How could their conversation have gone so wrong? Everything had been fine, hadn't it, just like in old times. But then she had insisted on discussing that wretched business in Stratford. Why couldn't she just leave it alone?
Because she's not such a coward as you are, the annoying voice in his head told him.
He hadn't been ready for this. Hadn't had time yet to think through everything that had happened over the last hours and what it might mean for him. All he had wanted was to apologize to her and to get their relationship back the way it had been before he had thrown her out in September.
Perhaps he should have been more enthusiastic when she had proposed working together again? Yes, he should have. But when Hermione had asked he had somehow felt reluctant. Reluctant and thrown off his guard although he should have known that she would bring it up. And yet he wanted to work with her again, didn't he? Of course he did. But this question was tied up with the really important question: what did he want from Hermione?
He had been a fool to believe that after what they both had been through in the last hours she would just leave it at that and let him go on dictating the terms of their rather strange relationship. A fool to believe that now she knew what had really happened in Stratford and later in September they could just go back to how it had been before all of this had happened. As unbelievable as it sounded, it seemed that Hermione wanted more.
Snape ran his fingers through his hair. She likes me… The thought was wondrous, sweet and warm and exciting, and part of him wanted nothing more than just give into it. But as soon as he did, the cold reality hit him. He had been right in warning her off, she didn't really know him, had some strange romantic and idealized picture of him. Which was no wonder, after all he had been willing to die for her. But it would never work; they both would only get hurt.
He would have to talk to her, of course. Friendship was possible, wasn't it? A good working relationship, letters, dinners and lively conversations. There was nothing wrong with that, was it?
It had been lonely without her. He could admit that now. He had missed their talks, her teasing him, her smile and enthusiasm. And they needn't meet in London all the time, they could meet here, in his house. At least sometimes.
Snape threw a quick look at his watch. Poppy should be coming any time. There was no sense in seeking out Hermione now, but as soon as Poppy would have left, he'd talk to her. Yes, and this time he would be prepared for whatever she would bring up.
His musings were disturbed by a rap at the door. When it opened he saw Madame Pompfrey who was looking at him with a somewhat reproachful expression.
"Well, how are you?" she asked rather curtly and entered the room.
"Mostly fine," he said and got up so she could run a couple of scans along his body. "Have you looked after Miss Granger?"
"I have. She should be fine and without any after-effects in a few days. As should be you."
Madame Pompfrey stashed away her wand, opened a large bag she was carrying and drew out a few small bottles of potions. "Take one of these tonight and tomorrow morning, noon and evening."
When she had put the bottles on the table next to his chair, she turned back to Snape, still looking at him with an accusatory expression. She was much smaller than he, so she had to glower upwards, but this obviously didn't daunt her.
"What?" Snape asked after a few moments, slightly irritated.
"Nothing," she replied and quickly lowered her eyes.
"Oh no, Poppy, you are angry with me for some reason. So spit it out."
She looked up at him again. "Very well. Your private life is none of my business. But didn't I tell you not to hurt Miss Granger?"
Snape snorted. "You are right, it's none of your concern. And I haven't hurt Miss Granger – at least not for some time. I am however sorry if you got the impression that I somehow gave her pain. Rest assured, it was necessary and it won't happen again."
Now it was Snape who glowered down at the elder woman. "Merlin, Poppy, I just risked my life for her. You can't really accuse me of treating her badly." A thought crossed his mind. "Did she say anything to that effect?"
"Oh no. But I've known her for a long time now, and I know when she is unhappy." Madame Pompfrey gave Snape a long, scrutinizing look, and finally said, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't meddle. I'm sure you meant nothing bad, whatever happened."
"No, I didn't. I'll talk to her as soon as you're gone."
"I'm afraid she's already left."
"What!" Snape stared at the elder witch.
"When I was finished she said that she'd leave immediately. She told me to give her regards to you."
Madame Pompfrey looked at him hard, and then her face softened slowly. "It will be all right, Severus."
"Oh, of course it will."
