The beast kept eyeing Severus’s sushi.
That he had sushi in the first place was the elves’ fault. When they refused to stop badgering him, asking what they could get him, how they could help, he’d barked out the most complicated order he could think of, believing they wouldn’t know how to fill it. Not the case. Now he had a platter full of various things wrapped in tight rolls of rice and seaweed, and no idea what to do with any of it.
He’d never had sushi before. Was all of it raw fish? No, that one was green, so probably not.
“Mrrow?” his companion piped up.
Severus glared at him.
The door to the kitchens swung open, revealing the beast’s owner: the new Transfiguration professor. Granger was in her dressing gown, her hair a frizzy halo around her face.
“Oh,” she said. “So this is where you are.”
The beast turned its squashed face towards her, doing a feline impersonation of Severus’s scowl.
“Was Crookshanks bothering—wait, is that sushi?” Granger squinted at his platter. Her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, like she’d been crying.
“It would seem so, yes,” Severus said. “The elves are nothing if not determined.”
Dropping into the seat across from him, Granger beckoned to her familiar. It ignored her.
“Snape, do you want to go to a wedding with me?” she asked after a beat of silence.
Severus blinked. “I realise you are fond of asking questions, but I thought you would refrain from asking when you already know the answer.”
She sighed. “Fair enough. I’m just a bit… I don’t know. I got an invitation to Ron and Padma’s wedding today, and it threw me more than I expected it to. I had this crazy thought that maybe since neither of us can be with the one we love… We get on well enough now, most of the time, and being together might be better than being alone.” Shaking her head, she breathed out a laugh. “I’m sorry.”
Neither of us can be with the one we love. She thought she knew all about his love life, didn’t she? Her and the rest of the wizarding world. Potter’s fault. It stuck in Severus’s throat, tasted bitter on his tongue.
Fine. She thought she wanted to settle for the consolation prize of Severus, since the one she’d set her heart on was a complete dunderhead? Then she could have Severus in all of his bitter, sarcastic glory. See how much she liked that.
“I would love to,” he said.
The wedding took place in the spring.
Which was just Hermione’s luck, really, as it was her favourite season. She’d turned down Molly’s offer of her and Snape staying at the Burrow for the festivities with the convenient lie that two Heads of Houses couldn’t be away from the castle overnight. In reality, she’d rather have her eyelashes plucked out than stay at the Burrow longer than necessary, but Molly didn’t need to know that.
They Flooed to the Burrow in the early afternoon and were greeted by a frazzled looking Molly who quickly ushered them outside. It was a beautiful sunny day, and Hermione brushed some imaginative lint from her lilac dress robes.
A big white marquee had been set up in the garden—Hermione recognised it from Bill and Fleur’s wedding—and guests were mingling by the entrance and inside the tent. She spotted Ginny’s red hair and Luna’s sky blue robes, and raised a hand in greeting.
Snape suddenly stopped, as though he’d had some sort of revelation.
“I hope you’re not expecting me to dance at the reception.”
Hermione huffed. “I do, actually. It’s standard at a wedding, even for you.”
He scoffed, but didn’t argue, and they continued towards the marquee.
She had timed their arrival well, giving them enough time before the ceremony for chitchat and a catch up with her friends and the other guests, but not long enough for her to want to run in the opposite direction. Before long, they were ushered to their seats. The back of the delicate golden chair was rigid, and she shifted, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Stiff upper lip, Granger,” Snape mumbled by her side.
A hushed tone fell over the tent, and everyone turned towards the entrance—towards the bride. Padma looked stunning in red and gold, her dark hair gleaming in the sunlight. Her smile was equally as bright, and it made a knot in Hermione’s stomach.
Later, Hermione wouldn’t remember anything from the ceremony but her own knotted stomach and the way her nails bit into her palm. In the moment, all she could focus on was the happiness on Ron’s face as he married his bride.
“. . . then I declare you bonded for life.”
Hermione blinked. Was it already over? She clapped mechanically, rising to her feet with the rest of the guests.
She didn’t get a chance to speak with Ron—no, she was not avoiding him—until the dinner was over and the dance floor was slowly filling up with people.
“‘Mione,” he grinned, eyes bright.
His arms around her made Hermione want to cry.
“Congratulations, Ron,” she said once he’d let her go. “How does it feel to be a married man?”
“Bloody fantastic.” He glanced over her shoulder to her table, where Snape sat scowling. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone.”
“It’s new,” Hermione said. Technically true, but lies by omission were still lies. She would sooner streak naked across the dance floor before she told Ron how she and Snape ended up together.
Someone called Ron’s name, and he excused himself.
Hermione braced herself, and stalked over to the table. “Let’s dance,” she ordered.
Snape raised an eyebrow. “No please? Where are your manners, Granger?”
She sighed. “Please?”
