There and Back Again

All characters belong to J. K. Rowling.

Part 4

It was his fiftieth birthday.

Usually, he did not dwell upon the passing of the years, for his advancing age was not something for him to lament. And in the main, he did not lament it now, but it did make him ponderous.

Fifty years was a long time, and fifty felt like an appropriate milestone for him to become briefly Janus-like. His formative years were exceptional, to say the least, but it was surprising how blurry they were becoming to him now. He'd never forget those very pivotal moments, of course; how could he? But there remained much he had forgotten—much that had become less important over time.

And what of the next fifty years? He wasn't sure if he hoped to live that long, but he wondered if on his hundredth birthday he might sit in this same living room and ponder in the same fashion on the course of his life. He rather thought, however, that despite the century of living, there would be even less to ponder then than there was now.

He could not see anything interrupting his established routine—nothing within his control, anyway.

At that moment, an envelope shot out through the fireplace and landed on the hearth. He could tell from where he sat that it was a birthday card and he could tell instinctively who it was from.

It was only because it was from her that he didn't throw it straight on the fire. And the reason he didn't destroy it was that he knew she probably meant it when she said 'Happy Birthday.'

She even said she had something planned for later. Despite himself, he'd spent time fathoming over what it might be. And then he would feel foolish, again. Perhaps it was a prerequisite of ageing—feeling increasingly foolish.

He felt foolish when he actively chose to sit next to her at dinner. He felt foolish when he became absurdly pleased with himself whenever she proclaimed to have loved a book he had picked for them to read. He felt foolish when he found himself turning up at her office to ask her any number of mundane questions.

But he appeared to have hit rock bottom, finally. Yesterday morning had been one of the most foolish moments of his life. Confronted with a fumbling, idiotic first-year, who'd entirely buggered up his Strengthening solution, he'd actually censored himself. He'd actually bitten back his frustrated reproach and had simply Banished the mess. And why had he censored himself? Because he did not want news of his umbrage filtering back to Professor bloody Granger.

It was so insuppressibly, so irredeemably, so indescribably foolish that he should probably just curse himself and have done with it.

So it was his birthday. It was his fiftieth birthday and he had finally become a foolish old man.

Maybe he wasn't so different to the rest of mankind, after all.

He noticed that she smiled widely at him when he eventually managed to force himself into the Great Hall for breakfast that morning. His response could probably be best described as a pained grimace. Well, he was fifty now; he could blame it on bad digestion.

'How are you going to spend your day, then?' she enquired brightly, while he struggled to clear the fog from his mind.

'Oh, nothing,' he muttered quietly. If only his birthday had fallen on a weekday, at least he'd have had lessons to occupy him; he'd probably just have to pick up a book, now, instead.

'Well, just remember to keep your evening free, all right?'

He couldn't bring himself to say anything, so he just nodded his head minutely.

'I, ah, overheard young Mr Jenkins of Hufflepuff outside the Library yesterday, telling his friends how proud he was that he messed up a potion and you did not shout or take points.' She gave a little chuckle. 'Are you coming down with something?'

Severus sat up straight in his chair with a sigh, dropping his fork to the table. Part of him wished he wasn't about to do what he was, but he did it regardless. He got to his feet and left the hall. In his mind he could see her flushing with embarrassment, and he regretted it, but what could he do? He couldn't face her right now.

He stepped out of the castle and into the dewy morning, heading towards the Forbidden Forest. Maybe some hours away from the castle was what he needed.

Until he was some way into the forest, he did not think of anything other than where he was treading. But when he had gone as far as was sensible, he paused and sat on a fallen tree trunk. All was so still around him that, for a moment, all he could hear was his breathing. But as he listened harder, he could hear the eerie rustling and creaking of the canopy above him, and yes, some sounds that echoed on the wind that he would be hard pressed to identify. They did not trouble him, however. The forest was not unknown to him, but he kept his wand in hand, nevertheless.

He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out the small object he had shoved into his cloak the previous night when it had been handed to him by Hermione. He returned it to its proper size and studied it grimly.

It was poetry again.

Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. Severus snorted to himself. As soon as he had seen the title, he'd been able to tell this was something typically her. How like her to want to dwell upon two such contrary states of being. He probably wouldn't tell her so, but he couldn't bring himself to read the Songs of Innocence. He'd skipped past the first collection to the Songs of Experience. He was probably missing the point in doing so, but frankly, he knew very little about innocence. He couldn't ever remember, even as a child, being innocent. He'd been stupid many times as a boy, but not innocent.

