Author's Note: This story in its completed form is now on Ashwinder (.com) so I could have a more mature rating. I'm very sorry to all of you who thought this was abandoned! Thanks for reading.
Chapter 15: Imbedded
Several hours later, and several stories above, a lanky redhead checked for the final time to see if Hermione had returned to her room last night. With a faintly sick but satisfied sigh, Ron nodded in affirmation. She and her…Hermione and Sn…bloody hell, the star-crossed couple had finally made up. Or had killed each other, and would be found weeks later rotting in some antechamber after several Slytherins complained of the smell. One way or another, neither Hermione nor Snape would be castrating him anytime soon.
A knock on the common room door jolted Ron out of his careful avoidance of any mental imagery, and he froze like a deer in the headlights. What kind of story could he come up with if someone was looking for Hermione? "I should have thought this out before I became a fall guy," he murmured to himself. He glanced around the room for inspiration, gaze lighting upon a stack of books. "Library. Of course. Lucky for me, Hermione's easy to cover for. Always up early, always in the library, never causes any trouble." With a sigh of relief, he strode over to the door and opened it, confidently.
"Hallo, Ron," Harry greeted, sleep-ruffled and disheveled. "Ready to go down to breakfast?" he asked, holding back a yawn.
"Yeah, yeah, let me just grab my books," the redhead replied, as nonchalant as possible. He quickly gathered up his school things, pausing to check the mirror to see if he needed to shave. Alas, he didn't.
"Where's Hermione at, Ron?" Harry inquired, slightly suggestively. "Tire the old girl out? Never mind, I don't want to hear about it. It's like asking if someone had a good shag with your sister," he amended, sweeping his hand through his messy hair.
Ron let out a laugh and tried to put on a smug expression. "Nah, she's in the Library, as usual. Doing some 'research'," he added, fingers forming quotation marks in the air, "for later. She'll be down to breakfast pretty soon, though."
Harry rolled his eyes, green flashing in the sun. "Please, spare me the details. Come on, now, I'm starving." He threw a lighthearted punch at his friend, who received it with good grace and followed him out the door.
That wasn't so bad, he thought. This fall guy stuff is easy. Ron suppressed a grin. Telling a couple of lies was nothing, not for the girl that had probably saved his life six or seven times.
Hermione moaned softly as she woke, the beautiful strands of sleep falling away and replaced by soft sheets and air that tasted of musk. The events of the previous night came back to her slowly, as if intended to be relished. There had been wine, and more kisses, and the delightful sensation of falling asleep next to a man who held her tight as if he could not bear to let her go. The brunette's lips curled into a luxurious smile, and it was that particular moment that the clock struck eight.
Instantly catapulted out of bed in a paroxysm of fear, Hermione scrounged the room for a mirror and hastily straightened her uniform. "Shit, shit, shit! Why didn't he wake me up?" she muttered to herself, pulling on her shoes and binding her hair into a quick bun. Grabbing her bag full of books, and desperately thankful she had been too angry to drop them off in her room before coming down to the dungeon, Hermione suddenly remembered whose class she was late to.
"Well, I suppose we couldn't arrive together…but he should have at least woken me up! The rat!" All her fuzzy feelings disappeared, replaced by indignation at being late. She should have set up an alarm on her wand, or at least…
No time for that now, though. It was lucky the classroom was on the same floor, for she only had to run down a few hallways. It wasn't lucky, however, that she didn't get a chance to see the sun at all, which only worsened her mood. Had to be a man who lived in a dungeon, didn't he? Dank and dreary, just like his personality sometimes – most times.
Finally, Hermione reached the classroom, and cringed as she heard his voice introducing the lesson. Would he ignore her entrance, out of some sort of courtesy kindness? Unlikely, she admitted, pushing the door open.
"Ah, Miss Granger. You have seen fit to join us, I see. We should all be thankful, students, that she has deigned to travel the long hallways between here and her quarters." The sarcasm was dripping from his words like cold molasses, a slow buildup to the humiliation he was about to bestow. Several of Hermione's classmates cast her sympathetic looks.
