When she woke up the next morning, she was alone. Severus had already left the bed and she couldn't hear him. She slowly sat up and got dressed for the day.
There still wasn't much food available for her to make into a good meal and the kitchens were closed, but she tried her best. After she placed the leftovers in the fridge, she heard a few noises coming from the storage room.
"Severus?" she asked, moving towards the sound. "Severus, are you here?"
"In here," he responded.
She glanced in the room and watching him for a second.
"Are you hungry? I made breakfast for you. It's in the fridge."
"I'm not hungry."
"Yes, you are, Mr. Grumpy. You need something to eat. You'll have no energy in four hours," she said, trying to help him to his feet.
"No. Hermione, stop."
"Severus. Get up. Now," she said, standing her ground. She knew he needed to start eating properly and soon.
"Fine," he muttered.
"And I know your feet were getting uncomfortable."
"Whatever you want to think, Miss Granger," he said.
"I think I remember something about telling you to call me Hermione, Severus."
"Ah, yes. In exchange for doing things for you, you get to do anything you want to me."
"That wasn't what I said. I specifically said—"
"I know what you said. I listen to you more than you think I do. Especially, since I'm now stuck in an apartment alone with you." He sat down at the table and started eating.
"I just want to help you. You know you need it."
"But I don't need it from the woman I'm supposed to be protecting!"
"I don't need you to protect me! I can take care of myself, you know."
"Barely," he mumbled through a mouthful of toast.
"Excuse me?" she asked, leaning towards him.
"Nothing. This is really good. What is this on the top?"
She knew he was trying to change the subject, but she didn't want to start the day off fighting with him.
"It's cinnamon sugar. It helps add flavor."
"Mmm. I like it," he said.
They sat in silence for a while. She watched him eat for a few seconds before asking if he minded going with her to the muggle grocery store for more food. He agreed grudgingly when she said that he needed to get out of the castle.
"Can you be ready in ten minutes?" she asked.
"Of course. Can you?"
"Are you asking because I'm a girl and I'm supposed to take a long time to get ready?"
"Ah. Well, for future reference it does not usually take me longer than ten minutes to get ready for anything," she replied.
"Really? And the four hours spent fixing your hair for the Yull Ball doesn't count?" he said as he got up to place his plate in the sink. She stared at him and he turned to look at her when she didn't respond. "What?"
"How did you know I spent four hours trying to make my hair perfect?" she asked, slowly. He looked confused.
"Um, I'm actually not sure. Did you ever mention it?"
They both stood contemplating the situation until Hermione remembered the shopping trip.
"I still need to get ready, so…" She trailed off and headed to the bedroom.
"Of course," he said.
A few minutes later, both of them were walking to the edge of Hogsmeade.
"Ready?" she asked. He glanced at her for a second. "I was just trying to be helpful."
"Helpful? Is that what you called stuffing me into these horrible Muggle contraptions called jeans?" he asked.
"Yes. I'm not taking you into London wearing robes. I'm trying to be inconspicuous," she explained.
"Fine," he mumbled. He didn't have the energy to have a proper row with her, so he opened his arms and let her wrap hers around his waist.
After the uncomfortable feeling of apparition, they landed in a small patch of trees that completely hid them from view. Severus almost slid on the muddy grass they were standing on. The hill wasn't helping his balance, either.
"Besides, the jeans aren't that bad, are they?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Well, no, but…" he said, trailing off.
"It's a guy thing."
"Yeah, okay," she said, deliberately stepping out of his embrace.
"What? Did you want me to give you all the details?" he asked, following her along the bottom of the hill.
"Probably not. Regardless, you're still whining like a child."
"I am not!" he protested as he caught up with her.
The tall trees around them shielded them from view and, subsequently, shielded everything from his view. All he knew was he was walking on a step hill next to a small creek. He looked into it for a few seconds, watching the green fish.
"You're pouting right now," she said.
"I highly doubt I'm—" He was cut off by the view in front of him.
A pond stretched across a small clearing in the trees. It was almost clear and from the top of the small crest they were standing on, the colored fish filled it and moved, the sun reflecting off it. A mother duck and her six ducklings swam near the edge. Tall trees framed the area, holes in their trucks where animals had nested.
Hermione loved this place. It was the only area of pure nature in the residential neighborhood. She'd taken immense pains to conserve the natural cycle. She'd added street lamps around the area to keep drivers alert. She'd found too many dead foxes who's been hit by cars. As far as she knew, this was the only area left that had wild foxes for miles.
"What is this place?" he asked softly.
