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A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 15]

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A/N - Thanks as always for the reviews - I felt it would be unrealistic if Severus became all sweet 'n lovely and then they both go straight to bed...


Part 16

It was harder on Hermione’s part to coax personal details of his life from Severus. It was like trying to get blood from a stone and what information he did sparingly reveal made Hermione realise what a privileged upbringing she had had in comparison. They did have some things in common - both of them had a thirst for knowledge and neither of them could go past a book without picking it up. Like her, staying up most of the night to read a new book and breathing in the smell of its freshly bound pages wasn’t something that he saw anything wrong with either.

However, when he was growing up in what Hermione privately thought had really been a tense, joyless home, he had found a refuge in his family library, with new worlds opened up to him as a result. Playing with other children had been limited, and then only with boys of Slytherin families with a certain social status… Severus refused to say much about his schooling and Hermione thought it wise not to ask about the time when he had been a Deatheater.

What idealism Severus had had as a child seemed to have withered quickly in the strong-destroy-the-weak world he had grown up in. However, it seemed that there had been one dream he had grimly held on to when he became the Potions Master at Hogwarts – the desire to see that up-and-coming wizards and witches at least had a fighting chance to defend themselves from the Dark Lord or Lady that inevitably rose up in each generation or two to wreak havoc.

“Every year,” Severus said softly, his eyes a chilly black, “I applied for the position of the Defence of the Dark Arts. Every year, the Headmaster turned me down.”

It had certainly been a running joke at Hogwarts that some things were inevitable in life – death, taxes and Snape being turned down again for the DADA position, Hermione privately thought. Her friends had often speculated that Snape only wanted that position so as to have a legitimate reason to use the Dark Arts again – after all, hadn’t he been a Deatheater?

But now Hermione felt uncomfortable, for his motive for wanting the job had been a good one after all.

“I’m sorry the Headmaster never gave you a chance,” she said quietly.

To her surprise he looked at her keenly and a small, satisfied smile was on his sallow face. “Before I went on holiday, the Headmaster implied that he would give me the chance to take on the position on my return,” he said.

“That’s wonderful!” Hermione said in surprise, feeling happy for him. “I wonder what made him change his mind at last?”

There was a look in his black eyes that she couldn’t quite decipher but which made her insides tingle. “Perhaps I have you to thank,” Severus said cryptically, but refused to go into detail.

At that point Madame Rosmerta brought their soup along with a spoon wrapped in a white napkin for them both and they stopped talking so as to concentrate on their soup.

You could tell a lot from a person from seeing their eating habits, Hermione thought as she stole glances at him occasionally. She noted that Severus approached his soup in a methodical manner, making sure no drop was spilt in the process from spoon to mouth, though he would look at each spoonful for a second before he drank it, a habit that seemed automatic. She wondered at this for a moment then realised there had probably been times in his life where he had to monitor the food he ate in case it was poisoned…

Hermione was feeling as though she should privately pinch herself to check she wasn’t dreaming, that she was actually out with Severus. Her feelings for him had free rein now to well up inside her and at times she felt like a delighted little girl when she watched him, rather than the sensible young woman she was. But she had spent so much of her life being sensible, and for once it was good to have a chance to feel otherwise.

However, she was far too accustomed to ‘behaving herself’ in public, and found it hard to change now. Certainly it would have been seriously out-of-character behaviour on Severus’ part for him to start acting the part of the devoted boyfriend in public (somehow the term ‘boyfriend’ seemed too undignified to be given to him). He was still maintaining a certain haughty stiffness in his posture here and there had not been much in his behaviour here to indicate that he cared for her. However, there were times when he looked at her in a certain way that made Hermione feel she could easily - and gladly - drown in his dark eyes.

On the part of Severus he realised that eating meals together was something that most couples did everyday and took for granted. However, who would have thought that something so… homely as this with Hermione would be pleasant? Severus realised he was glad he had took this holiday – for once in a long time he was not required to be anywhere special, whether it was off on a mission or preparing to teach a class of dunderheads. He could just forget his duties and obligations and be… what? Just himself.

