This little ficlet is a humble gift for Goldilocks 92, who wrote the 100th review for my tale "Hermione's Proposition." The prompts she dreamt up are at the end.
Disclaimer: These are Ms. Rowling's characters! Not mine!
The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will the robin do then,
She'll sit in a barn,
And keep herself warm,
And hide her head under her wing,
This is a man who knows winter.
He knows it well.
As a young boy, he lived through rainy and grey winters, seasons of freezing rain that never materialized into anything more. These came with an inevitable chill that seeped into his bones. From the time his feet hit the cold floorboards before breakfast until he fell into bed each night after supper, he was cold. It didn't help matters that his patches had patches or that his mum relied on the residual heat from the gas stove to warm the house.
When he landed his first job and lived in the north, he bought himself a fine black cloak. There, the first snow appeared in late November or early December. It always lasted through early February, but once, it persisted through the end of March. Daylight was scarce then, but he never minded the short hours. The reflection of the moon in the drifts cast a glow bright enough to move by at night.
The worst winter of his life was the one he spent as headmaster of a school he never wanted to rule, forced to be a puppet to a man he had long since despised.
As for the best? Hah. He doubted he possessed the optimism to even call one winter "good." A year passing without manipulation or pain was the most he could ask for. He had survived unendurable pain and all-encompassing loneliness, which he thought must count for something. He just didn't know what.
He had learnt, as a child, to appreciate how the uniform white powder covered over everything that was ugly in his world. When the snow gathered on the rusted iron rails on the front steps and the damaged shutters framing the windows, every home—even his—looked like a calendar picture or a Christmas card. He could imagine that underneath its winter apparel, his house looked like one the houses in his mother's catalogs. The paint would be crisp, the fence would be mended, and the flower boxes would be neat and cheery. It would be perfect.
This season had the power to wipe the slate clean, sweep away the past, and clear the way for something new.
But each year, the thaw came and spring returned. The broken-down house his father neglected into disrepair was exposed again to the neighbors' stares, somehow even shabbier than it had been the previous autumn. At some point, the hope of something better turned into a reminder of quiet despair.
All told, he has known forty-four winters.
Today a white dusting fills the wrinkles in the footpath. It wraps around the fence posts, the arms of trees. Silent and soft and slow. No air blows through the forest, and the only sounds are those of his feet as they break through the icy surfaces of newly frozen puddles on the trail.
He walks a well-trod path, passing through the long shadows the afternoon sun has coaxed from the trees. As he approaches a clearing in the park, the voices of children and adults alike form a growing cacophony of laughter and chatter.
His solitude is gone, replaced by the chaos that attends public spaces in cities.
The white mansion where he was told she'd be appears on his left. A Georgian monstrosity with a half dozen chimneys perched atop its black roof, he can see its former glory as a private estate through the mass of elderly couples sitting on wooden benches, families hauling toboggans from the car park, and employees tidying the grounds.
He waits for her, anticipating a bombastic, self-assured young woman.
She doesn't know that he has been asked to retrieve her, or that he has been told to play nice.
He sifts through the crowd until he spots her. It doesn't take long, even though it has been almost seven years since he saw her last.
She emerges from the lodge, buttoned up in a brown tweed coat, a vivid red scarf knotted around her neck. A robin fighting not to be swallowed up by the sea of white around her. She looks much the same as she ever did, although she has grown into her body in a way he hadn't quite expected. There is an steadiness to her movements and a confidence in the way she holds herself, even in how she slips brown leather gloves onto her hands before they have a chance to get cold.
So he watches as she bounds down the stone walkway.
When a break in the clouds appears, she stops and closes her eyes, turning towards the sun. She takes in a deep breath through her nostrils, then releases it with a puff of air that curls through the sky.
He decides to let her discover him there. Let her think what she will, that there is some sort of chance or providence at work. And so he strolls off, looking at the skyline in the distance as he walks through her line of vision.
She gasps. "Professor... Professor Snape," she says.
He stops and spins towards her.
She steps back and takes in his boots, his wool overcoat, his mouth, eyes, hair. "Is it really you?"
He holds her gaze for a moment. Tilts his head to one side. He turns back, continuing on his walk.
"Wait!" she calls, running to his side.
He stops, and for the first time in the fifteen years that he's known her, he does what she asks of him. After all, he is playing nice.
