A/N: Hello, my lovelies! Nothing really to say concerning this chapter... I think you'll find out everything about it soon enough ;)
Special thanks go to my wonderful beta (or should I say Alpha?) liongirl11! If I was a poet, I would have said that she's the light in my darkness ))) hehe.
Oh, and please, please leave your reviews! I respond to each and every one privately, no matter what ;)
By the time you read this, we (Ron and I) will be long gone from the grounds of Hogwarts and Scotland altogether. I can't tell you where we are headed, but know that we have taken every possible precaution to ensure that we will not be recognized during our travels. You might have guessed the nature of our mission for yourself by now.
I'm sorry for deceiving you, both of us are. But you are in too much danger to join us on this hunt. In all my conscience, there's no way I could put you into any further peril than you already face — and all because of me.
We're sorry for not telling you anything of this and for not saying a proper goodbye. But knowing you as well as we do, you would've done anything in your power to stop us from leaving. And that was not part of the plan.
Please do not be angry with us. We only did what was right.
With lots of love,
Harry and Ron
P.S. Whatever happens, stay close to Snape. He will protect you.
Staring hard at the expanse of wooden surface in front of his nose, Severus berated himself for hesitating to open the door —the one to his own rightful quarters, for Merlin's sake.
Unable to hear any noise from within, he wasn't sure if the girl had already ceased her predictable hysterics or was still consumed by them. Being the man he was, he never understood women's tears. And neither did he want to, really. Generally, he preferred to stay as far away from overemotional females as possible, especially when there was the merest hint of impending waterworks on the horizon. His life was complicated as it was, without adding the extra baggage of an emotional witch to it. And the one that was beyond the door in front of him had all the potential of becoming one of the worst case scenarios. That is, the moment she discovered what exactly her two friends had decided to pull on her.
Idiotic, insolent Gryffindors, he sneered inwardly. His obsidian-black eyes continued to scrutinize the door with the utmost intensity, as if he could see right through it to the member of that blasted House within.
Oh, there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that she was there. The so-called intelligent witch couldn't have even begun to summarize just how many protection spells she was surrounded by inside those quarters of hers. Or out of them, for that matter. By the end of the day, he would've known the exact millisecond when she sneezed where she wasn't supposed to.
Surely he had given her enough time to collect herself, hadn't he? In that instant, however, that same reflection brought a scowl to his face. The mere thought of deigning once more to bow to the whims of another was just too nauseating to even contemplate as a theory.
Whispering the incantation for the wards under his breath, his wrist flicked expertly in complicated arcs of invisible numbers and symbols. At long last, a rapidly suppressed shivering sensation washed over his body, signaling the momentary drop in the room's defences.
Still scowling, the black-haired wizard grabbed hold of the doorknob and, without further ado, slipped inside as inconspicuously as a shadow.
What he found inside was not entirely what he had expected.
Instead of coming upon agitation that merited a girl her age, Hermione Granger sat absolutely still upon the couch adjacent to the fireplace. With her spine ramrod straight, he could not see one hint of moisture anywhere upon her cheeks. The glow from the dying fire reflected blazingly within her brown eyes, the exact shade of which he could clearly discern now from the angle of where he stood. A single sheet of parchment was clutched tightly in her wand hand, whilst her other had a death grip upon a quill of some sort.
'Did you know?' she asked in a near-whisper, her eyes not once straying from the crackling fire.
For a moment, Severus simply stood there, without a single sarcastic retort begging to fall from his lips. Whatever he had expected from a young, naive Gryffindor, it wasn't this.
'Did you, Professor?'
It looked like his lack of response was finally hitting her in her weak spot, if her noticeably hardened voice was anything to go by. Her patronizing tone marked the return of his own sneer to its rightful place. The fact that she sounded suspiciously close to himself at that moment he sagely chose to ignore.
