CHOICES AND CONSEQUENCES

This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and situations elaborated herein.

Thanks to my reviewers and especially to my previewer, Bellegeste.

WARNING This fic contains HBP Spoilers. Enter at own risk if you haven't read HBP.

When they reached Gryffindor Tower at the end of that endless day of Ron's birthday poisoning, Hermione hurried straight into her dormitory. She was too upset to consider that Lavender and Parvati might still be up and waiting to interrogate her about where she'd been all day, and, more importantly in their eyes, where Ron had been.

She had no choice but to tell them. Their reaction was predictably acrimonious.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Lavender shrilled. "I'm his girlfriend, not you! How could you not say anything?"

Truthfully, it hadn't even occurred to her that Lavender should know, but she knew better than to tell her so.

"Sorry. I wasn't thinking. Professor Snape told me at breakfast -"

"Snape? Why would he tell you?" Parvati scoffed.

She wasn't going to put ideas into their heads by telling them of his accusation. Sometimes it was better to stick with the abridged version.

"Professor Snape! They don't know who did it. He was asking me, as one of Ron's closest friends -"

"One of Ron's friends? That's a laugh! You haven't talked to him in three months!"

Hermione took a deep breath and reminded herself that hexing Lavender into a black-beetle and stepping on her wouldn't help anything and besides, it was against school rules.

"He was asking me, as one of Ron's closest friends, whether I knew of anyone that might have wanted to harm him, but I didn't, of course. I think the poisoner was probably the same person who got Katie last time we were supposed to have a Hogsmeade weekend."

"But why would he ask you and not me?"

Hermione turned away so they couldn't see her rolling her eyes. It was the first time in six years of school that Lavender had actually wanted Professor Snape to talk to her but she wouldn't have liked it at all if he had.

"Because he's seen us together in his Potions classroom for five years and you only got together with Ron around Xmas. Why would Snape have noticed?"

Lavender blushed.

"He's caught us snogging in the hallways twice," she muttered.

For someone who'd spent the entire day telling herself she wouldn't care how many girls Ron snogged if only he'd get better, Hermione wasn't giving a convincing impression of not caring. Her nails were digging into her palms and her eyes were smouldering.

"Why don't you ask him then?" she snapped. "I'm sure he'd love to explain why he doesn't keep records of who you're currently kissing!"

Lavender and Parvati exchanged indignant glances and Lavender decided to return to the argument she had a chance of winning.

"Well, you knew!" she accused. "And you sat around all day spitefully saying nothing!"

Hermione pushed Crookshanks off her nightie and reached for the string of her bed-curtains.

"If you were so fond of Ron you'd have found out where he was somehow! You must have known something was wrong when none of us turned up to Apparition lessons! Why on earth didn't you ask Professor McGonagall? Or come up to the Hospital Wing to check for yourself?"

Lavender sniffed and turned her head away.

"You're such a pig, Hermione!" Parvati complained, patting her friend on the shoulder. "She thought you'd made up and gone off somewhere together. Of course she wouldn't ask McGonagall about that!"

Hermione sat down suddenly on her bed. Crookshanks miaouwed his displeasure at being so rudely disturbed.

"Oh." She hadn't expected to feel guilty. "I'm sorry. You're right, I should have sent you a message somehow. I was too upset to think about it. We all were."

"All?"

"Me, Harry, Ginny." Her shoulders sagged. She'd bargained for Ron's life and naturally she had to keep her word, but did it have to be right now? Couldn't she have just one night's peace first? "He almost died! We waited outside the infirmary all day on the off-chance they'd let us see him and it was eight o' clock before they did. I'm sorry, but we weren't thinking about anything except whether we'd ever see him alive again."

"Just don't forget that he's still my boyfriend," Lavender said. "And don't try to get him back just because now he's interesting!"

Hermione choked on her tongue.

"Interesting? Interesting?" Why had she felt sympathetic to that shallow boy-chaser? Interesting? She pulled her curtains shut. "Look, I can't be bothered to fight with you. Just shut up and go to bed."

The lights had been out for an hour but Hermione was still lying awake, staring into the darkness. Ron was alive. That was good in all sorts of ways she couldn't even think about now. Their quarrel had evaporated as if it had never been. If he never became more than a friend, so be it. At least he'd be a living friend that she could talk to and hang out with, instead of just a memory.

She'd sort that out tomorrow, after he woke up again. It was an entirely different problem that was exercising her mind.

Professor Snape! Sour, sarcastic, slippery Slytherin; he'd made every training session a torture. Every lesson she'd debated why she was continuing and whether the double opportunity to learn from him and to play an adult part in the war was sufficient reason to endure his snarling company. True, she'd learnt so much in such a short time, Occlumency, mind talk, strategy, philosophy. First and foremost though had been his advice, "Never agree to a request without knowing what it entails," a truth that his obnoxious attitude had perforce hammered home.

