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A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 19]

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A/N: Thanks as usual to my reviewers.

Devsgma - This story can also be found on ff.net though incomplete (sometimes the chapters take a while to spring from my brain).


Part 14



When Hermione finished her lunch she went back to her room, and after briskly gathering her writing materials she sat at the small oak desk and composed a reply to her parents and to Harry. In the letter to her parents she related how she had been working hard and was enjoying herself, while in the letter to Harry she wrote that she would be pleased to meet him and the others at the arranged time tomorrow. She did not mention the presence of Professor Snape to Harry in the letter…nor would she do so tonight, she considered. There would be no point – Harry still loathed the Potions master for reasons both just and unjust, but if he knew the professor was staying at the same place as she was, then Harry would probably find a reason to turn up here and try and persuade her to leave. It would be for ‘her own good’ in his mind, of course…

When the letters were written and sealed, Hermione gathered her things and Apparated to the outskirts of Hogsmeade, treating herself to a new quill in the village as she had promised herself. She spent most of the afternoon there, enjoying the fact that she wasn’t obliged to be back at Hogwarts at a certain time anymore.

When she Apparated later that afternoon back to her room Hermione rested for a while, thinking back to her earlier conversation with Professor Snape. She was curious as to why he had thought Dumbledore had encouraged her to come here - was her former Headmaster trying to play matchmaker? Hermione felt quite embarrassed at the thought but then she admitted to herself that if Dumbledore was doing so then he meant well; perhaps out of a desire to see his colleague happy? Many marriages in the wizard world were merely alliances between houses to breed strong wizards and to keep the bloodlines ‘pure’.

Certainly Hermione was no pureblood, but with her consistent placing in the top of her classes she felt reasonably sure that nowadays wizards would think of her as ‘high achieving witch’ first before ‘ Muggle-born witch’. When she thought about it, Professor Snape had never called her ‘mudblood’ though his bloodline was reputedly quite pure – his insults were usually on the basis of your supposed lack of intelligence.

Hermione was curious as to what he was doing at the moment – would he be in his quarters (which would obviously be on an upper floor), in a quiet library somewhere or walking in the garden? In her Animagi form she would surely be able to find him – though if it was clear that he wanted privacy from everyone and everything she would respect that, she told herself quickly. She wasn’t a voyeur! She opened her door slightly so that as a cat she would be able to leave the room, and then after concentrating Hermione felt herself drop to the floor, her body twisting into that of a tortoiseshell cat. As always she felt her senses to be heightened, with the retreat now becoming a mysterious place that held the exciting possibilities of mice to be found. Mice! Hermione-Cat found her whiskers twitching in excitement at the thought of the chase and catching of such creatures. Ugh! the human part of her mind moaned. All those tiny bones!

Hermione-Cat thought for second, her thoughts changing constantly from that of cat to woman. No mice hunting, then. That’s right, she was supposed to be looking for her Black One. Professor Snape, she corrected... He was someone who needed to run and play more often. That was something both parts of her could certainly agree on. She batted her small paw at the door she had left ajar before and slipped through when the gap was big enough. Her feline instincts urging her to try looking in the garden, Hermione-Cat ran on light paws down the corridor until she reached the door that led to the outside, pushing her way through the handy cat-flap at its bottom. She paused, overwhelmed by the sights and enticing scents that came from the garden before her.

She sniffed the air, and was eventually rewarded by detecting a spicy scent that didn’t seem to be too old, mixed with darker things that she knew to be the trace of the one she sought. But how odd…the scent seemed to overlaid with that of… bird. Perhaps he had just feasted upon bird-that-clucked? Her tail twitched and then she bounded off to explore the paths.

Severus had been on the verge of going to Hogsmeade in his crow form to keep a further eye upon Hermione, but then had flown back to his window that he had kept ajar, swooping through the gap. Upon flowing back into his human form, his black robes had swayed about him like his previous dark wings as he then paced furiously back and forth upon the floor. Fool! he snarled to himself. Admitting to himself that he loved as well as desired Hermione did not mean he had to follow her around (albeit in his Animagi form) like a teenager in heat! There was no reason to let his emotions overrule his mind.

