Disclaimer: ©2007 harmony bites. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the author. This is an amateur nonprofit work, and is not intended to infringe on copyrights held by J.K.Rowling or any other lawful holder.
My thanks to Djinn and Bambu for their betas, Clare009 for suggestions and lifeasanamazon for her Britpick.
Dreams and Nightmares
Hermione could hear the raucous cheering and laughter through the closed entrance into the Gryffindor common room. Moving closer, she heard a snatch of "Weasley is Our King" sung in an off-key tenor. Bitterness roiled over her at the sounds, making her face twist. Hooray, we won. She took a deep breath, preparing herself to face Harry and Ron again.
All right, so Harry hadn't spiked Ron's pumpkin juice with Felix Felicis as he'd allowed her and Ron to believe; Harry hadn't cheated. Lied to her, tricked her along with Ron, but not cheated. But Harry had made it clear to her that she'd lost his trust and all credibility, any influence over him. Reason 1,001 that her cheating at the trials had been a disaster. One Snape had actually forgotten to list.
When she'd told Harry this morning he should be expelled for using the lucky potion to win Quidditch, he had thrown her actions during the trials back in her face. "Hark, who's talking," Harry had said. "Confunded anyone lately?"
She should have turned in that stupid Potions book of the Prince's at the beginning of term. That had been her first mistake. Harry wouldn't have got in trouble for possessing the annotated text had she done that at the start. Harry might not have spoken to her for months—he hadn't over her turning in the Firebolt. But she wasn't sure how much she could or should be protecting Harry from himself.
That book had made her feel uneasy from the moment she'd seen it. They still didn't know who the author of the scribbled marginalia was, and she didn't like how the text had just conveniently fallen into Harry's lap—he hadn't sought out the knowledge, he hadn't learned it for himself nor were the spells and techniques of a kind known and approved.
At least the magic in her Durmstrang text had known authors and consequences. But this? Every time Harry used the thing, he wasn't just cheating, using a resource other students didn't have access to, but reaping the rewards from a too easy, unearned knowledge. By now, the spells concerned her more than the potions. Harry was playing a magical Russian Roulette with that book. The spells he was learning, from muffling conversations to hanging people helpless in the air, were only getting scarier.
Ron was of no help to her in reaching Harry, indeed encouraged Harry in his dependence on "the Prince." And Ron had thought he'd been cheating today. She wondered if he'd guessed her role in the trials after all, if that's why he'd been so touchy back in the changing room when she'd confronted him and Harry after the game. The way Ron had taunted her about whether she intended to turn them in … accused her of lack of faith in his ability to make saves without "help."
"Well," the Fat Lady said. "Are you going in? Because if you stand there much longer, any minute you're likely to get trampled."
Hermione made a face at the portrait, gave the password, "Dilligrout," and climbed through the portrait hole. She found it hard to move without jostling someone. When she scanned the crowd for Harry and Ron, two figures snapped into focus. All Hermione could think was that Ron needed an earworm to burrow a hole through his eardrum because that was the only way he was going to get air whilst sucking Lavender's face. Ron indecently moulded his body about Lavender. They broke the kiss, and Ron bent his head to her neck. The blonde twined her fingers through Ron's hair and flashed Hermione a triumphant look over his shoulder.
Hermione stumbled back out the portrait hole, feeling as if she would suffocate. She opened one of the stained-glass windows in the hallway, took in deep gulps of air as tears blurred her vision. She heard the portrait hole slide open, and she quickly closed the window and headed away from the common room. The last thing she wanted was for Lavender to learn she'd been crying; she didn't want to give the bitch the satisfaction.
When she turned a corner, she collided right into a wall of black wool. The sharp and sweet herbal odours of the Potions storeroom wafted to her from the fabric. Snape. She felt a momentary impulse to bury her head against his chest, to dig her fingers into his robe. She heard a quick indrawn breath, and then the memories of last night, the image of a flash of green crashed through her mind. Fear, revulsion slammed through her. She tore herself from the hands that had caught and righted her and sprinted away before Snape could say a cutting word or dock points.
Hermione hurried into the first empty classroom she could find and shut the door. Her heart pounded. She was terrified Snape would come after her. Her argument with Ron a fortnight ago about snogging Viktor had brought back memories of him and sweaty dreams of her first time that had left her tangled in her sheets. Only now the face in her dreams had morphed into one older, with a deep line between his brows. The thought of what nightmares those dreams might twist into had left her shaking last night, and she had drunk the last of the Dreamless Sleep Potion Pomfrey had given her after Dolohov's attack.
She should go back. She should go back and show them all she didn't care.
Hermione took a deep breath. She couldn't return to the common room like this, so upset that one word might reduce her to tears. She looked about her, at the scattered odd items on the shelves: teacups, flowerpots, knickknacks with which to work transfigurations. McGonagall's classroom.
She walked up to the front and sat on the polished teacher's desk. She had always liked to imagine herself up here teaching when she entered class. Trying to smother her fear, humiliation and hurt, she latched onto the confidence and pride that usually filled her whilst in this classroom.
A little light poured through an open window, the chalk dust in the air creating motes in the sunlight streaming in. She closed her eyes, gripped her wand and concentrated, wanting to do this without speaking the incantation aloud. She heard a soft whooshing sound and a pop, then the twittering of a canary.
Hermione considered Ron merely thoughtless most of the time, but this week she found it hard to believe he wasn't deliberately doing his best to cut her to pieces. And after this … a wave of nausea left her clutching her stomach with a trembling arm, trying to steady herself.
Just yesterday she'd heard Lavender's squeaky laugh when Professor Binns had turned his back. She had looked about to see Ron jumping up and down and waving his hands—in a parody of how she had just raised her own hand to give an answer before Terry or Blaise could be called on. Was that the bond between Lavender and Ron? Contempt for her? Ron knew. He knew how miserable Lavender tried to make her. Malfoy had sniggered at Ron's display, and she'd wondered if Ron had noticed and cared he'd made her a target of Malfoy's scorn.
