If the choice were mine to make

So much darkness

While Ginny's love life was picking up, Hermione's got more and more strained. Thomas was often cranky and she had no idea why. Whenever she wanted to talk about it, he changed the subject. It was frustrating, but Hermione had enough other things to occupy her mind and refused to be put down by his bad mood.

Originally Thomas had planned to leave for home in June, after the end of the term. Otherwise she'd of course have asked him to accompany her to Stratford for John's premiere. As it was, Hermione hadn't even told him about it, knowing that he wouldn't like her going with "that strange teacher of yours," as he called Snape. Hermione didn't know why, but Thomas' suspicions against Snape had flared up again lately, and when they had met Ginny and Neville for a picnic one Sunday in late May, he had even tried to sound the two of them out about Snape. But at his half-joking allegation that Hermione had had a crush on her chemistry teacher, Neville and Ginny had reacted first with incomprehension and surprise, then with loud laughter. Hermione had hoped that this would convince Thomas to abandon his ridiculous jealousy one and for all, but she wasn't sure it had worked.

Their plans for the summer included her coming to visit Thomas in August to meet his family. Afterwards they planned to rent a motor home and travel through New England for three weeks. Hermione had been looking forward to this for a long time, but now she wasn't sure it was such a good idea. Certainly not if his mood stayed the same.

When June came, Thomas suddenly announced that he wouldn't leave until the end of July. There were some important experiments he had to finish before he could go home. This however meant that Hermione had a problem. She could lie to him about her trip to Stratford, but she had already lied to him about so many things. And so, one week before the premiere, she told him that she'd go to Stratford with Snape.

Hermione had expected Thomas to get angry, but he seemed preoccupied with something else and more confused than jealous. "Why didn't you tell me before?" he asked, and there was bewilderment in his eyes that hurt Hermione more than his anger would have.

She shrugged her shoulders. "I thought you'd be long gone. Otherwise I'd of course have asked you to accompany me."

"Would you?" He looked at her searchingly, then turned away. "I'm sorry, Hermione, I have to work now," he went on rather coldly and she left, tormented by her bad consciousness.

Thomas called her later, telling her that he was sorry about his behaviour. To make up for it he invited her to a nice Indian restaurant for the following Wednesday evening. He sounded genuinely sorry and Hermione, glad that he seemed not to be angry with her, agreed to come.

It was the Wednesday before the premiere in Stratford on Saturday. Hermione had put on a nice skirt and a white jacket she rarely wore because it got dirty so quickly. Before she left her rooms she threw a critical view out of the window. It had been a hot day and now dark clouds were gathering and the wind had picked up considerably. The weather forecast predicted heavy thunderstorms all over Britain.

Now, after the end of the term, the college was nearly deserted, but Hermione had applied to keep her room over the holidays so she could keep on working in Cambridge. She'd go home for a few weeks, but she needed the library and the university computers for her work.

When she was hurrying down the stairs, she met Mary on the second landing. Over the last weeks she had grown to like the elder woman, who had a friendly smile for every student. She was fighting with a large, open window which was obviously stuck, trying to pull it down and shut.

"There's a fine storm brewing outside," she said to Hermione. "We really should get new windows, I bet those are still from Queen Victoria's time."

"Older, by the look of them. Wait, I'll give you a hand," Hermione said, and together they tried to pull down the window with their whole weight.

For a few seconds it remained stuck, then it suddenly gave way. Somehow Mary, who was still pulling with her whole might, slipped from the handle and her right hand crashed down on the window frame, right on the locking mechanism. She cried out. A fraction of a second later, the window came down on her hand.

Hermione stared at her in horror, then hoisted the window up again so the elder woman could get out her hand. Mary panted, staring at her hand which was an angry red and bleeding heavily.

"Are you all right?" Hermione asked, her voice shaking.

"It hurts," Mary replied in a weak tone. "I don't know, perhaps something is broken?"