But he was still jealous though at the way this gardener James had been on such friendly terms with her – was it his ill fortune that he was to be constantly vexed through his life with men by that name?

He was still conscious though of feeling awkward at how to court her, the memory of the way she had looked at him earlier the only guard against merciless visions of Hermione rejecting him. Forcefully. His own love life was nothing to put quill to parchment about – merely a series of unsatisfying encounters when he was young that led him to conclude the experience was highly overrated, with love a myth invented by the deluded masses.

He knew though he would have trouble sleeping tonight, knowing that Hermione was only a mere floor away. A memory rose to the surface of his mind of when they had nearly collided in a corridor at Hogwarts, of when it seemed for a moment that she wanted to… what? Touch him? Hold him? Kiss him?

Severus groaned in frustration and moving to the window leaned his forehead against the cool glass, his breathing ragged. He had to control himself, he would not let his needs and desires… and love, Merlin help him, reduce him to a mockery of himself.

The coolness from the window had helped him regain composure and when a chance movement in the garden below him caught his eye he frowned, narrowing his eyes. It was only one of many cats at this place, he realised dismissively, a tortoiseshell one that had emerged from one of the garden paths to pad across the lawn towards the house. The cat then paused, lifted its head and appeared to be directly looking at him.

Then the cat suddenly tensed, and as quickly as it appeared the cat turned and sped back towards a path, whereupon it was soon out of sight.

Yes, he had a face that could scare even a cat, Severus thought ironically.


* * * * *


Saturday dawned with fine weather. After breakfast Hermione put on a plain black robe, put a crossword magazine and a pen of hers into a carry bag and set off into the garden, determined to find a quiet, sunny spot for herself. Instead of plaiting her hair today she had merely brushed it until it was reasonably tidy and tied it back with a ribbon.

Strictly speaking, wizards were frowned upon for using ballpoint pens instead of quills, but Hermione thought it was far from easy using a quill and ink outside, especially when the wind was blowing. There were quills that provided a steady, never-ending supply of ink for its user, but these were quite expensive. Of course, Draco had had one of these (but that wasn’t really surprising) and had enjoyed flaunting it to his classmates.

Walking along the paths, Hermione’s interest was caught by a series of wide, shallow wooden steps on her left that descended down a small bank to a grassy area besides a stream.

Perfect, Hermione thought as she walked down the steps and sat on the second-to-last one. A nearby tree provided shade and it was good to look at flowers without having to tend to them. A part of her mind noted that there was a dead branch on the tree that needed to be removed, and didn’t that flowerbed look somewhat unkempt?

She was going to relax, whether she liked it or not, Hermione chided herself with a rueful smile and pulled out her crossword magazine.

As the morning went by she was so engrossed in what she was doing that she failed to see a shadow fall across her.

“Miss Granger,” a familiar voice said smoothly from behind her, “you are fond of crosswords?”

Hermione started slightly, then quickly recovering her composure she turned her head slightly to see Professor Snape standing on the path, his outer black robe trailing over the sides of the steps. You would think that he would be irritated at the way his robes trailed on floors and in the dirt all the time, a part of Hermione’s mind thought. But perhaps he cast a spell upon them to repel dirt; certainly they didn’t appear stained…

Perhaps her time as a cat had sharpened her sense of smell because the spicy smell of him was quite tantalising to her nose… She was almost close enough to reach out and touch him. If she dared.

He had deliberately sought her out this time, and Hermione wondered why.

His aura of intimidation that he wore like a second skin seemed to be… muted today, and as a result Hermione found herself relaxing, though she was still slightly wary of him. There was something in the way he was regarding her as if she was something entirely new to him, which she wasn’t sure how to react to.

But out of politeness she put her things down upon her bag nearby and then stood up, aware that she had to crane her neck slightly to look at him. There was a faint glint – of derision? amusement? – in his black eyes at this.

Hermione wondered too if he knew that she had been the cat when she had seen him yesterday looking down at her from a window on an upper floor. His scent-trail had been an odd one which she had unfortunately lost track of, and it hadn’t helped that her cat sense of smell had had to deal with countless other human smells, as well as those of animal and bird.