His avoidance of the first half of the collection also had nothing to do with him immediately spotting a certain poem listed in the Songs of Experience. Although, he couldn't deny it was the first poem he'd turned to. The book remained shut now, but he could recall the poem from memory—it was only a single verse long.

'The Lily'

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat'ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Never were truer words spoken, or written, he considered grimly.

But, actually, the words did not make him think solely of her… Hermione was more of a Rose, he decided, and he meant it in the best way possible. With Lily, he had always felt an irrepressible sense of his own inadequacy. While he would always see himself as fundamentally lacking certain virtues, in Hermione's company he did not have to spend the whole time preoccupied with his unworthiness. It did not signify that he valued her good opinion less than he had Lily's; it was a reflection of the fact that Hermione did not have any unreasonable expectations of him.

She'd lived through much experience as he had. He'd never had any shared experience with Lily, apart from those childhood days in the playground, and those memories had come to have less and less significance for them both as they had got older.

If he tried to behave better towards the students, it was not because he knew he had to, it was because he knew he didn't. Hermione might bridle at his strict nature, but she'd not used her increasing influence over him to force him to change his ways. Instead, he done it because he'd wanted to. It was not altruism, of course, but it was his decision nonetheless.

He put the collection of poems back into his pocket.

Above and beyond anything else, he appreciated realism. Forget losing oneself in a world of fiction—he could indulge in it, be he could not live it. He had to be real with the world, and in turn, be real with himself.

Getting to his feet, he began heading back to the castle.

The fact was, he was in love with Hermione, and the reality of the situation was… highly unlikely. Nevertheless, there it was.

But he would return, and he would apologise for his behaviour, and he would agree to whatever it was she had planned for his birthday, and throughout it all, he would be entirely pragmatic. If his feelings were unrequited, then he would accept it. Clearly, he did have her good opinion, otherwise she would not give him the time of day. It might be a bit pathetic, but actually, he was grateful for whatever was available for him.

There would be no unreasonable hopes and expectations on his side, and he hoped none on hers either, for the reality was, he was just too bloody old for that nonsense now.

Hermione spent most of the day with her mother, returning to the castle in time for dinner. The day had not been a particularly good one. Severus had stormed out on her at breakfast, and her mother had not been in the best of spirits either. She had planned on talking to her mother about the little complication she had developed with regard to the Potions master. In fact, she had been looking forward to the moment when she could finally say to someone that she had fallen in love.

But when faced with the opportunity, she couldn't bring herself to do it. Not that she thought her mother would begrudge her any potential happiness. It just seemed a little selfish in the circumstances. Instead, she had thrown herself in at the deep end and had started a conversation about her father. It was not that they never talked of him, but Hermione had begun to see that it was easier to leave certain things unsaid. Easier perhaps, but not beneficial, as she forced herself to realisel. At first, her mother had looked uncomfortable at the direction of their conversation, but in time, her expression had lightened and she had smiled at memories of the past.

In any case, by the end of the day, Hermione was feeling a little wrung out and she was beginning to regret the idea she had had for Severus's birthday. She noted that the man himself came in slightly tardy for dinner that night and it further dampened her enthusiasm for what she had planned. Considering his behaviour this morning, it seemed likely that she had misjudged his attitude towards his birthday. He seemed more bothered than she could ever remember of past years. But then, she'd never got personally involved in it before.

She did not get to speak to him during dinner, and afterwards, she retreated to her rooms in order to check everything was set up correctly. Still she wondered if she had done the right thing, though. But she told herself that it might go well and at least that would be a good end to an otherwise difficult day.

Ignoring her doubts, she ensured everything was to her liking and then headed in the direction of the staff room. Severus was sitting in his usual chair, reading the Evening Prophet when she went inside. Hermione hesitated; she hadn't really thought of an excuse for getting him to join her, but the truth would have to suffice.

Wiping her clammy hands on her robe, she approached him, hoping his mood had improved in the time since this morning. 'Severus, have you got a minute? I've got something I'd like to show you.'

Before Severus could reply, a nearby Rolanda interrupted in a sly undertone, 'Oh, I bet she has.'