"Sit down and wait," Hermione said, "I'll call the ambulance and get some dressing material."

She rushed up to her room, phoned the ambulance and went through her drawers in search of a first aid kit she had once bought for biking tours. When she had found it she hurried down the steps again. Mary was sitting on the low windowsill. Her hand was bleeding profusely and Hermione had to wind several layers of dressing around it to stop the bleeding. It was not easy because the merest touch was painful for Mary. There have definitely been too many accidents for my liking lately, Hermione thought, feeling a bit shaky.

"Thanks luv," Mary said with a weak smile when Hermione had finished. "But look at your jacket! I'm so sorry."

For the first time Hermione realized that there was blood on her white jacket. "Don't worry," she said, "I'll get it out again."

The ambulance arrived soon and Hermione could leave Mary to their care. She quickly ran up to her room, changed her jacket and rushed down to her bike. Hermione winced. She was nearly half an hour late and Thomas hated unpunctuality.

The thunderstorm was breaking just as Hermione arrived at the restaurant. Thomas was sitting in a corner, staring down onto the menu.

"I'm so sorry," Hermione panted as she sat down next to him. Then she told Thomas what had happened. He listened to her politely, but in a strangely far-away manner. Hermione, who had expected him to be annoyed, felt confused by his behaviour. He hardly said anything and all throughout the meal it was Hermione who did most of the talking.

When they had finished eating she fixed him with her eyes until he noticed it and stopped staring down on his hands. "What's the matter, Thomas?"

He grimaced. "I'm not very good in hiding it, am I?"

Hermione felt alarmed, but tried not to show it. "No, you're not."

Thomas ran his right hand through his hair, a thing he did when he was nervous. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm going back to the States."

"Oh," Hermione replied, her thoughts reeling. "I suppose you're not talking about the holidays?"

Thomas shook his head with a sad smile. "No, I'm not. My father had a heart attack. He's not feeling too well, and I want to be closer to my family. And then my professor got this job offer at the MIT, and he asked me if I wanted to accompany him. It's all…perfect."

"I see…" Hermione felt confused, as if the floor had suddenly dropped away from under her feet. "That's why you have to stay to finish your experiments, isn't it?"

He nodded.

"When did your father have the heart attack?" Hermione asked.

Thomas looked guilty. "In May."

Hermione drew in her breath. "But why haven't you told me?" She was hurt and even more confused, as if she had suddenly found out that she hardly knew him.

Thomas shrugged. "I'm sorry. I just…didn't. It's not as if you tell me everything."

Hermione had a harsh reply on her lips but he was right, wasn't he? She suddenly felt very sad. "So what will become of us?" she asked quietly.

He met her eyes square. "I wanted to ask you to come with me to the States." He paused. "But I don't think yfou would."

"I see," Hermione said, her voice curiously flat in her ears. She shook her head a little. "I'm sorry, I'm a little overwhelmed."

Thomas grimaced. "I know. I'm sorry. I really am. Listen, you know that I like you a lot."

He used to say that he loved me, Hermione thought in a detached way, her eyes fixed on Thomas' face. He's already distancing himself.

"And I believe you that you care for me, too." Thomas went on. "But I've always had the feeling that you're holding back something. That you're not trusting me enough, not trusting our relationship. I don't know." He shrugged and looked deeply unhappy. "I'm not saying it's your fault, please don't believe that. I'm guilty, too. But you must have noticed that over the last months our relationship wasn't very happy. Part of it was my fault, I was worried about my Dad, and about what to do. But all in all I think that it just doesn't work out."

Hermione felt a great lump in her throat. "I see. You don't think we could at least try to make this work?"

There was a deep sadness in his eyes. "I don't know, Hermione. I'm so sorry for the pain this is causing you. I really am. I just think that at the moment, it's no use. Perhaps in a few months, who knows. But now I first need to go home and get my life back together."

