A/N: I owe my dear betas, anogete and daciangoddess, a huge debt of gratitude. They spent a lot of time beating this story into submission, and I appreciate all of their hard work.
Obligatory: None of these things belong to me; they all belong to JKR. I just like to have a bit of fun with them, and no profit is desired.
A tall, pale figure sat alone in a dark room, tapping his fingers against his cheek, staring at a clock whose glass face had long ago been shattered. The hands were of little use to one who wanted to know the actual time, as this was a place where time stood still. Rather, one could follow the hands to assess how much time had passed since they had begun staring at it.
Severus Snape was weary, and, as usual, agitated. How long would they keep him in this room before giving him any information about his fate, he wondered. If they were planning to kill him, the one to whom that task had been assigned would likely give little warning of his approach, so Severus decided simply to sit with his back to the door; bereft of his wand as he was, there was nothing he could do to delay the inevitable.
Judging by the rising and setting of the sun over the many days he had been scurrying around Britain with Draco Malfoy, and the time he had seen pass on the shattered clock since he had arrived at the unnamed manor, Snape assumed that it was late August. Had it been any other year, he would be grumbling about Hogwarts Castle, waiting for the arrival of a fresh crop of dunderheads to guide through the art of potion making. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this was the year it was; instead of eating with his colleagues, he was here, waiting on news of his demise.
The memory of murdering Dumbledore was still fresh in his mind. It had been a long time since he had cast Avada Kedavra on anyone, and he had certainly never cast it against a wizard as powerful as Dumbledore. Certainly, in his previous stint as a servant for the Dark Lord, he had used the sinister green curse on defenseless Muggles and weak wizards, but never had the act carried quite as many consequences as this one had and would. Aware of this, Severus had taken Draco with him on his flight, for the sake of both of their necks; even as they flitted from safe house to safe house, Snape knew their luck would eventually run out, and someone would find them, either Auror or Death Eater, to make them pay for their actions.
He was not sure how they had been found; only that one early morning had found them bound with invisible ropes, and Apparated into this place. They had been separated, and if he knew the Death Eaters as well as he thought he did, Draco was probably long dead. After all, when the Dark Lord had assigned the task of killing Albus Dumbledore to the boy, he had expected Draco to fail. This had given him more time to punish the Malfoy family for its patriarch's failure in the Department of Mysteries before bringing the lives of all three Malfoys to an end. Just as the Dark Lord had predicted, the boy had failed miserably.
Severus Snape, however, was not one to fail when he had been assigned a task. Both of his masters had made it clear that Dumbledore was to die. The Dark Lord had assigned it to Draco, Narcissa had bound Severus to the task, and Dumbledore had foolishly put his seal of approval on it. After all, how could Severus maintain his double agency if he did not carry out this murder?
Severus chuckled to himself. The noble Gryffindor had looked at him with his blasted twinkling eyes, and had ordered him to cast the Killing Curse if and when Draco failed to do so. Little did Dumbledore know at the time that the action would put Severus in even more danger than he had been while playing both sides. Severus had known, but he'd said nothing. Why else would such a powerless boy have been assigned the murder, if not in the knowledge that he would be unable to do it? Now, Severus had "succeeded" where his darker master had failed; rather than be pleased that the old codger was dead, the Dark Lord was more than likely enveloped with jealous anger that one of his nameless servants had succeeded where he had so often failed.
However, with Dumbledore out of the way, and Harry Blasted Potter now left without a source of guidance, the war was about to come to an end, and someone was going to come out on top. Whoever it was that won, Severus cared not; neither would save him from the end of his miserable existence. Had he still had his wand, Severus would have turned it against himself already, rather than sit here waiting for someone else to come and do it. Who would it be? Bellatrix? Wormtail? The Dark Lord himself? The curiosity was not enough to keep Severus from drifting into a dreamless sleep.
He barely had time to react when the door slamming open shook him from his slumber. Instinctively, he went for the wand in the pocket of his robes, but it was not there, something he realized too late to prevent looking rather foolish groping for his absent weapon. A dim light flooded the room, and a familiar figure stood before him, no wand in sight, looking him over with a smirk.
