Disclaimer: Anything you recognize belongs to the goddess, JKR. Dedicated to my loyal readers who have infinite patience with my WIP "Price of Redemption" (which has NOT been abandoned…just neglected). Written because I still believe in my beloved Potions Master. Pre-romance, taking place shortly after the end of Half Blood Prince.
"Innocent until proven guilty, Severus," (Albus Dumbledore, 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets')
Also written in memory of the victims of the London bombings (referenced in passing in this story). Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Special thanks to Lynn who is my beta goddess.
SPOILER WARNING – This story takes place after Half Blood Prince so there are spoilers from the book. If you have not read the book and do not wish to know anything about it, please do not read any further. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Hermione sat in her bedroom, looking at the packed trunk with some degree of sadness. It had been only three weeks since she had left Hogwarts and she wondered when, if ever, she might return to complete her schooling. She certainly did not regret her decision to stay with Harry and Ron in Godric's Hollow but it was important to her to sit her NEWTs and if that was in one year or five years…well, that didn't matter much.
Sighing, she went downstairs to the small kitchen and, leaning on the sink, looked out the window. It was a beautiful night. Peaceful and tranquil…the sort of night when she could easily forget that an evil wizard was intent on killing her and her friends.
Her parents had gone, ostensibly to visit relatives in Canada but, in reality, had gone into hiding for their own protection. Mad Eye Moody was personally looking after their security and Hermione almost smiled at how her father, in particular, had reacted to the state of Moody's teeth.
"They do use toothbrushes in the wizarding world, don't they, Hermione dear?" he had whispered anxiously. It was laughable how he had immediately focused on the teeth and not the magical eye.
The word was that she had gone as well and that the house was already sub-let to students for the summer. As of tomorrow morning, she would truly leave her home, possibly forever, and go with Ron and Harry to Godric's Hollow to face an uncertain future.
"I just wish we knew something…anything. I wish I could really help Harry but I can't even begin to determine who R.A.B. is," she huffed angrily as she walked over to the sideboard and picked up the tea kettle. It was a hideous thing but had been a wedding present from her father's best friend and so it had remained despite her mother's constant threats to chuck it in the rubbish bin.
After filling the kettle with water and setting it on the stove, she looked around the kitchen warily. She had the strangest sensation of being watched. Taking her wand out of her sleeve, she examined her surroundings more carefully.
Nothing. This didn't surprise her as she had put up several wards, just to be on the safe side but…
"Oh," she said in amusement, putting her wand back in her sleeve.
There, sitting on the kitchen counter, was a spider. It was black, hairy and seemed to be watching her carefully. She had to admit, it was a little larger than the usual ones she found around the house. Spiders didn't frighten her. Unlike Ron, she had always found them to be fascinating creatures and could never quite understand the bad reputation they had earned. After all, several important potions ingredients were derived from spiders.
She sighed. It was not a good time to be thinking about potions ingredients.
"Well, it's not like you're an acromantula," she pointed out to the spider. "You're quite harmless but I would appreciate it if you would go hunt yourself a nice juicy bug for your dinner. I am going to make a pot of tea. Harry and Ron won't be here until tomorrow morning and I can't sleep."
She turned to the pantry for some biscuits, absently wondering if spiders ever suffered from insomnia, when she felt a sudden surge of magic behind her. Drawing her wand quickly, she whipped around and nearly dropped it in surprise.
Severus Snape was standing in her parents' kitchen, regarding her in much the same manner as the spider had.
Severus Snape…perhaps the second most wanted wizard in the wizarding world.
A Death Eater.
The murderer of Albus Dumbledore.
And, apparently, an unregistered Animagus.
"Petrificus Totalis," he said calmly and Hermione found herself unable to move, unable to speak. Although terrified, she did not panic and instead waited to see what he would do next. She had, after all, some skills in wandless magic that he might not know about.
