Summary of Chapter 17 – Severus
Severus, full of self-recrimination, writes a letter of apology and sends it to Hermione. He feels that he has broken her trust, while at the same time, he is deeply unsettled by what he has seen in her mind. To sort out his feelings and try to understand, he reviews the memories of it in a Pensieve and has an epiphany. Meaning to tell Hermione what he has come to understand, he wants to send her a Patronus message, but on summoning his doe, he’s utterly shaken when it refuses to take form. Fearing that his Patronus has changed into an otter to mirror Hermione’s, he’s struck by the realisation that he loves her.
Elated about this (and resigned to having another unmanly Patronus) he casts the charm again, and an eagle bursts from his wand. Beyond happy and finally totally at peace with himself, with her and with their situation, he decides not to send her a message at all – secure in the knowledge that she’ll speak to him when she’s ready.
A/N: An extra long chapter this time... the first of the ones supposed to be the last. ;) I guess you won't mind getting a few more...
After two sleepless nights of tossing and turning in her bed and two insufferable days of embarrassment and avoidance, Hermione finally summoned the courage to seek Severus out in his office. Her knocking on the door was a bit hesitant, his invitation to enter rather brusque, as usual.
For a moment, she felt as if she had stepped back in time – to the evening so long ago when she had stood in his office just like this: nervous about the delicate matter that needed to be discussed, but determined to follow through with it. But it was there that the similarities ended.
The moment she entered, Severus’ face lost the annoyed frown he usually wore whenever his concentration was interrupted. “Hermione...”, he said softly, and the look he gave her was... she couldn’t really say, as she hadn’t seen this expression on his face ever before. It was composed, calm, almost serene. She wasn’t sure if it was a good sign or a bad one. “Do you have a moment?”
“Of course.” He immediately put the stack of students’ essays aside and transfigured her chair. A bit stiffly she sat down, her head hanging low. It was obvious that she felt uncomfortable. Just as he had expected, she launched right into an apology, but he instantly halted her attempt. “Don’t! You don’t have anything to apologise for. It is I who has to ask for forgiveness.”
Briefly, she lifted her gaze to look at him. “But you already did,” she pointed out, before lowering her eyes again. “It’s why I came. I didn’t want you to believe that I blame you in any way for what happened. I know you didn’t mean to pry. I could feel how shocked you were and how you tried to disentangle yourself from my mind. I understand you’re appalled...” She raised her palms to her face in a gesture of embarrassment. “Oh God, I don’t even know what to say to you and how to look you in the eye. I’ve never felt so ashamed in my life.”
“Hermione – please, stop!” he implored, wanting to reach across the desk and lower her hands himself. “I wasn’t appalled – don’t you even dare even think that! I was just surprised, bewildered. I would never have guessed... although I should have, really. But I was trying so hard to maintain a professional distance and keep pretending all this while that I just didn’t consider...” He broke off again, struggling to find the right words for all he wanted to say. He simply didn’t know where to start. “Of course you’d have those thoughts, and if I hadn’t used Occlumency so much to block out what I didn’t want to ponder, I wouldn’t have been so surprised to find myself in them.”
She put her hands in her lap again, but still avoided his gaze. “Don’t pretend that’s all you were shocked about.”
“You think I’m shocked about the role I played in your fantasies, don’t you?” he asked calmly. She nodded, and he shook his head. “I’m not. Had I given it some thought, I would have guessed.”
“What?” At this, she finally looked up, her eyes wide.
He sighed and rose from his chair. “Come. Let’s take this somewhere more private. I feel even more awkward discussing this with you in my office.” He made a move to get up, but paused and reconsidered when he saw something flash in her eyes. “Unless – you’re uncomfortable with that?”
“No, I’m just surprised,” she hastened to diffuse any notion he might be having that she was afraid he might do something inappropriate. “This discussion is awkward no matter where we are having it. I just thought... Inviting me to your quarters isn’t exactly keeping a distance, is it?” She was sure that no student had ever set foot into his private rooms. That he was literally offering her such a glimpse behind his walls was mind-boggling. He might as well have offered to strip naked. Which, now that the comparison was drawn, made her realise that it probably was entirely inappropriate. But then, this was true for many things they had done during the last months.
