Finally Snape declared that, as far as he could tell, the potion was doing fine. "Tomorrow we'll know if it's working," he said, leafing through his notes. "From tonight at half past 9 onwards it'll be sufficient to add the ingredients only every 6 and 9 hours, respectively."
"I'm glad to hear it," Hermione replied, stifling a yawn.
Snape turned around and gave her a scrutinizing look. "I'll see to it. I'm sure you haven't got much sleep in the last few days."
Hermione shook her head violently. "No, I'm fine. You however have to sleep. And don't contradict me, Madame Pomfrey told me expressly that I had to take care you rested."
For the first time there was some movement in his dispassionate face. "Or else you'll foist a sleeping potion on me again?"
Hermione smiled mischievously. "If I have to, yes."
Snape snorted. "How long are you intending to stay anyway?"
"It depends on how you're feeling tomorrow," Hermione replied. "Madame Pomfrey said she'd come and look after you in the evening. If she thinks you're fine I'll leave afterwards."
"You should leave as soon as possible."
Hermione felt a sudden stab of pain. She hadn't expected him to chuck her out like this.
"It isn't safe for you here," Snape added in a level tone. "And you've already done more than enough for me."
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "Don't worry, I don't mind." She hesitated a few moments, then added, "That's what friends are for."
He looked at her, his face guarded. "Very well then. But you'll leave tomorrow." He turned without another word and left the laboratory.
Hermione stared after him for a second, her mind in turmoil. What was she to make of his behaviour towards her? How was she to react to it? I'd never have thought that a man could be so complicated! Finally she shrugged her shoulders and made to follow Snape to the dining room. She'd just have to go along and see what happened.
Rose was already waiting with dinner. While Hermione was carving through a delicious piece of salmon, Snape suddenly said, "You used magic."
She looked up in surprise and found him regarding her with that indefinable look of his.
"Yes, I did. I'm sorry I had to use your wand."
He made a throwaway gesture with his hand. "That doesn't matter." He was still looking at her and Hermione realized that he expected a longer answer.
"I didn't want to, obviously," she went on. "But I had to check your status, and the best way I could do that was by using magic."
"I see. Well, I'm glad you made an exception for me."
They went on eating in silence for a few minutes, then Hermione looked up again and said, "It was strange. After all I hadn't done any magic – at least not deliberately – for over five years. But it was as if no time had passed at all. I just did it, and it felt right."
Snape was looking at her attentively. "So what are you going to do now? Will you take up magic again?"
"I honestly don't know. It seemed so far away the last few years. Like a strange story or a dream, not the real world. But when I performed those spells it just felt natural. It is a part of me and I don't know if I'm right in shutting it away. But where would that leave me? I'm part of the muggle world now, and I like it. I don't think I want to return to the wizarding world. Just not now. There would be too many demands, and expectations, and memories…"
They looked at each other until Hermione broke the eye contact, took up her knife and fork again and went on to eat her fish. They had been eating in silence for a few minutes, when she suddenly asked, "You never wanted to leave all this behind?"
"You mean magic?"
"No." Snape considered for a few seconds. "You mean because I of all people should know about its dark sides?"
Hermione nodded reluctantly.
"No. Muggle society world never had any lure for me. But I can certainly understand your wish to get away from the demands of the wizarding world." He gave her a searching look. "Do you wish that you had been a normal child? With a normal childhood? It would be understandable. Battling a dark wizard is not what children should be forced to do."
"I did for a while, after Harry and Ron died. But I was happy as a child, in spite of Voldemort." She smiled wistfully. "I was proud of my abilities, happy with my friends. No, I wouldn't want to change my childhood."
"How about you?" Hermione asked. The second the words left her lips she realized that this had probably been a very bad idea.
Snape's face went blank for a moment. "You watched over me the last days," he finally said in a dispassionate voice. "What do you think?"
"I'm sorry," Hermione whispered. There were so many questions she wanted to ask him, about his past, about Lily. But she knew that she never could.