He stepped closer to her. "You have nothing to fear from me, Miss Granger." He proceeded to move one of the kitchen chairs and sat down on it. "I have come to discuss certain matters with you and to make you an offer of assistance. Since I do wish to retain my various limbs, I have temporarily immobilized you. I will release you shortly. You will not scream or carry on like a silly goose. You are an intelligent young woman and, if I had truly meant to kidnap you and bring you to the Dark Lord, I would have already done so. I only ask for an hour or so of your time."
He waited for a moment and then pointed his wand at her.
Hermione immediately pointed her wand towards his throat. He made no move to defend himself as he lowered his wand to his side.
"You bastard!" she hissed.
"And a good evening to you as well, Miss Granger," he said in an annoyingly normal voice as if this were merely a casual visit. "I'm pleased to see that you have not carried on like a panicked Hufflepuff."
"You have some nerve showing your face in here, Professor," she said quietly, saying the last word with disdain, as if the very thought that he had taught her was making her ill. "Come to start picking off Harry's friends now that you have killed off the Headmaster?"
Hermione ignored the pained expression that appeared on his face.
"I admit that I did kill Albus Dumbledore…but I would not wish to harm either Mr. Weasley or yourself. I have come to talk with you, Miss Granger, about horcruxes and Potter and Voldemort and the reasons behind the events of several weeks ago," he took a small flask from a pocket and, unscrewing it, took a long drink.
Hermione smelled the telltale scent of Firewhiskey and noticed that he looked utterly exhausted…the lines on his face were etched much deeper than the last time she had seen him…
…the last time…
"Can anything justify murder?" she snapped. "Or is that the way Death Eaters treat their friends?"
"Typical Gryffindor," he muttered, pocketing the flask, "rushing to judgment without hearing both sides of the story."
"Albus Dumbledore is dead!" Hermione screamed. "He was murdered by you in cold blood. How can I not judge you? He was your friend! He stuck up for you and this is how you repay him? I have defended you to both Ron and Harry in the past. Does that mean you will murder me too? You're nothing but a traitor and you deserve whatever punishment the Ministry of Magic sees fit to bestow upon you!"
"Albus Dumbledore is dead. I killed him. These two facts are very much true. However, Albus Dumbledore forced me into an Unbreakable Vow which necessitated his death."
"What on earth are you talking about? Why would he do something like that?"
"To save Draco and his mother. To save Potter. Dear me, to save the entire bloody wizarding world. Is that not enough?"
"Albus Dumbledore sacrificed himself to save the worthless Malfoy spawn?" Hermione scoffed. "That's rubbish. He knew Malfoy was beyond redemption."
"Albus Dumbledore was always willing to give an individual the benefit of the doubt. It was Draco's task to kill Dumbledore…a task given to him by the Dark Lord himself. He could not do it."
"Harry told me about that. It's a shame you couldn't follow his example, Professor."
"It was an Unbreakable Vow…do you have any comprehension of what that means?"
"Yes, as matter of fact I do," Hermione answered contemptuously. "You should have died then, Professor. I would have lamented your loss and probably praised you as a noble wizard who sacrificed himself for the greater good. Now, I can only wish that your death is as painful and as lingering as possible."
"Understandable sentiments," was Snape's only reply.
"Besides, Malfoy is a Death Eater now and belongs to Voldemort. Nothing can bring him back. A while ago, I would have believed that he could return because I believed in you. Now, I am not so naïve. I know better. Once a Death Eater, always a Death Eater," Hermione continued. "How many people has he murdered, Professor? Was he behind the bombings in London? Are you proud of your little protégé?"
"Miss Granger, Draco realized that killing a person is more than just casting a simple curse. You take away everything that the person has done and everything they could have done. He realized that, perhaps, he did not want to be a Death Eater," Snape explained, fussing with the fastening of his robes. "He is also in grave danger…both him and his mother."
