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A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 11]

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A/N: Here's the next chapter, enjoy!

Part 12





Upon returning back to her home, Hermione felt sad at having left Hogwarts (and him of course) even though her years there had been under the shadow of Voldemort. Full bags to be unpacked, books to be put away. Sleeping in was a luxury she revelled in – the bliss of not having to get up in the morning early after spending half of the night studying! It was good to spend days relaxing and not having to be at the mercy of teachers and rules. She had left behind at school the bottle in storage containing the full memories of her visions of Harry and Ron… for now she was content to have it left indefinitely at Hogwarts.



There was an important thing to be done too – saying only to her parents that she had wizarding business to attend to, she quietly went to the Ministry to become a registered Animagus. Of all her classes she had been in she was proud of her ability to quickly transform objects into anything she pleased, to feel at an almost instinctive level how the molecules of an object flowed into that of another. Early in her seventh year she had been surprised though when Professor McGonagall had taken her aside privately at one point and advised her kindly that her obvious talent in transfiguration often indicated an inclination for being an Animagus.



If this were the case then it would be wise for Hermione to find out now in a supervised environment and then if so, become registered as one. With the careful supervision of her teacher it had been revealed that Hermione could indeed transform herself into a little tortoiseshell cat, a fact that Hermione had hugged close to herself, feeling oddly shy in revealing this ability to her friends. Now that she was no longer a student and with the proper authorisation she was allowed to shape change without retribution… and the world was seen in such a different way through the eyes of a cat!



Even though her parents were loving and cheerful towards her, Hermione could sense the faint bemusement beneath their surfaces at how exactly to relate towards a daughter who had become a fully-fledged witch at this Hogwarts School of hers, and was off to a wizard university after her holidays (she decided not to discomfort her parents further for now in telling them of her shape changing ability). Her upcoming holiday job as a gardener at St. Morgana’s that she explained to them about puzzled them as well – their idea of an ideal garden/back yard was a strip of lawn that you mowed once in a while and otherwise left alone.



Her parents were glad to have her home though; certainly they were proud of her when her exam results came in the post that revealed she was in the top 2 percent of her year. Her friends had passed their exams as well and time was spent on the phone talking with Harry (who had obviously found a way to use the phone without his relatives disapproving) and Ron (who had eventually mastered the right way to use the ‘fellytone’ – i.e. not shouting down it). Now that Harry was no longer obliged to think of his home as his only ‘safe house’ anymore, he and Ron were planning to share a flat together. Perhaps that had been why he had been able to use the phone (and for a good length of time too) – his relatives thinking that the cost of a phone call was a small price to pay if Harry would be out of their hair soon.



Hermione’s now approving parents took her out to dinner at a restaurant of ‘good quality’ to celebrate. It was strange, Hermione mused as she considered her dressy trousers and top as she sat at the table with the clink of cutlery and chatter about her, to be back in Muggle clothes and appearing to be nothing more than an ‘ordinary’ person.



Hermione had to field too none-too-subtle questions from her parents as to whether she had ‘anyone special’ in her life such as ‘that nice Potter or Weasley boy’ and she had explained that they were only friends. She didn’t even know to explain how she had deep feelings for a professor – no, her ex-professor now – who was a sarcastic, bitter yet honourable man. She had had her graduation photo developed and it was currently on her bedside table in her room, her parents having exclaimed curiously over the way her photographed self beamed and waved cheerfully at them. She had stared at it silently, remembering how she had seen this very photo on the wall of Professor Snape’s bedroom in her vision…



She had to trust that all would work out, even though she wasn’t quite sure how this was to be accomplished. But she hoped at the moment that Professor Snape… no, Severus… was well.





* * * * *



Now that the school year was over, Hogwarts was empty of its students… the castle was empty without her irritating presence.



When Severus was summoned to Dumbledore’s office he was annoyed at having to temporarily abandon an experiment, but it was not polite to ignore a summons by the person who paid your salary. The other headmasters in their portraits were dozing or were absent from their frames, a fact for which the Potions Master was pleased by as they were a sanctimonious bunch of fools to the one.



From behind his desk, Albus regarded Severus gently over his half-moon glasses.



“Do sit down, Severus… thank you. Have a lemon drop. No? Well, never mind. Another year over, and I’m sure you will agree that a promising batch of students have left us for the world beyond.”



