Summary: [HG/SS] [AU]The world hasn't been right since Albus Dumbledore somehow survived the cursed ring Horcrux. Now Dumbledore has forced Severus between a rock and a hard place. Can he kill the only woman who has ever truly loved him, or will he refuse and die himself?
A/N: Uh… this first chapter is a little… emotional. Bring tissues just in case.
Beta Love: The Dragon and the Rose
Time for a Change
The air in Spinner's End was unusually warm and an almost cheery sort of glow came from the crackling hearth. Books lay scattered about here and there, but Severus knew each one and exactly which page it was turned to. A soft breeze came in from the cracked kitchen window, smelling of the salty sea, thanks to an air freshening charm combined with a scent diffuser to cancel out the oily factory stench— it was Hermione Granger's Master's project. Thanks to her, the common folk could now make their homes smell like a tropical paradise or a blooming garden of sweet pea blossoms depending on their individual desires. St Mungo's was even using the charm to make the scent of diffused medications more pleasurable for their patients. For the first time in decades, Severus didn't cough when he came home, all thanks to Hermione Granger.
She was her own master now. Her time as his apprentice had long since passed, but they had remained close and thick as thieves. His survival of the Second Wizarding War had been all her doing, no thanks to Albus. Albus Dumbledore had been entirely too busy saving his own skin from the curse that had very nearly killed him. Somehow, Albus had managed to stave off Death, and no one but Severus knew just how close to death the old man had truly been.
Albus had always held his secrets close. Only Severus knew, and that wasn't because Albus had been inclined to tell him. It was because he required Severus to stave off the curse on the ring Horcrux. Then, on the night that Severus had "killed" Albus, the old wizard had miraculously risen from the grave like the Christian Jesus, uncursed and showing no signs of his recent ordeal.
Somehow, the old goat had used Severus' killing curse to convince the curse that he actually was dead and it had simply dissipated into thin air. Then, once it did, he was free to come back to life, every it as annoying and meddlesome as ever. Bothersome old man.
Severus looked at the stack of newspapers on the side table and flinched.
Hermione Granger Found Guilty of the Murder of Auror Tichus McDunnahey: Hit Wizards On the Case
Tichus McGunnahey Murdered: Last Hope for Peace Between Warring Pureblood Families Dies With Him
Attempted Murder of Albus Dumbledore Blamed on Hermione Granger! Hero and Auror Harry Potter Refuses to Comment!
Hermione Granger Judged Too Dangerous to Apprehend Alive! Public Outcry for War Heroine's Blood!
Weasley Family Disowns Hermione Granger! Weasley Matriarch Swears "No One Who Attempts to Harm Albus Dumbledore is Welcome in My Home"!
War Hero Ronald Weasley Confesses: I Never Loved or Wanted to Marry Granger, She Just Went Mental After the War!
Master Hermione Granger Brings New Level of Comfort for Those Suffering at St Mungos!
Severus Snape, Ex-Death Eater Turned Hero Thanks to the Efforts of Harry Potter, Returns to Teaching
A large stack of clippings lay on the table, and Severus felt a tightness in his chest that he could not deny. Hermione had always kept such meticulous records of everything. In the chest he kept in his attic could be found journal after journal of research notes. Potions, charms, curses, counter-courses— all of her work lay within, hidden away in the one place she knew it would be safe: with him.
Because Hermione Granger had been marked for death.
Yet Hermione Granger was perfectly innocent. He knew that in his heart, damn all the alleged evidence to the contrary. And damn the opinions of the blind, deaf and dumb bleating sheep that passed for today's wizarding public.
No one would ever believe him, an ex-Death Eater, no matter how often Harry Bloody Potter sang his praises.
"You have your orders, Severus," Albus had told him. "We cannot afford to play favourites just because she was once your apprentice."
"She is innocent, Albus!" Severus had protested. "You know this!"
"I fear what I believed I knew about the girl is not what she has subsequently proven herself to be, Severus. I promised the Minister I would do my part to keep her from murdering any other innocent people. You, Severus, will remember your vow."
Severus tightly clenched his jaw and his hands. "Yes. Sir."
"That's a good boy," Albus tutted, sucking vigorously on his lemon drop. "I will have a new assignment for you when you return."