"You look surprised to see me, old friend," the man observed to the gaunt prisoner standing defenseless before him.
"Lucius," Severus growled. "I thought they had you locked up in Azkaban."
Lucius Malfoy surveyed the room, drawing his wand and flicking it about silently, causing dim lights to bathe the walls. With each flick, Severus waited for the one that contained the Killing Curse, but the Unforgivable never came. Instead, it seemed that Lucius had set about converting the prison cell into a room, Vanishing the chamber pot and the cracked plate onto which stale bread had been appearing at irregular intervals since Severus had arrived.
Finally satisfied with his work, Lucius pocketed the wand and took a seat in one of the two dark green armchairs before a newly lit fire, and motioned for Severus to occupy the other. Severus took a good look at his newly Transfigured surroundings. It was actually well decorated for a cell, he thought with a scowl. In addition to the armchairs, the room contained a four-poster bed with green sheets, a wardrobe made of dark wood, and several empty bookcases. Everything was green with black and silver accents, but little else could be expected in a house full of Slytherins.
After watching his friend's reverie for a moment, Lucius finally spoke. "They did, but I was lucky enough to have some good friends come and see to my release. How they got in, I do not know; but here I am, and here you are."
"You have come to kill me." Severus stared into Lucius' eyes, his tone dark yet resigned.
His surmising was met with a great roar of laughter from the older man. "Do you really think so, Severus? What would make you think such a thing, especially after all of this work I've just done to make you more comfortable?"
"Clearly the Dark Lord is angry with me, or else he would not have hunted me and your son so; nor would he have locked me in here with no wand." Severus' body and face remained tense as Lucius settled back more comfortably into his seat.
"I assure you, the hunting was more for Draco than you. You would have been better off separating yourself from him, though I am sure your feelings of obligation to me kept you from doing so." Lucius chuckled. "You have spent too much time with Gryffindors and Mudbloods, I think, to have stopped putting your own neck first."
"Draco was assigned his task as a punishment to you, Lucius; yet now you are here alive, and he has been hunted down like an animal. I do not understand." Feeling that Lucius was not here to kill him just yet, Severus finally allowed himself to relax imperceptibly.
"I have repented for my failures, and am of far more use to the Dark Lord than my miserable son. He will pay for his inadequacy in time, I think. Brandy?" Lucius drew his wand again and conjured two glasses full of amber liquid, and took small sips from one.
Severus hesitantly raised the other to his lips and, detecting no sign of poison, took a drink. "I take it you feel no remorse for his peril?"
Lucius exploded with another great laugh. "Try though I did to raise him properly to his heritage, he is weak; for my own sake, it is best to divorce myself from his ineptitude, son or not."
"Interesting," Severus muttered, taking another drink from his glass, nearly draining it as he relished the burning sensation of the alcohol coursing down his throat.
"As for you; yes, the Dark Lord was not pleased that you succeeded where he failed, but you are of greater use to him as his servant than his victim. Soon, you shall have your wand back, and be rewarded for your service." Lucius smiled darkly at his friend.
"Indeed?" Severus asked with a raised eyebrow. "And how am I to be rewarded?"
Draining his glass and tapping it with his wand to refill it again, Lucius replied, "It has not yet been decided, but I am sure it will be well worth the wait." Emptying the glass again, Lucius rose from his seat. "And now, if you will excuse me, I must meet with the Dark Lord to discuss the dispatch of yet another Gryffindor. I hope to see you soon."
"As do I," Severus responded with relief.
Lucius turned to the door, but turned back to face Severus. "Oh, and do try to make yourself more presentable, my friend." He flicked his wand at another door on the opposite side of the room that clicked open to reveal a bathroom. "You're a mess." With that, he strode off, closing the exit behind him.
Severus walked to the bathroom and surveyed himself in the mirror. He was, in fact, a complete mess, and set about cleaning himself and dressing in the new robes that had appeared when Lucius had transformed the darkness into a somewhat comfortable room.
