"You've been watching Jamie Oliver again?" Hermione asked, amused.
Thomas grinned. "Indeed." He gave the contents of the pot in front of him a rather suspicious look. "But on TV it looked kind of different."
"I'm sure it's great. Can I help you?"
Thomas told her what to do and half an hour later they sat down to what on TV had been called "French surprise dinner". Hermione, who knew that Thomas had little cooking experience, had had misgivings, but found that the meal, although it was hardly French, was actually quite nice. When they had been eating for a few minutes Thomas suddenly asked, "So how was London?"
"It was good, very productive." Hermione hesitated a little. Somehow she had the feeling that he wouldn't like to hear what she was about to tell him. During the last weeks Thomas had had some problems with his studies and consequently had been in a bad mood; she didn't want to say something that would irritate him. And she had been looking forward to this evening with him, and didn't want to ruin it. On the other hand, her work with Snape was important to her and she wouldn't let her boyfriend dictate whom she was allowed to see. So she finally went on. "Actually we decided to meet on a regular basis from now on. The first Friday of every month."
Thomas furrowed his brow. "Is that necessary? Can't you communicate by telephone or e-mail?"
"It's much better if we discuss it face to face," she replied, trying not to show the worry and irritation she felt.
"If you say so."
He didn't add anything else and finally Hermione asked quietly, "What's the matter?"
"Nothing." But his tense face told her that he was lying.
"That's not true. Are you jealous?" she asked in a joking tone to dissipate the tense atmosphere.
"Should I?" He threw her a searching glance.
"God no! I told you I never had a crush on him."
They ate in silence for a while, then Thomas suddenly said. "I guess I just don't understand why you get so involved in his work. After all you have your real studies as well. And with my work we have hardly any time for each other."
"I understand that," Hermione replied. "But I promise you our time together won't be touched by this." She paused, unsure if she should go on, but she wanted to know. "When I got ill in January and you called the hotel in Stratford, did you tell them what was the matter with me? Or did you only tell them that I wouldn't be coming?"
Thomas threw her a surprised glance. "Why?"
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "My teacher didn't know what had happened. I just felt bad about that."
"I don't remember," Thomas stated in a non-committal tone.
They went on eating in silence. When they had finished the main course Thomas got up to fetch the dessert, but then stopped. "I'm sorry, Hermione," he said quietly. "I know my reaction is a bit extreme. I just don't like that you hardly tell me anything about what you're doing with this guy. I feel shut out. And I don't like you to spend so much of your precious free time on his work."
Hermione got up, touched by his excuse and troubled by her bad conscience, and hugged him, holding him close. "I know," she whispered into his ear. "But I promise you have nothing to worry."
They stayed holding each other for a few moments until Thomas pulled away. "Listen, when you go to London to see him next month I could pick you up afterwards and we could go to the cinema, or theatre."
He looked enthusiastic. Hermione nodded and smiled although she wasn't happy about his idea. Somehow she wanted to keep the two worlds of her life as far away from each other as possible. "Sure, good idea."
Thomas' mood was much better afterwards, but Hermione was left wondering how she felt about Snape meeting her boyfriend. She hated lying to Thomas about her work, about her past, about so many things. For quite a while now she had been wondering why she didn't just tell him the truth and be done with it, but something held her back. Hermione wasn't sure if she feared his reaction, the disbelief and confusion, or if she was afraid that this would change or even destroy their relationship. She just knew that she wasn't ready for it yet.
The meetings with Snape meant lots of extra work for Hermione. Because of her promise to Thomas it also meant less sleep since she worked mostly at night. More than once she thought with a wry smile that, even though she was no longer Snape's student, she still wanted to impress him by working extra hard. But there was no doubt that she enjoyed the challenge and was looking forward to the meetings. Snape's research went along quickly, and Hermione prided herself in the suspicion that not a small amount of that was due to her involvement.
When she met Snape the next time in March, Thomas wasn't able to come to London, and secretly Hermione was glad for it. Just like the time before, they stopped working at seven and Snape insisted on treating her to dinner at his club.
