The Land of Might-Have-Been
All characters belong to J. K. Rowling.
This is a continuation of Pack Clouds Away. I'd advise reading that prior to reading this.
Spoiler warning: If anyone is currently reading or planning to read Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, you may want to avoid this. I'd hate to spoil the plot of such a great book for anyone. There's also a vague but potentially big spoiler for the novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carre.
Last night he dreamt they went to Manderley again.
But it hadn't lasted very long once Minerva had turned up, Mrs Danvers-like, and had begun ridiculing him for his choice of wife. There was something not quite right about Minerva looking at Hermione Granger with such hatred. Yes, in his dream Hermione Granger had been his wife. His only defence was that he was not responsible for his mental faculties while they were in the Land of Nod.
Rebecca was, in fact, their… 'book of the month.' How he'd found himself partaking of this little exercise with Granger, of taking it in turns to suggest a novel they would both read simultaneously, he wasn't entirely sure. As soon as the phrase 'book club' had fallen from her lips, however, he had bridled spectacularly. There was no way he could ever participate in something so ineffably twee, and he'd told her precisely that.
'I don't do clubs, of any sort,' he'd said imperiously, while, admittedly, fully realising the irony of his statement. By Merlin he would have hexed her if she had drawn attention to it herself.
Luckily for her, she appeared oblivious, speaking only with long-suffering. 'Two people do not a club make, you know. If it bothers you so much we won't call it a book club; we'll just happen to read the same book and then discuss it.'
He'd not been convinced. But then she'd taken a different tact—a rather cunning one, in fact.
'Don't you want to broaden your horizons when it comes to reading?' she had asked casually. 'Even I, I admit, get a little tired of reading of the same plotlines. There are always similarities—there is nothing new under the sun, after all.'
Oh, he knew precisely what her favourite books were like, having already sampled one. And he rather thought he'd got off lightly with that one. He suspected there were far more trite and sentimental works filling up her shelves. He could confess himself slightly surprised that she was enamoured of such stories. From his observations of her during the time she had been teaching at Hogwarts, he'd thought she was the type to read only for the pursuit of knowledge. She'd paraded her brains about so thoroughly as a child that he'd considered it was all she was interested in—not reading for reading's sake.
Yet, he was completely unsurprised to learn that still waters run deep.
He did not appreciate, however, her suggestion that he preferred to keep his interest narrowed, as if, somehow, that did not mark him out as a proper, true reader.
'Come on,' she had urged, when he had refused to rise to her bait. 'No one else will have to know. You can choose the first book.'
In any case, time went to prove he was not entirely averse to the idea, as long as she was sensible in the reading material presented to him, and, of course, never referred to what they were doing as a 'book club.'
In fairness to her, he'd had no particular issue with any of the books she had given him so far. And actually, he'd enjoyed them—to the extent that he enjoyed anything.
'Did you like Rebecca?' she politely asked him now, while they sat at the table in the staff room. She had marking in front of her, but seemed more than happy to abandon it as soon as he'd announced to her that he had finished his reading.
'It was cleverly done, I thought…' he answered vaguely. 'But I found myself entirely irritated with some of the characters.'
Her face flickered slightly. Well, he might enjoy the books he read, but he would never be one to wax lyrical about anything.
His first-year Potions speech was the exception to the rule.
'In what way were you irritated?'
'Some of the second Mrs de Winter's actions I found troubling. Would any young woman take up with such a man as Maxim de Winter on such short acquaintance? And her meekness of character I found unbearable at times, but… I suppose it only heightened the oddly uncomfortable tone to the story.'
'Uncomfortable?' she questioned.
Severus flicked a glance to the other side of the room, to casually assimilate whether they were in earshot of the others. 'What precisely do you enjoy about this novel, Hermione? I find myself rather surprised that you count it as a favourite. There is no doubting that it is well written and the plot engaging, but the romance here is by no means flowery. In fact, it's rather a dark story.'
She frowned defensively. 'I can appreciate a lot more than a bit of overflowing sentiment, you know. The setting, for one thing, I find thrilling, and unseen spectre of Rebecca de Winter is wonderfully done. There is a lot more to Rebecca than romance. If anything, it is a story about relationships between men and women, and while it may not resonate so well in today's day and age, there are still some valid observations.'
'But how do you see the relationship between de Winter and his second wife?'
She paused and fiddled with her quill thoughtfully. 'Well, it's a complicated one, to be sure.'
'But do you think that he loved her?'
Her eyes narrowed a fraction. 'You don't?'
'Maybe he did… But his motivations I find intriguing. He killed Rebecca.' Severus made sure he did not make any sign as to the inner discomfort he felt at the territory in which he was entering. He was not going to shy away from it, though, and he ploughed on. 'It seems to me that he was more interested in atoning for that crime, and he saw his opportunity in that quiet young woman, than acting on any great passion he felt for her.'
