The sound of the sneeze startled Hermione; Pince's books were never dusty, so the sneezer had to be sick.
She stood up, placing three books that she'd pulled from the bottom of the shelf onto a higher one, and pushing other books aside, peered through the opening she'd made into the next row. No one was there.
"Hello?" she called. "Madam Pince, is that you?"
Achoo! "Oh, gods. Not again."
Snape, it was Snape sneezing. "Headmaster? Are you all ri—"
Achoo! Achoo! Achoo!
Concerned, Hermione walked quickly to the end of the shelf and down two rows of books before finding him, clinging heavily to a shelf and looking paler than usual. "Head—"
"—master, are you well?"
"Ob—Achoo!—viously not, Professor Weas—Achoo!—ley!"
"Here, let me help you," Hermione said, taking hold of Snape's arm and leading him out of the Restricted Section. "Let's just get you to Madam—"
Achoo! "No," Snape insisted, jerking out of Hermione's grasp, "don't want to. It's just a—Achoo!—cold."
"Oh, really. Don't be such a ba—" Hermione stopped speaking as she observed two students watching them. "Don't you have studying to do?" she snapped at the Ravenclaws, who were, oddly enough, standing in a dark corner without books.
"Don't want to," Snape said again. Achoo!
"Well, you shouldn't be out of bed in your condition," Hermione told him, taking hold of him and dragging him off to his quarters.
She'd counted almost fifty sneezes by the time she'd got Snape to his bedchamber, which was precisely when she realised that she'd just dragged her employer through the school into Slytherin's common room and then into his bedchamber through the entrance to his private quarters—and that he'd helped her by giving her the relevant passwords in between all the sneezing. Oh, shit. He's really ill, isn't he?
Examining Snape, who had slumped down into an armchair, she said, "Wouldn't you be more comfortable in bed, Headmaster?"
Achoo! "Tired, so tired. Can't." Achoo! "Help me?"
Oh, shit! "Let me just get Madam Pomfrey, and—"
Achoo! "No, she'll fuss. Don't." Achoo!
He really does look miserable, thought Hermione, bending down to pull off his boots.
That proved more difficult than she thought because, like his clothing, Snape's boots were also almost all buttons, and he nearly kicked her in the head due to the force of one of his sneezes.
"Right, I'm going to draw my wand," she told him, doing just that and casting a spell she'd perfected while married to Ron.
Achoo! was Snape's response to find himself clad in only a clean nightshirt, although admittedly, this time, his sneeze was rather more emphatic.
"What . . . are you . . . doing?"
"Putting you to bed," Hermione said crisply, ignoring her heated cheeks.
Snape was rather better muscled than she would have suspected, given his usual concealment.
Stop that, she told herself, pointedly not looking at him particularly closely as she tucked him into bed. "Now then, I'm—"
"—just going to get some Pepper-Up. You stay—"
"Well, really," Hermione muttered, seeing that Snape had fallen immediately to sleep. "You should have let me send for Madam Pomfrey."
When she returned from Snape's Potions classroom, mercifully having not encountered anyone, she found him thrashing about weakly on the bed, sweating, and yes, still sneezing.
Achoo! "Oh, my head." Achoo! "Damn it!"
She knelt down next to him and unstoppered the phial. "Take this."
Snape's hand shook as he wrapped it around hers, and she helped him lift it to his mouth, only to become spattered when he sneezed again.
"S—sorry, sorry," he said, before opening his mouth in preparation of sneezing again.
Quickly, Hermione seized the opportunity to tip the phial's contents into his mouth, over which she put her hand. Dropping the phial, she used her freed hand to massage his throat, and then sat back awaiting the inevitable steam.
"There," she said, running her wand over herself, Snape, and the bedclothes to clean them. "Better?"
"N—no. Sick. Morti—fied."
"Don't be. You're ill," Hermione said, taking up the empty phial. "Now lie down and get some rest. You need it."
Snape fell back against his pillows, grabbing Hermione's arm as she attempted to rise from the bed. "Don't go. Hate being sick . . . alone."
So it's not just Ron, Hermione thought, shaking her head. All men are babies when they're ill. "Shh, it's all right. You just need to rest. Of course I won't go."
