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A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 18]

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A/N: I apologise for the lateness of this update as I’ve had a few ups ‘n downs that aren’t helpful to the writing muse… I don’t know how often I’ve rewritten some scenes! But anyway here is the next chapter, the usual mix of drama, angst, fluff (sorry!) and some humour that creeps in, greatly helped I’m hope by the fact I’ve seen PoA. I enjoyed the movie, and even though it never occurred in the book I did like Severus jumping in front of the trio to protect them from the werewolf. Bless. I also recommend listening to the soundtrack – some of the songs are quite beautiful.

A/N 2 - Thanks to those who have reviewed!

A/N 3 - It's hard to believe my story made the 'Featured Stories' list. :-)


Part 17

With seething anger inside him, it had been natural for Severus that his first reaction had been to go back to Hogwarts for a while, to seek the sanctuary of his dungeons. If he had stayed with Hermione there would have been the danger of lashing out at her for no obvious reason, and his wish to avoid inflicting his temper upon her was genuine.

Severus Apparated to the edge of the grounds of Hogwarts, since (regrettably) one could not Apparate directly into the castle.

The ancient castle seemed to be benignly resting in the sun as Severus strode up to the main entrance, his black robes swirling around him. Mindful that he was one of the most senior wizards here since Albus and Minerva were on holiday, Severus automatically ranged out with his senses to meticulously check the wards of the school, and was satisfied to find that they were still strong.

What a relief it was to be here when there were no chattering students around everywhere he looked.

However, the beginnings of a headache that had hovered in a threatening way in his head now took up permanent residence, making his temples throb aggressively. Severus grimaced and made his way quickly down to his office, noting with sudden revulsion how cold and damp the shadowed room felt to him. A certain amount of coldness in the dungeon was necessary for the preservation of his potion ingredients, but there was no need for him to freeze, surely… how his sunny chambers at the retreat had spoiled him, he thought in irritation.

Nevertheless he pointed his wand at the fireplace and after a snapped word a fire swiftly ignited there, golden flames feeding hungrily on the carefully laid wood.

Severus winced; it had been unwise to cast a spell when a headache was upon him. No matter. As always he had a ready supply of a headache potion upon his shelves for when he was plagued by them, and after locating a distinctive green bottle he swiftly uncorked it and drank down the contents. He then put the now empty bottle to the side to be washed later and sat down at his desk, his robes pooling around him. Even with the headache potion it was still sometimes necessary to rest for a while… there would be plenty of time to deal with Remus later in the day.

He did not hate Remus as much as he had hated James and Sirius (a sense of cold satisfaction rose inside him as always at the thought that Sirius was dead these past few years), but he had still been one of those loathed Marauders, and even if Remus had never deliberately gone out of his way to torment him like the others, he had still watched in that detached way of his from the sidelines. Remus would not interfere now if he had anything to say about it.

After a while Severus was relieved that his head felt better. With the satisfaction gained from this small mastery over himself, it seemed that a substantial measure of his self-control was returned to him as well. Here in the dungeons he was the Master of his domain as always, the place where he was in control.

The place that he had cowardly retreated to, his conscience taunted him.

Severus felt stung at that, immediately denying to himself that he had done such a thing. He had only wished to come here to regain some objectivity for a while, that was all. Hadn’t he wished to spare Hermione his foul mood?

You could have controlled yourself – you can when you wish to, his conscience pointed out. Instead, you probably left her wondering if she angered you, and meanwhile your thoughts are consumed with confronting Remus Lupin.

Why should I let him get away with what he said, and the way he looked as if it was beneath me to be in the same room as Hermione, he snarled to himself. No, his mind was set on this course; later on this afternoon he would seek out Remus and make sure he damn well minded his own business in future.

However, his mind which was always quick to speculate the outcome of events, pointed out clinically that such an action could make Remus feel even more strongly how ‘unsuitable’ Severus was for Hermione… and perhaps take appropriate steps such as having a ‘quiet conversation’ with her before too long. Remus could easily find out from her friends where she was working at the moment…

Severus grimly thought that perhaps Remus was already planning to do so as soon as possible, but then reconsidered when he remembered with sudden satisfaction how quick Hermione had been to defend her decision to have lunch with him; a dangerous flash in her brown eyes when she had looked at Remus. No, it wouldn’t be yet, that was for sure. Perhaps Remus would be thinking very carefully before he approached Hermione about what she did in her personal life.

