HERE I AM NOT
Obligatory Disclaimer: Nope, still not mine.
Author's Notes: The 6000th review of Chasing the Sun was caught by keske. After I admitted defeat with the first prompt, I was given this to play with: "After the war, Hermione comes to America, New England specifically, to get a degree from one of the prestigious schools? and Severus could maybe have snuck over to America as well, simply to be far and away from the British wizarding world? Maybe they see each other from across the same dark little college student cafe? Sweet and fluffy, with a couple of good lemons if there's room." So here you go.
Warnings: Actually, none, I don't think; I was going to do a bit of smut but when I reached that point it seemed unnecessary.
"From meetings and partings none can ever escape. Nor from magic."
- Neil Gaiman.
It had taken her a while to settle in and learn her way around, but Hermione had quickly found a few favourite hangouts. The campus library, predictably, but the computer lab as well, and a small park that would be nice to sit and work in when the weather improved in the summer, and her current destination of a café in the centre of town that was quite popular with her fellow students but not so much that it was overcrowded. It was the only place she had found that sold proper English tea, and an amazing cranberry and white chocolate muffin that she was trying to limit to a once-a-week treat.
By now the proprietor, Mick – an almost inhumanly cheerful man, balding and overweight and not caring about either, who claimed to be part Irish and had photos of his granddaughter along the counter – knew her on sight and greeted her with his usual grin. "Hi! Another essay? You work too hard, y'know."
"You always say that," she replied, smiling a little. At first it had unnerved her to find out how friendly everyone was, but she was slowly getting used to it.
"I'm probably right though. Usual tea, is it?"
"Comin' up. Can I tempt you to a cake today?"
"Not yet, maybe later. Thanks."
"Oh, hey, I've been meaning to ask; there's another English guy comes in here sometimes. Maybe you know him?"
Yes, because everyone in Britain knows each other by name; I know the Queen personally, too. Keeping the half-hearted retort to herself, she smiled and shrugged instead, well used to some of the odd ideas that a lot of Americans seemed to have about the United Kingdom. "Maybe I do," she agreed, taking her tea and her change. "We'll see if he comes in." Taking her usual table between the window and the corner, she settled down with her work.
When 'the English guy' came in later, though, Hermione was deeply shocked to realise she did know him. She had never seen him dressed semi-casually in dark grey slacks and a white dress shirt worn unbuttoned over a plain black t-shirt, but there was no mistaking the fluid grace of his prowling walk or the lank black hair hanging long to his shoulders, or the distinctive hooked nose, or the fierce dark eyes suddenly glaring in her direction as he noticed her.
Paying for his coffee, he stalked directly across the café and glared down at her as she stared up at him, trying not to look at the glitter of a concealing charm on the side of his neck; she didn't want to imagine what it might be hiding.
"Are you here because of me?" Snape demanded bluntly.
She blinked at him and frowned, confused. "No. Why would I be?"
He let out a breath that might have been a sigh of relief from any other man and shrugged a thin shoulder, apparently disinterested now. "You spent six years plaguing me, I assumed you were here to continue the trend," he replied dryly, without the anger she was so used to hearing in his drawling voice.
Unsure of how to respond, she settled for a rather inane, "Well, I'm not. I didn't know you were here."
"Nor I, you," he said thoughtfully, cocking his head to one side and looking down at the books and papers spread over half the table, reading some of the titles upside down. "The History of Economics? Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"It's actually interesting," she replied defensively.
He snorted. "If you say so. But it makes me wonder, Miss Granger. Why are you here, in Vermont of all places, reading about economics?"
"Why are you here, Professor Snape, criticising my reading choices?" she retorted, shaking her head. "Look, I've got an essay to write. Either sit down or leave me alone, but please don't stand there looming over me like that. It makes me feel like I'm twelve again, and people are staring."
To her surprise, he chose the first option, settling into the chair opposite her and sipping his coffee, watching her with an unreadable expression. Determined not to squirm under the weight of that black-eyed stare, Hermione did her best to focus on her work, trying to ignore just how awkward she felt. Apart from the Shack, which she tried very hard not to think about unless it surfaced in a nightmare, she hadn't seen Snape face to face since the extremely uncomfortable Order gathering at the Ministry a couple of months after the end of the war. The former spy had shown up just long enough to tell the new Minister – quite graphically – exactly what he could do with his 'war honours', and left in a swirl of black robes and the angry trace of his magic trailing in the air behind him. Rumour said that his resignation speech to Minerva McGonagall and the board of governors had been even worse, and since then he had apparently dropped off the face of the Earth, only to surface in a café in a college town in Vermont. You couldn't make it up.
In the end curiosity won out over irritation and she looked up at her silent companion. "What are you doing here?" she asked.
He blinked slowly. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."
She nodded. "Fair enough. I'm studying at the university here. I wanted a change of scenery," she added in response to the questioning arch of his eyebrow.
"A Muggle course, though? You could have gone to Salem."
"I could, but I don't really know what I want to do with my life yet, and when I said 'change of scenery' I didn't just mean the landscape."
"Ah. Why economics in particular?" he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
"I wanted a course that was transferrable and could help me in the wizarding world as well, and it sounded more interesting than business administration. Your turn."
"You asked what I was doing here," he elaborated. "The answer is 'nothing'. I'm not doing anything."
"I don't understand."
