After what had happened in Stratford he had decided to restrict their relationship to purely professional matters. To keep his distance, and, especially, not to give her any indication that anything had happened between them. But it hadn't worked, had it? Once again he had let her get too close, had entered into personal conversation. And there was a part of him which had liked it, which had been pleased at the trust she had shown him.
What was going on with him? Over the last weeks he had alternately tried not to think about what had happened, or to rationalise it away. But it hadn't helped much, had it? Was he developing feelings for her? No, it couldn't be. He had loved one woman, Lily, and that would never change. He wouldn't betray her.
But she's dead, a traitorous voice in his head told him. Has been dead for many many years. And she wouldn't want you to miss out on love just because you're still hankering after her.
Love. No, it was ridiculous. Impossible. He had been alone for a long time, and Hermione was an intelligent and attractive woman who treated him as if he were a human being. That was explanation enough for his disconcerting reaction to her. He would get over it, eventually.
When Snape returned to his house that evening he went straight to his study. "I heard that Draco is back," he told Dumbledore's portrait
"Yes, he is," the elder wizard replied, looking mildly curious. "Did Hermione tell you?"
"Yes. And she told me that he apologized to her."
A smile lit up Dumbledor's face. "Ah. I'm glad to hear that. Actually Draco apologized to me, too."
"Indeed." Snape raised an eyebrow.
"Oh yes. And even better, he broke with his parents. That is the reason why he is now working at the ministry, he has to earn his living."
"That's good news."
"Oh yes it is. He seems to have thought a great deal about what happened, and I believe that his regrets are sincere." Dumbledore looked at Snape with the benign penetrating gaze that always made him feel nervous. "We saved him, Severus," he finally said. "You saved him. I know that killing me was a great sacrifice, that I asked much of you. But it was worth it."
There were many things Snape wanted to say about this but he didn't, just felt his face go rigid.
Dumbledore kept on looking at him and the twinkle in his eyes was slowly replaced by pity. "I am sorry my boy," he finally said gently.
Snape felt a strange lump in his throat. He didn't want Dumbledore to look at him like that. "Hermione told me she was tortured by Bellatrix," he said to change the subject. "I didn't know that."
"Yes she was," Dumbledore replied. "She suffered much. But she didn't break, she still had the strength to deceive Bellatrix. She is an extraordinary girl."
"Yes she is." Snape looked at Dumbledore's calm face, the bright eyes beaming behind the half-moon spectacles. Hermione was a valuable instrument, he suddenly thought, just as you knew she would be. But did you ever really care what happened to her? Did you care what happened to me, what killing you meant for me? Sometimes he still felt hot, helpless anger because of what Dumbledore had made him do.
The elder wizard didn't seem to notice what was going on inside him, just looked at him with his customary calm expression, and suddenly Snape thought, his mask is just as good as mine, isn't it? Always a benign smile, but does anyone know what's really going on behind it?
He turned around abruptly and sat down at his desk, trying to ignore the feeling that Dumbledore was still looking at him.
Early in September Hermione was invited to a party at another college. The beginning of the new term was drawing near and the first students were coming back to Cambridge. She wasn't keen on going since she knew hardly anyone at the college, but John would be there and had asked her to come.
When she entered the small games' room in which the party was taking place she thought once again that she'd rather spent the evening with a good book. I'm getting too old for this, she thought wryly as she spotted some indefinable punch which had been put in what looked suspiciously like a plastic wastebasket. There was no one there she knew apart from a socially handicapped computer sciences student who was very eager to show her his new mobile, talking non-stop and obviously not troubled by her monosyllabic answers. She was very grateful when John arrived about fifteen minutes later.
"Hermione, great you're here!" he shouted, giving her a large grin. He started to rummage in the bag he was carrying and drew out an envelope about ten inches long which he held out towards Hermione.
"What's that?" she asked, looking at John questioningly.
"The RSC photographer took some pictures at the party," John explained. "He thought you and your friend might like this."
Hermione opened the envelope and drew out two large photographs, both showing the same picture. She and Snape in profile, dancing. He was bending towards her, obviously saying something to her, looking unusually relaxed. She was looking up at him with a smile on her face. It was a beautiful picture.
"Thanks, it's really nice," she said, rather thrown by this sudden intrusion of a subject she had very much tried not to think about.
"I think so, too." John's attention was caught by some other friends and Hermione was left alone for a while. She didn't mind it but retreated to a dim corner of the room and took out the photos once again. It was strange to see Snape and herself together like that. So…normal. Hermione shook her head lightly. She really should stop thinking about Snape more than was necessary. This was growing into an obsession
"Is that a wastebasket in which they have put the punch?" John suddenly asked next to her, jerking Hermione out of her reveries.
"Seems like it." She grinned. "The joys of student life."
John just shook his head. "I'm getting too old for this stuff."
A few days later Hermione met Snape in London for their usual meeting. She wasn't in the best of moods. With the beginning of the new semester approaching, her friends had started to come back to Cambridge, and there were many who didn't know yet that she and Thomas had split up. She had had to tell several people over the last few days, and that in return had brought back all sorts of memories and sad thoughts.
She was looking forward to the meeting, though. It would get her away from Cambridge and her dark thoughts, and she was eager to know how Snape's latest experiments had been going. A few weeks ago Hermione had had a rather unconventional idea which combined traditional magical potion making with modern molecular biology. If her calculations were right, then this idea might be a real breakthrough. Snape hadn't been convinced at first, but Hermione had been able to persuade him to try it out. She was certain that it would work and during the last weeks had found much pleasure in imagining how smug she'd feel when he'd acknowledge that she had been right.