'And what does your so-cherished mind tell you, Miss Granger?' he drawled, his eyes burning holes into the witch in question. 'Those dunderheads wouldn't have known what do within five minutes of leaving for their "quest". You do not actually think they would have been able to develop even a mediocre plan with the combination of their brainpower, do you? If not for his luck in finding allies in the weirdest of places, I fear Mr. Potter would have been nothing but a rotting head upon the Dark Lord's spike by now.'
'Don't say that!' she exclaimed, her nails digging deep into the arms of the sofa.
'It's nothing less than a simple statement of fact.'
He could have sworn the chit emitted something that sounded like a growl.
'Stop playing your word games with me, Professor. What I want to know is why you didn't tell me anything! And do not think, even for one second, that I believe that it was Harry and Ron who were the ones to veto the idea of me helping them. Instead of actually doing everything within my power for them, I'm hiding like the last milksop within these four walls. Why?'
'Perhaps your friends simply wished to return the favour and protect you, for a change... Did you even think of that?' he asked, his sneer more profound then ever. 'However, I doubt you have the capability of understanding everything fully yet.'
The young witch furrowed her eyebrows in clear annoyance. 'What do you mean?'
'You do not yet know the true meaning of sacrifice, Miss Granger. You're too young to realise the implications of what a person is capable of achieving once they find something they truly care about. You, on the other hand, are still too naïve for that spectre of understanding. The fact that you're solely concentrating upon your own misgivings and feelings of unfairness concerning Potter and Weasley, instead of putting yourself in their place... Well, that proves how absolutely correct I really am.'
'Naïve?' hissed the Gryffindor with so much vehemence, she was practically shaking.
'You...are calling me...naïve?' she repeated once more, her voice deadly. 'Do you even know what I had to go through these past few years? What I was forced to do? Actually, do be so kind as to share, Professor — do you really know what it feels like to Obliviate your entire existence from every nook and corner of your parents' minds in order to protect them? To know that you're wiping away every morsel of your existence from the only people that loved you with no questions asked from the day you were born? If I ever had any naïveté left by that point in time, it most certainly disappeared the moment I saw no other choice but to train my wand upon their backs.'
No longer sitting, the Gryffindor's delicate hands were balled up into tight fists, clutching them closely against her rigid body. Severus suddenly found himself fascinated by the way she reigned in her control. It was glaringly obvious just how much her body begged her to simply let go and lash out. The true extent of her emotions spilled only from her eyes. The orange glow of the dying fire reflected mesmerizingly within the pools of the whiskey-coloured eyes that shown with a light of wrath lighting them from within.
'I will answer my own question, then, if no answer is forthcoming from you,' she informed him mockingly. He was just about to say something scathing when she carelessly interrupted him, either ignorant or simply uncaring of his comeback. 'True sacrifice is when you force yourself to let go of the ones you love, and all because of that exact same wondrous and damning feeling. You are willing to suffer anything if it means bringing happiness and safety to them.'
She was already at the corridor leading towards their living quarters when she whirled back around and focused her telltale eyes upon his once more.
'Perhaps it is you who doesn't know what sacrifice is really about. What would you have done for the ones you loved, Professor?' she whispered questioningly.
Their gazes locked. And for just a moment there, he could have sworn that hers became suspiciously bright. But the witch deliberately turned her head away just before the first drop of moisture could spill onto her cheek. Wordlessly, she disappeared down the passageway without sparing him another glance.
The silence that descended was broken moments later by an echoing bang of a slamming door.
And as for Severus Snape, he continued to stare unblinkingly at the spot where the witch had stood long after she was gone. If not for his wildly glittering eyes, his pale face could have passed for a porcelain mask for all the emotion it showed. His prominent Adam's apple bobbed visibly as the Gryffindor's words ran through his mind over and over again. Especially the ones she had kept for last.
The uncaring bookshelves and furniture became the room's sole witnesses to the single word that was whispered heavily into the hanging air, the emotion within it virtually overpowering.