Snape shrugged and settled more comfortably into his chair, setting his coffee down. "There's nothing to understand. I'm just wandering aimlessly at the moment. You're not the only one who doesn't know what to do with themselves post-Hogwarts."
"I... see," she said slowly, not seeing at all. Could he afford it? Was it a good idea given everything he'd been through in the war? Wasn't he bored, not working? Still, she knew better than to question him; he might not be her teacher any more but the habit of treading softly around Professor Snape was too deeply ingrained to overcome just because he was being weirdly civil.
He didn't seem inclined to continue the conversation any further, so she turned her attention back to her essay, trying to leave her curious speculations for later.
Coming back from the counter with another cup of tea a while later, she noticed something and found herself suppressing a giggle as she sat down. "You're being stared at, you know. That group of women in the corner."
"I know," he said tiredly, sounding less than impressed. "They heard me speak to you, I'm sure. Once people learn I'm British, I tend to get stared at."
Hermione blinked at him. "That's it?" she asked sceptically.
"Well, it's not going to be for my looks, is it?" he snapped. "Do you have any idea how people here react to my voice? I'm sure you already know everyone goes crazy for smart English accents here. All I have to do is walk into a bar and wish everyone 'good evening', and I have men fighting to buy me drinks and women fighting to sit and talk to me."
"You don't sound happy about that; most men would be thrilled." Hermione glanced at the group of women again. They looked around the same age as Snape, certainly quite a bit older than she was; two blondes and a brunette, all reasonably attractive if she was any judge. She had to admit Snape's voice was wonderful – probably a lot more so if you hadn't spent years listening to that voice insulting you and your friends. Still, was it worth staring at him over? Then again, he did look better than she'd ever seen him – which admittedly hadn't been very difficult.
"I'm not," he said, interrupting her musing. "I don't like being the centre of attention. Especially for such a daft reason," he added.
"You shouldn't announce yourself by saying 'good evening' then."
"I was being polite. I realise you've never been in a position to notice, but I do have manners, you know, when I bother to use them." When she looked up she was surprised to see that he was almost smiling, his eyes glittering with amusement, and she found herself smiling back.
"No, you're right, I can't say I ever noticed that."
He shrugged. "I had no reason to be polite to anyone at Hogwarts. Dumbledore needed me in place there too much to fire me no matter what I said or did as long as I stopped short of actual murder or grievous bodily harm, so why not be honest about the fact that I literally could not stand anyone in the entire castle? I hated teaching, as I'm sure you guessed; I resented being made to work there when I didn't want to; the place was filled with bad memories; I hated all of you since I've never liked children of any age; I didn't get on with my colleagues. What reason did I have to be nice?"
Lost for words in the face of that, all she could think of to say in response was, "Well, when you put it like that..." and he snorted softly.
They didn't talk any more after that, as she buried herself in her assignment once more and he divided his time between watching her work and staring out of the window, apparently lost in his own thoughts. About an hour later she said goodbye to him, gathering her things together and leaving in a thoughtful frame of mind; this morning she would have been horrified by the possibility of running into Snape again, but actually she'd enjoyed talking to him, although they hadn't said much. He had been completely different from the man who had been her professor. Maybe this was the real Snape? Hermione wasn't sure, but she decided to keep her eyes open in case she saw him again.
A week later Hermione showed up at the café as usual and as she paid for her tea Mick nodded past her and commented, "Your friend's back. Thought he'd stopped coming after you saw 'im last." Turning, she saw Snape sitting in the far corner leaning against the wall and impulsively headed over to join him.
She still wasn't sure how she felt about their first meeting; it had been... interesting, and strange, and a little sad in some ways. The only thing she was completely certain of was that Snape had been badly damaged by what he'd seen and done, since there was no other reason why he would have been so open when talking to her, or even for talking to her in the first place. He could have simply left as soon as he recognised her if he hadn't wanted to talk. It truly was sad that it took something damaging to get him to open up and act like a normal human, and somewhat strange, too.
More than that, seeing him had stirred up a lot of old memories and made her look a little harder at what she was really doing here, and Hermione had to acknowledge that she hadn't exactly come out of it all unscathed either. Snape was the first wizard she'd spoken to since leaving England, the first communication she'd had with anyone who knew her except for the brief letters she exchanged with her parents, Harry and Ron. She'd been trying to forget her old life, she realised, which wasn't right.
"Hello again," she greeted Snape a little warily. "Is this seat taken?" Wow, could I sound any more clichéd?
Without looking at her or answering, he shifted slightly and pushed the chair out with his foot. Taking it as an invitation, she sat down and got herself organised; she'd brought her laptop today and had a lot of notes to type up. It was taking a while to get used to doing everything on a computer, after eight years in the wizarding world. Interestingly, Snape didn't look puzzled by the computer.
"Do you know much about computers?" she asked.
He shook his head, finally deigning to speak. "Never used one. But I know a little about the sorts of things you can do on them – word processing and the Internet and so on. Half-blood, remember?"
Hermione nodded, scrolling to the end of the document to start adding the newest notes. "Yes, but most half-bloods I know live as purebloods as much as possible. You're the only one I know of who's assimilated into both worlds."
Snape shrugged. "It's always useful to be able to blend in, and it meant the summer holidays were a true holiday, an escape. It left me with more options once I decided to leave England, too. Nobody is likely to find me here unless I choose to let them."
"I did," she pointed out, unable to resist, smiling a little as he glanced at her.