The soup was quite filling and so they both paused at times to talk again, for he was curious about the Muggle world. Places such as movie theatres he had a harder time of comprehending though – how, without the use of magic, could talking pictures be projected upon a screen, he questioned her impatiently, a hint of scepticism in his black eyes. This required more explanation on her part (with a diversion as to what popcorn was and why it was important in the movie-going process).

At one point he said in a carefully neutral tone to her, “Do you have plans for this evening?”

Hermione nodded her head. “Yes – I’m meeting my friends here for dinner,” she explained, feeling regret at the thought. As much as she would like to spend the evening with him in one way or another she couldn’t very well back down from seeing her friends.

Severus sat back and regarded her silently. Hermione was meeting her friends tonight… where no doubt it was possible she would be relating a few things to them…

He had not really considered how they would possibly react upon hearing she had started going out with him. Not that he really cared in the long run. Hermione wasn’t a student anymore and he wasn’t breaking any school or Ministry laws – he would have the greatest of pleasure in pointing this out to Messrs Potter and Weasley if they made a nuisance of themselves.

However, his conscience (that had suddenly become annoyingly vocal) pointed out that it would matter to him when her friends gave her grief as a result - it would be unnatural in the end for them not to. He could almost imagine their scandalized responses. He’s the greasy git! Are you mad?

Are you a traitor?

Severus could imagine the distress in her brown eyes as a result, perhaps too the following consideration in them that her friends were right and that he, Severus, was someone to keep far away from. Despite himself there was a sharp dart of pain inside of him at the thought of this likely scenario. Hermione was his, growled the darkest part of him in response, the part that had excelled in being a Death Eater long ago. She cared for and wanted him, not her glory-boy friends. Let them try and prevent her being with him any time she wished and they would learn what it really meant to fear him!

“I see,” he nevertheless said neutrally. “No doubt you will have much to tell them.”

There was an utter lack of inflection in his voice, which could mean anything. However, he was holding his soup spoon with perhaps a tighter grip than necessary.

The decision in the end was easy to make.

“I will be telling them that I’m having a good time at the retreat, and that I’m working hard,” Hermione said calmly. “That’s all.”

Severus stared at her, a myriad of expressions flickering over his sallow face. Surprise, relief… then a sense of angry pain at the automatic and paradoxical thought that she was too ashamed to tell her friends about him. But before he could say anything Hermione quickly raised her hand.

Severus closed his mouth with a snap on what he was going to say but his black eyes bored into hers, expecting an explanation.

Hermione went on quietly, her brown eyes sombre. “If I tell them I care for you, they will start fighting with me. Harry will jump to the wrong conclusion immediately, while Ron will threaten to go and punch your nose or do something equally stupid.”

“Or fatal,” Severus said caustically, though he was clearly willing to continue listening to what she had to say.

Hermione nodded wearily. “I know they will find out eventually, but it will just ruin my holiday if they find out now. I just want you to myself at the moment,” she added unthinkingly.

Oops, Hermione thought. Well, that last comment had certainly come out the wrong way.

Severus raised his eyebrows but there was a suspicious twitch of his mouth.

“Indeed. Thank you, I think,” he said dryly.

It was perhaps the oddest compliment anyone had made to him but the fact though that a forthright Gryffindor like Hermione was eager to avoid a confrontation with her friends indicated how much she had really needed to ‘get away from it all.’ His face softened and a feeling of protectiveness rose up within him, with his urge to kiss and hold her a gentle one.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Hermione said hastily, her face pink with embarrassment.

He made a movement of negation with his hand. “I know what you trying to say and I confess I am somewhat relieved at the thought of not having a horde of Gryffindors demanding my head tomorrow,” he commented.

Hermione found herself wondering though how Lavender would react if and when she found out. After all, it had been Lavender who had pointed out (long ago, it seemed) that the professor could almost be mistaken for showing jealousy as a result of Harry and Ron trying to court her. In fact, Hermione realised that she really had Lavender to thank for the fact that both she and Severus were here right now.