Hermione automatically looked in the direction of the sound and saw the flying teacher hiding behind her newspaper. Pomona sat beside her, studiously looking into her tea and biting her lip fiercely. Hermione felt like her whole body was blushing and she searched uselessly for some witty rebuff. Nothing was forthcoming, however.

Her blushes were saved, however, when Severus stood up, making a noise of compliance. 'Certainly,' he drawled, 'but I need a moment.'

So saying, he blithely removed his wand and aimed it at the unsuspecting Rolanda. A curling light crept out of his wand and wisped around its target.

'Ready?' he asked, putting away his wand.

'Um, yes,' replied Hermione, not knowing whether it was all right to smile or not.

Pomona looked sideways at Rolanda with a pitying expression on her face, and as Hermione left the room, she heard Rolanda whisper to the Hufflepuff, 'He's hexed me, hasn't he?'

'Two words,' said Severus, once they had passed into the hallway. 'Sticking Charm.'

An entertaining vision of Rolanda Hooch stuck in her chair until the charm wore off helped stave off the discomfort of original jibe. And discomfort there was. What had Rolanda meant by it? Was she transparent to her colleagues? Did they think she was pining after the Potions master? That she was trying to ensnare him?

Merlin, did they pity her? Hermione was not stupid; it was obviously clear to anyone that she was not possessed of much seductive prowess. She was just not that sort. They probably entertained themselves with imagining her desperately trying any number of trite clichés in which to gain a smidge of attention from the man.

'I, ah, did not mean to cause you any offence this morning.'

She blinked and her embarrassed thoughts floated away. 'Oh, that's all right.' She smiled a little at his doubtful expression. She did not appreciate such behaviour, but actually, she'd learned a long time ago not to take his brusque ways personally. She was just pleased to see he'd mellowed somewhat for the evening. 'Where have you been all day?'

'Nowhere much,' he answered vaguely, and Hermione did not press the issue, although she wished to.

Arriving at her door, she ushered him into her living room and then stood looking at him expectantly. He stopped next to her and narrowed his eyes.

'You have a television in your room,' he observed flatly, when she did not say anything.

Hermione nodded enthusiastically and stepped over to it. 'On my last visit to the Burrow, I got talking to Arthur. You see, he has been secretly working on trying to get televisions to work on magic. Unfortunately, he didn't realise that there is a multitude of other systems you need in order to receive a signal for television channels. Also, when Molly found out that not only would it be illegal in the Wizarding world to have a modified Muggle television, but that it would also be illegal in the Muggle world for them to watch telly without a licence, she put a stop to it.'

She did not fail to notice that his eyes were beginning to glaze over, so she hurried on. 'Anyway, I, ah, rather saw something in the project. Arthur had managed to find a way of powering the telly without electricity and so I copied him to get this working.' She pointed at the rectangular box atop the telly. 'It's a DVD player—to play Muggle films.'

He shrugged. 'You've lost me.'

'I know we love to read, but have you ever watched a filmed adaptation of one of your favourite books?'

He shook his head slowly.

'I got into it when I moved back in with my parents. It's interesting, I promise; I thought you might like to try it?'

She could hardly tell from his expression what he was thinking, but she hoped he did not think her entirely stupid. He glanced downwards and she saw him take a step towards a wooden chest that she had sitting near the television. To her consternation, she realised she'd left the lid open.

Reaching into the chest, he pulled out a handful of DVD cases and Hermione nearly winced at the sound of the contents clattering together. He straightened and raised an eyebrow, sorting through the pile he held, reading each title aloud in a sardonic voice. 'North and South; Jane Eyre; Wuthering Heights; Sense and Sensibility…' He peered back into the chest. 'To name but a very select few, indeed.'

He stilled for a moment and then put down the cases in his hand to rummage further. 'What the…?' he began, collecting up further selections, which he counted each in turn, before looking at her as if she were completely ridiculous to him. 'You have six different versions of Jane Eyre?'

Hermione bit her lip sheepishly and shrugged her shoulders. 'I think it might be a disease, you know.'

Severus snorted. 'One you are wilfully trying to infect me with, I might add.' He shook his head. 'Anyway, I will certainly not be drawn into watching them with you.' He glanced at the covers with barely disguised disdain.