“I’ve been deceiving myself,” Severus admitted bluntly. “It was stupid to pretend that you were just one of my students or that I was merely one of your professors right from the moment we kissed. It was impossible to suppress everything that was brought up and to simply go back to pretending nothing had changed. I guess my inexperience with matters of the heart shows.”
“Well, it can’t be worse than mine,” Hermione said and got up as well.
“In that case, we’ll just have to keep blundering through and be indulgent with each other. But I assure you that I have no intention of crossing boundaries again.”
“I don’t worry about that!” she protested. “Despite what you saw... it’s not what I think about you... I do trust you.”
“I know, Hermione,” he assured her. “I just wanted to make sure you feel comfortable.”
He opened the door at the back of his office and led her into his livingroom. Or maybe it was a study? It was hard to tell, with shelves full of books going up to the ceiling. The sight immediately calmed her, just like when she entered the library, as if merely surrounding herself with knowledge bound in leather was in itself a defence against failing, faltering, not knowing what to do and not having all the answers. It smelled as heavenly as in the library, too – of parchment and leather, and an added undercurrent of wood smoke.
The latter was owed to the huge fireplace that Severus ignited with a flick of his wand. Immediately, a merry fire sprang to life, illuminating two inviting, heavily padded armchairs and a matching ottoman facing it. He placed a gently glowing mageball into the rather Muggle looking floor lamp which stood between the chairs. A thick rug, a small coffee table piled with books, and a softly ticking mantlepiece clock rounded the homey picture.
“It’s a nice room you’ve made for yourself...” she offered, looking around and not really knowing what to say.
He raised his brow. “Were you expecting naked walls, dingy lights and jars full of atrocities even in my living quarters?” he asked, fully aware of the ridiculous rumours that were going around students and staff alike. “Manacles, whips and thumbscrews for decoration? Me sleeping in a coffin? Sometimes, I wonder if I have played my part a little too convincingly...”
When he saw her blush, he wondered briefly if he had taken the joke a bit too far. But she quickly composed herself and huffed. “None of the above. But I admit I was expecting more – green.” The room was furnished with haphazardly mixed furniture and accessories, not following a specific colour scheme. Still, the muted browns, deep blues and even the occasional burgundy fitted together nicely. It looked warm and comfortable, decorated to be used, not to impress.
He shook his head. “I see enough green in the Slytherin common room. It gets dull after a while.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I feel the same about Gryffindor red.”
He shrugged off his teaching robe, hanging it neatly on a coat hook by the door. For some weird reason, the simple gesture that probably just bespoke habit caught her attention. This was the most naked she had ever seen him – and he was still fully armoured wearing his frock coat with all the tiny buttons that had brought forward her incriminating fantasies. She had expected him to look less imposing without the billowing of his long robe that accentuated his every movement so effectively, but that wasn’t the case. He seemed leaner, but no less formidable.
Although for him, this state of ‘undress’ probably already stood for ‘relaxed’.
Severus had taken notice of her curious gaze and Hermione was sure that he was wondering if the simple act of divesting his outer robe was too forward. But she understood that he probably didn’t want to have this conversation while still wearing his teaching robe, calling extra attention to the inappropriateness of their situation.
It struck her mind that they were walking on eggshells again – like during that fateful night in his office, when they had both exposed huge parts of their souls and were unsure how to handle each other. Once again, they were both extremely aware and mindful of their vulnerabilities and the delicacy of their situation. Both of them were taking great pains not to say or do something that would cause more fissures or make something break.
Although the environment was soothing, she still felt nervous and awkward and was grateful when he offered her not only the chair but a cup of tea as well. Especially in moments like these, the magical tea-pots that filled with fresh brew at a simple tap of your wand came in handy. If nothing else, the mug gave her something to occupy her hands and rest her gaze on. She was not yet prepared to look him in the eye for fear of what she might find.