But a few days before they were to meet in April, Thomas said he'd come to pick her up afterwards. So when Hermione met Snape on Friday she waited until they had settled down in the by now customary room and then said, "Professor, I'm sorry but I won't be able to stay for dinner tonight."
"Oh," Snape replied, feeling a sudden jolt of disappointment.
"I'm going to the cinema," she went on, looking uncomfortable. "My boyfriend is picking me up."
"I see," Snape said in a noncommittal tone. He turned back to leafe through his notes, trying to ignore a sudden feeling of irritation. "Is he a muggle?" he asked abruptly.
She looked up from her book, obviously surprised at his question. "Yes, he is. And what's more, he's an American."
Snape's mouth curled into a faint smile. "How extraordinary. Does he know what we are doing here?"
"Not exactly," Hermione replied, again looking uncomfortable. "I haven't told him about me being a witch and everything."
Snape looked at her searchingly. "I see," he said.
"I know I should tell him," she went on, "it's just… it's complicated."
He shook his head. "You don't have to justify yourself." And he turned back to browsing through his notes.
At seven Snape brought her to the door of the club. A young man was waiting outside and he smiled and his eyes lit up as soon as he spotted her. Her boyfriend, obviously. He had an open, intelligent face, but there was nothing extraordinary about him. Well, there had been nothing extraordinary about the Weasley boy, had there? The young man went up the stairs to the door and kissed her, but she turned away quickly, as if she were embarrassed.
"Professor," she said, "this is Thomas Fisher. Thomas, this is Professor Snape."
"Professor," the young man said, raising an eyebrow. "I thought you were her former chemistry teacher?"
Snape met the young man's challenging look. "At our school it was customary to address the teachers as professors," he replied smoothly, then turned to Hermione. "Enjoy the film. I'll see you next month, Miss Granger?"
"You will. Have a nice evening."
Her boyfriend inclined his head a little. "Good evening," he said rather stiffly, then the two of them walked away.
Snape stood watching them walking down the road. The young man had put his arm around her. No, he wasn't extraordinary at all, he wasn't even particularly attractive. Snape was wondering what she saw in him. But it had been the same with Weasley, hadn't it? Somehow he had the feeling that the young man resented him, but why? Was he jealous? Snape gave a short laugh. The thought of it! He remained on the porch watching them until they turned around a corner. Then he went back into the house.
"So that's your famous teacher," Thomas said when they had turned the corner.
Hermione shot him a glance. He looked smug and seemed in a very good mood. "Yes." She narrowed her eyes. "You seem pleased with something. Can I take it you no longer think I have a crush on him?"
He bowed down and gave her a quick kiss. "Sorry I doubted you. But yes, I absolutely believe you now. He's just not your type."
"And why's that?" Hermione asked, amused.
"He's far too stiff and cold. Quite forbidding. Not a nice fellow like I am."
Hermione wanted to defend Snape but then stopped herself. It was good that Thomas felt no longer threatened and she didn't want to ruin it. "No one is as nice as you are," she replied with a large grin and laid her head on his shoulder.
Hermione was dreaming. The anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts was drawing near, and with it the familiar nightmare had started again. She was running through the Forbidden Forest, trying to keep up with Ron. But she wasn't fast enough, she couldn't see well in the darkness and roots and branches made her stumble. She knew she had to catch up with Ron, had to prevent him from doing something stupid, but she just couldn't reach him, try as she might. She was running towards a bright light shining through the trees, and suddenly stumbled out of the forest onto a clearing. Harry was standing there, opposite Voldemort, their wands connected by a blinding stream of light which also surrounded their bodies. Then suddenly she saw Ron, saw him raise his wand and shout "Stupefy!" Then everything happened as in slow motion. Ron's spell hit Voldemort – the strange light that was pulsating between Harry and Voldemort reached out through the sudden new connection and enveloped Ron – and she screamed out in desperation. He had looked so surprised.
Hermione made to run towards them, her head spinning and her heart beating fast in horror. But then suddenly someone held her back. She didn't discern at first who it was, she just tried to get away from him, towards her friends. At one point her frenzied mind realized that it was Snape. His face was fierce as he stared down on her and forced her to let go of her wand. She fought him even harder then, but he was just too strong for her.