"Sure," Hermione replied. She fumbled out her purse and put a bill on the table. "I'm sorry, I need to go," she said, glad that her voice didn't sound as shaky as she felt. She needed to get away from him fast, before she burst into tears.

Thomas looked at her worriedly. "You shouldn't go out now, it's raining cats and dogs."

She had completely forgotten about the thunderstorm. "I'll be fine," she said.

"Hermione, I'm sorry."

"I know."

She stepped out into the wind and rain and just kept on walking. The thunderstorm had moved on but the strong wind was lashing the rain into her face. Hermione was glad for it. No one would see her tears now.

Thomas was right, of course. Right in so many ways. Once again it hadn't worked out. But it hurt. It hurt so much. Because she really cared for him. And now she was alone again.

A sudden gust of wind rattled the open windows and nearly slammed them shut. Snape quickly put down the latest issue of the Daily Prophet, got up and closed the windows. He remained standing for a few moments, looking out into the gathering darkness. The wind had picked up considerably and there were dark clouds gathering in the west.

"There are thunderstorms all over Britain tonight," said Dumbledore.

Snape mumbled something noncommittal, returned to his armchair and took up the newspaper again. Some time ago he had taken out a subscription, to keep abreast with what was happening in the wizarding world. But he regularly asked himself why, the Prophet was certainly not better than it used to be. He browsed over the pages, giving only passing glances to the news of a financial scandal at the Ministry and the latest Quidditch results. But then his eyes caught at a headline and he started reading.

"What's the matter Severus?" Dumbledore's portrait asked.

"Arminius Armitage is dead," Snape said slowly. "Murdered. They suspect Gerold Wilson."

"The brother of Flora?"

"Yes." He felt troubled but didn't want to show it to Dumbledore.

"They think it's an act of revenge?"

"It seems so." Snape hesitated, then went on in a flat voice. "Someone saw Gerold leave Arminius' house. But this doesn't make any sense. Arminius didn't play an...active role in Flora's murder. He was just there. And he left the Death Eaters soon after and went into hiding. He's not exactly a prime choice for revenge."

"But all the others who were present are either dead or in Azkaban," Dumbledore said slowly, holding Snape's gaze.

"Yes," he replied. "All apart from me."

Dumbledore looked worried. "Do you think Gerold will come after you? – if it was him who killed Arminius."

Snape shrugged his shoulders. "He doesn't know I'm still alive, but if he did know…"

"But he must know that you were on our side."

Snape snorted. "It didn't help Arminius, did it? He left Voldemort soon after Flora's murder and later helped the Ministry track down Death Eaters. But that still doesn't change the fact that he was there and did nothing to save her." He paused, his throat suddenly constricted. "I'm not worried," he went on. "Gerold will never find me, and even if, he was never very good with a wand."

Dumbledore didn't seem convinced. "Did they arrest him?"

"They haven't found him yet."

"When they do I'll talk to him, find out what happened."

"Do that," Snape said. He put the newspaper down and got up from his chair. "If you'll excuse me now, I'll have something to eat."

"Of course, Severus," Dumbledore replied, still looking worried.

Snape left his study but didn't go to the dining room. Instead he headed for the entrance door and stepped out onto the porch, looking out over his garden to the line of trees behind it, only barely visible in the night. Gusts of wind were shaking the trees and clouds were chasing across the dark sky.

Flora Wilson... He hadn't thought about her for a long time. Usually he was very good in keeping the memories of what he had done in the guise of a Death Eater at bay. At least when he was awake. His dreams were a different matter. But from time to time something he saw or heard or thought would bring the memories back. Snape took a deep breath. Dumbledore hadn't asked what had happened that night when they had killed Flora, and he had been thankful for it. It had been in that last, terrible year before Voldemort's death, and Flora had kept her husband, who was muggle-born, hidden. They had…interrogated her and eventually had found her husband. Then they had killed them both.