Eventually Hermione made Snape go to bed in spite of much protest. She was very tired, but even without the need to get up and take care of the potion every few hours she wouldn't have found much sleep. Too much had happened that day.
What now, Hermione? She thought as she lay in her bed, waiting for the hours to tick by. What now? Unrequited love might be romantic in a novel, but in real life it just hurt. She thought back to her sixth year and how she had felt when Ron had been snogging Lavender all over Hogwarts. Hermione grimaced. She wasn't keen on experiencing those emotions again.
But did she have a choice? Should she try to keep away from Snape, to end their…friendship? If she could even call their strange and tentative relationship friendship. Would that help? Wasn't the odd bond they had formed better than nothing? The thought of never seeing him again, even if now she met him only on rare occasions and in the context of work, hurt. She didn't want him out of her life.
How could this have happened? When had her tentative admiration for him turned into something she was afraid to look at too closely? How could she have got into this mess?
In the early hours of the morning Hermione finally fell into troubled sleep, but woke up again shortly after 9 o'clock. When she went to the laboratory, she found Snape already pouring over a sheaf of parchments.
He looked up when she entered and Hermione was surprised at the look on his face. With everyone else she'd have said that he was beaming with pleasure. There was no doubt that he was very pleased.
"It worked?" she asked excitedly.
Snape nodded. His eyes were sparkling, not with fury as Hermione knew them from her schooldays, but with genuine delight.
"It's too early to be definite," he said, "but the results certainly look promising. Look at that," and he pointed to a magical microscope nearby.
Hermione bent over the microscope. "That's a human cell," she stated.
"Exactly. It looks absolutely normal, doesn't it?"
"It does. As far as I can tell."
"Well, it didn't twenty minutes ago," Snape went on with a note of triumph in his voice. "It's a werewolf's. I added a drop of the potion and as you can see the cell regenerated back to its original form."
Hermione looked up from the microscope, her face shining with enthusiasm. "This is brilliant Severus. You've done it!"
Suddenly there was a small genuine smile on his face, a smile which transformed his features and made him look ten years younger. "With some help from you. Actually I used some of the suggestions you made for the potion that exploded."
Hermione felt a warm feeling erupt in her chest. "I'm happy it wasn't all for nothing," she said, beaming at him.
He looked at her intently, his face still lit with pleasure and his dark eyes sparkling. Hermione felt her heartbeat rise and her cheeks go red and looked away quickly, angry with herself that Snape should have such an effect on her and worried lest he noticed something. "So what are we doing now?" she asked in a businesslike voice.
When she met Snape's gaze again he still looked content but the sparkle had gone from his eyes. "We'll have to wait and see if the effect lasts," he stated. "It's quite possible that it doesn't. But even if that should be the case, this potion might be used to prevent a werewolf from transforming. I also want to set up further batches of the potion with slightly different measurement of the ingredients." He nodded towards the parchments lying on a table nearby. "When you came in I was documenting the potion's effects on cells taken from different werewolves – young, old, male, female etc."
"So what can I do?"
Snape gave her a doubtful look. "You must be very tired. You really should rest."
"Certainly not!" Hermione grinned. "You can't think in earnest I'd miss this historic moment. Of course I'll help you."
Again Snape shot her a strange look, then said, "Very well. You can set up the new batches of potion. Over there you find the instructions."
They worked with great concentration for several hours. Snape felt better than he had for a long time, elated by the success of years of hard work.
It was strange but being able to share it with Hermione had made it even better. The day before, after he had told her about Lily, he had felt very uncomfortable around her. He wasn't sorry that he had told her everything, it had been necessary. But it had been disconcerting to reveal his past to her in that way. To reveal himself. He still felt rather self-conscious when he thought about it, but this emotion was now muted by their shared enthusiasm for the progress with the potion. Hermione had a passion for learning he had hardly ever met before. And he had told her the truth. Without her help, her suggestions and questions he'd not be that far today.