She knew now all right. The headmaster's request had entailed blood, toil, tears and sweat. Snape always fought to win, dirty tricks just another arrow in his quiver, and she'd had to learn to match him. He stripped her bare and laughed at her nakedness; he tied her in knots and let her struggle her way out of them.

She'd thought it was a burden she'd happily relinquish, yet now the thought that he might want to end it only filled her with fresh desire for the task. She felt no triumph at having perhaps outlasted him, only regret at lost chances.

She sat up and punched her pillow savagely. Crookshanks shifted his bulk and glowered at her, yellow cat's-eyes glittering with disdain.

"Not you too, Crooks," she grumbled. "I don't need any criticisms from you, thank you very much. Go back to sleep." The half-kneazle showed his opinion of that suggestion with arched back and stretched front paws, claws extended.

"Oh, all right!" Hermione snapped. She couldn't sleep anyway. Snape would be livid with her for turning up hours after curfew but she couldn't bring herself to care. At least by now Harry would surely have given up on checking the Marauders' Map till the morning. That meant that, in one way, there was less chance of discovery and so she'd tell Snape if he tried to blast her.

Ten minutes later, she was hissing arguments at a reluctant portrait. The Fat Lady didn't want to let her through until she threatened her with an eraser spell. Not that she'd really have done it, of course, but a bluff was as good as an honest threat if one kept a straight face. Now all she needed to do was avoid Filch and his mangy pet.

Snape wasn't in his office. She stared blankly at the empty room, her wand-light flooding it with ghostly pallor. It hadn't occurred to her that he might have gone to bed before 11.30. Now what?

A soft voice sounded in her ear from behind.

"The poisons are locked and warded, Miss Granger. If you were hoping to find a more effective toxin I'm afraid you've wasted your time."

She jumped and whirled, letting go the door, which clanged thunderously behind her. Heart racing, she jumped again.

"Professor Snape!"

He loomed menacingly over her. Inconsequentially, she registered his black robes and felt a moment's relief that at least she hadn't disturbed him from preparing for bed. He must have been patrolling the halls again.

"Give me a reason why I shouldn't drag you off to Professor McGonagall to be expelled for theft and attempted murder," he sneered.

She huffed impatiently. Did he never leave off?

"You know perfectly well it wasn't me that attacked Ron, sir, and Professor McGonagall wouldn't believe it for a moment."

"You're sure of that, are you?"

The shadows deepened the harsh sneering lines that ran from his beaky nose to his gash of a mouth. Even six months ago, she would have been scared. Loyal to the Order or not, he'd been a Death Eater once and she'd read enough modern history to know what kind of crimes might lie in his past. His petty cruelty in the classroom was nothing to what he had probably been doing at her age.

It didn't matter. He'd trampled through her mind with hobnailed boots and spoken without words in her head. She knew him now. In school he was all teacher; he'd as soon hex a student as tango with the Giant Squid in the Great Hall.

"Sure enough, yes. I needed to speak to you, sir. Please."

"Fifty points -"

"Taking points might raise questions neither of us dare answer, sir. Give me detention instead - now, immediately. While Harry's asleep and not looking at his Map."

He snorted.

"Detention in the middle of the night?"

"Why not? I've had a night detention before, sir. In first year, Professor McGonagall caught us breaking curfew and we had to spend the whole night helping Hagrid search the Forbidden Forest for the unicorn-killer."

"I clearly remember points being taken as well," he said, cocking an eyebrow. One hundred and fifty points from Gryffindor and twenty from his own house for Draco's involvement. He'd had a stern word with the boy over that.

"Well, yes, they were, but you already took fifty points last session and I believe they were unwarranted. You did agree that I could ask Professor Dumbledore to adjudicate, sir."

"So you're offering to serve a detention and call it quits?"

At her nod, he scowled but led her through the heavy door into his office. He conjured her a toothbrush and a bucket of soapy water.

"The floor hasn't been scrubbed for a while," he told her. She sighed and got down on hands and knees while he watched from his chair. "You wished to speak to me? Speak."

She bit her lip. This had been a really stupid idea. He was quite capable of staying up all night purely to prolong her punishment. It wasn't a very large floor but if she had to scrub every inch with the toothbrush she'd still be there at breakfast. Lucky tomorrow was Sunday.

"You told the headmaster he was taking too much for granted and you didn't want to do it any more -" she muttered.

"How do you know that?" He was leaning forward, eyes blazing, long-fingered hand clenched around his wand..

She kept her eyes safely turned away and Occluded for all she was worth.

"I can't tell you, sir."

"I can guess, I suppose. Potter and his cloak."

"No, someone else entirely but – but I can't tell you." If she said the hearer had let it slip, he'd know she meant Hagrid. "Is it me? These lessons? Is that what you don't want to do any more?"

"I never wanted to do them in the first place."

She heard both the smirk and the bitterness in his voice.

"I didn't mean – I didn't mean – If I offended you I'm very sorry."