"Professor?" she asks.
He shakes his head, despising the title she uses to address him. It reminds him of a life he had tried to forget and hoped had been swallowed up by time.
"Mister... Snape?" she offers.
"So... Severus," she says, reluctant and tentative.
He does not respond.
Taking this as acquiescence, she tries out the feel of his name in her mouth. "Severus."
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees her smiling.
It sounds like she is tasting it. She seems used to a closeness with people that is unfamiliar to him. It feels like she is tasting him.
He takes a step back, putting another foot or so between their bodies.
"I didn't know you were in London," she says.
But he cannot reply. Making eye contact with the young woman at his side, he opens his mouth uselessly and rubs his throat to tell her as much.
"I'm so sorry," she says, placing her gloved hand on his arm. She sounds sincere. "I didn't know."
Around them, the bustle of people continues to flood into the park like water moving around a boulder in a stream, everyone in search of someone to see or someplace to go.
Awkwardly, she stares at her boots—at his, too, he supposes—and she invites him to join her in a walk around the park. She has at least an hour before she has to be anywhere, she says.
He nods his agreement.
Burying her hands in her pockets, she leads the way.
They follow the footpath together in silence, heading towards the north.
They don't make it far before she guides him off to the side where a small group of people have queued up behind a telescope. Once they move closer, he can make out the frost paisleyed on the metal. The enthusiasm he associates with her is evident as she directs him to sight of St. Paul's dome in the distance. "It's one of the protected views in the city," she whispers, as though this were their secret rather a fact printed in guidebooks. When she leans in, he feels the warmth of her breath on his cheeks, a refreshing change on a cold day like this.
Finally leaving the crowd behind, they walk together in the placidly falling snow. The trail winds eastward into an old growth forest. The trees, thick through their upper limbs, keep much of the sunlight from them. It is noticeably colder in the shadows, and she shudders, pulling at her scarf to cover more of her neck.
The snap of a branch alerts them to an intruder.
Both freeze in place, searching for its source.
Three fallow deer creep through the underbrush just off the walk. A doe and two larger fawns. She slips an arm through his and points them out as though he hasn't noticed them, but he doesn't mind the presumption.
When they start to move again, she leaves her arm twined around his, and he is marginally warmer. He suspects she is as well.
She is not talkative, but occasionally pipes up with small observations about the gates they pass or her love of the cold on her cheeks. She wisely avoids all talk of the past, all obsequious thanks for his role in the war. She tells him that she lives in London now, and works as a solicitor at a small office. She does not explain how she ended up there or why she left their world behind. And although he knows that she still communicates with at least one—well, now at least two—people from her former life, she does not mention them at all.
In the next hour, they only see a handful of people. A family of five with a little girl sitting atop her father's shoulders. Two elderly women with binoculars and checklists of winter waterfowl. The last is a young man in trainers and jogging shorts out for a run. He looks appraisingly at Hermione and winks at Severus as he crosses their path.
Snape scowls at the insinuation of something so absurd.
She tells him of her travels in France and Spain, her disastrous attempts learning to cook. When they come across a bird in a tree, she tries to identify it. Still, she does not talk of the life they once knew.
Another twenty minutes or so pass.
She is not what he expected.
He cannot remember feeling so content.
"I have a confession to make," she says. And she violates their unwritten rule. "During my fourth year, I stumbled across a charm that allowed me to replicate people's voices. I could make any book read itself aloud."
He was unfamiliar with that spell, but he never focussed on charms work.
She looks at him, gauging his reaction.
"I used it to listen to my mum read old Beatrix Potter stories when I missed home. When I was the first one down at breakfast, I had John Cleese read the Daily Prophet to me over my eggs. You never knew it, but..."
"You read me to sleep at night, Severus. Behind the curtains of my bed at first, and again when my insomnia worsened after school."
He stops in his paces, unsure of himself. She wanted a memory of him? Even before the war?
It takes her a step or two to catch on, but because she is still attached to his arm, their mismatched movements dislodge her. Disconcerted and startled into awareness, she lets go, wrapping her arms around her body. "Your voice is... Your voice was so soothing, regardless of what you said."
He frowns, an unsettling feeling in his belly.
