Title: A Conflict of Interest
Disclaimer: Anything you recognize, I don't own. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all associated characters, settings, etc., belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, UPN, etc. Harry Potter and all associated characters, setting, props, etc., belong to J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Inc., etc. No copyright infringement is intended, so please don't sue - all you'll get is a really bratty bird and some really spoiled guinea pigs.
Spoilers: Up to 'Wrecked' in the Buffyverse, up to "Goblet of Fire" in the Potterverse.
Pairings: Willow/Snape, Hermione/Viktor Krum, Draco/Ginny, Fred/Angelina. Other 'ships to be revealed later. ;)
Author's Note: Just a reminder that this story takes place following "Goblet of Fire" - as in, "Order of the Phoenix" and "Half-Blood Prince" never happened. There will be overlaps, but there will also be differences, and there are no intentional spoilers. So, if you've read the books, you'll see some things familiar and some things not. If you haven't read the books and don't want to be spoiled - use your own judgment. If I don't tell you what's my idea and what's from the book, then you're not really being spoiled, right?
"It's not really me I'm worried about – it's Dumbledore. 'Cause, I mean, if they go running to Dumbledore I think that'll be okay. I don't think he'll mind. Much. Probably not at all. But definitely not much. But they might tell parents, or older siblings or other teachers like – oh God Reed!" Willow paused, giving Severus an utterly horror-struck expression. "Nobody'd tell Reed, would they? He'd go straight -"
"- to the Ministry," Severus finished for her. "At which point you would most certainly be arrested."
Willow frowned. "But if Dumbledore didn't know about it, then it wouldn't affect him, right? They couldn't get him fired or -"
"Have you ever so much as seen a Dementor from a distance, let alone spent time in one's company?" Willow's frown deepened; there was a muscle in Severus' jaw that was beginning to twitch.
"You're not helping," she complained.
"I should certain hope not," he snapped back, and she flinched a little at the contemptuous edge to his voice. He's always snappy and insulting and stuff, just . . just he doesn't usually sound like he means it.
Okay, yes he does. But he doesn't usually . . well . . really sound like he means it, or something, or . . he looks like he wants to kill something right now.
"Did I catch you at a really bad time or something?" Willow asked, tone a little annoyed, trying hard for it not to be a little hurt. He's always like this. Nothing new. Most days it's amusing. "'Cause if you really need to finish that or – or they're really bad and infuriating essays -" she gestured at the papers on his desk.
With sharp, deliberate movements, Severus pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his quill, then capped his inkwell. The handkerchief was thrown down on top of the stack of papers. The red ink he'd been using for marking looked disconcertingly bloody against the white cloth. He stood, pushed in his chair, and walked around the desk; his eyes never left her face.
"Okay then," Willow responded. So I have his complete attention, then, I guess. She crossed her arms, an unconsciously defensive gesture against the weight of that decidedly unfriendly glare. He followed suit, only on him it didn't look defensive – she realized what she was doing and very determinedly dropped her arms to her sides.
This is just Severus. He's not scary.
Not scary in a bad way.
Remember what he looks like with his hair all in his face and rumpled, in the morning? Remember how you don't mind that he's cranky and has a temper and can't so much even spell 'nice'?
"Don't do this," he said flatly.
"Don't do what?" Willow snapped. Don't risk myself a little for the sake of actually doing something, actually giving these kids something useful? "Don't teach them the one thing that -"
"Do not allow Potter -" and he all but spat the name.
"Oh, you're kidding me!" Willow exclaimed. "You're going all tall-dark-and-scary on me just because this was Harry's idea?"
"That boy has no regard for the consequences of his actions, no respect for anyone or -"
"We're not having that discussion," Willow cut him off angrily. "This discussion that we're having? Really not that one. I had the idea myself before, he just happened to remind me that -"
"He did not 'just happen' -" Severus began to protest derisively.
"- that if I'm not willing to take some risks where I need to then there's no point in my being here or having that class at all!" Willow continued right over top of his objections. "This is not about your Harry issues!" And I really wanted your opinion and your help and I get – this. Severus Snape the 4th year with a grudge.
Would have been really, really nice to be able to talk this over with Severus-the-grown-up, y'know.
Because I'm scared a bit. I don't exactly like breaking the rules all over the place, and bad things happened last time I did that, and - and damn it I'm having issues here and why'd you have to go have other issues so that we're just all issue-having and – and bleh!