The last ember in the fireplace gave off its final spark before promptly vanishing from existence forever more.
From a handful of previous experiences, Hermione knew how long and hard it could be to get rid of the overwhelming feeling of betrayal and anger. The present situation she found herself in was no exception. Actually, taking everything into account (the incident with Ron and Lavender back in sixth year included), she found herself hard-pressed to remember the last time she had felt so emotionally tortured. After all she had done for the boys — the research she had done, the potions she had brewed —yet they had somehow found it within them to move on without her. Or were they truly so concerned about her safety that they had chosen to deceive her rather than risk the chance of losing her? But the theory was as ridiculous as it was hypothetical. Harry had much, much more to fear, and he had still left the safety of Hogwarts without a single glance back, dragging Ron's arse along for the ride to boot.
Nevertheless, for all of her righteous anger, the witch simply couldn't force herself to settle upon a specific opinion for more than a couple of minutes. Worry piled up onto the tower of her frayed nerves and gnawed persistently each time she thought of either of her best friends, by themselves, Godric only knew where by now.
The school's reaction in the days that followed the revelation that Harry Potter had disappeared from Hogwarts' grounds together with Ron Weasley did not help her one iota. Rumours spread high and wide as to the reason behind the absence of the Boy-Who-Lived. The nosiest of the students who actually dared to approach Hermione head-on with their enquires went unnoticed in the midst of her constant agonizing thoughts. The ones she did chance to take note of were met with an uneasy smile before she quickly shuffled off (her designated escort in tow) to whatever location she thought she was needed at the most.
What she couldn't escape as easy as that, however, was her own growing feeling of guilt towards Professor Snape. Upon waking the very next morning after her abysmal treatment of him the night before, the feeling just expanded more prominently within her principle viewpoint.
A couple of times she attempted to confront him, with a grudging apology at the ready, but his stony silence rapidly discouraged any attempts beyond opening her mouth. It was only a week later that she caught him one evening marking what seemed like first years' essays. Quickly determining that the time was no better than any other, she took a deep breath.
'If you simply must stand there giving an uncanny impression of a stuffed blow-fish, Miss Granger, feel free to do something useful at least.'
The witch in question considered in silence first the scowling visage of the wizard, then the pile of parchments thrust in her general direction. Promptly becoming aware of holding her breath, Hermione let it all out, which made her body practically deflate with an audible whoosh.
Red-faced, she rapidly contemplated the present situation once more, before obediently taking the proffered papers.
'Thank you, Professor,' she murmured softly but completely sincerely. As a matter of fact, she had never heard of him allowing any other hand to mark his students' work but his own. The mere idea that she could be the first one was so elevating that she could have sworn she physically swelled with pride.
The black-haired wizard grunted something unintelligible, his gaze not straying once from the scrolls in front of him.
Hermione's delight, however, began to die a rapid and most painful death soon enough. Within a matter of minutes, the witch's scowl unconsciously matched the exact same one upon the countenance of the sole other occupant of the chamber. Her quill similarly swished and flicked its feather more violently with each ridiculous mistake upon which she had the misfortune of coming. Honestly, were they for real? She was aware that every generation differed in their reasoning from the ones before them...but what she saw before her now was simply beyond anyone's comprehension. She bewilderedly wondered just what exactly the first years of today had managed to listen with.
Ashwinders were able to be defeated only if a bucket of ice-cold water — fresh-spring — was dumped on them from a distance no less than four feet, so as to strengthen the force of the impact.
Inadvertently, Hermione's compassion towards Severus Snape grew with every obnoxious essay she marked. Frustrating as it was to encounter such sheer stupidity right now, she couldn't imagine what it felt like to be confronted by it every day of your life.
Once the last essay had received a scratchy Troll across its front a considerable time later, she wearily leaned back on the sofa and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. If she had ever contemplated taking up the mantle of teacher, those essays certainly shriveled away that notion in the bud as swiftly as an Ipomoea alba did under a midday sun.
