If the choice were mine to make

The only way

When Snape had left his study he didn't go to Hermione straight away but stopped after a few metres at a window which looked out over the garden. His breath was ragged and he had to get himself together before he could face her.

Snape shook his head in irritation. He knew that he was right, no matter what Dumbledore was saying. He had to keep her safe, had to make sure that she couldn't be used to harm him. If his enemy was watching them, Snape had to make him believe that Hermione didn't matter to him, that there was no reason to hurt her. Snape didn't know if this would work, but he had to do his best. There simply was no other way.

But there was an annoying voice in his mind, asking if this was really the right thing to do. You're frightened by the effect she has on you, it whispered. Are you sure you don't push her away because of that? You will hurt her. She trusts you, treats you like a friend. And that's how you want to repay her? You've given her enough pain when she was your student, how can you even think of doing this to her? Snape clenched his fists, staring out of the window into the bright autumn afternoon. You will lose her, the voice went on mercilessly. She'll never come back, even if you find your enemy without getting killed. She won't forgive you. And you will miss her, Severus, miss her dreadfully.

Snape slammed his fist on the windowsill. This was ridiculous. How could he get so maudlin about a girl he hardly knew? This was a situation of life and death, and emotions were only obstructive now. Get yourself together, he told himself sternly. Heaven knows you've done much worse things, much worse.

With a great effort he pushed away the thoughts and feelings that were raging inside him, took a few more seconds to compose his face and then set out to look for Hermione.

Snape found her outside, sitting in the sun on the bench in front of the house. He can see us here if he's observing the house. The thought flashed through Snape's mind and he cast a furtive look around, knowing that if they were indeed watched it was highly unlikely that he would be able to spot his enemy. Snape didn't know what he should do, how to make Hermione leave, but he was resolved that it should happen as soon as possible. The longer she stayed, the more she was in danger.

Hermione's eyes were closed and he thought she was sleeping, but suddenly she opened them and smiled at him lazily.

"I'm not asleep if that's what you think," she said, stifling a yawn.

He gave her a critical look. "You certainly should get some rest," he stated, his voice dispassionate.

"I will, tonight," she replied. "But as long as I'm here it'd be a waste to sleep."

Snape felt a sudden pang. He didn't know how to reply to that and sat down next to her. "So what do you want to do?"

Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "We could talk. Or even better, you could talk and I'll listen. I'm afraid I'm not a very good conversationalist at the moment." Again she suppressed a yawn. "But I like to listen to your voice. It's very nice – as long as you're not yelling or snarling at somebody."

Snape suddenly felt his throat constrict. "Thank you for the compliment." He was glad that his voice didn't betray the emotional turmoil that was raging inside him. "And what do you want me to tell you?"

She threw him a cautious look. "What did you do after you left Hogwarts for good? If that's not too personal."

"Not at all. I travelled. For the first time in my life I had the time, the freedom and the means."

She looked interested. "Then please tell me about your travels."

And so Snape began to tell her about them. At first she faced him, her eyes fixed on his face, bright with interest. But he saw how tired and exhausted she was, and as he progressed she leaned her head on the warm wall next to her, and only nodded from time to time. Finally her eyes closed and after a few minutes Snape was quite sure that she was asleep. Nevertheless he went on talking, the sun warm on his face and her slow breathing next to him. She looked happy in her sleep. Happy and so young and vulnerable. He knew that he shouldn't prolong it, that he should try to get rid of her as soon as possible, for her and his own good. But this was a perfect moment and he couldn't find it in him to ruin it.

Suddenly she murmured something in her sleep, and when Snape stopped talking her head slowly slumped down from where it was leaning on the wall onto his shoulders. She mumbled some more unintelligible words and snuggled closer to him, her warm slender body pressed against his left side, her hand coming to rest on his thigh.

