Beta(s): teddyradiator and of_anoesis
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: Severus has found his shelter in a remote village where nobody knows of his past. By chance one day Hermione arrives there and after a while they develop a tentative friendship, until the day in which — in order to win her love — Snape does something foolish, something that puts his hiding at risk, and his life. HEA, please (SS/HG).
Note: Thank you so much to my wonderful and generous betas, who both stepped up to help me at the last minute, and did so with grace and insight. Thank you to tophoenix for the inspiring prompt. And special thanks to my Hubby, who let me mess with Texas, just this once. :) There's a little bonus for readers who use Google maps.
Summary: Fleeing the fallout from her breakup with Ron, Hermione finds that she isn't the only one seeking refuge in a small, quirky American town.
The first thought that managed to break through the numbness that descended on Hermione's brain after Ron's confession was that, as it turned out, life had been a lot less complicated with the constant threat of death looming over her head. She was not shocked by his betrayal; not even surprised, really. Well, she had to amend, she was surprised—that their relationship had lasted as long as it had.
Ever since Harry and Ginny's wedding, the buttresses of shared experience, genuine affection, and physical attraction that had kept her relationship with Ron from falling apart had begun to fail. The incessant bickering that had once served as their foreplay began to leave her feeling only frustrated, rather than impassioned. The fighting grew louder, nastier, and the make-ups less frequent. How long could a relationship between a pair of twenty-two year-olds last in the absence of sex? Five weeks, apparently. (That was Hermione's second thought.)
She tried to muster up the appropriate levels of anger, hurt, and indignation, but they would not surface. Perhaps she was in shock after all? But, no. Truth be told, Hermione had long since given up any sense of romantic investment where Ronald Weasley was concerned. Of course she would always care for him, and he for her, as he pointed out more than once during his stammering, red-eared admissions. But they could only damage that mutual sentiment if they tried to carry on as if nothing had changed.
For his part, it was obvious that Ron felt enormously guilty. That was something, at least; enough that Hermione was able to release him from his obligations to her without giving in to the urge to take a few parting shots. He was more than a little confused by her magnanimity, and he could not conceal the suspicion that crept over his face as she accepted his apologies and calmly suggested that they break up. Luckily, he was too relieved at the lack of crying and/or screaming to question it.
As amicable as their break-up had been in private, however, it spawned a total and inescapable public mayhem. Being hounded by members of the press was one thing. The not-so-subtle questions and snide comments from co-workers and acquaintances were another. But there was no personal boundary strong enough to hold back the force of nature that was Molly Weasley. After the fourth tin of homemade biscuits arrived on her desk, which culminated in the third fire-call to the Burrow, which ended for the second time in hot tears and hurt feelings, Hermione decided that enough was enough.
She needed a break from her break-up.
Hermione had been fortunate to travel more than a little throughout her twenty-two years. She'd been all over Europe with her parents, spent a while in Australia (though that had been an emotionally-draining trip), and shortly after Harry and Ginny had announced their engagement, Ron had taken her to Egypt in a futile attempt to avoid the dreaded comparisons between the two relationships. So for her next attempt at escape, she settled on the United States, a place she had never been and always wanted to see. The fact that the entire Atlantic Ocean would lie between her and her problems didn't hurt, either.
The question then became, which part of the United States? The most obvious answer was Salem, the Wizarding Capital of America. The prospect of being jostled around in a large city nixed that idea, along with New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. What she wanted was a calm, relaxing environment, with just enough civilization to keep her from feeling isolated.
The perky travel witch at Entrancing Travels in Diagon Alley was decidedly less helpful ("We're running a special today only, two weeks in Antarctica for the price of one!") than the brochures on the wall across from her desk. One picture in particular caught Hermione's eye: a blonde witch lounging in a stone pool of steaming water, an expression of ecstasy on her lovely face. Behind her, there was a stunning sunset vista of red earth and purple mountains. The inside of the brochure extolled the virtues of a place called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, but the picture on the front was enough to sell her on the idea. She booked a Portkey for the following weekend.
Due to a booming trade in Wizarding tourism, the Portkey Office created daily Portkeys to Roswell, New Mexico, and several daily during the annual UFO festival in July. Hermione arrived at the Roswell Portkey Authority in mid-August, and was not sorry to learn that she was several weeks too late for the festival.
"It's too bad. The winning entry in the costume contest this year was a Jabba the Hutt. Had a motorized tail n' everything," bemoaned the International Arrivals witch in a heavy Southern accent. Hermione handed over the badly rusted doorknob which had served as her Portkey. The witch shook her head in sympathy and dropped it in a wooden box full of similarly shabby items. She made several quick marks on a clipboard, and then thrust a large manila folder into Hermione's hands.
