"Yes, thank you," groused Hermione as she brushed the soot and floo powder from her robes, "I am perfectly well aware of the time. I thought you despised idle chatter yet you seem partial to it when you are berating me."
"My, my," said Severus, not looking up from his workbench and the willow root his was in the process of stripping, "We also appear to be in a fine mood. Is it that delightful time of the month again or am I just privileged to be the target for your ire?"
"Shut up Severus," she snapped, "And my time of the month has nothing to do with you."
"It does when I am forced to work beside you forty hours of the week," said Severus, finally raising his gaze to see her shove her robes onto the hook beside his, the clothing beneath decidedly muggle rather than the wizarding robes she had taken to wearing to work, "Interesting choice of attire for a work day."
Hermione sighed, "I came in a bit of a rush and I figured as we were due to be here half the night I might as well be comfortable," she said, "Do you want to take a break and get some rest? You've been at the preparations since this morning."
"I'm fine," said Severus, brushing aside the useless outer skin of the willow root before he set to chopping up the insides, "The blister beetles need popping still if you want to get started."
Hermione grimaced, "You always leave me the nicest jobs."
Severus smirked, "One of the perks of being the senior partner of our little department," he said, "Make sure you wear gloves, the oil on the shells will burn you if it gets on your skin."
Hermione nodded, heading over to the small approximation of a kitchen that they had in their small laboratory and setting the kettle on to boil, preparing both their teacups with practised ease.
They had been colleagues for a little over four years, placed together by the Ministry when they had been brought together for a short-term project. Their results had been so good that they had been offered permanent positions working on experimental and complex potions for the Ministry and they had surprised themselves and each other by accepting.
Their initial working relationship had been fractious at best but over the years they had become firm friends despite the barbs they often traded across the cauldrons and Hermione had found not only a talented mentor but also a trusted confidante in the man who had once been her professor.
Severus himself had not altered much in appearance since the war though he now wore a scar that stretched from beneath his right ear to the centre of his chest where Voldemort had tried to end his life. He had survived by luck more than preparation but the removal of the mask he had worn for years had changed him for the better. He was still the same acerbic, dry witted man he had always been and he had little time for anyone who chose to be foolish in his presence but Hermione found him gentler and kinder with her at least.
As the kettle boiled, she finished their drinks, carrying a cup over to his workbench and setting it beside his elbow, smiling at his muttered thanks as she headed off to her own work.
She was already part of the way through crushing the hundreds of blister beetles they would need for their potion, the amount of paperwork they had needed to complete to secure the hazardous insects having taken them several long weeks, when Severus' voice rang out across the room to her.
"Do you want to tell me what had you arriving so late this afternoon?" he asked, "Or should I mind my own business?"
Hermione sighed, crushing one of the shimmering blue-green beetles with more vigour than necessary, "The usual," she said, "Ron is a pig and I regret the day I ever agreed to this farce of a marriage…I asked him to grant me a divorce today. It didn't go down well."
The rhythmic sound of Severus' knife against the chopping board ceased and she heard the rustle of his robes as he turned in his seat but Hermione didn't face him, keeping her eyes on her work.
"Whilst I am sorry to hear that, I am not surprised," said Severus, "Are you…"
"Don't ask me if I'm alright," said Hermione, "I need you to be you and not care. Call him a dunderhead or an idiot if you want. Call me a know-it-all whilst you're there but don't pity me Severus please. I knew this was coming and I ignored it. I don't need you trying to comfort me."
"My apologies for my concern," said Severus, his tone far colder than it had been before, "I shall refrain in the future. Get on with those beetles; we need to have everything ready by midnight for this to work."
"Yes sir," hissed Hermione, her tone directed more at herself than him as she heard the hurt beneath his words.
She continued crushing the noxious little beetles, scraping out their innards with the point of her knife before she sliced up the shells, sweeping them into a neat pile to the side of her board. It was only when she came to a slightly larger one that she made an error, pressing down too hard and squirting the insides across the board and up towards her.
She shrieked as she failed to dodge the spray, feeling the burning droplets hit her cheek with the heat of a sparking fire but the pain quickly grew worse. She ripped off her gloves and raised a hand to wipe away the flecks from her skin as she heard Severus get to his feet behind her, his large hand grabbing her wrist before she could do so.
"Don't touch it, it will spread," he said, dragging her to her feet and hurrying her to the sink, setting the water to run as he took out his wand, a brief spell removing all trace of the beetles from her skin though the pain remained.
"I'm such an idiot," said Hermione through gritted teeth, tears breaking from her eyes at the tiny points of fire in her skin.
"I'm too close to your wand hand to offer any comment on that statement," said Severus, rinsing a clean cloth beneath the water before holding it to her cheek, "Did any get in your eyes?"
Hermione shook her head, "No thankfully," she said, "Painful enough though."
Severus moved the cloth, his face a picture of concern as he studied her cheek, "It's not too bad," he said, "I've got something in the stores that will help to cool it. Hold that on there a while longer though."
