CHAPTER ONE

THE TEST

Hermione knew that once the war was over, it was a very real possibility these marks would not fade. They would remain and might even be a means for the Dark Lord to return. She knew that Draco had failed to kill Dumbledore. She knew that Snape had killed him. She knew that both would pay dearly if they had indeed returned to the Dark Lord. She had to find more research material on these damned Dark Marks.

"Hermione?" The soft voice came from her side. She blinked from her book and looked up to the face of one very concerned Harry. "Hermione, you need to come eat."

"I'm fine," she said blandly.

"Hermione please," he said offering her a hand away from her book. "You need to eat."

"I don't want to go to the Great Hall," she said.

"All right, let us see if Dobby can get you something." His voiced was laced in pity. God she hated that. She hated the pity. She hated the stares and the whispers, and the blatant jabs at her from the Slytherin. Her normally strongly squared shoulders slumped slightly, and she took his hand. Lifting her from her seat, Harry offered his arm like a true gentleman.

"I need more information than what this library offers," she sighed. "There won't be anything here that I need." She looked to his face. "Do you think there may be something at Grimmald Place?"

"It's possible. I haven't much ventured into that library," Harry said with a shrug. Obviously he didn't want to talk about it. As usual, he was not interested in her research. He was not understanding of her need to obsessively work at this. He didn't care about what happened after. He was only worried about what happened now. But that was always Harry's way. He thought in the here and now, not in the future like she did.

Grappling with her bag over his shoulder he led her down to the kitchen. As they sat, Dobby made his appearance looking rather dapper in his little pants and shirt. She had learned that Dobby was indeed the anomaly of the race of house elves. It took Professor Flitwick to prove it to her that she was in the wrong to base all things on one example. She had formed S.P.E.W. based solely on what she knew of Dobby. So instead she just helped Dobby relish in his freedom buying him clothing from children's stores.

"How is Ron?" she whispered as Dobby presented a tray of food fit for five people to her.

"He's okay. He's trying to convince Lavender not to go to the ball as a fairy princess again this year," Harry said with a shrug. "Really Hermione, why don't you talk to him yourself?"

"He doesn't talk to me. He looks at me with that "poor Hermione" look and finds a reason to get away from me," she said quietly.

"He will come around Hermione," he said quietly. The kitchen echoed so badly you almost had to talk quietly. "He just doesn't know how to deal with it."

"You would think I had the Dark Mark or something the way he treats me," she said softly picking up a piece of melon from the tray. "At least Fred and George still talk to me, and Ginny. I think I would go absolutely bonkers if they stopped talking to me. Even Mrs. Weasley treats me differently now, but Mr. Weasley doesn't. He's the one person who doesn't treat me differently."

"They just have trouble with what happened. They feel to blame," he said quietly. "I had to realize there was nothing I could have done to prevent what happened. Once I did, I could look at you just like I did last year. Mr. Weasley helped a lot with that. But with Ron it's different Hermione."

"Yeah, it's always different when it comes to Ron," she sighed and ate a bit more off of the tray. Harry just watched as his friend sunk yet another step lower into the sadness. The whole school knew what happened. And Hermione was treated with mixed regards to it. She spent much of her time alone rather than dealing with the sneers, giggles and other pains that Slytherin would throw her way, or the pity parties that would be thrown her way by the Gryffindors. She never spent time in the common room anymore. She even turned down the Head Girl position because she would have to work with Blaise Zabini.

"I think you should start being out and about more," Harry said with confidence.

"Why? So I can get gawked at a little more or hexed by those stupid Slytherin? No thanks," she said with a shrug. She sighed when she saw the hurt look in Harry's eyes. "Harry, I know you are trying to stick out an olive branch here, but you aren't the one who did anything wrong. I have to come to terms with it. Not anyone else. My work helps me do that."

The loud clang of a cauldron hitting the floor had Hermione out of her seat and wand drawn. Harry watched her wand tremble slightly before she settled her nerves, then herself back into her chair.

"Still very jumpy," he said. "You are at Hogwarts. You need to calm down Hermione."

She sighed and picked up a piece of toast. The rest of the meal they shared in silence. Awkwardly they both thought about things to come, things going on, things that could not be avoided.

"Hey, are you going to Hogsmeade this weekend?" he said a bit more chipper.

"Sure," she said shrugging.

"Alright! I got to get to practice. Big game this week you know," he said with a wink.

"Won't be as much competition without Mal..." she stopped. She shuddered violently and just waved it off. "The Slytherin team isn't what it used to be."