"True, but such an improbable coincidence is unlikely to happen again, and I know you won't tell anyone."
"Why not?" It was true, she wouldn't, but she wanted to hear his reasoning.
"Partly because you are not a gossip, and partly because you probably wouldn't be believed. But the main reason is that nobody you correspond with is going to want to talk about me."
"Good point," she conceded ruefully, taking another sip of tea and turning back to her notes, typing slowly.
After a while Snape set his coffee down and sighed. "All right, Miss Granger, I know that expression only too well. What is it you want to ask so badly?" He sounded amused rather than annoyed, and she flushed slightly, irritated that he'd read her so easily – she hadn't even been looking at him, at least not much.
"I'm still wondering what you're doing here," she admitted, refusing to take her eyes from the laptop screen. "You explained about wandering and so on, but you didn't really answer my question. Probably deliberately," she added, glancing up in time to see him smirk crookedly at her, and suppressed a smile. "Why here?"
He shrugged. "No real reason, honestly. When I left the country I picked America because I knew that I wouldn't run into anyone I knew, which I couldn't guarantee in Europe, and although I speak several languages none of them are Asian, and Australia was a little too far from home. I took a flight to New York simply because I'd been there before for a Potions conference and knew slightly more about it than I did about anywhere else, and since then I've just been catching Greyhound buses to anywhere that sounds interesting and spending a few weeks looking around before moving on."
"You could have stayed in England and still avoided us all," Hermione noted, saving her progress and looking over at him as she picked up her cooling tea.
"I could," he agreed without elaborating, taking a drink of his coffee and grimacing before standing to go and buy another cup. He came back with more tea for her too and she thanked him with a nod and a grateful smile that he ignored as he sat down again.
"I still don't understand, though. Why did you leave, if there wasn't anything here you specifically want?"
"Because... well, look." He rolled up his left sleeve and showed her the Dark Mark, faded and grey. "Here, this is just a tasteless Muggle tattoo. Nobody knows what it means. I'm not a Death Eater here. If anyone knows the name Snape in this country it's because they read some of my Potions research, back when I still published things. That's all it means to them. Nobody knows... who I was. What I was, or what I did. And I have no ties of obligation here, either. Here, I'm free."
She thought about this for a while, nodding slowly. It made sense. More than that, it mirrored some of her own reasons for leaving Britain; she wasn't a war hero here, or a member of the Golden Trio. She wasn't a target of the media. Nobody was expecting her to save the world, or even save the day. Here, she was just Hermione, which was nice – it had been a very long time since she was just Hermione.
"Will you go back?" she asked.
Snape frowned, staring into the distance. "I don't know. England is still my home, as much as I have a home anywhere. I don't really belong here. But... I don't know. If I do go back, it won't be for many years. It will take a long time before people start to forget what I've done."
"Not all of it should be forgotten," she said quietly. The Order would never have won the war without Snape, even if most people weren't willing to admit it.
He gave her a sharp look. "Don't be foolish," he told her crisply, sounding like her teacher for the first time. "The good does not wash away the bad."
"Don't you want to be remembered for the good you've done?" she asked, and he shook his head.
"I'd rather be forgotten for the bad I've done. And I'd give it all if I could forget the things I failed to do." A brief, bitter smile flickered across his face and faded. "That's another reason for not going home, of course. I need distance and time to deal with it all."
Hermione nodded. "I can understand that. When I got off the plane, it felt like I could breathe for the first time in months." She ventured another smile across the table. "I really don't know how you managed. The stress of holding together and the pressure of so much depending on me would have finished me off without all the bloody stuff and the isolation as well, and I'm damned sure I only know a fraction of what you were actually dealing with."
His expression darkened slightly and he looked away, but somewhat to her surprise he did answer. "Frankly, I don't know how I managed either. I am still finding out how badly it damaged me."
She nodded again, staring pensively at him. "I've noticed a few things about me since it all ended, and about my friends. I don't think any of us are normal right now."
Snape glanced up with the ghost of a genuine smile. "Some of you never were."
"Funny." Wasting a not very sincere glare on him, she paused before saying slowly, "This isn't how I would have imagined a meeting with you would go. I never expected to meet you here, obviously, but if I had, I'd have expected you to snarl something nasty and disappear."
"Truthfully, so would I," he replied after a moment, shrugging. "I probably would, were we still at home. Here, though, there doesn't seem much point. I'm sure you are bright enough to realise a lot of my attitude was a defence, and since I am equally sure you've been told absolutely everything by your little bastard of a friend, there isn't much left to defend against, is there." His voice was noticeably less friendly, but cold and flat rather than the heated anger she might have expected.
Shifting uncomfortably, Hermione looked down at her laptop again. "I don't know if he told me everything... but yes."
"Imagine my surprise. 'Privacy' really is a foreign concept to that boy." He scowled at his coffee cup for a moment before sighing and leaning back in his chair. "Yet another reason to avoid going home for a while. All that is definitely something I would prefer was forgotten."
"Why did you tell Harry?" she asked. "I know some of it was to persuade him to believe you about the important part, and I know you didn't think you'd survive for it to become an issue, but... No, I'm sorry, it's none of my business."
"Words I never thought I'd hear from a Gryffindor," Snape replied with a slight bite to his words, before sighing again. "As you said, I didn't think I'd survive. I was dying and I had no reason to keep up the pretence any more. I was tired of lying and tired of being hated."
