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A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 13]

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A/N -Thanks as always for the kind reviews.


Part 13



It was a cheerful Hermione who was in the garden a few days later. She was on her knees in a flowerbed at some distance from a secluded path, currently yanking stubborn weeds from the ground. A little bucket half full of weeds standing nearby was testimony to the work she had done so far.

As it happened, Hermione’s happiness was due to the fact that she had been paid today for the work she had done so far in her first week here. It was one thing to know objectively that she would be paid for her work here, and another thing to feel the odd, giddy happiness she had felt when Biddy had come to her room this morning to give her a little cloth sack of galleons that was her first week’s wages.

“Compliments of the Mistress!” Biddy had squeaked, a shy smile upon the plain house elf’s face as she peered up at her (according to James the elf was indeed a female). It appeared Hermione had won the devotion of Biddy merely by sincerely thanking her for the food at meal times in the kitchen where Hermione ate.

Biddy was in charge of preparing food for everyone in the house of course; owners, staff and guests. Food had to be provided for the dining room where the guests ate, while trays had to be provided for the owners (who presumably had their own private dining quarters) as well as a guest who preferred, it seemed, to eat in his (or her) own room. Perhaps this guest was recovering from a long illness like some of the others here and was too shy to eat with others, Hermione had thought charitably.

After Hermione had thanked Biddy and the house elf had left, she had felt like a child at Christmas time when she had quickly opened the bag and poured the galleons contained within it upon her palm. Objectively speaking, it wasn’t a huge amount of money – this wasn’t exactly a high-paying job but it was the first money she could legitimately call her own. Her parents had provided her with pocket money of course, but that was different.

This required a little celebration, Hermione had decided firmly. As today was Friday with this afternoon to be spent as she wished, what better way to do this but to clean herself up and then go into Hogsmeade for some ‘retail therapy’? Perhaps she could buy a fancy quill for university at Scrivenshaft’s Quill Shop with a drink at the Three Broomsticks afterwards, or maybe…

So it was that thoughts of a more frivolous nature occupied Hermione’s mind this morning while she weeded. She realised it had been a while since she had felt this cheerful – what would her peers from Hogwarts think if they could see the Know-It-All bookworm Hermione Granger kneeling in a garden wearing plain brown clothes, her hair plaited and tied up under a somewhat-floppy straw hat? Well, she couldn’t care less, she thought firmly. There was something about the air here; the peaceful stillness and the soft rustle the trees made when a breeze blew through them were calming to her naturally busy mind.

In the time she had been here she had noticed that the brown outfit she was wearing did indeed deflect dirt, but Hermione wondered if there was some quality about it that deflected from her the gazes of the guests who walked along the paths. Certainly it seemed she was ‘invisible’ in some way from everyone here apart from the owners, James and Biddy. Or perhaps it was because she was doing menial work such as gardening that she was beneath their notice – would they look or talk to a house elf unless they needed something done for them? Certainly they would never deign to get their hands dirty…

Oddly, this lack of being noticed did not bother her the way it would have had in her first year at Hogwarts, for it felt like she was in her own little secluded (leafy) world, although she was glad to have found a friend. Here at St. Morgana’s she wasn’t Hermione, one of the brightest up-and-coming witches of the wizard world, someone who was always expected to maintain her high grades, but just Hermione, the assistant gardener. The work involved in maintaining the garden here was hard at times but also satisfying when she could see the plants respond to her diligent care. She could feel too the weary parts of her heart relax ever so slightly, like little tight knots slowly unfolding.

At the moment James was currently working on the vegetable garden that he took a personal pride in, for he planted, cared for and harvested the vegetables used by Biddy in their meals. Hermione felt a sense of satisfaction that James was confident enough in her that he could leave her to do her work, and to trust that she would be able to see some of what needed to be done in a garden (“I feel safe in knowing you will pull out more weeds than plants now”, he had joked).

After a while Hermione’s limbs felt stiff as they did when she worked too long in the same position, and she clambered to her feet so she could stretch herself. She had the feeling too that a few ants were crawling around in her hair (there were plenty on the ground and they always took the opportunity to explore new objects in their territory, i.e. her), and so she took off her hat and patted experimentally at her plaited hair, frowning at the inside of the hat as she did so. She was too preoccupied to notice or care about the swift pace of footsteps on the path nearby… which stopped suddenly.

