If the choice were mine to make

A walk in the park

A few days before Hermione was to meet Snape again she went to London to go to the cinema with some friends. She arrived a few hours earlier to spend some time in the bookshops on Charing Cross Road and, she had to admit to herself, to walk past the Leaky Cauldron. Hermione knew that it was rather pathetic, but she always did it when she was nearby. She would stop for a few moments in the shadow of a streetlight a few metres away and look at the door. But she never entered.

Of course she could anytime. She'd be welcome there, after all she was a heroine of the resistance. But what then? And so this time, like always, Hermione was about to walk on after a while when suddenly the door opened and Draco came out. His appearance made her stop abruptly, and this drew Draco's attention to her. His eyes widened and he stopped as well.

"Granger," he said slowly and gave a short nod.

She threw him what she hoped was a rather cold look. "Malfoy," she replied, then made to walk away.

"Wait!" He called after her.

Hermione stopped reluctantly.

"I'd like to talk to you. Just for a few minutes, if that's all right," he said.

Hermione stared at him, wondering what this was about. Eventually she gave a curt nod. "Ok. Let's go somewhere a bit more private."

She led him down a few streets in silence until they came to a small park. There Hermione went towards a bench and sat down, taking care that she was well away from Draco. She didn't think he'd try to harm her, but with him you never knew.

He must have read her thoughts, because with a sarcastic smile he said, "Don't worry, I'm not going to hex you."

Hermione just stared at him. She hadn't seen him for over six years and he looked…older. We all are so much older, she thought. We were mere children then, weren't we? But that doesn't change what we did, and what you did.

His face was still pointed and pale, as were his eyes and his hair. He's good-looking, Hermione thought in a detached way. There certainly are women who fall for this. But Ginny had been right, there was a new quality in his face, a change in the way he looked at her. In the past there had been arrogant disdain, or anger, or sometimes fear in his eyes. Now he looked self-conscious and nervous.

"What do you want?" she asked, keen to get this over with.

"I wanted to apologize," he replied in a flat voice, his eyes never leaving her face.

Hermione drew in her breath. "Well, that's a bit unexpected." She looked at him through narrowed eyes. "So you're reformed now?"

Draco snorted. "I try to. Listen, I know this is hard to believe. And I know I can never make amends for what I did. For what my parents did." He seemed to struggle with himself. His face was very tense but he didn't evade her gaze. "I am sorry for what happened."

Hermione still stared at him. "Why should I believe you?"

For a second the familiar arrogance was back on his face. "If I didn't mean it, why should I talk to you in the first place?"

"I don't know," Hermione replied, her voice full of suspicion. "To make everyone believe you're reformed?"

He shook his head. "They believe it anyway. Or if they don't, they don't care. And you're not part of our world anymore, so whatever happens here doesn't really matter."

Hermione had to concede that he had a point there, but she still watched him suspiciously.

Draco's face was very tense. "I don't expect your forgiveness, or anything," he went on, his voice clipped. "But I wanted you to know I'm sorry. Sorry for what I did during all those years, and sorry for what happened at my house when you were caught."

A cold wave of memories washed over Hermione and took her breath away. Her fear when they had been caught. The terrible pain when Bellatrix had tortured her. The panic that she'd be given to Fenrir. The werewolf's inhuman, greedy eyes... She had a hard time not to start shivering. "I know you didn't like what was going on," she said in a slightly shaky voice. "You were reluctant to participate, to give us away."

A mixture of pain and shame showed on Draco's face. "Yes, I was. But I wasn't brave enough. I am sorry."

Hermione just stared at him. After a while she nodded. "The war is over," she said in a flat tone. "Thanks for your apology."

Draco's face lit up. "Thanks for listening to me." He hesitated, then added, "Perhaps I'll see you around?"

"Perhaps," Hermione replied in a non-committal tone. She looked down on her watch. "I have to go."

"Of course. Good-bye, Hermione."

"Good-bye, Draco."

It was a hot August day when Hermione went to London to meet Snape again. She wore only a light summer dress, but when she arrived at the club and was shown into their customary room she saw that he obviously was not touched by the heat but wore his usual black suit with a black shirt. His armour, she suddenly thought, just as the tightly buttoned gown had been a kind of armour, hadn't it?

After what had happened – or not happened – the last time they had been together, Hermione felt a bit weird around him, still observing him for clues. Snape however treated her the way he always had, a bit more familiar now they were on first-name-basis, but not in a way that indicated that they had shared a passionate kiss. After a few hours Hermione resigned herself to the conclusion that either nothing had happened, or he wouldn't acknowledge it in any way, and her tension lessened. They made good progress and more than once she caught herself looking longingly out of the window into the beautiful summer day. At four o'clock they were as good as finished, and Hermione asked, "Why don't we go outside? It's far too nice to be stuck here."