“Yes, Headmaster,” Severus said tersely in his chair. Students like Potter he was especially pleased to see the back of, though.



“I’m sure this year has been a busy one for you, Severus.”



“Every year is a busy one,” Severus said stiffly, wondering when the point of this conversation would be reached.



“Of that I have no doubt,” the older wizard continued gently, “and it occurs to me that it has been a while since you have had a proper holiday.” He sat back and looked expectantly at Severus.



“A holiday?” Severus echoed in disbelief, momentarily taken aback. He was too busy to concern himself with frivolous timewasters such as holidays with the unwashed masses in the world beyond.



“I have no time for a holiday,” Severus said with faint irritation in his voice.



“Why not?” Albus said reasonably. “The school year is over now – this would be the ideal time for a break for you. Many of the other staff are going away on holiday… why, Minerva and I are heading to one of those South Sea islands… Havay? No, Hawaii… for a fortnights holiday.”



Severus concealed a shudder – far scarier than Voldemort in one of his tempers was the mental image of Albus sunbathing on a beach, perhaps with one of those silly drinks with an umbrella in them. Why the umbrella? It was a puzzle his mind had never been able to figure out. It was not as if Muggles could enlarge them, after all. He was getting sidetracked.



“I am content staying here, Headmaster,” he stated.



The Headmaster leaned forward and fixed him suddenly with a piercing stare, though his voice was still mild. “My eyes may be old, but they are not too far gone to see that you pick at your meals… and you have the appearance at the moment of one who is not sleeping at nights. Is there something you wish to tell me, Severus?”



Severus silently cursed the older wizard for his perception – but there was no way of telling him about his sourness of his spirit over the departure of a student… and a Gryffindor at that… that he had had an infatuation for. He was angry that she had left. He was angry that it mattered to him that she had left. How had she managed to reduce him to this state? It was only an infatuation, damn it…



“No, Headmaster. And again, I do not need a holiday,” he said bluntly.



“That is a pity… a great pity,” Albus mused, “for as you are aware, the position of the Defence Against the Dark Arts teaching role is open yet again to prospective candidates.



Startled and his attention caught by the change in subject there appeared a sudden glint in Severus’ black eyes, but by no other indication did he betray his sudden interest. His desire for the DADA job was a hunger that had not left him at his years teaching at Hogwarts, and the yearly refusal of his applications had frustrated him. However, his pride would not let him lower himself by showing overt interest now.



Albus went on. “The right candidate would be qualified of course…”



Yes! Like me! Severus inwardly snapped.



“…and it would help if candidates were those who took a pride in themselves and who would appear at the interview looking rested and refreshed.”



Albus sat back and smiled.



Severus’ thoughts were racing. ‘A pride in themselves’ - what was the Headmaster blathering on about – his black robes were always clean, weren’t they? He showered each day too, which was probably more than Professor Flitwick did. What else was there to worry about? Albus had never shown any indication before that he was suitable for the job but now the Headmaster was implying that he would be practically handing the DADA position to him upon a tray. There had to be a catch, a hook somewhere of course. There always was. But try as he could, Severus couldn’t see it. But then, could it be that his persistence in applying for the DADA position had finally paid off? It could be, he silently allowed. But as to the holiday… oh gods, no… Severus thought in sudden horror, Albus would believe he would be doing his colleague a favour in bringing him along with Minerva to that umbrella-in-a-drink hell in the Pacific.



A clever idea, Albus, Severus thought in grim satisfaction, but not clever enough for a Slytherin. If he was to have a holiday it would be on his own terms, and then perhaps the DADA position would be his.



“Your suggestion does have merit,” he acknowledged, “and perhaps it is time I did have a holiday.”



“Excellent!” Albus beamed, his eyes twinkling. “It just so happens that Minerva and I thought a third person would want to come along…”



Severus held up a hand. “However,” he said smoothly, placing a look of concern on his face, “with so many staff away on holiday, I could not rest easy if I was too far away from Hogwarts in case there was a crisis. In times of a emergency wouldn’t it help if a senior staff member was nearby to assist?”



