Disclaimer: All characters belong to the great JKR. No money to be made here. Only inspiration borne out of admiration.
A/N: We hope you enjoy the mutual brainchild of TimeTurnerforSale and Ariadne AWS, who believe that desperate times - conference calls and ends of semesters - call for desperate measures: writing your writing partner into a corner and passing the keyboard. It all started with one of TTFS's LJ icons (courtesy of Laurel TX), which contains the first line of the story...
Summary: When a lethal potion is about to be unleashed at Hogwarts, Snape does the only thing he can think of to stop it: "... so I grabbed Hermione and threw her down - "
Desperate times call for desperate measures...
"... so I grabbed Hermione and threw her down - " Severus said as he tugged his cuff back, held up his hand, and swept it forward to illustrate his point.
Minerva had been growing paler with every word. Finally, she interrupted, "Severus! The Board of Governors..."
"Bugger the Board of Governors. They had little to do with what transpired tonight, although if they had been at all capable of telling their wands from their arses, this predicament might have been avoided."
Minerva leaned forward, eying him suspiciously, "And what predicament would that be?"
Severus spread his fingers across her desk and became interested in a paperweight, picking it up and moving it a few inches along before replacing it. He mumbled something in response.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that?"
"She has somehow has lost her mind. Perhaps she has ingested some sort of herb that has addled her brain. I will need to do some research - " Severus said, keeping his hand occupied with a small statue of a griffin, frowning at it as if it had insulted him.
Minerva pursed her lips, grabbed the statue out of his hand and ordered, "Out with it, Snape."
"I have reason to believe she loves me," he said quickly, awaiting her predictably incredulous response.
Minerva's hand flew to her chest as she gasped, "And - what gives you that idea?" She fixed him with a piercing glare.
"Are you daft? She told me!" Severus snapped, folding his arms over his chest.
Minerva slowly took her seat. After taking a moment to recover her composure, she said softly, "Why Severus..."
He glowered at her.
Minerva struggled, saying distractedly, "... that's... that's..."
"Spare me your assessment of my personal life," Severus said, scowling at her and stepping away from her desk.
"... complicated, indeed," Minerva said, pondering. "The Board of Governors will be expecting a report by return of their owl. I will do what I can to buy us time. Perhaps a Potions accident..."
Severus bristled. "My record on that score is unimpeachable."
Looking over her glasses, Minerva said sternly, "I do not believe, Severus, that many will believe you 'unimpeachable' now."
Severus glared at her, then his intensity fled. Stepping closer to her desk, he contemplated the problem. "Yes, we could claim that she was doing extra credit work - "
"Extra credit work, Severus?" Minerva said with a huff, her eyebrows raised, "Really."
"Oh, Minerva, please - you certainly don't believe I would take advantage?
She looked at him, eyebrows lifted, then shook her head, "Severus, this could hardly be consensual."
Severus took sudden interest in Minerva's desk, placing his hands on the edge. "No - No, of course not." He ran his hands along the desk, following the wood grain with a finger, exhaling slowly. Blasted Potter, he thought. Can't keep a thought in his head without it frothing out his mouth. He continued to run his palms along the desk's edge.
Observing him carefully, she asked, "Why here, of all places, Severus? Why at Hogwarts?"
Turning slowly toward her, his eyes narrowing to glinting pinpricks, he hid his hands with his cloak.
Minerva shuddered. He'd perfected that move at seventeen, and knew its effects all too well. She guessed, rightly, that she would not want to hear his next words.
"Potter," Severus sneered. "And his sidekick. They sent her to keep watch - I suspect after she tried, unsuccessfully, as usual, to talk them out of it."
Minerva looked at him, startled.
"Yes, Minerva. Your golden boy. Not quite as golden if word of this gets out. Which it will."
"Which it has, Severus. How do you propose I answer the owl? You'll be lucky to have a job by morning. Assaulting a student... any student... but especially Miss Granger."
"If I had not 'assaulted' her, Minerva, do you believe any of us would be alive to worry about propriety?"
Minerva observed Severus closely, too closely. He shifted, then said, "Yes, Minerva. There is an explanation."
"Please do share, Severus. I believe it would be to your benefit."
Severus scowled at her, then fixed her with a look that chilled her blood. "I was working on a potion for the Dark Lord. Potter had been following me, trying to find out what I was doing, when I was going to meetings."
"You knew, of course," Minerva said.
Severus rolled his eyes. "Potter is about as subtle as his father, and just as reckless in regards to his friends' safety."
Minerva blanched, but couldn't argue. "Go on."
