If the choice were mine to make

A new beginning

Hermione slept surprisingly well that night. She had expected the familiar nightmares to haunt her after her conversation with Snape, the pictures of Ron and Harry, dead, and she helpless to prevent it, but when she woke in the morning she felt refreshed and couldn't remember having dreamed at all.

It seems that talking to Snape has done me good, she thought with surprise while she still lay in her bed in the youth hostel, staring at the ceiling. She had the room for herself and was grateful for the solitude. Who would have thought that a conversation with him could have therapeutic effects! Hermione snorted, then pushed the thought from her mind and got up.

She left the youth hostel early, took the bus back into Stratford and went to the station. On the train back to Cambridge, however, she couldn't keep the memories of what had happened the day before away any longer.

He had been...nearly nice. In a rather special way, but still.

Suddenly Hermione had to think of Ginny. She and Neville had not been as surprised as everyone else when Dumbledore's portrait had told them the truth about Snape. Actually Ginny had said that she had long had the feeling that he was in fact protecting them, shielding them from the other Death Eaters…

Hermione stared out of the train window onto the wintry landscape. It must have been terrible for him. She shuddered. Having to kill Dumbledore, the only one who believed in him. Being seen as a traitor by everyone. Having to play along with Voldemort and his minions. How many deaths had he witnessed without the chance of preventing them? How many people had he killed himself?

Hermione felt cold and took out a book to get rid of these bleak thoughts. But they wouldn't go away. No wonder he wasn't a social man. He must be very lonely now. Poor Snape.

Hermione shook her head in exasperation. Get a grip, she thought, he's not exactly a lost puppy, is he? But she knew that that was not why she suddenly felt strangely touched by his fate. No, he is not. He was and is a nasty bastard with less then stellar social skills. But he also is a middle aged man who risked his life for years and gave everything to bring down Voldemort. And where has that left him? He betrayed his Death Eater friends and broke every contact with his colleagues. He's probably living like a hermit, with no friends or anyone who cares for him.

Hermione knew that there was no use in feeling sorry for Snape who, after all, had chosen this seclusion. Probably he's happy to be away from Hogwarts and all those terrible students, she thought wryly. But she couldn't help it, somehow their conversation had touched something inside her.

He saved my life, she realized with sudden clarity. If he hadn't held me back, I would be just as dead as Harry and Ron. And he had saved me before that, when we faced Lupin in his werewolf form

And try as she might, during her way back to Cambridge her thoughts were fixed on the Potions master, replaying all that had happened during her schooldays and all she knew about him.

When Hermione finally arrived at her college, she left her bag standing in the middle of her room, turned on the computer and called up the Royal Shakespeare Company's official homepage.

He had said that he came to Stratford every year, hadn't he? And that he had seen Richard III the year before… Luckily the RSC had its old programme online as well… And she had been right with her guess: the year before, on the second weekend of January, they had played Richard III. So did that mean that he always came to Stratford on the second weekend of January? Not necessarily, but there was a fair chance. So if she wanted to see him again, she would know what to do… not that she wanted, did she? But still, it was good to know…

Snape had left Stratford even earlier than Hermione. He wasn't keen on having breakfast in a room full of strange people, and thus left the hotel right after getting up, walked until he had found an empty street and then disapparated.

Unlike Hermione he hadn't slept well at all. Memories of the past had preoccupied him in a way he hadn't experienced for several years, and when he had finally fallen asleep his dreams had been haunted by the scene he had witnessed in the forest. Potter and the Dark Lord fighting. The stupid Weasley boy running to his doom. Him clutching the girl who was desperately trying to get out of his grasp. And then the picture that had stayed in his mind all those years, the girl kneeling between her two dead friends, holding their hands, her body shaking with unbearable anguish.

Well, she seems fine now, he thought as he apparated to his study. There were anti-apparition wards around his house, of course, but they didn't apply to himself. You certainly have no call to trouble yourself with her problems.

But she obviously was still suffering from what had happened. And no wonder, really. Potter and Weasley had been her closest friends, the only ones she had had for a long time. She had been intelligent and ambitious, and children like that very often had troubles finding friends…as he knew very well…

She had given up magic. A rather extreme reaction, and, he had to admit, a loss for the wizarding world. She had been a very annoying student, an insufferable know-it-all, but a brilliant one nevertheless. Possibly the best he ever had…

Snape shook his head in irritation. There was no use in pondering on the Granger girl. He had been as nice to her as he could, and that was that.

"How was Stratford?"

