A/N: This little story, which is more a chamber-play, is my analysis of Snape's and Hermione's character and relationship, and some of the things that happened in the the last book of the series. It's mostly canon, except for the rather significant fact that Snape survived, obviously. ;)
Huge THANKS to Dreamthrower, who volunteered to be my beta and made this story so much better!
Severus Snape, Hogwarts' old and new Potions Professor, sat at his desk, scowling. His red quill scratched across seemingly endless sheets of parchment, mercilessly dissecting the astonishingly mindless drivel that the dunderheads he still had the misfortune of teaching had produced as a poor excuse for an essay on the twelve uses of dragon blood. At least now that the Dark Lord was over and done with, finding and nursing any grain of wit in the minds of his students was the only search for intelligence he still had to torment himself with.
After his name had been cleared – thanks to the Boy-Who-Still-Lived-To-Be-A-Thorn-In-His-Side – Minerva, newly installed headmistress, had offered him his old job back. For lack of options, and, to be honest, because Hogwarts was the only home he ever knew, he had taken her up on it. Just until he had gotten his act back together and found some perspective, he had firmly told himself – and anyone else who dared to enquire. It was a little pathetic, really, but for the time being, he preferred not to dwell on it.
With an angry frown, he scratched out an entire paragraph on the parchment before him, dissecting it with scalding remarks until it was lost beneath a sea of red ink. He was just about to formulate another sarcastic comment on the idiocy of the written word before him, when a knock on his door rudely interrupted his cursive rant.
Surprised, he looked up. He didn't have a detention to oversee – he never gave them on a Friday evening. Any miscreants were sent to work with Filch on these evenings, if punishments had to be dished out. He was looking forward to a glass of Scotch and a new book on potion theory as soon as he was finished with his grading.
"Enter!" he bellowed, prepared to give whoever dared intrude on him for most likely no valid reason a piece of his mind.
His office door swung open to reveal a rather flustered looking Gryffindor, and not just any Gryffindor. The-Boy-Who-Still-Annoyed-Him's best friend. Who more often than not annoyed him as well. But she was a more complex case altogether.
"Miss Granger?" He barely managed to mask his irritation.
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, nervously pushing that insane hair of hers behind her ear in a wasted effort to give it some kind of order.
"Good evening, Professor Snape," she greeted him politely.
He didn't reply in kind. "Unless you have taken a couple of wrong turns and staircases to end up in the dungeons, I can't imagine an explanation for your being here on a Friday evening," he snarled. He had the vague hope that if he didn't invite her in and offer a chair, she might leave right away – or at least cut her visit short.
"You do have office hours right now, don't you?" she enquired, as if wondering if she had mistaken time and place.
He sighed. Yes, he did officially have office hours on Friday evenings – which was the reason why he got away with leaving detentions with Filch in the first place. All teachers were required to offer counselling once a week. But, usually, no one sought him out in this role and imposed on him. Not even his Slytherins. He simply wasn't the kind of person a sane minded student turned to when in need of advice. And never ever in all this time at Hogwarts had a Gryffindor shown up in his office voluntarily. They were daring and foolish, but not this foolish.
"Yes, Miss Granger, I actually do," he snapped. "But I'm reasonably sure that your own head of house is diligently fulfilling his office duty right now, and would be ecstatic to offer any counsel you might need."
She ignored his polite attempt to throw her out and approached his desk. Despite not having been offered a seat, she sat down on the wooden chair in front of him, fidgeting uncomfortably. "Unfortunately Professor Lupin won't be able to assist me with the somewhat delicate and rather private matter I've come to talk to you about," she said, her eyes briefly crossing his gaze. "You're the only one who can help me out, I'm afraid." Her voice sounded a bit subdued, and there was a touch of colour in her face that – unless she had run here – could not be from warmth. Autumn had come early, and it was rather cool in the dungeons. Besides, she had been rather pale when she had entered. Too pale, actually, to look entirely healthy. If he was not mistaken – and he usually wasn't when it came to reading people – her blush was from embarrassment. He eyed her sharply as an alarming explanation came to his mind.