He sighed and crossed his arms. "Potter and Weasley were going to break into my private lab, to see what I was working on, why I was leaving so often. What they didn't know was I was following them."
Minerva nodded in silence.
"I saw Miss Granger outside the lab's door, acting as an obvious lookout. She was, of course, easy to catch by surprise, so I took hold of her and saw that Potter was about to open the lid to the cauldron holding the potion," Severus said and shook his head in disgust. "I ordered Potter to stop, but he started to lift the lid - in defiance."
"Severus, what does the potion do?" Minerva asked, her eyes wide. Clearly this was even more serious than she expected – which, in itself, was serious enough.
Severus ran his hand through his hair. "When finished, it would grant magical powers, including wand use, to the Inferi. With wands, they would be an unstoppable army. We wouldn't have a chance..."
Minerva gasped, her hands flying to her mouth in shock.
Severus nodded. "I will obviously never finish such a potion, but I need to placate the Dark Lord with the semblance of progress, or else - well - "
She nodded and reached a hand out to Severus' shoulder. She noticed that he flinched just slightly when her hand rested on him.
"The raw ingredients of the potion are highly toxic. Beyond anything imaginable." He ran his hands through his hair. "It must be brewed for a stage in a closed room and with a lid. If the fumes were to escape - "
"Are you saying… ?"
"Yes, Minerva. The fumes are lethal and could have spread through the castle. Potter's insipid thirst for knowledge he has no business pursuing could have killed us all."
Minerva swayed slightly, then sat down.
Severus nodded, in full agreement with her reaction. "The ingredients are so volatile that I couldn't risk using magic to stop him, and I was too far away - his hand was on the cover." He swallowed hard. "Once he saw what I… what I was… what I had done, his attention was… diverted."
"Severus," Minerva said, a shaking hand touching her forehead as she tried to collect her thoughts, "that doesn't explain why Miss Granger has told you she loves you."
"Yes," he said, reverting to examining her desk. "I, of course, explained what could have happened to them, then sent them directly to you. Potter, in his typical infinite wisdom, waited outside the Potions classroom door."
He leaned forward on her desk, resting on his elbows and with his head in his hands said, "Her reaction to my saving their lives was to kiss me - and tell me she loved me."
"Oh, Severus," Minerva said shaking her head. "Was there no other way?"
He knew the question was rhetorical, but he could erase neither his actions nor his memories, and, finally, he snapped. "If there had been," he said slowly, "do you imagine... " The sentence trailed off into silence as he turned his head to regard her intently through a curtain of hair.
"Even you have limits, Severus," Minerva said, quietly.
He slammed his fist down, hard, on the desk. "And I have not reached them yet, but this night has pushed me very close to them, Minerva." He scowled at her. "Very. Close."
The owl perched on the nearby bookshelves hooted, startled. It ruffled its wings, affronted, sweeping both humans with a look of haughty disdain.
"I shall tell the Board of Governors that the... incident was the result of an unauthorized experiment, and that your actions were a timely response to extreme circumstances that could have been far, far worse."
He scowled skeptically.
"They will, of course, expect the student to be... punished."
"No, Severus," Minerva shook her head, sadly. "The less attention focused on him the better, at the moment. No, Miss Granger shall bear the brunt of your - indiscretion."
Severus' eyes grew flat, but he said nothing.
Minerva rose. "Dumbledore will return from London later this evening. He will doubtless wish to speak with you."
Severus nodded and swept back to his private lab.
He stood with his hands on the table and hung his head. He closed his eyes and replayed the incident over and over in his mind. Different outcomes came into focus and passed by as he recalculated, following paths backward and forward after replacing variables.
He sighed deeply and opened his eyes, staring down at the well worn wood, losing himself in the grain's pattern. After a while he stood straight and turned - and was startled into dropping his hand.
"Miss Granger, you should not be here," Severus said, his eyes narrowing.
Hermione moved further into the lab, her hands held together, her fingernails digging nervous half moons into her skin.
Severus' eyes shifted quickly towards the door as he unconsciously countered her movement. The last thing he needed was a repeat performance.
Hermione stopped. "I'm sorry, sir. I really am. I - "
"Miss Granger, there is nothing for you to apologize for," Severus began, then twisted his voice into a sneer, "except for your choice of friends."
Hermione nodded in silence. She noticed that he had become hesitant, eyeing the exit as if she was dangerous and might explode at any moment. She figured that was deserved. She had, after all, professed love to a man who probably didn't know the meaning of the word.