Snape turned around, giving an annoyed look to the small picture of Dumbledore which was hanging on the wall opposite of him. Dumbledore beamed at him, radiating his customary annoyingly happy mood. Not for the first time Snape thought about taking the picture down or at least moving it to another room, but he knew he wouldn't do it.

"Like always", he said noncommittal.

"Really?" Dumbledore raised an eyebrow and once again Snape was struck by the headmaster's uncanny perceptiveness.

"I met Miss Granger," Snape conceded, turning around to signal Dumbledore that there was nothing more to say about that.

"Indeed." Dumbledore's voice was suddenly serious. "How is she?"

Snape reluctantly turned around again. "What did you expect?" he asked acidly. "She is obviously still mourning Potter and Weasley."

"I never wanted it to end like that," Dumbledore said quietly.

"Really?" Snape asked in a bitter tone. "Were they ever anything more than pawns for you? Like I was?"

"Oh Severus." Dumbledore's face looked troubled. "You know if I could have prevented what happened, I would."

Snape stared into those piercing blue eyes and eventually nodded slowly. "I know." He turned to go, but stopped after a few steps and turned around again. "Did you know she has given up magic all together?"

Dumbledore nodded sadly. "What a loss. But it was her decision."

"So what is she doing now?" Snape asked reluctantly.

"As far as I know she is studying Mathematics at Cambridge."

"Mathematics. I see."

There was a sudden gleam in Dumbledore's eyes, a gleam that made Snape's alarm bells ring. "Are you going to see her again?" the portrait asked.

"Granger? No, why should I?"

"Just an idea," Dumbledore said in a voice Snape didn't like at all. He gave the portrait a rather cold stare, then turned and left the room. There was no reason whatsoever to think that he would see the Granger girl ever again.

"So how was Stratford?"

Hermione's friend John had come over shortly after she had got back and was now sitting on her bed. She had met John, who was studying English and was living in the same college, right on her first day, and had liked him immediately. He was extremely good looking – tall, slim, with wavy brown hair and bright grey eyes – and unfortunately gay.

She shrugged. "Macbeth was all right. Not brilliant but ok."

John, who was a great fan of the RSC and would have come with her to Stratford if it hadn't been his boyfriend's birthday that weekend, immediately launched a series of specific questions about the staging of the play, but Hermione had to disappoint him. "I'm sorry," she said with something like embarrassment, "but...I was somewhat distracted."

John raised an eyebrow. "By what?"

"I met a former teacher."


Hermione hesitated. "He was a terrible teacher."

John raised his other eyebrow. "Bad memories?"

Hermione laughed a bit shakily. "You have no idea." She was silent for a few moments, then tried to explain. "It was terribly awkward, but actually he was kind of nice. Which I hadn't expected. And he is quite a complex man. Really tragic past you might say." She shook her head. "It's complicated. I don't really know what to make of him, and that bugs me and makes me think about him even more."

John gave her a broad smile. "Then I have just the thing to take your thoughts off your mysterious teacher."

"What do you mean?"

"They are offering a Salsa course at the Union every Saturday evening, really cheap. And I wanted to ask if you were interested."

Hermione hesitated. Only yesterday she'd probably have declined, but today she felt somewhat reckless, eager to try out new things, to live. And she had always liked dancing, even though the few lessons before the Yule Ball had been the only teaching she had. "Why not," she said.

John's face lit up. "Brilliant. It starts in two weeks. Let's unleash your passionate side."

Hermione snorted. "Don't expect too much, I'm no Jennifer Lopez."

It wasn't until mid February that Hermione found the time to talk to Ginny about what had happened in Stratford.

She had come down to London to stay at Ginny's flat over the weekend. Ginny, who worked for the Ministry's department of International Relations, had moved out of the Burrow two years ago and Hermione was glad for that. She had been to the Weasleys' house a few times since Ron's death, but it still brought back too many painful memories.

Ginny's flat was in a house inhabited exclusively by Ministry employees, and thus it was distinctly magical, if not as much as the Burrow. There were only rather basic technical appliances and hardly any pictures on the walls that didn't move.

It was Friday evening and Hermione was sitting on Ginny's couch, waiting for her to get a bottle of wine out of the kitchen. Looking around, she spotted The Quibbler lying on a desk nearby. Hermione got up, took the magazine and started leafing through it.

"Luna came to visit me last week," Ginny explained as she entered with the bottle and two glasses.

Hermione snorted. "It's back to its old form, isn't it? 'The Ministry of Magic – has it been taken over by aliens?' Or this one: 'Woman comes back from the dead after 23 years.' But I have to say, their headlines lack drama nowadays."