Admitting defeat in her garden hunt for him she had returned to the house, but had felt compelled to look up at a window in an upper storey. To her surprise she had seen with her sharp eyes the professor standing quite close to a window, looking straight down at her as if he could see her. Startled at this thought, her feline instincts had chosen to interpret this as Danger! Run!

Before she had known it, she was back amongst the garden paths searching for a place to hide… It had only been later that she had cautiously made her way back to her room in an indirect way, thankfully without notice.

“Yes, Professor, I find them relaxing,” she said matter-of-factly.

His black gaze dropped to her ballpoint pen. “You appear to have… misplaced your quill?” he continued in the same smooth tone, lifting his head to look at her again.

“No I haven’t, but a pen is more efficient when I’m outside,” Hermione countered.

“Some would say this shows that you are not fully one of us; that you are still tied to the Muggle world, Miss Granger, though you are now an adult witch,” Professor Snape said softly, his eyes fixed unblinkingly upon hers. There was something about the way he said ‘adult witch’ that sent a tingle up her spine.

“Then ‘they’ can say whatever they like, sir, for I am not ashamed of my upbringing nor do I see the necessity of rejecting everything from my world without good reason!” Hermione said roundly, not caring if he snapped back at her for ‘impertinence’.

“Good,” he said equably, to Hermione’s surprise. “Living between two worlds will give you an edge that others lack. Certainly I know I would have to endure hours of tedious explanation from Mr Weasley before I was comfortable with how a ballpointed pen works,” Professor Snape added dryly, giving a shrug that was almost in irritation.

Had he actually made a joke, Hermione thought in bemused surprise. He had. But he seemed to be serious regarding the knowledge, or lack of it, of how to use an ordinary Muggle object such as a pen. She had found that some pureblood wizards had no idea of how to use the simplest of Muggle items, but whether it was from snobby disdain of the Muggle world or of genuine incomprehension of a different worldview from theirs, she wasn’t completely sure.

It was surprising though that Professor Snape had unbent enough to admit incompetence to her, no matter how small.

Unexpectedly taken with the idea of being the teacher for once, she said earnestly, “Oh no, it’s really easy to use a pen, though it’s actually called a ballpoint pen. Here, let me show you.”

“Indeed,” she heard him say dryly as she quickly bent down to retrieve her pen and book and then stood and walked up the steps to him. However, when she held the pen for him to look at, he stared at it with a suspicion that seemed to Hermione quite comical, but she was careful not to show this. What she didn’t know was that Severus had once seen Arthur Weasley demonstrate as to how a ‘fountaining pen’ worked, a performance that left the man splattered with ink as if he had been attacked by an enraged octopus.

“You simply push the knob at this end, like this, and once the um, pointed bit comes out the other end you can write with it, do you see?” she continued in the same earnest tone. She opened her magazine at a random page and scribbled a wriggly line upon the side of a page so he could see it.

“I see,” he observed, fascinated despite himself. He had to admit that it appeared quite safe to use. In a formal tone he said, “May I, Miss Granger...”

“Of course,” Hermione said readily, offering him the magazine and pen. However, when he took the pen his pale fingers brushed hers for a moment, and she felt a tingle rush across her skin. For a moment it seemed hard to breathe for both of them.

Severus carefully drew a straight line across the top of the page and studied the result for a moment. Then he put the pen on top of the magazine and handed both back to her.

He paused and then murmured, “Thank you, Miss Granger,” as if she had shown him how to use something that was more complex than a simple plastic pen.

“That’s all right, Professor Snape,” Hermione said, giving Professor Snape a tentative but sincere smile. He had actually thanked her for something – that was a miracle in itself.

It was the first time she had smiled at him, Severus realised for an oddly intoxicating moment, finding himself unable to stop looking at her. Few people smiled at him. Do it again…

He was staring at her… But it seemed to Hermione that his black eyes had softened slightly, and she felt as if the gulf between them had narrowed slightly.

Then Professor Snape cleared his throat and said in an abrupt tone, “The reason I came to see you is that I am looking to see if this garden has a moonflower vine. As a gardener you should be aware if one is here.”

Rather than feel insulted, Hermione found herself feeling relieved at his change of tone and was glad at having a task to focus on, rather than letting her emotions get the better of her.

