"Yes?" she said, raising an eyebrow.
The young man looked a bit uncomfortable but met her gaze bravely. "I'm sorry," he said with an American accent, "I didn't want to disturb you. But are you by any chance studying Physics at Cambridge?"
"Oh." He gave her a slightly embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry. I'm going there to start a PhD in Physics and I thought I could ask you a few questions."
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "Well, go ahead. I don't know much about the Physics department, but if you have any general questions I'm sure I can help you."
His face lit up with a smile. "Thanks. I'm Thomas, by the way."
They talked for the rest of the journey. Hermione found out that Thomas came from a small town in Vermont, that it was his first time in Europe and that he had been overwhelmed by London and was enthusiastic about the chance to study in Cambridge. When they arrived she took him to his college, which was not far away from hers, and promised to show him around the next day.
Over the following days and weeks, Hermione introduced Thomas to Cambridge and her friends. He was nice and witty and, even more important, he was intelligent and curious about all kinds of things. He asked her about her childhood and schooldays, but luckily he bought her story that she had spent them at a secluded public school in Scotland.
Hermione found that she spent more and more time with Thomas and increasingly realized that she liked being with him. Liked it very much. And so when one night in May in the darkness of the cinema he laid his hand across hers she didn't flinch but kept it where it was, her heart pounding and her thoughts racing.
It had been a long time. There had been two attempts at a relationship in the last four years, but none of them got further than a month. Both times Hermione had ended it, feeling still too vulnerable and not enough affection for the two boys. Should she risk it again? She didn't want to hurt Thomas, didn't want to lose him as her friend. And she would have to tell him about Ron now, tell him lies to make him understand why a relationship with her would be difficult.
When the lights went on again, she turned towards him and said with a smile, "We need to talk."
He looked a bit nervous but nodded. "All right."
They went to Hermione's college and sat down on a bench in the garden. The air was mild and the night was dimly lightened by the moon and a few lamps. Hermione was quite glad for the darkness, it made her feel less embarrassed.
"Listen, Hermione", Thomas started talking as soon as they had sat down, "I don't want to embarrass you...or threaten our friendship...but I really like you, and I thought if you liked me too, you and me could..." he shrugged his shoulders, the darkness hardly hiding his embarrassment.
Hermione thought how much simpler things like these always seemed in films, reached out and took his hand. "I am flattered," she said hesitantly. "And I like you too...a lot." Suddenly she started giggling. "God, this is embarrassing, isn't it?"
Thomas couldn't help joining in her laughter and she felt better immediately. "I am just not sure I am ready for this," she finally said very seriously. "I have to tell you something."
Hermione saw alarm in Thomas' eyes. "Is there someone else?"
"There was." She felt a lump rise in her throat but went on. "I told you about the school I went to. Well, there was a boy there. Ron. He and another boy, Harry, were my best friends, ever since I started going there. We were very very close. I fell in love with Ron, and we got together in our last year. Not long after that both of them were killed in a car accident." Her voice was thick with emotion and Hermione turned away from Thomas' sympathetic eyes and looked out into the night. "I was devastated. And although I tried I've never had a relationship since then." She turned back to him and gave him a sad smile. "I don't know if I can now," she said quietly. "And I don't want to hurt you."
He looked at her searchingly for a few moments. "But you would give it a try?" he finally asked. "This is not only a polite way of turning me down?"
Hermione's mouth twisted into an ironic smile. "Definitely not. I...I don't know if I love you... but I definitely like you. Very much." And she knew that that was the truth.
A sudden smile lit up Thomas' face. "Well that's good enough for me. If it is for you."
"It is," Hermione said softly, watching in fascination as Thomas leaned towards her and kissed her tenderly.
It felt good, very good, and she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back, and when she finally broke the kiss and looked into his face, his hazel eyes bright with happiness, she felt happy herself.
Hermione was standing in her parents' attic, five large boxes in front of her. They contained all that was left of her years at Hogwarts, all the books, essays and magical instruments. She had stashed them up here when she had left the magical world and hadn't opened them ever since.
It was rather dim in the attic. Darkness had already fallen outside and the room was only illuminated by a single lamp a few feet away from her. It was cold as well but Hermione, ever the practical type, had brought a jacket.