"Miss Granger," he said dangerously, leaning forward and pinning her with his gaze. "Are you telling me that you managed to get yourself into the kind of trouble that requires a difficult to brew, not to mention quite illegal potion that our school nurse neither stocks nor gives out except for justified, medical indications?" Oh Merlin, she couldn't have been so careless and stupid! Not she, who was hailed as the brightest witch of her age by some of his colleagues. Unfortunately, he remembered, she had also been rumoured to have been intimately involved with Arthur Weasley's youngest offspring. Which, as a matter of fact, was quite a contradiction to the first assertion. He felt a twinge of nausea. The idea of her being pregnant with a child of the The-Boy-Who-Always-Caused-Trouble's pathetic sidekick – another red-haired dunderhead, no doubt! – repulsed him more than it probably should.
She gave him a surprised look. "What kind of trouble are you talking... oh – you think..." She broke off when understanding dawned. "Of course not, Sir!" she said, sounding slightly offended now. "If I were to engage in sexual activities, I'd be responsible enough to take precautions beforehand. I came here because I need to ask you something."
He relaxed and leaned back, careful not to let his relief show, nor to dwell on the rather intimate bit of information she had volunteered. If she were to engage...?
"Of course," he replied drily. "A question. Imagine my surprise! Well, ask away so you can let me be, Miss Granger."
Her brief moment of righteous irritation had passed. "Actually, if I may, Sir, I'd have to explain something first..." she said rather timidly. "Otherwise, you will most likely throw me out of your office right away, and what I have to say to you is important for various reasons."
A nervous and obviously troubled Hermione Granger – this was a novelty. Thinking back, he couldn't remember ever seeing her insecure or shy. She was usually bossy, highly irritating, obnoxiously righteous and downright insufferable. For that alone, he should point out to her that his time was valuable and that he'd rather not waste it by listening to a Gryffindor pouring her heart out. Or he should let her know that he wasn't in the least interested in whatever story she had to tell and couldn't care less about her problems. But the truth was that he didn't have anything better to do, that he was interested and that he did care. All of which he found extremely annoying.
"Well, congratulations, Miss Granger," he said, exasperated. "You have successfully secured my undivided attention. What could it possibly be, then, that you need explain before daring to ask me this question of high importance?"
She drew a deep breath. "I took a vow. A sacrificing vow, to be precise."
He stared at her with a perplexed expression, unsure whether he should find it laughable or alarming. Sacrificing vows were a bit of both, in fact.
She sighed. "It was rather a spur of the moment thing. The idea came about last New Year's Eve. As you know, it had been a rather difficult year for us..."
That had do be the understatement of the century. The last year had been hell. While he had been trying – albeit with little success – to prevent the Carrows from turning Hogwarts into a gigantic torture chamber, the Golden Trio had been out in the wilderness chasing Horcruxes and trying – equally unsuccessfully – to escape the Snatchers. He didn't know the extent of the hardship they had endured, but it was apparent that they had suffered. She still was too thin, and the dark circles beneath her eyes hinted at too many nights with too little sleep. But worse than the shadows under her eyes were the shadows within. Eyes that had seen too much. The horrors of the war, the losses and the grief had robbed too many children of their innocence. She was no exception.
With a slight incline of his head, he acknowledged the fact, and she resumed her account more calmly than warranted considering the events she described. "We had been out there for what felt like ages, hungry, cold and pretty miserable most of the time. Harry had just barely escaped with his life after Nagini had attacked us in Godrick's Hollow, and the incident made the abstract idea that we might actually not survive the war suddenly seem very realistic. With the final confrontation with Voldemort on the horizon, we were, in all honesty, scared shitless. Someone – I think it was Harry – asked us if we, should we die in the war, had any regrets... if there were things we were sorry to not have had a chance to do. And I mentioned a magical rite that I had happened to have read about: something wizards would do to increase the chances of a favourable outcome of an intended endeavour in return for a pledge."