"Really, it must have been quite a feat to get out of your bed this morning, Miss Granger. I admire your tenacity and discipline. Why, suffering the clumsy ministrations of Weasley all night would put any lesser witch in a coma for a week. But please, don't let me insult your choice of partner. I'm sure you needed to catch up on your sleep, anyway. In fact, generous as I am, I am willing to allow you to make up any work you missed in class…provided that you make it up from the hours of seven to midnight, every day this week and the next. You know, it's quite interesting that work can somehow double, triple, even quadruple each minute you are gone. Wouldn't that be an interesting topic for a twelve-foot long essay, Miss Granger? I'd like to see it on my desk by tomorrow. Oh, and don't bother bringing a quill or parchment to your detention…I mean, your makeup session. We will be studying the finer points of cauldron scouring, so please, only a toothbrush and your person need be present."
His voice had not wavered from its mock-kindness, but Hermione's teeth were clenched together as if she meant them to break. That rat! That mangy, no-good…
"If you would please sit down, Miss Granger? There are students trying to learn here, and I am sure they wish for me to continue on with the lesson."
Oh, just you wait, Severus Snape. Just you wait, Hermione thought, sending sharp mind-daggers at the man who was responsible for that entire morning. If she didn't know any better, she'd have thought he was in a terribly good mood.
Severus was in a terribly good mood. The Weasley boy had been right, after all. And it could only get easier from here, he realized. Now that the young witch had submitted herself to his embraces, there would be no more of this silly misunderstanding business. His life would no longer be full of empty evenings, but of alchemical sessions followed by intellectual discussions, and a woman to hold at the end of the night.
Yes, he needed to thank Weasley.
"Severus, did I just hear you right?" McGonagall eyed Severus with suspicion. "You are recommending Ronald Weasley, one of your least favorite students, be up for a Transfiguration apprenticeship? Have you gone mad, or do you have something up your sleeve?"
"Is the boy not competent? Are you not currently looking for an apprentice?"
"What are you up to, Severus?"
The dark-haired man offered up his palms in supplication. "I am not up to anything. I simply believe the boy, while dreadful in potions, has something going for him in the field of Transfiguration."
"And?" The woman's hard eyes bored into his, and Severus smiled.
"And he deserves a thank-you for providing me a chance to finally catch Granger in the wrong."
Minerva smiled, quite reluctantly. "There's the Severus Snape I know. For a moment, I thought you were Ron using Polyjuice. After all, a recommendation from you is practically a guarantee of success in any field." She took a sip of her tea, and cocked her head to the side as if to examine him.
"Miss Granger is quite a challenge to you, isn't she? I must admit, I was surprised when you took her on as an apprentice. I thought either you or her would terminate it in a week, regardless of the contract. I am quite pleased to see that, not only have you not terminated your agreement, you have reported a vast improvement in Miss Granger's skills, and do seem yourself to be overall happier. I always said challenge was necessary for any pride in success."
Severus sighed, admitting reluctantly, "And a challenge she is. However, it is an ease to the mind and vocal cords that there is one student within these walls that only needs to hear instructions once. If she were more of a Slytherin, she would be close to an ideal student. You have no idea how much this admission cost me, Minerva. Be thankful I was in a good mood today."
Minerva laughed softly as Severus turned and exited the room. "Severus?" she called, knowing he wouldn't answer. "I'll think about Mr. Weasley."
Severus nodded, almost imperceptibly, and headed back down to the dungeons.
"He said WHAT?"
The exclamation rang out all through the dining hall, causing heads to turn and professors to glare at the redhead whose complexion matched one of an angry salmon. The Gryffindor table shushed the furious Ron Weasley, casting furtive glances at the high table. Hermione's head rested in her hands, cheeks flushed from embarrassment. Why did that stupid Ravenclaw have to spread what happened in Advanced Potions? Why couldn't they just keep their mouth shut?