'I never expected you to.' Hermione threw herself down onto the sofa with a wistful sigh. 'You wouldn't be able to appreciate them the way I do.' Visions of men clad in riding boots and top hats swam before her eyes. There was definitely something to be said for being able to see one's favourite stories brought to life by something other than one's own imagination. If possible, she was slightly more obsessed with Mr Darcy than she had ever been; hitherto, she'd not thought such a feat possible.

Looking sideways, she found her companion looking at her with an almost contemptuous expression.

'Come and sit,' she ordered, knowing he was intrigued by the idea from the fact he hadn't ridiculed it, only her choice of films. 'You will enjoy it.'

'I always hated the television, you know,' he said grumpily, but nevertheless sitting down.

'And when was the last time you watched it?'

He was silent for a moment. 'Thirty or more years ago.'

Hermione gave a snort. 'Just give it one chance; that is all I ask. I would remind you to bear in mind that adaptations of books are never going to be entirely faithful to the source material, so try not to be offended if you spot such a thing. Oh, and furthermore, you may laugh at my six versions of Jane Eyre, but do you know how many adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories there are?'

'How many?' he asked blandly.


He looked sharply at her. 'Hundreds?' he scoffed.

'I've researched it,' said Hermione matter-of-factly. 'Old ones, new ones, faithful ones, not-so-faithful ones, entirely modern ones, silly ones, foreign ones… the list goes on.'

If she were not mistaken, his pupils actually dilated at her words. She could tell he was filing the information away from the slight pensive turn of his expression.

'So, what will we watch?' he demanded in time, trying to sound put upon.

Hermione hesitated. This was the crux of the matter. 'Well, ultimately it is up to you, but…' She reached down beside her chair and removed a small bag. Pulling out the DVD from within, she quickly handed it to him before she lost her courage.

He took it, but only stared at it.

'It's, um, it's the film version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,' explained Hermione tentatively. 'It's an old film, a black and white one from the sixties… I found it amongst my father's collection…'

She watched his jaw tighten as he turned the box over in his hand. Breathing deeply, Hermione ploughed on. 'You, ah, you never told me what your favourite book was when I first asked you. I didn't want to badger you about it if you didn't want to tell me, but I think I've worked it out. That is your favourite, isn't it?'

She nodded towards the title in his hand and he looked at her in mild surprise.

'How did you work it out?'

Hermione smiled a soft smile. 'It's the way you organise your bookshelves. I sort mine alphabetically within genres, but yours, I noticed, were seemingly shelved at random. However, over time I began to notice that each of the books you selected for me to read were shelved in an order—an order of preference, as I later assumed it to be. So what could your favourite book be if not the first one on the shelf?'

He gave a concessionary nod of confirmation.

The reason, however, that she had noticed such a pattern was precisely because he had never given her The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to read. And following that realisation, she had wondered each time he had picked a reading, why it was never that one. What was it about that book that he wished to hide from her?

'I wanted to know what you saw in it,' she admitted. 'And during my time away from Hogwarts it was one of the few books I did read.'

She watched him earnestly, afraid he would think her interfering and nosy, but she was prepared to defend herself, should she need to.

All he said, however, was, 'I see.'

Hermione had read many, many books in her lifetime, but reading the spy novel had been an entirely different reading experience than she was used to. A more grim, dark and desperate story she had probably never read. And for the longest time she had struggled to ascertain why he would put himself through the agony of the story, for that is what she had thought it must be like for him. But then she'd watched the film with her father and, at the end, her father had wryly remarked, 'It's not James Bond, is it?'

Severus didn't have James Bond novels on his bookshelves, and until then, she hadn't understood the significance of that. How could he with personal experience of, yes, the dirty, thankless world of spying, place himself in a world of glamorous stunts, fast-cars and fast women?

And she had understood, then, why he liked such a desolate book. It was because it was real.

Why she was suggesting on his birthday, of all days, that he revisit a complex source of what she could only assume might be troubled personal reflection was questionable. But she had felt it was time they addressed the issue.

'We don't have to watch it together, you can—'

He stirred beside her. 'It's fine; put it on.'

Hermione did as bidden, hoping she were not making some big mistake. She settled back into the cushions and folded her arms across her stomach, realising that she was mentally steeling herself. But he made no comment or movement throughout the entirety of the film. Whether he was transfixed by the whole process or whether he was simmering with anger at her placing him in this situation, she could not tell. She hoped it was the former.