"Yeah, but it will still be nice to kick their butts," Harry said ever chipper about the damnable game.

"All right, all right," she chuckled a little, letting a grin adorn her lips. "Go on, I'm going to go to the Astronomy Tower for a while."

"See you later?" he asked.

"Yes, have Ginny come get me. I won't go to the common room," she stated plainly. "I can't stand the pity parties and the "Oh! How do you live with it!" and all that."

"No worries, we'll go over to my room," he said with a wink. "I have to go, can't be late you know."

She laughed as he ran for the door in a flurry of robes. He could be late for Potions, Transfiguration and lunch but never, ever for practice. Finishing what she could eat off of the huge tray of food she hauled her book bag up onto her shoulder.

"Thank you Dobby!" she called out to the kitchen before heading out of the portrait. Her walk down the halls was always the same. Hushed whispers, pointing fingers, a chuckle or two echoed all around her. If she wasn't sure that the sneers were always really happening, she thought she would be insane with paranoia. Instead, she put them on ignore and never paid them any mind. She wasn't wallowing in her own misery like they wish she were. She was better than this. They didn't know what they were talking about, and they never would. They could all just assume and that was fine with her.

She climbed the stairs to the Astronomy Tower. It was still daylight, and there was no Astronomy class tonight. There never was on a cloudy night. She didn't have to worry about anybody bothering her except perhaps a few snogging couples that would find somewhere else to be when they saw her there. They always did. Seating on the floor of the roof, the wind caught her slightly bushy hair, blowing it in her face and eyes.

She pulled a hair elastic out and pulled all her hair away from her face. Twisting it up into a bundle on her head before securing it with the elastic. She traced the long scar that ran from behind her ear down to below her collar of her shirt with the tip of her finger. With a sigh of remembrance, she pulled one of the many books from her bag and got down to work.

As darkness settled in, she set up the Windless Candles to give her enough light to keep her work going. She had finished her homework hours ago, as usual. Now she worked feverishly on the theories she had been working on now since she got back to school. The wind picked up, a chill coming with it and she shivered slightly.

"I thought you would be up here," the dark voice came. "And here I thought you were know better than to be alone."

Her wand was in her hand pointing to the voice with narrowed eyes, anger seething from every pore. He had abandoned them before, but she knew he was no voluntary killer.

"Don't talk to me, go away," she said firmly. "I warn you, I am not above sending you to meet your maker today."

"Threats? My girl, I would have thought you smarter than that too," he replied. The silk in his voice was enough to send chills down her spine.

"What are you doing here!" the shrill in her voice let known she was serious. Scared, powerful and serious. What a wondrous combination, almost intoxicating really.

"I do not have my wand Miss Granger."

"I do not care!" she said angrily.

"Keep your voice down you silly girl," he said firmly.

"You cannot possibly think that I would trust anything you have to say," she spat.

"No, I do not," he replied with a wanton wave of the hand like she was nothing more than a beggar asking for a donation. "But I do know that I have spent years doing exactly what you are trying to."

"And what precisely am I trying to do?" she said incredulously.

"Why do you believe our Dark Lord let you live?" he said approaching her quickly, the intimidation in his stance was so evident.

With a swish and a flick of the wand she cast the binding spell. But nothing happened. She moved back from his approaching form. Another binding spell and again no result. Then he was upon her, her wand hand locked in his hand.

"Try something with a bit more flair girl," he jeered at her. That snarky grin on his lips like he had just taken 50 points away from Gryffindor. "You hate me enough. You know the curse. Do it!"

"CRUCIO!" she screamed at him. Again, nothing. He released her arm and stepped back away from her.

"I am not here Hermione. You cannot harm what is not here," he said as if she was the most stupid thing to walk the earth.

"You are a dream?" she sputtered.

"10 points to Gryffindor," he bemused with that smirk firmly in place. "Why did he let you live Miss Granger?"

"To live in shame I guess," she shrugged. "It doesn't matter why."

"Yes it does!" he snarled. "He had you in his grasps, he had you bleeding beneath him! You are a muggle born witch and are the proof against everything he preaches! Why did he let you live?" The silk combined with his intimidation bereft her of the power of speech as she contemplated again, for the 100th time why she was still drawing breath.

"I don't know!" she exclaimed.

"Very well," he said turning to walk away.

"If you know, why do you not tell me?" she said again, tucking her wand into her sleeve and moving forward to his retreating form.