Severus swept from the Headmaster's Office, his face as hard and cold as ice.
Severus walked up the creaking staircase, comforted by the signs of repair that he and Hermione worked on together. She had helped him patch the holes in the walls and then repaper them. She had fixed the stairs and railing so it didn't threaten to give out when one so much as touched it. She had dragged him through a Muggle store, looking for the perfect fabrics with which to make the curtains, and then, while he was reading, she would sew them by hand. She said it was a nostalgic sort of cathartic bliss being able to use her hands just like her mother used to.
Severus had cleaned up the kitchen, fixing the pot-bellied stove and the kitchen counters, cabinets, and drawers. He polished the silverware until they could have blinded any criminal who foolishly thought to try their hand at robbing Spinner's End. Hermione had found it all terribly amusing as she picked up a spoon and used it as a compact mirror ala Lavender Brown, bouncing her curls with her hand as though she had just returned from the beauty salon. It was enough to make Severus' stomach churn, but then Hermione would laugh and stop her silly little farce. And all would be right with the world again.
As master and apprentice, she had become a permanent fixture in his life, and when she had achieved her own mastery, she had chosen not to leave. They had, despite it all, remained just as close as before. Severus finally admitted to himself that a part of him never wanted to see her go off to find her own place in the world.
Hundreds of places pleaded for her to come teach, develop new charms, help those in need, but all those grand offers came to a screeching halt when she had been framed for murder. Now, even the youngest witches and wizards dreamed of bringing the infamous Dark Witch Hermione Granger to justice. The one million galleon reward for proof of her death didn't help much.
Harry, her supposed staunch ally, had turned his back on her, saying he couldn't in good conscience know where she was and not come to apprehend her. He was the head Auror, after all. Ronald, of course, didn't need any encouragement to seek and apprehend her. One million galleons on offer saw Ron searching high and low for his former best female friend, eagerly anticipating the day he could walk into the Ministry with Hermione's head clutched in his hands. What was over a decade of friendship compared to a fat sack of gold galleons?
Remember your vow, Severus.
Severus walked to the old, worn door in the back to the master bedroom. He had given it to Hermione while he had remained in his old room. There were too many memories of Tobias, his horrible, abusive father, beating his mother in that room for him to even consider sleeping in there. After a few years, however, he realised that he had new memories, good memories to replace them with— those of Hermione sleeping there.
She had made it over into her apprentice's quarters, filling it with books, tables, and a few cauldrons. She had a charms building circle and a formal magical binding circle for spellcrafting. He would bring her tea there, admonishing her for not sleeping enough. Her work would suffer, he had told her. She would make mistakes if she didn't sleep. All of which was true, at least on paper, but really he didn't know how to be completely kind without some sort of remark of what she was surely doing wrong. Hermione had said she would wonder if was really him if he behaved any other way.
She knew him far too well.
Sometimes the roles would be reversed, and she would bring him the tea and sandwiches and proceed to scold him for falling asleep on top of his research, and he would snap at her in irritation only to see her smiling warmly back at him. Somehow, she had forgiven him his past transgressions against her. Somehow, she had forgiven him his bad habits, quirks, automatic snark, and viciously defensive rancor. Even more strangely, she had chosen to spend her days with him rather than making her way out in the world and building a name for herself outside of the neatly labelled box of former war heroine.
Maybe he should've encouraged her to leave. Perhaps, had she done so, she wouldn't have ended up in the unthinkable situation she was in right now.
But, when it came right down to it, Severus knew the truth. He didn't ever want her to leave. He wanted to see that smile she had for him every day for the rest of his life.
But come the morning, he would never see her wonderful smile again. No matter what happened, either he would die refusing Albus' orders via his unbreakable vow or he would be forced to murder the only person who had ever given a damn about him, because his master had bade him to do so.
He had no doubt whatsoever that Albus knew damn well that Hermione was innocent. Yet, still, he had given the order to his indentured servant to take Hermione Granger's life.
"I'm glad it's you," Hermione voice said, heavy with an infinite weariness. She looked at to him from where she was writing at the desk. "Better to end peacefully at the hands of a true friend than leave the world at the hand of a greedy stranger."