"My Harry issues," Severus repeated flatly.
"Well, you do," Willow insisted. "Have issues, with Harry. But that's not what I want to talk -"
"Of course not," Severus retorted, tone gone deadly smooth and calm. "You'd like to retain your smug, self-righteous moral superiority unquestioned, and just -"
"Hey!" Willow exclaimed, feeling very bitten by his words. I mean, he always says – says stuff like that, but –
- but usually he doesn't mean it.
At least I think. Maybe he does. Maybe he always means it and he doesn't respect me at all and –
"- and just humor the nasty old man so long as it's not too inconvenient for you," Severus finished.
"I'm having no urge whatsoever to humor you right now!" Willow shot back.
"The feeling is quite mutual!" Severus retorted, calm cracking and voice raising, taking half a step towards her, one hand releasing his elbows and making a gesture towards her as if he wanted to grab and perhaps shake.
She took a step back, lips pressed together, shoulders tensed. He stopped; she glared. Do not think that hand is getting anywhere near me with you in the mood you're in, Mister.
Severus refolded his arms, his expression darkening further; Willow took a small step forward, glowering, retaking her ground regardless of the fact that it left her standing a little too close to him for her present comfort.
"So you're usually humoring me, then, huh?" she demanded. She'd meant it to be sharp and clipped, and it was, but it was also wounded and there was no hiding it. "That's what you just said, right? Very mutual feeling of non-humoring."
"You are twisting my words to suit your own purposes," he responded, sneering, "not that I should be surprised, it's such a very Gryffindor thing to -"
"Did I miss the part where I got sorted at all," Willow exclaimed indignantly, "let alone into Gryffindor? Not that you have issues with -"
"Well you are apparently determined to act as a simpering acolyte of the cult of Potter!" Severus shouted.
"So nice to know what you really think of me!" she shot back. "I'm sorry I bothered you! I guess I'll just go now."
Willow backed away, turning around and trying very hard to be too angry to feel how badly his words stung. Yep, that's me, just latching onto the nearest available resident hero, incapable of independent thought. Nice to know that's apparently what everybody thinks of me.
That's not fair and this is not about Giles –
- but it's not about Harry either and the hell with fair, I don't want to be fair, he's not being fair, he's being a big old jerk-person for real and – and I need to go now before I start crying.
"Willow -" she heard Severus behind her, his footsteps coming across the room to where she was almost out the door. His tone was still angry, but controlled, all awkward and restrained. Something in her gut lurched.
He didn't mean it, you know he didn't –
- but he said it, and it hurt.
"Don't," she said, pausing with her hand clenched hard on the doorjam, focusing on the feeling of her fingernails trying to bite into the wood and pushing back against the incipient tears. "Just – don't say anything else right now." He looked, in equal parts, like she'd hit him and like he wanted to hit her. "I'll see you later," she offered in a voice that wobbled, and then fled.
"- cannot be allowed," Severus finished. He thought he'd sounded calm, reasonable and eminently logical through his entire argument; the vaguely annoyed, vaguely amused expression on the Headmaster's face seemed to suggest otherwise.
"I see," Albus said, taking some manner of sweet from a jar on his desk and nibbling it contemplatively.
"You will speak to her, then," Severus pressed. "You'll stop this -" arrogant, suicidal idiocy "- ill-advised plan of Potter's." Because if you do not, and anything – anything at all – happens to her because of this, I will kill him, boy or no, debt or no, he will die.
Which will erase not one bit of the harm done, will not bring her back.
Albus popped the rest of his sweet into his mouth, and frowned, then leaned over his desk to comb through his candy dish, searching for something. Severus knew the old man well enough to know he was considering his next words carefully; the Headmaster's face lit up with childish glee a moment later and he produced a sweet rapped in brown and black striped foil. He held it out to Severus.
"Butter rum toffee," he said, smiling. "You like those, don't you?" He did; he took the candy with a small nod of thanks, tried to look calm, and resisted the urge to reach across the gadget-strewn desk and strangle his employer. He'd had years of practice at that, and thought he carried it off rather well.
Severus tucked the candy into his pocket; Albus frowned at that, his carefully crafted expression of benign good-will fading into one of impatience, and frustration. This was the real Albus, and knowing that the younger man knew it, Severus wondered why the Headmaster even bothered with the mask when dealing with him.
