If the choice were mine to make

Hostages to fortune

Snape didn't mention the letter when he returned to Hermione. He knew that she wouldn't agree with his worries concerning her person and he had no inclination to argue with her about her stupid, stubborn, dangerous Gryffindor bravery.

"Let's finish for today," Snape eventually said shortly before 4 pm, putting away his notes. "There's nothing else we can do at present, and I think I could use a bit of fresh air."

"All right," Hermione replied. She started to fumble with the straps of a protective apron she had put on when she had been wrestling with a rather large and lively acidic root. Some strands of her hair had got entangled with the strap around her neck, and she had a hard time disentangling them without pulling out her hair.

"Let me help you," she suddenly heard Snape's voice beside her.

"Thanks," she said, giving him a smile and bowing her head so he could work better. She felt him push away her heavy hair, felt his cool fingers fleetingly touch the skin of her neck, and suddenly a strange shiver was running down her spine. Get yourself together, Hermione scolded herself, very glad that Snape couldn't see her face.

"Here you go," he said after a few moments.

Hermione turned around to face him. There was an odd expression in his face, but it vanished immediately.

"Thanks," she said.

He nodded.

A sudden thought made her go on. "I mean, thanks for everything. For letting me help you, for letting me be part of this. It means a lot to me."

His eyes widened for a moment, but then he just gave a curt nod. "You were very persuasive. And I couldn't waste such intelligence."

Hermione beamed at him, surprised at this unexpected compliment. "Thank you. I hope I wasn't too pushy and annoying."

A wry smile tugged at his lips. "No, not any longer." He scrutinized her for a few seconds in silence, and suddenly Hermione realized how close they were standing. "I've been wondering," he at last went on, his eyes never leaving hers, "that second year in Stratford… It wasn't coincidence that you were there, was it?"

Hermione felt a bit embarrassed but met his gaze unflinchingly. "No. You had told me that you went every year, and that you had seen Richard III the year before. I looked it up on the RSC's website and saw that it had been staged on the same weekend. It was an educated guess."

"Muggle technology, I see," he said slowly. There was a strange intense expression on his face. He fell silent, but still looked at her as if there was something he wanted to say. "But why did you do it?" he asked abruptly.

Hermione took a few seconds to answer. She felt rather self-conscious but refused to reveal her embarrassment to his searching eyes. "I wanted to see you again," she eventually admitted calmly. "I…I don't really know why, but talking to you had somehow helped me come to terms with Ron's and Harry's death. You had been there when they had died, and for some strange reason I had the feeling that you understood me better than anyone else. I didn't really know what I expected or hoped for, but I just felt that I wanted to see you again." She gave him a shy smile. "And I am glad I did."

The odd expression was back on his face, and for a second Hermione thought she saw pain in his eyes. But that couldn't be right, could it?

"Are you?" he asked quietly.

"Of course," she replied, her throat suddenly very dry. Snape's dark gaze was holding hers with a strange intensity and there was a peculiar, tense silence hanging between them. It felt as if there was nothing else in the world but those black eyes and his sharply contoured face which still wore that curious expression. From the corner of her eye Hermione saw his right hand come up and a part of her was wondering what he was doing, but then suddenly a bird screeched outside, breaking the odd stillness. Snape blinked and took a step backwards. His face was dispassionate again.

"As I said, we are finished for today," he stated quickly and turned towards his notes. "I'll just take these to my study. I'll see you later."

And with this he grabbed a stack of parchments and hurried out of the laboratory, leaving Hermione with her heart hammering wildly, wondering what had just happened.

When Snape arrived in his study he put the parchments on the desk. But instead of leaving again he remained standing there, staring down on his notes, his thoughts racing.

What had just happened? Nothing, a soothing voice in his head said. Don't overreact, nothing happened. No, but it very nearly had. Merlin, he had been close to reaching out for her, close to touching her. He shouldn't have offered to help her with that damned apron. What had he been thinking?

Her hair had been very soft.

Stop it! This is pathetic, pathetic and disgusting, taking advantage of her like that.

But what she had said… He had suspected it for a long time, but hearing Hermione confess that she had sought him out on purpose was something different. That she was glad to have met him. How strange…

Stop it!