"There is, though," she said, trying to ignore how he was backing towards the Potion classroom's door, keeping an eye on her. "I didn't mean, well, I did mean that - I mean - "
"Miss Granger, you couldn't possibly," Severus said. It had suddenly become difficult to breathe. The thought that anyone would feel… that way… about him immediately sent his mind reeling – questioning not only their intentions, but their sanity as well.
Hermione approached him, frowning as he gestured towards the open classroom door. Instead of passing by, she stopped in front of him, searching his eyes.
"Do you really want me to leave?" Hermione asked, staring so intently at him that Severus felt it in his very soul - a place he hadn't thought existed any more.
"I do think it best, yes," he said, his hand gripping the door handle so hard the metal groaned as the bolts shifted within the wood.
"In true Slytherin fashion, you haven't answered my question," Hermione countered. The fact that he hadn't completely lost his temper and yelled at her to leave told her something was there.
"Yes, Miss Granger. It should not have happened. I apologize for what I did; my actions were unthinkable. And what happened afterward cannot happen again. You must leave." When she made no move to obey, he narrowed his eyes and snarled, "Now."
Hermione's expression, however, didn't change. She kept studying him, watching his reaction. When he continued to stand there, making no move to force her to leave, she knew.
He couldn't bring himself to yell at her. Not when he knew she would be the one to bear the burden of this whole mess. She was still looking at him, moving closer, tilting her head up...
She was so close she could feel the pace of his breathing. He wore his usual calm, cool demeanor, but she knew differently. Only inches away, she could see how his eyes moved slightly, intelligence flashing, thinking through a thousand possibilities in a single moment - just as she was doing.
"I'll leave. If you tell me that you felt nothing," she said, the hint of a smile shining in her eyes.
Severus immediately shook his head and stepped further into the hallway. "Nothing at all. Now, I must insist you leave, Miss Granger."
She stared at him for a moment, her eyes watching his.
He returned her gaze. He had become so proficient at lying that he had raised the act to a veritable art form. Enjoying the delicate dance between truth and deception, remembering the various layers of his life, the players in each and what they believed. This, however, was different. She was somehow unnerving him simply by remaining still. Simply watching him.
He kept his eyes carefully blank.
Hermione smiled gently and leaned forward, prompting Severus to press himself against the door.
She stared into his startled eyes and, in a voice so soft it was scarcely more than a whisper, said, "Don't lie to me."
He said nothing. Only the torchlight reflecting in his eyes, moving as they moved, betrayed the fact that he was alive, present in the moment.
She waited, a gesture away from him, watching his eyes as they moved from her eyes to her lips and back, a question forming in them despite the act of will that was keeping him still, a will so palpable she could feel it on her skin, the hair on her arms responding, her lips parting slightly as her skin came alive with memory.
His eyes flicked again to her lips and then away, sharply. "Silence is never a lie, Miss Granger."
"It's never the truth, either."
She could see him swallow, and she warmed at the thought of the effect that her presence, her closeness, was having on the smooth polish of his reserve.
He dared one more look into her eyes. His lips barely moving, his voice a quiet echo, he spoke carefully, as if the slightest movement would shatter his resolve. "Truth requires no words, Miss Granger. Now go. Please." Between them, hidden from even the empty room, he brushed one cautious, gentle finger against the back of her hand and closed his eyes. "Go. Before you bring the entire castle down on both of us."
Her skin burning from his fleeting touch, her eyes wide, she nodded and left.
When he was sure she was gone, he let his head fall back against the door, clenching his fists at his sides.
He could still breathe the lingering scent of her, still feel her warmth as it faded from the air. The softest groan escaped his throat.
"Lemon drop, Severus?"
Severus refused Dumbledore's offer for what seemed like the thousandth time and leaned back in his chair. His tea sat, growing cold. The world had been a fog since she'd left him standing, completely unnerved, in the doorway.
Dumbledore carefully replaced the lid on the bowl. Pleasantries aside, it was time.
"Severus, Minerva shared with me your account of what happened," Dumbledore said thoughtfully. "But I have a more pressing question."
Severus had, until that moment, been staring at the light reflecting through the glass jar. Anyone watching would have believed him fascinated with them, perhaps secretly wishing to try one of the wretched sweets Dumbledore insisted on offering constantly. Severus swore that if the Dark Lord himself entered the office, Dumbledore's first and last words would be "Lemon drop?"
He was not staring at the jar in want of a lemon drop; rather he needed to avoid looking at something else: his damned eyes.
"Severus, look at me," Dumbledore said quietly.
Dragging his eyes upwards from the flickering torchlight in the jar to Dumbledore's face took great effort. Expecting to be met with a stern, disapproving look, Severus was stunned to find concern.