It was possible too that he, the Head of Slytherin, would only be acting like a… petty child if he confronted Remus, though it galled Severus to admit such a thing to himself.

Severus grudgingly realised that he owed Hermione an apology of some kind too (though he automatically baulked at the idea of having to say he was sorry to anyone). He tilted his head in quick consideration when the idea of creating something to give to her later instead occurred to him. Yes, this idea had merit.

He anticipated the smile and perhaps a kiss she would give him in return, and a wave of annoyance swept through him at this addled behaviour of his. He was a grown man, not a boy mooning over his sweetheart! But Severus realised he was quickly passing the point of no return when it came to Hermione - already, he was hoarding close to him the memories of her words and kisses of him today as a miser jealously hoarded his gold.

The value of affection was high when you realised you had gone without it for a long time.

However, after sweeping off to his workroom to work upon his project, the perfectionist mind that he had did not find his first batch satisfactory. Or the second. It was only when he was finally satisfied, did Severus realise in vexed chagrin that he had become so engrossed in what he was doing that it was nearly the evening. By now Hermione would be preparing to go out to meet her friends, including the Boy-That-Annoyed, and it would be too late to give his gift to her. It would have to wait until the morning.

After scrupulously ensuring that everything in his office and laboratory was put to rights and that any mess was cleaned up, Severus departed Hogwarts for the retreat, the jar containing his gift for Hermione in a pocket of his voluminous robes.

* * * * *

Hermione tried to conceal a yawn. It was starting to get late, and she found she was fast losing her tolerance for the loud chatter of her friends and indeed, the noise of the other patrons around her. Perhaps staying at the retreat had spoilt her, but she had grown to value the relative serenity and quiet of where she worked.

So much had happened to her today that it seemed she had been foolhardy in the end to go out this evening as well. It wasn’t that she regretted having come to see her friends; on the contrary, it had been great catching up with Lavender and the others with their post-Hogwarts plans. But it just seemed that if she heard once more from Harry all of the great ‘opportunities’ he would have in his new job, she would scream.

Harry had been quite attentive to Ginny as well throughout the evening, and Hermione felt with surety that she would be a better girlfriend to Harry than she, Hermione, could have ever been. She could see in Ginny’s eyes at times the same steely glint as in Harry’s, the ambition to make a name for herself in the wizard world. There was a quiet and welcome certainty within Hermione that she had avoided moving towards the glamorous but ultimately unsatisfying ‘future’ with Harry. Or indeed, a future with Ron. He was a good friend, but she knew now that if she heard Ron drone all day about Quidditch games, it would drive her up the wall – certainly he was currently explaining at great length to her (and with much earnestness) of his Quidditch plans.

It was important to her to be with someone like Severus that she could have an intelligent conversation with and to be valued for her mind, Hermione realised. She didn’t want to be just thought of as someone who would be useful in a climb up the career ladder, or someone to be valued chiefly for an ability to obediently produce offspring on a regular basis. She did not look down on the idea of having children – far from it. But it was a great responsibility, and she certainly did not feel ready to be a mother at this time of her life. After all, her career and indeed her life, had only just begun.

Ron and Harry had also spoken at length of the various (and often funny) trials and tribulations of moving into their new flat. Although Harry had been nonchalant when he had spoken of how pleased his aunt and uncle had been to see him depart for good, there had been a flicker of sadness in Harry’s eyes that Hermione had seen. Had it really been too much in the end to ask of his relations that they show some measure of affection to their nephew, she thought with genuine sadness.

Luna had not said anything else that evening that could be interpreted as prophetic, but seemed content to listen to the various conversations, an often dreamy look in her eyes that meant she was lost in her own thoughts.

In the back of Hermione’s mind was the thought that Remus Lupin, in his paternal concern over the three of them, would inform Harry and Ron soon that he had seen both her and Severus having lunch. She could still see the disappointment in Remus’s eyes when he had talked to her, and she could easily imagine the anger of her friends if they found out. But it was none of her friends business whom she decided to go out with, she told herself determinedly. Or the business of Remus.