Again it struck her how much this whole project had come to mean to her. Not only because of the knowledge that she was contributing to something really important, but also because of her cooperation with Snape. Somehow the feeling that he found her contributions valuable was important to her. So am I still the overachieving student who wants to impress her teacher? Hermione thought wryly. I suppose I am, in a way. But she also had the sneaking feeling that she wanted to impress Snape for another reason, a reason she didn't really want to think about too much.
But there was no harm in imagining how he would have to admit that her idea had worked out, had indeed been quite brilliant – was there?
Snape felt rather smug, too. Granted, their last meeting hadn't quite gone according to his plan. Their walk in the park had become far too familiar, had brought disconcerting thoughts and feelings. But this time the weather was bad, Hermione was not clad in one of those flimsy summer dresses but in sensible non-revealing clothes, and they would be staying inside for the whole meeting, just talking about work and nothing else. When she had entered their room, unpacked her stuff and sat down next to him, he found that he could look at her completely impassively, without any disturbing thoughts or feelings. Finally he had got himself together again.
"How did the experiment go?" Hermione asked as soon as she had sat down, her face alight with expectation.
"I'm afraid it didn't go too well," Snape replied.
"Oh," The look of happy excitement on her face vanished and was replaced by doubt and uncertainty. "What do you mean?"
"When I added the last ingredient the potion didn't react the way we expected."
Hermione felt a wave of frustration wash over her. She had invested so much time and thought in this approach, and what was worse, had persuaded Snape to invest much of his time and resources, too. And now it seemed that she had been mistaken.
"So what happened?" she asked, her brow furrowed.
Hermione gaped at him in horror. "It what? But why? Were you hurt?"
Snape shook his head. "Not badly."
Hermione was horrified. "I'm so sorry. I don't understand why that happened." She furrowed her brow, then suddenly started scribbling down formulas and equations very fast.
Snape looked at her, intrigued. He could understand a bit of what she was doing, but he had to admit that most of it was too advanced for him. She was brilliant, even if this time it hadn't worked out. And he had the feeling that she didn't even know how good she was.
It was a shame that she had been wrong. Sometimes it was frustrating, working like this without a laboratory. They could only discuss and plan things, not try them out directly. More than once over the last months Snape had thought how much easier it would be to work with her in a laboratory. But he could hardly install one at his club, and he certainly wouldn't take her to his own. That was out of the question, especially since that unfortunate incident in Stratford. Completely out of the question.
Hermione was still filling more and more pages with mysterious formulas, oblivious to his presence, and so Snape turned to his own work, leaving her to her calculations. After about twenty minutes Hermione made a frustrated noise and he looked up again. She was staring down on her notes and he was struck by the downcast look on her face.
"How could I miss that," she murmured, looking at her calculations. Her face was tense and there was anger and bewilderment in her voice.
"So you found the mistake?"
She looked up abruptly. "Yes. I'm sorry, there was a fundamental flaw in my calculations." Hermione looked deeply unhappy. "I'm so sorry I put you in danger with this. You were right from the start, this was a stupid idea. Now you've lost much time and valuable ingredients because of me."
He shook his head. "Don't worry. Actually I got some good ideas from it."
She didn't seem to listen to him. "And you were injured because of me… I nearly blew you up! I should have been more thorough." She looked down on her calculations again and gave a bitter laugh. "I'm sorry, I guess I was just too full of my great ideas. I should have trusted you, after all you are the Potions Master."
Snape felt strangely worried seeing how downcast she was. "You mustn't think that," he said. "You've made several good suggestions in the past."
Hermione shook her head violently but didn't meet Snape's eyes. "You could have been seriously hurt - even killed. I put your whole project in danger with this."
"Don't be ridiculous." Snape replied a bit sharply. He paused. "You are very important to this project," he suddenly found himself saying stiffly.
Her head jerked up and there was doubt in her eyes. "Am I?"
Somehow Snape didn't want to look at her. "Your contributions are very valuable," he said. "As I mentioned I got some ideas from them, look here…"
He started rummaging in his notes and then passed her a few sheets.
Hermione looked at them, still feeling dejected and angry with herself. But Snape was right, these results were interesting and soon she was writing down more calculations. Eventually her mood rose again. It helped nobody if she chastened herself for what had happened. There would always be mistakes and wrong approaches, the trick was to learn from them.
After dinner they returned to their room to get their stuff and suddenly Hermione remembered John's photographs. "I have something for you," she told Snape, got out the envelope and held it out to him. "The RSC photographer took some pictures at the party and John asked me to give this to you. I got one, too."
Snape drew out the photograph, looked at it for a few seconds, and then put it back in the envelope. "That's very nice of your friend," he said. "Please give my thanks to him."
Snape bowed over his notes, packing together everything. A few seconds later he was finished and straightened up again. "Shall we go?"
When Snape unpacked his bag that night in his study, he was glad that Dumbledore wasn't in his portrait.
For several minutes he stared down on the photograph, feeling a strange mixture of disconcertion and sadness. It was a nice picture. He looked…happy? He wasn't sure, but he knew that it was dangerous to look at the picture for too long, to get lost in the thoughts it created.
So much for his composure and peace of mind.
It'd be best to get rid of the photograph, to destroy it.
Yes, he should definitely destroy it. After all it was only a picture, what strange weakness kept him from it? Snape made to tear it up, but then hesitated. He stared at the photograph for a few more moments, then quickly put it into a drawer, turned and walked out of his study.