"Happened to have read, Miss Granger?" he asked, raising his brow. He wondered if there was a single book in the Hogwarts' library that she had not devoured in the six years she'd been here. Given that sacrificing vows, despite their name, were not considered Dark magic, the book in which she must have found it would not even have been in the Restricted Section. "And you couldn't resist playing around with potentially dangerous magic that you didn't fully comprehend?"
"I think I understood the concept quite well, Sir. Basically, it's a wishing spell that works on the concept of tit-for-tat. Muggles actually have something similar."
"If you mean these rashly spoken promises along the lines of "dear God, if only you let me live through this hangover, I swear I'll never to touch alcohol again", then you're thoroughly mistaken. For Muggles, there is no magic involved binding them to their promise."
"Muggles also use it in much more serious situations and for matters that are really important to them," she objected. "And those who believe in a higher power consider these promises to be quite binding. People have built churches or gone on a pilgrimage to fulfil their vows. You might say it's only superstition, but so are – in my opinion – divination and prophecies. They only derive their power from people's beliefs in them."
"But there's a real power involved when dealing with magic, whether you believe in it or not," he pointed out. "It's not something to be trifled with."
"Well, I was of the impression that the ritual is neither considered serious wizardry nor a reliable means to secure the successful outcome of an endeavour."
"No, it's not, and there is no guarantee that it will work." He sighed again, pinching the bridge of his nose to chase away the headache that threatening to build. He truly had no wish to discuss the theory of sacrificing vows with her right now. "Be that as it may, the ritual involves a wizarding oath, and regardless of how profane the matter, if not carefully phrased, such an oath can have dire consequences, Miss Granger."
"I was aware of that, Sir," she calmly stated. "And I made it plainly clear to everybody involved. I know that for the wish to be granted, one has to be willing to make a sacrifice and promise to do a deed that is of adequate importance." She smiled. "Luna actually explained it quite nicely..."
He raised his eyebrow. "Miss Lovegood? Dare I even ask?" The Lovegood girl didn't have her nickname Loony Luna for no reason. Though an intelligent witch in her own right, she did not seem to walk the same plane as other mortals. Her potions were usually safe and usable, her essays, though, frequently beyond hilarious. He always saved them for nights he could use a good laugh.
"She made it sound very convincing," Hermione said earnestly, trying to keep her face straight. "See, when you make a sacrificing vow, you draw out the Netherfairies. The more interesting the deed is that you promise to do in exchange for being granted your wish, the more fairies are attracted. They'll help you achieve whatever you're asking for, but although they're enthusiastic, they're only so strong. Despite their best efforts, it doesn't always work. Therefore, you really have to make sure that your sacrifice is considered inspiring. The Netherfairies are easily bored and enjoy a fair amount of drama. And they're easily offended if you fail to deliver. Luna said they can make your life really difficult."
He shook his head in amused wonderment. "Well, I suppose that explanation works as well as any other," he commented with a shrug. That went for most of Miss Lovegood's views. According to her, everything that happened in the world could be ascribed to the machination of invisible beings that nobody had ever seen, much less proven to exist. Yet it was equally impossible and an utter waste of time to try and prove her wrong. He knew that from personal experience.
"So, what exciting deed did you promise to do in order to attract the Netherfairies?" he asked, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.
Her expression turned sober again. "We pledged that we would finally find the courage to do what we would most regret not having done if we were to die in the war – a desire we never dared to voice, a guilt that we failed to make amends for, a truth that we never spoke or a deed that we always lacked the courage to pull through with."
"How very Gryffindor," he snorted. "And which of those deeds did you pick?"
