"Professor Snape," she said with a smile, "I'm glad you agreed to this meeting."
"Miss Granger," he said with an inclination of his head. Then he looked at the rucksack and her laptop, and Hermione thought she saw a small smile tuck at his mouth. "These are yours?"
"You shouldn't carry so much." He threw a quick look around, to check that nobody was watching, then whipped out his wand and shrunk the rucksack until it was small enough to fit into Hermione's pocket. "We don't have to go far," he said and made to leave.
Hermione had been wondering why he had wanted to meet her at this place. There weren't many restaurants around and she had no idea where else he'd take her. They went towards the Houses of Parliament, but duck into a small alley at their back. After a few minutes Snape stopped in front of an inconspicuous looking 19th century building. There was a polished brass plate next to the door, pronouncing it to be the Westminster Club.
"This is a muggle club, isn't it?" Hermione asked surprised. "You're a member here?" She hadn't taken Snape to be the type for this.
"Indeed I am," he said, ringing the bell. "It's a good place to stay when I am in London. You can spent the night here, get food, rooms, everything. And they are very discreet. No one cares who you are and what you do."
"I see. Will they even let me in? I gather it's all male?"
"It is, but women are allowed to visit."
The door opened and revealed what looked like a real butler. He obviously knew Snape and greeted him with "Mr. Prince", then let them in and led them up a wide staircase and through a series of wood panelled rooms. The club looked just as Hermione would have imagined it, very 19th century, very British Empire and very male. They stopped in a mid-sized room with a long table in it, obviously some kind of conference room. Like everything else, it was panelled with dark wood, but there were windows along the whole front and so it was bright enough.
"I booked this room so we could talk without interruption," Snape explained. He sat down at the far end of the table and Hermione took the chair around the corner so she could face him. She got out her shrunken rucksack and, after casting some spells so they wouldn't be overheard, Snape de-shrunk it again. Hermione then took out her books and looked for the ones she'd need first.
"I hope you are well?" Snape suddenly asked.
She looked up. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you. It was only an appendicitis, after all."
Snape's face was unreadable. "That's the reason you were in hospital?"
"Yes." She furrowed her brow. "I thought you knew – so you didn't?"
He shook his head. "When I came to the hotel the concierge only told me that you wouldn't be able to come."
Hermione was puzzled. "Then either my boyfriend forgot to tell him, or the concierge forgot to tell you." She felt a bit irritated. Was it the concierge's fault? And if not, why hadn't Thomas delivered her message the way she had asked him to? She'd ask him about it when she got back. "It was really bad timing," she went on with a crooked smile. "It started just hours before I wanted to set out for Stratford. I'm really sorry I left you standing there like that."
Snape shook his head. "Don't worry. Now, I think we have some work to do." He started telling her the newest developments in his work and then it was Hermione's time to ask questions and make suggestions. When there was a knocking on the door, and the butler entered bringing tea and sandwiches, Hermione was surprised to find that it was already four o'clock.
She hadn't felt so intellectually stimulated for a long time. At the beginning Hermione had been a bit uncertain how the meeting would go, after all they hadn't seen each other for over a year and even with the letters their relationship had been hardly more than tentative. But now she found that although Snape didn't always agree with her and could still be rather sarcastic, he seemed to accept her as an equal. Hermione enjoyed their discussions and minor quarrels surprisingly much. And the intellectual passion and inquisitiveness he showed reminded her of herself. How extraordinary. Hermione threw Snape a furtive look. It was intriguing, this mixture of control and passion. Until now she had only ever seen the dark side of it, had seen his control slip when he was very angry. She would never have thought to find something like a kindred spirit…
Snape was leafing through one of the books on genetics she had brought with her. "Do you really think this will help?" he asked with a slight snarl.
Hermione sighed internally. She had found that Snape was less than willing to acknowledge the usefulness of muggle-research. "I'm not sure, but I think it might be worth looking into. Muggles might not be able to do magic, but you have to agree that they make up for it quite well." She pointed at her laptop. "A computer for example can be highly useful. You could use one to organize your data, it's certainly more practical than parchment and quills."
Snape didn't seem impressed. "I don't set much store in those muggle trinkets", he said with a snort. "I've always found our resources quite sufficient. But if you need them... I suppose it's hard to work without magic..."