Perhaps just because it's easier – because a part played so long and so well ceases to be a mask.
"I'm sorry if I gave you that impression, Severus," Albus said seriously, sighing. "But no, I won't speak to her, and neither will you."
"I've already -" Severus began stiffly, feeling the small prick of panic in his gut begin to expand into some huge, gaping thing that threatened to swallow him if he didn't push it back. He will get her killed. Worse than killed. Reduced to a drooling shell of a thing, fodder for those soul-sucking things – and he'll sleep well that night, because of course anything Potter needs is justified – and even Albus can't see it, can't see what a deluded little fool –
- she doesn't see either. She was supposed to see, was supposed to be better than that, was supposed to trust my judgement -
- according to whom? When exactly was that conclusion reached? Was it before or after she berated you about Longbottom, before or -
"Yes, I'm sure you have already," Dumbledore cut him off, sighing again with increasing impatience. "I'd suggest chocolates, along with a sincere apology. I believe she likes the ones with little candied fruits in them."
"I've nothing to apologize for!" Severus exploded.
In the enclosed space of the Headmaster's office, his raised voice echoed; the reverberations seemed to accentuate the cracking, panicked edge, beating it back into his eardrums until he felt very tempted to break something noisily, just to stop the sound. The little ticking and whirring whatever-it-was to the Headmaster's right looked like it might provide a very satisfactory degree of racket if shredded. The Headmaster himself looked entirely unimpressed at Severus' outburst.
"Of course," said Albus, very dryly. Go to hell, you smug bastard, thought Severus, though without real feeling.
"The Ministry has gone mad, the rest of the world madder," he tried again, with a forced and brittle calm. "If she were discovered in this, now -"
"You've made that argument already, Severus," Albus pointed out. "I would have thought you'd be the last person to need reminding that these are desperate times."
And we cannot waste any resource available to us, went unsaid. It was true. It was insupportable. Not her.
- not her. I cannot – I am a retched useless old failure, a fool, a pathetic useless fool and you cannot take her from me. I don't remember how to live without her.
And it doesn't matter. It's less than insignificant, her loss, your loss, and you've probably already lost her, haven't you, you've said unforgivable things.
"Let her train others – myself, Minerva, those you know you can trust - the fate of the world does not hinge on Potter," Severus tried, one last time. He couldn't keep the hatred from his voice at the boy's name.
"Nor does it hinge on you," Albus returned neatly, and there was nothing gentle in his voice, nothing benign or forgiving. "What needs to be done will be done, Severus, and we will all live with it. Good day."
"Hi," Willow said, forcibly cheerful, sitting down next to Minerva McGonagall at Monday's breakfast. The older woman looked surprised, then a trifle puzzled, looking first at Willow and then down the table – past the Headmaster, Hagrid, and Pomona Sprout – to Severus.
He sat bent over a bowl of dry cereal, so hunched that his nose was almost in the bowl, shoveling it into his mouth mechanically and frowning as if it offended him.
"Pass the butter?" Willow asked, voice unnaturally high. Minerva reached for the butter dish while frowning at the younger professor.
"Is everything alright?" she asked.
"Everything's fine!" Willow chirped, too quickly, and her eyes also slid down the table towards the Potions Master before snapping back to Minerva's face. "I mean, there's no reason things wouldn't be fine, I just thought a change of scenery would be good and – it's good. Fine. Thanks." She took the butter dish and knife; it rattled faintly in her hand.
"You're welcome," Minerva said carefully, pressing her lips together and glancing back at Severus, who was still practically falling into his cereal bowl. So they've fought, then. That was only a matter of time.
It saddened her, which struck her immediately as ridiculous, in the circumstances; here they sat on the verge of war and she felt herself going misty-eyed over the possibility of a love-affair gone wrong.
But he's such a miserable bastard, the poor boy, and it was good to see him happy for a while.
And he certainly never deceived her. She knew what she was getting into –
Minerva cast a not entirely charitable glance at the young woman to her right; who smiled back nervously.
- oh, and that's not fair. He'd try the patience of a saint.
"So, uh," Willow began, "So that last Quidditch game was exciting, huh?" So far as Minerva knew, the younger woman couldn't have scored a Quidditch match of her life depended on it, let alone found one exciting.
