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Professor Sprout had entered the room suddenly, led by Ginny, who was still somewhat red-faced from the combination of sun and exertion. "Oh, my!" she continued, chubby hands clasped delightedly in front of her chest. "And what a magnificent specimen! Miss Granger, where ever did you get this?" She stepped forward to run her fingertips lovingly over the surface of the petals, and Hermione had to quash an irrational surge of territoriality.
Opening her mouth to provide Headmistress McGonagall with an explanation, Hermione found she couldn't actually speak. Her brain was too busy racing, reliving fragments of the past months. She shut her eyes and felt a flood of desire as the images streaked past.
She recalled his movements first, his quick, smooth strides through the classroom, the hallway, and, most vividly, through Grimmauld Place. The repertoire of scents and sounds that he brought to mind astonished her. She could hear the sizzle of food from the kitchen and Molly Weasley's shouts in the background while Snape murmured with Remus and Sirius. She'd always wanted to touch him, to reach somehow down the stairs and past the other two men to make contact with his lips as he enunciated even the simplest of words.
His hair came second: the soft, sensual way it had lain against his skin when longer. But she preferred it now, for she could more clearly see the sharp angle of his jaw and the strength in his neck and shoulders. She recalled how thin he'd been during the first examination, how the pillow in the infirmary had scratched with audible brittleness against the dry, broken strands. With renewed health and vigor had come visible improvements in his hair and skin. And somehow—her abdomen constricted longingly at the thought—the streaks of gray at his temples were more handsome to her than any sign of more youthful virility.
She remembered the sound of his breath as he'd inhaled the frigid air of the Forbidden Forest, staring down at her while his hands brushed against her gloves. Perhaps it was foolish of her—perhaps the cold had adversely affected her brain—but Hermione could recall few occasions on which he'd looked better. The moonlight suited him, enhancing the mystery of his eyes. Only in the firelight of his quarters had he looked even sexier, the flickering warmth bringing out the olive undertones of his skin, so different from her own blue-porcelain.
Ten seconds passed, then twenty. Embarrassed to have been daydreaming about him in such pathetically florid terms, she became uncomfortably aware that the Headmistress was still staring at her. Hermione couldn't fathom how she would take care of such a beautiful plant with only her elementary Hogwarts education in Herbology; but, judging by the admiring light in her eyes, Professor Sprout would probably be amenable to assisting her.
She wanted to dash immediately for the dungeons to satisfy her burning need to know whether this glorious gift was his sign. Would he finally request that she activate the potion? And if it was, indeed, a sign, was it merely a request for the final dose and a token of gratitude for the many formulations? Or was it something wonderfully, heavily more significant?
"I believe," she said in as confused and speculative a tone as she could manage, cocking her head slightly to the side, "that it may be from our new landlady. She did seem very grateful when we signed the lease…" She shot Ginny a meaningful look. The other girl's eyes widened perceptibly, but she recovered quickly and began nodding her assent. "Didn't she?" Hermione pressed.
"Most definitely!" Ginny concurred, still nodding. She'd put perhaps a bit too much eagerness into the reply, for Molly Weasley, who'd followed her daughter into the castle, narrowed her eyes and began to glance toward Hermione.
Deciding that Molly was showing signs of being entirely too perspicacious for her liking, Hermione averted her eyes and turned back to face the Headmistress. "Then it's probably intended for Ginny as well. I did rather loiter with her asking questions and talking about graduation the other week, and she was very excited to hear about my plans for university, so I imagine she remembered my name before Ginny's and simply had it delivered to me…
"Would it be all right if I put it in the greenhouse for the time being?" She aimed the question to both Professors McGonagall and Sprout. She was waiting with painfully bated breath for Molly Weasley to intervene and decry the flimsiness of her explanation. When the Weasley matriarch remained shockingly silent, Hermione continued, "I've very little experience with orchids, although I did recognize straightaway that it's some species of orchid. You said it's a… a what, Professor? A lady's slipper?"