Harry had just turned his head away, his red face showing his embarrassment, but she felt as if it was as much of her as for her. She had risked her life for—built her life as a witch around—Harry and Ron, sacrificed her parents' trust for them both, and now she seemed little more than an embarrassment to one and an object of mockery for the other. Bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed, tried to stuff down her feelings with the action, channel her hurt and rage into the magic.
She tried to force thoughts of Ron out of her mind, tried to focus on this advanced bit of transfiguration. Blaise had praised her ability just last night. His quickly smoothed over scowl on her behalf at Ron's mocking her in History of Magic had made her feel less alone.
Hermione could hear another canary pop out of the air and felt the brush of wings on her hair.
And then another. Three.
From the first time she'd met Ron on the Hogwarts Express, her attempts to fit in, be helpful, share her joy in all she'd learned had earned stunned looks, glares and scowls from him. That first year he had outdone Snape with his cruel comments. She had thought things had changed, that Ron had grown to trust and respect her, but now realised she always seemed on the edge of losing his friendship. Whether it was over Crookshanks, a stupid broom, snogging Viktor, or a careless remark from her that Ron took as disparaging his prowess in Quidditch.
Well, Ron could have Quidditch. This she was good at.
Four. Five. That was more canaries than she had ever been able to conjure at one time.
She heard the door creak and opened her eyes. Through the yellow blur of canaries circling her, she saw Harry come in. Disappointment filled her. She wasn't sure if she wished it were Ron or Snape instead who had come looking for her. She bit back her impulse to snap at Harry, tried to sound nonchalant. "Oh, hello, Harry. I was just practicing."
"Yeah … they're—er—really good …." His eyes darted back and forth, as if mesmerised and a little frightened of her hovering yellow companions.
"Ron seems to be enjoying the celebrations." Her face and voice tightened with her words.
"Er … does he?" Harry squirmed and pushed up his glasses nervously.
He'd seen then. And was trying to cover up for Ron. "Don't pretend you didn't see him. He wasn't exactly hiding it, was—"
The door opened and slammed against the wall. A laughing Ron pulled Lavender inside by the hand. Lavender's blouse was outside her skirt and buttoned partly askew.
"Oh," said Ron.
"Oops," Lavender said. She giggled as she backed out, slamming the door with a bang, leaving Ron behind.
Hermione stared at Ron. Bright red marks stood out on his neck … and streaks of lipstick on his collar. As her rage and hurt surged through her, the canaries around her fluttered more wildly, their twitters growing into agitated sharp chirps.
"Hi, Harry. Wondered where you'd got to," Ron said, his voice shaky but cheery in tone.
Ron had "wondered." Where Harry had "got to." Apparently, she wasn't visible to Ron. He didn't glance her way.
She slid off the desk, feeling dizzy and hollow. The canaries kept up with her, twittering about her head like a feathered crown. "You shouldn't leave Lavender waiting outside. She'll wonder where you've gone."
Her legs felt heavy as she slowly walked towards the door. Glancing back at Ron was her undoing. He looked relieved to get off so easily. Happy to be rid of her. The pain of realising just how little she mattered to him was overwhelming. Without a thought, she pointed her wand at Ron and shrieked, "Oppugno!"
Her little flock sped like feathered arrows straight at him.
He yelped and his arms flew up to protect his face. The canaries pecked and clawed at his hands and forearms. "Get off!" he yelled.
Hermione's face contorted, her lower lip trembled. Sobbing, she gave Ron one last glare, before wrenching the door open.
She pushed past Lavender, barely registering the blonde's wide smile.
Hermione ran, not caring where her feet took her. She couldn't go back to her room. Didn't know when she could face going back. That was Lavender's room too. Ron knew that. Oh, God, how could he? She ran down steps, fairly flying past the landings. Had one of the stairs taken that moment to swerve to the side she would have fallen right down to the dungeons. She found herself at the door to Snape's office and laughed. This is where she had fled without thinking? This represented safety? She turned away and trudged back up the stairs towards the outside and sunlight. Hagrid's hut and the lake on one side, the gates on the other, circumscribing how far she could go on a non-Hogsmeade day. She'd never felt so closed in.
In the week that followed, Lavender rubbed salt into Hermione's wounds with her pointed remarks, Ron splashed vinegar on them with every smile at his new bit of fluff … and Snape … Snape was a wound. Not even her beloved library served as any kind of refuge this Sunday afternoon; she'd caught Ron and Lavender snogging in the stacks, so now she strolled by the lake alone.
Although this week, the library, studies, reading had provided little solace to her. She'd try to immerse herself in a book, or she'd be in the Prefect's bath soaking, or she'd be eating in the Great Hall and she'd flash back to what Snape had shown them. She had walked down to the office for the lessons, especially the first time after his revelation, with dread. She had felt relieved to see Blaise by the door, seemingly waiting for her there. He probably didn't want to be alone with Snape either.
Picking up a pile of flat pebbles, she threw them slantwise, trying to bounce them along the surface. She was out of practice, but by the third throw she managed to make a stone skip along the surface of the lake before it sank. Her father had taught her how, explaining the mechanics of objects striking water as opposed to the ground. He never seemed stumped by the standard questions like why the sky was blue. She supposed that's why she wanted magic to make sense, why she scorned divination. She simply applied the logic of science to magic, or tried to, whilst her father had hit the reality of magic and skidded to a stop rather than skipping across, unable to smoothly integrate its existence into his worldview. She wished she could still bring her problems and questions to him.
She still wanted things, people, to make sense. Snape didn't. What he'd shown them didn't.
Snape had been at his worst in D.A.D.A. since his revelation. Though strangely not with her or Harry. Ron and Lavender seemed the special target of his wrath, and she'd found it hard at times not to crack a smile. Parvati had speculated last night at dinner that the man just hated to watch "young love," having "never shagged anyone but himself." Hermione had almost choked on her chicken.
In her Occlumency lessons with Blaise, Snape had been, for him, subdued. Gone was the informality of the weeks before the revelation that had sent her reeling. Before that, from learning in the first year that he had been protecting Harry and the Stone, to learning in the fourth year he spied for them, to her times with him this year, every time she'd learned something new about Snape, she'd been ashamed to realise that she'd judged him unfairly—and now he'd shoved in her face that she had perhaps gone too far in the other direction. She hadn't begun to guess at the darkness of his past; she may have invested a trust and caring in him he didn't deserve.