She nodded. “Yes, I saw some the other day – there’s some in the eastern section of the garden,” she said briskly.

She packed away her magazine and pen in her bag while Professor Snape waited impassively for her on the path. When she reached the path in her turn she nodded to the left.

“This way is the quickest,” she said.

He nodded a shade impatiently, indicating for her to continue.

It felt odd walking along a garden path with him, Hermione thought, especially out in the sunshine. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but his sallow skin seemed to have a healthier tint. For the first time she felt that she was well, if not exactly his equal then at least not his social inferior.

The path was wide enough for two people to walk comfortably side by side and it was a beautiful day for a walk anyway, with birdsong and the busy drone of insects to be heard. Hermione felt a secret sense of satisfaction as she walked along in seeing she had made a positive impact on the garden.

But perhaps Professor Snape had sensed this for he said abruptly beside her, “You are happy here.”

Hermione glanced sideways at him for a moment.

“Yes, I am,” she said simply.

“Why, Miss Granger? And I do not believe I got a satisfactory answer as to why you took this job.”

Hermione bridled for a moment at his remark (and he called her impertinent!) but glancing sideways at him again she saw that though his black eyes were narrowed slightly, there was a look of curiosity as if he genuinely wanted to know. Of course, someone who spent the majority of his time in the dungeons would naturally wonder why people would want to work outside.

She thought of how to explain, and then said slowly, “Well, as I said yesterday I saw an advertisement for this holiday job at Professor Sprout’s class.”

“Yes, but no one forced a knowledgeable student such as yourself to take on the position, and I doubt that you are poor by Muggle standards,” Professor Snape pointed out, sounding distinctly irked.

Hermione felt a distinct blush upon her cheeks at the compliment, such as it was from the professor, and feeling awkward she kept her gaze upon the path before her. But it was pleasant to be remarked upon her brains without the scathing ‘Know It All’ being said.

“That’s true, but I wanted to do it,” she countered. “It’s been really educational being here, and James – he’s the head gardener here - has taught me a lot. I saw it as the ideal opportunity to get away from everyone and everything.”

She fell silent, feeling that perhaps she had revealed too much to him.

“I see… No doubt I come under the ‘everyone and everything’ part?” Professor Snape said softly with a mocking edge to his voice. Exactly how much had James taught her he thought, fuming inside.

“I…” Hermione started to say, then stopped, not sure what to say or the most diplomatic way to say it. Yes, he had been an arrogant, malicious teacher at times with dubious teaching methods and she was glad to have left Severus-the-teacher. On the other hand, she had missed the intelligent, hardworking wizard whose mind she respected and admired.

“Yes and no,” Hermione said finally.

She stopped in the path, for they had reached an area of the garden where the moonflower vine the professor sought was to be found gently winding around an oak tree, it’s luminous white blossoms waving in the breeze.

“Here’s what you were looking for, Professor,” Hermione said steadily as she waved her hand at the vine. She avoided looking at him directly, for to her chagrin her cheeks still felt hot.

“Forget the wretched plant and answer me properly, Miss Granger,” he said impatiently. “The ‘yes’ part does not surprise me in the least, but… look, would you do me the courtesy of actually looking at me?”

At that Hermione did look at him, and Severus was taken aback by the fact that her cheeks were pink…She had been blushing?

He moved closer to her and in a quieter tone continued, saying, “I find I am curious as to what the ‘no’ part of your answer means.”

For once Hermione felt herself quite tongue-tied and for a moment she looked down at the lines on the palms of her hands as if she could find the answer there.

She heard a hiss from him and then the next thing she knew both of her hands had been seized (though gently), at the wrist by Professor Snape.

“What have you been doing to yourself?” he said abruptly, looking down at her palms, smoothing his thumbs carefully across the skin, the movement making her quiver inside.

What? Hermione began to say, perplexed, but then she looked closer at her palms and understood. Ah. Since she had started working here her hands had quickly developed calluses on the tender pads of flesh at the base of her fingers, which had hurt at first. She had used a healing charm to ease the discomfort but hadn’t seen the point of removing the calluses altogether – after all, it was just her hands adjusting to the long hours in the garden. Unfortunately, it seemed that her calluses were developing calluses of their own at the moment... and her hands were hardly looking like a lily-white students hands anymore.