Reassured, if surprised, by his apparent willingness to keep talking, Hermione watched his face curiously. "Why did you insist Dumbledore kept it a secret?"
He gave her a very tired look. "Nobody would have believed it anyway. People have never been willing to acknowledge that I am even human, Miss Granger, let alone capable of true emotions, and certainly someone like me could never feel love. It was easier to keep silent than to face the mockery and disbelief, and it would only have been a matter of time before someone tried to use it against me. Besides, it was nobody else's business how I felt."
How lonely must he have been, to talk to me of all people about it. He must be desperate for company, or perhaps therapy. "I suppose not," she agreed quietly, and his eyes hardened.
"I don't want your pity, Granger," he snapped.
"Well, you've got it anyway," she retorted, "or at least my sympathy. I can't choose how I feel any more than you can; what you went through was ghastly and I can't help feeling sorry that you had to endure it all."
"Has it occurred to you that much of what you and your little friends went through can be traced back to me?" he asked stiffly.
"Of course it has." She shrugged. "The reason we all survived it can be traced back to you too, and I can't really see another way things could have gone. And it seems stupid to be playing the blame game now after everything I've seen. I'm never going to forgive a lot of the things you've done, but you're never going to forgive us for what was done to you either, so I suppose it balances."
Snape cocked his head to one side; she could see a little more of the scarring on his neck as he studied her thoughtfully. "You've grown up, Miss Granger," he observed quietly after a short pause. "I forget... How old are you?"
"Twenty. And Hermione, please, not Miss Granger. I'm not your student any more."
He nodded. "That you are not. Hermione, then. Interesting... you always were more mature than your years. You do realise there are men and women more than twice your age who lack your views? That level of understanding and analysis is remarkable in someone your age, particularly so soon after the war." That brief glimpse of a smile came and went again and he added dryly, "And from a Gryffindor it's positively unheard of."
"Bigot. You always criticised us for being anti-Slytherin, but you're just as strongly anti-Gryffindor," she pointed out somewhat tartly – she'd spent years wanting to say that to him.
"With rather more cause than most of you," he retorted, entirely unapologetic but still surprisingly non-hostile.
"Your student days were bad, but that doesn't mean it's the same for everyone..." she started, and realised as anger kindled in his eyes that she had just mis-stepped.
"I spent fifteen years as Head of Slytherin," he said coolly, his dark eyes growing hard and cold. "Do not presume that you know anything of what happened to my House."
She didn't know enough about it to argue with him; there was no way of knowing if he was telling the truth or not, and really, it didn't matter any more now that they had both left Hogwarts. It wouldn't cost her anything to back down, so she let him have his victory. "I'm sorry."
Snape grunted and relaxed in his chair once more, apparently also unwilling to pursue the fight. "Do you always accept compliments so well?" he asked dryly.
"Yes," she replied honestly, smiling ruefully, and he made a soft sound of amusement before picking up his coffee once more and letting her return to her work for a few minutes.
"I tried to write to you once," she told him a little while later, breaking the comfortable silence between them again. "I wanted to apologise. I spent two days trying to come up with something, but everything I wrote sounded so stupid, I could picture you sneering at it."
"I wouldn't have done that," he replied softly after a moment.
"I wouldn't have sneered at it."
"Why not? I mean..."
"The only apology I received? Why would I sneer at that?" he asked quietly. "I don't have that much pride left, not after two wars and a stack of other problems."
"...the only one? You mean nobody's said 'sorry' to you?"
"That's... that's... God, I don't have words to describe how disgusting that is, after everything you did."
"Not this again. It's because of everything I did that they won't apologise, Granger. They think I don't deserve it, and I can't honestly say they're wrong."
"I can." Hermione met his eyes squarely and told him honestly, "I never liked you. You know that. You were foul to us and to almost everyone you came in contact with, and however understandable your reasons might have been, we were children who didn't deserve to be punished for your issues. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate what you did for us and it doesn't mean I can't understand that without you we would have lost the war, and it doesn't mean I don't feel guilty for misjudging you and for the way you were treated."
After quite a long pause, he leaned forward slightly, his eyes intent as he held her gaze. "You did nothing to apologise for, Hermione. You never did anything to me out of spite or hate, only to protect your friends. On those occasions you could not be blamed for your view of the situation. I was neither blind nor deaf during my teaching career and I know you were one of the few students who did not casually insult me or laugh behind my back. I would not have sneered at your apology, but I also would not have accepted it, because it would be meaningless; you did nothing to me that you should be sorry for." He paused again before adding softly, "I cannot say the same."
That certainly hadn't been an apology, but looking at his expression, she was pretty sure that if she pushed he would actually say sorry. Part of her wanted to, but... "It doesn't matter any more. After everything we both went through during those last years, it would be petty to make you apologise for saying something nasty, really." That one insult about her teeth had been the only time his unpleasant behaviour had truly hurt her, and she could see in his face now that he did regret it, which was good enough.
He looked away without replying, focusing on the tabletop and letting his lank hair fall forward to partially hide his face, hunching his shoulders a little. Leaving him to work through his discomfort, Hermione went back to her notes, once again appreciating how much easier it was to write with a ballpoint pen instead of a quill and how easy it was to read the resulting notes afterwards.