Yet it had been hard not to take in how drawn Snape seemed and not feel the old concern returning. And that made her feel vaguely guilty, as if she were betraying this unknown dead man, this close friend of Snape's he so carefully had never named.
She was only glad that this week Snape hadn't tried to break into her mind and intrude into her consciousness himself. Instead, he had set Hermione and Blaise in turn against each other. He had just sat at his desk marking student papers, occasionally offering disdainful directions.
As if her thoughts had conjured it, from the corner of her eye, she caught a billowing black cloak disappearing down a trail, and focused her glance narrowly on the stones at her feet. That's how she had got through the last hellish week. With her head down.
Hearing the crunch of feet through the fallen leaves, she glumly looked up, readying herself for a confrontation for which she didn't yet feel ready.
Not Snape. Blaise.
He stopped some feet away and was half-turned away from her, as if trying to pretend he wasn't with her. "You didn't come. To the Slug Club."
She frowned at the distance he kept. After all that had happened this past week, she had no patience for the game. "Yes, well, I didn't feel in the mood for your brooding scowls and Ginny's idea of wit."
Ginny's disdain for Blaise had been evident and vocal from the start, but her attitude towards Hermione stemmed from her break with Ron. A taunt of Ginny's had set Ron off about Viktor. When Hermione had confronted Ginny about that, she had retorted Hermione's problem was that she hadn't firmly staked her claim to Ron, making him insecure. The louder Hermione had insisted she couldn't care less who Ron snogged and groped—and why—the more red-faced Ginny had become until they were shouting each other down.
Blaise stood still a moment by the shore, then shook his head and turned to leave. She caught him by the sleeve. "Don't go."
"I can't afford to be seen—"
"With a Mudblood?"
"I didn't say that."
"But you have, haven't you? Used the word. Or at least never objected when you've heard it spoken."
His voice was tight and his throat worked. "You of all people—you saw—you know."
She nodded. She'd seen Blaise punished by a stunning dark-skinned woman—with Cruciatus. He'd looked all of six. And she'd heard the rumours about his mother. Her last husband had been a Death Eater. Still. She found it hard to believe just acting friendly towards her would put Blaise in any kind of danger. She thought of Sirius, who'd had the courage to turn his back on his poisonous relations and had survived it with only his name blasted from the family tapestry. Hermione squared her shoulders. "I know you're a prefect, and an example to the rest of Slytherin—"
"Is this what you wanted to talk about?"
Hermione bit her lip. "No, no, I think you know—"
Blaise began to walk away.
Looking around, she didn't see anyone. "Blaise!" She hurried after him.
He stopped by a tree, but kept his back to her, his posture stiff and hands clenched at his sides. "You ask me to stick my neck on the chopping block—for nothing—for words—but the entire lot of you Gryffindors couldn't be arsed to piss in our direction if a Slytherin were burning at the stake. Hell, you'd probably be the first to toast marshmallows by our embers whilst the Weasley twins sold the skewers."
"What is this? Hate Hermione week? Do I have some sign stuck on my back? Have I said anything to deserve that?"
Blaise took another step.
"Dammit!" She could hear the shrillness in her tone. "Don't you dare walk away from me! For weeks you've been the smooth charmer, acting like you wanted my friendship. Well, act like it."
He slowly turned around and flung himself to a seated position on the ground. The movement was strangely awkward for such a usually graceful person.
She sat down beside him. They'd be hidden from view by the trees and bushes. Enough cover for the Slytherin pure-blood not to fear he'd be spotted with the Mudblood. Some of her bitterness faded though at the evidence of misery on Blaise's face. He looked like he'd been sleeping as badly as she had been.
"Blaise, about Snape … "
Blaise gave a slow shake of the head. "You want me to explain him to you? I can't." He stared at her. "If you're going to ask me to turn him in—"
"Why not? Because Dumbledore can still use him? Shouldn't murder make a difference?"
"Why would Snape show us what he did? I mean, that hardly inspires our trust. Does he want our fear? This could send him to Azkaban. If we told … why would … ?"
"A Slytherin hand over a weapon that can be used against him?" Blaise drew up his knees and clasped his arms about them. He spoke slowly and the rise in his voice, the catch in it, made her heart ache. "Misdirection?"
In lessons this past week, Blaise had locked his mind down tight, whilst cutting through Hermione's defences with ease. Snape, though, had pointed out that if Hermione hadn't yet mastered the trick of blocking, she had become deft at least at deflecting—throwing up innocuous images—better than Blaise. Snape had grudgingly conceded that was probably the more useful trick. "Misdirection," Snape had said, "might get someone rummaging about to move on, where resistance will draw attention."
"Oh, Blaise, you really think Snape made the vision up?"
"Well, how else does he fool You-Know-Who?" Blaise must have seen the pity in her eyes because he looked away. "It's just—I can't believe he'd do it. All right, I don't want to believe it. It's not that Snape is exactly a warm, fuzzy bloke with hugs like Sprout. But he's always made us feel safe. As long as he's here, nothing could ever happen to you. Last week, Vaisey got hit with a Bludger. Snape got him to the Hospital Wing, stayed with him 'til he was out of danger, whilst Vaisey's own father didn't bother to come."
Hermione realised then that in some ways Blaise thought of Hogwarts the same way Harry did—a refuge. And for Blaise it had been Snape who had made it so.
"Slytherin House," Blaise said, "well, we're not what people seem to think. A bunch of pampered rich. What is it that you think makes someone cunning, ambitious at eleven? Not cosy, secure little hearths and homes. It's learning to judge every footfall, every bang of a drawer to see what mood … Feeling hungry for more, thinking anywhere but here." Blaise's look turned inward. "Even away from Hogwarts, if you were one of his own … Snape talks to parents and afterwards …" Blaise shrugged. "Things get better."
Hermione wondered if one of those talks had been with Blaise's mother. That would certainly explain Blaise's protectiveness towards his Head of House.