She frowned, holding her wand so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. "Interesting Animagus form you have, Professor. Somehow, the idea of you being a skulking spider is very appropriate. I'm only surprised you're not a venomous serpent," she said in an acid tone.
"My apologies if my form is not something…warm and fuzzy," he smirked as she fumed. "And, yes, I do realize that you would have swatted at me with your shoe if you had known exactly who was watching you."
She didn't reply, not wanting to rise to the bait, but she couldn't help wondering exactly how long he had been watching her.
"Narcissa Malfoy came to my home, accompanied by her harpy of a sister, Bellatrix LeStrange. I believe you are acquainted with both women."
"You could say that," Hermione muttered, sitting down without letting her wand stray from Snape's throat.
"Narcissa feared for Draco's life because of the task given to him. Through my skills as a Legilemens, I was able to ascertain some details about the task but her thoughts were scattered and panicked. She kept focusing on Draco and unintentionally thwarted my efforts to read more. In order to convince both of them to accept that I knew about the task all along, I made an Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa to protect her son, help him if I could and to fulfill the task should Draco fail. What I did not realize was exactly what the task entailed."
Hermione said nothing but her expression belied her disbelief.
"The fact that Peter Pettigrew has, for the last many months, taken residence in my home, at the Dark Lord's request, complicated matters but I naturally informed the Headmaster as soon as I could. It was only much later that I was horrified to discover that Draco had been selected to murder him," Snape continued. "I did not expect that."
"And that's when the Headmaster said that it was jolly well time for a barmy old codger like himself to die anyway so why not be murdered? Less work than committing suicide," Hermione snapped angrily.
"His death served many purposes, Miss Granger. For one thing, Draco will not become a true Death Eater although I doubt I will be able to ensure his safety for much longer. The Dark Lord is very displeased that he balked at his appointed task. Secondly, the Headmaster was already dying. He had suffered a mortal wound before the beginning of the school year which left him with a permanently withered right arm. I was only just able to save his life at the time but he was fading. If the Dark Lord had faced him, I shudder to think what secrets he might have been able to obtain about the Order. Finally, I am now the Dark Lord's most trusted servant. All thoughts of my possible duplicity have been erased. This means that I can ask questions without being questioned myself. I can obtain information and not be called on my motivations or where my loyalties truly lie. Don't you understand what that means, Miss Granger?" Snape had stood up and walked over to the sink, leaning on his hands and looking out the window.
Hermione got up and stood beside him, still pointing her wand at his throat. "Enlighten me, Professor."
He turned to look at her and she felt that his gaze scorched her to her very soul.
"I can find out where the other horcruxes are," he replied in a voice just above a whisper. "I can find out and then tell you. You could tell Potter…warn him about the protective spells and any dangers that will undoubtedly be there. I can help you destroy the Dark Lord. It is the only thing that stops me from slitting my own throat…and I know it can never atone for killing my only friend. You have no idea…how much I hated him at that moment…how much it repulsed me to be manipulated into such an impossible position," a shudder went through his body. "All I have left is to complete the task he left for me…to determine the location of the horcruxes, to learn the spells that defend them and to help Potter defeat the Dark Lord in any way I can."
Hermione laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, and when Harry asks me how I miraculously know all this…"
"You researched it in the library. That seems plausible, does it not?" Snape asked. "It's not as if you haven't any experience in solving puzzles before. I seem to recall something about logic…"
"What about Voldemort?" Hermione interrupted. "Won't he get suspicious?"
"That is a risk I am willing to take," Snape replied, turning to look out the window again. "Besides, Albus was of the opinion that the Dark Lord would not even notice that his soul was being destroyed. To call him human would be a gross misrepresentation."
"I don't trust you, Professor," Hermione stated. "I should call the Aurors on you."
"Perfectly understandable. How can I demonstrate to you that the offer is genuine?" Snape queried.