This had been fun, she decided, finishing her notes and shutting the laptop down. Bizarre though it was to consider, Snape had been surprisingly good company and she had enjoyed talking to him. I really must have been feeling more homesick than I thought, she told herself, but it was still true. "Time for me to go," she told her companion, who nodded as she stood up.
Walking around the table, she paused by his chair. "By the way... I'm here quite often, between lectures or when I have a free afternoon," she said daringly, trying not to blush.
He gave her an unreadable look. "I shall bear it in mind."
Her third meeting with Snape took place only a couple of days later, when the second chair at her usual table scraped back as she worked and she looked up to see him. "Hello, Professor," she greeted him cheerfully, moving a couple of textbooks to give him some space. "Not wandered off yet then?"
"Obviously not," he drawled, settling gracefully into the chair. "Don't call me that," he added with a faintly pained look. "I celebrated extensively the moment I was no longer anyone's professor. As, I am sure, did they."
"Professor McGonagall did say your resignation was a little, um, dramatic," Hermione replied cautiously, and he smirked at her, his eyes glittering with faintly nasty laughter. "You're not going to tell me though, are you?"
"No," he agreed, and she sighed, shaking her head and smiling a little.
"Typical. So what do I call you?"
He snorted softly. "You can keep calling me sir if you feel like it, but I do have a name."
Barely stopping herself from sticking her tongue out at him, Hermione looked back at her computer and her half-written essay, trying not to smile. "Very well... Severus," she said experimentally. A thought occurred to her and she looked up. "How do Muggles react when you tell them your name?"
His dark eyes looked resigned with a hint of amusement. "Tediously and predictably, for the most part. I usually tell them it's a very common name where I come from and leave them to draw their own conclusions."
"I remember thinking when I learned your mother's name that it was a bit unfair of her to saddle you with Severus when her name was more mainstream," she agreed. "It's a nice name, but it is a bit outlandish."
"It could have been worse," he replied with a shrug, ending the conversation by picking up his coffee and burying his face in it. Taking the hint, she went back to her typing, settling into the comfortable silence that seemed to develop surprisingly easily between the two of them.
After a while Snape leaned forward and started apparently reading her textbook upside down. "So what do you plan to do with this degree in Economics once you have completed it?" he inquired. It was hard to judge his sincerity, but he did seem to be genuinely interested, and she didn't really think he was the sort to make idle small talk for the sake of being polite, so after a moment she chose to answer honestly.
"I don't know."
"You've never known what you want to do?" he asked, and she shook her head.
"I had too many options. At primary school I liked science best, but I also loved reading and history, and even maths. I would have been happy at a job involving any of them. And then I learned I was a witch, and there are a lot of things in the wizarding world I want to do as well. I've got too many choices. I'm doing this to get a bit of distance and breathing space to try and make my mind up, really – I definitely want to go back to Britain and the wizarding world, but I don't have any plans beyond that. Probably somewhere in the Ministry, there's so many different departments I'm bound to find something I enjoy."
"You'd be wasted there," he told her. "Unless you make some good contacts, you'll be stuck doing mindless grunt work. I suppose Potter's influence would help, but it would also earn you a lot of jealousy and petty irritation. It depends what department you end up in, I would imagine."
"What about you?" she asked curiously. "I know you never wanted to be a teacher, but did you have any plans when you were at school?"
"Potions, of course," he replied instantly. "One of the incentives I was offered if I joined the Death Eaters was a sponsorship that would gain me an apprenticeship under a master potioneer. It was very much a world of rich purebloods and there was no other way I would get in; it is still quite exclusive now. Potions and Defence were the only subjects I truly enjoyed, although I made sure I was at least competent in all of them, and my Muggle education was so erratic I never really identified anything I liked."
Pausing for a moment, he eyed her thoughtfully through narrowed eyes before saying slowly, "If you ever want to go into Potions – although I don't believe it is where your heart truly lies – then I will write a reference for Slughorn to sign for you. Something with my signature on it would do you more harm than good."
"Really? You think I could?" she asked, taken aback.
"Yes, or I would not have suggested it," he replied simply.
"You never said so before."
He half-smiled rather wryly. "Oh, I did, in my own twisted way. I picked at your work and pushed you harder far more than I did anyone else. By my standards, that was a compliment, although you weren't intended to interpret it as such. Everyone else usually just got a grade scribbled on the top, and half of them were lucky if I bothered to read the entire thing first."
"You always ripped Harry's essays apart," Hermione pointed out, and he snorted.
"Only the ones I know you 'helped' with. Those comments were meant for you, not him. I could always tell the difference, no matter how careful you were; you've never had to rein in your intelligence and you were not very good at it."
"I'm surprised you didn't fail him for cheating, then."
Snape gave her a tired look. "Use your head, Granger. Do you really imagine I would have been permitted to give Harry bloody Potter a failing grade, whether it was deserved or not? I got into enough trouble for giving him zeroes on the occasions when he genuinely didn't do the work."
"Well, you did deliberately sabotage his potion and then fail him for it at least once," she reminded him with a faint edge to her voice.
He shrugged. "I was in a bad mood. And I didn't actually give him a zero for that one, merely told him I had. He's lucky I let him survive each year," he added darkly, "especially after catching him in my Pensieve."
"I told him the same thing," she said reminiscently, before biting her lip.
"Oh, don't look like that. I assumed he'd told you all about it. At least you and Weasley had the sense to keep it from going further. Speaking of, whatever happened with him? I assume you got your inevitable doomed relationship out of the way and came to your senses."
