A/N: Beta reading thanks and hugs to Lariope, Sshg316, and Machshefa, with Brit-picking thanks to Magically. Thanks and kisses to Mischievous T and Lady Rhian for alpha reading!
Severus laid his head against the chair back, willing the tension to drain from his shoulders. His eyes were closed, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled the aroma of the cognac in the snifter held betwixt his fingers. Scent, that powerful agent of pleasure, of remembrance, and of restoration, soothed his frayed nerves, and he allowed himself to relax into the pleasurable haze. The memories triggered by the girl's touch on his chest in the alleyway had been banished, swept again into the oubliette beneath the cover of his indomitable will. No, the scenes playing behind his lids were of the girl herself, her face buried in the fragrance of the genetically enhanced lavender roses, drawn to them like a bee to honey—like a travel-parched pilgrim to water—like an invalid to healing.
A self-satisfied smirk touched his mouth, and he raised his head, touching his lips to the glass, allowing the Courvoisier to coat his tongue, relishing the full experience of aroma, taste, and pleasure. All things considered, it had been a successful weekend thus far, and his project—not an obsession, he informed the voice in his head—of reclaiming Hermione Granger from the dangers of her situation was progressing very nicely indeed.
The night might even call for the fat black Cuban cigar he had been saving for a special occasion …
He had scarcely a moment to prepare himself, for the ripple of her passage through his wards brought him fully upright in his chair, and then she was there, standing in the middle of his sitting room, her eyes wild and her hair wilder, looking like the wrath of God.
Ah. She had noticed the absence of her sleeping draught, then.
With cool deliberation, he crossed one leg over the other and looked her up and down with a sneer. 'Is it beyond your capacity to knockon the door, Granger?' he said, permitting his exasperation to flavour his tone.
She glanced about the cramped space in confusion. 'I didn't think I could actually doit!' she snapped. 'What sort of fool doesn't ward his house against intruders?'
His brows arched, but he kept his tone level as he answered her. 'The sort of fool who gave you his address and told you you'd be welcome.'
His response, rather than satisfying her question, seemed to create only more confusion. 'You set your wards to let me Apparate directly into your house?' she demanded. He nodded once. 'That's … that's just crazy!'
He injected a bit of boredom into his voice. 'I'd offer to take your coat, but I see you didn't wear one.'
The girl looked down at herself, seeing that she'd left home wearing her jeans and jumper; it appeared she had progressed only as far as removing her trainers before she began to search for her potion. Her chin came up then, her mobile mouth firming into a straight, angry line, and he watched her gather herself for the attack.
'Never mind that!' she cried. 'You took my potion, Snape! You came into my flat, and you rifled through my things, and you took it! How dare you?'
He took another sip of cognac, more for time to think than for the true desire to imbibe any more drink. How to keep her engaged without tipping the encounter into some penny-dreadful drama that would undo all the good they'd accomplished in the last day?
'You're right,' he agreed affably. 'I ought not to have done it.'
She gaped at him in amazement, as if trying to process his words.
He continued, 'Next time, I'll bring all the Weasleys—all the Order—and we'll stage an intervention instead.' He cocked his head, as if considering. 'It would be a tight fit, all those people in your flat, but you wouldn't care about that, would you? Not in the spirit of doing the thing up properly.'
She drew in a great draught of air, filling her lungs and replenishing her store of indignation, as well. 'Oh, ha ha!' she cried derisively. 'That's not what I meant, and you know it! I don't want them—I don't needthem—and no, I don't need you, either!'
He placed the cognac on the table beside him and propped his elbows on the arms of his chair, allowing his hands to dangle, open and unthreatening. 'I see,' he said quietly. 'You just need the potion, then.'
She took a step towards him, her face flushed, her hands fisted at her sides. 'What if I do?' she shouted. 'I have the right to take it if I want!'
He allowed a small smile to touch his lips. 'Correct,' he admitted, 'but if that's so, Hermione, why are you here, telling me about it?'
And she stopped, the aggression and rage falling from her like a discarded disguise, the exigency of the lost potion visibly evaporating, leaving behind one confused, exhausted, overwrought girl.
Her flash-fire of fury dissipated, and with it went her purpose. She was wrong, of course; she did need him, though she still didn't understand why. Sudden, debilitating exhaustion overtook her, and standing in the middle of Snape's rather small sitting room, she dissolved in great, gasping sobs. She cried openly, with no attempt to hide or repress her distress. She ought to go home, but she was much too tired to Disapparate safely, so she stood forlornly on Snape's threadbare rug and wept.
Snape, for once, seemed at a loss. He stood, concern writ upon the harsh-featured face, and pulled a folded white handkerchief from his trouser pocket. For a moment, he allowed the scrap of fabric to dangle from his long fingers, then he took a hesitant step towards her and took her hand, pressing the handkerchief into it. Reflexively, she put the cloth to her face, though it seemed a bit silly to wipe up her cheeks when they were promptly wet again.
Snape did not bother to speak; it might have been difficult for him to be heard over the racket she was making, she had to admit. Instead, he placed a large hand hesitantly upon her shoulder and patted her awkwardly. Had she not already been firmly committed to the crying, she might have segued into laughter, for the enigmatic, self-assured former professor looked quite ridiculous in the face of her sudden tear storm.
The discomfited expression about his thin-lipped mouth was replaced by a rather grim determination, and she found herself gently propelled a few steps backwards, until she was pushed onto a sadly worn sofa. Then he crouched before her, his eyes on level with hers.