"Enter into an Unbreakable Vow with me," Hermione answered quickly. "I will be the Bonder. I realize that it is unorthodox but I don't think anyone else would consent to do it."
To her astonishment, Snape nodded and held out his left hand without hesitation. His sleeve slipped away and she could just make out the Dark Mark. With a barely perceptible shudder, she held out her left hand and grasped his firmly. His hand was rough and warm and she was surprised at how hers fit inside of it.
"Well, Miss Granger? It is for you to determine the parameters of the vow. I make no conditions or qualifications. I am at your mercy," he stated without a hint of the sarcasm or general snarkiness that she had always associated with him. In fact, he seemed genuine and honest…qualities that were very unSnape-like in her experience.
But Hermione did not waver under his intense gaze. She wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing. She pointed her wand at their joined hands.
"Do you swear to do all that is within your power to help us find the horcruxes and destroy the remnants of Voldemort's soul, providing us with honest information and not withholding anything that is even remotely relevant?"
Without hesitation, Snape replied, "I will."
A thin tongue of brilliant flame issued from her wand and encircled their hands like a red-hot wire.
"Do you swear to do all that is within your power to protect Harry, Ron and myself when it comes to the final confrontation with Voldemort?"
A second tongue of flame shot from her wand and interlinked with the first, making a fine, glowing chain.
"Do you swear to do all that is within your power to help us defeat Voldemort forever?"
A third tongue of flame shot from her wand, twisted with the others and bound their hands thickly, like a rope, like a flaming serpent before vanishing.
Hermione let go of Snape's hand and twirled her wand absently, making a shower of multi-coloured lights appear, twinkle quietly and disappear. "I suppose I shall have to trust you then. I must be mad. Or perhaps I am dreaming."
"Here is my wand," he held it out to her. "You may keep it while we talk."
"How do I know that isn't a fake wand?" she said tiredly, without any real rancour. "Besides, my having your wand doesn't exactly protect me from wandless magic now does it? I'm certain that an accomplished Death Eater such as you must have a fair arsenal of such spells at his disposal, Professor. I must warn you, however, that you are not the only one."
For a moment, something akin to amusement flickered in his eyes.
"Constant vigilance indeed, Miss Granger. I suppose I should have realized…if I were still your professor, I would be forced to award points to Gryffindor, irritating as that might be, Miss Granger. Well, I will lay my wand on this table nonetheless and we will talk. If you wish to silently hex me into the hereafter…I suppose it is your right and I certainly would not blame you in the least."
"Why did you come to me in the first place? None of this is making any sense. Why me? Why do you trust me?"
Something indefinable appeared in his expression. Was it hope? Fear?
"I thought…" he said, clearing his throat. Shaking his head, he began again. "You have kept faith with those whom others would have persecuted…you have always shown yourself to give even the worst of people the benefit of the doubt. I thought…perhaps…that you, out of all the witches and wizards that I know, might extend to me that very same courtesy. I am the worst of people, Miss Granger, and I don't expect it…Merlin knows that I don't deserve it but still I ask for it."
He seemed on the verge of saying something more but stopped and rested his head in his hands. Professor Snape, a man she had always thought of as indomitable, looked utterly defeated.
In fact, he looked like a man who had but one strand of hope left and, for whatever strange reason, it was tied to her soul.
As she often pointed out to Harry and Ron years later, she took the chance, went for broke and, although she certainly didn't anticipate the love it would ultimately bring (catching them both by surprise in the bargain), she immediately knew it was the right decision.
He looked up at her.
Deliberately, she placed her wand beside his on the small table. He looked surprised, almost grateful, and sat up straighter.
"I think," she began, "that you should start from the beginning. Tell me everything while I put the tea to steep. I have a feeling this will be a long night."
A/N: Yes, I know I took a few liberties with the whole Unbreakable Vow process…oh well.
A/N2: I will be resuming work on "Price of Redemption" in September. It is NOT abandoned…just severely neglected.