"Shh, Ron, don't make a scene about it, okay?" she whispered. Ron looked at her, incredulous.
"That oversized bat just insulted me in the worst way, Hermione! You have no idea!" he yelled back, so angry he was shaking. He was about to say something else when his brunette friend laid a soft hand on his arm.
"Don't worry about it. You and I know the truth about it all, right?" she reminded him gently, pinching his skin.
"Mr. Weasley." Professor McGonagall appeared at his elbow, the small woman peering over her glasses at the young Gryffindor. "I must insist I see you in my office after dinner. Please be punctual and, if you would, bring any examples of Transfiguration work you may have saved over the years. And don't forget your wand. Thank you, Mr. Weasley, you may continue eating."
The Transfiguration mistress made her way back to the high table, leaving Ron with little to say except,
"What was all that about?"
Hermione scrutinized the high table, looking from Professor McGonagall to the stoic man beside her. "I think," she answered carefully, "That she is looking at you as a potential apprentice."
"Why on Earth would she do that?" Ron exclaimed, agog. Hermione was asking herself the same question. It was true that Ron did have a certain flair when it came to Transfiguration, at least, after he had started to buckle down and actually look at the subject matter. However, it was strange that two professors had taken on apprentices within a few months of each other, especially when it was two of the most exacting teachers at Hogwarts.
She heard a sharp intake of breath, and out of the corner of her eye caught Ron looking quickly at the staff table, then at his food. He coughed twice, loudly, then, in a slight stammer, said, "Maybe they're trying to prepare us…you know, for the upcoming battles we'll be facing. In any case, I'm going to…get some things to bring to the Professor's office. I'll meet you at the common room later tonight, okay, Hermione?"
Hermione nodded, accepting his soft kiss on the cheek, and watched him exit the hall. She noticed, with a strange feeling curling in the pit of her stomach, that he shared a significant look with Severus before leaving.
Tapping one finger against the table, Hermione's surface expression was deadly calm, while the currents of suspicion roiled in her breast. There was another game on the table, she realized. One she could only guess at. There was something fishy about this apprenticeship, and in Ron's behavior in general. She knew that he was covering for her; Ron had said as much. However, she did not like the thought that Severus was in on it, too. And, if her suspicions were correct, that Ron had done something worth his express gratitude.
She would get to the bottom of this. The trick was finding the party that would crack first. And that, she knew, wasn't much of a trick at all.
"Just tell me, and you won't get hurt!"
"I'm already hurt! Ow, get off, get off!" Ron protested, his face ground into the floor. "I don't know what you're talking about! I was just getting my stuff to see McGonagall! I didn't floo anyone, honest!"
Hermione shifted her weight to make her captive even more uncomfortable. Way back in her third year, she had discovered that, when pushed too far, she had a violent streak. Draco Malfoy had been the first to find this out, followed in later years by several neighbor boys and girls back home who laughed at her appearance. When her mother had questioned her about her unladylike behavior, she had used the lack of subtlety her house was famous for as an excuse. "It's in my blood," she explained.
"You're in league with Professor Snape! You're his spy! Admit it!"
"Am I…um…interrupting something?" Harry's voice shattered Hermione's wits, and she realized, shell-shocked, exactly where she was (on top of Ron) and what she was doing (intensely interrogating him while rocking his face into the floor). A blush immediately stampeded into her cheeks, and she jumped off the rug-burned redhead, a sheepish expression on her face.
"How much did you hear?" she said quickly, immediately cringing. That didn't sound suspicious at all.
Harry chuckled, leaning against the doorframe. "Just enough to make me never want to look you two in the eye again," he admitted. "If you two haven't noticed the time, Ron needs to go see McGonagall, and you're due for a detention with Snape. Rotten luck, that is. I wonder if he'll add the lost time of your detention to your apprenticeship."