Feeling desperate though for a break, Hermione managed to excuse herself with the explanation of getting ‘some fresh air’ for a moment and went towards the entrance, the cool air when she stepped outside welcome to her lungs after the warm, smoky air of the inn. To her surprise she realised Ginny had followed her.

Ginny did not waste time in small talk but came right to the point. “Hermione, would it bother you if I said I had started seeing Harry?” she said evenly, brushing a lock of her shining auburn hair away from her face as she did so.

Hermione stared at her in surprise, and then shook her head. “No,” she said firmly. “It doesn’t bother me at all. We’re better off staying as friends, I think.”

Hermione did not mention as to how she had come to that conclusion.

Ginny then looked at her in a measuring way. “I think Harry and I are well suited now, he seems to think so as well,” she said calmly. But I can tell that there’s a part of him who still wishes he had been more than ‘friends’ with you. I just wanted to be sure what your feelings about him were at the moment.”

Hermione didn’t know what to say – a part of her felt uneasy at the though that Harry was still carrying a candle for her, as it were. Certainly the idea of holding and kissing Harry felt well, wrong now. As if she would be kissing a brother.

“He’s only my friend,” Hermione said firmly. “That’s all.”

There was a faint look of relief in Ginny’s eyes. “I’m glad,” she confessed, and then she smiled at Hermione. “To tell you the truth, I’ve always been a bit jealous of the closeness the three of you have had – when Harry and Ron rush off on yet another wild adventure, you’re always there to provide the brains and a sensible voice of reason,” she said wryly. “Come on, let’s go back in before they miss us.”

Hermione made herself slowly count to ten and then followed Ginny back to the tables.

Perhaps it was out of a perverse desire to shock her friends out of the complacent image they had of her that Hermione found herself calmly announcing that she had recently become a registered Animagus.

Her friends gaped at her in surprise before the questions and exclamations started.

“You’re an otter, then?” a bemused Ron said, referring to the type of Patronus Hermione could bring forth with her wand.

“No, I’m a cat when I transform, not an otter, Ron,” Hermione said promptly. “An Animagi form doesn’t always match your Patronus, you know.” Certainly an animal such as a otter that was more comfortable in the water would have been a difficult form for her to occupy.

Harry stared at her, his face tight. “How did you become one – you know it’s a dangerous thing to learn. And why didn’t you tell us before?” he said almost accusingly.

“Professor McGonagall saw that I had the ‘potential’ and taught me herself this last year,” Hermione informed him. “It was best to wait until I was officially registered and legally able to transform before I mentioned it,” she added firmly. Which was true – her desire to do things ‘by the book’ had been stronger than her wish to tell anyone prematurely.

She knew herself to be a bright witch only because she had resolutely applied herself to her studies, to make the most of the talent she had, but being an Animagi had come because of a definite natural ability, not because of study alone. Something like that would have been difficult to explain to someone like Harry, to whom magic came as easily as breathing. Perhaps easier.

Ron said in some amazement, “A year is an awfully short time to learn, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t it take your father and um, Sirius a few years to learn how change over properly?” he said, turning to Harry, his face slightly red. The death of Sirius Black, and indeed, the man himself, was still a subject that Harry’s friends carefully tried not to bring up to him.

“Yes, they did,” Harry said curtly, though there was an odd look in his eyes when he looked at Hermione.

“I had a good teacher, and the Professor was quite thorough in making sure I could transform properly,” Hermione pointed out swiftly.

“Do you chase mice?” Luna suddenly spoke up in a dreamy voice. “I’ve heard mice squeaking in our garden, you know.”

Hermione grimaced. “It seems to be a good idea when I’m a cat,” she said reluctantly.

“Gross!” Ron blurted, looking appalled at the very thought.

An interested Lavender wanted to know what she looked like (“A tortoiseshell! How sweet!), Neville mournfully mused that with his luck his Animagus form would only turn out to be a rabbit if he tried, while Ron suggested that she go outside, change and then sneak back in as a cat (Hermione immediately said no to that particular plan). In a serious tone Ginny asked her how the world appeared through the eyes of a cat.

Ron then asked in a tone of innocence (clearly borrowed from his brothers Fred and George) whether she wanted a collar with a bell, to which Hermione sweetly told him where to go.