Misdirection? Hermione's feelings for Blaise had begun to change when she'd learned how he'd earned one of Umbridge's detentions and gained the scar on his hand. He believed Snape could fake events with Legilimency. Could Blaise have done that himself, to further soften her towards him? "Did you make it up? What I saw with your mother?"
"No." His nostrils flared and veins strained on his neck.
"Did you deliberately set out to show me what you did—with your mother?"
"I made up nothing. My mind was on it. I'd just received a letter from her. I just wasn't trying to block. I wasn't supposed to block." He looked squarely at her. "But what Snape showed us … It was different. You know it was. Something like that, if not staged, well, it wasn't natural. He showed us exactly what he wanted to—that I'm sure of." He sighed. "What do you intend …?"
"Oh—I don't know, Blaise. We do need him. Dumbledore must know already. Snape wouldn't show us that if the Headmaster didn't know. But how I feel, whether I can trust him … after learning this …."
"Please, don't be so naïve." He gave a bitter laugh. "Although I guess we've both been dunderheads to be so shocked. Snape's a Death Eater. I knew that before he showed us the Mark. Among certain families it's pretty well known he was one of those who got sent to Azkaban for it, even if he somehow got off. What do you think he did for You-Know-Who? Potions to stop his scales from itching?"
"I don't know. I suppose I tried not to think about it. And if I did, I told myself I couldn't judge him. I've done things …"
At Blaise's widened eyes, Hermione quickly shook her head. "Not as bad, but …. It's strange because Snape's the one who's been calling me on it, making me rethink … But I did what I thought I had to, to protect my friends. It's what I find so hard to get past. What he did, I could never do that to Harry." Or Ron as much as I hate the bastard right now. It had seemed to her this week as if he kissed Lavender or encircled her waist—only after he noticed Hermione about. "Not even to save my life. Snape's best friend? If he could do that … What if it was me? Snape doesn't even like me and—"
"Oh, he likes you."
"What do you mean by that?"
But Blaise just shook his head and refused to answer.
Hermione laughed. "If Snape likes me, he has a strange way of showing it. But then I seem to have a talent for picking friends who don't really like me that much."
"I like you, Granger." He flashed a very white and charming grin that lit up his dark face.
Blaise looked about them a moment, then took her hand and brushed her knuckles with his lips. Leaning forward, he placed his lips on hers. He cupped the back of her head, pressing her closer and deepening the kiss. She felt a pleasant shock go through her, then a tingling sensation low in her belly as he continued to play with her hair and nuzzle her lips. She closed her eyes. Nice. He broke the kiss, and she felt a bit bereft.
"Believe me?" he asked.
She grinned at him. He wasn't the man who had filled her dreams these past weeks, and she felt a small pang at the thought as she tried to dismiss Snape from her mind. Whatever he might feel for her, he was still her teacher and out of bounds. And after what she'd learned, she shouldn't still want him. But Blaise …
"Well, I guess this means I won't have to ask anyone else to Slughorn's Christmas party?" Hermione's grin died at Blaise's blank expression. "Or I suppose not." She quickly levered herself off the ground and threw off Blaise's grab at her elbow. "You want to be friends on the terms you set. Fine. But don't ask me for more as long as you're not willing to be seen with me."
On Wednesday she was about to enter Snape's office for her lesson, when Blaise blocked her with his arm, putting his palm against the door. They had been diffident towards each other after their discussion by the lake, but Blaise looked determined to push through their earlier awkwardness. He glanced both ways, but not only was the passage clear, they both evidently were still included in Snape's wards. She—and she thought Blaise—had begun to take a certain privacy and security for granted outside the office door in the bubble of the charm.
"Would it really be so dangerous … being with me?" she asked.
He grimaced. "Let me just say that unlike my sister, I'd like to see seventeen."
Hermione couldn't hold back her gasp. "I'm so sorry." She found her own words inane, inadequate, but didn't know what else to say.
He gave a little shrug that spoke eloquently of resignation and how he took his monstrous situation as not worth fussing over. Normal—for him.
She ached to put an arm around him, yet his justifiable trepidation to be seen with her made her hesitant to make the gesture. Getting closer it seemed, would only hurt both of them.
"Hermione, about Snape, I think … "
"It's time. To deal with … what he showed us."
He slowly nodded.
With the shock worn off and time to think, really think, about why Snape had acted the way he did … "Blaise, did something happen between you and Professor Snape the week he showed us that memory?"
"I told him I wanted to help, really help."
He gave a tight nod.
And she … she had tried again to push friendship upon Snape—face it, you did more than that, you practically flirted with him—and he'd acted in the oddest way, as if she'd appealed to some part of him, whilst still repulsing him. Scaring him?
"Hermione, what you asked—about my making up what you saw in my mind. Even if I could have … I know we're supposed to be the cunning ones, but that wouldn't be a very Slytherin thing to do, reveal weakness like that. Maybe Snape didn't fake that vision, but he did control what we saw and didn't see. And that vision can't tell us what he was thinking at the time really. Legilimency doesn't work that way. He'd be the sort to fling the worst in our face, but—"
"Not the kind to make excuses or show weakness. And yet Snape did. What we saw, it's played and replayed in my mind." And in my nightmares. "I think that's part of why I never doubted the reality of what he showed us. He looked more scared than scary."
Blaise nodded and opened the door. "Once more unto the breach …"
Hermione grinned. Apparently not all pure-bloods his age were as culturally clueless as Ron.
"My, my, aren't we early and eager for our lesson?" Snape asked when he looked up at their entrance, his voice quavering like an old man's. His tone had been missing its usual bite lately, at least when it was just the three of them, and perversely, Hermione missed his sharp sarcastic edge. His high collar was unbuttoned. Knowing him as she did, that hinted at some upset she was certain he wouldn't share.
Hermione and Blaise crossed the distance to Snape's desk and stood together near him. Blaise glanced at her, as if asking who should speak first. Finally, Hermione sighed and stepped next to Snape behind the desk. "You never did say why you showed us what you did."
"Quite. And it only took you two weeks to ask."
She took a deep breath. "We needed time. I wish you hadn't shown us."