"I wonder," Hermione sighed. "Fine then, we'll continue this later, Ron," she told him, her tone dire. The brunette witch rummaged around in her drawers for a spare toothbrush, the only tool she had been permitted to bring to her detention. It was downright degrading, she thought, grinding her teeth, to be serving detention to her future…whatever, just because he had asked her to stay the night and had not decided to wake her up. Well. At least she had even more of a chance to find out just what Severus Snape's business was with one Ronald Weasley.
"Sit down, Miss Granger, and stop waving that…toothbrush at me. Why on earth have you brought such a thing down here, anyway?" Severus asked, plucking the tool from her hands and examining it. "Is this plastic? I have often wondered if the wizarding world could improve upon such a material. It seems infinitely useful, though in its current form it is an insult to Mother Nature. Nasty stuff. I am surprised you, Miss Granger, would own such an environmental bane."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "You told me to bring one to my detention, sir. Please answer my question. Are you or are you not having Ron spy on me? That 'apology' last night, as you called it, is not something characteristic of you, as I said last night. Is he telling you how to get on my good side?"
Severus sighed, leaning back into his chair and suppressing a chuckle. He had forgotten the details of the speech he had given that morning, only remembering it had been one hell of a joke. "You have enlisted Mr. Weasley as your cover, is this not true?" he asked, calmly.
Hermione echoed his sigh, finally sitting down. "Yes, that's true. Accidental, but true."
Severus nodded, remembering her first aim was to make him jealous, a typical feminine move. Did she know she hadn't needed to? If she didn't, he did not see fit to tell her. "After your agreement with him, he came to me to offer his services as a go-between. He has much belief in the potion, you see, and obviously cares enough about you that he wishes your happiness even if it means being destined to walk through life with one of his greatest enemies. I accepted his services, as the rest of the world is not quite ready for this," he indicated himself and Hermione with one elegant motion, "to be revealed, and neither are we. The Adamare Animae is both scientific fact and well-honored throughout the community, but people still become hung-up on social taboos where the revelations of the potion are considered."
The brunette witch pierced him with a hard gaze. "Elegantly put, sir, but how did you know that cherries are my favorite fruit?" she asked. She held her breath as he looked at her, contemplation on his face. Correct me, correct me you bastard, Hermione urged. There had been no cherries on the table that night.
Severus scoffed. "Don't think you can trick me into any sort of admission, Hermione. I…oh, bloody hell," he exclaimed, realizing what she had done. Hermione grinned in triumph. Her deliberately botched attempt at subterfuge had been more than he could resist throwing a comeback at.
"So Ron is giving you inside information. And in return, you gave him a shot at Professor McGonagall's apprenticeship! What's next, he gets me in b-bed…with you and you send him on a cruise?" Hermione hated herself for stumbling over the word "bed". The previous night had been the first she had spent in the same room as a romantic interest, let alone the same bed, and even just sleeping beside Severus had been both shaking and thrilling. The thought of…other things…with him was just too…something…to think about.
Definitely not ready for anything like that. A few kisses in the heat of the moment is something I can deal with…after severe rationalization. Even if he is my 'intended', he's still, right now, my professor. She could hardly believe that she had been so overcome the night before. Surely, who Severus was in his private quarters was an entirely different person than who Professor Snape was everywhere else. It was as if he put some sort of damper on his passions, his humanity when he left them, and they all came back in some torrential force when he returned. It was both frightening and exciting, but overall highly confusing.
A sigh from Severus brought her back to reality. "Very well, the game is up. Weasley offered his services as an interpreter and middleman in our relationship, as well as being a go-between for the rest of the world to see. Trying to understand the young female mind is like trying to understand why Longbottom's potions explode when even the correct ingredient is added. Your outbursts and accusations at what I think are my own logical actions make it dreadfully hard to develop any kind of communication. I conceded that it would be much easier to allow someone who knows you much better than I to interpret your actions and reactions to me, so I could deal with them in a logical manner." He pursed his lips. "And I offered him ten thousand galleons and a full scholarship to the school of his choice if I can get you into bed."