For her own part, the viewing was uncomfortable. She could make her own parallels and metaphors from the story to what had happened during the war. Did he make the same ones? What did he think when spy Alec Leamas realises he's been set-up and used by his own side?

And when Alec unleashes his angry tirade at the end. How did he feel about that?

"What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?"

By the time the film had ended, Hermione seriously wished she had forgotten the whole idea in the first place. She'd wanted to show him films, and she had wanted him to enjoy a different experience, but now that she had, she didn't know what to say. So she stared at her hands instead, uselessly.

'It was all right,' was the crisp comment to her left.

She started in surprise and looked at him. 'I'm sorry?'

'The film; not entirely as I picture it in my head, but yes, it was all right.' At her expression, he gave a soft chuckle. 'It's fine, you know. Yes, it is my favourite book, and yes, there is much within it I can personally relate to, but… it's not quite the same. The reality of my world was far different to that of Alec Leamas'. I can appreciate the story for what it is—well-written, engaging, shocking—above and beyond my personal affinity to it.'

Hermione nodded thoughtfully, but her expression remained unconvinced.

'I've no doubt the ending seems very grim to you, but actually, I don't see it to be so very depressing. When Liz is killed going over the Berlin wall, Leamas is presented with the prospect of either having nothing to live for, or having something to die for. His final triumph, after a life answering to others, lay in choosing for himself the latter.'

Hermione found her throat to be inexplicably dry as she digested his words. She wasn't sure she'd ever heard him talk like that before. He glanced away when she could do nothing but watch him. Eventually she cleared her throat and struggled to speak. 'Does… Is that why, in the Shack, you did not—'

He raised a hand to forestall her words. 'We don't always have to draw connections to our own lives, Hermione.'

She wasn't convinced. It made sense to her, finally. He'd not put up a fight that night in the Shack because he'd rather have had something to die for, than have nothing to live for.

He was surveying her and his voice was low when he spoke. 'But I didn't die, did I?'

Hermione shook her head tightly. 'Only through circumstances beyond your control, though.'

He lifted his shoulders in a casual shrug. 'And that, my dear, is why books remain just books. Life can be infinitely much more convoluted, when it wants to be.'

'I suppose…'

Severus got to his feet and crossed over to examine the television. Hermione knew he wanted to know how she had got it to work.

'It was not an unworthy experiment,' he muttered to himself. 'Not without enjoyment.'

Hermione also stood, snorting with disbelief. 'Only you would enjoy something so depressing, while I feel like…' She trailed off self-consciously. If she'd hoped to attain a better understanding of him through this exercise, then she'd probably achieved her aim. But, there were new intrigues floating around her mind now. Some that centred around her; some that centred around him; some that centred around her mother…

He turned around, looking vaguely concerned. 'Look, don't tell me you are now hypothesising over what it is you, or even I, have that is worth living for? Such philosophising is all well and good in the name art, or literature, or whatever, but actually… Sometimes it is practical just to be and to just get on with things. We cannot always judge ourselves in such abstracted terms… otherwise, where would we be?'

Hermione felt uncomfortable, all of a sudden, and was afraid of what she felt she must say. 'I know,' she whispered unsteadily, 'but don't you ever wonder what it might be like? To have some—'

He bristled visibly. 'I have something to live for; my job is—'

'Someone,' she interrupted swiftly. 'To have someone to live for. I'm not saying anything so dramatic as there's no point to life without another person in it, but still, don't you wonder what it is like?'

'Do I wonder like you do, you mean?'

She saw him glance with distaste at her books and she sighed sadly. 'Forget my romance novels—'

'What of your mother? You have someone important in your life.'

Hermione resisted the urge to goggle at him. She did not like the insinuation behind his words one bit. She shook her head. 'You don't understand.' Had she upset him because he was reminded that the only person he had ever wanted to be with was long gone? The thought made her shrink somewhat and she sought to backtrack. 'Forget it; it doesn't matter.'

She turned her back to him and pointlessly began tidying and straightening her exercise books and essays stacked on her table. She cursed herself for even bothering. Hadn't she resigned herself to being on her own? She was fine as she was.

But she'd wanted to say those words because she wanted clarity between them. She didn't want to waste time on hopes and imaginings and wonderings anymore. She'd given a good deal of time to that already.