"A bit of all of those, I guess," she said, blushing slightly again and shifting on her chair. He couldn't deny his rising curiosity. If it fulfilled all of the mentioned criteria, it sounded like a worthy endeavour, yet what she had pledged clearly made her feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Which made him wonder what had possessed her to make a sacrificing vow in the first place.
"You might have thought it a harmless game," he admonished. "Something rather ridiculous that only Miss Lovegood believes in. But you do not fool around with wizarding oaths. What on Earth could be important enough to even be worth risking a sacrificing vow? Finding everlasting love? Getting an outstanding in your potion N.E.W.T.S?"
"We asked to survive the war," Hermione said matter-of-factly, and managed to render him speechless for a moment.
"Are you quite insane?" he barked when he had found his voice again. "Didn't you realize that by asking for your life to be spared, your very life became the ransom to be paid in case the demands of the vow were not met? If you fail to uphold your end of the bargain, whatever it may be – you life is forfeit... You will die!"
"Yes, we were aware of that," she said soberly. "In fact, the Standard Book of Wizarding Oaths states clearly that the consequences of failing to keep a promise is determined by whatever it is that you ask for."
That was the little-know-it-all speaking. She had always been good at quoting from books almost verbatim. In this case, however, he wasn't sure if she had fully grasped the meaning of what she had read. How could she have risked it, otherwise?
But once again, she surprised him, as a clearly amused smile flashed across her lips before elaborating: "Or, as Luna explained it: If you fail to live up to your promise, the Netherfairies will take away again whatever you asked for."
"So – need I prepare to explain to the headmistress that you or your friends have been taken by the Netherfaries in the foreseeable future? I surely hope not – the paperwork will be gruesome..."
She grinned. "I suppose that won't be necessary. So far, everybody has upheld his part of the bargain. Harry has had his coming-out..."
"... and don't we all remember!" He rolled his eyes, remembering the scene Potter had caused when, at the end of the last welcome feast, he had jumped onto the bench and announced to the entirety of students and staff that he was gay, thank you very much for the attention, and kindly carry on with your meal.
Hermione grimaced. "Well, Harry had pledged that he would openly reveal his most guarded secret, but when it came to it, he was unsure about what exactly 'openly' implied. He wanted to be on the safe side."
"I see. Well, we can safely assume that the requirements of 'openly' were met when the Prophet reported it to the rest of Britain's wizarding population right the next day," he commented drily. "Am I also correct to assume that Mr. Weasley took part in messing with the Netherfairies as well?"
"Of course." Hermione sighed. "But he wasn't careful enough with his phrasing."
"Imagine my surprise..." The youngest Weasley boy, in his opinion, was worst of the lot. While his siblings showed at least traces of intelligence, Severus held nothing but disdain for Potter's sidekick. All he ever did was plunge headfirst into danger without even pausing a minute to think first. Frankly, it was a miracle that he had survived this long. He must have attracted a whole bunch of Netherfairies to make it through the last year.
"Ron promised that he would do everything in his power to prove to his girlfriend that he was serious and would never abandon her again."
He immediately picked up on the subtle resentment in her voice. "Abandon again?" he asked suspiciously, well aware of who the girlfriend in question was. What had the dunderhead done this time?
"Ron left us while we were hunting for Horcruxes," the girl explained, averting her gaze. "It was – a difficult time." She didn't elaborate, but he didn't need Legilimency to hear what she didn't voice. It was plain in her face and in her body language. She had been hurt by his actions. Badly. So the boy had taken a pledge to make it up to her... and he was still around. That either proved that the whole spell was a lot of rubbish, or Mr. Weasley had somehow successfully proven that he was very serious about the relationship and willing to commit to her.
He couldn't quite identify the queasy feeling in his stomach when a mental image of Hermione, looking suspiciously like Molly Weasley, popped into his mind – standing in the kitchen with at least three snotnosed redheads clinging to her apron. It probably was revulsion.