Despite the fact that she was tired, it was nice to feel that she was the centre of attention for once amongst her friends, Hermione thought.

Harry showed a further interest in her ability, but there was coolness in the way he asked questions that made Hermione feel uncomfortable. He was the first to leave as well, politely saying that the week had suddenly caught up with him. With a slightly apologetic look at the others, Ron made his excuses as well and followed his friend.

“I think Harry’s a bit jealous of you,” Lavender said quietly to Hermione, her eyes troubled.

“Look, if I can become an Animagus, surely Harry could learn if he tried,” Hermione said quickly, thinking of how his father had had the ability to shape change. Perhaps she had been a bit boastful tonight in admitting this ability of hers, but on the other hand she felt uncomfortable with the thought that Harry was jealous of her.

“Maybe, but not as quickly as you, I think… and perhaps he thinks so as well,” Lavender replied soberly.

“What do you think, Lavender?” Hermione asked her with some wariness.

Lavender suddenly smiled at her. “I think I’d rather stay in my own shape – and stick to only thinking human thoughts as well!”

As if the departure of Harry and Ron had been a catalyst, the others found themselves making their own goodbyes, Lavender extracting a reluctant promise from Hermione that they would have to go shopping one day soon.

When Hermione Apparated back to the retreat, the sprawling house feeling quiet and still around her, a wave of tiredness swept over the young woman and so she wasted no time in going to bed.

When Hermione awoke the next morning, she blinked as the memories of the previous day came rushing over her, a spot of pink appearing in each of her cheeks for a moment when she thought of Severus. She glanced thoughtfully up at the cream ceiling above her. It was surprising to think that Severus had a room that was really not that far away from hers, though her mouth quirked when she considered that it was a reversal of what the situation had been at Hogwarts. There, Severus lived as well as worked down in the dungeons while she had lived in the soaring Gryffindor Tower with its grand views over the lake. Now, it was Severus who had a room with a view. Did he enjoy it or did he keep the curtains closed, she thought wryly.

However, Hermione sobered when she wondered what mood Severus would be when she saw him today – surely he had eventually returned here yesterday. If she knew how to find him that is – part of her mind felt awkward though at the thought of casually waltzing up to his room to see him. Not to mention the fact that as an employee here she was technically not allowed near the guest quarters anyway.

Her thoughts were getting her nowhere. Hermione got up out of bed and when she looked fairly presentable in a black robe she went to breakfast (it was with some mortification to realise that she had slept in). Biddy beamed at her as always when she arrived in the kitchen and soon Hermione was being served with a plateful of hot porridge at the table.

Upon reflection Hermione couldn’t imagine Severus ever coming down to the kitchen or to her room to see her - no doubt he had already deduced that she was staying in this part of the house instead of the guest quarters - nor would he expect her to come to his room. She flushed at that thought. But despite his Slytherin nature, she knew that there were still conventional behaviours that Severus would observe and expect of others in certain situations.

If he wished to be found by her the garden would be the first place to look.

She firmly made herself rest for a little while after she had finished her porridge - rushing off to start a day after just eating porridge was not a good idea.

However, at one point Hermione felt herself to be observed, but after looking up only saw a crow upon the branch of a tree outside the window. The bird looked familiar, she mused; perhaps it was the same one she had seen the other day. She had to smile when she saw the crow looked distinctly startled when a broad leaf suddenly fell upon it, the leaf then vigorously shaken off. It was clear to see the bird was quite irritated too that this had happened, with a ‘how dare this happen to me’ attitude evident as well, with much grumpy rearranging of black feathers afterwards.

The crow reminded her of Severus in some ways, Hermione thought with some amusement. Although people had often referred to him as a bat at Hogwarts (when they were quite sure he wasn’t lurking nearby) she had often thought he resembled a raven or a crow. Certainly a dark bird of some description with those long, sweeping robes of his.

As if aware of her scrutiny the crow suddenly turned its head to look at Hermione through the window, a black eye keenly regarding her. Then, as if it had realised the reason as to why a smile still lingered upon her face, the crow ruffled its feathers in a crabby way for a moment.