There was another awkward pause before Hermione dared to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. She was the one who had pushed him to continue her Occlumency lessons, even though he had clearly been reluctant to delve into her mind again. This was entirely her fault, all of it, but as his note had made clear, he blamed himself. It had made her cry even harder, because every line had indicated that he didn’t even expect her to forgive his mistake, despite the fact that he had apologised, which certainly wasn’t something that came easy to him.
“I want you to know one thing for sure, Severus,” she told him quietly, but with determination. “Even if I had felt that you were to blame for seeing... what you saw, you would have been forgiven. But I’m not in a position to offer forgiveness. I’m the one who crossed the line.”
Severus looked at the flustered, yet determined girl who sat before him. She really was a Gryffindor to the core. No matter how bad she felt or how difficult the situation was, she never took the coward’s way out but did what had to be done, no matter how much it cost her. And, like a typical Gryffindor, she took on the entire blame of a situation gone wrong. He hadn’t expected differently from her. But for her to think that she had crossed a line... “Why?” he asked, puzzled. “Because of your fantasies? Surely you realise that everybody has them...”
“Well, yes, but... it’s different when nobody knows about them – especially not the person you’ve been fantasising about. Now that you do, I feel like I... took liberties with your person.”
Bemused, he shook his head. That was ridiculous. What man wouldn’t be pleased to star in an attractive woman’s fantasies? “Hermione – you’re free to take any liberties you like in your mind. That’s the only place you should feel totally free to do whatever you please – or rather, whatever pleases you. I’m certainly not offended. Neither by the fact that you were fantasising about me, nor for the content of those fantasies.”
For the first time, she fully raised her gaze and looked him in the eyes. “You’re not?”
“No, I’m not.” He felt rather embarrassed to talk about it, but he also felt that he needed to open up as well in order to re-establish balance and make her understand. His discomfort made him edgy, so instead of sitting down, he started pacing slowly in front of the fireplace, looking at his feet rather than looking at her.
“You said that you don’t have vast sexual experience...” he started hesitantly. “Well, I do. Though ‘vast’ is probably not a fitting description, as my experiences were limited to meaningless and short-lived encounters with women I mostly didn’t even particularly care for, and who didn’t like me as a person, either. They just felt attracted to me because I was a young and powerful rising wizard in the Dark Lord’s circle. It was all about favours, alliances and leverage.” And of course, a mutual satisfaction of carnal needs.
“I figured that there must have been quite a few women who found yo attractive and vied for your attention,” Hermione said. “And there’s probably no denying that your dark Death Eater persona adds to the allure. But I very much doubt that they only wanted you to play power games with you.”
Severus wondered if she was referring to the women’s motives for choosing him or if she meant it in a more physical sense. It was right either way, but he needed to drive the second point home. “I assure you it was the only reason they chose me: Because I embodied power – in more than one aspect. Those women were looking for thrills and excitement, not for tender affections. They wanted exactly what my personality promised to fulfil – being intimidated, dominated, even treated roughly. They wanted to play with fire. Seeing you and me in your mind... the dissonance confused me.”
“Everything you told me and everything I had seen in your memories before told me that you believed me to be a man of honor, who is capable of empathy and patience. And yet, in your fantasies, you made me look like the man those women were after, who only wanted the rush of adrenaline that comes from being with someone who, deep down, you fear.”
For a moment, he hadn’t been sure what she saw in him and what she wanted from him. Had it been the romantically glorified, misunderstood, tragic hero, he would have thought her naive, and for her own sake, he would never have pursued a relationship with her. Had it been his alter ego, the ruthless Death Eater with his dark allure, the cold and sarcastic bad guy, she wouldn’t have been any different from the women who had never seen anything else in him, and he wouldn’t have wanted a relationship with her.
“No!” Hermione protested, shocked about the impression he had gained. “I’m not afraid of you! It wasn’t like that!” It was true that the settings in her fantasies hadn’t been about romance. He had in deed been quite dominant, commanding and assertive, because that side of him admittedly turned her on. He had done things he would never do in real life: Handing out naughty detenions in which he had exerted his authority in most wicked ways, not to mention the creative ways he had come up with to shut her up when she was endlessly regurgitating what she had read in a book. His desk had played a prominent role in those fantasies, too, and so had the manacles he had jokingly mentioned before. But still it sounded all wrong when he described it like that.
