A/N: Nothing that you recognise is mine! All hail the goddess JKR! Seriously, I am making no money from this or any of my other stories (shame, because I'm poor), and am only having fun with characters that do not belong to me in any way, shape or form!

By the way, if you like this, please review!


Hermione Granger was tired as she made her way along the poorly lit country lane towards home. Her temples were tight with the beginnings of a headache and her feet were sore and aching inside her low heeled shoes. She walked slowly even though the winter night was bitterly cold, too tired to find the strength to walk faster. It was several minutes before she found herself standing in front of a small whitewashed door adorned with a bright wreath of holly and berries. She searched through her pockets with half closed eyes until her fingers curled around a set of keys, and then she was letting herself into the cottage with a relieved sigh.

Pushing the door closed behind her she stood absolutely still in the darkened hallway for a moment, listening. The cottage was silent, as it should be, and she felt momentarily silly for her anxiousness. Hermione lived alone. It was easier that way. She reached to her right and flipped a switch, filling the small hallway with soft light as she slipped her shoes off and rubbed the arch of her right foot against the calf of her left leg. After rubbing her eyes, she shrugged her overcoat off slim shoulders and hung it neatly on the coat stand where it belonged.

The polished wooden floor was warm beneath her feet as she padded to the end of the hallway and through another door into her sitting room. The room was lit only by moonlight that spilled in through the windows, and then by nothing at all as she pulled the heavy curtains closed, shutting the world out with a determined flick of her wrists. Sinking into her squashy beige sofa she reached over and switched on a table lamp where it sat on a low coffee table before leaning back again and hooking one foot over her knee to give it a little squeeze.

"Ouch!" The sound of her own voice in the quiet house bothered her very little, but she had never made a habit of speaking to herself, fearing that that might lead her down the road to life as a spinster a little too soon. Hermione was only twenty five, and yet she had lived alone in her little cottage for nearly seven years, since a few months after her eighteenth birthday and . . . her cinnamon brown eyes darkened a few shades as she remembered. So much had happened that year, she thought wistfully. So many awful things. The events themselves had become blurry around the edges as the years had passed, but her memories of them were bright and sharp, causing her unexpected pain. She closed her eyes, trying not to think of what she had lost, of what she could never hope to regain. It seemed to Hermione then that all of the decisions she had made since that time had caused her more pain, yet she did not consider herself wrong. Her life now was very different from how it had been, and how it might still have been had she not chosen to deliberately turn her back on it. She lived in the regular world as one of the regular people; she had a house and a job and money in the bank. She kept herself busy with work, with her books and studies and she tried to convince herself that that was enough. It should have been for her as it would be for any other person, but somewhere deep down she knew that it never could be. She had always been different, and her years away from the normal world had only emphasised those differences. Returning to it had left her cold, and emptier inside than she cared to admit, but she also knew that there could never be a return to the world she had left behind.

Tears prickled her eyes as she remembered her teenage years, and she was consumed with a bittersweet longing for a return to them, wincing at the conflicting emotions the impulse generated. She was happy with her life as it was now, she decided stubbornly, and only a fool wishes for what might have been.

But wish for it she did.

Catching her tears with trembling fingers she drew several deep breaths in an effort to compose herself, knowing why it was that she was feeling this way. Christmas was drawing near, and the season of goodwill always left her feeling as though she was standing on the outside of an amazing event looking in. She had few friends, nobody with which she wanted to spend great amounts of time, and her self imposed loneliness suited her for the most part. It was only when she came home to an empty house and empty memories that she felt truly lonely.

Shaking her head she climbed unsteadily to her feet and pushed the feelings away with an insistent shove. She was no stranger to any of it, but knew that she was too tired and vulnerable to cope with feeling so low, and that there was no way of changing any of the decisions she had made in the past anyway.

In the galley kitchen she found half a bottle of wine in the fridge and a clean wineglass on the draining board where she had left it the previous evening. Picking up both, she cradled them like she would a child and carried them back into the sitting room. After programming the stereo to play some suitably cheery Christmas music she poured herself a large glass of wine, selected 'Pride and Prejudice' from her bookshelf and settled into the sofa for yet another quiet evening in.