Surely, the sheer patience of those who actually found that profession to be their calling was worthy of a monument of two.
Unbidden, her curious gaze focused on Professor Snape. It seemed like he had not so much as shifted from the last position she had seen him in. Clad in his customary robes, his only movement was that of his hand as it wrote furiously and unforgivably across every paper that had the misfortune of crossing his path. Every other violent movement of his eagle quill made his black hair swing away from his pale face, momentarily revealing the dark eyes beneath.
Inexplicably entranced by the image of the focused man in front of her, Hermione lost herself in her thoughts. She must have been more tired than she had anticipated, for that was certainly the only excuse as to why she decided to open her troublemaking mouth once again.
'Why did you do it?'
Snape didn't deign to raise his eyes from his marking at her sudden query. The sound of his quill, however, paused rather abruptly for a number of moments before it recommenced its job.
'What exactly are you talking about?' he asked at last, his voice completely devoid of emotion.
Biting down on her bottom lip, Hermione momentarily pondered the wisdom of continuing. True, she had already inadvertently taken the first step on the line of questioning she had thirsted after since the fiasco the previous year. On the other hand, though, Snape was not exactly known for his open and sweet disposition, and no one actually dared to question him in any known capacity. Professor Dumbledore's face momentarily flashed before her eyes, but she quickly disregarded the notion of asking anything surrounding the circumstances of his demise. She had an unexplainable inkling that that question would be answered in its rightful time and place.
Therefore, the witch saw no other option than to gather all of her lionhearted reserve and rush on before she had the chance to fully gain back her sanity.
'Become a spy? Teach? It's obvious how much you despise it all, and yet...there you are.'
When no response was forthcoming after several painfully dragging heartbeats, Hermione's hands began to methodically straighten out the creases across her jeans-clad knees. Becoming decidedly uncomfortable with every passing second, she also suddenly became conscious of the possibility of having had crossed some unspoken and forbidden line. With her nerves frayed as they were, she very much doubted she was ready for another standoff with the dour wizard. In the best case, she was looking at the possibility of costing her house a considerable amount of points, with a few zeros thrown in for good measure.
Rising abruptly, she barely managed to mumble a strained "sorry", before trying to make her escape from the chamber and him as quickly as possible.
But before she could do just that, his voice halted her in her tracks.
'Guilt's a funny thing, Miss Granger,' he drawled. Still not looking at her, his mesmerizing voice possessed the same faraway quality as had the eyes that now stared unseeingly down on the papers before him.
'When it reaches a certain level of intolerability,' he continued, 'there's nothing that matters anymore. You're ready to do anything, no matter what the price, for the sake of the possibility of setting things right... The most you can, that is.'
She did not know how long she simply stood there, fixed in place, attempting to discern even a hint of his thoughts beyond that passive expression. There was something about the way he said what he did that pulled at the invisible strings of her heart with a bittersweet intensity. However, she neither knew why he had consented to give her the first ever answer to one of her questions, nor what exactly it was about him that enthralled her so much.
At last, after what seemed like an age of silence, his long fingers squeezed convulsively around the quill, almost snapping it in half. Every sharp angle of his face was set in stone as if already regretting giving her any response at all, no matter how vague.
'Retire now, Miss Granger, and leave me alone with my work, without your senseless questionings,' he barked irritably. Not sparing her a single glance, he brought his nose dangerously close to the parchment in a glaring display of dismissal.
She continued to scrutinize him silently for the longest time after that. All the while, her mind diligently brought up all the memories she had of him from all these past years. Something was missing among that giant puzzle of complexity, and she had no notion whatsoever of what that might be. But whatever it was, that absent link had the potential to complete the picture of what was really going on in the wizard's head. And probably provide the answers to many questions as well...
It was quite some time later that she found herself, at long last, walking back to the isolation of her own bedroom — pondering and wondering every step of the way.
Things are progressing onwards... *drum roll* ;)