Hermione shifted her leg to stretch it and in the process bumped against his, the physical contact sending a pleasant shock throughout them both. Severus raised an eyebrow at her and perhaps he wished to lighten their moods for Hermione in return found her leg ‘accidentally’ nudged by his long one. She looked at him and saw only a blandly innocent look on his face that only a Slytherin could perfect after years of practice.

“Is something amiss?” he inquired smoothly.

“There will be soon if you don’t behave!” Hermione found herself saying pertly.

But rather than reacting and taking it the wrong way, she saw in pleasant surprise that there was a small answering smirk on his face. He was enjoying this, she realised. Oh hell, what kind of monster had she let out of the closet now, Hermione thought wryly, smiling at him in return. Although full-on passion was clearly a no-no with him at the moment, he was obviously not adverse to the lighter kinds of flirting with her when the opportunity presented itself.

Severus realised that this type of flirting was quite amusing (although her smile was threatening to make his heart do flip-flops), and importantly, he could participate in it without feeling he was losing his self-control.

However, they were both interrupted from their pleasantly simmering thoughts by the unanticipated and quizzical voice of Remus Lupin. “Severus… Hermione… I didn’t expect to see you both here,” he said, having approached their table unexpectedly.

Remus was a shabbily dressed man, with a face that seemed to have a look of constant weariness ever since the death of Sirius Black a few years ago. It had hit him quite hard, and he had personally avenged the death of his fellow Marauder – making sure that Bellatrix Lestrange regretted her actions before she had drawn her last breath… courtesy of him. He had changed as a result, and perhaps not for the better, Remus knew to his regret at times.

Remus lived not too far away in modest lodgings and probably spent more time at places such as the Three Broomsticks than was good for him, but he hadn’t expected to see both Severus and young Hermione having lunch together. For once Severus did not appear to be in a potentially nasty mood, however, considering the company he was currently keeping this sent an alarm bell off in Remus’ mind. But surely he was overreacting?

“Are the others here?” Remus questioned Severus, glancing around as if expecting to see the other members of the Order nearby. Perhaps there was a legitimate reason for Severus and Hermione to be here – perhaps another crisis was going on?

“No, they are not,” Severus said curtly, his eyes like daggers. “Most of them are on vacation I believe, certainly Albus and Minerva are currently in… Hawaii.”

Hermione who had felt her stomach clench in tension at the arrival of Remus, did a double take at Severus’ words, distracted for a moment.

“Hawaii?” she echoed in surprise, blinking, an admittedly horrifying picture of the elderly teachers sunbathing on a beach. Or worse, attempting to surf – Dumbledore was still a sprightly man for all his advanced years and would consider it a worthwhile challenge (there was a scarier thought). “Why did they go there?”

Severus ignored Remus and looked back at Hermione with a long-suffering look on his face. “Please don’t ask,” he said dryly. “Albus had thought it would be a good idea if I came along as well.” Of course, the mention of Hawaii had been a no doubt cunning ploy on his part to make Severus go to the retreat, but he wasn’t going to go into complete details here.

“Don’t laugh either, please!” he added severely for Hermione found herself trying to stifle a giggle, despite the fact that Remus was by now looking at them both with a distinctly strange look on his mild face. She had an absurd picture of Severus standing on a tropical beach in his black robes, looking absolutely disgusted at the bright sunshine, blue sky and other people around him who dared to do frivolous things such as having fun in the water. Would he zap seagulls if they annoyed him?

“What is going on here?” Remus cut in, a horrible suspicion growing in his mind at the odd ease between the two. Hermione had make-up on as well – were they both on a date? This wasn’t like Severus at all, and what on earth was Hermione thinking? Wasn’t she supposed to be on some kind of holiday job according to Harry?

Since Sirius had died, Remus had felt an obligation to try and be the substitute father to Harry that Sirius had tried to be in his own way, and it was only natural that he had a paternal concern towards Ron and Hermione as well.