Ginny chuckled. "Definitely. But Luna is still travelling the world with her father, looking for the Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Mind you, I think nowadays she does it mostly for his sake. She thinks of starting an apprenticeship with Hagrid."

Hermione felt a sudden stab of longing. Hagrid. Hogwarts. There were days when she missed it so much it hurt, when she wanted nothing more than to just go there. But she never did. "That's a great idea," she said with forced lightness and took a sip of wine. "Speaking of Hogwarts…I met Snape."

Ginny's eyes grew wide with surprise. "What! Where, and when?"

"When I was in Stratford in January."

"Tell me everything."

When Hermione finished Ginny's face had assumed a pondering expression. "I was pretty sure he hadn't died," she said slowly, "but I'm glad to know it for certain now."

"You never believed he was all evil, did you?" Hermione asked curiously.

Ginny shook her head. "Well I believed it at the beginning, when he became headmaster. After all he had killed Dumbledore and wounded George. But his behaviour during that year… It was a very hard year, even more terrible than when Umbridge was there, but I shudder to think what it would have been like if one of the real Death Eaters had had control over Hogwarts."

Not for the first time Hermione felt a twinge of guilt at the thought that they had left their friends alone to deal with the situation at Hogwarts. Not that their year had been a piece of cake, certainly not, but while they for the most part had only jumped from lonely spot to lonely spot, their greatest worry being boring food and the tense atmosphere between them, Ginny, Neville and Luna had been subjected to Death Eaters every day. With a flash of insight Hermione realized that she might also be jealous. Although life at Hogwarts must have been hard, Ginny had shared it with people like Neville and Luna. It was an experience that would keep them joined for the rest of their lives, whereas she hadn't been there and would always be an outsider to their memories. And the only two people who had shared that year with her were dead now. "I'm sorry we weren't there," she said quietly.

Ginny shook her head. "You don't have to. You did what was necessary."

Hermione reached for her glass and took a sip of the dark red wine. "What was Snape like?" she asked when she had swallowed.

Ginny shrugged. "Much the same as before. Mind you, he was never as terrible towards me as he was towards you three. Something about Harry just sent him over the edge. Anyway, it must have been really hard for him. The Carrows were constantly calling for harsher methods in handling the students, and if you thought that Snape was a terrible teacher, you haven't seen what they did. They were brutal and cruel, enjoying hurting people. But somehow, very subtly, Snape tried to prevent the worst excesses the new regime in Hogwarts brought with it. I didn't understand it immediately, but then he only gave us detention with Hagrid and sent us into the Forbidden Forest when we had tried to steal the sword, and that was really strange. It made me wonder, me and Neville. And when you thought about it there had been a clue right at the beginning that he might still be loyal to Dumbledore."

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked, furrowing her brow.

"He got into Dumbledore's office." Ginny replied. "Do you remember, Umbridge never could, it had closed itself against her. But it didn't for Snape, he could get in without using any violence."

"Of course," Hermione said, her eyes wide. "And no one noticed?"

Ginny shrugged. "Strange, isn't it? I suppose if they noticed it they must have thought that he'd employed some powerful magic. Or that it was because Dumbledore was dead. That's what Neville and I thought at first. But we observed Snape from that time on, and his behaviour was just ambivalent enough to make us think that he might still work for Dumbledore. But we were never certain, of course, and when we told the grown-ups no one would listen to us."

"He must have been very lonely," Hermione said ponderingly, twisting her glass of wine in her hand.

Ginny nodded. "The teachers who weren't Death Eaters were horrible to him. Understandable, after all they thought he was a traitor. They tried to sabotage his orders, defying him in every way possible, and that only brought him new problems with the Death Eaters. And the looks McGonagall gave him..." she shuddered. "I've never seen her look at anyone in that way. Very cold and disdainful, and yet conveying such disappointment and sadness." She was silent for a few moments, then said, "I'd like to talk to him. No idea what I'd say, but somehow... I'd like to thank him." Ginny gave Hermione a questioning look. "Do you think there's any chance you might see him again?"

Hermione hesitated. "I think there's a chance he always comes to Stratford on the second weekend of January," she said slowly. "So if I went there next year... I don't know if I want to see him again, I mean what would be the use of that? What's there to talk about? We never went on well, to say the least, and I don't think he'd be happy to see me again."

Ginny looked at her searchingly. "Still, if you should meet him again, would you tell him I'd like to thank him? And that I appreciate what he did, for the students and for everyone else?"

"Sure, I will. If I should ever see him again."

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