"There's your hospitality packet with brochures on all the local attractions and lots of valuable coupons. The designated Apparition point is down the hall, through the lobby to the left. If you have any problems or questions, someone wearing one of these buttons will be happy to help you." She tapped the large yellow button pinned to the collar of her blouse, and the wand on the button gave a little twirl. A flash of red sparkles shot from the tip of the wand and quickly arranged themselves into what Hermione would later learn was the symbol of New Mexico. The witch tilted her head slightly to one side and smiled so widely that Hermione was vaguely unnerved.
"Welcome to the Land of Enchantment, Miss Granger!"
"Thank you," she replied, hoping she sounded less apprehensive than she suddenly felt.
As she headed down the hall toward the designated Apparition point, Hermione examined the contents of the manila folder. There was a boilerplate letter welcoming her to the country, signed by the head of the Office of International Magical Affairs, and a virtually identical letter of welcome to the state signed by the New Mexican Governor of Magic. A visitor's guide looked to be the most helpful item, with its many maps and organized lists. Most of its brochures touted the tourist attractions in Roswell itself, though there were plenty for Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, and several for cities and sites in the neighboring state of Texas.
But among the few promoting her destination, Hermione found one that so tickled her, a very unladylike guffaw erupted from her lips. In gleaming silver letters, it advertised a place called the Black Phoenix and claimed that it was "the only authentic British pub in the American southwest." Stifling her giggles, she resolved to visit this 'pub' sometime during her trip, just for a laugh.
The check-in wizard at the Sacred Waters Resort and Spa was friendly, but mercifully less chipper than the witch at the Roswell Portkey Authority. Sinking into her first skin-reddening soak was an utterly blissful experience. Hermione couldn't imagine that even the blonde witch from the brochure had enjoyed it as much. The soft, gentle music was just loud enough to be audible, there was a pitcher of ice cold cucumber-mint water sweating lazily onto the adobe floor next to her pool, the water had been magically scented with the luscious fragrance of some kind of tropical flower, and the scenery before her was just as spectacular as she'd imagined: a cloudless azure-blue sky hanging heavily over a stark red mountain range, its rocky slopes dotted with scrub bushes and grasses in shades of green, yellow and brown.
By the time Hermione slipped into bed that night, she felt so deliciously calm that she had nearly forgotten why she'd taken this vacation in the first place. And when, half-dreaming, her hand slid over to Ron's side of the bed and found nothing there, she merely sighed and stretched out over the mattress, the tiny crease in her brow melting away into an expression of perfect peace.
Hermione foiled her own plans to visit the nearby Elephant Butte Lake state park the next day by sleeping in late, though she was still too relaxed to feel at all guilty about it. By noon, however, her empty stomach would no longer be ignored. She rose, brushed her teeth, dressed for a walk in warm weather, and ventured out into the alien landscape of small town New Mexico. She was pleasantly surprised by the heat which, though formidable, was dry enough that she could enjoy her stroll.
Sacred Waters Resort and Spa occupied a large stretch of the southeastern shore of the river, as did a handful of other Wizarding homes and businesses. A powerful spell kept all of these hidden from the Muggle population of Truth or Consequences on the other side of the river, and that was where Hermione decided to have lunch. Her introduction to the cuisine of the American Southwest, however, was a little disappointing. She had expected to like the food very much and was rather disappointed to find that hot peppers didn't agree with her palate. (She was even more disappointed later that evening, when she discovered that the peppers didn't agree with the rest of her gastro-intestinal system either.)
Other than the unfortunate meal, the only downside of her first satisfying day in this tiny, quirky American town was that by the next afternoon, she'd run out of things to do. In fact, most of the other guests in the spa never even bothered to cross the river, opting instead to Apparate to other, more popular destinations when they'd finished lounging in the pools and getting their massages. The concierge suggested several hot pepper-free restaurants when she asked for his recommendations for lunch, but not a single one of them was in town. When she pressed him further, he gave a sort of noncommittal half-shrug.
"To be honest, the only place I go to in Muggle T or C is the one you've already visited. They have the best chiles rellenos." He paused to clear his throat, and from the sideways glance he gave her, Hermione got the distinct impression that he rather disapproved of her lack of enthusiasm for the local cuisine. "I've heard good things about that new pub on Post and Broadway, but I haven't been there myself yet. The owner is supposed to be quite a character. We get a lot of those 'round these parts."