"He's an ill-mannered, ill-tempered, generally insufferable git," Minerva responded, deciding that at long as she was going to be ridiculously sentimental, she might as well also be shockingly blunt, "but if he doesn't genuinely care for you, I'll eat my hat. Do try not to break his heart."
Willow paled visibly, gaped, opened her mouth as if to say something, shut it again, and then flushed. Minerva frowned, then sighed. Oh, I probably shouldn't have said that. None of my business, really.
"That was uncalled-for of me," she said apologetically, and stood, patting the still-speechless Willow's shoulder. "Don't mind an old woman." Ian, I do miss you. I get along, but I do miss you still.
"Ginny?" asked Colin Creevy, sounding shocked and horribly disappointed as the red-head stacked her books. Ron turned around and smacked the younger boy in the back of the head.
"Hey!" Professor Rosenberg interjected. "No hitting!"
"You go ahead, Gin," Ron said. "No need for you to get mixed up in – in anything like this."
Ginny tensed, and Hermione waited for her to tell her brother just where he could shove his patronizing tone; she didn't, though, she kept her head down and a second later, returned to strapped her books together. Then she was darting guilty out the door, without a backward glance.
Cho Chang had glanced backward before she left, as if she hadn't been quite sure she was doing the right thing. Roger Davies' parting look had been less benevolent, like he felt he should be saying something, perhaps urging the rest of them to follow. The two Hufflepuffs had just looked scared, all but running out the door.
They're going to tell. One of them will tell someone, that someone will tell someone, and we'll be caught – she'll be caught – by the Ministry –
- by the Ministry who decided last week that Confunding an entire crowd of protestors so that three of them walked into traffic was a reasonably means of crowd control. The Ministry who think it's good that the Dementors seem to be breeding, that the numbers at Azkaban are going up, that they're being spotted off-shore in Cornwall, because of course they'll be needed -
- and they're the side of right and truth and justice, aren't they? They're the ones who think there's something to fuss about, that it's not all just a private matter, that something has to be done -
I have to do something. I can't just let that happen, let them tell, let Willow be caught and thrown in Azkaban.
"Okay," Willow said, with a nervously expelled breath. "So. This is everybody – you're all staying?"
"W-we're -" Neville paused, looked around, checking that no one was going to contradict him. Harry was frowning fiercely, but said nothing. "We're all staying," Neville proclaimed, sounding petrified but very determined.
Hermione could feel her pulse pounding in her ears, a feeling like buzzing static filling her head. This is going to go wrong, this is all going to go very wrong and she's going to pay for it and she can't – and Neville can't – can't let that happen, have to do something.
I know how. How to Obliviate someone. I could do it.
Keep us all safe.
It's not even Dark magic, there are people who do it every day for the Ministry –
- the useless incompetent Ministry, and it's wrong, it's violating their minds and their memories and I would never want that done to me, I'd feel used, raped, not safe – not safe in my own head and people have a right to be safe in their own minds whatever the Ministry thinks -
- but it's not safe. Can't trust them. They left. They don't understand.
That we're at war. Not the Wizarding world, us. Here in this room. We're the ones left to do something.
To protect ourselves. Viktor doesn't like to think of me having to do the things he's teaching me, but I'm learning anyway – I've learned well – I know how –
- oh God I don't want to do this.
"Okay," Willow said again. The professor's eyes scanned the classroom much as Neville's had, taking in Fred and George and Angelina, Draco Malfoy off to himself – Hermione looked quickly away from him. He's here to learn how to kill his father – his father who killed my father – To the front of the classroom sat Neville and Colin with Ginny's empty seat between them – something's wrong with her, really wrong, really wrong and I don't have room in my head to care – then herself, then Blaise sitting next to Harry, carefully not next to Ron.
Ten of us – an even ten, what are the odds of that? It's odd, it's wrong – it's wrong and someone has to be willing to do what's wrong, don't they, someone who at least cares about what's right has to be willing to do what's wrong or they win, they win because they don't care – no one else should have to die for me, for my conscience –
"Alright," Willow sighed, nodding, seeming to steel herself. She was wringing her hands. She's only a few years older than me. "Everybody take out a pencil."
She's only a few years older than me, and a Muggleborn Wilder, and they'll throw her to the Dementors and never blink.