"And if wishes were spells, who would need Hogwarts?" He twirled his quill, waving it at them like a wand. "Would you both like an Obliviate? Ignorance might be bliss, but not good for one's survival. You both wanted to get closer. Well, this is who I am. You both needed a reminder of what a Death Eater is."
Hermione looked at Snape a long time, worrying her lower lip. "Who you were," she said, speaking slowly. "Almost a boy—"
"I was older than either of you."
"—frightened out of his wits, whose hatred of what he was doing and who he was turning into was written on his face, who threw up afterwards." She met his gaze. "A man still so horrified by it all he bit through his own lip." She shook her head. "I didn't willingly reveal what Zabini saw—about Viktor. You … you stripped down to the ugliest, most naked part of yourself to teach us. You expected us to be horrified—and I was—and that I'd despise you for it. I can't."
"You wanted to scare me off, didn't you?" Blaise said. He shook his head. "For six years I've watched as you took care of us in Slytherin, fought for us, took risks to subtly warn us off and discourage us from joining You-Know-Who."
"And I've watched as you protected all of us, took risks for us, even Harry, well beyond anything required to keep up some act." Hermione glanced at Blaise. "And we both know what the Death Eaters are. That you may have had to do things …"
"The problem is I know evil." Blaise stared straight at Snape. "It's not you."
"Not evil? So you are here offering absolution? Forgiveness? You don't get to forgive me, you silly boy. You don't have the right—some things aren't forgivable."
"Maybe not. But let me ask you this. How long after that … what you did … did you go to Dumbledore?"
"Not soon enough." Snape looked down a moment, his hair spilling forward to hide much of his face, but not before Hermione caught the flicker of pain in his eyes.
"I know how the Death Eaters work, sir," Blaise said. "If you hadn't cast the Killing Curse, someone else would have, but not before both of you were tortured, and you would have been killed as well. I heard—well about Yushenko and Karkaroff." Blaise looked back at Hermione. "Yushenko, Karkaroff's brother-in-law, tried to hide him from the Death Eaters. When the Death Eaters caught up with them, they Imperio'd both to torture each other. I heard some of my mother's friends talking." Blaise looked back at Snape. "See, I hear things without trying. That's why—"
"I told you no. We're not discussing this. Especially after what I showed you, you bloody fool." Snape shook his head. "You want me to prettify what happened, make excuses. I won't."
"I know," Hermione said. "That's why it's … I mean … well, not all right, but I won't, can't condemn you."
"You can't know if what you saw is the worst."
"Isn't it? Did you ever use an Unforgivable again?" Her tone was more accusatory than she had meant it to come out, a lash, and she saw the impact on his expression, which spoke volumes of how low his reserves of energy must be tonight, but she couldn't let go. "Because—"
He glared at her. "Not that one. But it's not that simple, and I'm not about to give you a full reckoning."
She stared at Snape, taking in his hollowed eyes and pallor. Whether to put this past them or not, deciding to see beyond his act was her choice. And with the choice to accept his past came a price. She knew she'd be untwisting the tourniquet she had so carefully pulled tight against her feelings for him. Part of her, after what Snape had put her through over her cheating, wanted to revel in having the moral high ground again. That part, she suspected, was one of the qualities that had placed her in Gryffindor, or had been nurtured by it. But it was a very small part and took only an instant to shove down.
Hermione made herself reach out and run a hand down the arm whose sleeve hid the Mark. He started at her touch, as if a painful shock coursed through him at the contact.
She dropped her hand but stood her ground. If she had qualms still, she'd just have to make herself push past them. Because looking at Snape, she couldn't believe he had made peace with what he'd done decades ago, and she wasn't about to facilitate his self-flagellation. Right now he looked like he was hugging to himself his own personal Dementor.
"I don't know that it is our place to forgive, but if your friend died because he, in the end, fought … You-Know-Who … I think he knew the price he could pay, and I think he'd have long considered your debt paid and more by what you've done since to carry on his fight."
Blaise relaxed beside her, as if her words had released him too. She was feeling relieved herself, especially seeing Snape's face as he took in her words, for once not pushing her away.
Snape's voice was rough, like fur rubbed the wrong way. "Knowing him, you might be right at that." The gaze he turned on her was dull and flat. "But that doesn't excuse it."
"No, it just makes you a man with a heavy debt who seems determined to pay it three times over. But in both our cases with you, the debt is on our side, and I'm not about to forget it." She heard the conviction in her voice, as if she had at last convinced herself.
She didn't expect things to be immediately fine, thought it would be weeks, if that, before they felt the same ease they had built before Snape's revelation. But then, she'd heard that bones mend stronger where there'd been a break. Maybe in time that would be true of them, too.
Both Hermione and Blaise waited quietly after the lesson for Snape to take the lead, not moving until he did, helping to straighten papers and put back chairs from where they'd moved them to the sides of the room. They guarded Snape like two sentinels as he got ready to leave, then followed him out the door, Hermione only parting to go up to Gryffindor Tower, Blaise giving her a nod that told her he wouldn't leave Snape alone until they reached Slytherin quarters.
Hermione glanced up from her seat in the Great Hall to see clouds obscure the stars in the skies mirrored on the spelled ceiling. They'd had their first snowfall this week, and she didn't find it much warmer inside Hogwarts, especially when it came to Ron or Snape. Despite Hermione's and Blaise's efforts, Snape seemed more withdrawn during the last few weeks, and that worried her. She wasn't sure how much was due to what had happened between them all and how much was due to Snape's other "responsibilities."
She shuddered. She had seen Snape limping down a corridor the other night and couldn't approach him because another student walked down the corridor crossing theirs. Dumbledore's seat at the staff table had sat empty for weeks. What Harry had related after his last session with the Headmaster, about Riddle as a child—his burgeoning powers and megalomania—had been fascinating. Still, she wasn't sure what the point of these glimpses into Riddle's background was, or what Dumbledore was doing when he was away.
Hermione looked across at the Slytherin table. Malfoy's skin appeared so translucent he looked a fitting boyfriend for Moaning Myrtle. He'd missed several classes lately. She almost felt sorry for Malfoy. Blaise, two seats down, next to Bulstrode, ate his dinner with as little relish as Hermione.