She thanked him, and silently resolved to find something herself. By 2pm, however, her resolve had begun to waver. Even though she'd been careful to keep her pace slow, she'd still managed to sweat enough to lose a good deal of the heavy-duty sunscreen she'd slathered on that morning. Her water bottle was nearly empty, she was well past hungry, and the skin exposed by her vest top was beginning to burn. She was finding the weathered adobe buildings and hardscrabble vistas to be far less charming on an empty stomach, and though the humidity was virtually undetectable, the sun beat down on her so relentlessly that she had pushed her way into the 'authentic' pub before she could second-guess such an action.
Passing from the sweltering sidewalks outside to the cool interior of the pub was a delicious shock to her system. She paused just inside the door, letting the refrigerated air waft over her red arms and shoulders, her eyes closed in deep appreciation. As such, it was several moments before she truly began to take in her surroundings. When she finally did so, she could not suppress a gasp.
The pub's brochure had promised authenticity, and it most certainly delivered. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light cast by the lamps hanging from the ceiling, Hermione was almost overcome with a sudden wave of homesickness. Though not a direct copy of the Hog's Head or the Three Broomsticks, this pub so evoked their atmosphere that there could be no mistaking their influence on its design. There was no one else in the place, so she took her time looking around. The long, polished oak bar dominated the far wall, just as the huge stone fireplace occupied the majority of the wall to the left. The little booths and tables seemed so familiar that she sank into one, just to make sure it was real. The place even smelled like home: wood polish, warm beer, and boiled potatoes.
But even as her stomach groaned longingly, the realization that the proprietor of this pub must be a witch or wizard, and most likely a British one, set her ill at ease. What sort of wizard relocates to such a tiny town in the American desert—and in the Muggle part of it, no less? Hermione was answering her own question with increasingly unpleasant scenarios when the scraping of a door on its hinges startled her. She shot to her feet, though her knees nearly gave way when she saw who had just pushed his way through the door from the kitchen to the bar.
The unexplained disappearance of Severus Snape's body from the Shrieking Shack had, despite Harry's best efforts, remained a mystery. But she, Ron and Harry had all seen the state of him there; the huge, gaping wound in his neck bleeding out all over the dirty floor of the Shack. They had witnessed the spark of life vanish from his eyes. Whatever had happened to his corpse, the one thing the three of them had known for sure was that Snape was most certainly dead.
"So," the dead man spat, after a long, frozen silence, "will you leave me time to pack, or have you already alerted the Ministry?"
Hermione stared mutely, unable to comprehend what she was seeing, much less answer any questions. He finished drying his hands on a dishtowel and tossed it aside. Lifting the hinged drop-leaf in the bar, he grimaced. He was wearing a black button-down shirt, letting the hem fall over the black jeans he wore beneath. Her eyes flew to his neck, searching for evidence of the wound she'd taken for fatal. Between the collar of his shirt and his long, lank hair, however, there was nothing but shadow.
"Granger!" he shouted, sneering in amusement when she jumped, "As I recall, you never had a problem answering my questions, ad nauseum, in class. Are the Aurors already en route or not?" Then, the humor fell from his face, and his eyes glittered darkly. "Is Potter here?"
"Potter?" she repeated weakly. Severus stepped through the bar, only a few feet closer to where she stood, but the movement was enough to send a sudden thrill of fear from her gut to her throat. "No, Harry's not here. It's just me. I'm—I'm on holiday."
"On holiday?" he asked incredulously. His eyes narrowed to slits as he tilted his head stiffly, grimacing again. "Is that some sort of poor attempt at a joke?"
"No, it's the truth." The words jumped out of her mouth before she could clamp it shut. He's not a bleeding zombie, you dolt, pull it together! her brain was screaming at her, and she took a deep, calming breath before continuing. "I'm visiting a spa on the other side of the river." As inconspicuously as she could, she inched toward the wand in her pocket.
Though his eyes never moved from her face, she could tell from the subtle shift in his posture that he knew she'd moved her hand, and why. He drew a deep, slow breath and sighed, peering at her from beneath his substantial brow. When he spoke, his low murmur was fraught with disdain.
"That would be neither wise, nor prudent. The Americans take as dim a view of public displays of magic in Muggle territory as the Ministry does." With slow, deliberate movements, he crossed his arms. "I'm told their prison makes Azkaban look like an amusement park."
"It's just…" She forced herself to relax, though she did not move her hand away. "I'm a little flustered. You're supposed to be dead."