Suddenly the elder woman raised her arms and gave him a short, firm hug. Snape tensed, surprised at this sudden show of affection, than responded rather awkwardly.
"Are you coming to Hogwarts for Christmas?" she asked when she had let go of him again.
"I don't know yet. Probably not."
"Miss Granger is coming," Madame Pompfrey said with a light smile.
"Is she? Well, we'll see."
"Good bye then, Severus. And send for me if you have problems."
"I will. Good bye and thank you, Poppy."
Hermione apparated just outside the Hogwarts gates. It was Christmas Day, shortly after noon, and she had left her parents after their traditional lunch to follow McGonagall's invitation.
So far up north everything was covered with a thick layer of snow and the air was chilly. Yet the sun was shining from a clear, deep blue sky and the light reflected from the snow was so bright Hermione quickly took out a handkerchief and transfigured it into sunglasses.
There was no one around. Hermione could have apparated to Hogsmeade, of course, but she wasn't keen on anyone recognizing her. Going back to Hogwarts and meeting her former teachers would be strenuous enough.
Slowly she started walking through the gate and up the road to the castle. It must have snowed after the road had been cleared for the last time since it was covered with a thin layer of crisp, untouched snow. It was wonderful to walk over this perfect white blanket, leaving the first marks on it and hearing the crunch of her boots in the winter silence. Hermione had forgotten how beautiful Hogwarts was in winter. Well, at least as long as the weather is fine, she thought with a wry smile, remembering dark and dreary days and cold and droughty corridors.
The closer Hermione got to the castle, the more nervous she got. She had come a long way since she had left it more than five years ago, but she had no idea how she'd feel about being back.
She had missed it so much.
And yet, during that last terrible year at Hogwarts, the memories, good and bad, had made her life a misery. The way every last spot had made her think of Ron and Harry, the way that the teachers and students had looked at her with awe and pity in their eyes; it had driven her crazy.
But she wasn't the traumatized girl any longer. No, it would be nice to see the old castle again, nice to talk to her former teachers. Hagrid especially. She had written letters to him regularly, but hadn't seen him since her last year.
The only teacher she had met all that time was Snape… Perhaps he would be there as well…?
Hermione quickly recalled her thoughts. Of course he wouldn't. She hadn't heard anything from him since she had left his house two weeks before. That hurt, of course. In fact it hurt more than she had thought possible. But there was nothing she could do about it. After all she had as good as told him she loved him. And if he decided not to act on this it was his decision. She had made her choice and if, after all that had happened, he still couldn't bring himself to even only work with her again, she would have to accept that he either didn't have feelings for her or just couldn't admit them.
Hermione snorted, annoyed with her bleak thoughts. Determined not to let them overshadow her return to Hogwarts, she pushed them back and instead focused on the beautiful and peaceful winter landscape around her. The road made a wide bend around a group of tall firs and she slowed down. There it was, just as she knew it would be. The first sight of Hogwarts, towering over the white landscape. Hermione felt sudden, great joy and her face lit up in a large smile.
She stood there for a while, looking at the castle which was basking in the low winter sun. Then she briskly walked on. After a few minutes she came across a few students who were having a snowball fight not far from the road. They looked at her curiously and Hermione waved at them, feeling suddenly strangely shy. They were young, too young to remember her from her time at school. But she knew that her picture was well known in the wizarding world. It would not be long until those students would realize who the visitor was.
Hermione wasn't keen on that kind of fame. But she had known that it was part of her re-entering the wizarding world, and she didn't want to let it spoil her visit.
There was nobody in the Entrance Hall when she entered, but McGonagall had told her to come to the staff room. Hermione halted for a few moments, her eyes growing accustomed to the dimness of the castle after the brightness outside. Everything looked just like when she had left and she felt a bitter sweet stab of recognition and an echo of the excitement that had always filled her when, after the summer holidays, she had returned to Hogwarts.
Standing there, Hermione carefully examined her feelings. There was sadness and pain, but stronger was a feeling of happiness, of returning home. No, she was glad that she had come.