Severus could see where the attraction in that concept lay. But there was nothing to ever make up for such actions. He knew it, and he felt Maxim de Winter, in the book, had realised it as well, eventually.
She folded her arms and leaned forward slightly. 'Well, to an extent, I agree. I think it was a selfish action, his proposal to her, as were his actions in taking her back to Manderley. But I like to think that he did come to love her, in the end.'
He almost smiled. 'Why—because she stood by him when the truth came out? Made him feel better about himself?'
A little huff escaped her.
'I'm not sure that any woman would stick by her husband with the knowledge that he had murdered his wife—the wife whom he also thought pregnant at the time.' He watched her expression cloud over.
'I'm not denying it's a moral conundrum,' she admitted. 'But that is the beauty of the story, because we are drawn into wanting Maxim to escape justice.' She paused at his unconvinced expression. 'Very well, I concede most of us are drawn into it. I can see that you must think de Winter a complete bastard and I can understand that. Personally, I don't see why it can't be said that Maxim did not have genuine feeling for his wife at the end, but then I am an incurable romantic, apparently. Still, the ending is pretty grim, don't you think?'
He gave a nod of concession.
'I like 'happily ever after,' of course I do, but it always helps to remind oneself of the folly of such expectations. And in the de Winters case, perhaps their stale existence is punishment enough.'
'Maybe…' he answered vaguely.
Her hand suddenly shot out and rested near his for a moment. 'Tell me,' she asked earnestly. 'Did I make a mistake in giving you this book to read?'
'No… of course not.' His voice was clipped, indicating his discomfort at what she was asking, but the reality was he was grateful she was not cosseting him with her choice of books. 'A good book will always make us think about ourselves.'
He was not angry that he had been forced to consider his own views on what it is to make reparation for a crime committed. Maxim de Winter had tried to find his salvation in the young woman he had met in Monte Carlo, but Severus shied away from agreeing with it. He'd once thought his redemption could be wrought by another soul, but she had died and left him, and even clinging to her memory with an iron grip had not diminished the looming certainty that the responsibility for change lay only with himself.
He watched her pick up the copy of Rebecca he had put on the table and flick casually through it, a vaguely fond smile around her mouth.
To place the burden of responsibility on anyone else was, as she had said, selfish. And he had learned the hard way not to be selfish. He might be petty and proud, but when it mattered most, he knew he was not selfish.
He probably never would be.
And that was how he managed to survive with his own guilt.
His classroom was filled with a faint hue of steam as his smattering of seventh-year students quietly brewed their assigned potions. It was one of the few lessons in which he felt a modicum of calm, knowing that chaos was least likeliest to break out in this lesson. Sat at his desk, he watched the movements in the room and allowed his mind to wonder as to what title he would pick for Professor Granger to read next.
Inwardly, of course, he really wanted her to like the books he gave her. As much as he could sniff at her if she dismissed his reading of choice, it would still hurt his pride as surely as if he had written the thing himself. Yes, he was capable of being entirely irrational.
Still, he didn't break down like Granger did over stories; although that was probably the only good thing he could say for himself.
As any person with a passion would be, he was directly invested in its use and effect. He would not be able to proclaim himself an avid reader if he could read and feel indifferent at the conclusion of the process. And, perhaps surprisingly, he'd found he had not minded allowing Hermione to see that, in fact, there was something in his life he enjoyed and took pleasure from.
In the time that he had known her as a colleague, he had nearly fallen into the same trap that he no doubt set for others as well. He'd begun to think that, owing to her sometimes quiet and, yes, detached disposition that she had become to be someone filled with a certain sense of cynicism and apathy. And that wasn't how he remembered her as a student.
But, of course, he could never quite subscribe to his theory because there were moments in which she comprehensively debunked them. Most tellingly were the times when she took offence at his manner with the children. He'd never admit it to anyone, but it had given him some momentary disquiet the first time when, all of a sudden, she had come to him with no sign of trepidation and demanded to know what he had been thinking, taking one hundred points from Gryffindor for what she deemed an 'accident.'
Traditionally, those were the only times they had ever really spoken. He'd followed by example and made sure to badger her every time she did something he did not agree with. Which, tellingly, hadn't been as often as he would have liked.
While she had done little else of note, what he had noticed was her reading, and it was that activity that allowed him to see that, actually, there were deeper waters to negotiate. The most intriguing point for him was that she read in public. It was hardly a ridiculous notion, reading in public, but he never indulged in one of his favourite novels where anyone might see him. But she had allowed herself to cry over her books without care, and, possibly despite himself, he admired that.