Usually he didn't like to work with others in a laboratory. They never showed the concentration, exactness and dedication that to him were of prime importance. But when he watched her preparing the new batches he saw that she worked with just as much care as he did. He had known that, of course. She'd been like that at school, hadn't she? But somehow he had never appreciated it then. He had to admit that it was surprisingly nice to have her in the laboratory. To finally have someone to share his thoughts with, which was certainly more productive than talking to himself.
But she'd leave in the evening. It was highly unlikely that Poppy would think him not well enough. And anyway, he had come to the conclusion that it was dangerous for her to be around him, hadn't he?
But then what? If he was right, there soon wouldn't be much work left with the potion. No reason left to meet once per month. Perhaps no reason even to keep on writing letters. He'd see her once a year at Stratford, if even that. Perhaps she would be glad. After all, helping him had meant lots of extra work for her. Why should she want to spend time with him now they had reached their goal? And why was he troubled by that thought?
More than once over the hours they worked together Snape caught himself pondering these thoughts. His lack of concentration was despicable. A result of the stress he'd been through over the last days, no doubt.
He also caught himself looking at her from time to time. Luckily Hermione was so engrossed in her work she never noticed it. Once he observed her stifling a yawn and then stretching her arms wide over her head.
Like a cat, Snape thought, caught by the unconscious, graceful movement. He turned his gaze away immediately. This was no time to stare at her. Actually there was no time to do this, ever.
They stopped working for lunch. Afterwards Hermione went straight back to the laboratory while Snape made for his study to fetch some notes and to tell Dumbledore about their progress.
He was rummaging in a large drawer when a soft hooting made him look up. It was his owl Alcuin who came flying through one of the open windows, landed on the desk and held out his leg to which a letter had been tied.
Snape untied it and read the short text. His brow furrowed and when he gave a treat to the owl, his face was wearing a faraway expression. Alcuin hooted again and then flew out of the window, but Snape hardly noticed. He stared down on the letter, deeply troubled.
"What's the matter, Severus?"
His head jerked up. Dumbledore was looking at him.
"You know I sent a letter to my wine merchant," Snape replied. "To ask about the poisoned bottle. This is their reply. They write that not only did they not send me the box of wine which included the poisoned bottle, but they never even received my order for it in the first place."
Dumbledore looked worried. "That means whoever poisoned you must have intercepted your order and sent the bottles himself."
"Exactly. He – or she – knows where I live."
Dumbledore gave him a long, searching look with those startling blue eyes. "So what are you going to do now?" he asked.
Snape shrugged his shoulders. "There's no use in running away. I need to know who did this to me, and so I'll have to wait until he or she acts again. I only hope it'll be soon." He paused, then went on in a tense voice, "But Hermione shouldn't be here. I can't guarantee for her safety. She should never have come here."
"There was no other way," Dumbledore said softly.
Snape shook his head in irritation. "I know. But it was unfortunate, very unfortunate. Whoever poisoned me might be watching this house right now. If he knows she's here, she is in danger. He probably has been watching me for ages. Damn, Dumbledore, if he's seen her around me, Hermione is in danger in any case. She should never have been associated with me, never."
"It's not your fault, Severus."
Snape snorted. "I know, but that doesn't help, does it? I can't risk her being harmed. Moreover, I can't risk that she's used to harm me."
"She's leaving tonight anyway, isn't she?" Dumbledore said in a soothing tone. "And we checked the wards, they are all in place. She's probably safer here than anywhere else."
Snape stared at him, feeling deeply troubled. Finally he nodded reluctantly. "All right, but I don't like this, I don't like it at all. And she's definitely leaving as soon as Poppy declares me fit." A sudden thought entered his head and he called his house-elf. "Rose, check the whole house and all my belongings for any strange magic you can find."
Rose nodded and vanished.
"You think there might be more?" Dumbledore asked.
"I don't know. I'm just making sure."
The elder wizard nodded. "Hermione will be fine, Severus."
Snape met Dumbledore's bright eyes. "I hope you're right," he replied before he turned and went to the laboratory.