"So sorry to disappoint you," he sneered with relish.
"How, what? How did I survive?" He gave a small, stiff shrug. "It's a long, involved story, and I doubt it's worth my time to tell it, since you're sure to alert the Ministry of my whereabouts before I've even finished speaking."
"Well, there are a number of people who'd like to know that you're alive, not the least of which is Harry. After Voldemort's fall, he looked everywhere for your body. He wanted to give you a proper burial."
"Indeed," he sneered again, all bristles and malice.
"You're something of a war hero back home, you know."
He dropped his crossed arms. With gritted teeth, he moved back behind the bar and began restocking clean glasses on the shelves beneath. Hermione watched him for a moment, perplexed at his reaction.
"Surely you must know all of this. It was all over the Daily Prophet for weeks; how you acted as a double agent in the Death Eater ranks, how Dumbledore trusted you—and only you—with the information Harry needed to finally defeat Voldemort."
The banging of glasses on wood grew louder. "Sadly, the Prophet doesn't deliver to Middle-of-Nowhere, Muggle USA."
"When I first came in, you thought the Aurors were coming after you. Why?"
He glared at her from behind the bar, his face a storm of emotions, and none of them pleasant. For a moment, she thought he might not answer her question. When he finally did, his voice was strangled, as though he were fighting against the urge to scream.
"It's the logical conclusion to draw when one has used an Unforgiveable Curse to murder a man like Albus Dumbledore."
Hermione blinked. "But Dumbledore arranged for you to do it. Harry has testified to that before the Wizengamot. No charges were filed against you."
"Shall I bank my freedom on the word of a teenager, Miss Granger?" he scoffed, turning back to his task. "I think not. Better to let them think me dead." For a moment, there was only the sound of the glasses sliding into place beneath the bar. Then, a whisper. "It's not so far from the truth."
The silence hung in the air between them like a ghost.
"We're not teenagers anymore," she whispered.
Indeed, had she still been the naïve, idealistic girl of her school days, she would never have been prepared for the silent Obliviate he shot at her. Though her block was strong enough to deflect the curse, the force of it sent her reeling backward, grabbing at the empty air to steady herself. Her free hand caught the edge of a table, and it clattered onto its side. Scrambling behind it for cover, she let her panic turn to indignation as she shrieked in his direction.
"I thought this wasn't wise or prudent!"
Blocking another curse, she made a furious effort to calm her racing heart enough to think. Why is he doing this? Though the answer to this question was obvious enough, Hermione couldn't imagine how she might placate him. He was sure to mistrust anything she said. Ignoring the instinct to run, she took a firm grip on her wand, readied her strongest deflection spell, and slowly rose to her feet.
"You want the world to think Severus Snape is dead? That's fine! It makes no difference to me one way or another, but I would very much like for this to stop!"
There was a long pause, during which her nerves very nearly won out over her resolve. He finally rose from behind the bar, and though his wand was not raised, Hermione was not so foolish as to lower her guard for a moment. He watched her with bald suspicion, laced generously with scorn.
"And what of your precious Potter's interest in my mortal status?"
"What Harry doesn't know won't hurt him," she answered almost blithely.
His arched eyebrow was so perfectly executed that she could not help but smile.
"This isn't a game, Miss Granger," he snapped. "I've grown rather fond of my hard-won anonymity, and I will take whatever steps might be necessary to protect it."
"I realize that," she said, her mirth evaporating. "I'm trying to tell you that this," she gestured to the space between them with her free hand, "is unnecessary." To underscore her point, she made a little show of stowing her wand in the pocket of her shorts. "I will promise that I won't expose you. But I suppose you won't take my word for it?"
"I'd rather not," he retorted. His frown deepened, and he sheathed his wand with obvious reluctance. "Although I admit it would save me no small amount of hassle. Provided, of course, that you keep your promise, Miss Granger. For if I suspect for as much as an instant that you are even contemplating—"
"Do please save your threats, Professor." With an irritated sigh, she grabbed the edge of the upended table and pulled it upright. "I realize that your only experience of me was as a student at Hogwarts, but still, you should remember that I am a witch of my word."
"And you should remember that I'm no longer your professor, Miss Granger," he countered nastily, "and have no further responsibilities where your personal safety is concerned."
She surprised herself with a loud guffaw, though by his expression, she'd all but scandalized her sparring partner. She cleared her throat and began arranging chairs around the table.
"So…what shall I call you, then? Mister Snape?"