Although, she had been a little embarrassed and defensive when he had made it known that he had commandeered and read one of her books. Did she really, deep down, think she was sad and tedious because of her love for books? But he'd thought the same about himself at one point; he'd just been on his own longer and had reconciled the fact that it wasn't sad—it was just different.
They were not the only ones, of course. He saw it every day, in fact. How many students did he teach everyday? He knew as well as he did the earth was round that some of the children he saw would grow to live lives as solitary as his own, whether by choice or not. It was surely inevitable.
And there was nothing anyone could do about the inevitable.
They all had they own ways of dealing with their isolation, self-imposed or otherwise. Minerva buried herself in the running of the school; Pomona surrounded herself with her plants; Sibyll… well, Sibyll was an example to them all of how desperate things can turn out.
In any case, no one could blame him if he was intrigued by the fact that he had discovered someone who had the same weakness as he.
It was a little easier knowing that while he was passing Cold War secrets onto the other side, there was someone else in the castle frolicking about the Victorian era, or whatever else it was that she did.
Had he really just made that ridiculous observation?
Merlin... he'd finally cracked.
Severus was sat in his office when the small package shot through the fireplace and landed on the floor. The Slytherin third-year he had sitting at a table, re-doing his deplorable attempt at his homework for detention, glanced towards it with interest.
'Keep writing, Staines,' Severus ordered sharply as he moved to retrieve the package.
He knew immediately what it was. It was his reading for the next month, as picked by Hermione. Although, judging from the feel of it, it certainly wasn't going to take him a month to read. It must be a short story, he considered. He thought he would leave unwrapping it until he was alone, but, actually, he was always curious to see what she had chosen.
He leaned back in his chair and dropped the book in his lap, picking at the wax seal that kept the paper wrapped up. When it fell away, and revealed the book, he froze, astonished at the sight of the cover.
What the hell? What the bloody hell?
What on earth was Regency Silk and Scandals?
His mouth almost fell open as he read the sub-title. Taken by the…
Well, he couldn't bring himself to even think it!
Before he could stop himself, he opened the book and glanced with morbid curiosity at several pages in quick succession. He soon snapped the book shut. Dear Merlin; what had she given him? This was… This was outrageous. He would have to Imperio'd before he would even consider reading the first line! What on earth was she playing at?
Severus leapt to his feet and stormed out of his office, preoccupied with only one thing: finding her and demanding an explanation. Although, he wasn't so preoccupied that he did not remember to stuff the small book inside his pocket. The consequences of a student discovering him with such an item, well, they did not bear thinking about.
He took the steps two at a time into the Entrance Hall and then he tore up the Grand Staircase. The closest place to try for her would be the staff room and so he headed that way first. She was there, sitting in a chair, sipping tea and reading the newspaper.
Stalking across the room, he stood before her silently until she looked up, which she did fairly quickly.
'Oh, hello,' she said equably. 'I thought you had a detention to supervise tonight?'
Oh, shit; yes.
'Never mind that,' he replied swiftly, moving his body slightly to block out to anyone else what he was about to show her. 'What, pray, is the meaning of this?' He held out the offending book for her to take, but she didn't. She just looked at it, her lips thinning in what he was sure was an effort not to laugh.
'It's a book, Severus. Have you finished it already?'
'I certainly have not!' he hissed haughtily. 'And neither shall I.'
'What—you don't like Mills and Boon?'
And then she cracked, and he was secretly relieved to see it. Her hand shot up to her mouth and her eyes crinkled up. As quickly as that had happened, however, she coughed and endeavoured to bring herself under control. Her voice, however, was weak when she spoke again. 'It's my, um, my… favourite… I wish you would at least try it.'
Alarmingly, Severus felt an answering pang of amusement and he sought to quash it, not very effectively. 'It's your favourite, is it?' he asked dryly.
'Your favourite book,' he began dubiously, 'is about so-called Regency silk and scandal?'
She nodded again, determinedly.
Forgetting himself, he turned the cover towards him and glanced at it with a sceptically raised eyebrow.
Apparently, she could not look him in the eye now, for she looked downwards while her fingers pressed at her mouth and her shoulders began to shake.
'I see, then… Your favourite ever book is one called… Taken by the Wicked Rake?'
'I beg your pardon, Severus?' came a prim voice from behind him and he automatically twisted round to find the Headmistress standing nearby. He trusted he was too old to blush anymore.
'Good evening, Minerva,' he managed, as calmly and as dourly as ever .
Minerva's eyes looked directly at the book he held, taking in, no doubt especially, the suggestive woman on the front cover. Scandalised, her eyes returned to meet his own, but Severus was not perturbed. The book might be clutched in his hand, but he had a bit of one-upmanship to employ. He stepped aside to reveal a red-faced, quivering with suppressed laughter, Arithmancy teacher.