“It’s not what I see in you... I do believe that you’re an honourable man capable of empathy!” As if he was likely to believe that now... God, what had she done? Hermione knew that he could be gentle and patient and probably even loving. But her imagination had come up short when trying to picturing him being intimate and romantic. She hadn’t even tried. The man in her fantasy had been just that – a fantasy painted after his image. Although she had practically tailor-made the role for him, she had not assumed that it matched reality. To think that it actually might was thrilling, but it was not all she saw in him.
The hint of panic in her voice made him hasten to assure her. “I know, Hermione – I know that,” he said, his expression softening. “And believe me, it made all the difference to me. I understand now.”
She returned his gaze, looking puzzled. He understood why she loved him for his decency and yet made him seem quite debauched in her fantasies? It didn’t even make sense to her. “You do? How so, when I don’t even understand it myself?”
He smiled softly. “I believe this is where the thing called ‘life experience’ comes into play. All experience, however bad it may be, at least serves this purpose – it gives you insight. Relating mine to everything I have learned about you, it was rather obvious what you seek from me.”
“And what do you think it is?” she asked, fearful about his response.
“Guidance,” he said gently, having stopped his pacing altogether and keeping her firmly in the focus of his gaze.
And how familiar this yearning was to him... It was exactly how he had felt after his falling-out with Lily, before he had joined the Death Eaters. Disorientated, inadequate, grieved by loss and guilt and the feeling of not belonging anywhere. He, too, had been afraid of what the future held for him, he had seen no sense and no aim in anything at the time. And he’d have given anything for someone to guide him, to accept him with all his faults and weaknesses, someone to take him by the hand and lead the way. He had wished for a father figure, a mentor, but unfortunately for him, he had gotten Lucius Malfoy and the Dark Lord. The newfound purpose, the safety and the sense of belonging they offered had been relatively short-lived and had come at a high price. He wouldn’t allow that to happen to her.
“You long for someone to tell you what to do so you can stop thinking and give that ever busy mind of yours a little rest. Someone to take the burden of responsibility from you, if only for a while, so that you will bear no blame for whatever happens. You don’t want to make any more decisions, you don’t want to think things through all the time. For once, you want to rely on someone else to take care of things and make them all right. You are desperate for someone to take control, someone you deem capable of handling things so that you can feel safe enough to let go.”
“Yes,” she breathed, her eyes wide in surprise, even in shock. It was true. In just a few sentences he had described all her confusion: the conflicting emotions she had felt particularly strongly since the war, her frustration and her lack of drive. She was sick and tired of watching out for everybody else, when she felt so completely at a loss herself. How often had she desperately wished for someone to step in, to make it all go away and make her feel safe again, especially during the last year? That he had figured her out in just a few weeks was nothing short of amazing. Especially coming from a man everybody falsely believed to be utterly devoid of empathy.
“How can you know so exactly what I feel?” she asked, wonder in her voice. “Surely not from experience... I very much doubt that you ever wished for someone else to be in charge.”
“No,” he confirmed immediately. “I’ve been on the receiving end for far too long. I don’t want to follow anyone else’s orders ever again. I want to do my own thinking, make my own decisions and take responsibility for my actions. I’m desperate for control. But I was young once, too, and insecure. Unfortunately, I turned to the wrong kind of people to find my place in life. We both have been forced to behave in ways which in many aspects ran contrary to our personalities for a long time. I was forced to submit. You were forced to take control. None of it comes naturally to us.”
She gave a small laugh, which had a tint of bitterness to it. “A lot of people would say that taking control is not at all contrary to my nature.”
“Why – because they call you bossy and a know-it-all? The human mind is a very complex thing. Yes, you crave control – you want things to be predictable, orderly, reliable. The chaos of unhinged passions, overboiling emotions, situations in which no rules apply and logic is no use scare you. You don’t like surprises because they conflict with your need to be prepared for all eventualities.”