"Hermione," Severus said her name painfully as he closed the gap between them. He wrapped his arms around her as he pressed his nose into her voluminous hair. He shuddered against her.
"We knew he would send you, Severus," Hermione said. "We knew the very moment the murder hit the papers." She rubbed her thumb tenderly against his pale cheek. "I might have gone down fighting had it been anyone else but you."
Severus looked at her with eyes full of emotion, his face lined with all the things he wanted to say. To her, his Occlumency was useless. She could read every tell far better than Albus or any Dark Lord ever fancied they could. She could, he knew, because she genuinely cared.
"We've lived a good life, Severus," Hermione told him. "You and I against the world for a time. I am honoured that you could share it with me."
"Please," Severus pleaded. "Run."
Hermione just shook her head. "I will not condemn you to death," she said, her chin tilted up in a hint of the stubbornness of her old teenage self. You have survived so very much. Perhaps, I should never have lived. Perhaps, Bellatrix should have killed me at Malfoy Manor. Or Dolohov in the Department of Mysteries. A hundred, thousand deaths I could have had. My time with you, Severus, was beyond price. You are a survivor, and I— I am just a stupid girl, a know-it-all who was too stubborn to leave you alone when you so desperately tried to push me away."
Severus pressed his forehead to hers, a thin line of salty tears running alongside his nose and down against her cheek.
"I'm so sorry, Severus," Hermione whispered, pressing her small nose to his. "I'm sorry I never listened. You told me what would happen if Albus found out there was anything or anyone who could distract you from the 'work' you do for him, but I couldn't leave you. I was too selfish and blind to give you up."
Severus pressed his palms to her soft cheeks. "You were worth it," he choked out a sob. "Do you hear me, Hermione? You were so worth it. Every day. Every single moment. Every argument. Every celebration. For once in my life, I knew. I knew what it was to be forgiven. To have someone give a damn, to care about me. Like I actually meant something to someone."
Hermione touched his neck where one very homicidal magically-enhanced snake had tried to take him out. "I wish I could somehow be there for you until the end. I have dreamed of what it would be like. Traveling the world. No cruel, unfeeling masters to yank you back to their chosen path like a disobedient dog. Just us. Seeing the pyramids, watching whales… Minerva is there too. Alive. Beautiful. Laughing at us. Celebrating with us. Our children call her grandma. Her face shines like the sun. You would always be standing there in the door with a coffee in one hand and a tea in the other, holding them hostage until I promised to make you your favorite breakfast. I wonder what it would be like if my parents were still alive. My father would drag you down to his man cave and force you watch political debates and talk about world issues. My mother would spoil you with food and at the same time force you eat pickled beets because they are good for you. The look on your face as you tried to be polite—" Hermione closed her eyes, the tears flowing heavily now.
Severus fell to his knees as he pulled something out from his trouser pocket. A thin band of gold that shimmered with tiny white sapphires was clutched between his fingers. "This was my mother's, and before her, it was her father's. It is said, when someone of the Prince line truly loves someone and they do in return, the ring will alight upon their finger and bring light unto darkness when all other lights go out. It also said it cannot be removed until they get married and have a child, but I can't personally vouch for that. My mother gave it to me instead of my father. She said, when she was married, she didn't want magic telling her who was right for her." He looked down and then back up into her eyes.
"Hermione, will you take my ring? Will you allow me the shared dream— a moment when you could be mine?" Severus flinched as Hermione placed her hand over his.
"I am already yours, Severus," Hermione admonished. "I have been for a very long time now. Through many sleepless nights over cauldrons and groggy mornings. I would gladly wear your ring, Severus, but you do not need a ring to capture my heart."
Severus looked down and saw the glittering band had found its way around Hermione's ring finger as though it had never been anywhere else. A soft cry of mingled wonder and pain filled his throat.
Hermione pulled his head close and gently pressed her lips to his for the first time. "Make love to me, Severus. May the last thing I know be the warmth of your arms. No cruel taskmasters. No Dark Lords. No dead friends. No betrayals. Just you and me, my love."