'I'm going to prepare something warm for you to drink whilst you compose yourself,' he said authoritatively, his voice implying there was no question of her compliance. 'Would you prefer tea or cocoa?'
'C-cocoa,' she hiccupped.
He rose and walked away from her. With an impatient wave of his hand, a hidden door materialised from a wall of bookshelves, revealing a dark stairway. He strode through the doorway and out of sight.
Hermione drew a shaky breath and looked curiously about her. So, this was Snape's house?
The room was tiny, though the impression might have been compounded by the preponderance of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, each shelf brimming with black and brown leather-bound books … books amongst which she might find a few she had yet to read, she thought.
The sitting room contained the armchair he had occupied, the sofa upon which she sat, and a table with a mended leg, holding one half-filled snifter and a book with a marker protruding from its pages. Everything was clean enough, but old and worn. One long window flanked the front door, which bore a variety of bolts and locks of the Muggle variety. The wall switch beside the front door indicated that the place had been wired for electricity, although the heat in the room came from a narrow, wood-burning hearth, and the light was provided by a ceiling-mounted candelabrum. Perhaps this had been his parents' home, she mused.
He returned, a quilt smelling of lavender in his hands, a serving tray floating obediently behind him. He crouched again, his black eyes searching her face as he laid the quilt over her. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he placed a cup of cocoa in her hands. She bent her head and inhaled the wonderful steamy aroma—this was the real thing, made with milk and cocoa, rather than the pre-packaged Muggle mixture she used.
'Drink it,' he commanded, removing himself to his armchair with a cup of his own. 'There is more, should you have need.'
Hermione sipped, her eyes closing briefly in appreciation. The quilt was warm in the rather draughty old room, the fire cheerful, the light dim, lulling her into a near-stupor of comfort and wellbeing. She blinked at the man across from her, reflecting that all the scant times she had felt safe lately had been in his company. Why was that? Even though he had slapped down the notion she expressed that might account for it—that he had no expectations of her—she still found peace in his presence, and she was powerfullydrawn to him.
He allowed her to drink her chocolate in silence, and though her mind wandered in musing, she felt the weight of his unwavering regard, and she knew his black eyes were ever on her. She drained her cup and allowed her head to fall back on the sofa cushion. Several minutes passed, until he loomed over her, removing the mug from her slack fingers as if worried he might wake her.
'So,' she said, and his startled eyes met hers. 'How do you mean to entertain me?'
His thin lips curved in a self-mocking smile as he recognised his words from the night before. He straightened, placing the empty cup on the hovering tray, which had inched closer to him as he stood over her, rather like a puppy following its master.
'Well, I don't have Dirty Dancing to put you to sleep,' he said, giving her a rather comical curl of his lip, to indicate his opinion of the movie she had slapped in the video player, 'but in the absence of its soporific qualities, I can offer the wizarding equivalent: I can read to you from Hogwarts: A History.'
Hermione attempted a stern expression, endeavouring to channel Minerva McGonagall. 'Since I have no sleeping draught …' she began, allowing him to complete the sentence in his mind.
His eyes gleamed appreciatively, and she caught a muffled chuckle from him before he settled again in his armchair and said soberly, 'Precisely so.'
Then he Summoned the heavy volume from the shelf, banishing the tray with a flick of his fingers, and he began to read, his baritone filling the room like slowly melting chocolate of the darkest variety.
'Thus in the year 1612, the first of the Great Goblin Rebellions began, ushering in a period of strife which was to last for the best part of a century …'
Hermione snuggled deeper into the sweet-smelling quilt, one finger tracing its hand-stitched border as she luxuriated in the exquisite extravagance of being read to.
She woke slowly from a dream of fields of lavender roses, her eyes fluttering open, only to squint again against the shaft of sunlight piercing the imperfectly closed curtains covering the window. She didn't immediately realise she was out of place, for the pillow beneath her head might have been her own. But she needed the loo, and when she looked up at the ceiling, she couldn't think where the bathroom might be in this place. She struggled upright, and the reality of her location burst upon her, for sleeping in the armchair was Severus Snape, Hogwarts: A Historyopen upon his lap.
Hermione felt a pang of guilt. This was the second night in a row the poor man had slept upright on her account; he couldn't have rested well. Yet his breathing was deep and even, and his repose was evident in his face, for the harsh lines which scored his forehead were smooth as he slept, his guard completely down for a precious few moments. She was entranced by his mouth—that weapon he had used so viciously upon his students—thin lips slightly parted; she could not fail to note how beautifully those lips were formed, as if the insult of his ugly, hooked nose could be remedied by the beauty of his mouth. His hair had fallen lankly away from his face, and she noted his squared, stubborn chin, and the angle of his jaw as it slanted from the lobe of his ear. This was the manshe had become aware of the night of the Order Christmas party—not simply the man who had nicked her sleeping potion, but the one who had put himself out for her time and again.
This single, self-sufficient, disturbingly attractive man.
And as she studied him, his eyes opened to find hers fastened upon his face. The corners of those eyes crinkled the veriest bit, and he returned her regard with interest, as if it were only natural for him to wake up to the sight of her face. She smiled tentatively, thinking of how rumpled she must be, how tousled her brown curls, and even as her hand moved, as if to tidy them, his lips parted in a true smile, and he gave the slightest shake of his head. She looked fine—lovely, her mind whispered—to him exactly as she was, and he'd not have her change a thing.
So she allowed her hand to fall again and basked for the moment in the silent approbation of Severus Snape.