Severus looked at him again and Remus almost took a half step back at the cold, black glare emanating from his eyes. “Two people are having lunch, as you can no doubt see,” Severus said in a deceptively soft tone. “Why don’t you mind your own business – you are good at that, are you not?”

Hermione was startled to see an almost guilty look dart across Remus’ face for a moment. She could almost see the loathing radiating from Severus, which she knew had its roots in years gone by… if there was one thing she had learnt about the Potions Master is that he never forgot a slight against him and nursed hatreds as others would nurse prize plants.

Remus turned to look at Hermione who had a stubborn tilt to her chin, a question in his eyes and now mounting alarm inside of him. Thanks to his ‘condition’ his sense of smell was quite acute… and he could tell that both of their unique ‘scents’ were on the other. Not in a sexual way, he was quite thankful to know, but nevertheless it was as a result of two people who in love-desire had spent time kissing and touching each other.

“Hermione?” he queried. ‘Is everything fine?’ was implied in his voice as well.

“I’m fine,” Hermione said roundly, a dangerous flash in her eyes and indignation rising up inside her. “As he said, we’re just having lunch out together.” The way Remus was behaving, it was as if Severus had blackmailed her to come here!

“I see,” Remus said quietly, looking at her with a brief expression of disappointment in his eyes as if she had let him down, as if she had let herself down by being out in public with Severus. The ex-DADA teacher had never looked at Hermione in that way before, and it stung her.

You can do better than him, Remus’ eyes also said, as clearly as if he had spoken the words aloud… she saw he sincerely believed she was making a mistake.

Hermione wondered grimly if this was a taste of how other people would react to seeing them both together. It was true that Severus was a bitter man to whom sarcasm came more easy than kinder words, and that he had a chequered past. But Remus hadn’t heard Severus’ unrehearsed, raw declaration of how he felt for her, or seen the near-stunned look in his eyes when Hermione had confessed her feelings.

Hardly anyone had any faith in Severus, Hermione realised with an odd shock inside. No doubt people valued his formidable powers and knowledge that had been valuable during the war, but that was probably all – it wouldn’t extend to feeling he would be suitable for her. But Dumbledore did, Hermione remembered… there was a definite sense he had pulled a few strings to ensure she and Severus ran into each other at the retreat (she could just imagine the twinkle in his eyes and it made her feel better).

If someone as wise as the Headmaster had felt any relationship between them was wrong, surely he would have taken steps to ensure any budding relationship was nipped in the bud, as it were.

Emboldened, Hermione stared back at Remus, a glint in her brown eyes daring him to say something more.

Feeling as if he was in a losing battle, Remus realised there was nothing to be gained by making a further scene in public, not with both of them making him feel his presence was intrusive.

He did not dislike Severus – rather, he felt pity at times for the Head of Slytherin, but at the moment it almost made Remus nauseous to think of his hands on this young, fresh-faced woman.

Surely Hermione could see she would have a better future with someone like Harry or Ron who had bright futures ahead of them, rather than with someone like Severus who could only bring her sorrow? Perhaps Hermione would accept a well-meaning rebuke from her friends better than one from him.

Remus smiled tightly at them both. “I will leave you both then. Good day,” he said and turned to go.

Hermione could clearly see that Severus was tempted to say something nasty in reply but he limited himself to a curt nod on his part, though out of politeness Hermione neutrally said goodbye. She was angry at having her meal with Severus ruined by Remus – Severus had started letting down his guard to her and now it was as if his barriers had slammed up again. There was an angry gleam in his eyes though his thin body was as tense as a bow – she could practically see the knots in his shoulders.

Severus felt anger inside of him at Remus for having upset the mood between him and Hermione - he had found himself watching with private enjoyment the way Hermione was when she was animated, fascinated by the differing expressions on her face. For once his previous, sneering views of her as overly-talkative and bossy had not come to mind.

But all of a sudden the inn felt too small - he needed some space away from here as well as the opportunity to reclaim some dispassionate objectivity when it came to her. He wanted to have some private words later with Remus too, he thought grimly.