Severus breathed heavily and nodded numbly, pulling her out of the chair and to the nearby bed. His lips covered hers as bodies moved together in unison, struggling to make up for all of the time they had lost and now would never have. He worshipped her body and soul, slowly, tenderly bringing her to the brink and back, staring into her shimmering eyes as he saw her reach the final point of brightness where it spilt over into him. She clung to him tightly, whispering his name with breathless, undeniable love.
As he lay beside her, panting softly into her ear as he heard her breathing even out and deepen, knowing she was slowly slipping off into sleep, he prayed that this moment would somehow never end. He begged whatever greater power that might exist and actually be listening to tell him that his vow to Dumbledore had miraculously been broken by his pseudo-death. He wanted to wake up to find her next to him for the rest of his life. He wanted to see the glow in her eyes as they became one every time the sun rose and set.
"I love you," he whispered, the tears rolling down his nose. "Hermione."
He couldn't bear to sleep, not on this night. He listened to her breathe instead until the dim rays of the sun rose and began to peek through the half-drawn curtains. He stared at the glimmering band around her finger. Could he truly kill the only one who loved him enough to invoke the magic of the Prince family heirloom? Even if it was to save her from a cruel and agonizing death at the hands of a stranger, a hit wizard, or even a former 'friend'?
As the sun warmed Hermione's back, she stirred, staring up into his fathomless black eyes with all the love and forgiveness he could ever ask for. She said nothing, but she delicately placed something into his hand and slowly guided it upward.
"I love you," she whispered, pressing the wand tip to her chest, right above her heart. "I forgive you."
Severus sobbed harshly, pressing his lips feverishly to hers.
"This is not your fault," she said, looking into his eyes with immeasurable love and solemn acceptance. "I absolve you. I hold no grievance against you. My soul bears you no ill. You are entirely blameless in this, Severus. Never forget that. I love you. Until the world stops, time itself comes to an end and even beyond, always remember that I love you. I would gladly have become Hermione Snape." She pressed the wand to her chest once more, holding his trembling hands in hers. "But I am proud to have been your friend."
"I love you," Severus whispered brokenly. "And I always will."
Hermione gently pressed her lips to his one last time and closed her eyes.
Severus clenched his eyes shut with a convulsive sob, his grip tightening on his ebony wand.
"Tempus emantur cor fractus," he sang, his voice cracking badly as he completed the spell.
It was a few minutes after when he finally willed his eyes to open.
Hermione Jean Granger was gone.
Bloody marauders. Bloody miserable life.
Severus Snape didn't mind most Quidditch game days, but it was far too good an opportunity to not have to worry about James Potter and his Gryffindor minions coming to call and make his life a living hell. So, there he was, sitting out alone by the Black Lake, sitting up against his favourite tree, with a butterbeer in hand, and trying to enjoy the blissful solitude of everyone leaving him the bloody fuck alone for once.
It wasn't like there was anyone in this place who actually cared.
Even Lily had been drifting away, slowly but surely, enraptured by the siren call of the typically raucous Gryffindor social scene along with the rest of her housemates. She was no longer content to share quiet time with him, just reading and studying anymore. It just wasn't enough for her. Part of him realised that the chasm between them was growing ever larger and wider, but the other part of him resisted the reality of that change like a wizened goblin refusing to give up one knut more than absolutely necessary.
Growing up, Severus had decided, was severely overrated, especially when it hurt.
He closed his eyes, trying to think back to his youth when laying out under the great willow tree next to the pond was all he ever needed to feel better. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Just don't think about James Bloody Potter and allow that arrogant, obnoxious, inexplicably popular git to invade your quiet time as well.
Don't think about him!
What the bloody fuck?
Great, now even his language was degrading into that of a uneducated ruffian with no sense of—
Severus sighed and opened his eyes. He rolled up into a sitting position and grunted.
Was that a… girl?
What was she wear— oh Merlin's bloody pants!
Severus rushed up to the water and trudged in up to his waist and pulled the girl's limp form closer to the shore. He sloughed off his outer robes and buttoned her into it, really not wanting to be accused of being a pervert on top of all the other things he was typically called on a daily basis. He wasn't sure why that even mattered to him at this point, but he really didn't need any extra drama in his life.