"WHAT?" Hermione screamed, face turning beet red as she leaped to her feet. "You…you despicable…! How could you put a price on…on…"
Her voice tapered off as she saw the shoulders of the dark-robed man shaking, almost imperceptibly. Was he…laughing?
"You're joking," she said, lamely. "You were pulling my leg." Hermione wilted a little, which only caused Severus to burst out in great, ringing laughter, almost uncontrollable. The brunette witch slumped back into her chair, putting a hand over her face. After a moment, the deep embarrassment passed and she started to giggle. "You unholy bastard," she laughed, the air clearing in the shared joke. Severus looked up at her, a crooked smile still on his face, and Hermione drew in a silent breath as a pang struck her through the heart. He was beautiful to her in that instant, his face shining like a carefree young man's.
The sight shook her, but what shook her more was the realization that she was falling for this taciturn man. When would I have seen it, she wondered, if I had never made that blasted potion? What would I have thought?
She thought it wouldn't have been as frightening.
As the hour struck midnight, Hermione found herself back in the common room, the spicy smell of the potion she and Severus had worked on lingering about her robes. It stung her eyes, and, as if that was all that was needed to open the floodgates, she sank down into the warm embrace of the couch and began to cry. It was the soft, hiccoughing kind of cry that often bewilders the crier, coming from nowhere with a quiet intensity. Hermione hugged one of the large, fire-warmed pillows to her chest, staring into the flames as if they led to a different world.
"Hermione?" A sleep- muddled Ron appeared at the doorframe. "Are you crying?" he asked, instantly awake and at her side. "What did he do to you this time? That blasted bat! I told him he had to be gentler with you, Godric damn him!"
"No!" Hermione said quickly, dashing tears away with the back of her hand. "No, h-he d-didn't do a-a-anything," she hiccoughed, trying to compose herself. "I…oh, Ron, I half didn't b-believe it, b-but…"
Ron's fair experience with crying females cued him in that he needed to sit beside the brunette witch and rub her back as she attempted to tell him what was wrong. This was the easy part; the part where he didn't have to say anything.
"Here I was, kind of playing along. I mean, everyone told me it was tru-ue, but somewhere inside me there w-was this little voice that said, 'that's absurd, Her-er-er-mione, there's no such t-thing as so-oulm-mates. And when h-he said he saw it, too, I thought, w-well this is a problem that will have to be sorted out. I was almost r-r-relieved when the aura went away," she admitted.
Ron was starting to see where Hermione's monologue was headed, but didn't say anything, just moving his hand in a circle over her back. "It was a g-game at first, in my head. Try to make him l-like me. Work together. Keep it all a secret. But, oh, Ron!" she exclaimed, pitching forward into the redhead's chest, her sobs beginning anew. Ron pulled her into a comforting hug, and waited for her to calm down. The silence in the room was punctuated only by sharp intakes of breaths for a long while. Finally, Hermione regained control and sat back against the couch, eerily calm.
"He laughed today," she told Ron, matter of factly. "We laughed. And we smiled at each other for a moment and…" Hermione paused to wipe a tear from her eye and tried to think of exactly how to explain that instant.
"Ron," she started again, heaving a great sigh, "it's real. It's all real. And I'm falling for him. I'm falling for him hard, and I can't stop," she wailed, falling back onto Ron's shoulder. Her faithful friend stroked her hair softly as she cried, making calming shushing noises.
"It'll be alright, Hermione, I swear. You can come to me any time you need to, and I'll help you live happily ever after with the greasy old…I mean, with Snape, if it's the last thing I do, alright? It'll all be okay," Ron assured her, repeating the words in a comforting mantra. After a while, the words lulled Hermione to sleep, leaving Ron staring into the fire, feeling like hexing Lavender and Parvati for ever helping Hermione brew that potion.
In another room of the castle, Lavender and Parvati sneezed simultaneously, and looked at each other in alarm.