It had been nothing special, and that in itself showed the horror of those last months. Nothing special to torture a woman senseless and then murder her and her husband. Snape had even had the impression that some of the Death Eaters were bored with it.

It had been one of the occasions when Snape had been glad for the Death Eater mask. It was worse when they didn't wear masks and he had to constantly control his face not to show his loathing and terror and self-hate.

But it had been his decision, hadn't it? Not only all those years ago, when he had joined the Death Eaters because of his stupid adolescent thirst for power and appreciation. But also later, when he had returned to Voldemort as Dumbledore's agent. He could have fled, or he could have declared his allegiance to the Order. Then he wouldn't have had to take part in their sick games anymore, wouldn't have had to do deeds that made him loathe himself even now. But it was the only way he had seen to atone for what he had done to Lily, and it was this thought, the knowledge that he was doing it for Lily, that had kept him sane. Barely.

Sometimes he had told Dumbledore what they did, what he did. To have someone who listened to him, and also to show him what he went through in the name of the Order, to get some reaction from him.

It had got worse when he had killed Dumbledore. After that Snape had had to be constantly on guard, could never allow his mask to slip. The Death Eaters had always been around him, and his colleagues had hated him. He had been surprised at how much this hatred hurt. Snape wouldn't have called them friends, but they had worked together for so many years that some kind of emotional bond had formed. But the greatest pain had been that most of them had not been surprised when he had killed Dumbledore. Shocked, of course, but not surprised. Obviously they had never really trusted him, had only taken Dumbledore's word for his loyalty to the Order. After all he was a Slytherin and a former Death Eater. And those few who had really trusted him had hated him even more for his seeming betrayal. He had had a hard time not showing how McGonagall's hatred and disdain had got to him. It had been a very lonely year.

After Dumbledore's death and the murder of Scrimgeour the Death Eaters had lost any restraint they had perhaps still had before. Snape hadn't counted how often he had been called, how often he had spent the night in ever more blurring scenes of violence and death. He usually tried to keep in the background, to take part in it as little as possible. But sometimes Voldemort demanded a proof of his loyalty, or Snape had to prevent the other Death Eaters from suspecting that he was not wholly on their side. Bellatrix especially had never really trusted him. And so time and again he had had to take a more active part, had had to make himself do things he tried so much to forget but never could.

It was worst when he knew their victims. Poor Charity. They had never been close, but they had been colleagues for many years. He still could see her hanging upside down over the table in Lucius' dining room, begging him to help him. And there had been nothing he could do, nothing at all. Sometimes he dreamed of her desperate pleas, the terror and hopelessness in her eyes…

Snape felt as if he were choking. He left the porch of his house and hurried out into the darkness, glad for the storm that was tearing at his clothes. He drew in the fresh air in deep breaths. Suddenly lightning rent the sky in front of him and seconds later thunder shook the world. It started to rain heavily but Snape didn't run for cover, but stopped and turned his face upwards into the pouring rain.

Of course he knew that it had been necessary. And he knew that the information he gathered had saved many lives. But that didn't help when the memories returned.

Sometimes all he could do was give them a quick death.

He had tried to distance himself from what he did, from the victims' fear and horror and pain. Had to do it so he didn't give himself away. And then, one night in those terrible last months, he had looked down on a crying muggle-born and realized that he felt nothing. Nothing at all. When he had returned to Hogwarts that night he had spent a long time in front of the mirror, staring at his face. The face that had turned into the mask he had to show to the world to such an extent that he felt he was losing himself. That the real Severus Snape, or what was left of him, was retreating further and further away, leaving only an empty impassive shell.

He had tried to fight it, had tried to tell himself that he was doing this for Lily, that it was important and she would be proud of him. Had tried to cling to the hope that Dumbledore knew what he was doing when he put all his hope in a few children, that Voldemort would be defeated eventually. But there had only been numbness and darkness inside him.

So much darkness.

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