Hermione tried to be angry with him, but to be honest he was right, that was a perfect description of what had happened, and she found her attempt at a glare dissolving into laughter. "You're a horrible man sometimes, Snape."
"Only sometimes? I must be losing my touch."
"You've barely insulted me at all. It's quite unnerving really. Anyway, I wouldn't put it quite like that, but yes, Ron and I were together for a while, and now we're not. I don't think it was as inevitable as all that..."
"Don't lie to a professional liar, Granger," he told her dryly, finishing his coffee. "Your round."
"Only if you start calling me Hermione as I asked you to. And you drink far too much coffee. It's not good for you."
"Don't you dare start mothering me. I'm too old for that nonsense."
"I said no, Simon. I told you, I'm meeting someone!" Hermione was fast running out of patience now as she gave her classmate an exasperated look. Simon was nice enough, and she had dated one or two boys since moving here and wasn't averse to the idea of another relationship, but she'd never liked the type who wouldn't take no for an answer and he didn't really do anything for her.
"All I'm saying is that he's obviously stood you up," he argued, "so there's no reason we can't go and do something. How come you won't tell me who it is, anyway?"
"Because it's none of your business, that's why," she snapped, wishing she'd been able to think of a better excuse when Simon had interrupted her usual work-and-tea routine to suggest a date. She'd never been good at thinking on her feet and she hadn't wanted to hurt his feelings by telling him she simply didn't fancy him or find his conversation very interesting. Though that was looking like a more tempting option by the minute. I really hope Severus is going to be here today. She hadn't seen him in almost a week; for all she knew, he might have moved on, which wasn't a happy thought.
Their table was close enough to the counter that she could hear it when Mick went into a coughing fit; as they both glanced over at him, he jerked his head towards the door, hiding a grin behind his hand, and Hermione followed his gaze.
Breathing a sigh of relief when she spotted the familiar dark figure, Hermione gave her companion an utterly insincere and empty smile. Not bothering to say goodbye, she seized her book and all but dashed across the café to stretch up on tiptoe and kiss Severus' cheek.
Startled, he jerked back, looking genuinely shocked for the first time since she'd known him. "What the hell?"
"Sorry, that boy I was talking to wouldn't take the hint when I said I was meeting someone," she told him, grinning despite herself at his obvious discomfiture before blinking as she realised he appeared to be blushing slightly. Must just be the sun or something.
Avoiding eye contact as he pulled himself together, he observed in a slightly unsteady voice, "Some warning would be appreciated next time. I almost hexed you, which I suspect is probably not the way a man is meant to react under these circumstances."
Trying not to laugh – she never would have guessed that Severus Snape was capable of looking cute, embarrassed or not; in fact she hadn't known he could be embarrassed at all – she shook her head. "You really would have hexed me for kissing you?"
"I didn't know what you were about to do," he protested, sounding a little more like himself as he recovered. "I am hardly familiar with women walking straight up to me and kissing me in crowded public places."
"And yet you seem to think there will be a next time." She gave him an arch look. "Or hoping?"
He snorted softly. "You're not exactly my type, Granger."
"No. You're sober, for a start." It was hard to tell whether he was joking or not.
"Charming. Can we take our drinks somewhere else today? Simon's the sulky type and I'd rather not have him sitting and glaring at us."
Severus nodded, looking amused now as the last traces of embarrassment faded. "But he's not even ginger."
"Oh, shut up," she muttered as they paid for their drinks and headed outside into the sunshine. "Honestly, Ron wasn't that bad." Most of the time, she added privately, though from her friend's smirk he had provided the qualifier himself.
"Hermione, compared to you, he had the intellectual capacity of an overripe banana," he retorted lightly. "I am aware that the typical teenage relationship isn't founded on conversation, but you were hardly a typical teenager. Without Potter managing to stumble headlong into trouble all the time, I doubt you'd have stayed friends with either of them, and the younger male Weasleys had no real redeeming qualities whatsoever in my opinion."
"Which is of course completely neutral and unbiased," she shot back, smiling despite herself. "Ron had his problems, and you're probably right that I wouldn't have been friends with either of the boys if it wasn't for all the weirdness in Harry's life, but he did grow up – a little bit, at least. There was no huge self-destruct, we just realised we were better off as friends."
"If you say so."
"I do say so. And you're not in a position to criticise anyone else's romantic lives, are you?"
As soon as she realised what she'd said, Hermione was horrified, nearly dropping her tea as she spun to stare at him. He had gone pale and that wall had crashed down behind his eyes, locking away all expression and leaving his thin features a frozen mask.
"Oh God. Severus, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."
Slowly he shook his head. "No, don't apologise. I deserved that. And you're right." He looked at her stricken expression and his eyes thawed a little. "It's fine, Hermione. For future reference I still do not take kindly to teasing, but I know you meant no malice." Despite his words, something in his tone and expression indicated that he was trying to convince himself rather than her, and she bit her lip and looked away feeling ashamed of herself.
They walked on in a silence that was rather less comfortable than usually lay between them; she was tempted to apologise again, but it wouldn't do any good. Besides, he had actually taken it remarkably well, all things considered, although his expression indicated some rather nasty thoughts were troubling him. Nothing like someone rubbing salt in your wounds.
Something occurred to her and she frowned. "For future reference?"
"Hmm?" he asked, appearing to snap out of his mood.