While Minerva looked at Hermione with raised eyebrows, Severus whispered a quick charm.
'You see, Minerva, I was just returning this book to Professor Granger. I found it near her classroom and discovered, upon inspection of the inside cover, that it was hers.' He opened the book and showcased the neatly (and freshly) written 'This book belongs to Hermione Granger'.
The person in question gasped and her humour fell away like a stone.
'Don't you think that Professor Granger should exercise more discretion when it comes to leaving her, well, I suppose we shall have to call it reading material, about the castle?'
Hermione's face was now purple with embarrassment. 'I—' she started, but the Headmistress interrupted.
'Severus is right, Hermione. It's not really appropriate for a teacher to leave these kind of books lying about where anyone might find them. Be careful in future, all right?'
Minerva moved on and Severus found himself smirking. 'Yes, Professor; do be careful in future.'
Hermione shook her head in resigned defeat. 'Fine; I will know never to tease you in future.'
Hmm… teasing him was she? Interesting. Did she know the risk she ran with such occupation? He was not someone who, ordinarily, took teasing well.
'Still, I wish I could have seen your face when you first saw the title.'
Severus slapped the book down onto the nearest surface, feeling like he had been holding it for far too long. 'Why don't you ask the boy I had in for detention?' he asked self-deprecatingly, giving her a resigned frown.
Her expression became smug. 'I might.'
Severus could never let smugness go unpunished, and he wouldn't let it now, either. 'Have you read it?' he asked casually, sitting down. 'I would hate to think I'm dismissing a book on the basis of it's cover and a glimpse of only a few lurid passages.'
She smiled slightly. 'I found it in my parents' house when I went to visit during half-term. I had to read it for curiosity's sake, if nothing else. You're probably right to dismiss it.'
'I see,' he said in a slow, ponderous voice. 'Now, tell me, did you… inhabit this one as well as have the others?'
A deep flush rushed into her cheeks and she fidgeted in a poor attempt to appear unmoved. 'No, no, of course not, I only skimmed through it, um… Oh, I think my tea needs more sugar. Excuse me…'
She got to her feet and scuttled off to the sideboard with her cup and saucer. Severus leant back into his chair and smirked to himself. That would teach her to think she could try and embarrass him by sending saucy reading material to him during a detention.
Oh, his detention.
Never mind, he thought, looking towards the sideboard; more fun to be had here.
At that point Sibyll wandered past and, on perceiving the book he'd left nearby, gasped loudly. 'I love this one! Severus, I really must recommend Rake Beyond Redemption. And One Night with the Rake is a good one too. I might have them upstairs if you're interested?'
Aghast, Severus shot out of his chair and headed back to his detention.
Severus woke slowly, struggling to clear the mists in his mind and return to consciousness. It had been one of those ridiculous dreams again. The more he had the more they disquieted him. He knew he would not sleep any further tonight; how could he after he had just seen Hermione Granger shot down while they tried to flee up and over the Berlin wall? He sat up in bed and commanded the candles to flare obligingly to life.
As a rule, he was not a man who was prone to a great deal of subconscious activity while he slept. There were certain dreams he did not want playing behind his eyelids and so he employed Occlumency as far as he could to limit such occurrences.
But these recent dreams, where Granger turned up in whatever guise he dreamt up, were suggestive. Why did they always end with him wanting to sweep her up into some nauseating embrace? Of course, this latest one hadn't ended in that fashion, but still, she'd been there. His dreams often descended into nightmares; he was just that sort of person.
He was beginning to think he might have to consider he might feel an attraction towards her… but, actually, he was fairly sure he didn't feel anything of the sort when he was with her… in the flesh. And that was all that mattered, really; not what silly notions entered his dreams when he had least control over himself.
His eyes fell on the book on his bedside table. A read would pass the hours until morning.
Reading had been a desire borne from his unhappy childhood. There had been precious little for him to do but read when he had been a young boy, but he'd never had novels in any shape or form. His mother had had her old schoolbooks and that had been about it.
Lily had given him books, of course, when they had become friends. And although he drew the line at her extensive collection of 'girly' stories, some of the novels she had given him had been a revelation. He'd surely never ever forget how he had sat on his bed and read the first Famous Five book she had given him in one sitting, and how, at its conclusion, he'd only been able to marvel at the whole experience.
His love of 'shockers' or 'thrillers' was comparatively recent compared to his longstanding love of books in general, though it might be traced back to that first little mystery he read. It was when the war had concluded and he had found himself, at times, curiously bored and unenthused that he had got the idea to go into a Muggle bookshop and find a new selection of books to read. There was much in the war that he was glad to leave behind, but how could he have played such a part for so long and not feel a certain emptiness without it now that it was gone?