Snape almost smiled, and there was such a childlike air of need in it that Hermione felt her irritation leave her.
Poor man. Of course he wants company. He doesn't have anyone to look out for him, does he? She gently drew the covers up over his chest and said, as she might to Rose or Hugo when they were ill, "Would you like a story, I mean, for me to read to you?"
Snape nodded his head. Achoo!
Turning to his bedside table, Hermione found the latest edition of Potions Monthly, and began reading him an article about modifications to the Wolfsbane Potion—but she didn't get very far.
"N—no, no, Mam!" he cried. "Don't like werewolves!"
Hermione looked at him and saw that Snape's eyes were wide and glittering. She placed the back of her hand across his brow and felt him burning up and quickly discarded the journal.
"It's all right, er, dear," she said, realising that Snape's illness was far worse than she'd thought. He's hallucinating. He thinks I'm his—
"Hold me, Mam? I'm scared."
Alarmed by Snape's condition, Hermione shifted so that she was leaning against the pillows and pulled him against her chest. Sniffling, he snuggled against her in a way that made her go hot and cold and shivery, but instead of pushing him away, she soothed him by stroking his hair.
He doesn't know what he's doing. He'd be far more distressed than I am if he did. "There now, it's all right. I'm here. Shh."
"S—story?" asked Snape, through a sniffle.
Smiling at how helpless and sweet he seemed, and ignoring the strong masculine scent of his cologne, Hermione began telling him the story of the Fountain of Fair Fortune. Before she could finish the tale, however, she was reminded, by dint of Snape's shifting position, that she was not, in fact, holding a child. It made remembering Beedle the Bard's story a bit difficult. And then she remembered something.
Wasn't Headmaster Snape ill last year about this time? And the year before that? And didn't he pout dreadfully when no one . . . .
She looked down at his head, becoming aware of his deep steady breathing. "Headmaster?" she asked sharply.
"Hmm?" he murmured, snuggling more deeply against her breast.
"What?" he asked sulkily. "Don't I get my stor—"
Hermione pushed him aside and stood up, furious. "You're not sick at all!"
He grinned at her. "Achoo?"
"Oh! You . . . you manipulative bas—"
"Slytherin," Severus murmured, suddenly looming over her, "is the word for which you're looking, Hermione. Manipulative," he continued, laying his hands on her shoulders, "Slytherin."
Blushing, Hermione snapped, "Is this your way of . . . of . . . dating, taking a potion to make yourself ill and . . . and—"
"Well, you didn't respond to all the usual overtures."
"I have repeatedly asked you to dine with me for myriad reasons."
"Yes, to discuss matters pertaining to the students or the school or—"
"So many reasons, so few dinners."
"'Oh'," Severus murmured silkily.
Hermione swallowed, hard. "This is . . . this is thoroughly inappropriate behaviour, Headmaster. I should l—lodge a complaint with the Board."
"Then why don't you?"
"I'm . . . I'm shocked, shocked that you'd—"
"Go to such lengths to get a desirable woman into my bed?"
Shivering, Hermione said nothing, even when she felt Severus' fingers lightly thread themselves into her hair and gently pull her head back.
"You've been watching me, Professor," he told her, "watching me with those hot eyes of yours for months without ever telling me what it was you wanted. A Legilimens can only take such torture for so long. I assure you that I've shown great restraint."
"You . . . you might have . . . b—been more . . . direct."
"So might you have b—been," he told her, stammering as Hermione pushed herself against his body.
"Well, you're my employer. I couldn't have . . . no, this is ridiculous!" Hermione exclaimed, pushing at his chest with her palms.
Severus snorted. "You're right, it is."
Severus swung her up into his arms and carried her to the bed, carefully laying her upon it. "Tell me that you don't want me, and I'll never speak another unprofessional word to you again."
Hermione looked up at Severus and bit her lip, trying to decide which was worse, the fact that she'd long dreamed of finding herself in precisely the position she was in, or the fact that she'd allowed Severus to manipulate her into exactly that position without realising it. In the end, she decided that pride was stupid in such a situation.
"You did take something, didn't you?"
"To feign illness? Yes."
"Take the antidote. I want you—"
"—at your best."
Severus grinned then, and without a trace of repentance replied, "Yes, ma'am."