She hadn't managed to read more than the first few chapters of the book when she was lulled into a tired sleep by the warmth of the room and wine. The book slipped from her fingers but she didn't hear it as it hit the ground with an audible thud. Her head fell back onto the sofa, shiny curls falling around her face, and her body relaxed into the softness of its surroundings. The CD finished and the stereo switched itself off with a gentle click, filling the room with a hushed silence broken only by the ticking of the clock above the mantelpiece.

Hermione slept and dreamed, a faint smile lifting the corners of her mouth. She dreamed of a school where winged boars guarded the gates, where the great hall was enchanted to look like the sky outside, and of a boy with green eyes and a lightning shaped scar on his forehead . . .

By the time her sleep was broken by a sudden and loud thudding on her door it was nearly midnight and Hermione had been sleeping for nearly three hours. The noise awoke her instantly, and she was on her feet before consciousness had a chance to kick in properly. The knock came again, insistent and not to be denied, and her eyes widened in sudden fear. She had no idea who would be calling at this time of night, in the dead of winter, and she was frightened, but not frightened enough to simply do nothing and wait for the knocking to stop, and her unexpected visitor to leave. Instead, she made her way cautiously to the front door and waited silently behind it until the knock came again, as she was sure it would. Her instincts warned her of danger, but Hermione was no stranger to that. She waited bravely, balanced on the balls of her feet.

The knock came again, this time accompanied by a voice which, muffled by the heavy door, she did not recognise.

"Miss Granger? I understand that you may be frightened but there is no need. Please open the door, I know that you are in there."

Whoever it was waiting for her, they knew at least who she was. Fear subsiding, Hermione took a deep breath and opened the door open in a fluid motion.

Lit only by the weak light from the hallway, the man on her doorstep was instantly recognisable. Clad in darkest black from head to toe, he was tall but slight, even clad in heavy winter clothing his silhouette was lean. Hermione lifted astonished eyes to a narrow face, to black eyes and dark eyebrows lowered further by an angry scowl which creased his face into a series of deep lines. This was the very last person she would ever have expected to find knocking on her door, and judging by the expression on his face, this was the very last place he ever expected to find himself. She shifted sideways so that more of the light would fall onto him, and he squinted at her warily.

"Hermione Granger?" He spoke her name in a husky baritone that made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rise, and she shivered, and then nodded. He took a closer look at her, and appeared satisfied that that was indeed who she was. Hermione found her voice at last.

"Professor Snape?" She asked timidly.

Severus Snape's face settled into the grim expression she last saw seven years ago. It appeared that he had not changed one bit. He frowned at her bemused face.

"Miss Granger," he said shortly. She blinked. "May I come in?"

Hermione froze, suddenly aware of what his request meant. If she let him into her house, she was letting the magical world back into her life even after forsaking it so long ago, but if she slammed the door in his face . . . the consequences of that were not worth thinking about. The only one who had known where she could be found, her secret keeper no less, and the one who had promised her that he would never send anyone to find her here, was Albus Dumbledore. If he had sent Snape to her, it had to be for a very good reason.

But did she really want to know what that reason was?

Snape was watching her impatiently from the doorstep. He knew the rules as well as she did. If she didn't invite him over the threshold of her home, he couldn't touch her. He had Dumbledore to thank for that, and the powerful warding spells he had placed on the cottage to guarantee her safety.

Hermione was torn. She looked up into the wizard's eyes and bit her lip. He nodded his head once, jerkily. She waited. He rolled his eyes, and finally said the word she was waiting for.


She let herself breathe again, exhaling all of her oxygen in one shaky breath before stepping off to one side so that he could sweep past her into the hallway, which suddenly seemed much smaller than it ever had done before. He loomed over her, waiting for her to show him into the house, and suddenly Hermione couldn't breathe at all. The room was spinning and she couldn't focus properly, couldn't even stay on her feet. She was dimly aware of the expression on Snape's face shifting from annoyance to concern, and he reached out one arm to catch her as the world began to spin away and then consciousness was abandoning her completely. As she fainted, her very last thought asked her a very important question.

What the hell was going on?

TBC . . .