Ginny snorted as if to say, Who are you kidding? Hermione swallowed hard and had to admit that the derision wasn't unjustified. She'd read the book she'd found in Diagon Alley so many times that she'd all but taken to sleeping with it under her pillow. Ginny had spent far too many nights watching her page through it, mumbling about lady's-slipper orchids and whether there was some chance—any chance—that Snape had given her Unicorns and the Ancients, the text that had sent her on the quest for the mysterious flower, with intentions that exceeded the purely academic.
"Yes, yes, a lady's slipper," Professor Sprout confirmed. "A wonderful and very potent species, figuratively as well as magically—"
"So I can put it in the greenhouse, then?" Hermione barged ahead. She felt terrible for interrupting so rudely, but the very last thing she needed was the Herbology instructor enlightening the crowd—who were rapidly amassing around the table to coo over the flower—as to what the lady's-slipper orchid represented when gifted to a young witch.
"Provided that Professor Sprout is agreeable—" the Headmistress hedged. Fortunately, Sprout quickly stepped in and began chattering about the best possible place for ideal lighting and moisture levels. Profoundly grateful, Hermione agreed to allow her professor to take it off to the greenhouses and perform a thorough professional inspection before allowing others to enjoy it.
"Truly a magnificent specimen!" Sprout could be heard reiterating as she Levitated the stunning flower out of the Great Hall. Several women, unfamiliar to Hermione, whispered delightedly and followed in her wake. "Grown by Muggles too, of course, but they simply have no appreciation for its deep symbolism…" she explained to the women, bright-eyed and visibly thrilled.
Hermione exhaled too loudly, feeling the heat in her face slowly ebbing. Symbolism, indeed.
"I think Hermione and I should probably go write a thank-you and owl it to Mrs. Bridges," Ginny piped up suddenly, brightly. Molly Weasley still looked unconvinced, but she agreed that it was the proper thing to do. Ginny wasted no time in once again grabbing on to Hermione and dragging her away, this time ostensibly toward the Owlery. It wasn't until they were safely out of sight of the other celebrants that Ginny crashed to a halt and hissed, "What were you thinking? Mrs. Bridges?"
"I…" Hermione paused, floundering mutely. She knew damn well it had been a horrendously weak excuse, but their elderly landlady had been the first innocuous and magical person not present at the graduation ceremony to pop into her befuddled head. "The thing is, it might be from—"
"I bloody well know who it's from!" Ginny growled, red hair flying as she threw her hands up in the air. Hermione cringed. "I can't believe you couldn't come up with something better than that!"
"Well, I drew a blank..."
"The Brain of Gryffindor drew a blank. Merlin save me," Ginny grumbled, pressing her hands into her eyes and muttering about some very macabre hexes and punishments. "Do you have any idea what my mum'll do to me if she finds out I helped you do anything with him, esteemed Brain of Gryffindor?"
"I have to go talk to him!" Hermione implored. "Please just keep up the pretense and go to the Owlery. You can say that I got sidetracked picking up a book in the library in order to learn more about caring for orchids. Madam Pince'll never tell them otherwise—she won't even speak to them willingly—and it's a perfectly believable explanation given my predilection for—"
"Unlike the one you just gave!" Ginny interjected sourly.
"Just give me half an hour. Please, Ginny."
Hermione was moments away from falling to her knees and begging when Ginny gave a flustered nod and capitulated. "Fine, fine, go see him—but be quick!"
Quick didn't begin to describe her pace as she took off for the dungeons.
"That was bold."
They were the only words that came into her mind as she looked at him, reeling from the implications of the fact that she now stood in his private quarters a graduated young woman. They were presumptuous words, and they caught in her throat as she entered his living area, noting the unusual lack of papers or books on the coffee table and his writing desk.
He turned only incrementally in her direction, one hand resting heavily against the mantel of the fireplace. No visible form of entertainment lay within sight. It appeared that he'd been standing thus since returning to his rooms after the ceremony.