Such books allowed him to live vicariously, safe in the knowledge that it wasn't actually his life. Matters of life and death, so often a focus in books, was now no longer a focus in his existence. No longer did he have to worry about how he would make it through one day to the next, but through reading, he liked to be reminded of those tense, adrenaline-filled moments. Maybe he was a masochist.
There was an idea that often presented itself within his mind, though; an idea that was not entirely without merit. It was the idea that he might read too much. It was all well and good to inhabit a book, but actually, should he be concerned? He was probably reading more now than he ever had in his life. And he wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not.
He might joke with Hermione, and she with him, over the state of their respective sanities, but there might be a real basis for concern. He really was grateful for teaching. If he didn't have that to occupy most of his day, he'd probably spend all of this time buried in books.
There was something he kept within sight at all times, however, to remind him of the dangers of reading too much. Pensively, he Summoned it towards him.
It was his copy of Don Quixote.
Hermione had given it to him, rather tongue-in-cheek, telling him that he should read it to uncover the danger of reading too much of the same genre. Secretly, he had sometimes wondered, considering how often he spent in book land, how thin the line was between his present state and him donning a top hat, magnifying glass firmly in hand, and marching into a Muggle Police station to offer his assistance in solving crime. Or maybe he would turn up at MI6 in London and offer his espionage services. Regardless, this book was proof that the line could be rather thin indeed.
Severus opened the book at random, to one of the first few pages.
'In short, our nobleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn, and his days reading from sunrise to sunset; and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind. His fantasy filled with everything he had read in his books, enchantments as well as combats, battles, challenges, wounds, courtings, loves, torments, and other impossible foolishness, and he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read, that for him no history in the world was truer.'
But his brain had not quite "dried up" as poor Don Quixote de La Mancha's had over his books of chivalry. Severus was quite sure he would not be mistaking the Three Broomsticks for a castle anytime soon, neither would he be brandishing his wand at windmills. At least, he hoped not.
Of course, he knew books were often not a true reflection of the reality of life itself, but that was precisely it—he didn't want reality. Books are varied and changing, while reality is samey and predictable. While he might now appreciate the dull existence of life, he was only human to want to seek something a little bit more. Because Severus was convinced true contentment did not exist.
And, maybe it was overrated, as well.
Nonetheless, he did prize his sanity. He carried on reading through the misguided sallies of Don Quixote, knight errant, fully aware of the irony that his cautionary tale of choice was, in fact, yet another book.
He'd given her Dracula to read this month. He'd been on the alert for any wry twist of the mouth as he had handed it to her. He was not, and had never been, a Vampire.
He felt sure she would like this read. How could she not? It had everything in it—tension, atmosphere, horror, mystery, even her treasured romance.
However, but for telling him that the first few chapters had given her a terribly vivid nightmare, and from her shifty expression he had had to wonder if he, himself, had played a part in it, their appointed discussion of the story never materialised until sometime later.
Because at the end of that month, Potter had his third child, and naturally, as with everything Potter did, it was the only topic of conversation to be had. Seeing that familiar countenance splashed over the Daily Prophet only made him wish harder that he was old enough to retire before the next generation of Potters descended upon the castle. He didn't have long left before the first one would be darkening the door of his classroom.
One evening, during that time, he found Hermione sitting in one of the quadrangles, apparently thinking, for she only sat there in stillness. It irritated him to discern the turn of her expression as slightly sombre looking, especially as he was beginning to see it more and more frequently.
But there was one thing he was curious to know and so he could not pass without making his presence known. He approached with a small greeting.
She stirred and smiled vaguely. 'Hello,' she said, moving up on the bench in a sign that he should also sit.
'Hit me with it, then,' he began without preamble. 'What have they called this one?'
He sounded unconcerned, but actually, he did feel an ounce of irrational dread. He remembered the time when Minerva had broken the news of the full name of Potter's middle child. Once the shock had settled, he'd begun expounding vehemently on what a completely stupid thing Potter had done. Minerva had only said that he didn't have a monopoly over the name 'Severus.'
An unequivocal point, he supposed.
'"This one" is a girl,' she said slowly.
Severus felt his stomach clench. She seemed hesitant to go any further, but she didn't need to; he knew what she would say.
'I see,' he said shortly.
In the ensuing silence, she evidently began to feel uncomfortable, as her next words showed. 'She's a lovely little thing, but babies all look the same to me when I see them…'
Lily Potter, mark two. How… delightful. 'How much are we betting that she will have red hair and green eyes?'
He felt her eyes on him then, but really, after 'James Sirius' and 'Albus Severus' what else could he be other than utterly resigned?
'I'll bet you twenty Galleons that she won't,' she offered brightly.
He snorted. 'You've lost that bet, you know.'
'Probably,' she admitted quietly.