"Nothing so easily mended as that. Do you think me so weak as to be frightened away by petty insults or disobedience?"

He sounded weary. Hermione rocked back on her heels and stared at him. His eyes were as dark as unlit caves. If it wasn't these lessons, then – Oh no! The headmaster's words that snowy January day came back to her.

Severus will make any sacrifice to further our cause; that is the measure by which he acts. Being a spy forces him into situations where there are no good choices, only greater or lesser degrees of bad. He has had to do terrible things, things that have scarred him and made his life bitter, but what needs to be done he will do, whatever the cost to himself.

She hadn't understood then. She'd quibbled that it didn't sound very Slytherin and the headmaster had replied that dedication and cunning were not mutually exclusive, but she hadn't understood. That wasn't a character assessment; that was a prediction.

She gulped.

"It's coming, isn't it? A day when you have to do something terrible because it's the least bad option." And she was to be the fall-back witness if one were ever required, to testify for Snape if the headmaster could not. She wondered how the Unbreakable Vow fitted in and whether it was the cause or the result of whatever terrible choice he was facing.

His gaze held hers captive. The toothbrush dripped unheeded on her robe.

"That's not your concern," he said. "You promised at the outset not to seek out my secrets."

Her eyes filled. She needed to blink but she couldn't look away.

"But it is coming, isn't it?"

He lifted his chin, glaring down his large nose to where she crouched in front of him.

"I believe so."

Her stomach heaved. She swallowed hard. This was not the time to be sick, not in front of this unflinching, unbending man. She wondered suddenly if the things he had to do made him feel sick too. Was his bad temper partly due to chronic indigestion? He'd always had a sickly look, his skin pallid with yellow undertones, his hair lank and uncared-for.

"And you won't tell me," she whispered.

"You'd try to stop it. You couldn't help yourself."

Still she couldn't look away.

"Is it -"

"Nothing to do with your friends. They'll be protected."

She bit a hole in her lower lip.

"My family then?"

"Your family are as safe as any other Muggle parents of Hogwarts students. Their house has been warded and there are no particular plans against them to my knowledge."

She scrambled up to lean across his desk, nose to nose.

"That isn't saying much though, is it? I still have to write to them; they're expecting my letter by Monday. You haven't told me what to say."

"You are supposed to be scrubbing the floor," he snarled. "At this rate you'll be here all week."

She took a step back, her hand clenched around the toothbrush.

"I can't go on deceiving them. They need to know. They deserve to know."

He stared her down, waving her back to her task and waiting for her to resume before he continued with slow precision.

"I could stand surety for them, but you would not like the cost."

She looked up with dawning hope as her hand scrubbed steadily at the same inch of stone.

"Tell me."

He paused, looking her over with cold contemplation as she held her breath. Trust shone from her eyes.

"Instead of hiding our meetings from the Dark Lord, I would have to tell him. And rest assured that if he believes I am shaping you for a weapon against your friends, it will not be long before he expects me to aim you. Is it worth it to you? Your parents against your friends, at the risk of imperilling everything you believe in?"

She recoiled as if she'd been struck. Hot tears splashed into the bucket. The toothbrush dropped with a clatter to the floor.

"You're so cruel. How can you expect me to make a choice like that?" she choked.

"You are making this choice every moment of your life. I don't force you to it, I merely draw your attention to the consequences of every action you take and every word you speak."

She flinched. Her tears came faster until she could barely breathe for sniffling.

"I can't! You know I can't!"

In the subsequent brittle silence, his words fell with unrelenting candour.

"Refusing to choose is also a choice – and generally a choice for the worst. Do you choose not to choose, Miss Granger? Must I choose for you?"

She sniffed and rubbed her eyes hard.

"Please."

"I will not tell. I never had any intention of doing so. The risk is too great and the reward too small."

Hermione's head jerked up at these incredible words. Open-mouthed and speechless, she struggled to calm her breathing. That offer was just another one of his games? Oh, he was horrible, horrible! He read her thoughts and his lips twisted in wry acknowledgement as he continued.

"This was another lesson, one I've been trying to teach you for a long time. Do you understand at last? You could not make Longbottom a competent student by telling him the answers and you cannot save your parents by giving your enemy the advantage. Good intentions are a comfort to no one but yourself - and then only until you open your eyes and see what you've wrought under their influence."

Tears still wet on her cheeks, Hermione stared into his bleak black eyes. She gulped. I don't want to do this any more.

It was a bitter realisation. So this was really what Professor Dumbledore's request entailed, to be repeatedly forced to the choice when every option was a splinter to the heart. She hadn't heard Snape say Legilimens but she heard his answer in her head.

Neither do I. But want is not my master.

He continued aloud, "When I do what I soon must, it will seem to you like the greatest betrayal. You will have to choose whether you still trust me. Thousands of lives will be waiting on your choice. I hope you will choose wisely."