"Just a place I found when I used to live over here," she said, just as quietly. "Look. Come here." She led him over to a small patch of plants at the end of the pond where it connected to the creek.
"Look here. Just stand here for a moment," she said. They waited a few moments and suddenly Hermione grasped his arm and pointed into the brush. "Do you see them?"
"Yes. Yes, I do," he said.
The plants had parted just enough to let them see through into a trampled down area in the middle. A mother fox lay on the ground, her babies rolling around each other.
"Aren't they beautiful?"
"You can't have one."
"I know. I'd much rather have them here, anyway."
After a few more minutes, she broke the silence. "Well, we still need to get food."
She led him around the pond and through the trees to the road.
"It's just down here. It won't take very long." He followed her into a small shopping mall and into a grocery store.
"Okay, I need you to get a basket from over there," she said, pointing. "Just pull it out." He walked over and complied, mumbling about being ordered around.
"What's next?" he asked.
"We pick out the food we want to eat for the next couple of days."
"So, just choose something that looks appetizing?" he asked.
She could tell he was very much out of his element.
"Think of it as a potion. What ingredients are going to make you happy?" He turned to look at her.
"If you think food and potions are the only things that make me happy, you're sorely mistaken."
"They do make you happier, though. Don't they?" She looked up at him and tried to steer him out of the way of an elderly woman.
"What makes you say that?"
"You loved the cinnamon sugar on your toast this morning. Don't deny it."
"Fine. Yes, I will admit that the breakfast you made for me was good." She smiled.
"That wasn't so hard was it?"
"Yes, it was."
She leaned over to him and wrapped her arms around his waist as she laughed.
"Why must you always try to be unpleasant, Severus?" she asked.
He looked down at the top of her head on his chest and realized it was the first time she'd ever hugged him outside of apparition.
"Do you like oranges?" she asked, still holding him.
"I'll eat them."
"What about apples?"
"Lettuce and tomatoes?"
"Okay." And with that, she led him to each station, wrapping one or two items in a bag every time they stopped.
"What kind of meat?" she asked.
"Whatever you want."
She chose a small rack of ribs and some chicken. They went around the store in this way; she asked what he liked, he got whatever she wanted.
When it came to choosing feminine hygiene products, he wasn't as uncomfortable as she thought he would be.
"I lived with women all my life. I understand it's a cycle of nature that must be dealt with."
He insisted she let him pay for the food and necessities. Not that she didn't protest heartily along the way.
The second they got back, he disappeared into his store room and left her to put the things away. After she was done, she went to their bedroom and lay on the bed, already tired. A few minutes later, he walked in.
"Why are you in bed already?" he asked, coming to stand on the other side.
"I'm tired?" she mumbled.
"What? I couldn't quite catch that."
"Hmm. Speak up if you want me to hear."
"Now, that I heard."
He sat up on the bed and pulled his shoes off before getting under the covers.
"What are you doing?"
"Closing my eyes for a few minutes. I need to rest."
"A few minutes? You'll fall asleep."
"Shush," he said, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. "Stop talking."
"Fine," she huffed, not bothering to move.
Within minutes, both of them were fast asleep.
Hermione woke up a couple hours later, too warm, but comfortable. She had managed to stay on top of the covers while Severus lay curled underneath. They were both on their respective sides, which she was happy about. At night, she tended to use anything as a teddy bear. Sometimes when she'd been on the run with Harry and Ron, they'd woken up in piles, wrapped around one another for comfort, Hermione always in the middle.
Slowly, she crept out into the small living room. She'd thrown a thin blanket over the couch the day before to liven up the place and was glad she did. Neither she nor Severus had thought to start to fireplace going. She was sure he allowed no houseleves into the room.
Her stomach grumbled slightly. She wondered what time it was as she hadn't eaten since breakfast. Neither of them had. They couldn't have slept that long, she figures.
She pulled the fridge open and decided to cook some Canadian bacon she'd found at the back of the store. A few minutes after the bacon had begun to cook and the smell was perforating the apartment, Severus emerged from their room. His hair was unkempt and he was running his hands through it while yawning. The moment he noticed her, he stopped and attempted to straighten himself out.
"Good afternoon, Severus."
"Not yet. What are you making" he asked, stepping into the kitchen and looking over her shoulder.
"Food," she responded. "Now, get out of the kitchen. You're disturbing the cooking process."
"Disturbing the—? Whatever," he grumbled, reaching for a piece of the meat.
"No, you don't. You dare try to steal that in front of me?" she asked, astonished as he burned his fingers on the pan. "You deserve that pain."