This was getting out of hand. After what had happened at Stratford he had decided not to indulge in any too familiar thoughts about Hermione Granger. It would lead to nothing, only distract him from his work and endanger their professional relationship. But then he had been poisoned and she had entered his house. These past days had been far too strenuous in more than one way. His getting poisoned. Her finding out about Lily. Their success with the potion. The danger in which he might or might not have placed her. His undeniable attraction… Luckily she'd be gone this evening. Yes, with her out of his house he'd be able to think straight again.

Snape was about to leave his study when Rose appeared with a sudden crack, holding a black shirt. She was wearing gloves.

"Master, something is not right with this shirt," she said worriedly, placing it onto his desk carefully.

Snape looked down on the shirt, which was one of his favourites, drew his wand and performed a few spells. Suddenly it started to glow in a sickly green shade.

Snape felt ill.

"Was that all you found?"

Rose nodded.

"You may go now," he said, and the elf disapparated. Snape kept staring at his shirt, his chest tight with fear. He hadn't had this terrible choking feeling for many years, and he had hoped that he'd never have to have it again. But he should have known better. It had been stupid to feel safe, stupid to think he could have anything like a normal life.

"What's going on here?" Snape turned around and found that Dumbledore had entered his portrait.

"Rose found this shirt," he explained. "It has been tempered with. Someone put the Plague Charm on it."

Dumbledore's face grew stony. "It could have killed you."

"Or at least it would have made me very ill," Snape replied in a dispassionate voice. But his emotions were far from dispassionate. He felt helpless fury and frustration. And fear.

He looked at Dumbledore very earnestly. "Whoever did this had access to this house," he stated. "I don't know how he got past the wards, but this is an old shirt, I use it regularly and there is no way he could have tampered with it outside of the wards." Snape paused. "I don't think he wants to kill me, though," he went on slowly. "If he wanted to, he could have done it with the Memorate Potion. Or afterwards, if he can enter my house just like that. No, I think he's playing with me, showing me his power. This is a warning, a demonstration that I am completely in his power and can't do anything against it."

Dumbledore nodded, looking very worried. "I'm afraid this seems to be the case."

"Damn, Dumbledore," Snape went on, his voice tense with frustration. He started pacing up and down in front of the portrait. "How could my enemy do this? How could he get through my wards?" Snape tried to think straight, tried to push the fear and anger away. This was no time to get emotional, he had to keep his mind if he wanted to survive this.

Suddenly he stopped his pacing. "I have to get Hermione out of here," Snape stated in a flat tone. "It's no longer safe for her, perhaps it never was. She should never have come here, should never have come near me in the first place."

Dumbledore looked at him with pity in his eyes. "So what do you want to do?"

"She has to leave immediately," Snape replied. "And I'll have to make sure that she doesn't return. That she isn't seen with me again. At least not until I know who is after me, and until I have caught him."

Dumbledore shook his head. "That won't be easy. She regards you as her friend, and that means that she won't desert you when you are in danger."

Snape gave a mirthless laughter. "I know. Damn Gryffindor loyalty and bravery. Why can't she be reasonable?"

Dumbledore didn't answer, just looked at Snape with those knowing eyes. Snape couldn't take the sympathy in them and looked away.

"Don't do it, Severus," Dumbledore suddenly said quietly.

Snape looked back at him. "Do what?"

"Make her leave without telling her why. Push her away so you can be sure she'll never return. I know you, Severus. That's what you intend to do, isn't it?"

"You said yourself that she won't cooperate if I tell her the truth," Snape replied defiantly. "This is the only way, and you know it."

Dumbledore shook his head. "Severus, you are making a mistake."

"Do you think I want to do this?" Snape asked, his voice full of suppressed emotions. "That I want to hurt her? I certainly don't. But you've seen what my enemy is capable of. He could kill her in this very house right now, just for sport! So if it's a choice between keeping her away from me, and her being harmed by whoever is after me, I'll gladly do it. I can't risk her being in danger for my sake."

Dumbledore just looked at him. Snape met his gaze for a few seconds, and then turned to leave. He had nearly reached the door when Dumbledore spoke again.

"You love her, don't you?"

Snape stopped in his tracks but didn't turn around. "This is ridiculous," he said with a short laugh. "I just don't want her to get hurt."

"Whatever you say, Severus, you should be sure about your feelings for her before you push her away," Dumbledore stated quietly. "She might never come back."

Snape turned to face him, his throat suddenly very dry. "My feelings for Hermione are of no concern here," he said. "The only thing that matters is that she's safe. For her own sake and for mine."

Dumbledore nodded slowly, his face very sad. Before he could say another word, Snape turned around and left.

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