'But they are lovely children,' she continued after a moment. 'I always enjoy seeing them when I do. Al is growing up fast, it seems.'
Al? 'Well, thank Merlin, they've shortened it,' Severus found himself muttering contemptuously.
She waited a moment before speaking. 'You're touched, really, aren't you?'
His head snapped towards hers. 'Touched?' he repeated scornfully, but at her earnest look he felt himself concede a little. 'Touched… ?' He smirked. 'Only in the head, perhaps.'
She laughed. 'If you are touched, then I'm definitely cracked!'
He felt he would be right if he said that at that moment, that despite everything, their humour felt a little hollow. His own mind was preoccupied with the most unusual of things. For instance, he had an awful urge to enquire as to whether she wanted children herself. He wondered if that is what she was thinking about in the wake of Potter's third-born. He would never ask, of course.
Anyway, had she not said life at Hogwarts suited her?
Personally, he'd never entertained notions of marrying or procreating, because that really would be to build castles in the sky, but as he sat there, he considered that if she really did want to get married and have children, then she should. He could not consider it anything other than a tragedy if she really was sitting there imagining a different life for herself and she did not go out and achieve it.
She probably deserved more than this life at Hogwarts. She was still rather young; was she really happy at Hogwarts? And really, that he should take his own comfort in the fact that she lived much like he, and that he, to an extent, encouraged her in it, was wrong… and selfish. And he could see now that it wasn't that she resented Hogwarts for any unfulfilled ambitions or dreams, which is what he had originally assumed. It was just that, maybe, she had it wrong. Maybe Hogwarts did not suit her—she just didn't know any different.
He did not want to belittle the important job that was being a teacher at Hogwarts, but maybe she was meant for better things. Maybe they all them in the castle were, but it was too late for most of them now. He and the others were too ingrained into the castle's very stonework, but she might still have a chance.
She was looking at nothing in particular and he thought her wistful. He opened his mouth to address the direction of his thoughts, but the words wouldn't come.
What had he said about not being selfish when it mattered most? It had clearly been a bare-faced lie, whatever it had been. Truth was, despite it all, he felt an irrational sting of jealousy that she might want to go and live nearer Potter and his children, or go and live a full and prosperous life elsewhere, or...
Scowling, he got to his feet and headed back inside.
'Oh, bye, then,' she called out in a dry voice.
'Yes, bye,' he replied distractedly over his shoulder.
He endeavoured to try and forget his meanderings of thought that day. Everyone was prone to moments of wistfulness; he probably read too much into her behaviour. And for a time afterwards, he was not troubled. Potter's baby ceased to be the topic of the month and it was soon as if nothing had ever happened. The summer term was beginning and so would the preparation for examinations. It was always the busiest time of the school year, but still, they found time for their reading. They opted for shorter stories in the face of limited free time.
She also introduced him to poetry during that period. It was not, of course, that he had been oblivious to that literary form, but he had paid it little attention. His ignorance he kept very much to himself, mark you. But she chose well, bearing always in mind his aversion to anything overly sentimental. Still, he preferred novels. He could not entirely lose himself in imaginings about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as the ode went, but they were interesting enough.
There was nothing special to remark upon during that time until one night in the middle of the term. Severus, never prone to early nights, was wandering around the castle as the time crept on towards midnight. On his traversing of first floor, he stopped off at the staff room, intending to arrange himself a brief nightcap. Instead, he found he was not the only one to be wide awake in the castle.
He stood in the doorway, surprised for a moment at his discovery. The room was lit dimly by the dying embers of the fire, but he saw her plainly.
'It's a bit late for you to be up, isn't it?' he said, to make his presence known.
He moved into the room and Hermione looked up.
'Is it?' she asked in a small, blank voice. A tiny smile she gave in greeting, before looking with seemingly great concentration into the fire.
He saw the near empty bottle of wine on the floor by her chair and studied her again. 'Something wrong?'
She had her head resting on one hand, but at his words, her hand travelled repeatedly over her brow until he thought she might be trying to hide that she was crying. However, eventually she straightened her posture and when her hand fell away, he was relieved to see that there were no tears.
'Do you ever wonder about what could have been, Severus?'
His heart sank and he sat down with trepidation, wondering what she had in mind to say. Had she finally come to the conclusions about herself that he had?
'Sometimes...' he finally conceded in a guarded tone.
'I think I have been rather too guilty of it in recent years; far too many moments there have been when I have thought about how my life has turned out and compared it to how I expected it to—times when I have pondered over what I could have done differently.'
Severus clenched his jaw.
'But it's no good, you know.' She looked at him then and quirked her mouth. 'No good at all. You see, I don't think I ever was truly unhappy with my life; I think I just thought I ought to be, if that makes sense. That is not to say there are not things I genuinely regret, but in any case, I have come to see, finally, that we must find our duties in what comes to us, not in what might-have-been.'