Snape froze. He felt a strange feeling of happiness and longing wash over him, but at the same time a deep sadness; for he had realized that this was his chance to make her go away, the perfect chance to show to whoever was perhaps watching that he wasn't interested in her in any way. And then, in a moment of sudden clearness and honesty, he knew that Dumbledore was right. That, as strange as it sounded, he loved the young woman next to him, that he had had for some time now, no matter how much he had tried to hide it away from the world and from himself. How strange…

Snape lingered on this thought for a while, feeling elated and sad at the same time. It wouldn't change what he had to do, though. There was no future for them, and it'd be selfish to risk Hermione's well-being just because he didn't want to be parted from her. It was too late now. It had always been too late for him.

He looked down on her for a few more seconds, then said in as cold a voice as he could muster, "What do you think you are doing?"

Hermione stirred and her eyes fluttered open. When she realized that her head was resting on his shoulder, her body leaning against his, she quickly straightened up and backed away. There was confusion in her eyes as she faced his hard and contemptuous face.

"I, I'm sorry. I fell asleep," she said, shaking her head a little to wake up.

He looked at her coldly. "I'm afraid you'll have to leave now."

"What?!" Her eyes were wide with bewilderment. "Why? What happened?"

"Your…advances…are unwished for," Snape snarled. "I know that you have been much affected by the death of your friends and the loss of your boyfriend. You are a lonely and troubled young woman, and you were obviously glad to have found someone to talk to. But if you think that my behaviour towards you indicated any personal interest in you, anything that would invite such behaviour from your side, you are very mistaken."

Hermione looked as if he had slapped her. "What are you talking about?" she whispered. "I don't understand."

"Your behaviour in Stratford was unacceptable," Snape pressed on. He saw comprehension dawn on her face, shock, embarrassment and pain. "At the time I thought it was the alcohol that made you act in such a way, that you took me for your boyfriend who had just left you or for Weasley, and I decided to overlook it. But the last days have shown me that there was more to it. Whatever you have deluded yourself into feeling, there is no foundation in reality for it. I think it best if you leave now."

Her face was very white and there were tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Severus," she whispered. "I didn't want to…it just happened. But I never wanted…" she trailed off and looked down on her hands. "I never supposed there could ever…"

Her pain and confusion made his heart ache. But his voice was as cold and disdainful as ever as he went on. "You not only thrust yourself upon me, you also pried into my past, violating my privacy."

She looked up again and there was a spark of anger now in her large brown eyes. Good, Snape thought. Her anger was much easier to bear than her pain.

"I never did such a thing," she said, her voice still strained but her chin raised in defiance. The Gryffindor-defiance he had seen so many times when she had still been his student. "It was coincidence I found out about Lily." She raised her chin even more. "And if I remember correctly what happened in Stratford, you kissed me back. You didn't seem like an unwilling victim then."

Snape's breath caught in his throat and he got up quickly. But although he was now towering over her she still held his gaze. "Whatever you think happened is hardly relevant," he hissed, glowering down on her. "You were deluded by alcohol and emotional need. And it is ridiculous to think I could ever feel anything for you."

Hermione's eyes widened with shock and anguish and she stared at him as if suddenly she had realized that he was not the person she thought he was. For a few moments a tense silence hung between them, then she got up, her face deathly pale but without tears. "I see that now," she said, her voice shaky but nearly as icy as his. "It seems I was mistaken in you after all. You are just as twisted and cold and cruel as Sirius said you were."

Snape winced at the name of his old enemy, and a small triumphant smile stole over Hermione's face. "Lily was lucky she got rid of you," she whispered, her eyes blazing. "Really lucky."

"Get away," Snape spat, his face contorting with rage. "Get out of my house!"

"I will," Hermione replied, her wide eyes still holding his without flinching. "Good-bye Severus." And she turned and rushed into the house.

Snape remained standing, staring at the place where she had just been. His heart was beating hard and there was a great emptiness inside him.

It had worked. She would leave and she certainly disliked him enough now never to come back. But all he felt was pain.