She glanced at him in time to see him cringing nearly as deeply as he had when she'd mentioned Voldemort. He seemed to consider for a moment, although when he answered, his lips pursed as if the words were sour in his mouth.
"Severus will do."
Hermione tried her best not to balk at the idea. "Severus." She let the syllables stretch out on her tongue. With a shrug, she smiled at him almost apologetically. "Then you'll have to call me Hermione."
He jerked his head in agreement just as her long-suffering stomach issued a growl so loud that it seemed to echo into every corner of the room. She blushed spectacularly, but since he had already ducked back into the kitchen, he missed it. After several painfully indecisive minutes of wondering whether she should follow him or leave altogether, he finally returned. He was carrying a tray which, she noted with a small moan of appreciation, was loaded down with ham and cheese sandwiches, scones, jam, and a steaming pot of tea.
As strange and awkward as this first shared meal was between them, those that followed it grew increasingly less so. She found herself drawn back to the pub day after day, sometimes spending hours huddled in a corner near the fire, her nose in a book and the remnants of one or more meals spread out on the table before her. If Hermione ever questioned how healthy it was to wallow in her nostalgia so completely, she never let the answer bother her. It didn't seem to bother Severus, either, who would bring her food and drinks of his own choosing whenever she arrived.
Sometimes he would join her, and although he never initiated conversation, he engaged her in whatever topic she chose, as long as she was careful to keep it general. She attempted, once, to ask him again about what happened to him in the Shrieking Shack. His answer was cryptic and terse enough to discourage that line of questioning. He was slightly more forthcoming about the injury to his neck; at least, he admitted that it still pained him somewhat, though he was adamant that he needed no Healer's attention, and he rebuffed her furiously when she suggested visiting a Muggle doctor. As difficult as it was for Hermione to restrain her curiosity, she grew so oddly fond of their talks that it was worth holding her tongue just to keep his company.
The pub attracted very few patrons, and none at all during the day. The few regulars who came in the evening had their usual seat at the bar, and Severus always had their drink waiting. The odd tourist or refugee from Interstate 25 wandered in from time to time, though very few chose to stay longer than was strictly necessary.
During one of their teatime chats, she asked him how he stayed in business with so little apparent revenue. He regarded her silently for a moment and then turned his attention back to his tea. "I do not rely on this establishment to provide my income."
Rather than pressing further, she attempted a different tack.
"I'm surprised you don't get more Wizarding customers. Granted, your brochure isn't very eye-catching, but it was enough to pique my interest."
His brow furrowed. "Brochure?"
"The brochure from the hospitality packet at the Roswell Portkey Authority. I thought I'd stop in just to see what passed for an authentic British pub in the American Southwest." She shot him a wry grin. "You can imagine my surprise."
After a moment, his look of confusion cleared into one of high temper.
"Meddlesome cow," he spat, his wand hand balling reflexively into a fist.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Not you." He shook his head at her dismissively. "A few days after I bought the place, some witch from the New Mexican Department of Wizarding Tourism showed up and asked for my 'marketing collateral.' She became rather—difficult—when I told her I didn't, and wouldn't, have any." He glowered, his eyes narrowing to slits. "The prying little slag must've taken it upon herself to make something up."
"Well, I'm glad she did. I might've missed this place, otherwise."
His upper lip curled, though whether in amusement or derision, Hermione couldn't tell.
"There will be more people here tomorrow night, and the night after. Wizards and witches, though mostly American." The curl in his lip grew more pronounced.
"What's tomorrow night?"
"Yes," she sighed in exasperation, "but why will there be more people here?"
"The Regional Dueling Championships in Roswell." He stood up from his chair and began loading dishes onto a tray. "There is a group who has been coming here every weekend since the semi-finals in June."
"Duelers?" Hermione, like many high-minded British witches, did not think much of dueling as a sport. "Why do they come here? I must've seen a dozen advertisements for Wizarding bars and lounges in Roswell in that hospitality packet."
"I've never asked," he answered, carefully picking up the full tray and heading for the kitchen.
She finally managed to visit the state park that day, spending hours hiking the trails and viewing the lake. After the day's exertion, she took a longer soak at the spa than she'd intended to, and so was much later arriving at the Black Phoenix than she'd planned.
Walking through the front door was a shock, since the incredible noise coming from inside was completely inaudible from the street. Even more shocking was the fact that the racket was due solely to the occupants of the largest table in the pub; there were no other customers. One voice rose above the din.
"—told him it weren't no use, but y'all know how the ol' man takes everything as a challenge, even when all's you're doin' is just statin' plain fact. Truth be told, I don't even take no pride in wins like them. Ain't no real victory when you know how it's gonna end 'fore it even gets started."