Hermione nodded. Yes, that was spot on, too. Harry’s and Ron’s recklessness, the way they had rushed headfirst into danger without planning and preparation had made her want to tear her hair out on more than one occasion. Both of them had been way too emotional for her comfort, especially Ron ever since the war. You couldn’t rely on someone who always acted on his emotions.
“But the fact that you are craving control doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to be the one who does the controlling,” Severus continued his analysis. “Most of the time, you simply had no other choice if you wanted to assure that things didn’t go to hell. Not with those hot-headed, foolish and impulsive friends of yours. It was necessity that made you take your share of responsibility, you’re not a leader by choice. You’re too afraid of making mistakes. I’ve known that since the first year I had you in my Potions class.”
“You said so before...” she remembered, “when we were discussing my parents.”
“Yes, and it’s true,” he said, seeing that she was doubtful and not pleased at the notion. “Do you need proof for the theory? Tell me then: Why do you like potions?”
Hermione was briefly thinking of saying something like ‘because it’s an interesting subject’ or ‘because I find my teacher challenging’. But then she thought back to the feeling that overcame her every time she entered the potion’s lab nowadays. Sure, a huge part was the feeling of security she had because of him. But another, large part was because potion making itself was soothing.
“Because it’s simple,” she said, comprehension dawning. “All I have to do is follow the recipe, and nothing can go wrong.”
“Yes, exactly,” he confirmed, and for once, she heard praise in his voice that she never received for getting an answer right in class. “You like following clear and precise instructions. Your potions were always impeccable. But likewise, I always berated you for your lack of creativity and originality. You never experiment, never dare to deviate from the textbook.”
Funnily enough, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t put things into question. She had done so, quite frequently, and some of her ideas had been remarkable. But instead of following her instinct and putting them to the test like he and Lily had done, she had retreated to the library and researched the matter thoroughly in theory, finding supporting arguments and documented evidence. She then had put it all into her essays, elaborating in detail what she thought the possible outcome of exchanging one ingredient for another might be and reciting her sources. Instead of simply trusting her knowledge and her judgement, she had rather given suggestions to him – the Potions Master – as if he didn’t already know. And it hadn’t been for safety reasons, either. She had known that, in most cases, the worst she would have ended up with was a ruined potion. But that scenario had been horrifying enough to cure her of any urge she might have felt to trust her instinct and take initiative.
“You’re always afraid of doing something wrong and failing,” he said. “That’s why you like following rules so much. Because if you do, you’re not to blame for anything that goes wrong.”
“Yet I broke them many times during my times here in Hogwarts,” she pointed out. “You often reprimanded me for that, too.”
He smirked. “Indeed. But how did you feel knowing that you were breaking perfectly reasonable and long established rules?”
“Bad,” she admitted, reluctantly.
“And you don’t like being bad, Hermione, do you?”
She raised her head at the slightly suggestive tone of his voice, which sent a delicious shiver down her spine. There was something in his eyes that she couldn’t define. It made her nervous, but in a good way. Did that even make sense? In the light of what he was getting at, it probably did. She wanted excitement and that kick of adrenalin in an actually safe and controlled environment, and that was exactly what he was promising. He knew what she wanted, and if she wasn’t entirely mistaken, he was willing to deliver. She swallowed, still staring at him with wide eyes, wondering how he could cause such reactions in her with a mere glance and a few uttered words, when nothing she and Ron had tried had evoked similar feelings of excitement.
Severus, who had observed her intently and probably knew exactly what was going on in her mind – he always seemed to know – chuckled softly and toned down again whatever it was that she had seen flashing in his eyes. More sombrely he added: “You think that your worth is determined by things you do right. You can’t stand people being angry with you or disapproving of you, because you fear it means they don’t like you. That’s why you were so desperate for my approval.”
“I respected and admired you,” she still argued, vetting his theory – however convincing it might be. “Of course I wanted your approval.”