Snape seemed surprised, but agreed after a few seconds of deliberation and so half an hour later they set out for St James's Park. As soon as they joined the people perambulating through the park, Hermione was struck anew by a question she had had since she had met Snape for the first time in Stratford.

"I was wondering," she said a bit hesitantly, "aren't you afraid to meet somebody you know?"

"You mean why I don't disguise myself in some way?"

Hermione nodded.

Snape was silent for a while, then said. "I am more than happy that most people think I am dead. And I employ a disguise for the few times when I go to places like Diagon Alley, where people would be sure to recognize me. Nowadays, however, you can do amazing things by owl-order, so that's not necessary very often. But I won't have my whole life dictated by a need for secrecy and deception. I had that long enough. So, yes, I risk being recognized by the odd wizard, but until now that never led to any harm. Dumbledore keeps me abreast with all the rumours that circulate about me."

"Well, I am glad you don't wear a disguise," Hermione stated. "Otherwise I would never have recognized you."

"Yes, that would have been sad indeed," Snape replied, his voice only a little sarcastic.

They walked around the sunlit park for a while and Hermione eyed the deck chairs distributed on the lawn longingly, but somehow she couldn't quite picture Snape lounging in one of them. "What about ice-cream?" she asked instead when she spotted a stall nearby.

Snape looked bemused. "I haven't had ice-cream for years."

"Then it's about time," Hermione stated resolutely. "Come, I'll treat you."

Snape was reluctant, but finally Hermione could persuade him and a bit later they walked on, ice-cream in hand. They found an empty bench not long afterwards and sat down to finish their ice. It was still rather hot and Hermione threw Snape, who had taken off his jacket but was still wearing his shirt buttoned down to the wrists, a questioning glance. "Aren't you a bit hot in this shirt?"

His face, which had been positively relaxed before, tensed. "I don't think it prudent to show my bare arms," he said.

The second she'd seen his face Hermione had understood. "I'm sorry, I forgot," she said, angry with herself and cursing her imprudence. She hesitated. "So it's still there?"

Snape just looked at her with an unreadable expression in his eyes. Then he cast a quick look around, buttoned up his left sleeve and drew it back to his elbow. And there it was, the Dark Mark. It had fainted considerably but it was still clearly visible against his very pale skin.

Hermione stared at it, transfixed, a mixture of shock, revulsion and pity fighting inside her. When she looked up she found Snape staring at her. "Have you tried to…remove it?" she asked quietly.

"No," Snape said in a tone of finality that kept Hermione from asking further questions. He broke the eye contact and buttoned up his sleeve again, and Hermione looked out into the park, her mind whirling with possible explanations why he didn't want to get rid of the mark that branded him for a lifetime.

Snape stared down on his shirtsleeve, glad that he had something to do and didn't have to face her inquisitive eyes. Why had he shown her the mark? To stop her from asking further questions, certainly. But perhaps also to make Hermione realize once and for all what he was, what he had been? To keep her away from him, to keep her from developing any feelings for him, for her sake and for his? But why should she have feelings for him in the first place? Wasn't he deluding himself?

"I met Draco," her clear voice cut through his thoughts.

Snape looked up quickly. "So he's back?"

"Yes. He works in the ministry, in the department of International Relations."

"I see. Where did you meet him?"

"In front of the Leaky Cauldron." Hermione suddenly looked rather self-conscious. "When I'm nearby I sometimes go there. Just to look at it."

"I see."

She shrugged her shoulders, still looking embarrassed. "I know it's silly. Anyway, he wanted to apologize."

Snape raised an eyebrow. He was pleasantly surprised. "Indeed. I'm glad to hear that."

The young woman gave him a thoughtful look. "You always hoped he'd come around finally?"

"I hoped so, yes." He paused, then went on. "Dumbledore wanted me to protect Draco, he wanted to shield him from the worst excesses of the Death Eaters."

Hermione's eyes suddenly widened. "That's why Dumbledore wanted you to kill him, isn't it? So Draco wouldn't have it on his conscience."

Snape felt his breath catch in his throat. "Yes," he said, trying hard to sound dispassionate.

She stared at him, her brown eyes full of shock and pity. It was disconcerting and Snape looked away. "Do you believe he's sincere?" He asked to break the uncomfortable tension that had developed.