Hermione eased her way over to her usual table, away from the raucous group of duelers. There were six of them, five men and one woman. Each of the men was wearing boots and a cowboy hat, and each of them was built like a Quidditch beater: large, muscular, and broad-shouldered. The speaker was the tallest of the bunch. He looked to be only a few years older than Hermione, with deeply tanned skin that accentuated the cool blue of his eyes. In addition to his cowboy hat, he wore a denim shirt that was missing its sleeves, and a pair of bright green boots made from a material that Hermione couldn't even begin to identify. He was quite good-looking, and seemed to know it.
"Ain't like he gave you much choice, though, Chet," said one of his companions.
"True, but that don't make it any less unsatisfyin', does it, Clay?" Chet answered, lifting a glass of beer to his mouth.
"Naw, s'pose not," answered Clay. Seeing that Chet's glass was nearly empty, he banged a hammy fist several times on the table. "Hey, barkeep!" he bellowed in the direction of the kitchen. "We need another round over here!"
Severus was already on his way to the duelers' table with a tray full of beer before Clay had begun shouting. He set the tray down without a word or even a look at his patrons, moved the glasses from the tray to the table, and disappeared back into the kitchen. The duelers ignored him, focusing on their conversation and their beer. Though he didn't acknowledge her, Hermione knew that he'd seen her there, so she waited patiently for her drink.
"Second spot in the semi-finals means you'll go up against the Cajun next, Chet," said a dark-skinned man who was wearing a red and white checkered shirt. "That ain't gonna be no unsatisfyin' match, no sir."
"It better not be," answered Chet, setting his empty glass down on the table with a loud thunk. "I been waitin' almost two years to get me another go at that damn coonass, and I ain't takin' no forfeits this time, I tell you what."
Severus reentered the bar carrying a tray with things for Hermione (a glass of red wine and a small cheese board ) just as the lone woman in the group spoke up. She was a tiny, somber-looking woman in her mid-thirties, with brown skin and long, beautiful shiny black hair. She spoke with a thick Hispanic accent.
"The Cajun will not forfeit. He wants the National Champion title, now Señora Prewett is not competing."
"A man can dream," Chet quipped, though his eyes had followed Severus to Hermione's table, and his attention focused completely on her. He took a deep swig of his fresh beer, stood, and sauntered toward her, passing Severus on his way back to the bar. Severus seemed to ignore him, though Hermione noticed that he stayed behind the bar rather than return to the kitchen. When Chet reached the table, he pushed the brim of his hat away from his eyes with a forefinger, and nodded at Hermione with a boyish grin.
"Beggin' yer pardon, ma'am, but I don't believe I seen you in this fine establishment before. My name is Chester Lloyd, but my friends call me Chet. I would surely like to know your name, if you don't think me too forward."
"It's Hermione Granger," she answered with a polite, if reserved, smile.
"Hot dang, you're an English girl?" When she gave a small nod, he let out a whoop that drew the eyes of his friends. He called to them over his shoulder. "We got a bonafide English rose over here, fellas!" Digging his thumbs into the belt loops on his jeans, he grinned at her again. "Y'know, we got roses over in Texas too, ma'am, though I can't say I seen one as pretty as you."
He gave her a playful wink, which caused her to burst out laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it. But rather than be discouraged, he flipped a chair around to face himself and sat in it backwards, folding his arms over the backrest and leaning his head toward her.
"What brings you 'round these parts, if I may ask?"
"The spa," she answered, still trying to suppress her amusement. "I'm taking a holiday at the spa across the river."
"You ain't got no spas a little closer to home? I thought that there town called Bath was in England, ain't it? Seems like they might could call it somethin' else, if it ain't even got no spa."
"Yes, there are spas in Britain, including Bath, but I was looking for something a little farther afield."
Chet leaned back in his chair with a sympathetic frown. "Yeah, I reckon I could use a break too after them troubles y'all had few years back. That was some mighty ugly shit y'all went through." His face fell, and he looked suddenly sheepish. "Uh, pardon my French, please, ma'am."
"Not at all. That shit was indeed ugly," agreed Hermione with a grin of her own. "But to be honest, my reasons for taking a holiday now were more…personal. I've just broken up with my boyfriend."
"Aw, really? That's too bad," he said cheerfully, the grin returning en force. "Bet he's sorrier than a dog passing peach pits."
"I rather doubt it."