"So am I correct to assume that you will be the next Mrs. Weasley and congratulations are in order?" he asked darkly, trying to keep his voice even, when all he wanted to do was to shout at her.
"Hell, no!" Hermione exclaimed, and for the second time this evening, he let out a relieved breath that surprised even himself. Obviously, the idea of Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley as a couple bothered him. He pondered this a moment, trying to analyse the feeling. Well, it would have been a marriage bound for disaster. The boy was no match for her intellectually, and she would doubtlessly wither like a plant without water if she had to endure mindless talk about Quidditch and other profanities for the rest of her life.
"That's where Ron made his mistake. He still considered me his girlfriend at the time he made the pledge, but..."
"But you didn't reciprocate his feelings?"
Hermione shook her head. She couldn't believe she was discussing her love life with Snape, of all people.
"I had a thing for him for a while in our sixth year – before everything fell apart – but he never noticed me. And last year, just when he started showing interest and I thought that things had a chance of going somewhere, he just left us. I understand that he was scared and felt over his head – but so did we. It felt like betrayal at the time. I realized then that we weren't compatible. Unfortunately, we hadn't discussed things between us – I was too much of a coward and afraid of another confrontation, and Ron... well, I hadn't known that he was still hoping we could pick up where we left off. Until New Year's Eve that is..." She cleared her throat. "Anyway, after the war, Lavender Brown approached Ron with renewed interest. By the end of summer, she was officially his girlfriend. It was then that he started to get very nervous for not having done anything spectacular to fulfil his oath."
"Why did he think he needed to do something spectacular? Because of Mr. Potter's rather unfortunate performance? Or did he believe the Netherfairies demanded more drama?"
"I guess he just didn't know how to prove to Lavender that he was serious about her other than proposing to her."
"Oh dear!" he said sarcastically. "Doesn't he realise that because of his vow, he will not get out of this marriage promise alive – unless it's Miss Brown who chooses to end the relationship?"
"I don't think he does. And we haven't had the heart to tell him yet. Hopefully, it won't be necessary. They seem very happy together."
"Which leaves us with you, Miss Granger. Have you fulfilled your pledge yet?"
"No. It was impossible up to now... See, I needed to speak to you in order to do it and – well, given that you were still recuperating and no one could tell where you were..."
After Nagini's attack, everybody had believed him dead. After all, they had seen him die. It was the moment she still relived in her nightmares every night. Nobody knew what had happened to his body. When they had returned to the Shrieking Shack, it had miraculously vanished. She had clung to that little shred of hope then that he had been able to save himself somehow. He had been on her mind ever since, and she had been filled with relief and gratefulness beyond measure when she learned that he had been Apparated to safety by Draco Malfoy. He had been in St. Mungo's for a while, but had vanished from the wizarding world after his name had been cleared. It had been a big surprise when Headmistress McGonagall had announced that Severus Snape would return to Hogwarts as Potions Professor.
All in all, the news had been received with little enthusiasm. War hero or not, the last year had been traumatising for many students, and learning that his part in it had been largely a charade to fool Voldemort hadn't made it easy to forgive and forget. Apart from the Slytherins, Hermione had been the only student who was happy to see him return. She hoped that fulfilling her vow would finally bring closure and at least give her a little peace.
"I suppose we're now getting to the part where you explain what I have to do with your vow..." Professor Snape said, his face blank as usual and not giving away any feeling except for the slight undertone of annoyance that was always present with him. If he was curious or suspicious, he hid it well behind his sarcasm and cold detachment. "Let me guess..." he ventured, raising his brow. "You pledged the life of your firstborn child, and now you're looking to me to find a way out of the deal with Dark magic?"
"No, nothing as bad as that." She took a deep breath and braced herself for the storm. There was no way around this. She had to say it at some point, although right now, she wasn't sure if maybe falling dead on the spot wasn't the better option.
"I vowed that, if I survived the war, I would ask you to kiss me."