To Hermione’s surprise Severus abandoned his soup and rose abruptly, bringing out a couple of galleons from a pocket in his robes as he did so and placing them down on the table. “I will see you later – I have matters to attend to,” he said tersely. “This will pay for lunch.”

He swept off towards the door and was soon gone before Hermione had a proper chance to react. ‘Matters to attend to’ – but where? Was there something wrong?

Or maybe he had departed because Remus had given him second thoughts about the wisdom of having a relationship with her.

Hermione told herself briskly she was being silly in having thoughts like that, but the niggling thought refused to depart.

What if he thought matters over and decide it would be for her own good if he stayed away from her? She could almost imagine his reasoning in this case – he would only hamper her career, as a couple they would never be fully accepted by the wizard world.

For a moment the combination of the tension in her body along with the (slowly digesting) soup in her stomach made her feel nauseous.

Calm down, she swiftly told herself. Panicking would not achieve anything useful in this case. She was filled with the urge to go after Severus but abruptly reconsidered… she was automatically assuming Severus would have Apparated back to the retreat. But he could have chosen to go to any number of places right now.

Her gaze considered the money he had left on the table. It had been an unexpected kindness on his part to pay for her lunch as well; kindness was not something she thought had been a big part of his character. But she had certainly seen other facets to him today in the light of day – passion, tenderness, vulnerability and a certain endearing awkwardness. Certainly a somewhat naughty playfulness when he had nibbled her ear, and Hermione went pink at that memory.

Feeling compelled to continue this train of thought Hermione reluctantly considered his other darker character traits. Haughtiness, arrogance, venom-tinged sarcasm and yes, a certain cruelty at times. Possessiveness as well, she thought. Severus would never give up lightly the things he considered his, and it was possible she had now been included in this category.

Paradoxically this made Hermione feel better. If this was the case then it was possible that Severus would consider Remus Lupin’s words and attitude as potential grounds for hexing of said Remus. Not that Severus would, of course. Would he?

Hermione sighed and picking up the money Severus had left she carefully put it in her pocket. She finished off her soup and once she had prudently waited until her stomach didn’t feel so full anymore (and she felt better) she got up and paid for the lunch at the counter. It did not really surprise her that Severus had provided the exact amount of money required to pay for it.

Upon Apparating back to the retreat Hermione transformed herself into her cat form upon a whim and trotted off into the gardens until she had found a sunny patch in one quiet corner where she could keep an eye upon the house and the various comings and goings of people. Hermione-Cat curled up thinking cat-thoughts, with a few rend-tear thoughts in her mind concerning Remus Lupin; he had angered her Black One. Severus, her human side corrected with a sigh.

As the afternoon went on, she did not see Severus return. Of course, he may have Apparated back to his room but as her sharp cat-sight had seen no movement at his window it was possible to say this was unlikely.

When the afternoon shadows started deepening with the sun dropping steadily in the western sky, Hermione-Cat yawned and stretched herself sinuously before padding to a spot nearby that was private and changed back to her human form. She gave herself another stretch to accustom herself to walking upright again – after spending quite a bit of time in cat form her natural body ‘knew’ it had been on four legs before and was momentarily confused.

Hermione headed back to her room and decided to draw herself a bath before she went out that night, making sure that her hair was securely fastened before she got in.

Ah, that felt better, Hermione thought with a sigh as she leaned back in the bath, some of her tension easing as her body relaxed in the warm water. She couldn’t help but think of Severus, of where he was right now. Was he feeling all right?

He’s a grown man and will return when he decides to, her mind chided. Of course she knew that, she grumbled back. But caring for someone meant you were concerned for their well being when there was the need to.

Once she had finished her bath and had put on a pair of dressy jeans and a dark red top she cleaned her face and carefully reapplied her makeup. Why not, Hermione thought. She wasn’t interested in applying all kinds of makeup to every inch of her face like Lavender and Parvati in their spare time, but now she had left Hogwarts there was no reason why she couldn’t have a minimum of makeup on.