To be fair that was the truth, Severus thought to himself. Hogwarts had always felt like a home to him, far more than the cheerless, dark family manor where he had grown up, the rooms constantly echoing to the shouts and rages of his father, turned upon his only son as often as upon his wife. His unlamented sire had died years ago from a heart attack, his mother, a thin, cowering shadow of a woman had retreated to her rooms and had silently followed her husband to the grave within a month.



Severus rarely visited the oppressive manor…perhaps one day he would bring a suitable wife back there – a business arrangement of course, with a pureblood Slytherin who would know what was expected of her and produce a heir in due course, he thought grimly. A woman he could feel only a distant regard for, not someone like Her …



“I’m sure no danger would come to Hogwarts with its wards protecting it, Severus, and I’m sure you would enjoy Hawaii, Severus,” Albus said coaxingly, drawing the Potions Master’s thoughts back to the present.



Severus shook his head. “If I am to have a holiday, I would insist it be somewhere nearby,” he countered.



The Headmaster sighed. “Well, you cannot blame an old man for trying. Well, if you insist on staying nearby then the best place I can recommend is ah, St. Morgana’s Forest Retreat on the outskirts of Hogsmeade,” he mused. A pleasant place indeed… I suppose it would do for you,” he said doubtfully.



Severus managed to conceal his satisfaction. The retreat would be perfect – he had never had much interest in it, but it was rumoured to have an excellent collection of books to peruse. Best of all there would be no students running around to irritate him.



“Very well - it sounds ideal,” he acknowledged. It was best not to appear too eager. “I will look into making enquiries.”



“I suppose there is wisdom in having you nearby,” Albus conceded, rising to his feet. “Take as much time as you wish, Severus.”



Severus inclined his dark head briefly. “Thank you, Headmaster,” he said, getting up in his turn and swept from the office in a swirl of black robes, satisfied thoughts of the DADA role within his reach overshadowing those of a former student.



Albus smiled to himself.



* * * * *



St Morgana’s Forest Retreat had been set up by Stuart and Hallie Hesterwing, a couple of owned a vast, crumbling house on an equally vast property that backed on to a forest on the outskirts of Hogsmeade. The property was expensive to look after though and because they were attached to their home they saw the wisdom (and profit) of turning it into a place where moneyed wizards would be happy to spend their galleons in relaxing. A former pupil of Hogwarts herself, Hallie had renamed the estate in honour of her patron saint St Morgana, a Herbology teacher from the early years of Hogwarts who had sacrificed her life to save her students from a Dark Lord of that era, and who ever after was said to watch fondly over gardeners.



The house, built of a pale peach stone, was a crazy mixture of towers and wings, winding passageways and hidden rooms that suggested to the casual eye that it was not quite here or there. However, the effect of bright green ivy that was happily colonizing the outside helped soften its appearance. There were fruit trees, shrubs, the odd stream and flowers through the estate, with meandering paths winding throughout with a subtle compulsion spelled to the paths that silently urged the more slothful of the guests to walk upon them at least once a day. It was easy though to find a secluded area with a bench where one could perhaps sit and dream, listen to the contented hum of bees and feel the warm air upon ones face. The owners were firm believers in plain and healthy food for their guests too and briskly encouraged people to spend as much time outside as possible. A special barrier around the estate ensured that it was always warm and pleasant there - when it rained it was infrequent and winter was but a brief visitor. It was generally held by many wizards and witches that there were far worse places to stay at, and if one happened to run into a wizard from an opposing house on a stay there, well, it seemed easy to decide that a disagreement could be put off until another time.



* * * * *



A fine day was just getting underway when Hermione stood outside the tall, wrought-iron gates that were set within a tall, spiky hedge that even Hagrid’s half-brother would have to jump up to look over. She was dressed in a plain black robe and her bushy brown hair was firmly plaited and pinned up upon her head (an appearance that hopefully gave her maturity). This was her first job after all, and she didn’t want to jeopardise it! She had decided in the end to Apparate here – taking the train would have made her feel like a student again and she only used her broom when she had to (her logical mind knowing full well that there was a long way to fall down had never made her fond of flying like Harry). Her parents had wished her well, and her mother had slipped a packet of (sugar-free) sweets into the bag she was carrying at her side. She was carrying a dozing Crookshanks in a cat-carrier as well (she was heartily grateful for the spell that reduced the weight of heavy objects). There was a silver bell hanging upon a chain by the gates, and once Hermione had put down her bag and cat and briskly rang it, there was the brief feeling of being looked at and then there was a click, with one of the gates swinging silently open.