Hermione was surprised and stung by this comment. He of all people knew well enough why she hadn't stayed in the wizarding world. "I would have thought you would be more open-minded about muggles and their achievements," she said, meeting his gaze defiantly. "After all you are the Half-Blood Prince, aren't you?"
Anger flared up in his eyes, so fierce Hermione shrank back a little. She hadn't expected him to react like this.
"And why should that make me keener on muggle toys?" He said in a very cold voice. "My parentage has nothing to do with the way I work. You don't know anything about this."
"Oh, I don't know, do I?" Hermione said, nettled. "I don't know what it feels like to be a muggle-born suddenly thrust into the magical world? A world in which most people look down on me, look down on my parents and everything their world has achieved? In which people call me Mudblood and in which, however much I try, and however much I achieve, some will never accept me?"
Snape looked at her with a stony face but didn't say anything. This only further irritated Hermione. "Did you know that Harry really loved your book?" she went on in a casual tone, giving in to a reckless urge to break his complacency. "He felt a strong connection to the Half-Blood Prince, he thought they were rather similar, and that…"
Hermione never finished. Snape's face contorted with anger and he got up abruptly. In the process he caught the teapot with his left arm and knocked it over, causing scaling hot tea to pour over Hermione's arm which had been lying on the table. She stifled a cry of surprise and pain, then shouted "The books!" and reached out for them to get them away from the spilt tea.
When the hot liquid hit Hermione, Snape froze for a few seconds but then helped her to get the books and reached for his wand to let the tea disappear. "Are the books all right?" he asked, his voice controlled again.
"Yes, they are." Hermione looked up from the books, not sure what to expect now. There was no expression in his face she could interpret.
"Show me your arm," Snape said flatly.
Cautiously Hermione went to him and undid the wet sleeve of her blouse, then held her arm up to him for inspection. The inner side of her wrist was an angry red.
Snape took up his wand again and cast a spell to dry her sleeve. "A burn salve would be better," he said matter-of-factly, "but since we don't have any I'll use a spell to sooth the pain. Refrigerate!" Sudden wonderful coldness enveloped Hermione's underarm. When it vanished after a few seconds, most of the pain had gone as well and the angry red of the skin was fading.
"How is it?" Snape asked.
Hermione flexed her fingers tentatively. "It's fine, thanks. I feel hardly any pain."
"We'll repeat it before you go. You should be fine tomorrow." He fell silent and Hermione suddenly noticed how close she was standing to him and backed away a little.
"I am sorry," Snape said abruptly. His voice wasn't dispassionate any longer, but what there was in it Hermione didn't know.
She looked up at him in surprise. "It wasn't your fault. It was an accident."
He shook his head. "I'm sorry for getting angry. It…my relationship to the muggle world has never been easy." He looked away for a few moments, but then met her eyes again. "My parents…their marriage was not what you'd call happy. Far from it. My father was the muggle, and his behaviour didn't make me love the muggle world."
"I am sorry," Hermione said quietly.
Snape made an impatient gesture. "You needn't be." He hesitated again. "But I can assure you that my family background never let me to believe that Voldemort or his minions were right in their condemnation of muggle-borns." There was a surprising urgency in his voice now, and his black eyes were burning with an intensity Hermione had only ever seen when he was really angry. "I never thought you didn't belong to Hogwarts," he went on, "or that you were less worth than a pure-blood Slytherin."
Hermione felt a bit overwhelmed by his seriousness. "I…thank you," she said, meeting his dark gaze without fear.
They stared at each other silently for a few moments, then Snape broke the spell. "Well, shall we go on?"
Hermione nodded and sat down again, her head spinning. So Snape had had a bad childhood? Well, that might explain a lot. Poor man. But it still didn't explain why he had freaked out when she had mentioned Harry. What was it with him and Harry that made him lose control even after his death? Hermione shot Snape a quick look, but decided that she certainly wouldn't risk asking him.
Snape glanced up from the notes he had been studying and caught her looking at him. "You wanted to show me a book on genetics, I think?" he said, and Hermione was glad for an excuse to look away so he wouldn't see her blush.