“They’re only calluses – it’s just what you get when you’re a gardener,” Hermione said in a deliberately light voice, quite conscious of the fact that he was holding her hands. “It doesn’t matter.”

He tightened his grip for a moment, then the pale hands relaxed. His voice when he spoke though was harsh.

“It does matter.” Professor Snape stopped for a moment as if he was trying to find the right words then continued.

“Since that idiotic Longbottom caused your accident it has mattered to me if you were hurt or hurting, though I viewed such… feelings on my part as a weakness.”

“It’s not a weakness to care for someone, Professor,” Hermione pointed out reasonably as she looked at him, though her heartbeat was starting to race.

“Is it not?” he retorted, his black eyes narrowed as they looked at her, though he did not seemed inclined to let go of her hands. “Such sentiment can be used as a weapon against the owner; in Slytherin circles this is the first lesson learnt at a parents knee.” There was a grim undertone to those words as if he had learnt this the hard way.

“It’s not a lesson I learned… or want to learn, Professor,” she countered with a slight tilt to her chin. “I think though, that your hands are worse off than mine,” she added quietly, looking down at the hands holding hers.

His mouth tightened and there was a glower in his eyes at the implied insult, but it faltered when Severus realised Hermione had deftly adjusted her hands so that she was gently holding his.

She noticed that there were many fine scars and what looked to be old burn marks on his fingers that were accidents surely; she dared to run a finger softly over one and heard a catch in his breathing. The thought came to her that he was unused to being touched this way.

“Those are merely old wounds, Miss Granger,” he said tersely.

“Yes, but old wounds can still hurt,” she pointed out quietly.

“Would it matter to you if they did?” he sneered, pulling his hands away at that, but Hermione heard an oddly vulnerable note underneath as if the answer was important to him.

There was the odd sense in Hermione of being on the edge of a doorway; that what she said now would make a difference as to whether she went through it… or not.

Hermione took half a step closer to him, looking at him steadily, allowing herself to show that she cared for him in her eyes at last.

“Yes, it would matter, Professor, if they hurt. It matters to me if you are hurt or hurting…whether you are sad. More than anyone, you matter to me.”

Professor Snape became quite still, and for a moment it seemed he had ceased to breathe, his eyes glittering in an odd way. Had he heard her correctly? He had. He reached out and took her hands again, this time entwining his fingers determinedly with hers.

Then he said roughly, “Then know this, Miss Granger. Hermione. I am no doubt a poor choice besides your friends, for I have treated you ill – but when you left Hogwarts my sleep gave me no rest and food had no flavour. I thought my feelings for you were mere infatuation, but on seeing you again I knew… I knew I needed you. Wanted you. Loved you, all that you are. If you could find it within you to care for me even as half as I care for you, I would be happy…”

As romantic speeches went it was hardly comparable to the legendary ones in history, but the emotion and near-pain behind the words of the Potions master was just as real and heartfelt.

There could only be one answer.

Hermione pulled her hands away from his and before he had time to react she put her arms around his neck and gently kissed him.

Ah…

She was holding and kissing him… as if she really wanted to despite who he was and what he had done in his past. For long moments he could only stand there in the warmth of the sun, his hands frozen at his side, feeling the exquisite sensation of Hermione’s body pressed softly against his, smelling the scent of roses from her skin.

He made an inarticulate sound and embraced her, drawing her tightly against his body. She made a pleased sound that encouraged him greatly, and at that he kissed her back, expressing all the feelings that he had repressed at Hogwarts when thinking of her; the yearnings of his lonely, bitter heart, his desire, and now, his love for her. His previous jealousy over James and even before of her friends seemed inconsequential now.

It was several minutes before they drew back from each other, panting for breath.

Her knees were shaking and it was a few moments before she felt steady again. Noticing that he smiled, a small, wicked one. She felt as if his fierce kiss had left her boneless inside, and it seemed to have far surpassed the ones he had given her in the visions.

It seemed to her that he had been subtly transformed, for his eyes had a dark fire to them that said he was only aware of her.

“I do assume that was a ‘yes’ on your part?” he murmured.



TBC


A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 19]

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