"Well, if he ain't, he's about as sharp as a mashed potato." He flashed her a mischievous look. "You ever been to a professional wizard's duel, Miss Granger?"
"Er, I can't say that I have," she answered with a sinking feeling.
"My friends and I just come from the Regional Championships, over yonder in Roswell. I got me a spot in the finals next weekend. It would sure do me a heap of good if I had a pretty girl like you rootin' me on."
"Well, that's…flattering, but I'm not sure I'll still be here next weekend."
"But you said you ain't ever seen a duel, and now you got a golden opportunity to see the best of the best this side of the pond. What better reason to stay a few extra days?"
"I'm afraid I don't care much for dueling as a sport." She could smell the beer on his breath, and whatever local charm he might've had was steadily diminished with every word that came out of his mouth.
"Aw, c'mon, now, it ain't as scary as it sounds. Just real excitin'." He leaned in toward her again, his crystal blue eyes almost alarming in their intensity. "I guarantee you'll have a good time, especially if you bet heavily on me."
"The young lady has already given you her answer." Severus was standing beside Chet's chair and glaring down at its occupant as if he'd just discovered a particularly large rat. "You can accept her refusal graciously and rejoin your friends, or you can leave."
There was instant and utter silence. For a moment, the intense spark in Chet's eyes dimmed, and the grin vanished from his face. Then he turned his head to look up at Severus, a different kind of grin springing to life on his lips.
"Now, I know y'all ain't from around these parts," he began, slowly rising from his chair to stand facing Severus, "but it seems to me that eavesdroppin' on a private conversation ain't a polite thing to do nowhere I ever heard tell of."
"Nor is harassing young women who clearly have no interest in you whatsoever." Severus's voice was as soft and dark as black silk. "As I said. Back to your table, or out the door."
"Well, ain't you just tough as wang all of a sudden. I tell you what, boy. You wanna start some shit here tonight, you ain't gonna like how it ends at all."
The change in Chet's demeanor was subtle, but every person in the room knew exactly what it meant. Each of Chet's friends, excepting the black-haired woman, had risen to his feet and was surveying the scene with expressions ranging from caution to amusement. The sinking feeling in Hermione's chest bottomed out into her stomach.
"I see you have as little respect for your profession as you do for the people around you," mocked Severus. "And yourself as well, no doubt, since no self-respecting dueler would ever challenge an opponent to a barroom brawl in the middle of Muggle territory."
"That's real cute," Chet countered with a sneer of his own. The volume of his voice rose in keeping with his flaring temper. "You gonna teach me some duelin' etiquette, you ugly-ass limey? How about a real proper lesson, then? The Dueler's League takes applications 'til the end of the semi-finals. What say you and I see who gets to keep his self-respect after an official match?"
Though his expression did not change, Hermione could see a tiny glimmer of apprehension in the depths of Severus's eyes. He looked at her, and she gave a little shake of her head in the hopes that he'd decline this ludicrous proposal. Instead, her small gesture seemed to shore up his resolve. He turned back to Chet and dipped his head forward in a slight bow.
"As you wish."
His words cut the tension in the room. Chet's body relaxed enough for him to lift a forefinger and thumb to the brim of his hat and pull it more securely onto his head. The movement must've been some sort of signal to his friends who, upon seeing it, began downing the last of their beer and heading for the door. Chet's eyes stayed fixed on Severus as he moved to join them.
"I'll see you tomorrow night in Roswell, or I'll be back to give you a few lessons in etiquette." When he reached the door, he finally tore his attention from Severus to throw Hermione a parting nod. "Miss Granger."
A strangled sort of noise passed between Hermione's lips, and then the bar was empty save for Severus and herself. After a moment of deafening silence, she rounded on him.
"You can't seriously be considering a duel with that…that…oaf!"
Severus turned his back to her, walked over to the duelers' table, and began gathering empty glasses and napkins together.
"As I've already accepted his challenge, the time for consideration has passed."
"Bollocks!" She walked over to face him. "He's a great loudmouthed pillock who was probably so drunk he won't even remember it by tomorrow morning!"
He stopped clearing the table and regarded her solemnly. "Do you expect I'll lose the match?"
"What?" Her brow furrowed. "No. But—but there's no point in dueling an idiot like that!"
"I didn't agree to it for his sake," he said, pointedly holding her gaze.
She blinked in astonishment. "Please don't tell me you're doing this because of me."
He was silent for a long moment, searching her eyes so intently that she felt the heat of a blush rising to her cheeks. Then, he picked up the empty glasses and carried them over to the bar.