"I've still got so much to do," said Hermione, trying to get to her feet but Severus' large hand on her shoulder kept her in place, "It will be fine."
"It will spread if not treated and leave a scar," said Severus, "We will make time. This potion is not worth any risk to your health."
Hermione reluctantly remained in her chair as Severus left her to head into their storage room, several shelves laden with preparations for burns and injuries that could occur in their work. He returned moments later with a small bottle of green liquid in his hand and a wad of gauze in the other, dragging a chair over to sit in front of her.
"I think," he mused, taking the wet cloth from her face, "That we should employ some protective charms when handling those dreadful things from now on."
"Agreed," hissed Hermione as he dabbed gently at the burns on her face with the contents of the bottle he held, "Hard to believe that stuff was once thought of as an aphrodisiac."
"Aphrodisiac? It's poison," said Severus incredulously, "Well known in potion making terms as such."
"Well in muggle terms it was once seen quite differently," said Hermione, "Cantharidin was once used quite regularly in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth as a potent drug to encourage arousal. It's more common name is Spanish Fly."
Severus smirked, "Well that I have heard of in passing but I didn't choose to look into it," he said, "Should I fear for my virtue now then?"
Hermione laughed but it changed to a whimper as he caught one particularly potent burn, "I don't feel even remotely amorous right now," she said before she blushed, "Not because of the company of course but the pain. I…"
"No need to tie yourself in knots, I'm not offended," said Severus, "I'm a little bit old to inspiring any feelings of that sort in anyone."
Hermione smiled, "Nonsense Severus, you're only forty-five. You're hardly in your dotage," she said, "And you're a very handsome man."
"I thought I was the greasy old dungeon bat or was that just Potter's preferred name for me?" said Severus, turning his attention to the gauze in his hand and taking longer than before to apply the potion to it.
"We were heartless and cruel children then," said Hermione gently, "I, at least, grew out of name calling years ago and idiotic opinions. We've been friends for a long time now and I…you never ask the reason for all the fights Ron and I have had over the past two years."
Severus frowned, "It wasn't my place to pry," he said, pressing the gauze to the final burning pinprick on Hermione's cheek, "I just assumed the total incompatibility of a brilliant young woman and an idiot had finally shown itself."
"That was part of the reason, granted," said Hermione, "But the main reason was that he believes you and I are having an affair. Do you recall the conference we went to in Zurich two years ago?"
"The uses and variations on dragons' blood, of course I remember," said Severus, "We did our best work from…Weasley thinks you and I...?"
"From that trip onwards," said Hermione, "Haven't you noticed that I come in, upset after a fight, the morning after we've worked late? Grinding lungworms or bottling niffler spleens isn't as believable as anything more scandalous in Ron's eyes. Last night was the last straw and I had to end it. I won't be with a man who doesn't trust me or who believes I cannot be friends with someone of the opposite sex without it leading to something else."
"I'm sorry," said Severus, "I didn't realise my demands on your time were causing issues."
Hermione shook her head, "The work needed to be done," she said, "It was Ron who had the problem. I like working with you and the hours we keep are necessary to the potions we work on. Take tonight for example, we need to complete it at midnight but to Ronald that means you and I are doing something more than crushing beetles and getting burned by them."
"Well you did say they were an aphrodisiac," said Severus, putting aside the bottle and gauze, "How do you feel?"
"Like a bitter soon-to-be divorcee," said Hermione before she smiled, "The pain is gone. Thank you, for taking care of me. I'm useless when it comes to pain after…well Bellatrix."
"Understandable," said Severus, "Do you feel ready to get back to work? The monkshood needs preparing if you want me to finish the beetles."
Hermione shook her head, "Professor Snape, you can't be suggesting I leave my project half completed," she said, laughing at the smile he tried to keep from his face, "I'll be fine. I'll use a charm and be a bit more careful. We should get on though, we need to give this potion at least three hours simmering time before midnight and it's already five o'clock."
Severus nodded, getting to his feet and heading back to his workbench, pausing briefly to turn to her as she passed him on the way to her own.
"Without any pity intended Hermione," he said gently, "I am truly sorry for the situation you find yourself in. I only hope that you may forge a better future from it and if there is anything I can do to assist you in the meantime, you need only ask."
Hermione reached out, taking his larger hand in her own and squeezing it gently, "You're a very good friend," she said, leaning in to press a fleeting kiss to his pale cheek, "I don't know what I would have done without you during all this. You've been so patient."
"Well my friends are few and far between," said Severus, "And you are more tolerable than most people."
Hermione smiled, "Praise indeed," she said with another brief squeeze of his hand before she turned back to her workbench, "Let me know when you're done with the roots."
They continued in relative silence to prepare the ingredients for their potion, communication only starting again when they came to putting them together in the large cauldron in the centre of the room. They worked side by side with a practised ease that came from years of familiarity, only needing to speak on occasion as they followed the precise formula they had spent several months devising.