That Snape had even allowed her to enter his rooms amazed her. She'd expected him to regret the blatant manner in which he'd chosen to bestow the gift, if he was indeed her benefactor. The door had been left ajar, however; he'd obviously known that she wouldn't be able to resist seeking him as soon as possible.
"I confess I had a moment of doubt," he replied softly, running a finger absently across his chin. Hermione noticed the suspicious lack of Albus' knowing twinkle from any portrait in the room and wondered if he'd paid them the respect of deliberately absenting himself. He had to know all too well what Snape had done. What had he said about it before her arrival?
"Yet clearly it has served its purpose." He straightened in place, regarding the wall opposite him with a distant expression. "You asked for a sign, Miss Granger." He still hadn't turned to face her directly. He finally did so with arduous slowness, crossing his bare forearms over his chest and leaning back against the mantel, observing her with a look that was half wariness and half hunger.
Hermione stifled a gasp. She'd never seen his face become so nakedly open to scrutiny. Worry lined the curve of his lips, and his eyes roved back and forth, obviously searching hers for signs of uncertainty or regret. "I must apologize for suspecting, however briefly, that the indubitable Hermione Granger might not have done her homework all those months ago," he continued, some hint of his habitual silkiness reentering his tone.
He was teasing her, she realized—there was no bite to the remark—and it felt delicious.
"Well…" She blushed and crossed her own arms, feeling a slight tremor run through her spine. He'd unbuttoned the first several buttons of his dress shirt, and he was unfurling his shoulders to regain his full height. "It took me rather more than one book... But I…"
The wordless intensity with which he watched her reactions unnerved her. Willing herself not to convey any flagrant discomfort by wringing her hands, she settled for examining her fingernails as she mustered the strength to speak again. She longed to ask him what she'd wanted to know since the day he'd handed her Unicorns and the Ancients; she settled for a bare whisper: "Does it signify what I hope?"
"I should think I ought to ask that of your presence here," he murmured, moving away from the fireplace and around the couch to approach her. She wondered how she'd ever ascribed to him any snakelike behavior when his movements were that of a wolf, sinewy but economical, with long, loping steps.
He's testing me, she thought, noting how, rounding the sofa and entering the open room, he began to move with quicker, domineering strides. To an outside observer there would have been few overt changes in his steps, but Hermione had the benefit of comparatively great experience. Reclusive as he was, very few people had seen the manner in which he comported himself outside the classroom. It was not, she understood instantly, the professional approach of a teacher toward his student; he paused before her and looked down into her eyes in the way a man does a woman, seeking permission. For what, Hermione didn't know, and the possibilities made her breathless.
"Yes," she whispered. "That's why I'm here. I thought…" The truth hovered on the tip of her lips, but she couldn't bring herself to give it voice. "…that you wanted me to activate the potion," she finished, unable to keep disappointment from coloring her tone. She'd hoped for far, far more, and he knew it. "Professor, I—"
She flinched, realizing how bitter the title tasted in her mouth. Her desire to call him something more intimate had multiplied to astronomical strength in the thirty minutes since she'd graduated, consuming every conscious thought. "I hope that you'd like me to activate the final dose. But I was also hoping… That is, I'd like…"
But she snapped her jaw shut, realizing she couldn't be that bold. Some deep-seated hesitation drew her back, and she recalled her conversation with Madam Pomfrey. It had been a revelation for her: it was more than mere female intuition which led her to believe he had to feel in control. It was an age-old dance, she supposed, inviting him in, subversively controlling the situation by making herself appear vulnerable. She'd expected it to feel more compromising, or somehow more shameful, than it actually did.
Instead it felt warm, thrilling, like her nerves sang a sublime chorus when they registered the proximity of his face and shoulders so near to her. "I would like to take the final dose of the potion, Miss Granger," he confirmed, his voice almost too quiet for her to hear. "But I also want," he intoned softly, his inflection somehow incredibly sensual, "the two of us to be friends, in which case I believe it is appropriate that you address me as Severus. Would that be acceptable to you?"