"Of course not. But if I renege now, he'll become an even worse nuisance than he already is."
"You think he's a nuisance," she pressed. "Imagine the kind of clientele you'll get after you've dueled with him in public. In a championship, no less! Severus." She lightly touched a hand to his arm, earning herself his full attention. "Your cover will be completely blown. You'll lose your anonymity."
"It's possible." He finished cleaning, threw the towel back on the bar, and faced her again. "Perhaps I'm ready for that possibility."
He moved almost imperceptibly closer to her. She continued, "You realize that it was only a few days ago that you were willing to hex me into oblivion to protect that anonymity."
"Yes, Hermione," he murmured, and she shivered when he used her name. "But I'm not such a fool that I don't also realize that a good deal has changed in those few days."
"Like what?" she asked, hardly daring to breathe. He was so close.
With an almost grim expression, he reached out a hand toward her. His fingers swept the fringe away from her eyes so gently that she couldn't be sure he'd actually touched her.
"Honestly," he whispered, a soft note of surprise in his voice, "just about everything."
Two days later, Hermione was once again soaking in the hot springs at Sacred Waters Resort and Spa, relaxing in the scented water (the day's fragrance was an exotic citrus) and letting the warmth sink into her bones. She leaned over the edge of her pool to read the local Wizarding newspaper, spread on the adobe floor.
"Brit Expat Boots Local Favorite: bar owner ousts Chester Lloyd with single spell." She'd already read the article several times, but it was so entertaining that she planned to commit it to memory:
Spectators at Saturday night's Dueling Championship semi-finals were shocked to witness the unseating of reigning Texas All-star Chester Lloyd by an opponent who had just applied with the Duelers League of America earlier that day. Lloyd, a resident of El Paso, has dominated the southwestern dueling tournaments since coming of age six years ago. Lloyd had just defeated New Mexican champion Cesar Santiago the previous night, earning a spot in the finals and a chance to compete in the National Championships held in Salem, Massachusetts in October.
He was defeated by Severus Snape, a British citizen who owns and operates a Muggle bar in Truth or Consequences, NM. Snape had just submitted his application to the Duelers League of America on Saturday afternoon, allowing Lloyd to issue a formal challenge that evening at the penultimate round of the semi-finals. Neither Snape nor Lloyd would give any details as to the origin of their dispute, though Lloyd was overheard remarking to several others on the presence of an attractive young witch sitting behind Snape in the defender's box.
Snape used a modified Biting Jinx on Lloyd's signature Clabbert-skin boots, which caused the boots to swallow the whole of Lloyd's torso up to his shoulders. While Biting Jinxes are fairly common additions to the average wizard's or witch's repertoire, they are not usually seen on the dueling circuit, as they lack the typical flair and dramatic effect that most duelers favor. Even if Lloyd had been prepared for such an unexpected spell, however, it is doubtful that he would've been able to block effectively against Snape's incredible speed. Snape is only the third person in the last decade to come within ten seconds of the casting speed record so famously set by Humility Cooper in 1637.
Shortly after Snape was named the winner of the match, an officiate from the Duelers League of America appeared on the stage to announce that Snape was ineligible to claim Lloyd's spot in the finals, as is the standard practice for personal challenges issued during an official championship, because Snape has not yet met the residency requirement of 10 years continuous residence on American soil. Unfortunately for Lloyd, this ruling does not remove the loss from his record, and his last scheduled opponent for the semi-finals, Jean-Guy Leroux (also known as The Cajun), will automatically advance to the finals. Winners from both the Southwestern and Southeastern Regionals will face off against each other in the Southern Finals in New Orleans, LA beginning in the second weekend of September.
"Lacking dramatic effect," she scoffed. "Personally, I found the sight of a man being eaten by his own boots bloody well dramatic enough."
"My intentions were less for drama and more for comedy," said Severus, who was sitting against the opposite side of her little pool, lounging in the water with his arms spread out along the edge.
"I believe you succeeded at both." She replied, turning away from the paper and wading over to him. He watched her, unmoving, his eyes burning with desire. "Do you think anyone back home will hear about it?"
"I very much doubt it. Even avid British duelers don't pay much attention to what happens in the American tournaments until the National Championships begin."
"Regarding those intentions you mentioned," she said, sinking down into the water until she was straddling his lap, "which do you strive for in situations like this?" She reached behind her back to loosen the straps on her bikini top. "Drama or comedy?"
"You'll have to judge for yourself," he murmured, sliding his hands around her waist to give her bum a firm squeeze. "Though I doubt you'll have breath left for laughing."