"I'll be right back!" Hermione blurted out. Her voice, for once, was not calm and level. It cracked and shook, like her legs, almost knocking her chair over as she pushed it back. Harry glanced sharply up, and she met his eyes for a petrifying millisecond in which she knew that he knew exactly what she was going to do, and wasn't going to stop her. But he's not getting up to do it himself, is he? Why isn't he the one –
- no, stop, it's not like that, he never asked for things to be like this either and it's Harry, not Harry Potter but . . but just Harry who is my friend, and I shouldn't want it to be him, better than it's me.
Draco Malfoy was watching her as she went out the door, and she looked down, away from his unreadable expression.
They can't have gone very far – probably to the library, Willow said she'd take papers as an alternate assignment, and they shouldn't suspect me, not Hermione Granger, prefect, know-it-all, they're probably surprised I didn't leave right away with them – of course, will have to try to get them one by one, or all together someone will have a chance to – to scream –
- screaming and sound of glass shattering and – and it's not safe, and I have to! I can't -
Staring down at the stones rushing past beneath her shoes, Hermione almost ran right into Ginny. They were perhaps halfway down the hall, not even to the stairs; the younger girl still had all her books strapped to her back. She was obviously coming back.
Ginny. I hadn't even thought about Ginny – I wouldn't have – not her, she can be trusted, I wouldn't have – just the others –
"Hi," Hermione said reflexively, frozen in place.
"Hi," Ginny said back, looking just as caught.
They stood there, staring at one another.
"You were -" Hermione began, at the same time Ginny said, "I didn't think you'd -" and they both stopped again. Hermione bit her lip. Ginny stuck a hand into a robe pocket, fiddling with something.
"I was coming back," Ginny said, and Hermione thought she saw something shifting in her eyes – something that didn't look entirely like Ginny, something that weighed and measured and seemed to bore into Hermione's skull. Her pulse had been loud and demanding before; it was suddenly deafening. "I wasn't really leaving."
"I – I wasn't either," Hermione confessed. "I was just – I just had to -" She didn't finish. I can trust Ginny, can't I?
There's something wrong with her. Something really and deeply and fundamentally wrong and I should have made time. I should have found a way –
- but that's all irrelevant because I can't say it. I can't even say it, not to Ginny, not to anyone who ever thought I was a good person.
"It's taken care of," Ginny blurted out. "It's – I knew it had to be so I just – someone had to. And I think it's good that I did because it reminded me of – it made me think of something else and I think – never mind. It's just done. Don't tell."
Hermione just blinked, too shocked for words.
Ginny? No. She doesn't mean – she can't mean –
- but she does, doesn't she? She took care of it.
"You were going to too, weren't you?" Ginny asked, and there was an edge of challenge to the question.
"No!" Hermione snapped, the denial automatic. Would I have? I'm never going to know if I would have – "I mean – what're you -"
"Don't lie!" Ginny snapped, and the tone wasn't Ginny-like at all. "This is hard," the younger girl went on, in a softer tone. "This is – just don't lie. You have to trust me." She wasn't pleading, she was ordering. Hermione swallowed hard. That's not Ginny. That's not Ginny at all.
But then, how would you know, with all the attention you haven't paid her? You knew something wrong – you knew and you didn't do anything –
"Yes," Hermione said quietly. "We are talking about – about altering memories, aren't we?"
"It wasn't safe not to," Ginny agreed, in a conspiratorial hush. "You can't – you can't trust people."
"Ginny -" Hermione began warily, not at all sure how the sentence was supposed to finish. Maybe with, stop it, you're scaring me. But Ginny rushed forward and enveloped her in a hug, all too-strong wiry arms and whispery-fine hair that clung to Hermione's sweating neck.
"Thank you," Ginny said, fervent. "I'm glad – I'm glad we're friends. I'm glad I can trust you." It was a childish, off-kilter sort of thing to say. Hermione hugged her back, at a loss as to what else to do. You're scaring me, you're scaring me very, very badly.
I should have been paying attention. I really should have noticed this.
"So we'll both go back now?" Ginny asked, pulling back, seeming to pull herself back together and sounding like the girl Hermione had known for years again. "If you left your books you can say you just ran to the loo – you felt sick or something – and you found me there, I was upset – and we'll both go back. Okay?"
"O-okay," Hermione agreed. Going back . . we're not, are we? None of us. None of us are ever going back.