“And not even my rude treatment of you changed that, although by all rights, it should have. I was hardly the person entitled to pass judgement. I didn’t like anybody – or at least I pretended not to. But that didn’t ever make you question whether my opinion even mattered. You have an ingrained respect for authority figures, because subconsciously, you attribute them superior knowledge and power, and for you, that translates to security and order.”
In the light of this realisation, it was absolutely clear why she felt drawn to him; logical, even. She would never be with a boy of her age. Apart from the fact that she’d have a hard time finding someone who would challenge her and who could intellectually hold a candle to her, everything she wanted pointed at someone older, someone more experienced, someone she could look up to.
“Not with Umbridge, I didn’t!” Hermione protested against the notion that she was subservient to authority.
Severus snorted. “I’m talking of natural, ingrained authority, not a fancy position or a letter from the ministry. Umbridge hardly qualified as ‘authority figure.’ Neither did Lockhart, but you figured that out, eventually. But think of all your other teachers – Minerva, Remus, Dumbledore and me...”
“Authority, knowledge, power, security and order...” she admitted. “I always associated you with all of that.”
“I know,” he said, and a bit smugly added: “And it’s part of why you like calling me ‘Sir’ so much.”
She blushed slightly. “I call you that in your function as my professor, and I like it because it’s an expression of respect and esteem. I do respect you. And I wanted you to respect me, too. Not to think of me as one of your much-maligned dunderheads.”
“I never thought of you as that. And you have my respect, and my esteem.”
“Still?” Again she raised her eyes to search his face, as of she wanted to make sure that he answered truthfully.
“Yes, of course. Why should that have changed?”
“Because being like you described, what you saw in my mind, what I feel most of the time now... isn’t it pathetic? Not being able to even make the simplest decision? Not wanting to even think anymore? Wanting someone else to tell me what to do so I can blame them for everything that might go wrong? Wanting someone with authority in charge, liking to abide by rules and be obedient? I want you to see me as an adult, but what it comes down to is basically me behaving like a child.”
“Did you like being a child?” he asked, seemingly a bit off topic.
“Well, not all of it, but basically, yes,” Hermione answered, bemused. “Why?”
“What was good about it?”
“Being sheltered, being cared for. Having always someone to rely on. Life was so simple, back then. Just black and white, no confusion. No responsibility. And it’s all lost to me forever, as I don’t have parents anymore.”
Yes, the loss of her parents had contributed a great deal to her current torment. It equalled the loss of her childhood. It had been her own decision, but that had made it even worse. The moment she had obliviated her parents she had killed her inner child and had forsaken her safe haven – adults who would always be trusted to take care of her, shelter her and be there for her. From what he understood, people needed at least one such person in their lives to be emotionally stable. As proven by his own, negative example.
“There is nothing wrong with wanting to be looked after,” he said gently. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting someone else to take some of the decisions when you feel insecure or are, no matter how unjustified, afraid of failing.”
She seemed unconvinced.
“Hermione, you are clearly not a child,” he said, imploring her to understand this important point. “You took a load on your shoulders that most adults would have judged too much to carry, and you pulled through. You have knowledge, even wisdom, beyond your years. You have proven yourself often enough. Everybody knows that you are a competent, clever and powerful witch. I have no doubt that you are capable of making decisions for yourself, even if you feel a little adrift right now. You have always been strong. You will find that strength again, in time. So again – nobody, surely not me – will think less of you for wanting to hand over responsibility every once in a while. I’d be happy to take it.”
They both knew they were talking about more than just her current burdens – the issues she had to deal with in consequence of the war. This went deeper. Her personality had been shaped into the form it was now from early childhood on. Her recent experiences had only given an edge to her basic needs.
“You would?” she asked, sounding a bit overwhelmed at the idea, but relieved and – thrilled.
Merlin – to think that she would ever trust him that much... He knew it was pathetic, but to him, it was like being offered the Holy Grail. He wasn’t used to being trusted. Dumbledore had always declared that he trusted him, but he had still kept so many things from him. His students had always mistrusted him, and nearly all of his colleagues, though he could hardly blame them. Even most of the members of the Order had remained wary of him, and rightly so. Lily had entrusted Harry’s life to him, but only because she hadn’t had much of a choice and because the life debt he owed James had assured that Severus would keep his promise. The Dark Lord had never fully confided in him, and neither had his fellow Death Eaters. Not even Draco.
