"'mione!" Hagrid cried out, jumped out of his oversized chair, stormed towards her and drew her in an embrace which nearly crushed her backbone.
"Hermione, welcome," said McGonagall with a large smile. "Hagrid, I think you should let her down again."
When Hermione had extracted herself from Hagrid's embrace she found herself surrounded by her former teachers, eager to shake her hand and welcome her back. A warm feeling spread in her breast and she returned their smiles. When she had done shaking hands, she settled down in a large armchair. Dumbledore was there as well, beaming from a large portrait, his head decorated with a yellow paper crown. At first she felt slightly inhibited, not liking to be in the center of attention, but her teachers had so many questions and everyone acted so friendly she soon shed her shyness.
Just like the castle, the teachers seemed not to have changed at all and a queer feeling of déjà vu settled on Hermione. There was only one new teacher, just a few years older than herself, who was introduced to her as Quintus Quirin, the new Potions master.
"Horace finally thought he had had enough of teaching and retired," McGonagall explained to her. "Do you remember Quintus?"
Hermione looked at the young man. He was very slim and gangly, had a thin, long face, dark brown hair and surprisingly light blue eyes. "I think you were in your fifth year when I came to Hogwarts," she said.
He grinned. "I was. And of course I know you, the famous Hermione Granger."
Hermione grimaced and quickly changed the topic. "So you're teaching Potions?"
"I try to." He sighed theatrically. "Believe it or not, but after one year I can really understand old Snape. Most of the students are stupid or at least careless." He threw her a scrutinizing look. "I heard you've seen him lately?"
Hermione felt rather uncomfortable and threw a quick glance to McGonagall. The elder witch caught her look and explained, "After what happened we couldn't keep his survival a secret any longer, at least not among the staff."
"I see," Hermione replied. "Yes, I saw him two weeks ago."
Quirin looked at her inquisitively, but she only smiled and didn't say anything further. Hermione certainly wasn't keen on discussing Snape or her relationship with him. "Excuse me," she went on after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, "I'll just get some more punch," turned and went to the large bowl. Then she made for McGonagall who was standing a little away from the others and asked quietly, "Is he coming?"
"Severus?" the elder witch replied. "I invited him but I haven't heard from him. And Albus told me he doesn't intend to celebrate Christmas."
"I see," Hermione said, trying not to show her disappointment. Of course she had known that it was highly unlikely he'd turn up for Christmas – she had the sneaking feeling that Snape liked Christmas about as much as Ebenezer Scrooge. But still part of her had hoped that he might come.
What about being reasonable, a wry voice said in her mind. What about not caring if he chose never to see you again?
Suddenly she noticed that McGonagall looked at her searchingly, a small smile playing around her lips. "I have to say I don't know what surprised me more," she the elder witch said quietly, "that Severus was still alive, or that you and he had become friends."
Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are. It just happened. He is…different now. Or perhaps not so much different, but I know him better." She smiled crookedly. "And he treated me much better."
"I'm glad to hear it. Severus was never an easy person, not even as a child. But I always thought he was a good man – deep deep down… That's why I couldn't believe it when he killed Albus…" MacGonagall shook her head. "I still find the thought terrible. Poor Severus…" She trailed off, then suddenly asked. "So how is he these days?"
Hermione grimaced. "I'm afraid I don't know. We haven't spoken since that incident with the Morituri Potion."
McGonagall furrowed her brow. "What happened? Did you quarrel?"
Hermione evaded her eyes. "Kind of… It's complicated. But I'll probably see him in January."
When she met McGonagall's eyes, Hermione was struck by the sorrow in them. "Well, I hope it works out," the elder witch said quietly. "It doesn't seem that he's interested in having much contact with us, and I'd be glad to know that he has someone."
Hermione felt relieved when Hagrid joined them and McGonagall turned away from her. The elder woman was far too perceptive.
The rest of the afternoon passed with pleasant conversations and far too much cookies. Hermione had baked some herself and gave them to her teachers as a present. They were fascinated by her explanations of how she had produced them without using any magic. Later dinner was served in the Great Hall. As always the Christmas decoration, which sported fake snow falling down and vanishing only a few inches above the gathered teachers and students, was breathtaking.
When they had finished their opulent meal they went back to the more intimate common room. Spirits were high and Hermione had the impression that some of the teachers had had rather a bit too much alcohol.
Quintus, who seemed to have taken a liking to her, had actually turned out to be quite a witty conversationalists and Hermione was enjoying herself very much. It was after 10 pm and they were just enthusiastically singing "Good King Wenceslas" when the door suddenly opened. Heads turned and the song died down. Standing in the doorway, his cloak covered with melting snowflakes, was Snape.
His face twitched into a sarcastic smile. "Merry Christmas," he said, hesitating on the threshold. His eyes swept over the congregation and when they met Hermione's she felt a sudden stab. She was glad that he looked away immediately. The effect he still had on her was rather unnerving.