In a castle far away in the wilderness of Scotland, another person sat, pondering the outcome of the war. Hermione Granger, slightly groggy from the long day and the fantastic start of term feast, reclined on her bed in the Head Girl's room with a book. She was determined to finish the potions tome before beginning classes the next day, hoping that she could cram enough knowledge into her brain to be of use to the Order of the Phoenix in defeating Voldemort.
Gods, the summer had been difficult. Harry had been running hither and thither in search of information about the remaining Horcuxes, and the location of Lord Voldemort. He usually kept silent about what he had gathered, but even without hearing it from his own lips, Hermione knew that he was greatly wearied, and not quite himself. At the end of their sixth year, it had seemed that Harry was willing to accept Ron and Hermione's help in looking for the Horcruxes, and that they were going to stick together, but that dream quickly faded away. Once he had visited with the Dursleys and returned to Order headquarters, he became secretive, withdrawn. Try as Hermione and Ron did to remind him that they were in this together, he insisted on going it alone and sneaking out in the middle of the night. Eventually, Hermione and Ron gave up trying to follow him. He wanted to do this task without them.
Thus, Hermione had been shocked when her attempts to convince him to return to Hogwarts had succeeded. Why he acquiesced, Hermione had no idea, but perhaps he hoped that returning to Hogwarts would bring him closer to Dumbledore. He seemed desperately in need of the dead Headmaster's guidance, and there was no one else who seemed qualified to provide it in his absence.
Though the world seemed far darker than it had before, in light of the impending resolution of the battle between good and evil, Hogwarts remained rather the same. There were some different faces at the Head Table. Professor McGonagall had to leave her role as Transfiguration professor to assume her duties as Headmistress, so her teaching was taken over by a Professor O'Brian. Professor O'Brian was a lean, middle-aged woman with long graying hair and somber robes. She looked like she had not had a good laugh in quite some time, and Hermione mused to herself that she looked and behaved a bit like a younger McGonagall. Remus Lupin had returned to his former position as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor since Professor Snape's betrayal and flight. McGonagall had tried to get Professor Slughorn to remain as Potions professor, but with all that had been going on, his Slytherin self-preservation got the best of him, and he refused to risk his life any further. This forced her to appoint a very young man, Professor Caveo, to the position.
Caveo was something of an enigma to Hermione when she looked at him. Like Snape, he wore black robes and an unpleasant expression. He was much better looking than Snape, and his kind blue eyes seemed out of place on his scowling face. Throughout dinner that evening, he had very pointedly avoided speaking with his new colleagues, but his gaze had wandered all around the room, looking as though he were studying each student and memorizing their faces. When Hermione had felt his gaze upon her, it had made her uneasy, and she had attempted to use a sip of pumpkin juice to hide her discomfort.
Other troubles faced Hermione in her seventh year apart from passing N.E.W.T.s, facing the war, and figuring out her new professors: over the summer, Ron Weasley had professed his love to her. Well, not quite in so many words, but in his clumsy way he had made it clear to Hermione that he wanted to be more than friends. Much more.
Hermione had been taken aback, though not entirely surprised, by his desires. After all, the tragedies they had been facing had brought them closer together, so close that many thought they could hear wedding bells in their future. Hermione had wanted to be a good friend to Ron, to comfort him and be comforted by him through the hardships they were facing. She knew, however, that while that kind of support and love was a great foundation for a friendship, it wasn't necessarily the kind of foundation she wanted for a relationship. She had not wanted to hurt his feelings, but the truth was that, though she loved him like a brother, she didn't want to pursue anything more serious with him than what they already had together. The fights, Ron's constant need for Hermione's help with any task he had to complete, his lack of appreciation for her scholarly pursuits; this was not the way that Hermione wanted to spend her life. She needed something more. She loved Ron, but ultimately it was not enough to make her sacrifice so much of herself to make it work.
If she made it through this war alive, Hermione vowed, she would never settle for anything less than the perfect man. She knew that her hunger for knowledge was looked upon as amusing or even distasteful by the members of the opposite sex, and she would not have her skill be seen as a novelty or an unfortunate accident. She wanted to be accepted for who she was, challenged in intelligence, loved for her curiosity. Her perfect man would do all of these things, and when the dust settled, she was going to find him.
