Disclaimer: All characters belong to JK Rowling. No money, fame, glory etc are made from this story whatsoever. It is nothing more than a tribute and expression of my admiration of the world that is Harry Potter and the characters within, especially a certain snarky Potions master.
AN: I must thank my beta, Ariadne, in advance for commas, verb tenses, and, most of all, her invaluable friendship along the way.
Hermione Granger sat by the lake, staring at nothing in particular. She’d been there for hours, lost in her thoughts, occasionally coming back to the present long enough to only register the time by the position of the setting sun.
She had quietly slipped away from everyone who was still so stunned by recent events they had trouble completing whole sentences without breaking down. She came here as one of the only places she could be alone. Mourning, to some, was a social affair filled with time spent with loved ones left behind to puzzle out the why or how. For others, it was a time to exclude the world, turn down the lights, and think.
Hermione was in that latter crowd.
Life had just shifted, as if an earthquake had lifted her world and slammed it back down without any semblance of grace. At a time in life when she should be worrying about her future, she was fearing for one of her closest friend’s life, mourning the death of a man she admired, and questioning her judgment of another she had admired despite popular opinion.
It all just didn't make sense. Questions crowded her thoughts, pushing for priority. The how and, more importantly, the why of what had happened devastated her. So much more was there; the reasoning so far, however, had escaped her. The logical part of her railed against it all and rejected reality. Like an autopsy of a body, she needed to deconstruct what had happened and understand. With a sigh, she tucked her head down, resting her forehead on her knees drawn up against her body.
Tilting her head, she could observe the mist gently rise over the lake's quiet surface. School owls silently entered and left the castle, swooping on the evening breeze at lazy angles. She thought briefly how ironic it was that nature and life continue in the face of something so obscene. Nature remained silent, unmoving, offering no judgment. It seemed so wrong that there was no noticeable change in the world, no outcry against tragedy. For a soul so significant to leave the world and another day to simply come and go as usual seemed almost cruel.
She had stopped crying hours ago. Emotions came hard at times as she grew older. Intelligence was a curse in disguise, she thought, as it influenced a person to analyze before feeling, guarding the emotions before the situation simply demanded a reaction.
Often, she thought that the walls she put up were unhealthy, especially when she thought of one Severus Snape.
How many emotional barriers had he put up over the years? She had been picked on in school for being studious and different, but nothing compared to the pain and exclusion he had endured. She didn’t want to be like him, feelings hidden behind so many layers he’d probably forgotten how to show anything at all.
And now? Well, she just hoped there was a reason.
Looking back at the castle, she could see the lights in the Great Hall. Most likely, people were there speaking about their times with the late Headmaster. She knew she should rejoin them, but for now could only look out over the peaceful lake. She watched the passage of time as the setting sun fell slowly behind the trees, spreading its orange glow between the branches. The colors of red and orange soon gave way to blue and gray as the temperature dropped, sending a chill through her.
Slowly, with the measured movements of reluctance, she got to her feet. With a glance at the Astronomy tower, she took a deep breath and made her way back to the castle.
Members of the Order gathered in the Headmaster’s office, some in quiet conversation and others in various states of mourning. The house-elves had brought tea and sandwiches, crying as they set down the trays.
Hermione sat beside the window, watching as Harry and now Headmistress McGonagall stood together while reviewing Dumbledore’s Pensieve, hoping to find something to explain this travesty. She glanced at the empty perch where Fawkes would normally be resting and felt a renewed sadness at the sudden change.
Needing to feel helpful in some way, she asked upon their return after watching another memory, “May I help?”
Looking worn and slightly removed, McGonagall replied, “Of course.” Turning to Harry, she said, “Harry, would you like to sit this one out and have some tea? You haven’t stopped at all today.”
“Yes, I guess so.” His eyes rose to meet Hermione’s as she grasped his hand for a moment. They exchanged a significant glance. Harry gathered himself some tea, but passed on the sandwiches. Eating just hadn’t been on his list lately.
“Alright, are you ready, Hermione?” McGonagall asked while straightening her hat and taking a deep, steadying breath.
“Yes,” Hermione replied, feeling a twinge of grief at the prospect of viewing Dumbledore’s memories when he should be sharing his stories himself.
Lowering their faces to the pool, McGonagall chose a more recent memory from that year, hoping to find some clues.
“Albus, please guide us," she whispered.