Severus had avoided walking in the gardens during the day so far, but had been curious today to see if there were any plants that would be useful to him in his potion experiments. He was sure too that if he did see any, there would be no trouble from the owners if he decided to take a small cutting for him to nurture back into full growth in the greenhouses of Hogwarts. It seemed that no wish of his was unimportant in the eyes of Madame Hesterwing, he thought with sardonic amusement.

Lost in his thoughts as he walked along a path, he had at first only given a cursory glance to the drab little woman in brown (a servant of some kind obviously) in the garden itself who was half-turned away from him, examining a hat he would not be caught dead wearing. But there was something about the woman that made look at her full on – to see with shock that made him stop that she was… Hermione Granger.

His first coherent thought was, what was she doing here? He must have made a sound of some kind because she turned her head towards him in faint inquiry. There was a look of unguarded shock upon her face and then a look of surprised welcome… and more… in her brown eyes for a moment that he had rarely seen on the face of any woman looking at him, certainly not her. It was affection… no, it was love.

With that look, in a seemingly endless moment the Potions master was filled by an exquisite pain that was also joy mixed with disbelief, filling him to the point that he felt he would surely burst, until that receded like a tide leaving a bay, that yet left glittering traces of itself behind. He realised that more than anything, he wanted to know the way to make Hermione look at him in that way again. There was no barrier in his mind this time at the thought that rose up within him with swift force, that he loved her.

He knew finally that he had loved Hermione for most of the last year – had it been from the first grudging recognition that her intelligent, sharp-witted mind was akin to his own, or that it mattered to him inside that she was one of the few people who didn’t look at him with veiled dislike or indifference. It didn’t matter that her hair was an untidy mess from the strands of bushy hair that had sprang free from their confining braid, that her hands were dirty, that a sack would have looked better on her rather than the unflattering clothes she was wearing. Importantly, she was no longer a student at Hogwarts; much of his own anger over how he felt towards her, he realised, had been that as her teacher she had been forbidden by law and society to him.

However, old habits died hard and the way he felt was quite veiled in the Potion master’s eyes when he nevertheless said sharply, “Miss Granger, what on earth are you doing here?”

While examining her hat, Hermione had heard the swift, sharp inhalation of breath from someone nearby, and on turning her head to investigate had seen with shock – oh, gods! – that it was Professor Snape who was on the path looking at her. She had been filled with shock and surprise, and yet it seemed that part of her being sang upon seeing the Potions master again, dressed (as usual) in his sweeping black robes. It didn’t matter that his black hair was lank, or that he would never win any beauty contests with that hooked nose in his sallow, angular face; her heart and body had felt an irresistible tug towards him, to hold and kiss him until his mouth relented and sought hers in return. She was concerned too that he appeared to be thinner than usual… then realising she was getting carried away, her eyes became guarded.

But what was he doing here? Hermione had thought Professor Snape would have had no detailed knowledge of this place, certainly no interest in staying here (surely he would have looked down his nose and sneered at the idea?). Also, had the professor really looked at her for a moment in the same way the older version of him in her last vision had looked at her; with intense awareness… with joy? Perhaps she had imagined it, for he was looking at her now with a sharp stare that reminded her of the way of how his behaviour towards her before she had graduated had been just short of malevolence. Hermione realised that even though she was no longer technically forbidden against showing her feelings to Professor Snape, she realised to her chagrin that she was apprehensive about the first step to take.

Even though she was acutely aware that they were no longer teacher and student to the other, it seemed that the gulf between them at the moment was just as great as ever – surely he was still the same person who had raged at her when she had thanked him for tending to her when she was ill. It had occurred to her for a second upon seeing him again, that maybe Severus-from-the-future had told her to take care of herself because he ‘knew’ she would be coming here, where ‘he’ would be also. But wizards lived a long time; what if it would be years before they could come together? In the state of flustered yearning she felt to be in at the moment (to her embarrassment), it would be easy to say or do something immature that would ruin everything.

But Hermione thought too with concealed satisfaction that she could talk back to him without fear of reprisals, reprimands and detention. If he thought he could browbeat her and get away with it, he had another thought coming, Hermione thought steadily, her tumbling thoughts calming down. Her feelings for him didn’t mean she would now be – or ever be – a doormat in his presence.

His black eyes boring into her, Professor Snape said abruptly, “Miss Granger, what on earth are you doing here?”