At least Sirius Sodding Black wasn't around to do and say completely inappropriate things. Because then he would have to murder him out of principle.
He cast a weightless charm on the girl and carried her carefully in his arms back to Hogwarts. Everyone was at the game except Professor McGonagall, who was currently manning the fort on her own. He would have to bring this mystery girl to her first. He had no problems with Professor McGonagall. She always treated all of the students fairly despite her understandably rooting for her own house, unlike their highly Gryffindor-biased headmaster. No Slytherin had ever accused Minerva McGonagall of being unfair. It was well-known that she would dock points off her own house in a heartbeat if she knew one of her cubs was in the wrong. The school quite honestly needed a lot more people like her.
Severus carried his awkward bundle with him to the Gryffindor Tower and stood directly in front of the portrait.
"Yes?" the portrait muttered, giving him and his burden the side-eye.
"I'm here to see the Deputy Headmistress, please," Severus said, chin lifted with determination.
The portrait stared and disappeared for a moment. The painted woman returned after a while. "Come in," she said, the door suddenly swinging open.
Severus took in a deep breath and stepped over the threshold.
"Mr Snape, what brings you to my—" Minerva McGonagall halted and looked ready to draw her wand out at a moment's notice. "Mr Snape, what is the meaning of this?!"
"She was in the lake," Severus blurted out. "She was naked and unconscious. I didn't know what else to do. So I wrapped her up in my robes and brought her here to you."
Minerva narrowed her eyes at him appraisingly, perhaps wondering if Severus was trying to pull the wool over her eyes and then realising that of all of her students, Severus was the last person to go looking for any more trouble and unnecessary attention. "Ach," she tutted worriedly. "Poppy is off at the game making sure that any injuries are promptly taken care of. Come. Follow me," she said, waving her hand. She walked him out of the entryway into a private chamber where there was a sitting area with a plush red sofa with tartan-patterned pillows. She waved her wand, transfiguring the sofa into a comfortable-looking bed.
"Lay the young lady here, lad," she said. "I'll fetch some warm blankets."
Severus carefully lay the still-unconscious girl down on the bed his professor had made for her, pulling the transfigured sheets over her and tucking her arms over the sheets in case she awoke and freaked out to find herself suddenly confined. He would completely understand if she did.
The girl seemed to be about his age, perhaps a year or so older. She had a tangled mane of light brown curls that seemed to have a mind of its own.
McGonagall arrived shortly after with what looked like a handmade family quilt. She covered the unconscious girl up and moved to fold the girl's slender hands over the quilt to hold it in place.
Minerva froze as she spotted a very familiar-looking ring on the girl's right ring finger. "Merlin! Mr Snape, you said you found her in the lake? Did you happen to hear a sound before you noticed her? A Portkey perhaps?"
"No, ma'am," Severus said shaking his head in the negative. "Just a really loud splash."
Minerva stared at the ring and tugged at it, but it stubbornly refused to leave the girl's finger. "Well, now that proves it."
"She's a McGonagall, or claimed as kin by one of us," Minerva explained. "Those rings don't lie, lad. They cannot be stolen. And they cannot be taken off one to whom it was freely given, not by anyone other than the wearer herself."
Severus blinked and stared at the ring, recognising the familiar crest that adorned the Deputy Headmistress' hand. Strange that he had never really noticed it before. Then he looked at the girl's left hand and immediately froze.
Tiny white sapphires set magically into a thin band of goblin-wrought gold. Severus frantically searched for the long chain around his neck and pulled it out to examine it.
His mother's ring still hung from the chain, just as it had since the day she had first given it to him. "For luck," she had said.
Severus stared, dumbstruck. The white sapphires glittered. He reached out and to touch the band, and there was a wonderful surge of pure warmth like the first kiss of the afternoon sun after a cloudy morning. He gasped, rubbing his hand as though it had bitten him.
This witch, and he had no doubt at all that was exactly what she was, had somehow gained his trust— his love— and she had clearly returned it in kind. He knew, because the incontrovertible evidence was right there in front of him. His mother had said when she first held it, the ring had been silver with flawless sea pearls, and when her father had it, it had been a heavy gold with a rich, black onyx inlay. This particular ring had been his.
It was exactly the same.