"I got awoken by cooking meat. If you didn't want me to eat it, you should have masked the smell. I deserve this, not a second degree burn." He hissed as he walked to the sink and poured cold water onto his hand.
"Don't put cold water on it!" She ran over to warm the water. "If it's too cool, it can damage you more."
"My nerves are already damaged, Hermione."
She turned a glare on him. After the water warmed up, she pulled his hand into the water.
"I don't need your help," he said
"I don't want to hear it. You are getting it anyway," she growled.
She dragged him across the kitchen to a dry towel, patting it down his hand. He tried not to make a sound.
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to hurt you," she said softly. She led him to the bathroom where she dug through the bag she'd left there until she found a small cloth wrap and some disinfectant. She checked for open wounds before applying the alcohol. He grimaced a little, but there wasn't any actual pain.
"Why do you have a bandage in with your other toiletries?" he asked, watching her wrap it around his hand slowly and carefully.
"I injure myself more than I'd like to admit. I find it's easier to prepare for the worst and hop for the best."
"I never thought my bandages would be used on you, though." She missed as she worked.
"Why? Because the snarky potions master would never hurt himself? Because bats and vampires can't get hurt?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.
"No. Because you're always so careful about your body. I've never seen you even cut yourself before. I never figured you'd need a bandage. And you know I never believed all those stupid rumors about you turning into a vampire and taking advantage of unsuspecting teenage girls."
"People said that I took advantage of unsuspecting teenage girls? Is not moral of mine untouched by them?" He shook his head in annoyance.
"I guess they wouldn't be unsuspecting, would they?"
"How so?" She finished putting the finishing touches on the lightweight magical bond. He would still have full range of motion. Good.
"Well, it seems most of the older girls here were interested in you, especially after the war and your miraculous survival."
She wiped her hands on the sides of her pants before washing them in the sink.
"Yes, I have been notified of that on occasion."
You have? Huh. It might be the dungeon master persona you put on. Smart really."
"You would expect something less from me?" He inspected his hand carefully, flexing them experimentally.
"Of course not. If you excuse me, I have to keep our food from burning."
He grunted in response and walked back into the bathroom.
After their small snack, it was back to work in the storeroom.
"Severus," she asked as they organized.
"What is it now?"
"I'm going back home tonight. Just to make sure I've got everything I need, you know. So, you'll have to get breakfast and probably dinner on your own."
He only grunted in response.
"Did you hear me?"
"Of course I did, silly woman. I may be old, but I'm not deaf yet."
"I wasn't insinuating you were either."
"Sure, and instead you interrupted my work yet again." He turned to look at her angrily. She glared right back and left to get ready to leave.
It was quiet in the rooms against for a few minutes and Severus was beginning to fall back into a mindless routine when He heard his name again. His head fell forward and he put the jar he'd been holding back into the box it came from.
"Miss Granger. You impede my work to—"
He turned the corner and saw her sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall, near the door.
"Hermione! Is everything okay?"
She wordlessly held out the newspaper to him. "Front page. It's on the front page."
He flipped it over and scanned the edges carefully. Nothing interesting. It was The Quibbler, after all. Then, his eye caught on the large image in the middle of the page.
It was a magical picture of Hermione and him. He had no idea how someone could have gotten it. His arm was around her waist and both were smiling at the other and the group of Hogwarts staff members around them. The headline ran:
Severus Snape engaged to Hermione Granger: Exclusive Interview
"When did this happen?" he asked.
"Skeeter," was all she could say.
He slid down next to her. "I knew I shouldn't have done that. The whole time, I was telling myself it was idiotic, yet I couldn't shut my own mouth." He ran a hand down his face. "I never even said anything about an engagement."
"Well, she used your words in the article. Something about you're always protecting me when I'm insulted and looked down upon."
He groaned and leaned his head back against the wall. "I'm sorry for any inconvenience this may cause you. Especially since you're going back to the rest of the Golden Trio."
"Oh, I hadn't even thought of them. God, they'll be so upset. They'll think I purposefully kept this from them." Her head fell to her hands.
"How did she even get that picture? It doesn't matter. No one reads The Quibbler, anyway. Right?"
"I don't know. I don't know. Did you even see another person with her? Or a camera? Oh, the next time I see her, I'm going to keep her locked up for so long, so won't—"
"Hermione. Hermione! Get it together. Come. Stand up. Fix yourself some tea." She allowed him to help her to her feet.
"I should probably go get ready to leave," she said.
"That may be a good idea. After the tea, of course."