With a lurch, the two witches found themselves in the forest. They watched as two robed figures moved deeper in the thick, untouched wilderness. Mist illuminated by the moonlight flowed through the trees, revealing the movement of the slight breeze. As the figures moved, they disturbed the flow, diverting it to move around them in tendrils.
"Headmaster, with all due respect, I’ve tried to find out what he’s up to, but he will not reveal his plans.”
“Severus, you must continue your work. You know how important this is."
“What if I don’t want this responsibility any longer? I can’t take much more.”
Desperation showed in his voice, and a wave of fear passed through Hermione. Professor Snape uncertain? This is very serious.
Dumbledore stopped and turned to face Severus. He paused for a moment, then seemed to make a decision.
“Severus, you must. There is no other way. You cannot lose your position as spy for the Order,” Dumbledore said in an authoritative tone.
“Release me from this. I cannot—” Severus’ voice failed slightly, allowing gravity to come to the surface. Hermione gasped and held McGonagall’s hand tightly. So much pain, guilt and failure behind his words...
“Severus, please listen—”
“No,” Severus interrupted, almost moaning. “I cannot do what you are asking of me. I refuse.”
At this, the two witches watched quietly, hanging on the pause in the air.
Hermione could see Severus hanging his head, hands balled into fists. He was slowly shaking his head from side to side. It seemed to her that the only thing holding him there was a sense of responsibility to the old wizard, some undeniable bond.
Dumbledore gazed at the forest floor as if contemplating the leaves, then raised his eyes to meet Severus’. His tone when he finally spoke was now stern. If there was enough light, Hermione supposed the twinkle had left his eyes.
“Severus, you remember the night you came to me years ago, do you not?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“And do you remember what passed between us?”
Hermione noticed how much pain was in Severus' voice. His tone had quieted from fierce defiance to knowing he was losing a battle in slow motion. She was reminded of a small child being scolded in the gentlest of ways, reminded of their duty and where they failed. She could tell he knew exactly where this conversation was going and hated every step of the way.
“Severus, look at me. That night I took you in. I stood for you and saved your sanity and possibly your very life from a certain sentence in Azkaban, did I not?” Dumbledore said.
Severus kept his gaze steady as he responded, “Yes, sir.”
“I have watched you grow up since you were eleven. Your soul and heart were misguided for a time, but are still true and good. I trust you with my life and need you now to—”
Suddenly, Severus interrupted, raging and pacing back and forth, “I am exhausted and slipping! Making that vow to Narcissa was a devastating error and will cost us all!”
A strange wind rose around Severus in a twisting pattern, accelerating in time with his ragged breathing. Strands of light passing around his hands seemed to catch Dumbledore’s attention for a brief moment. Hermione and McGonagall glanced at each other, both silently acknowledging what they both noticed.
“I am of no use if I am making mistakes! You don't understand!” he roared. Severus took on the look of someone about to make a grand statement and damn the consequences.
“I am tired of being pulled between a psychopath and playing a pawn in your grand plan for Potter! You are just as power hungry as the Dark Lord, using people to serve your greater purpose!” Severus yelled accusingly.
Throughout Severus’ rage, Dumbledore gazed quietly at the younger wizard, unflinching at the accusations he threw at him.
Hermione could see his chest rise and fall as Severus took a sideways glance at the great wizard. He seemed to clearly understand his outburst was severe and awaited the reaction. He looked resolute, straightening himself and looking Dumbledore square in the eyes.
“I do understand your position, Severus; however, you must understand mine. This is larger than both of us,” Dumbledore said in a startlingly calm tone.
“You do not understand anything about me,” Severus said viciously. With so much venom in his words, there was no need to raise his voice.
Hermione shifted her feet as she watched her normally reserved Potions master losing control. She realized now what Dumbledore was asking him to do and couldn’t imagine the inner turmoil he felt.
Raising himself up straighter than usual, Dumbledore had an air as if he’d heard enough.
“That’ll do, Severus,” he stated quietly.
Severus was poised as if awaiting an impending attack, his head bowed slightly. He was still breathing hard with rage and rooted to the spot. Even in the darkness of the forest, Hermione could see the anger and pain evident in his eyes.
Dumbledore looked at the younger wizard. “Severus,” he began in a stern tone, “I am no longer requesting this. It is no longer up for discussion.”
Hermione could see something change in both wizard’s faces. Dumbledore’s took on a look of resolution while Severus’ eyes widened slightly with the dawning realization of where this was leading.