He couldn’t honestly remember a single person that had ever fully trusted him with anything – not without demanding some kind of insurance in return. And certainly not to the degree of making themselves totally vulnerable to him. Worse yet, he had been forced to prove anybody wrong for believing him to be half-way decent, time and time again. He couldn’t deny that it had left scars on his psyche. He hadn’t really pondered so much why he liked being in power over other people, even in the bedroom, but he figured that it also had do to with this: He needed to prove to himself that he could be trusted, that he could be given power, because he wouldn’t abuse it in a fundamental way. Not like his father or his fellow Death Eaters. Not even like Dumbledore.
“How can you doubt that with everything you know about me?” Severus asked back quietly.
Of course, Hermione had no idea how much he was craving someone’s trust and that he would grab such a gift like a drowning man a piece of driftwood. But surely she must know that he he wouldn’t be averse to taking charge if she wanted him to. “You know what kind of man I am, Hermione. It’s not all been a role. I told you that, contrary to you, I do crave control, and I have no problem exercising it.”
By all rights, this should scare her. Most of the people he knew wouldn’t even for a minute consider placing themselves – body, mind and heart – in the hands of someone like him. But Hermione wasn’t scared. She was indignant.
“It’s not all that you are!” she objected most vehemently. “I know that you can be patient, gentle, and understanding. You’ve shown me this side of you these past weeks. Luna was right about her Gloomilows – I feel so much better for being with you, you make me feel whole again, almost like my old self. I'd hate to think you felt reduced to being dominating, controlling, and intimidating. And I'd hate even more for you to feel that I reduced you to that.”
“I know that you didn’t, Hermione. I saw how you see me, and what you felt, and it’s given me quite an epiphany, believe me.” Against all odds, she had always trusted him. It was a heady feeling. He could well imagine that it could easily become his new drug. “I fully realise that you wouldn’t even be entertaining these fantasies if you were not at ease with me.”
It had been the most puzzling revelation. When he had revisited everything he had seen about himself in her mind he had found both: his ‘good’ side – the one he had always disregarded and throttled – and his dark side, which he had focussed his entire self-awareness on. Before he let himself be sucked into her fantasies, the suspicion had formed in his mind that she was misinterpreting his actions and his character in a favourable way, so that the overall picture showed her exactly what she wanted to see. He had feared that she, with her kindness and innocence, was incapable of grasping what was undeniably also a part of his personality. But she was not in denial about that. Knowing what she did about him, she had painted him out to be quite dominant, even intimidating in her fantasies, but underneath her excitement, lust and vulnerability, there had always been the feeling of being safe and sheltered. It had seemed contradictory, as it went against all his beliefs and experiences.
In a nutshell, his experiences had led him to believe that being kind, open and sensitive made you become a victim of bullies and essentially got you nowhere, while being powerful, arrogant and slightly aggressive got you respect and admiration, but left you feeling strangely empty and aching inside. But Hermione obviously wanted all of him. It had made him finally understand that attributes he had thought to be mutually exclusive didn’t have to be. Being strong did allow for weakness. Being harsh and gruff didn’t mean you knew no kindness. And being powerful and dominating certainly didn’t equal being abusive. He had been going from one extreme to another – partly due to circumstances, but also, if he was honest, because he hadn’t known a middle way.
It was going to be a process to incorporate these newly gained revelations into his pattern of behaviour and into his view of himself, but he now felt that it was possible. He was only 39, for Merlin’s sake – certainly young enough to change his ways and to hope for a better future. And he now could even envision a future with Hermione in it.
Only that she still looked doubtful. “One of the reasons you gave me for not wanting us to be together right now is this imbalance in our relationship due to my youth and the fact that you’re in a position of power over me,” she said, sounding disheartened. “How can I ever hope to be a partner for you if I don’t really wish that to change?”