When he thought he could trust his voice again, he called his house-elf. "Miss Granger will be leaving us immediately," he told her. "See if she's ready and as soon as she is, take her to whatever destination she wants." He paused, then went on, "And I forbid you to over contact her again. Do you understand?"

Rose looked confused, but nodded and went to look for Hermione.

Snape remained outside for a few more minutes, then turned and slowly walked back into the house.

She had believed him. A painful smile played around his mouth. He had always been so good in hiding his feelings, so good at make-believe. He had fooled even Voldemort. And now her.

But it was for her own good, wasn't it? It was necessary. And he had done so many things that had been much worse.

As he rounded a corner, he found his way blocked by Crookshanks. He was sitting in the middle of the corridor, looking up at him with what Snape would have called a reproachful expression if it hadn't been a cat.

"I am sorry," Snape found himself saying in a low voice. "It was necessary."

The cat still gazed at him unflinchingly, then got up and trotted towards him, rubbing his head against his leg.

"Take good care of her, will you?" Snape said, his throat strangely constricted. Crookshanks looked up at him and then, with a flicker of his bushy tail, he turned and disappeared down the corridor.

Hermione rushed to her room, her head spinning with anger and pain and confusion. She mechanically stuffed the few things she had brought with her into her bag, and as soon as she had finished, Rose appeared, her face deeply troubled.

"Master told me to take you to whatever destination you wish," she said hesitantly, looking at Hermione with her large eyes full of questions.

Hermione just nodded. "We have to find Crookshanks," she said, forcing her voice not to betray her emotional turmoil. At that moment the cat pushed through the half-open door and went straight for Hermione's legs, rubbing his face against them and purring loudly.

Hermione bent down to pick him up. "Please take me to my parents' house," she said, and the next moment she felt the familiar jerk of apparition. When she found her breath again she was standing in her parents' living room.

"Thank you, Rose," she said and gave the elf a forced smile.

Rose nodded. "It was a pleasure serving you. I have to go back now."

"Wait." Conflicting emotions were fighting in Hermione, but she said, "If you ever need help…for your master…or for yourself, you can come to me."

Rose just stared at her and finally gave a rather forced nod.

"He told you that you mustn't ever contact me again, didn't he?" Hermione asked with a painful pang.

Rose's wide-eyed, sad look was answer enough.

"I see," Hermione said slowly. "Very well, but if you need me, I'll be there. Good-bye Rose."

"Good-bye, mistress." And the elf disappeared.

Hermione mechanically took up her bag and went to her room. Her anger had disappeared, leaving only weariness, utter bewilderment and a choking sadness. In her room she just put the bag in a corner and sat down on the bed, staring at the wall in front of her. Crookshanks, who had followed her, jumped onto the bed, sat down next to her and began licking her hand.

Whatever had happened? Hermione shook her head. Perhaps if she weren't that tired she could make sense of it. So she had really kissed Snape in Stratford. Hermione winced. How embarrassing. And obviously he hadn't liked it. He thought she wanted to throw herself on him, and had made it very clear that he didn't want her near him. But why so suddenly? Everything had been all right, hadn't it? She had even had the feeling that their relationship had reached a new dimension with his confession about Lily and their success with the potion. But it seemed she had been mistaken, otherwise why should he treat her so cruelly?

Hermione sank down on her bed, curling herself around the purring cat which looked at her with a rather worried expression. "I'm fine, Crooks," she whispered. He just stared at her with his penetrating eyes. "No, you know I'm not."

Or was it some strange tactic of Snape to keep her out of harm's way by pushing her away? She wouldn't put it past him. But she'd have left him that evening anyway. And his anger and disdain had seemed so real. How could he hurt her like this if he didn't actually loath her? No, she was fooling herself, desperately searching for any explanation that might ease the pain. For there was a terrible ache in her chest. She would never see him again, would she? And suddenly Hermione started crying in great, painful sobs, and Crookshanks snuggled even closer and rested his soft furry face against her cheek, his purring soothing in her ears until she finally fell asleep.

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