Three quarters of an hour later, she bid Severus goodbye and stepped through the fireplace to her kitchen where both Ron and Harry were sitting, arguing about something. The moment they noticed her, they paused, only to continue yelling at her.
"Stop it! Now, what are you on about? I'm gone for one day and the two of you are at it like an old married couple. What is it this time?" she asked.
"How could you not tell us?" Ron asked.
"Yes. Are we not good enough friends to know what's going on in your life anymore? Is this why you took that job? If only I'd been here to talk to you," Harry said.
"Oh, you are talking about the article Skeeter wrote." Her shoulders slumped a little. She'd hoped they'd either not seen it or discarded it for the rubbish it was. "You know that everything she writes is total crap. Not to mention, the only thing it could be published in was the Quibbler."
"Hey!" Ron protested.
"I didn't mean anything by that, Ronald. I just meant that the more reputable newspapers wouldn't print it. They knew what it was."
"And what is it?" Harry questioned. "Just an affair between and old teacher and his student?"
Hermione sat at the table, sighing. "What happened is simple. Severus made her angry yesterday. She retaliated by producing this trash."
"So, you're not engaged to Snape?"
"And you're not dating him?"
"Oh." Harry and Ron looked at each other.
"But what about the picture?" Ron asked.
"What do you mean?" she said, eyes narrowing dangerously. He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. Harry held the newspaper up.
"Why is the picture like this? How'd she get a picture of you two?"
"We don't know."
"So, why's his arm around you like that?" Ron asked.
"I don't know, Ronald. Now, can we move on? I need to know if I need to take anything back with me."
The three of them talked and worked for hours. It was long into the morning when Ron found Hermione in the kitchen.
"Hey," he said in greeting.
"Hello." She looked up at him. "What's wrong?" He was leaning against the door frame on his shoulder.
"Um… I want to ask you something and I want you to answer truthfully, okay?" he said.
She put down her paper. "Yes?"
"You remember when we were going out?"
"'Going out' being an overly general term, yes."
"Yeah, well, I just—did you break up with me for Snape?"
Hermione could honestly not form any words. How could he seriously be questioning this? She had explained in detail why they weren't compatible. The arguing, the fighting…
"Well, I was just thinking it was strange that our breakup happened just a few days after he came back. I was just wondering…"
"Absolutely not! I broke up with you because we got along horribly as a couple. Severus had nothing to do with that decision."
"Oh, so it's Severus now?" he said, looking more angry. He took a few steps towards her.
"Because he's my colleague and I respect him!"
"Sounds like you do more than respect him."
"Ronald Weasley! How dare you entertain notions of something so ludacris?"
"Because I can tell by looking at you! You're lying!"
"No, I am not."
"How? That's not something I can do."
"Because you love him! Admit it!"
She turned to the fireplace behind her and stepped through after screaming her destination and throwing down the powder in her pocket. She ignored the calls of her name and the small stream of tears on her cheeks. It had always annoyed her that her anger produced tears. It made her feel weak.
She scowled and made her way into the bedroom where Severus was sitting up and rubbing a hand over his face. He froze when he saw her.
"Hermione? Are you okay?"
Immediately, she wiped the tears from her face.
"Yeah." There was a pause. He glared at her. "No."
He started to get out of bed and she walked over to him. She stood before him and wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Um…okay," he said, awkwardly patting her back.
"I'm sorry. I just need a hug. I know you don't like them, but please." She sniffled against his shoulder and he winced.
"Can I just put a shirt on before you soak me through with your tears?" he asked. She pulled away immediately and looked down at his chest.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't even notice. Probably because you were sitting in bed and had the sheet covering you. I didn—"
"Hermione. Shut up. Please." She shut up.
He quickly found his shirt he had shucked prior to getting into bed. Immediately, he opened his arms to her, which was a little surprising, but she took the offer and snuggled back into his chest, crying anew at his affection.
"Now, what has you in such a state of agitation?" he asked, settling down more comfortably.
"Ron read that stupid article. He wants to believe it and not me." He could hardly understand her muffled voice.
"Weasley? What did he do? Did he touch you? Are you hurt?" He tried to pry her body away from his so he could look her over, but she clung tighter.
"No. He didn't touch me. He wouldn't dare. His mother managed to teach him that much." If he noticed the bitterness in her voice, he didn't say anything.
"Then what happened? Why are you crying? There had better be a reason you're soaking my shirt through so I can retaliate accordingly and have his head in the stocks by morning," he growled.
"He asked me if I broke up with him so I could be with you. I can't believe he could be so ignorant!"
"You didn't, did you?"
"No, of course not."
"Oh, good. Did you hit him?"