Satisfied that her hat did not contain any ants (she had only found a couple on her neck that she had flicked away) Hermione jammed it back upon her head.

“Good morning to you too, Professor Snape… I’m working as a gardener at the moment,” she said matter-of-factly. She could still speak calmly and clearly. This was good.

Severus moved a strand of black hair away from his face. “That is clearly evident Miss Granger, I am not blind,” he said sarcastically. There was though, a profound discomfort inside his heart (that was new to him) in realising the disadvantages that came from sarcasm coming easier to him than less-than-acid words.

“But why? Shouldn’t you be having a break with those foolhardy friends of yours instead of… mucking around in the dirt?” he continued in exasperation, waving a pale hand dismissively at the garden around her. His exasperation was genuine enough – a brilliant witch such as her was wasted grubbing in the dirt.

Nettled on behalf of the garden she tended, Hermione looked him squarely in the eye. “It’s a paying job and this is my idea of a break, Professor. Why are you here?”

“Don’t be impertinent,” he snapped automatically. “Ten point-”

Then there was a tight, self-mocking smile upon his face as he realised that he had no right to deduct points from her. He was still wondering why of all places, he and Hermione had run into each other again here. Dumbledore, Severus realised swiftly. Of course… somehow, the Headmaster was behind this, the crafty, wily so-and-so. He should have realised Dumbledore’s favourite pastime was pulling the strings of those around him, why, all of that talk of Hawaii had been a clever ruse on his part to make sure Severus came here. Because Hermione would be here. Dumbledore had known this… and had slyly waved the offer of the DADA position in front of his face – no, the Headmaster had practically stuffed it down his throat - knowing that he would be sufficiently distracted by it so as to not be suspicious as to why Dumbledore had suggested this particular place. If it had been with anyone other than Hermione, Severus would have gone by the swiftest means possible straight to Hawaii and throttled him!

But how much did she know, a suspicious voice in his mind pointed out. How much of this was Dumbledore’s doing?

“Did the Headmaster suggest you come and work here?” he said sharply.

Hermione blinked. “No… why would he do that?” she said in honest surprise. “I saw the advertisement in my Herbology class – as far as I know the Headmaster doesn’t even know I’m here. Why?”

The black eyes of Severus glinted and narrowed at her. “It was his suggestion that I come to this particular place for a holiday. Now why would that be, I wonder, since this happens to be where you are as well?” he said silkily.

“I don’t know, Professor,” Hermione said calmly, as if it did not matter to her in the slightest but as they had been speaking he could sense her growing defensiveness towards the intruder he suddenly felt himself to be. He felt an odd pang inside his heart, though it was with grimness he realised he had only himself to blame for her attitude. He was oddly reminded of his mother, who near the end of her days had cringed every time his father had spoken to her. Severus had hated his father yet learnt from him anyway, hadn’t he, for he used the same tone of voice towards his students, to her, to keep them in line. He was conscious of staring at her silently, wanting to say what he truly felt towards her, but not knowing what words to say… as if he was floundering in water and had no idea how to swim.

Then realising he was no doubt making a fool of himself he said gruffly, “Since I am keeping you from your work, Miss Granger, I will leave you to it. Good day.”

With that he turned and walked back the way he came, though he wished more than anything that he could enfold her in his arms, to have her smile up at him. He was curious as to how she kept herself here… but as they were no longer teacher and student to each other it would be hard to find reasonable excuses… for now… to approach her. However, there was a way… though it was limited, it would have its uses.

Hermione stared after his retreating form, a slightly perplexed look on her face. For a moment there her former, formidable teacher had looked, well, unsure of himself. As if he had… what? Wanted to say something? Surely not the kind of words a sentimental part of her wished to hear from him, had he? Had he wanted her to say something? What? And also, how? This wasn’t someone from her own year or house she was dealing with, but with Professor Snape, with whom you dared to have a casual conversation with at your peril. Hermione realised she didn’t really didn’t know how to talk to him in a way that was not based on defensiveness against his biting words. She felt a concern though, that it didn’t look like he had been taking proper care of himself lately – but she knew of a way where she could observe him during the day without fear of discovery, surely…

Going back to her work was decidedly anti-climatic after what had just happened, but Hermione threw herself back into her weeding with a vengeance, a part of her half-expecting the professor to come back along the path.