She heard the door close behind her and she spun around to find herself alone. Well that was it—her one failed attempt at initiating some sort of understanding between them. Maybe she could have been more straightforward in her appeal, but the man wasn't stupid. Why else would she start a conversation with him about having someone to live for? Perhaps her expectations of him were too high, but… He'd known she had not been merely philosophising, otherwise he would not have got so shirty with her.

She sighed. Never mind him forgetting about it, she should forget about it, too.

She didn't see him again until the following evening. After lessons, no sooner had she settled down into an armchair in the staff room with her book, he had walked into the room himself. Hermione pretended not to have noticed and continued to keep her eyes fastened on the page. She was aware, however, that he sat nearby, and gradually came to realise that he was watching her obtrusively.

Though she determined not to rise to it, her skin tingled uncomfortably with self-consciousness and she wished he would stop. What would the others think of his blatant perusal if they noticed? The last thing she wanted was Rolanda making more sly comments at her expense.

Eventually, when she could hold it in no longer, she raised her head and looked at him. 'Something wrong?' she asked in a flat voice.

He gave a little shrug, unfolding a newspaper. 'Just wondered how long you would ignore me.'

'I wasn't,' Hermione retorted. 'I am reading…'

There was silence between them for a long time, and Hermione had nearly succeeded in forgetting he was there when he spoke in barely more than a whisper. 'If I admit to regret that I cannot be what you would like me to be, may we move on?'

Hermione snapped her head towards him in shock. 'What?' she asked rudely, unable to mask her surprise.

He only looked at her as if to say 'You heard what I said.'

Glancing around their environs, Hermione lowered her voice. 'Have I missed one of our conversations, somehow? When have I ever specified what I would like you to be?' She looked at him inquisitively.

'You don't need to specify it,' he remarked, leaning over and plucking the book from her hand, which he promptly closed shut and dropped back into her lap, nodding at the cover. 'It's all in there.'

Hermione looked down at the book with a frown. It was North and South, again. She'd been reading her favourite passages throughout the day as a little pick-me-up.

'I don't know how to do any of that—how to be any of that,' he impatiently muttered. 'There's no point making any bones about it. The quicker we both accept it…'

Suddenly she understood what he meant, but it was several moments before she spoke, wanting to get the words right in her head before verbalising them. 'Severus, I know we joke about how nuts we are sometimes, but I do have my head screwed on properly.' She lifted up the book and studied it. 'Why do most people read fiction? Why do people even write fiction? It's because we all wonder what it's like to do certain things, or to be certain people, or to be in certain situations, and in books we can be all those things. In books, anything can happen. Nothing is impossible when the world is confined to the written word. But… it never will be real.'

To emphasise her words, she leant down and slid her book under her chair, away from view. She turned to him, and on seeing he was listening earnestly, she continued, hoping she was on the right track. 'I'm not saying that I have never fantasised about having a man sweep me off my feet, literally or figuratively, but do I want it from you? Do I want you to go around brooding over wounded pride because we have had some ridiculous misunderstanding? Do I want you to break out into a romantic soliloquy detailing my looks and my nature? Do I really want to know in such fervent, melodramatic detail how attracted you are to me?'

Hermione shook her head, smiling slightly. 'No, I don't, because it would, frankly, be weird; wrong even.' She chuckled to herself at his blank look. 'No, believe me, I have imagined it and it is not right.'

'You've imagined it?'

'Oh yes; my imagination can be a bit overactive while I'm asleep.'

'I see,' he said simply, but there was a faraway look on his face.

Hermione watched him, not feeling as hopeful as she would have liked. Did he fear he would be a disappointment to her?

'We can't think in terms of stories, Severus, like you said.' In her mind, she thought of her mother and what had happened to her. 'Stories might last forever, but precious little else does; don't you think?' She smiled wistfully. 'People like Mr Thornton or Mr Darcy do not exist, and probably never have. If they did, we wouldn't need to read stories about them.'

He looked torn for a moment. 'That's as maybe, perhaps, but… I still don't really know how to… to be… you know.'

'Nor I, Severus; nor I.' It was the truth.

There was a rather solemn look on his face as she watched him, and she decided to be forthright. If he did not agree with her, well then, she would have to be satisfied either way. 'I want to learn, though. That is what I have really hoped for.'