So many parts of herself felt split as a result of Dumbledore's assignment to her. Parts she could share only with Blaise, parts she could share only with Snape—if he would let her—parts only with Harry and parts only with Ron—if he hadn't been half of Lav-Won. There was nobody she could share all of her problems with.
And just about no part she could share with her parents, though she had begun to write them longer letters. With her mother, she had tried alluding to problems she was having with a "friend" in the most general terms possible. Months ago she had told them in one of her letters that Dumbledore had assigned her to help Snape with research, and that he "wasn't so bad." She imagined trying to explain to her parents how she had been coming to feel about Snape and inwardly cringed. Little wonder if Snape felt trepidation over going beyond student and teacher, even if it were only friendship.
Then, as was happening more often in spite of her best resolutions, she couldn't keep from stealing a look at the staff table. Snape seemed to be more toying with the food on his plate than eating it. His robes hung on him, as if he'd lost more weight lately. But then she had never known him to look well, let alone happy.
Hermione watched from one end of the Gryffindor table as Harry sat at the other end with Ron. Harry shot her a guilty look. Poor sod was alternating days, sometimes meals, between them. She really should make it easier for him, but every time she glanced at Ron with Lavender she seethed with loathing for them both and knew acting nicely to either of them for Harry's sake was impossible.
Lavender paused as she passed Hermione and peered down at her book, which surprised her, because who knew Lavender would spend one extra minute with the written word? Other than Witch Weekly, of course.
Lavender smirked. "Looks riveting."
"Advanced Arithmancy." She held the book out like garlic to a vampire and felt pleased when Lavender duly flinched back.
"You should try a romance or two," Lavender said, simpering, "that's the only place where you'll find romance—between the pages of a book."
"Oooh, Lavender, so glad to give you the opportunity to display your wit. How long did it take you to think that up?" Hermione leaned forward. "Jealous I've gone with someone out of the pimple stage?" She regretted her remark as soon as she saw Lavender's smug look. The girl sauntered over to sit next to Ron. She giggled and whispered in his ear. Ron glared back at Hermione. Brilliant, Hermione, that's the way to widen the breach. What have I ever done to her other than breathe? Why does Lavender hate me so very much? Given Lavender's love of Divination, she'd probably say it was in the stars.
Neville then sat down beside her. He gave a nervous glance at the pair at the other end, and a start when Lavender nipped at Ron's ear, then turned to Hermione. "Have you tried the roast beef? It's super," he said, his voice ending in a squeak.
"Same roast beef. Same potatoes. Same everything. It's always delicious," she said, not able to take her eyes off Ron and Lavender. Groping for her fork, she knocked it to the floor. She bent to pick it up, but it had fallen under the table. Sighing, she crawled underneath, and felt her stomach churn when she saw Lavender's hand fondling Ron's not-so-manly bits. Rising quickly, she banged her head against the table, then dizzily dragged herself back to her seat.
"Pumpkin juice?" Neville asked a bit too brightly, pouring her a cup as if it were the answer to all woes.
Hermione turned at the giggles behind her.
Draco Malfoy stood there with Pansy Parkinson. "Don't fret, Granger," Malfoy said, "I'm sure you'll find another girlfriend someday as lovely as Lavender."
Hermione resolutely turned to her meal. Neville's face turned a tomato red. He seemed about to rise, and she didn't like how he was clenching his wand hand, so she clamped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Let the hot air waft over. It's cold enough in the Hall." She regretted her recent sympathy for Malfoy. Some Slytherins might not be snakes after all but … I can't hex Malfoy. I can't hex Lavender. I can't hex Ron. I won't.
Looking at Hermione, Lavender picked that moment to say something to Ron. He started laughing uproariously and didn't stop. When Harry frowned and stood up and left, that confirmed to Hermione the joke was at her expense. She was halfway across to the Hufflepuff table before quite being aware of what she was going to do.
"Smith." She bit her lip. She'd thought to give Ron a taste of his own medicine. Smith was perfect—the best choice—given Smith's past and very public commentary on Ron's Quidditch prowess.
Zacharias Smith scowled up at her. "What are you doing at our table? Shouldn't you be with your Gryffs?"
"That matters? I thought Hufflepuffs were keen on school unity? All for one and one for all."
"I think you're getting us mixed up with the Musketeers. Besides, I'm not the usual Hufflepuff."
"I'll say," Hermione muttered and turned away. She couldn't summon up any liking or sympathy for Smith at all, and somehow she found she couldn't quite be so cold as to invite him to Slughorn's Christmas party knowing that.
Hermione scanned the hall. Who would Ron despise most? A Slytherin. But even for a good cause—and right now Ron's comeuppance seemed right up there with house-elf freedom, a lycanthropy cure, and world peace—she couldn't imagine stomaching a Slytherin other than Blaise. Besides, given Blaise's fears about her invitation, she could just imagine the cry of "ewwww Mudblood" if she tried, say Nott—or, Merlin forbid, Malfoy.
Looking back at the Gryffindor table, she spied McLaggen. She smiled tightly, remembering Ron's taunt weeks ago that she should hook up with McLaggen and they could be King and Queen Slug. That would serve Ron right.
She felt guilty for a moment, thinking of how she'd cheated McLaggen out of his fair chance at the trials, then seeing Lavender finger comb Ron's hair, she wondered what the harm would be. Maybe if she learned more about McLaggen, got to know him better, she could find a way to make things up to him for what she had done, make amends. Maybe he wasn't the complete arse he seemed if a person got to know him better. She'd discovered more to Snape and Blaise than had met the eye after all. Could she expect less of a Gryffindor?
Striding down back to the Gryffindor table, she tapped McLaggen on the shoulder and gestured at the empty seat beside him. "This seat taken?"
When she entered Snape's office later that night, she found an empty classroom and a scroll with her name on it propped up by a book on the desk. The scroll unrolled at her touch.
Go through to my personal potions lab. I have projects that I won't put off indefinitely just because you two are always underfoot. Simultaneously push in the two copies of Advanced Potions-Making on the left end of the 3rd shelf.