"Why did you not tell me what Voldemort asked you to do?"
Severus exhaled slowly, and Dumbledore frowned.
"Severus," Dumbledore began quietly, "you must tell me. We cannot afford the risk of your being forced to leave Hogwarts."
"I did not mention it to you for precisely that reason. Had you known, you must have forbidden it. And as difficult as it would be to continue my work for the Order absent the 'security' of my teaching position here, risking your position is by far the more severe risk. You must remain near Potter, especially now, whereas I..."
A single gesture, a small inflection - neither should have been able to support the weight of the vacuum behind them.
Dumbledore leaned back in his chair. "You are not expendable, Severus."
Keeping his hands carefully relaxed on the arms of his chair, Severus met the older wizard's gaze. "Headmaster, with all due respect, I must point out that your well-rehearsed arguments on that score are tangential to our discussion."
Dumbledore appeared not to have heard him. "Miss Granger does not find you expendable." Without betraying any hint of increased alertness, Dumbledore watched Severus' eyes carefully.
And there it was. Dumbledore could not have described what it was - the widening of a black pupil against a black iris was undetectable even to the wizarding eye - but there was something, and Dumbledore knew it.
In an instant, Severus' eyes had gone from predator to prey.
"Which brings me to the crux of the matter," Dumbledore continued, closing his eyes against the need for ruthlessness.
Severus waited, trying not to appear frozen.
"You must show me what happened."
Even the portraits saw Severus' eyes widen at that.
Mouth too dry to speak, Severus nodded. He stood and moved toward the cabinet where Dumbledore kept the Pensieve. They had done this many times before for his reports.
"Severus - I think perhaps it would be safer not to use the Pensieve for this."
"Indeed," Severus managed to croak.
"It is... difficult. I know. If I am to manage this situation, I have no choice." Dumbledore's look softened. "I risk much by offering my apologies, but Severus – for this, I am sorry."
"We all do what we must, Headmaster."
Dumbledore arose and joined Severus in front of the desk. He raised his wand and whispered, "Legilimens."
Severus' hands flew to the edge of the headmaster's desk and he clenched it, hard.
Dumbledore's mind lingered for a moment on the edges of Severus' thoughts, sensing his distress in the disruption of the usually crystalline organization of the younger wizard's mind.
With a brittle self-discipline that brought a lump to Dumbledore's throat, Severus willed his mind to calm, and, although the effort cost him, his mind obeyed. Trying to hold his roiling emotions firmly in check, he offered his memory for Dumbledore's inspection.
He did not let go of the desk.
Dumbledore closed his eyes and concentrated. He felt Severus' anger at Voldemort and his very real desire to protect the security of Dumbledore's position at almost any cost. He felt his growing annoyance at Potter and Weasley's bumbling efforts at tailing him, and he felt his sense of panic when he realized that Potter was one defiant movement away from accidental mass murder.
Dumbledore recognized the sharp glittering flashes of memory that always characterized Severus' quicksilver analysis of life-and-death situations. He had seen this many times before in the Pensieve; the ability had saved Severus' life, and those of many in the Order, including his own, countless times. Many times Dumbledore had replayed Severus analyses more slowly, but he had never once found fault with Severus' brutally instinctive logic, and doubted he would do so now.
As Dumbledore's path through the memory approached Severus' decision to do the unthinkable, Severus' hands started to tremble.
He forced his mind to stay clear, open, and ordered, but knew that his body would betray him.
He clenched the edge of the desk so tightly that a decorative bit of carving snapped off under his hand.
Severus didn't notice.
Inside the other man's mind, Dumbledore felt what he thought of as the beads of Severus' analysis fall, finally, ordered, into a decision.
He felt Severus grab Miss Granger.
He felt the young witch's small scream of surprise.
He felt Severus' heart break as he threw her down on the table, dragging her robes up to reveal her bare legs.
He felt her struggle against Severus' grasp on her wrists.
He felt Severus keep one surreptitious, curtained eye on Potter, felt him tear Miss Granger's blouse open, roughly dragging its edges aside, exposing her more forcefully, continuing his assault, with his hands, his mouth, on her person until he was certain that Potter's blinding, terminally stupid impulse had been replaced with shock and horror.
And Dumbledore knew how much it had cost him.
Because he had also felt Severus' breathtaking tenderness for the brilliant young witch, and the ruthlessness with which he had locked it away from himself, and the reasons why.
Finally, Dumbledore released the spell. Instinctively his hand raised to Severus' shoulder, a gesture of compassion, of understanding, of sympathy - but he stopped just before he touched him.
Severus was trembling uncontrollably.