She forced herself to meet his gaze, so that he knew in no uncertain terms what she meant. She was sure he felt the same; if he would just admit it.

He proceeded to give the smallest nod she had possible ever seen, but it was definitely a nod. 'I won't deny I have not thought about it either.' He sighed quietly. 'Well, I suppose… if you don't expect me to wax lyrical about your virtues, or to carry you about when you take a slight twist to your ankle, or to ride a horse, amongst other things, then I think I might… be able to manage.'

Hermione bit her lip, holding back a smile at his self-deprecating tone of voice. 'Before I agree to these terms, however, I would like to say that some form of lyricism on occasion would be appreciated.'

The corners of his mouth turned down with disapproval, but there was an understanding glint in his eye, nevertheless. 'I suppose I will have to see what I can do. Is that agreeable?'

Hermione held out her hand decisively. 'Deal,' she declared brightly.

Severus took her hand to seal the deal and Hermione clasped it tightly, noting with studious attention the warmth and feel of it. The simple act felt wonderful—she felt wonderful, all of a sudden.

When she took her hand back, she smiled encouragingly. Everyone knew how important the handshake was in terms of establishing the first contact! How many of her heroines had been left so troubled following a brief handshake or physical touch?

She thought they'd passed the first stage rather well, actually, especially if the faint colour on his cheekbones was anything to go by.

When the staff room began to fill up with chatter, they took their leave. Hermione didn't want to say anything so outlandish as that she suddenly felt 'alive' at the prospect of a change in her life, as that would be to dismiss all that had gone before, and that, she felt, would not be right.

But she felt, expectant and optimistic, and excited, even. It was something else to look forward to in life. Whether it would be a fulfilment of what she had always secretly hoped for, she did not know.

It would be worth finding out, though.

Meanwhile, back in the staff room, North and South remained lying hidden and forgotten on the floor under the armchair. It may have lain there indefinitely, if not for a conscientious house-elf discovering it whilst cleaning one morning, who then dutifully returned it to a profusely grateful and greatly self-admonishing Arithmancy mistress.

Six months later

Severus turned over the page of his book and then, holding it one hand, began patting the bed covers with his other hand. He was looking for his bookmark. He lifted the quilt and checked to the side of him. There was nothing. Merlin, he was for ever losing the damned thing! Disgruntled, he surreptitiously reached for the corner of the page and—

'Don't even think about it,' came a warning voice to his right.

Scowling at his companion, he placed the book face down on the bed for it to stay open on the right page. Then, he got up in order to complete his original task of carrying out his last check of the night on the potion he had brewing.

Hermione, he'd found, had very particular ideas about how to treat books.

When they'd taken their book club to the next level, that is, reading the same book together, she'd nearly had a heart attack when she'd seen him fold down the top corner of a page to keep his place in the book.

'Oh, Merlin! I never knew you were one of those!' she had exclaimed with indignant disappointment.

'One of what?' he had asked contemptuously and, also, a little defensively.

'One of those people who uses the corner of the page as a bookmark! I can't stand it!'

He'd only been able to look at her stupidly. 'Books don't hurt, you know.'

'Yes, but it spoils them having all bent pages. Why can't you just use a piece of parchment if you don't have a bookmark?'

'Are you insane, woman?' he'd queried, purposefully opening and closing his book in such a way as to break in the spine, to such successful effect that she had actually flinched.

In his office, Severus took a moment to stir the gently simmering potion several times.

In any case, he'd been made to use a bookmark now. She'd been known to get a bit het up otherwise. To be fair to her, however, she freely admitted her absurdity. Still, it was worrying, actually, how acquiescent he could be to her whims. He'd never thought passivity would be in his repertoire, but there was a good possibility that he liked indulging her.

It was all right for him to admit it to himself, though, and maybe a little bit more cryptically to her as well; just as long as no one else discovered his weakness. They put up with enough teasing as it was, good-natured though it may be. He considered that there would have to come a time when they would cease to be a novelty for everyone else to enjoy.

Satisfied his brew was at the stage it needed to be, Severus extinguished the candles and headed back to his bedroom. He closed the door behind him and, without removing his dressing gown (reading in bed in the chilly dungeons could be dangerous without adequate protection) he got back into bed and picked up his book. It was only when his movements ceased that he heard the sniffling.

'What the…?' He looked at her blankly. 'Who has died?' he asked impatiently.