When she picked up her luggage and walked through, she felt a tingle across her skin that indicated she had passed a magical barrier. Perhaps this accounted for the fact that the temperature felt warmer in here. Hermione blinked, for upon a rise stood an imposing ivy-coloured house of peach stone obviously built by wizards who had had their own ideas of architecture. Mr Weasley would love this place, Hermione thought with a smile. A blue-pebbled path led up to the house and as she walked along it she looked around at the gardens and tall trees around her. Despite the chatter and song of many birds there was a peaceful air about the place and already she felt she was starting to relax as she had not in a long time. It appeared that there were guests in residence, for a balding, pot-bellied wizard with a pleasant face and a rumpled blue robe was snoring gently in a seat underneath a tree. Perched upon a shadowed branch a small grey-and-white owl blinked dim eyes down at Hermione. Down a pathway that was lined with rose bushes she could hear the distant murmur of wizards in conversation.



A tortoise-shell cat was curled up asleep upon the porch, and for a moment it opened an amber eye to stare at Hermione, then after apparently dismissing her went back to its nap. It looked like Crookshanks would have a companion to play Boss-the-human-slaves with, Hermione thought. The front door was a wooden one that was dark with age, and contained at its top stained glass panels of shining blue and red. After the booming echoes from using the knocker on the door had faded away, the door opened to reveal a shy-looking house elf dressed in what looked like a little white sack.



“Yes?” it squeaked.



“Hello, I’m Hermione Granger – I’m here to work as an assistant gardener,” Hermione said politely, successfully hiding the faint cringe of seeing a new house elf, bound of course to serve a family in servitude.



The house elf’s face brightened. “Yes, Mistress Hallie has been expecting you! Come in and Biddy will inform the Mistress!”



Apparently ‘pleasing the Mistress’ was something that made Biddy very happy as it practically danced upon the spot as encouragements were given for Hermione to come inside. The foyer inside was panelled in honey-coloured wood, with a polished wooden floor of a darker colour while a staircase swept up to the next storey. Hermione was shown through a door on her left into a parlour to wait – a room however that was decorated in various shades of cream that gave it the feeling of coldness.



When Hallie Hesterwing came into the parlour, a tall blonde lady dressed in a stylish blue robe, a smile upon her face and an elegant hand held out in greeting, she nevertheless gave Hermione the impression of one from a ‘pureblood’ family, an air similar to that of the Malfoys that they were ‘better’ than everyone else. There was no reined-in malice about Hallie though, but a sense that it was good to be ‘kind’ to those below you on the social ladder.



How pleased she was to see Hermione, a former student from Hogwarts (such a great school too, with many of the finest families sending their children there). James the gardener was busy at this time of year and needed help - Biddy was such a helpful elf but hopeless outside the house. Hogwarts with its reputation was the perfect place to send advertisements to, of course.



Three meals a day was provided … but in the kitchen, my dear. I’m sure you will understand.



The evenings, Friday afternoons and weekends are yours to do as you please, though of course proper respect for the privacy of the guests here must be taken into account.



Clothes would be provided for her to work in – her husband had been clever enough in finding a way to create fabric that repelled dirt but then, he was a Ravenclaw.



She would be welcome to take the time to settle in before her duties would start with James after lunch…



The room that Hermione had been given was at the back of the house, a pleasant room on the ground floor with its own adjoining bathroom that was nevertheless near a convenient side door to the outside. This way she wouldn’t be using the front door for the guests, Hermione thought ironically. It seemed she had swapped the role of student for that of a (paid) servant and she could swear there was Slytherin in her employer’s ancestry somewhere, but then, no one had forced her to take this holiday job. All right, she wasn’t too pleased at the thought of wearing brown ‘work clothes’ (even though they weren’t exactly rags) which consisted of comfortable trousers and a loose-sleeved top in a muted brown colour that seemed to be spelled to keep her warm as well as repel dirt. There were sensible shoes provided for working outside and even though the sun wasn’t scorching she considered it a prudent idea to ask for and receive a wide-brimmed straw hat (that didn’t look too silly) to protect her skin since she would be working outside most of the day.