'Permit me to say,' he began slowly, slightly anxious as to what she might mean. 'Permit me to say that you do not seem entirely enthused by your epiphany.'
She shook her head, and in that slightly laboured movement he could read for the first time her consumption of the wine. 'No, I am not enthused, Severus. But I am resigned, and that is good enough for me right now.'
He still had very little grasp of what all this talk was leading to. He was trying to work it out when her voice sounded in a wavering fashion.
'I have learned, recently, that my father is unwell.'
The comprehension of her words left him startled and he looked at her in his surprise. She was chewing her lip. Suddenly, he wished it was that she had simply decided Hogwarts wasn't enough for her anymore, because he thought he might prefer it to the dullness in her eyes now.
'I'm sorry to hear it,' he uttered uselessly.
There was probably more he should say, but his mind was an uncomfortable blank as he searched in vain for inspiration.
'I have sat here today and allowed myself to think on what I should have liked to have done differently with regard to my parents, and my life, for that matter. I have allowed myself to wallow in my regret tonight.' She shook her head again, only this time with vehemence. 'But no more—there will be no more of this, because I have realised that, actually, there is only ever really one time when it is too late for what might-have-been. My father is not quite there yet and so there is time; time to live in the present. Simple, really, isn't it?'
There was an expectant look on her face, and so he nodded in agreement. 'Yes—simple.'
'Then it is decided.'
Severus wasn't sure exactly what had been decided, but he was rather afraid to ask. He did not know a great deal about her relationship with her parents beyond the fact that it was a distant one. Yet, he could now see that it was not merely something that bothered her, but rather something that agonised her.
After a tense silence, she leant forward, blinking slightly. 'Severus? Might I prevail upon you to walk me back to my rooms? I'd hate for one of the students to discover me slumped against a pillar somewhere.'
She tried to smile and so did he, but he thought neither of them really managed it.
He stood and proffered his arm towards her. Her movements, he could see, were careful as she got to her feet and clasped the crook of his elbow. Silently, they walked through the darkened hallways with only the light from his wand for guidance. Her steps were slower than usual, but she did not stumble.
His mind was uneasy, seeing her like this, but he couldn't find it within him to break the silence.
When they reached the entrance to her quarters, she spoke. 'Thank you,' she said quietly, and then she disappeared hastily inside.
Her abrupt departure did not offend him, but he remained almost stuck outside her door for a moment. When he did rally himself into moving, the light from his wand caught his sleeve of his robe and he could just make out a few dark patches.
So, she had cried, then.
He would find out the following day just what resolution she had alluded to during her late-night meditation.
Minerva summoned him to her office at his "earliest convenience," and so, during his only free lesson of the day, he presented himself in front of her desk.
'We have a problem, Severus,' she said when he was seated.
'Hermione has handed in her resignation.'
His heart pulsed hard for a moment. Final confirmation of something he had always anticipated, but only recently dreaded. 'What—why?'
'I'm not sure if you have heard, but her father has been taken ill. She tells me that, unfortunately, the prognosis is not good. She wishes to spend as much time with her parents as she can.'
Severus exhaled slowly. 'But… Her position could be filled temporarily if she wishes to spend some time away and then return at a later date.' How selfish was that? All he wanted was to reassure himself that she would not be gone forever, never mind her unfortunate reasons for leaving in the first place.
The Headmistress shook her head slowly. 'I mentioned that option to her, but you know what she's like. She said she cannot give me a definite date of return and doesn't want to put me out.'
'I see.' He curled one hand into a fist.
'I don't like to press the issue in the circumstances, to be honest. However, I have considered writing to Septima and enquiring as to whether she might like to temporarily come out of retirement. What do you think?'
He shrugged sullenly. 'I suppose she might consider it.' He wouldn't hold his breath, however.
He left the office, his mood irretrievably dampened. So, she would go, then, and in only a few weeks' time. The next school year, the months that lay ahead, seemed to be painfully empty when he thought of them. He was being selfish again, but all he could think was, who would he talk to now? As if she was the only person he did talk to! But actually, he didn't talk to anyone else like he did with her.
He was assaulted with a barrage of past moments which they had shared. They were nothing remarkable; conversations, mostly, but he remembered them as well as he would any adrenaline-filled moment.
It was all rather silly. He would not wither and die just because she would not be there any longer. He would not bleed inwardly, or some other tosh like that… Although she might forget him, mightn't she?
The truth was, he would get on without her presence; he knew he would get used to it. Was that not how everything in life went? Change, adapt and move on—the formula for living, it seemed. For there was one thing he did know for certain; he would not try and persuade her to stay, not while he could not fault her reasons for going.