"You said 'for future reference'. Does that mean you're sticking around for a while?" she asked.
"Perhaps," he said noncommittally, and she smiled.
Mid-term assessments and more coursework over the next few weeks meant that the now regular meetings in the café were rather more silent; Severus spent most of them watching her in increasingly obvious amusement as she worked and ignored him. To her irritation he had refused to test her when she asked, pointing out logically that he knew nothing about economics and had no idea whether she had given the information the examiner would want or not, and adding calmly that he was certain she had memorised everything she would ever need plus a lot of information she would never need before threatening to drug her if she didn't calm down. He'd never seen her in pre-exam mode before, after all.
Once the last test was over Hermione headed straight into town, and was absurdly pleased when Severus materialised next to her when she was half way there. "I've always wanted to know how you do that," she told him, happily tucking her arm through his. "I know it's not Apparition, but it might as well be."
"Many years of practice," he told her, falling into step.
"Aren't you going to ask me how it went?"
"No point, for the same reason I didn't wish you luck beforehand. You've never received less than eighty per cent on any exam since you were eleven. Obviously, it went perfectly well. I try not to ask utterly redundant questions."
"Hmph. Only you can pay a compliment and yet sound insulting at the same time."
"It's a gift."
Once they were settled down at their usual table with their drinks, she couldn't resist giving him a detailed breakdown of every single question and her answers, finally cutting herself off mid-babble to find him not only still listening but smiling slightly. "I'm impressed. Everyone I know glazes over by the second question, even if they know what I'm on about."
"Which is probably why you tend to talk so much," he observed calmly. "Most people don't like listening to someone who is more intelligent than they are. You're stubborn enough to keep trying, I'm indifferent enough not to bother in the first place."
Hermione gave him an amused look. "What, so we're both equally dysfunctional?"
He snorted a laugh. "God, no. Believe me, I am far, far more dysfunctional than you could ever be."
"You don't seem so bad," she said thoughtfully. She had noticed a few things that weren't quite right – if they weren't talking he tended to zone out and stare into space with a weird distant expression, and some days a random twitch came and went under his eye, and last week when someone had dropped a glass he'd almost drawn his wand – but no worse than anything she'd seen amongst her friends.
"It takes quite a bit of effort," he replied slowly, clearly not about to go into details, "but being away from the places it all happened has helped a great deal."
From there the conversation wandered, as she told him of the latest news from home; for all that he pretended not to be interested, Severus made no attempt to change the subject, and asked a few follow-up questions – ones she didn't know the answers to, mostly, since her news came almost entirely from Harry and as ever he was a little vague about anything not directly connected to him.
He was dismissive of most of the changes that had been implemented and openly scornful of some of them, and their discussion rapidly became a debate that threatened to dissolve into open argument. Politics wasn't exactly Hermione's area of expertise, but given that much of the new Ministry – at least the important areas – now comprised Order members she was more willing to trust them than her friend was, as well as more willing to defend them, and Severus was equally willing to attack them.
"Hey, lovebirds!" The unexpected interruption made them both look around; the café owner was standing by their table with his hands on his hips, grinning. "It's closing time. You've been here almost all day this time; must be a record." He nodded to Severus. "You should just ask her out, y'know."
Hermione glanced at her companion to see his reaction, expecting an icy I beg your pardon plus the Professor Snape Glare; to her surprise he was staring at the table looking rather embarrassed. Blinking, she looked back at Mick, who winked at her cheerfully.
"Go on, get out, the pair of you. I reckon I'll be seeing you again soon."
A little embarrassed herself, she shook her head and tried to glare at him, before gathering her things and making for the door followed by a suddenly very quiet Severus. Outside, she looked up at him as the shutters came down. "Severus?"
"I should have hexed him," he muttered, not looking at her.
Not quite sure what this reaction meant, Hermione shrugged and tried to sound cheerful. "He didn't mean anything nasty by it. Come on, let's move on – I'm not finished proving you wrong yet."
She'd meant to provoke him out of his sudden odd mood until she worked out how she felt about it, and it seemed she had succeeded as he was startled into soft rusty laughter. "You hadn't started to prove me wrong, impudent Gryffindor," he retorted, sounding more like himself.
"You just wouldn't admit it, stubborn Slytherin," she replied affectionately, grinning at him.
They continued their discussion as they wandered around, but she wasn't really paying it her full attention any more, too busy thinking about what Mick had said, and she got the impression that Severus wasn't really committed to the argument either. It wasn't as if the idea was entirely new to her – after several weeks of being able to chat to him as though they'd actually been friends for all the years they'd known one another, instead of extremely antagonistic reluctant allies, it was only natural for her to start speculating. She wasn't sure she'd ever found this much common ground with anyone, and although he wasn't precisely attractive he was certainly far from unattractive, particularly compared to the way she remembered him looking at school, half dead and depressed and living on his last fraying nerves. Had he been any other man she would have asked him out weeks ago, but there was so much history between them, and his past was so very complicated...
Aware of the silence that had developed between them, she glanced sideways at him, studying his thin features. His eyes had gained that distant look again and he was obviously lost in thought. It was so hard to tell what he was thinking at any given time; he was just too used to hiding everything. There certainly hadn't been any definite signs that he was interested, but – well, he clearly enjoyed her company, and showed up to see her far too often for it to be mere coincidence, and didn't seem inclined to continue wandering aimlessly just yet. That had to mean something, right?