Sometime later Hermione heard the flutter of wings and glancing up saw a crow land upon the branch of a nearby tree, its jet black wings settling into place while a sharp black eye observed her in a way that spoke of intelligence. Hermione was unsurprised for there were quite a few birds of all kinds here at the retreat - some wizards came from places that clearly had different ideas on what a familiar should be. But let others have their winged familiars, she was content with Crookshanks. She didn’t know for sure whether the crow was someone’s familiar, but having learnt not to take any bird or animal for granted Hermione nodded politely towards it. The crow uttered a harsh caw and then seemed to decide she was of little interest, turning its head away from her. Hermione smiled wryly and went back to her work.

When her stomach eventually informed her that it was lunchtime, Hermione ceased working and after standing and stretching, took her bucket and left the flowerbed (making sure there wasn’t too much clumps of dirt on her soles). Hermione took several twisting paths that led her to the rubbish bin situated near the vegetable garden where she could dump her weeds. Seeing that James was still tending to his vegetables, she called out to him in greeting. His uncomplicated friendship was something that Hermione, after her encounter with Professor Snape, latched on to with sudden relief.

James stopped working at the sound of her voice and turning to her gave her an easy smile. “Hi Hermione, have you finished for now?” he inquired.

“Yes, I have,” she replied as she walked over to the rubbish bin and emptied the weeds into it with perhaps more vigour than necessary.

“Not meaning to pry but you seem a bit tense,” James said mildly, though there was a faint question in his voice.

Hermione put an unconcerned smile upon her face when she turned to face him. “It’s nothing James, I think the week is catching up to me, that’s all.”

He appeared to accept her explanation. “Well, you’ve got the afternoon off, so go and put your feet up in a quiet patch of grass somewhere. After all there’s no lack of places to choose from,” he observed.

“I’m going to Hogsmeade this afternoon after lunch – but maybe tomorrow,” Hermione countered agreeably.

Taking her empty bucket she then left it in a little garden shed nearby, then took the path that would take her to her usual back entrance of the retreat.

Unknown to them both, Severus in his Animagi crow form had followed Hermione, with a sharp black eye then directed mainly at this James that Hermione was so friendly with. Although as a crow his thoughts and emotions were overridden at times by the eat-fly-hunger instinct, a surge of jealousy had arisen within him, with accompanying reminders from his avian instincts of the many uses of beak and claw. It had been bad enough when Potter and Weasley had made bigger fools of themselves than usual over Hermione, but here away from Hogwarts he would be damned if he let her be snatched up by the first man that came along. He had seemed familiar – a former Hogwarts student perhaps? But that was irrelevant.

Ruffling his black feathers in irritation he then took to the air again with ease born of long practice. His Animagi ability was not one that Severus had revealed to many; the less people knew about what he could do the better, and this form had come in handy in countless missions. Also too, thus changed you were vulnerable in ways that your human body wasn’t, and there were many… inventive tortures his enemies could have inflicted upon him as a bird, with him magically bound by them into this form and unable to change back.

Instead of going through the front door like everyone else, Hermione went around the back to what clearly appeared to be the servant’s entrance, which irked him. What on earth had possessed her to work here? Surely not for the money as she had said – any amount of money paid out would be pitiful to say the least.

When Hermione returned to her room there were two letters that had been slipped underneath her door by Biddy from her parents and Harry – owl post prevailed here of course. The one from her parents was fill of cheerful inquiry after her, while Harry’s letter was welcome to her – he and the gang were coming over to the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade tomorrow night, and she was ‘hereby commanded to attend’.

Hermione smiled. It would be good to see her friends again and she would be definitely replying to that letter after lunch. Since she was going into Hogsmeade anyway this afternoon, she could use the owls in their post office – Hermione suspected that she would probably be using a good chunk of her money up if she used the owl here at the retreat to deliver her mail. Using the services here was probably similar to that of using services at a Muggle motel – you would be overcharged!

She went into the bathroom and later when she emerged clean, her hair in a tidy plait and dressed in a black robe instead of her work clothes, she went to the kitchen where James was tucking into a slice of meat pie. As always, Biddy eagerly begged Hermione to sit down, serving her a slice of pie as well. The kitchen was filled with the pleasant, warm smells of cooking, and while the two chatted the crow outside in a tree near the window was a silent, grim observer.


TBC


A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 13]

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