She appeared at the door to his chambers that night, clutching The Thirty-nine Steps in one hand, but from her manner, he could tell it would not be the topic of conversation for the evening.
She collapsed onto the sofa with a loud sigh. 'What a horrible day,' she said.
He'd heard that she had informed her students of her impending departure and, naturally, it had spread to all corners. He felt her students probably would genuinely miss her.
He didn't know what to say, and part of him wished she had not come tonight, even though this was probably the last time they would do something like this. He should probably make known his regret at her leaving, even if only in a professional capacity, but his mouth seemed glued shut.
'You know that I don't especially desire to leave…?' she asked tentatively. 'I just… want to do what is right; I want to be with the only family I have. Maybe, one day I will be able to come back, I hope….'
Despite his disappointment, he did not begrudge her need to leave the castle, for however long it would be. She would not be the person he thought her to be if she passed up the only chance she had to mend relations with both her parents.
'I'm sure Minerva will be more than happy to find you position here, should you ever want one.'
He wondered, though, if she would ever want one again. He had visions of her finding life beyond the castle walls far more exhilarating, despite the difficult times she faced with her family.
Morosely, he longed for her to leave his rooms so that he might pull out a book and focus his mind on only the pages. He didn't bury his head in the proverbial sand—he buried his head in books.
Typically, the remaining weeks of term flashed by in record time while he wished for them to drag. Ordinarily, they would have had some sort of celebration to bid farewell to a colleague, but considering the circumstances of her departure, it did not seem appropriate. So on the morning of her leaving, they gathered in the staff room to say goodbyes.
Severus had seriously considered avoiding this day of dread, but Minerva would have strung him up, and anyway, he was masochistic enough to want to put himself through it.
He watched her, with an odd fascination, say goodbye to each of them in turn.
What would she do? he wondered. He believed that she really did love teaching, but what would she do when she left? Would she come back when she was ready?
She hugged Minerva and kissed her on the cheek, thanking the Headmistress for all she had done. He could tell that Minerva's usual steadfast countenance was beginning to slip. Filius wasn't even attempting a stiff upper lip and dabbed at the corner of his eyes with a handkerchief.
It was his sincerest hope that when Hermione turned to him she would not be crying. But when she stepped up to kiss Pomona next to him, he saw the trace of tears and his mouth went dry with dread.
'Thanks for everything, Pomona,' she said, with a wide smile.
And then it was turn, and he thought he might only get a handshake, but he was mistaken.
'And you,' she said, kissing his cheek quickly before he could marshal himself. 'Thank you.'
He felt a small object being pressed into his hand and instinctively he knew what it was. It was a book, shrunk down.
'I haven't forgotten it's my turn to provide the reading,' she whispered quietly, giving him a pointed look and a smile.
All he could do was nod and utter a bland, 'Very good.' Inside, however, his heart beat with relief.
He chanted in his head words she had uttered only a short time ago; our duties are in what comes to us, not in what might-have-been. "What comes to us;" he would only concern himself with what came to him, not lament what had passed him by.
Soon, she was gone.
Fearing his unusually ineffectual behaviour might draw some confused looks, he retreated to the dungeons for the rest of the day. As soon as he was alone, he re-sized the book she had given him and examined it.
Immediately, he groaned.
He had feared the moment when she would give him Emma to read. He'd once picked it up and studied the back cover while in her rooms.
'I love that one,' she'd said redundantly; she loved them all, didn't she?
She might love it, but he could hardly see himself enjoying a tale about a spoiled, wealthy, irritating young girl and her many trivial trials and tribulations.
Of course, he'd have to read it now, wouldn't he? Well, he would, if only to write her a lengthy essay on why he'd disliked it.
He stared hard at the cover and then opened it with a certain sense of curiosity. Straight away, his eyes were drawn to a small inscription on the inside cover. He read the words repeatedly, though he took them in completely at first glance. But the longer he stared, the more convinced he could be that they were really there.
"We only part to meet again."
AN: I hasten to add that there will be a third part to this series. Thanks very much for reading. Beneath is a list of references:
The title is taken from a song of the same name by Ivor Novello.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.
Severus' dream where he clambers over the Berlin wall with Hermione comes from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carre.
Severus' fear of bleeding inwardly echoes Rochester's fear from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
Emma, by Jane Austen.
The Famous Five, by Enid Blyton.
One Night with the Rake, by Louise Allen.
Rake Beyond Redemption, by Anne O'Brien.
Taken by the Wicked Rake, by Christine Merril.
The Thirty Nine Steps, by John Buchan.
"We must find our duties in what comes to us, not in what might have been." George Eliot.
"We only part to meet again." John Gay (Black-Eyed Susan).
"Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness." John Keats (To Autumn).