The sparkle of magic at his neck distracted her from her useless speculation, more noticeable to her eyes in the dimmer light as evening fell, though she'd grown used to ignoring it. Hermione wasn't at all sure that this was a good idea, but if she didn't try, she'd never know, and she'd always regret it. "Severus?"
"Mick was right, you know."
"About what?" he asked, glancing down at her with a slight frown, and she gathered her courage, hoping her voice wouldn't shake.
"You should just ask me out."
His dark eyes widened in surprise and he stopped walking, suddenly looking extremely uncertain. "I..." he began, then hesitated.
Not wanting to give him time to regroup just yet, she licked her lips. "Drop the charm."
His brows furrowed in puzzlement. "What?"
"Your neck. Drop the charm."
He swallowed, lowering his eyes and hesitating. "...Why?"
Gently she reached out and touched his chin, trying to make him look at her, wincing inside when he flinched at the contact. "Because you shouldn't have to hide, Severus. Not here, and – and not from me. Please."
Closing his eyes before she could make eye contact with him, he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, a little shakily. "Finite," he whispered finally, shivering, and the glittering shimmer of magic that spilled over the side of his throat thinned and faded away; with the best will in the world she couldn't quite stop a gasp.
"Oh, Severus," she whispered after a moment, staring at the two angry raised purplish-red scars. They were wide and ropy and clearly came from wounds that hadn't healed well, constantly reopening, and had possibly been infected too; she'd seen enough injuries in the aftermath of the war to know that. She had been expecting something more like Arthur Weasley's scar, which was small and barely visible now. "I'm so sorry."
He opened his eyes at that, looking confused more than anything; his expression was mostly blank. "Why?"
Blinking rapidly – she would not cry, not now – Hermione shook her head. "We left you in the Shack. If – if one of us had stayed, got help, it would have been treated sooner..."
His choked laugh cut her off. "You think that's what happened? Believe me, Hermione, this wasn't your fault." Reaching up with a trembling hand, he gingerly touched the ragged scars. "St Mungo's didn't want to treat this. Their oaths bound them up to a point, but they did the absolute minimum."
"Because of this." He seized the sleeve of his jacket and yanked it back, pulling back his shirtsleeve at the same time to show her the Dark Mark once more, faded and grey but still clear against his pale skin. His dark eyes were slightly pained but calmer than she thought they should be. "Because I'm a Death Eater. That's why I left, because no matter what I do, I will always be just a Death Eater to any witch or wizard in Britain."
Hermione looked at him silently as he rolled his sleeves back down. Finally she said quietly, "Not to me."
He blinked at her, and she elaborated slowly, thinking about her words. "I never stopped to think about it much, after Dumbledore's – after Dumbledore. We were too busy trying to stay alive. But looking back, part of me always thought it never quite added up right. And – every student at Hogwarts in that last year survived. If you were 'just a Death Eater' then most of them wouldn't have. You were protecting them, when literally everyone was against you, risking yourself for them. And for us; the Forest of Dean wasn't the only time you were nearby, was it?"
"No," he agreed, so softly that she barely heard him. "No, it wasn't."
She nodded. "What you did... it's the bravest thing I've ever known. You weren't 'just' a Death Eater when I left Britain. You're definitely not now." Pausing, she searched for and found a smile, feeling more confident suddenly. "You're smart, and funny, and not even close to ugly despite what you obviously think. You're a good man, Severus."
He exhaled heavily, looking away briefly before turning back to her. "Talking to you, I can almost believe it."
Relaxing a little, she smiled at him again. "You're over-thinking this, Severus, and that's usually my job. Over the last few weeks I've really enjoyed talking to you and spending time with you, and I want to keep doing that. After everything we've both been through I think we're entitled to go for what we want... and I want you."
"Hermione, you're my former student and I'm one of your teachers..." he said hesitantly, with the attitude of a man fast losing some sort of inner battle.
"Back there. Not here. Here we're just... people."
Searching her gaze with startling intensity, he rasped in a suddenly husky voice, "Is this sympathy too?"
Shaking her head, she swallowed and answered breathlessly, "No." She wasn't sure what it actually was, but she didn't think she needed to be sure. This would never happen back home with all the memories and the history, but here she'd seen the real Severus, and she wanted him with a wonderful simplicity.
The intensity in his eyes deepened and turned heated. "Good."
Then he kissed her, and it was like coming home.
And I'm going to leave it there. I could have progressed into a lemon, but I don't think it needs it. I could have expanded this more, too, but it was only ever going to be a one-shot, so... this will do.
I don't have an excuse for the long delay this time, folks; inspiration has just been at a low ebb recently. Work is progressing on the next long fic, slowly but surely. Hopefully I'll see you soon.
Also, I'd like to take a minute to thank my translators; on my profile there's a list of some of my fics that have been translated into a variety of other languages. The people who worked on those are wonderful and I really do appreciate it.
In other news, as you may or may not know, Mark from Mark Reads... (if you've somehow never heard of it, Google it) has been reading Tamora Pierce's Immortals quartet recently, and someone has commissioned him to read chapters 6, 7 and 8 of my fic Divine Intervention. This is incredibly awesome, you guys. Tamora Pierce herself follows his reviews. I admit I may be slightly freaking out here. But in a good way. (Sarah S, if you are reading this, contact me and tell me who you are!)