Perhaps it was that last detail that made Hermione tilt her head and look at the crow keenly in return. This bird was more than it seemed – perhaps it was the (enhanced) familiar of someone? Or perhaps it was really something – or someone - else.

At the moment the crow was pointedly not looking at her, but when Hermione rose from the table she saw its head turn and the black eye regard her again. There seemed to be a slight wariness about the crow now, as if it was aware it was being nosy but trying not to be at the same time.

With conviction growing inside her Hermione felt a smile tug at her face despite herself - and on impulse she gravely blew a kiss towards the crow.

The crow stared at her and then nearly lost its grip upon the branch.

That was enough for Hermione and after thanking Biddy as she usually did, out of habit Hermione went to (hurriedly) clean her teeth after her breakfast and then she went outside.

But when she headed towards the tree where the crow had been she saw that the bird had disappeared. A curious Hermione wheeled around, her eyes scanning the trees around her. Then with a determined look on her face Hermione set off on the nearest path.

“Good morning Hermione,” a familiar voice said dryly (and with a hint of long-suffering exasperation) behind her after a few moments and she turned to see Severus standing there on the path, his mouth pursed as if he was a boy who had just been found with his hand in a cookie jar, despite elaborate attempts by said boy in not being caught at all.

“Good morning Severus - you’re an Animagus, aren’t you? You were the crow at the kitchen window,” Hermione said challengingly to him, an irrepressible gleam in her eyes. And possibly he was the same crow she had seen the other day, Hermione thought, but did not say this aloud.

“You should have been a Ravenclaw for surely no secret is safe from you - I was obviously too careless,” Severus said begrudgingly, attempting to maintain a sense of dignity in front of her.

“I’m sure those leaves can be lethal,” Hermione said gravely, feeling satisfaction inside of having been proven right. He was indeed an Animagus, and it was a relief to feel that this was something she had in common with him, though she had yet to reveal her own ability to Severus.

Wretched girl, to mock him so.

He glowered down at her. “I have no intention of replying to that remark, and sarcasm does not become you at this time of the day, Miss Granger. Yes, I am an Animagus, though this knowledge is not widely known and I would prefer to keep it this way,” he added with a note of warning in his voice, folding his black-buttoned arms across his chest.

In other words, his ability - whenever he had mastered it - had been and was useful in his work for the Order, a usefulness that could be jeopardised if too many of the wrong kind of people found out.

“You were spying on me before,” Hermione pointed out nevertheless.

“I most certainly was not,” Severus countered sharply, but then there was a spot of high colour in his sallow cheeks.

“I was looking for you because I wished to see you,” the Potions Master said stiffly.

Severus had not had the most restful of sleeps last night – the events of the previous day had jumbled in his head along with (he admitted) his various insecurities to produce a dream where Hermione had mocked and laughed at him after she had kissed him in the garden, with a nearby Remus looking on approvingly at Hermione’s actions.

Similar dreams had followed where her feelings for him had proved to be nothing but a sham, yet another way for him to be humiliated in life. He had woken early in the morning feeling snappish and unsettled, with it an almost instinctive decision on his part to change into his crow form and fly through the garden for the feeling of freedom it gave him. But he did this for another reason also, to see if Hermione was in the garden as well.

He had not had any luck in locating her, but something had made him fly back to the kitchen window, where he had seen her at the table inside. There was something about the way the sunlight had fallen upon her brown hair and the way her gravely sweet face was tilted as she steadily ate her breakfast had made him want to, well, in his Animagus form perform such idiotic things as a courtship display with his wings. There was also the alarming urge to try and prove to her that he could build a nest…

Severus was successful in appearing as just an ordinary crow to others, and had maintained in doing so to her, but then the damn tree had obviously decided it was autumn and time to dump leaves upon him. He did not believe he had given himself away but when a smiling Hermione had dared to blow a kiss(!) at him after that, he knew with vexation that his secret was out.

Severus coughed. “I trust you enjoyed yourself last night,” he said gruffly. While he did not entirely approve of her choice of friends, politeness was nevertheless called for.

There was a faint shadow on her face for a moment but it was fleeting, and Severus was left wondering if he had imagined it.

Hermione nodded. “I did, thank you. Though I couldn’t help think about you,” she added carefully. She looked away for a moment and then her eyes darted back to his face, questions that she was clearly making herself not ask bubbling up within their brown depths.