"Because you are useful," he said sternly. "Because you will serve another purpose later. Because you now fear him and you will freeze up when the time comes and it will cost you the lives of your friends, your precious Potter and Weasley. That is WHY!" He barked in her face spinning on her. "Because that way he did not kill them. Your inability to act because of your fear did. You would be even more discredited than being a Mudblood does for you already! And Thusly You Are Truly Pathetic." He sneered with a grin.

Hermione took in everything he was saying. It did make sense. Discrediting her rather than making her martyr. She raised an eyebrow in the disgust of it all.

"If I am dreaming there in nothing you can do to me!" she spat.

"Who said youare the onedreaming? I said I was safe in bed," he squared his shoulders once again. "You my precious little witch are perfectly awake."

"I am not your 'precious little witch'!" she snarled. "Do not dare to presume..."

"Presume?" he said silkily

"I've given you more than enough clues Gryffendor," he said. "Now then, Get into bed If I wanted you dead, I would have done it long ago. Remember that." He leaned his back against the cold stone, crossing his arms over one another across his chest. His onyx gaze bore into her eyes like cold daggers into a freshly cooked pig.

She turned her eyes from his onyx gaze to the vial sitting atop the stone battlement. Then slowly she turned her gaze back to him.

"No," she said firmly. Her wand lifted again. The cogs in her mind were turning, grinding out the answers.

"I've given you enough clues," he replied again. "Silly Gryffindor."

"I may be silly, but I'm not stupid. You are here, " she grinned. "You couldn't get into my dreams and make me think you were here if you were not real."

"Ten points to Gryffindor," he drawled with a mocking look in his eyes. "So your spells do not work, am I here and a liar, or not here and sayings of the truth. I've given you enough hints, now take yourself to bed."

She gathered her books, looking down to one of the pages briefly. She slammed the book shut. Realization was clear and evident in her eyes. "You are not the one asleep," she laughed. "A very valiant effort. I must applaud your Legilimens, Snape. I am the one asleep, not you. Which means you are nearby, within a mile of me. But even more so, you know where I am which means you are probably observing my sleeping form right here on the Astronomy Tower, you cannot get any further into my head unless I lower my Occlumens, which is why you are trying to goad me into going to sleep in my own dream!" she grinned at her mental prowess at figuring out his little puzzle.

"And how do you figure you are asleep?" he purred, his eyes watching over her form.

"Two reasons," she grinned her wand still at the ready. If it were her dream, she would be controlling the shots now. Her spells would work if she needed them to. "First, my scars are gone. And second, the words in the book are gibberish. The mind cannot read when it is asleep."

"Very stout of you, Miss Granger," he raised an eyebrow in a private bravo.

"So if you will please tell me now why you are here, invading my dreams and probably provoking them," she said with a soft smile. Her eyes were sparkling in the light of the torches and candles of the Tower.

"Draco needs help and I know that if you came to the conclusion on your own you would help. You are a trusting little know-it-all. And I cannot help him now," he said plainly. "He has been injured."

"Where is he?" she said as her eyes became wearier of the man before her. "And why cannot you assist his injuries?"

"Because I too am injured, now awaken Hermione Granger," his voice was a soft command but his eyes were full of contempt. His fists were curled so tightly she was sure that his fingernails were cutting his palms.

She snapped her eyes open, taking in a deep inhale of the night's cold air. Blinking she looked around herself. Pulling her robes tighter around her body she didn't see anyone in her immediate area. She closed the book she had fallen asleep on and stuffed them all in her bag. Putting out the candles she heard a shuffling noise near the door. A slight gurgling sound caught her attention, or was it a wet groan? She lifted herself and her bag and hauled herself over to the noise. Even now the insane dream was already fading away.

"Lumos!" she said as a golden glow encased her wand. She watched something darkly robed hit the wall and slide down it. She moved cautiously and saw it was a figure of a man.

"Professor Snape?" she questioned moving a little closer. Something white was flicked out of the man's hand, waving slightly like a white flag before being held up to this man's face by his hand. The black onyx orbs caught her attention.

"Professor!" She moved quickly to his side. A side of the handkerchief he had pressed to his face was soaked in a dark fluid. Her wand did not emanate enough light for her to see anything here. "I've got to get you out of here!" There was sheer, unadulterated panic in her voice. An emotion that was a rarity for Hermione Granger, was panic, indeed.

He proffered the handkerchief toward her, she looked into his cold eyes and reached up to it. She realized a moment too late why she was told to never grab anything from someone when she felt the incessant pull from her navel.