Hermione passed through the door that appeared and seeing Snape alone working by a cauldron, indulged herself by watching him a while unnoticed. She found nothing more attractive than someone doing a task masterfully, from playing a piano to, little as she'd concede it to the boys, playing Quidditch. There was grace and power in the precision and speed of the movement of Snape's gloved hands, whether in stirring a cauldron or chopping ingredients. The fierce concentration on his face suited his angular features and smoothed out the sneers and scowls that were his habitual expression.
His hair was tied back and his sleeves were rolled up, revealing sinewy forearms—and his Dark Mark. Snape had to be working on a crucial potion that could be easily contaminated for him to be willing to take measures that so exposed him.
Silver fumes rose up from the cauldron, forming a funnel shape, and she could smell the lemony scent from where she stood by the door. On the counter she spied the reason why he wore the thin, skin-tight gloves: A gallon container of violet hood-shaped flowers, borne mostly in clusters with spike-like dark green leaves and dark-coloured tapering roots: aconite, also known as Wolfsbane—highly poisonous. She recognised this as a tricky stage of the Wolfsbane Potion she'd only read about but had never seen made, so just stood quietly at the door until he finished adding the crushed petals and sliced roots to the mixture, gave three stirs in a complicated pattern, and placed a stasis spell upon the brew.
He slumped when he finished, his breathing laboured. Sweat beaded on his face. When he looked up and saw her at the door, his reaction was a scowl, his greeting a glare. "Haven't you fucked with McLaggen enough?"
Taken aback at his words, she flinched. She'd never known Snape to use such language with a student.
Scowling at her, he turned his sleeves back down, then donned his frock coat before striding to the door to face her. He crossed his arms, and the stern gesture together with his austere black garb made him look like some Puritan preacher about to rain down fire and brimstone on her. Or, more likely, if he could think of a reason, take off points. "I saw you together at dinner tonight."
Her face heated. "It's not like that."
"Right. Because, of course, I can't recognise vengeful and spiteful behaviour when I see it, and befriending McLaggen has nothing to do with getting back at Ronald Weasley."
"It's not just that. You know I feel terrible about what I did, and maybe …" His glare pressed down on her like a physical weight, making it hard to get out any words. "You don't know what it's like. To have someone you care about, one of your best friends, take up with someone you despise, who despises you, just out of spite."
Snape's face grew tight. "Certainly not."
His closed expression and the coldness in his voice made her suddenly think the opposite. In the end, she knew so little of Snape.
Walking away from her, he opened and shut cabinets with a slam, searching for something. The longer he stalked about not looking or speaking to her, the more nervous she grew. She was reminded of his manner during their argument over the trials and a flutter began at the pit of her stomach that seemed to leap up and cause a lump in her throat. "It's just … Lavender and Ron both … they're doing"—her face grew hot—"everything they can to …"
"Belittle you? I'm not oblivious. But regardless of how much you'd like to make it up to McLaggen"—he sneered—"going out with him will only show them how much they're getting to you." He gave one drawer a loud slam that made her start.
Gazing at his stiff pose, she worried her lower lip. He seemed to be taking this personally, and she could guess why. She couldn't count the number of times Ron and Harry had belittled Snape, and he must have heard more from others. And she couldn't fix that. An apology, an admission of her realisation wouldn't be taken well in his mood. She tried to shift the conversation before their still fragile new rapprochement could get torn to bits. "Where's Blaise?"
He stared at her a few moments, then to her relief seemed to accept the change of subject. "Mr Zabini will be delayed. The Headmaster is back, at least for the next few days, and with the holidays approaching, I thought it wise to get Zabini tested by the strongest Legilimens I know."
"What? That's not you?"
"Unlike you, Miss Granger, I acknowledge my limitations, temporary though they might be. The better to know what I still have left to learn. I dare say if Mr Zabini can keep Albus Dumbledore from rummaging through his mind at will, not even the Dark Lord would be a challenge."
"Does that mean he's finished with Occlumency lessons?"
A strange expression passed over Snape's face. "There are still techniques that would be valuable if you're trying to deceive, not simply shield."
Hermione could imagine why Snape didn't seem happy about Blaise mastering techniques that would allow his charge to follow in his footsteps. She searched for a way to change the subject. "Why so many flowers? The potion doesn't keep."
"I'm experimenting with creating a more stable variant. You prepare the potion to almost the finalised stage. When needed, you can take the intermediate out of stasis, and the last touches are so simple first-year dunderheads could possibly manage."
She forced a smile. She recognised that if it worked, Wolfsbane Potion could be made more easily and cheaply, making it widely available to help many more. Still, she wondered why Snape chose to spend time on this now. She worried he was trying to make himself unnecessary, like a dying man tying up loose ends. She had never forgotten her promise to herself to research the curse on the D.A.D.A. position, and with December here—and almost half the school year gone—she was beginning to feel dread about her lack of progress.
"Can I help with the Wolfsbane Potion?"
He snorted. "Maybe in ten years I'd trust you with the brew." She opened her mouth to object, and he waved a gloved hand at her. "Three Potions Masters in all of Europe can brew Wolfsbane Potion—and I'm the youngest by several decades—but you think I should let you have a go before taking your NEWTs?" He sneered. "Not likely. But if you want to observe some of the basics and help, you can get me some more Boomslang skin from the storeroom. The password is 'flobberworms.' I believe you're intimately familiar with where all the ingredients are."
Hermione flushed at his knowing look. Snape apparently did know exactly who had raided his storeroom four years ago.
"You, at least, wouldn't be a waste of ingredients to try to teach. Polyjuice in your second year?" He tapped his lips with a finger. "Trust you with an open storeroom however …"
She beamed at the compliment buried in the sarcasm, and was still grinning when she reached the storeroom. More than just the compliment, the very fact he was teasing her showed he wasn't as angry about McLaggen as she'd feared. The return of their rapport filled her with a warm glow.
When she cast Lumos, she saw a fat maroon spider scuttling along the shelves. She felt an icy finger run down her spine when she noted the markings on the body—two black curving half-moons, like a moustache.