She had been concerned about him, and Severus inwardly berated himself for having left her in the way he had yesterday. He had wanted some space from her yesterday, but now that he was in her presence again the day seemed brighter somehow. He wanted to kiss and touch her, to whisper things in her ear that made her laugh.

“If I insulted you by leaving in the manner I did yesterday I did not mean to. At the time I… I felt I needed some space,” he admitted stiffly.

Hermione considered his words and relented, feeling that she understood how he had felt that way. What was new to her in this relationship of theirs was definitely new to Severus as well. Despite his harsh exterior it was clear that he had the capacity to feel vulnerable.

“I thought that yesterday you were going to go-”

She stopped.

Severus smiled thinly down at her, knowing what she had been about to say.

“You thought I was going to see Remus Lupin,” he observed dryly.

“Well, um, yes,” Hermione said, a flustered expression on her face. “I did get that impression,” she added carefully.

“I was tempted to,” Severus said grimly after a moment. “He had no right to look at me like… but I realised that confronting him would not have achieved anything good,” he added, almost to himself.

Hermione felt a sense of relief course through her, feeling glad that Severus had reined in his temper and had chosen not to tell Remus what he had obviously thought of him.

“I’m glad you didn’t go and see him,” she said simply.

Severus quickly reached into a pocket of his for the present he had made for her, his fingers closing about it as if it was a talisman.

When he brought it out he held the little white jar out to her.

“I found a more productive use of my time instead in making this,” Severus said abruptly to her.

Surprised (and feeling touched), Hermione reached out and took the jar.

“Thank you,” Hermione said awkwardly as she opened it. Peering inside she saw a cream of some kind that had obviously taken a while for him to prepare – she trusted it did not have the same properties like that of Sybil’s creations! A faint smell of violets rose from the cream as well… he had made this for her? An involuntary smile came to her face.

“What does it do?” she asked softly, her eyes searching his face.

Severus cleared his throat, the absurd state of feeling like an awkward teenager with his sweetheart stealing over him again at the expectant way she looked at him.

“It is a cream to protect your hands against calluses from gardening,” he said gruffly. “I expect you to use it each day here without fail, is that clear?”

He had thought to make a cream for her hands? It was obvious though from his body language that he wasn’t used to giving gifts like this, something that she found endearing (but did not reveal).

“I will,” Hermione promised him gravely before putting the lid back on the jar and carefully stowing it in a pocket.

“Thank you,” she added softly and closing the space between them reached up and brushed his lips gently with her own. She saw his eyes close briefly and then when he opened them again she felt her wrist firmly clasped by him.

“Not here,” Severus said softly and before she knew it he had Apparated them both into what looked like a small library at the retreat. Bookcases that reached the ceiling lined the walls, pleasantly burdened with many books. There was a couch and many old but comfy looking chairs, the kind you would immediately curl up in with a good book.

Nevertheless Hermione felt a flicker of apprehension at his motives for bringing her here, and seeing this in her eyes Severus let go of her wrist and bent his dark head so that his forehead bumped gently against hers.

“Dear girl, I have no intention of ravishing you,” he whispered ironically, gently dropping feather-light kisses along her cheek. Then he paused.

“If anything, then please say this is not just a irrational dream of mine,” he added abruptly.

Hermione’s apprehension faded away at the sight of his discomfort – it was still easy for her to look at him and think of him as the often-malevolent Potions Master, even though he had been on the right side. But it was important to remember too he was just a man at the end of day with his own struggles and fears – perhaps the fear she would turn and walk away.

“If you have irrational dreams then I’m sure I would have read about them in ‘Hogwarts: A History’,” Hermione said practically, lightly running her hands along his arms as she did so.

There was a long-suffering look on Severus’ face but some of his tension eased and his mouth lowered slowly to capture hers. Hermione raised her head slightly so she could kiss him back, and there was a slight pause as Severus tilted his face so that his nose wouldn’t poke her cheek.

“Sorry,” Hermione mumbled between kisses.

“Less talk, please,” Severus murmured back, kissing her to silence, both of them gently enfolding the other in their arms and in those moments felt loved by the other as well.

TBC



A Choice of Roads by Imhilien [Reviews - 18]

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