Again, Severus shook his head in bemusement. As incompetent as he was at seeing himself clearly, he was still amazed that others were obviously struggling with the same difficulties. “I don’t think you are ever going to be submissive in a partnership, or that you would allow anyone to treat you like a child,” he said, full of conviction. “You’re much too wilful and strong-minded for that. You can think for yourself just fine, and I have no doubt that there is even a creative streak in you that, if you ever find the confidence to let it run free, will let you accomplish amazing things. Likewise, my position of authority never kept you from standing up to me, from talking back to me if you felt it was deserved. We’re just talking about one aspect in a relationship here – an area where you feel inexperienced and insecure, and where previous experiences – I’m strongly suspecting that a certain red-haired dunderhead is hugely to blame for that – made you doubt yourself. When I was pointing out our age difference, I never meant to imply that I thought you were too young for me. It’s the other way round. I thought I was too old for you, too flawed and damaged, too set in my ways.”
“And you don’t think that anymore?”
“Let me show you something that might serve better to give you the answer to that question.” He pulled his wand out of his sleeve. “Expecto Patronum!” His voice rang clear and confident when he spoke the incantation. Immediately, a strong silvery light burst from the tip of his wand and took the corporeal form of an animal.
“An eagle!” Hermione breathed, as she watched the striking bird of prey circle the room with lazy flaps of impressive wings. “It’s magnificent! But I thought... your Patronus was a doe.”
“It has changed. Patronuses do that if something in oneself changes in a fundamental way.” Once again overcome with solemnity and calm, he watched the eagle flexing his mighty wings.
Hermione pulled out her wand as well and spoke the spell. Her familiar otter burst from her wand, vibrant and vivacious. It playfully swam through the air, nosily looking this way and that, throwing curious glances at them as if wondering if they might want something from him. Though Severus surely wouldn’t have said so, the tiny, friendly animal was rather cute.
“It’s still the same,” Hermione said, not sure how to feel about that. She had always loved her otter, but she, too, felt that the war had changed her on a fundamental level. She didn’t feel bright, curious and buoyant anymore, so by all rights, her Patronus should have changed, too – into something more portly and more solemn.
“See!” Severus just said, smiling at her as if her otter had proven a point. “Despite everything you experienced and despite what you feel now – you’re still the same pushy, strong-minded, insufferable know-it-all you always were. Not even the Dark Lord with all his minions was able to change that – while my self-awareness was completely thrown over by a girl just about half my age and size. Now tell me: “Who’s the strong one in this relationship?”
This time, when she raised her eyes at him, she smiled. “Thank you. I guess I’ll need some time to think about what you said, but it helped a great deal. I take it that means you're finally able to see us in a relationship?”
“What kept me from it was the fact that I’ve not been truly at ease with myself for a long time; surely you noticed that. But I’m intelligent enough to realise that my self-awareness isn’t very healthy and in serious need of re-evaluation. You always talk about believing in second chances... and maybe some of that has begun to rub off on me, because I’m starting to believe that things and people can change, even myself.”
She stood up and walked over to him, putting her arms firmly around him and pressing her face to his chest. “I’m glad,” she whispered. “More than glad, actually. If anyone deserves a life under better circumstance than those you were dealt, it’s you.”
He cautiously wrapped his arms around her too, pulling her close in his embrace for a moment. Resting his chin on her head – she fitted right beneath it – he inhaled the flowery scent of her hair. Then he gently grasped her shoulders and separated them, though he still kept his hands on her. “Hermione – this doesn’t mean that I want this relationship to start now...” he felt the need to clarify, hoping that he wasn’t sending the wrong signals.
“I know,” she assured him, smiling at him despite the fact that her eyes were slightly moist. “But until then – can we be friends?”
“Friends? No,” he said, as the term always made him think of Potter and Weasley and he had no desire to be in the same league with them regarding her affections. “We’re going to be in a platonic relationship as two people who mean a lot more to each other than that.” He was not going to confess his love to her just now. When the moment was right for him to do so, he wanted to be free to kiss her, take her in his arms and touch her in all the ways he could not touch her now. But he knew that she knew it already. Some things needn’t be voiced to be said.