Tilting his head, he seemed to weigh the options in his mind before saying, to both of their surprise, “Very well.”
When Snape reached for her waist, Hermione suddenly became nervous. His hand was cool in hers, and she kept her gaze on the row of buttons under his chin. She was still in shock that he had agreed to her offer. It had been made in a moment of weakness; after hours of crying and feeling like she would never find happiness. What possessed her to proposition him like that, she didn’t know. She liked him well enough, they had a friendship sort of relationship, and she supposed he was striking in his own way. He was competent and powerful and borderline genius, which was more attractive than a pretty face any day of the week.
She could be happy with him, she thought. At least it was better than being alone.
This wasn’t going at all to plan.
Severus intended to make scathing comments about how well suited the sickeningly happy couple were. He had grand plans to watch Granger squirm, make her regret saying she would settle for him. Instead, scenes of late nights marking essays with her and meals spent laughing together crowded his thoughts, and he heard himself telling her to keep a stiff upper lip. Gods. And now, here he was, dancing with her, holding her close enough to smell her lilac perfume.
Sighing, Granger rested her cheek on his chest. It was not unpleasant.
“Thank you for this,” she murmured.
“Which? The dancing or accompanying you to Weasley’s wedding?”
“Both, but I’d rather not do the latter a second time.”
Severus snorted. “Already planning on taking someone else as your date to all of his future weddings? I thought we would at least make it until his third or fourth wife, Granger.”
She chuckled. Making her laugh on this day did not make a little thrill of triumph shoot through him.
He was not considering her ridiculous proposition. She was emotional, not thinking clearly. And neither was he—not with her so soft and close. One date to an ex’s wedding was as far as it could go. They were not doing this. Even if it might be better than being alone.
They went on seven more dates.
Well, Granger—Hermione—called them dates. Severus wasn’t certain. They sat close at dinner, and she kissed his cheek when they said goodbye at the door to her quarters, but it never went further than that. The only time they had embraced (after a fashion) was when he showed her how it felt to fly without a broom. She had wrapped her arms and legs around him and demanded to be placed back on solid ground the instant they took off.
Mostly, it felt like they had moved their friendship from inside the castle to other venues. Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, Muggle London and the Peak District. And now, a lavender farm in the Cotswolds.
Bright sunshine combined with row after row of fragrant lavender made it feel more like they were in Provence than Worcestershire. Hermione’s cheerful orange sundress stood out against the purple, like a second sun.
Severus glowered. He loathed summer. Greasy suncream potion, copious insects, blistering heat—all of it was a recipe for misery. Minerva insisted upon a staff retreat in August every year, and Severus was already plotting how to get out of it. He honestly could not take another weekend of, “Goodness, you look like you’ve caught the sun,” and, “Isn’t this weather lovely? Join us in the pool, Severus.”
The weather was never lovely. It would be lovely if they went in autumn, when the temperatures didn’t make him feel like he would melt. As a bonus, they would also avoid schoolchildren for a weekend.
Next to him, Hermione slipped a hand into her pocket and muttered a spell under her breath. Cool air blew down Severus’s collar, bringing blissful relief. Unlike a standard Cooling Charm, it didn’t fade after a few seconds under the hot sun. His skin tingled into goosebumps as his clothing acted like a Muggle air conditioner. Even his bare face felt shielded from the sun’s rays.
“I’ve been working on that for months,” she said, “hoping to have it done in time for the retreat. Maybe you can actually enjoy yourself this year.” Wrinkling her nose, she laughed. “Okay, enjoying yourself might be pushing it, but at least you won’t be as miserable as you usually are.”
Severus blinked. She had created a spell for him? Her shy smile made something alarming and wonderful and unwelcome well up in his chest. His gaze darted down to her lips, sparked by an urge to close the distance between them, and… no.
He should have seen this coming. All of these weeks, spending time with her like this was real—like they were real. Ridiculous. He should have put a stop to it after Weasley’s wedding. The thought of being the one she settled for—someone who was merely convenient—when she loved another…
He could not allow it.
“I believe we should end our arrangement,” he said.
The smile vanished. “What? Severus, did I do something—”
“I find I would rather be alone.”
Her mouth fell open, tears welling up in her lovely brown eyes. Severus turned and walked away. The second he was somewhere secluded, he Apparated back to Spinner’s End.
“Finite,” he said, slashing his wand through the air.
Her spell evaporated, leaving him very much alone.
Hermione spent the rest of the summer wallowing.
For the first week after Severus left her in the lavender field her mind was in overdrive, analysing every word and every gesture he had made on their dates. She had thought things were going well. Sometimes he’d get a look in his eyes like he wanted to kiss her, and her heart had pounded in her ribcage. She had wanted him to kiss her, and she had spent too many nights wondering what a kiss from Severus would feel like. Now she would never find out.