She looked at herself critically in the mirror. Bushy brown hair that had a life of its own, check. Bushy eyebrows as well, Check. Skin that was showing definite signs of being out in the sun. An average nose, a far too wide mouth and a determined chin. A face that could be considered to be well, too strong for conventional beauty. Unblinking brown eyes that had seen far more danger and blood spilt in her years than other ordinary girls her age.

She shook her head at the increasingly pessimistic turn her thoughts and turned away. So, she was scarred to a certain extent about what she had experienced. Well, so had people like Severus – if she could help in the least way to help him start healing it would be enough.

* * * * *

The Three Broomsticks was doing a brisk trade when Hermione went to meet her friends there – at two tables that had been pushed together Lavender was there chatting with Ron, with Ginny sitting by Harry. Sitting quite close to him, Hermione thought as she walked up and greeted them all.

They said hello to her in reply, Lavender gesturing at Hermione to sit on the other seat beside her.

“How are you, Hermione?” Lavender said brightly as Hermione sat down. “You’re looking well – a bit of a tan as well, I see!” she added archly.

“I do wear a hat if you must know – it’s a good idea when you’re gardening outside all day,” Hermione said briskly.

“Harry mentioned that you had a gardening job – but forgive me Hermione, when I say it doesn’t sound like you at all,” Ginny said seriously, her green eyes fixed upon Hermione. The youngest Weasley had a quiet beauty about her with her shining auburn hair and creamy, unblemished skin, but those who underestimated her had soon learnt she had a backbone of steel.

After nearly becoming a victim of Voldemort, or rather, of the diary of his younger self, Ginny had seen fit to make sure she would never be a victim or prey of anyone again. Hermione knew that Ginny had had a crush on Harry when she was younger, but had appeared to put it aside when she started dating others. But from observing the subtle body language between Ginny and Harry it seemed they were quite pleased to be sitting together, and Harry had a faintly satisfied air about him.

“Then maybe you don’t really know me at all,” Hermione made herself reply lightly, feeling irked. Had they all been gossiping about her and her ‘so-unlike-Hermione job?’

“I can agree to that at times,” Harry said to Hermione with a smile, but his green eyes were narrowed slightly, and Hermione knew he was referring to the time she had turned him down. Would it always be a sore point with him, Hermione thought with a sinking feeling.

“So, have you met any handsome, filthy rich wizards yet?” Lavender said cheerfully.

“I’ll let you know when I do,” Hermione replied glibly, with a silent apology towards Severus. Well, she certainly didn’t know if he was rich.

At that point Neville came in, with Luna arriving last (as usual).

The conversation turned to food and a double helping of fish and chips was ordered for all, everyone helping themselves when it arrived.

Harry and Ron spent much of the evening holding forth about their plans for the future. Harry talked about how things would be different now that the Ministry of Magic was in a better shape while Ron discussed how great he would be when he would be a professional Quidditch player. The others in their turn nodded in agreement at times or asked Harry and Ron questions of their own about their plans.

It had often been this way, Hermione thought. Her two friends drew all attention to them like a magnet drew nails while she, well, she was good, reliable Hermione. Doing that weird gardening job now but still reliable all the same. She was tempted for a moment just to tell them she was going out with the greasy Potions Master just to see their reactions… her thoughts returned again to him.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Luna saying vaguely in a voice that only Hermione could hear, “He’s fine, you know. Will you pass me the salt, please?”

Hermione stared at her. “Pardon?”

Luna blinked. In a puzzled voice she said, “Will you pass me the salt, please?”

Despite a tingle on her neck Hermione complied with her request.

Her mind was racing though. Luna always had a habit of saying oddball things, but ever since she had suffered a minor head injury during the War some of the things she said could almost be taken as descriptions of things happening elsewhere…

If that was the case, then perhaps (and that was a big perhaps) Hermione could just relax and enjoy herself this evening.

Ron looked at Hermione with faint alarm. “You don’t have to weed Devil’s Snare or anything like that at this retreat, do you?”

Hermione sighed. It was going to be a long evening.

TBC



A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 15]

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