She was torn. To call him Severus was an indescribable privilege, but to be his friend, and only his friend, would destroy her utterly.
She strove to keep her disappointment transitory, but he must have seen the crestfallen expression flash across her face. He chuckled richly in response, inducing a shiver that passed clear from her temples to her toes, and held a hand forward. Hermione accepted it with confusion, having become convinced the moment the words had left his lips that he didn't want her sexually.
He curved his fingers around hers, large and warm, and she met his eyes again. What she saw there made the concept of nonverbal communication suddenly and achingly real. Though she'd thought it impossible, his eyes were their darkest yet, rims of bitter chocolate around intense, shimmering liquid black. The arousal evident in their depths immediately began to dispel her worries.
When he ran his thumb along the delicate bones of her wrist, they evaporated completely. Hermione fought to keep from trembling. He noted her reaction; for the first time since she'd entered his rooms, his lips curved with the barest hint of masculine satisfaction "I confess also," he murmured, solemn once again, "that I am deeply apologetic for what I said to you in Hogsmeade. I am sure you recall the evening in question."
"You don't have to apologize," she insisted forcefully, shaking her head. Ginny's painstaking efforts to restrain her hair were quickly coming undone with the movements, more and more tendrils falling to contact her shoulders. "What I did was a betrayal of your trust and absolutely unforgivable. I can't tell you how sorry I am."
That he remained, on some level, hurt by her behavior was all too obvious. Yet he continued without hesitation, "I am equally to blame, Miss Granger. I placed a terrible burden on your shoulders, just as I have on Poppy Pomfrey's for more years than I care to recall. Rather than hold you culpable for the need to speak of that burden with others, I shall count myself fortunate that you found it possible to feel any compassion for me at all."
"How could you doubt it? After all the work we've—" Tears sprang into her eyes, and she had to resist the urge to jerk her hand away from him in order to brush them from her face. They pooled on her lashes, warm and heavy, and she blinked hard, embarrassed.
To her utter astonishment, Snape—Severus—slowly lifted his left hand and brushed away the tears on her cheeks with more tenderness than she'd ever seen employed in a human gesture. Her eyes must have grown even wider, and the silence between them thrummed with the need for action.
"I would be honored to be your… friend." She was secretly pleased with how husky the words sounded, emitting from her suddenly dry throat. Something flashed in his eyes, instinctual and almost predatory, and she saw him draw his shoulders minutely away from her. Wondering if she'd pushed too far, or if he expected her to apologize further, she hastened to add, "And I'm terribly sorry about… what Ginny Weasley said. I hope it won't come between us."
"On the contrary," he murmured. "It may make what I must say next considerably easier to articulate."
Hope welled in her chest as he resumed stroking his thumb over her wrist. Hermione would never have imagined that the light friction of his slightly callused fingertip caressing the thin skin of her hand could be so unbearably erotic. "Yes?" she prodded, feeling a sudden need to gulp. She was afraid that her voice might have emerged a girlish squeak.
"Honesty compels me to admit, Miss Granger, that my reaction to Miss Weasley's announcement was in part defensive, as I am…" The sight of him at a loss for words stole her breath. "I find myself… admiring you rather more than is appropriate given our respective positions."
Hermione couldn't restrain herself—she laughed delightedly. "That argument ceased to have standing with me approximately"—she glanced at the clock above the fireplace—"thirty-four minutes ago, Severus."
She was free to infuse his name with the full dose of pleasure it had secretly inspired in her for so many years. It was liberating, this new license to caress it and appreciate it aloud. He swallowed hard, and Hermione reveled in a flash of purely feminine power, emboldened by the knowledge that he had—in his terribly sexy, reserved, Snapelike way—confirmed reciprocating her attraction.
Wickedly, imagining the ferocity of his reaction if—when, she corrected herself gleefully—he would finally behold her in her Special Underwear, she leaned closer to him and murmured softly, "I believe it is now appropriate for you to call me Hermione."