"I'm not sure," Hermione replied. "He's Draco, after all. But it sounded as if it were really important for him to apologize for what he did to us, and for what happened at his house."

Snape looked at her with new interest. "Why is that? What happened at Malfoy Manor."

A shadow seemed to settle over Hermione's face and her voice was suddenly reluctant. "You don't know?"

"No. After your escape Lucius was very loath to tell anyone what had happened. I only know that you were caught when someone broke the taboo on Voldemort's name."

Hermione winced. "Yes." She hesitated, obviously troubled.

"You don't have to tell me if the memories are painful," Snape said, surprised at the soft tone of his voice.

She shook her head. "No, I'm fine." She paused and looked down on her hands for a while, but then met his eyes squarely and went on. "Harry broke the taboo. He didn't mean to, of course, he was angry and didn't think about it."

Snape snorted. Of course it had been Potter. How typical to risk everything just because he couldn't control his emotions. But he never could, could he?

"It was not his fault," Hermione said quietly, obviously guessing his thoughts. "Anyway, the Snatchers were upon us in a second. There was nothing we could do, the only thing I managed was to perform a Stinging Jinx on Harry to distort his facial features. Then we tried to talk our way out of it, but eventually they realized that it was very likely they had caught Harry." She gulped and her eyes assumed a faraway look. "Their leader was Greyback and they brought us to Malfoy Manor, hoping for a big reward. Lucius was overjoyed, of course. Draco was there for the holidays, and they asked him if we were who they thought we were. He was reluctant, claiming that he wasn't sure. But it didn't really help in the end." She stopped and looked down on her hands again, which were clutching her bag very hard.

"I'm glad to hear that he tried to help," Snape said quietly. He hesitated. "What happened then?"

Hermione looked up again. "They brought Ron and Harry into the cellar, and there they met Luna and Olivander who had been imprisoned there for quite a while. Harry had a sherd of a magical mirror in which he saw Aberforth, and he sent Dobby to help them. Dobby disapparated with Luna, Olivander and Dean who had been caught by the Snatchers, too. Then Pettigrew came down, and when he found Ron and Harry alone he fought them. Harry reminded him that he owed him his life and Pettigrew hesitated for a moment. And then his silver hand throttled him."

Snape drew in his breath. "So that's what happened," he said slowly. "It seems it wasn't such a great mistake to let him live after all. But what happened to you? You were not with your friends?"

Hermione shook her head. "No, I wasn't," she said in a flat tone. "They had found Gryffindor's sword with us. The sword that was supposed to be in Bellatrix's vault at Gringott's. So Bellatrix kept me above to interrogate me."

"I am sorry," Snape said. He was horrified. Too often had he seen Bellatrix 'interrogating' her victims. Of course she went for the muggle-born, he thought, anger and pity and a disconcerting tenderness welling up inside him.

Hermione gave him a bitter smile. "The worst thing was that I didn't want her to stop," she said quietly. "Because she had promised to give me to Greyback as soon as she would be finished with me."

Snape felt coldness spread inside him. "I am sorry," he said again, feeling very awkward. He wanted to comfort her but didn't know what to do.

Hermione shook her head. "Harry and Ron came up in time, there was a fight and we managed to escape. I don't really remember anything of that, though, I was hardly conscious at that time."

Snape furrowed his brow. "What did you tell them about the sword?"

Her tense white face was suddenly lit by a small smile. "I told them it was just a copy. They fetched Griphook, the goblin who had been caught with us, and Harry had persuaded him to back up our story."

"That was well thought," Snape said slowly, impressed by how she had acted in such a trying situation.

Her eyes lit up, but then her smile faded. "We were lucky," she said. "Always lucky. Apart from the end."

The sun was shining warmly and there were happy, smiling people all around them. But right now Snape felt cold and sad. "I am glad those days are over," he said, wanting to chase away the pain from her eyes.

Hermione shook her head. "Sometimes I wish they weren't," she whispered.

There was nothing he could reply to this, so he just met the gaze of her large brown eyes. After a while she shook her head, as if trying to wake up, and smiled crookedly. "There's no use wishing for the past to return. I'm sorry I turned this nice afternoon into such a sorry affair."

"No, don't apologize," Snape said a bit stiffly. "I'm glad you told me."

They both looked out into the park in silence for a few minutes. Suddenly Snape asked "Would you like to walk around a bit more?"

Hermione's face lit up with a genuine smile and Snape felt an odd lightness in his stomach. "Of course," she replied.

He got up and, on an impulse, offered her his arm. Hermione's eyes widened but then she linked arms with him, her hand resting lightly on the Dark Mark, covering it with unfamiliar warmth.

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