Hermione had seen a spider with those distinctive markings in the broomshed this past summer at the Burrow. She'd remembered the spider because it was so unlike its brethren, and because Ron, with his fear of spiders, had always made her the one to go into the shed to get the brooms. She thought of Skeeter, who also had unique markings on her beetle body.
She pointed her wand at the spider, and it scurried away—as if it knew Hermione meant business. That decided her. Slamming the door to ensure the spider couldn't escape, she then grabbed an empty jar by the door. Whirling about, she tried to spot where the spider had gone, only to see it skittering deeper into the storeroom. Tucking her wand under her arm so she could untwist the jar's lid, she chased the spider to a far corner. She managed to bring down the jar on the creature, then flipped the jar back up to shut the lid, but underestimated the speed of the creature.
Hermione felt a sharp jab on her finger and yelped as the jar slipped from her hands, shattering on the tiled floor. She cursed her clumsiness and that her first instinct had been to do things the Muggle way when all she'd had to do was Stupefy the creature with her wand. As she stared at the red welt on her swelling finger, her vision began to blur. Feeling dizzy, she leaned against the wall for support, but slid down to the floor.
Her cry for help sounded tiny to her own ears, a mewing sound. Ringing filled her ears. Despite fighting to stay conscious, her eyes closed.
Seeing herself in front of a classroom, she looked down to find her body altered and clad in black. The edges of her vision rippled and blurred. She could pace back and forth, but she'd open her mouth to speak and nothing came out. Looking out into the classroom, she saw the same five people filling every seat. Harry was there, and he was laughing at her. His eyes shifted from brown to green and back. Ron sat by Harry's side. As she watched, his hair darkened and his features morphed into an unlined, boyish version of Sirius' face. Among the students, she first saw herself, then Remus' form. Neville's face and form changed to that of a young Pettigrew.
The fifth figure never shifted though. A red-headed girl just stared back with green eyes, and Hermione could hear her repeating "Snivellus," over and over.
Hermione looked at the highly polished desk and instead of her own reflection, saw Snape's face. Only he had red eyes.
Before she could take in more, her surroundings began to shift, cycling in and out between scenes and images, faster and faster, changing more quickly than she could process, then for a while a vision would unfold more slowly, giving her time to make out details. She saw Dumbledore dead at her feet, then Harry, then she stared down at her own bloodied form and started to weep.
She heard Snape's voice calling out from beyond her visions, low and urgent, felt fingers prying open her mouth, placing a bitter round object on her tongue and ordering her to swallow. Hermione couldn't make her body obey, and then she felt hands on her throat, stroking it, forcing those muscles to work.
Minutes later her eyes flew open. She was propped up against the shelves, and Snape knelt beside her. His face was a ghastly colour. He still had one hand supporting her head, and she could feel as well as see the tremors rippling through his frame before he shakily let go and sat down. She smiled at him, and he took a quick, deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment.
He swallowed. "You were gone so long. When Zabini got back from the Headmaster, we came looking for you. I sent him to get Madam Pomfrey. Your finger. It looked stung. I always carry a bezoar on me, so I took a chance."
Her bitten finger throbbed and her head ached, but despite that, she sat up straight, started to get up, but his hand shot out and pushed her back down. "You will not move until the Matron gets here and checks you out fully."
"You don't understand. A spider bit me, and I think it was an Animagus. Squat, bigger than the usual house spider, about half the length of my palm, very distinct markings." As Hermione described the spider and the actions she thought indicated its intelligence to Snape, he drew in a breath, and he looked increasingly grim, the lines of his face more deeply etched.
Embarrassed to discuss with him scenes that involved him so intimately, she averted her gaze as she began describing her visions. Stealing looks at him from time to time, she tried gauging his reaction. She did her best to recall every detail. He frowned as she described finding herself in a classroom clad in his habitual garb and those she'd seen seated in front of her. His expression grew stony, and he seemed to brace himself. When, stumbling over her words, she told him about hearing him called "Snivellus," he only nodded stiffly. Nothing she related seemed to surprise him. His face relaxed a bit when she told him some images had blurred past too quickly for her to make out, but he flinched when she described seeing her dead body. "What was I seeing?"
"My nightmares," he said hoarsely. He paused, a pensive look in his eyes, before he grunted and said, "The creature must have been somehow lifting them off the Dream Catcher." He slumped against the shelves beside her, staring out into the middle distance for some moments, before looking back at her. "How, and if it can ordinarily transfer them after it returns to human form, I don't know. But I know one thing. He—or she—can't have any doubt of where my loyalties lie after such visions."
She grasped his hand, gripping it more feebly then she'd like. He began to pull his hand away, but relented when she squeezed tighter, trying to hang on to his. "You can't go back then—"
"Don't be an idiot. We don't have any choice." He ran his free hand through his hair. "Besides, if this were one of the Dark Lord's followers, I'd already be dead." He looked at her face and her terror for him must have showed. He squeezed her hand. "I'll be very careful."
"Whoever it was may not have had time to report—"
He shook his head. "I've seen the creature you've described for months."
Shivering with dread, she needed more reassurance than their clasped hands provided for her. She shifted a bit so their shoulders touched and felt anchored by his solid warmth.
"Rest," he said, "Poppy will be here soon."
On his face, she could see his exhaustion and concern, and when his eyes met hers, his expression softened. She hoped he drew a little comfort from their contact, too. They both needed it.
to be continued
A/N. Supposedly no venomous spiders are indigenous to Britain. However, note this article in BBC News, "Venomous spiders nest near Queen's home". Besides—the spider in this chapter is a Magical Creature—so please don't write me reviews Brit-picking this point. OK?
This is the first chapter written post-publication of Deathly Hallows, which has now rendered this tale hopelessly alternate universe. I intend to finish Book of Shadows, though I may use Deathly Hallow elements, and in future chapters even change Half-Blood Prince events. With the series over and the events revealed in the last book not quite fitting, we're now in the wild—anything can happen.
FFN does not allow answers to reviews on author's notes, and I'm reluctant to respond by email when that's not how the reviews were sent. That doesn't mean I don't greatly appreciate every review.