Snape was surprised at how nervous he felt about meeting his former colleagues again. It wasn't only that, however. He was back in Hogwarts. Ever since he had started school so many years ago, his feelings towards the castle had been ambivalent. Everything had been better than living with his parents, and he had found intellectual satisfaction there. And there had been Lily, of course. But he had never been anything but an outsider, be it as student or as teacher. When Dumbledore had made him stay to teach, Hogwarts had sometimes felt like a prison.
He didn't really know what had made him come. Certainly Snape hadn't intended it when he had got up this morning. He never celebrated Christmas and when Dumbledore had greeted him with a beaming "Merry Christmas!" he had snorted and ignored him.
"Are you coming to Hogwarts, Severus?" Dumbledore asked.
"To see everyone get drunk on punch and sentimentality, and to listen to badly sung carols? I think not."
"Miss Granger will be there," Dumbledore replied, his eyes twinkling.
"Good for her," Snape grumbled, bowing over his desk.
"Very well," Dumbledore said with a sigh. "Then I'll see you tomorrow." And with that he had vanished.
After that Snape had felt strangely restless the whole day. He still didn't know what to do about Hermione. He wanted to see her again, certainly, to somehow undo the damage he had done with their last conversation. Several times he had sat down to write a letter to her, but had stopped after the first few words. No, a letter wouldn't do. Then he had thought of just going to her, but that again seemed too pushy. No, he'd meet her in Stratford.
But what if she wouldn't come this time?
This thought had been haunting Snape for quite a while now. But the problem was that even if he could bring himself to face Hermione, he still didn't know what he would say to her. What he wanted. No, that wasn't right. By now he knew very well what he wanted. He knew just as well, however, that it was impossible, that it would never work. But friendship, that should be possible. To see her from time to time, to talk to her, watch her smile…
Snape caught himself staring through his study's windows. Night had fallen and as he was looking out into the darkness, he suddenly felt – lonely. Lonely and sad and angry with himself. Usually he ignored feelings like this, but for some reason today they were hard to push away.
Look at you, a tiny sneering voice in his mind told him. Sitting here alone at Christmas, staring out into the night with your heart aching. How pathetic is this?
Cursing softly, Snape rose, got his coat and left his house.
He had apparated to Hogwarts and walked up the way to the castle in the falling snow. It was strange to be back, but while Snape was not exactly overjoyed, the feeling of oppression that he had felt constantly throughout that terrible last year was gone.
And now he was standing in the doorway to the Common Room, surveying his former colleagues. And there she was, sitting next to a young man he recognized as his former student Quintus Quirin. She was wearing a burgundy, tight fitting polo-neck sweater, a knee-length narrow black skirt and boots. Her hair was held back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, but already single strands had escaped and were framing her face. The dancing light of the fire and candles lit copper reflexes in her hair. She looked lovely.
Snape's eyes narrowed for the fraction of a second. Actually it seemed that Quirin was thinking the same. He was sitting far too close to her.
"What a pleasant surprise," McGonagall exclaimed, getting up and jerking him out of his thoughts. She went towards him, a large smile on her face. "I am very glad you are back, Severus," she said and drew him into a short but tight embrace.
He only nodded. The others had got up as well and he had to endure their greetings and curious looks. Luckily nobody else tried to embrace him.
"And you certainly recall Quintus Quirin," McGonagall introduced the young man. "He is our new Potions Master."
"Indeed," Snape drawled, giving the young man a sarcastic smile and rather cold stare. "Are you enjoying it?"
Quintus looked nervous but didn't evade Snape's gaze. "As long as no one blows up the laboratory, Professor."
Snape made a throwaway gesture. "I'm not a Professor any longer, Quirin."
The young man nodded. "Very well, Mr. Snape."
Next to greet him was Hermione. "Severus," she said with a light smile, her use of his first name drawing a few surprised looks from the others. "I'm glad you have come."
Snape inclined his head a little. "Dumbledore talked me into it." Their eyes locked for a moment but he turned away quickly and started talking to Flitwick who was standing next to Hermione. Finally he settled between Flitwick and McGonagall, carefully avoiding Hermione as well as Trelawney who had greeted him rather enthusiastically and seemed much too eager to sit next to him.
"Uff," Quintus whispered to Hermione when they had sat down again. "That look of his still makes me feel that I've done something very wrong."
"I know what you mean," Hermione replied, shooting Snape, who seemed to be deep in conversation, a furtive look.
When she turned back to Quintus he was looking at her with a curious expression. "But it doesn't seem to daunt you. After all you are friends, aren't you?
"In a way." She grimaced. "I suppose you get used to it." Suddenly Hermione had the feeling that someone was looking at her. When she turned around she caught Snape's eyes but he looked away immediately. Sighing inwardly, Hermione turned back to Quintus. "So what's changed here?" she asked briskly.