Finally, the potion was simmering without any need for them to interfere with it for several hours, the final ingredient needing to be added precisely on the final stroke of midnight. They had soon cleared down their benches, an unspoken rule having existed between them from the first day they had worked together that all was to be left pristine when they had finished their work.
"Would you like to head to Diagon Alley and grab a late supper?" said Severus, "We've a while to wait until we can do anymore and neither of us can sustain on tea alone."
Hermione shook her head, "I need to head out to find a place to stay tonight," she said, taking her cloak down from its peg, "I can't exactly go home."
"It is as much your house as his," said Severus, anger furrowing his brow, "Kick him out and let him find somewhere else to stay."
Hermione smiled sadly, "No, it's better for me to make the break," she said, "I can go back for my things in the morning and find more permanent lodgings after that but for tonight I just need somewhere to rest my head. I did enquire at the Leaky Cauldron before I came here but they're full so I'll have to look further afield."
"No need to do that," said Severus, "My spare room is at your disposal for as long as you need it or would that complicate things?"
"You're very sweet to offer," said Hermione, "But I fear Ron…no, hang Ron for all his worth. You're my friend and he refuses to see that. Would you mind terribly if I stayed? It would only be one night until I can get something more permanent."
"You can stay as long as you need to," said Severus, "And if anyone chooses to be difficult…"
Hermione smiled, "I know Ron would quake in his boots if he was forced to face you," she said, "I'm almost tempted to let him."
Severus smirked, "That cruel streak of yours is decidedly un-Gryffindor," he said, "Now that your accommodation is settled, shall we go to supper? I for one am famished and I do not intend to face midnight on an empty stomach."
Hermione pulled on her cape and took his arm as he offered it to her, glancing once more at their potion before she let him lead her from the room.
It was several hours later when they returned, night hanging full and heavy on the windows as they took off their capes and set about lowering the lamps. Moonlight spilled into the rooms, illuminating the cauldron and the potion that bubbled within. Hermione picked up the beaker filled with crushed beetle shells that had caused her so much pain, the marks still smarting on her face on occasion but she held onto the hope that the pain would be worth it.
"Ready?" she said, looking up at the man beside her.
Severus reached into his pocket and drew out his watch, "Hold a moment," he said, "We must be precise."
Hermione stilled, looking up at him with a small smile on her face as excitement and a strange sense of contentment filled her. She was certain she could happily spend the rest of her life working beside her former professor, their friendship one of the constants she had clung to during the tumult of her marriage.
Severus raised a hand as he continued to study his watch, sharp eyes trained on the dial as the seconds ticked down to midnight.
"Now," he said, his voice quiet but authoritative and Hermione obeyed in an instant, tipping the jar of beetles into the simmering potion before them.
The mixture turned from a deep red into a shimmering purple, pearlescent and vibrant, as the surface grew agitated for a moment before Severus extinguished the flames with a wave of his wand, the potion settling in the cauldron once more.
"Did it…" began Hermione, as she set down the beaker, "It worked?"
"So it would seem," said Severus, a small smile catching the corners of his lips, "We will have to analyse it and then test it on a viable subject but then…"
Hermione didn't give him a chance to finish, taking his face in her hands and pressing her lips to his. She giggled at the expression on his face as she released him, her eyes filling with happy tears as she regarded him.
"We did it," she said, "Severus, we did it. All those weeks of work and it all came together tonight. If this proves to be viable then we will have brewed all but the cure for lycanthropy. We did it Severus. You and me."
"Well it was your idea," said Severus, the faint blush on his cheeks highlighted by the low lamplight.
"And your expertise," said Hermione, "I never would have had the idea without your belief in my experiments. We worked well together. We work."
Severus' hand cradled her cheek, his face showing his apprehension before he spoke, "Why do I feel like that statement is about far more than our professional relationship?" he said, "Hermione, I…"
"Yes," she said desperately, "Yes Severus. For the last four years my greatest joy has been working beside you and I…We may not have been together in the way Ron thinks but I…my heart…"
"Mine too," said Severus, "And now that you're free, can I dare to hope?"
"Yes my love," said Hermione, a tear breaking from her eye to be caught by his thumb, "More than hope."
His answering smile was far brighter than anything Hermione had had the pleasure to see from him before but she did not witness it for long. Instead, she found herself in the strong arms she had longed for, his lips gently coaxing at first before she gave herself up to him. It was several long moments before he released her, his forehead resting gently against hers as their breaths mingled in the scant space between them.
"Perhaps we should rethink me using your spare room," said Hermione, her fingers knotting into the long black hair that brushed his shoulders, "It's a cold night and I would be far warmer beside you."
"An astute and intelligent observation as ever my dear," said Severus, "Shall we away now before the hour grows too late?"
Hermione nodded before she kissed him softly once more, "I think that's an excellent idea," she said, "After all, we have a potion to test in the morning. Happy Halloween, Severus."
"Happy Halloween my dear," he replied, summoning their capes to them before he led them to the door.