“Severus Snape, I am calling on your wizard’s life debt to me.”
Looking shocked in a way Hermione never thought she’d see, Severus stood motionless for what seemed forever.
He seemed stunned.
When he went to speak at first, his voice failed, catching as if he had no breath to start. Hermione was stunned to see for the first time that her Professor was at a loss for words.
Trying a second time after a pause, she heard him say quietly as he lowered himself to one knee in front of Dumbledore.
“My life is yours. I will do whatever you ask of me.”
Hermione and Minerva expected the memory to end at that point; however, the forest only faded away. They found themselves in the castle with a battle raging all around them. Death Eaters were dueling with students, hexes and curses flying everywhere. Hermione was startled to see Severus race by and then understood.
“Professor, somehow we have this memory, but how is it continuing?” Hermione asked, instinctively ducking as a spell flew past her.
“Hush and follow!” McGonagall called to her as she followed Snape.
Severus bolted up the stairs, shoving a dueling Death Eater and student out of the way. Running headlong up the tower stairs, he used the stone wall to steady himself on the way up. He burst through the door with his wand stretched out before him.
Severus swept his eyes over the scene before him and then looked as though this was his worst nightmare come to life. Dumbledore surrounded by Death Eaters, slipping down the wall and looking near death, but at the same time, a look of polite peace on his face.
Draco turned to look at Snape with his wand still raised, shaking badly, and pointed off to the side. Total and complete failure was written in his eyes. No one needed to probe his mind to know the height of both panic and desperation he had reached.
Shocked, Severus' thoughts could be heard, “The boy will not... he can’t… I should have known...”
Hermione and McGonagall exchanged a surprised expression to find they were hearing the exchange of thoughts as they passed between Snape and Dumbledore.
“Remember your promise, Severus. You must do this. You cannot break the vow. You have a debt to me. Save Draco.”
“No… I can’t. I can take them. Please, I can’t do this anymore.”
“How are we hearing Snape’s thoughts? This is clearly different.” Hermione could tell this was not a usual Pensieve memory. This was a memory of thoughts and feelings between Snape and Dumbledore.
The silent conversation of thoughts continued with rising desperation while Draco and the Death Eaters looked between Dumbledore and Severus.
Aloud, Dumbledore said, “Severus... please.”
Again, the thought rushed to his mind, "Severus, you must.”
Hermione and McGonagall both flinched along with Severus when they heard the voice of Dumbledore suddenly bellow in his mind, “SEVERUS, DO IT NOW! DO IT, YOU COWARD!”
Hermione gasped loudly, throwing her hands to her face and looking at McGonagall with widened eyes.
“No, Albus," McGonagall whispered.
Immediately, the expression on Severus’ face hardened as he raged in his mind,“DON’T . CALL . ME . COWARD!”
Aloud, he roared, “AVADA KEDAVRA!”
Hermione was again tucked in the window seat in the Headmaster’s office, a thousand questions flying around her as McGonagall recounted the documentation of what they had just seen.
Sighing and looking quite tired, Minerva took her seat and looked around at the crowd in her office. “It is what we saw," she said. "It is there if you want to see for yourself. Severus did what both his Unbreakable Vow and his life debt to Albus required of him.”
Tonks stepped forward. “I have heard of some recording of events occurring when a life debt is both incurred and repaid, to serve as proof. Dumbledore must have known this.”
“I still don’t believe it,” Harry stated, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. “Snape is still nothing but a traitor.”
“Harry, please, I saw the look on his face when Dumbledore was asking him to do this. He was only doing as he was told, and Dumbledore in the end had to provoke him,” Hermione argued. She was painfully aware of the looks on the other Order members’ faces as they watched the exchange. She was still defending someone they still didn’t trust, even with the information they found.
“I don’t care what anyone says. If I ever see that rotten bastard, I’ll kill him!” Harry spat and stormed from the room.
Hermione drew back to her seat along the window, saddened to see her friend in such turmoil.
“Don’t worry, Hermione; he’s very emotional right now,” McGonagall said sadly as she patted Hermione’s hand. Hermione stared out the window, her forehead pressed on the cold glass and the damp draft on her face.
A thousand thoughts passed through her mind. She replayed the memories over and over and closed her eyes in an attempt to process everything. When she opened her eyes again, a chill passed through her. Confusion passed over her face as she thought she saw a movement out in the darkness. As she sat up straighter to get a better look, her heart froze at what she saw....
Severus Snape was staggering across the lawn.