Her parents had gone to visit some friends. It was the last day of her Christmas holidays, tomorrow she'd return to Cambridge. As always, Christmas had been nice, their small family enlarged by the visits of her father's parents and her mother's sisters and their families. Thomas had gone home to the States, but had given her a present which had turned out to be a beautiful 19th century edition of Robert Browning's poems. Hermione missed him and was looking forward to seeing him again soon.
She hadn't decided yet if she should go to Stratford the next weekend and her lack of decision had occupied her all day long. Sometimes she thought that it was ridiculous. She didn't even know if Snape would show up, and even if he was there, what did she want from him? What should she say to him? Always presuming that he'd even talk to her.
But then there was a part of her which, although she didn't know why, was keen to see Snape again. There was no denying that their strange meeting had done her good. The last year had been the happiest since Ron's and Harry's death. Her nightmares had nearly stopped, she'd got together with Thomas and finally had a life outside of her studies. If one year ago someone would have told her that she'd win a Salsa contest, as she had done only weeks ago with John, she'd have thought him crazy. For whatever reason, talking to Snape had lessened the pain and given her a new start in life.
Not able to decide, she had come up here – which had probably been a silly idea. What use was there in staring at these boxes, the remnants of a past she had left behind long ago? Hermione nearly turned to go down again. But she hadn't really left it behind, had she? And so, after a few more moments of deliberation, she bowed over to open the boxes, one by one.
She had shrunk most of the stuff from the earlier years, so there was really not much to see. Her wand lay right on top. Stashing it away had been the hardest part. Hermione picked it up gingerly, feeling the familiar weight and the touch of the wood. For a second she thought of giving it a little wave, just to see if anything would happen, but then she put it down quickly.
Next she took up her seventh year Transfiguration book and, after running a finger along its cover, opened and leafed through it. Then she put it down and took out other books and parchment rolls. Hermione felt a strange mixture of aching familiarity and strangeness. She knew these books nearly by heart, she remembered their weight and their smell. But looking at their appearance, and at the other things stashed in the boxes, they seemed weirdly out of place, as if from a film-adaptation of a novel by Charles Dickens. Her hand writing was familiar but looked childish and distorted, written as it was with quills on parchment.
Hermione unrolled a few rolls of parchment, glancing over essays on strange themes like How to charm a tatzelwurm. Had she really written these? Sometimes it seemed like a dream.
The next parchment she unrolled turned out to be a Defence against the Dark Arts essay. Looking at the heading, she realized that it was the last essay she had ever written in Snape's class, only a week before he had killed Dumbledore. There were a few red corrections and biting remarks in his spiky hand, and at the bottom the short comment "Adequate." Hermione smiled crookedly. The essay was as flawless as possible. All the essays she had ever written for Snape's classes were. But he had never admitted it. In all those years never any praise, and certainly never any encouragement or a friendly word. And that although she had worked truly hard for his classes, perhaps harder than for any other subject. Ron and Harry had often asked why she bothered putting so much effort into her Potions essays. Hermione had always shrugged their questions off and they had thought that it was a compulsion for her to be the best in every subject. And perhaps it was. But in the first place it had been her way of defying Snape and all those other Slytherins who thought that she as a muggle-born wasn't good enough to be at Hogwarts. Even though he'd never admitted it, and even though he had written only disparaging comments on her essays, Snape must have known that her work was impeccable. Being the best, knowing the answers to all his questions and helping Neville, Ron and Harry were the only ways in which she could defy him.
She stared at the parchment for a long time. Suddenly it seemed like only yesterday that she'd been in his class, with Harry and Ron and Neville and all those others, cutting and measuring and brewing. The memory made her heart ache. The picture of Ron, knitting his brow over his Potions assignment and mumbling angrily under his breath, brought tears to her eyes. Hermione blinked furiously. She hadn't come up here to get lost in sorrow. Certainly she had cried enough by now.
She forced the picture out of her mind, trying to focus on something else. Snape. During their sixth year he must have known that he would have to kill Dumbledore. Hermione shivered. She might not like him, but she had to acknowledge what he'd done, what sacrifices he had made. And, yes, she pitied him. Staring down on her essay and on his red comments she felt a strange mixture of annoyance and sympathy. At least that was better than the choking sadness that still overcame her when she thought of Ron and Harry.
A sudden touch at her thigh made her jump, but when she looked down she saw only Crookshanks who purred loudly, lashed his tail and looked at her with his I'm hungry – feed me!-face. Quickly Hermione put everything back into the boxes, closed them and went down to give him his food. Then she turned on the computer and booked a bed at the Stratford youth hostel.