trade. Look." He pointed at a gathering of people near the entrance. "It seems like we're going. We'll continue this later some time, alright?"
"Sure." She lifted her skirt a little to manoeuvre her low heels safely across the stones, catching up with the group that mainly consisted of the below-forty segment of the staff.
Then they walked to Hogsmeade, Hermione side-by-side with Hern and Hannah, but her heart wasn't really in it.
For some reason she was already disappointed, even though the evening had only just begun, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with her unbalanced bookkeeping.