Hermione had to admit though to the private thrill of being paid for the first time, and she could easily think of worse places to be in right now. Since she had brought some changes of her own clothes she could spend her free time too in Hogsmeade itself and meet her friends there.



A plain but filling lunch was served to Hermione in the pleasant-smelling kitchen at its long scrubbed-pine table by the eager Biddy, where she had the chance to meet James, the gardener with whom she would be working with. He was a former student of Hogwarts who had been a Hufflepuff, a sturdy man in his mid-twenties with curly brown hair, a laid-back attitude and deep blue eyes with a sense of humour lurking in them. Hermione found herself liking him at once and his easy way of talking that set her at ease.



“Granger, Granger… I’ve heard the name before. You’re a friend of our hero Harry Potter, aren’t you?” James mused at one point as he sat on the other side of the table from her, drinking from a mug of cocoa and a keen look in his eyes.



“Yes,” Hermione said cautiously though inside she winced. Was she always going to make people think of Harry when they were with her?



James waved a hand at her reassuringly when he saw her discomfort. “Relax, I won’t pester you for his life story, not that it hasn’t already been printed in ‘The Daily Prophet’ a few times. You’re here to do a job and willing to get your hands dirty, I respect that.”



Hermione relaxed. “Thanks – I saw this job as a chance to do well, something different for change instead of being submerged in books. Although once I go to university it will all start again,” she said ruefully.



James nodded in sympathy. “I remember the academic life myself – my nose to the books all the time and a glare from Professor McGonagall if I lifted my head. She’s probably still there. She is? Of course. What will you be studying at university?”



“Transfiguration,” Hermione replied promptly and with a little pride.



“Something useful, then,” James said with a smile. “Now unfortunately you won’t be able to transform a messy garden without elbow grease, so once you’ve finished your food come with me…”



The plants in the garden were ‘ordinary’ ones for which Hermione was thankful – she could do without the job of pruning Devil’s Snare that was for sure! The garden was so vast it was possible to work without running into the guests, and James showed her how to look out for the types of plants that needed watering, pruning or tying back (weeding was a job that needed no explanation). There was pleasure too in putting new plants into the earth, feeling the warm earth in her hands and smelling the scent of bright flowers nearby. At the end of the first day Hermione was quick to run a bath for her aching body, feeling as though she had strained muscles that she hadn’t even known existed! However, as the days progressed she was able to feel that her body was slowly getting into better shape than she had been at school.



Hermione found she liked James and the pleasure of being with someone who didn’t see her as just a Know-It-All. Or called her one, she thought. He had a girlfriend in Hogsmeade who worked in the sweet shop, and Hermione had been startled to feel a moment of regret at the fact. It was a betrayal of what she felt for him.



But he’s not here, is he? a voice inside her said reasonably. He’s probably not even thinking of you right now or having snide thoughts if he’s doing so.



But unknown to her, Professor Snape was at the retreat as well… though neither of them was currently aware of the other’s presence here. Severus had arrived a couple of days before her with a small packed bag and a container holding his familiar, a little green snake called Asherath. He had been initially prepared to find fault with every aspect of the place. Certainly Mrs Hesterwing, one of the owners, had annoyed him by initially fawning over him in the way people did to those above them that they perceived as having power.



His chambers on one of the upper floors, while adequate were far too sunny for his disposition and the look he gave to the various vases of bright, cheerful flowers should have withered them immediately to ash. Although there were other guests here he was in no mood to socialise, nor was he disposed to eat his meals with others in the dining room; a covered tray of food outside his door at meal times so he could eat in private was asked for and provided.



Severus knew full well there was a compulsion spell laid upon the paths in the garden so that the more intractable guests like himself that preferred their own company (he had smiled tightly to himself for a moment) would be drawn to go for a walk. Highly unlikely he thought, having found one of the many small libraries throughout the place near his rooms that provided sufficient distraction for hours on end. No one – and nothing – would compel him to do anything he wanted. And yet… one day in the twilight time when the garden was empty and was taking on the shadowy aspects of another realm, he had gone for a walk (out of curiosity of course) upon its paths, his black robes making him merely another shadow amongst shadows. The dark stillness around him had somehow crept into his being and he had realised it was becoming easier to put the memory of Hermione away from him, to be slowly returning to the man who was unmoved by sentiment or emotion.



This pleased the Potions master.





TBC


A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 11]

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