Though they hadn’t spent too much time in her London flat, the memory of him was everywhere. In the light blue mug that had become his, the left corner of her sofa, the way his black boots looked next to her trainers.
For the first time, she dreaded going back to Hogwarts for the start of term. The professors were free to spend the summer at the castle, but they were required back two weeks before the students were due to arrive at the latest. The day before she needed to leave, she went to Diagon Alley to buy supplies. She and Severus had originally planned on going together, and it was making the outing less enjoyable.
After buying new ink from Scribbulus, she headed towards Fortescue’s. She really fancied mint chocolate ice cream, and by Merlin she was going to buy it. Approaching, she saw a familiar redhead sitting at a café table outside the building.
“‘Mione!” Ron waved, a big smile on his face.
Hermione was prepared for the pain behind her sternum: the physical reminder of her feelings for him. She stopped in her tracks, blinked twice. It didn’t come. The only thing she felt was nostalgia for his company, his friendship. At first the realisation was liberating—she was finally over him—but then a heavy feeling lodged itself in her stomach. Severus. It was him she wanted. How could she have been so stupid?
Realising she’d been standing like an idiot in the middle of the street, Hermione’s face flushed. “Sorry, I was away with the fairies. How are you both? How was your honeymoon?”
It was enough to prompt Padma into stories from their honeymoon to the Maldives, but Hermione only listened with half an ear. Her newfound revelation made her heart pound in her chest. She needed to see Severus as soon as possible.
“When are you going back to Hogwarts?” Ron asked.
“I’m going later this afternoon, actually.”
They made tentative plans to grab a pint with Harry before the start of term, and Hermione said goodbye before Apparating back to her flat.
“Crooks?” she called out, putting down her purchases. “We’re leaving for Hogwarts a bit earlier than planned.”
Crookshanks blinked at her from his place on the kitchen table.
Hermione rolled over with a frustrated sigh. It was far too late to be awake, and the starlight seemed to mock her. Crookshanks wasn’t curled up in his usual spot behind her knees. Grumbling, she rose.
Today had not gone as she’d hoped. She hadn’t come to Hogwarts, immediately found Severus and made everything right. Instead, when she’d Apparated to the gates, the enchantment on her beaded bag had failed, strewing her belongings everywhere. Even with summoning charms it had taken almost two hours before she’d got situated in her rooms on the fifth floor. By then she’d been tired and hungry and in no mood to see or talk to anyone. She’d told herself Severus wouldn’t want to see her anyway, so it was a moot point.
As sleep seemed reluctant to come, Hermione headed downstairs to the kitchens. Swinging the door open, she froze.
Severus and Crooks were having a staring contest, the latter’s tail flicking to and fro. A plate of sushi sat between them on the table, and there was something that looked suspiciously like paw prints next to the bowl of soy sauce.
“Crookshanks!” she chided, stepping into the room and lifting him from the table. “Leave Severus alone.” Placing him down on the floor, she realised she was in her fuzzy dressing gown. Well, that was embarrassing. Her familiar swiped at her leg before strutting away, tail held high.
Hermione cleared her throat. “Sushi again?”
“I asked for a simple cup of tea,” Severus said bitterly.
Chuckling, she dropped into the seat across from him. “Indulge them, won’t you?”
A small house elf placed a cup of tea in front of her, and Severus’ face darkened. Hermione took a small sip, uncomfortable with the silence that stretched between them.
They spoke at the same time, and the corner of Severus’ mouth twitched up slightly.
Oh. Okay. She had imagined a slightly different setting for this conversation. And that she would be wearing something other than her fuzzy dressing gown. She cleared her throat. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for suggesting we be together just to avoid being lonely.” The ball of emotion in her stomach grew bigger and tighter. “I’ve realised that I’m more lonely without you than I ever was without Ron. I just want you. And I’ve no right to ask that of you, but I am. I want us, Severus. Not as a consolation prize or a last resort, but because we choose each other.” She inhaled sharply—breathing was good—and wet her lips. “What do you say?”
What did he say?
He wasn’t sure he could say anything. I just want you. Everything he had felt since leaving her among the lavender, condensed into four syllables. Those few words had stolen his breath, set his pulse racing.
He was silent for too long. Hermione’s lower lip started to tremble.
“Sorry,” she said. “You don’t have to say any—”
Leaning across the table, he kissed her. Not a little goodnight peck; he tasted the tea on her lips, tangled his fingers in her hair. He might have carried on kissing her for the rest of the night, but they were interrupted by a curious mrrow and a pair of paws kneading Severus’s leg.
“Oh, honestly, Crooks,” Hermione said with a chuckle. “Can’t you give us a minute?”
The beast gave her a look that clearly said no.
“Would you like to accompany me to Hogsmeade this weekend?” Severus asked. Glaring at her familiar, he added, “Alone?”
Hermione took both of Severus’s hands in hers. “I would love to.”