Until that point the dream ran as it had so many times before. But then it changed abruptly. Snape was still holding her in a tight embrace, his body blocking her view of the clearing. But somehow she had stopped fighting. She knew what she would find when he let go of her, knew that there was nothing she could do. And all she felt was sadness and a deep weariness.
Suddenly she noticed that he was talking to her. She couldn't quite make out his words, but they were soothing. He was still holding her tight, but not as if he were trying to constrain her. "The war is over," she heard him say softly. "Everything is all right now."
"No, it isn't," she replied and looked up into his face. He looked different. The dispassionate mask that she had only seen him shed on very rare occasions, and mostly only when he was really angry, was gone. So this is his real face, she thought wonderingly. There was great sadness in it, but also relief and triumph. And a strange tenderness that sent a sudden jolt through her body.
"You are right, it is not," he said. They looked at each other and it was as if she was seeing him for the first time, as if they knew and understood each other completely. Suddenly he bent down and kissed her softly, holding her close. And for a moment everything was indeed all right.
Hermione woke up, her heart hammering like mad, her lips still feeling the ghost of Snape's kiss. It was half past four in the morning but she felt wide awake. Good Lord. She had had erotic dreams before, of course, but this was different. What did it mean? It wasn't as if she wanted to go out and snog Snape, was it? The thought was preposterous. She laughed, but it was a very weak laugh. Two years ago she would have found the thought repulsive... But things had changed, hadn't they? Did the dream mean that she felt attracted to Snape? Had Thomas been right with his jealousy? Or was it only that she sought comfort with him because he had been there when Ron and Harry had died? Or was it both? She stared out into the darkness of her room, going over the dream again and again. It was only a dream, she tried to calm herself down. Only a dream. Nobody can be held responsible for their dreams, can they? I'm not falling for Snape, I certainly am not! He was a terrible and cruel teacher, a Death Eater, thoroughly mean and unpleasant. He has done terrible, terrible things, and even if he atoned for them or did them only as part of his work as a spy, he's damaged by them. It's absolutely impossible that I should feel more than pity and admiration and friendship. It'd be terrible... But as much as Hermione reasoned with herself, she couldn't find any sleep and got up an hour later, trying to find diversion in a complicated mathematical problem.
A few days after the dream Hermione came back to her college, picked up her mail, exchanged a few sentences with the porter Sam and went up the stairs to her floor. She had just arrived at the first landing when a groan and a dull thud made her turn around. Sam had dropped out of view. "Sam?" Hermione asked, and when no answer came she quickly went down the stairs. She found him lying in his small porter's lodge, his face ashen and his body lifeless.
Hermione stood rooted to the spot, staring down on him but seeing not the old porter, but the last bodies she had seen like that. Ron and Harry. It lasted only a second, then she quickly went into the lodge and knelt down next to him, her heart racing. She felt for his pulse and a wave of relief washed over her as she found it, very faint but existent. Hermione got up, looked around the room wildly, spotted the phone and called an ambulance, surprised at how calm her voice sounded. Then she knelt down again, checked that Sam's mouth and nose were free, shoved her jacket under his head and spread his coat over him. Hermione called his name, trying to wake him up, but he didn't react. He didn't hear her, just as Ron and Harry hadn't heard her.
Don't die on me, Hermione thought fervently, her heart racing. Don't die! The minutes seemed like hours. There was nothing she could do and she felt terribly helpless. If I had my wand I could do so much more, she thought frantically. I could check his vitals, perform a strengthening charm. A terrible thought was hammering in her mind. If he dies now it'll be my fault. Just because I decided I didn't want to do magic anymore. My fault. Oh please, please don't die on me!
After what seemed like eternity she heard the horn of the ambulance. People rushed into the college and immediately took care of Sam. They pronounced him stable, said that he had probably had a heart attack but had good chances, and Hermione felt a great weight lifted off her chest. After the ambulance had left, she went in search of the warden, so he could inform Sam's family. Then she walked up to her room, feeling utterly exhausted. But she hardly found any sleep that night, her mind being tormented by the question if she had been right to forego magic.