Chuckling at the unlikelihood of either surviving or of finding the man of her dreams, Hermione relaxed onto the bed and fell into a light sleep, the book she had been reading lying open, face down, on her chest.
No sooner had sleep overtaken her that she found herself floating in a familiar dream, one she had been having since the battle at Hogwarts at the end of last term. In it, she stood behind Albus Dumbledore as he faced Severus Snape's wand. Hermione, of course, did not actually know exactly what had transpired between the two wizards that horrible night, months ago; her imagination had run wild with ideas nonetheless.
The dream was always the same: the two men had stood in the middle of a great expanse of darkness with no light around them to indicate where they stood. Snape was dressed in full Death Eater regalia, and his mask clung to his features so tightly that it seemed to move in tandem with his face. Dumbledore was prostrate on the ground in front of him, begging for his life and the life of Harry Potter.
"Please, Severus, spare me, spare the boy, spare our savior, spare us all! Do what is right, Severus. You're not one of them!" There was fury in the Headmaster's twinkling eyes.
"I do not know who I am anymore!" the professor screamed, tightening his grasp on his wand. "But I do know that I can show no mercy!" With those words, and with a look of intense hatred on his severe features, Severus Snape cast the Avada Kedavra on the defenseless older wizard.
With no control over her dream self, Hermione felt her body glide over to the body of the Headmaster. She knew he was dead, but felt no shock when his eyes snapped open and regarded her with calm reassurance. "You must forgive him, Ms Granger, for he knows not what he does."
With one last piercing stare, his eyelids fluttered shut, and Hermione was pulled back to the dark and familiar confines of her room.
She shook sleep from her head. She was used to standing before Snape, his mask almost glowing red with evil, and she was used to watching him kill the Headmaster. She would always walk to Dumbledore's side and gaze down at him, weeping. But never in the countless nights that she'd had the dream had he opened his eyes and spoken to her.
She hated her subconscious self as she reached for the wand under her pillow and flicked it silently to turn on the lights in her room. Why must her unruly mind give her such hope that the Headmaster could speak to her from beyond the grave? And why on earth would that same comforting voice tell her to forgive the monster of a man who had taken away the life of the one man who she felt could make all the chaos her world was now experiencing better?
Hermione rubbed at her temples. Monster? Perhaps she had been hanging around Ron too much, because she was starting to sound like him. Once they had left school, Hermione had tried to convince Harry, Ron, and many other members of the Order not to jump to conclusions about Snape without all of the facts. It was difficult to maintain that position, however, when even Professor McGonagall was convinced of Snape's guilt. More often than she would like, Hermione found herself believing all of them that Snape was evil. She was becoming resigned to accepting that, if no one else was going to be convinced to examine the situation more rationally, perhaps she should stop trying and just accept that Snape was a vicious murderer.
Hermione refused to return to sleep that evening. To do so would be to tempt the dream again, and she could not face the eyes of Headmaster Dumbledore. She could not face all of her questions about Dumbledore and Snape, and quite frankly she had grown sick of trying to answer them in the face of such determined opposition from her friends and teachers.
Resolved to ignore the dream, Hermione summoned another book from her shelves - Wandless Magic: A Primer. She had purchased the book after the last term had ended in an effort to ensure that if she should find herself wandless in the face of danger, she would still be able to fight. She had always shown skill with nonverbal spells, and she felt that there was at least no harm in trying to take it to the next level. She had seen few use this talent, and those she had seen were quite powerful wizards like Dumbledore. Maybe she was no Dumbledore, but she was determined to try it nonetheless.
"Wingardium Leviosa!" she spoke clearly, focusing on a piece of parchment on her nightstand, and waving her hand with determination. The parchment shuddered but did not rise, and she repeated the incantation over and over again, almost meditative in her intent to move it. She tried repeatedly for an hour, succeeding only in knocking it off the table.
"That's something," she muttered, before reaching for a potions book she had taken from the library earlier that evening: Dark Potions and the Intent That Binds Them.