'No one,' Hermione mumbled unconvincingly, wiping furiously at her face.

'You always start blubbing whenever something tragic happens, so there's no point denying it.'

'I don't want to spoil it for you…'

He sent her an ironic look.

'I can't help it if you are a slow reader.'

'I am not a slow reader,' he uttered severely. 'Now, tell me who is dead.'

'Fine; if you must know, Gandalf has died fighting the Balrog at the bridge of Khazad-dum,' she explained in a small voice.

'Is that all?' Severus turned back to his book with a sniff. In a bid to broaden their horizons, they were now reading books neither of them had ever read before. He wasn't quite sure as to their decision to chance their luck in the Fantasy section of the bookshop. In his opinion, The Lord of the Rings was beginning to seem a little bit far-fetched—and he was not even halfway through.

'Gandalf was a good character,' she admonished in reply to his dismissal.

'He'll be back, I bet. There's two more of these bloody books still to go, remember?'

He heard her huff and puff to herself at his grumpiness. He was dimly aware of her putting her book away and then settling down for the night, but he kept his concentration on the pages before him. Next thing he knew, however, she was on his pillow, her hand creeping to untie his dressing gown.

'I haven't got to the end of this chapter yet,' he informed her warningly as he read.

Her hand fell away. 'Oops, my mistake,' she said sincerely, moving away slightly. 'Thought you were finished.'

He let her lie there patiently for a few minutes, while he struggled not to laugh not only at her absurdity, but at his own as well. Tonight, though, he didn't much care about ridiculous hobbits or even wizards. If he'd been reading one of his more engrossing reads he might have carried on, but this time he snapped the book shut and (he should have known better) rather too zealously threw it on the floor.

'Finished…' he tried to announce, but trailed off in a daze as he watched Hermione shoot up from the bed and look towards where he had thrown the book.

'What did you do that for?' she asked with a deeply disappointed frown, taking out her wand and levitating the book carefully onto his bedside table.

He looked between her and the book, making sure he really had witnessed what he thought he had. 'Would you like time to check for bruises? Or should we just convey the poor thing straight to Poppy?'

He saw her hide a smile as she lay back down on her pillow. 'You'll be the only thing needing to be conveyed to Poppy if you keep making fun of me.'

'Tell me,' said Severus conversationally, ignoring her words. 'If Hogwarts were to go up in flames tomorrow and you had one opportunity to get back inside the castle, what would you save? My good self? Or your books?'

He tried not to laugh at her outraged expression as she sat up and glared at him. 'You, you daft pillock; what kind of person do you think I am?'

Severus shrugged defensively. 'Just checking…'

A smile spread across her face suddenly and she reached to clasp his hand. 'Anyway, you know I've warded all of my books against anything hazardous, including fire.'

'And flood, and spells, and theft, and damp, and mould, and…'

She threw her head down on his chest. 'Shut up.'

Severus smirked as he sought to rearrange her hair, which was nearly smothering him. 'Or what?'

'Or I will make you wear breeches and riding boots to our wedding.'

Severus felt himself blanch. He knew what breeches were; he'd seen grown men poncing about in them, sometimes with tights, and flouncy shirts, and even high-heels, when he had been made to suffer through a visualised adaptation of one of her infernal period romances. Why on earth was that attractive?

He felt her shaking and he knew she was laughing at him.

'I think you'd look lovely in them,' she said hurriedly.

Just the mere thought made his dignity quail with indignation. He stared down at the top of her head in horror, whilst admitting to himself silently that, sometimes, he was actually a little bit afraid of her.

It was true, because, for one thing, he hadn't even asked her to marry him yet. In fact, he hadn't ever mentioned it.

But he would marry her, if that's what she wanted. The idea didn't sound so very terrible to him, after all.

And although he took pleasure in indulging her, he had most definitely not lost any sense of his reason.

By Merlin, there would be no breeches at any wedding with his name on it.


And not a horse for a hundred mile radius, either!



AN: There it is; I hope everyone has enjoyed this series of stories. This will probably be my last fic for the forseeable. Not only have I depleted my ideas, but my crappy job requires more than its fair share of my time, unfortunately. Thanks very much for reading and reviewing : )

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carre. The film came out in 1965 and starred Richard Burton.

Songs of Innocence and Experience, by William Blake (1789; 1784).

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.