"No. I just left. It was completely aggravating that he wouldn't believe me when I said we only had a professional relationship—"
"We do?" He pulled back to look at her.
"We only have a professional relationship? Do colleagues generally comfort each other when upset?"
"Um, sometimes, I guess. I'm sure if someone was upset in a working environment, he/she would be comforted by someone."
"Okay, continue." He pulled her close.
"Oh, um… I don't think there's anything else."
"Weasley has done no wrong by you until this morning?"
"Well, yeah, but you ruined the moment."
"By asking for clarification on our relationship? I did not foresee that."
"It's okay. Thank you."
"What did he say specifically?"
"Um, that we have to be together because I called you Severus and we broke up right after you returned and he thinks I feel something for you other than friendship. He said he could see it by looking at me. He said that I love you, which is just absurd. You're the last person I would ever fall in love with."
"Oh, good. So, you won't be disappointed."
"Hey, I'm upset. When women are upset, the social convention is to either comfort them until they're fine or run away like a baby."
"Not like a baby." He stood and walked into the bathroom.
""Great. Just walk away. Everyone else does." She stomped into the kitchen and yanked the cabinets open, searching almost desperately. Severus came out of the bathroom slowly, watching her frantic motions.
"What are you looking for?" he asked.
"Anything that resembles an alcoholic beverage. Is this really sparkling apple cider? You don't have beer? At all?"
"Why do you assume I have alcohol?" He crossed his arms and solidified his stance.
"Because you've always been an angry man and, in my experience, angry men drink after a hard day at work. That and I need to forget most of what happened today."
"Well, I'm fresh out of anything that might help you with that other than a memory charm." He stepped across the room and pulled the bottle of cider from her hands.
"Yeah, take it. Every time I look at it, I'm just hoping it's something strong in as large a quantity as it would take to kill off the cells associated with today's memories so when I wake up in the morning, I don't have to remember it all."
Severus leaned on the kitchen island, facing Hermione. She stopped looking and watched his face change. She saw this look every time he tried to school his expression into non-emotion when faced with a situation he felt strongly about.
"Hermione, how much of that newspaper did you read?"
"Only that stupid article," she said, her eyes following him as he straightened and picked up the paper from the side table next to him. "You know , we ought to be able to make her take it all back if we blackmail her with just the right thing. I think I rem—"
"Stop. Read this," he interrupted, showing her another article she'd skipped.
"Oh, my God!" She read further. "Please tell me they don't mean what they say. If it's true, everyone loses all rights to express their feelings about—"
"I know. And everyone includes you and me."
"A marriage law? What could they gain by that?" Minerva asked.
"Oh, just quasi-peace between people who had no real reason to hate each other besides the orders of the war leaders. Not to mention, the population boost they practically demand," Severus replied.
"So, they're going to force half-bloods and the muggle-born to marry each other, but only the most talented. I've been told they already have a list of the ones they want paired together. They should receive letters, asking them to choose between the others."
"That makes no sense. Everyone is going to pair themselves with their preferred partners. People like Neville Longbottom and I are going to be left for the last."
"Yes," Minerva said, looking to Dumbledore for affirmation.
"I suppose the left over Death Eaters are attempting to control the remaining powerful witches and wizards with this," Hermione said.
"Precisely. Which means we need to secure you and Severus with trusted members of the Order. Since you two are the only ones affected by this new legislation, I suggest the two of you marry," Dumbledore said softly.
"What? The only way for the two of us to join in that way would be to prove a previous romantic relationship. We've not been in a romantic relationship."
"Oh, but someone think you have. And they have documented it." Dumbledore handed them the morning's paper which had Rita Skeeter's article in it.
"This may work," Severus said. "Especially since Weasley is convinced you were lying to him this afternoon."
A bell tolled in the tower above them. Fawkes cooed in response and settled on the perch calmly.
"Now, it is time for breakfast. We've been up all night. I suppose you two won't be joining us. That is all. Minerva, I will walk you down."
The two watched their elders leave the room with mouths open in shock.
"Maybe if I go to sleep, I'll find it was only a horrible dream when I wake up," Hermione said.
"Illogical, but hopeful," he replied, following her back to their rooms.
"And we're sure there's no way to get out of it?" she asked.
"Either that or the old coot wants to force us together for some perverted reason." He noted with interest how she tensed up and almost froze.
"Probably not, but you never know." Her voice sounded a little high to him.
"Is there something you're not telling me?" he asked.
"Not at all. I'm very tired." She hurried ahead, practically running to the dungeons.
Snape vowed to speak to the headmaster later.