"I'm glad a still have a piece of it," she says, defiant, "and I'm just so sorry that damned snake stole it from you." She tries to glimpse his neck for some kind of evidence, but those scars are well hidden beneath a cashmere scarf. An extravagant gift from the man who might as well have been his godson. "It's one of the things I liked best from that life."
He coughs and clears his throat. "Hermione," he rasps.
The sound surprises her.
"The snake took nothing from me."
Her eyes grow wider.
"It's just a cold," he says, his voice scratchy and raw. "Bronchitis, perhaps. A few days, and I shall be fine."
And her face alights with such joy that he finds he has stopped breathing. She claps her hands together and throws herself on him, burying her face in his neck. Before he can pat her on the back and peel her off him, she releases him.
"How marvelous," she says. And she laughs, spins around, and dashes forward on the footpath.
He refuses to run to catch up to her, but strides steadily up the low hill where she waits with her hands on her hips.
"I never knew what happened to you after..." Her voice trail off. "After."
He shifts uncomfortably.
"Did you leave, too?" she asks.
"I thought I could go back after all was said and done, but it was all too much for me. I don't know why, but I just assumed that after the dust had settled on the war, we could all go back to normal." She speaks more quietly now. "I was wrong."
The sun is dropping fast behind the tree line, and they find an open trail with better light as they head towards one of the large gates. The maintenance workers will be locking them up soon.
Their path joins up with others up ahead. Soon, others join them on their march back to the car park.
"I don't keep in touch with them anymore," she says. "Just one old friend. Well, two... now."
He knows this, of course.
"If I count you," she adds, "it's three."
The winds pick up, bitter and bleak. In the open as they are, they are exposed.
He offers her his arm.
She accepts and smiles shyly, reaching up to touch his hair. "I almost didn't recognize you at first," she says. "It's so short. It suits you, Severus."
He doesn't pull away from her hands. This close, he can make out all six points on a snowflake stuck to her eyelashes.
"And I would have missed you entirely!" she exclaims. A mischievous look is her eyes and she speaks with solemnity. "That would have been a tragedy."
The last of the masses walk around them on the walkway.
They are within sight of the gate when the bite of the winds stings her cheeks. She stops and turns her face into his shoulder.
When was the last time anyone sought him out for protection? How many winters ago?
He takes her under his wing, and wraps his arms around her as they run to the gate.
They step outside the walled park. As others pile into their vehicles and drive off, they remain where they are. They hold one another and breathe in one another's warmth, but Severus knows that this, too, must end.
Her eyes slip to her watch and a look of disappointment slips over her features. "Oh, no," she says. "I'm sorry, Severus, but I need to run. I should have watched the time, but I was supposed to be somewhere over an hour ago."
He knows this. He hadn't paid attention to the time, but he didn't care if they were late for supper.
She drops her arms from his. "Before I go, is it too forward of me to ask for your telephone number?"
Rather than answer her, he takes her into his arms and Apparates them to her—their—destination, a home they both know well.
She looks at it in awe, recognizing her friends' brick townhouse. She turns to him, confused.
He lets go of her.
The door swings open, and they are ushered into the foyer by a young man with a thatch of messy black hair.
"Come in!" he says.
His blond husband emerges from the kitchen a spatula in hand. "Couldn't find it within you to be on time, hmm? You two had better hope that warming charms haven't ruined the coq au vin."
Draco hands Severus a bottle opener and a bottle of pinot noir.
Across the room, Hermione sides up to her oldest friend.
"You're a sneak, you know," she whispers, loud enough for all to hear.
Severus pretends he isn't listening.
"I know," Harry replies. "Do you mind?"
She leans up and kisses her friend's cheek. "I'll let it slide this time," she says.
Severus pours the wine and releases the breath he hadn't noticed he was holding.
"You know, Severus," she says, walking over to receive her glass, "this might just be my favorite time of year."
She presses a kiss to his cheek and takes a seat beside him at the table.
For the first time in a long while, he thinks that—perhaps—it might become his favorite, too.
Goldilocks 92's original prompts:
- SS/HG, non-established relationship
- a winter walk in the park
- something is lost
- someone has a new haircut
- possibly H/D
If you're ever in London, do visit Richmond Park. It's a lovely place no matter what the season. The white mansion is Pembroke Lodge, and you can stop in for a cream tea after you've walked around the park amongst the not-so-wildish deer.
If you had Hermione's spell, whose voice would you replicate?