Her professor's expression turned thunderous. There were dark clouds gathering on his face, and his eyebrows narrowed menacingly. He jumped up from his chair, his fingers instinctively reaching for his wand. He looked ready to hex her.
"How dare you, Miss Granger!" he hissed, his eyes blazing as his fury unleashed. He leaned over his desk until he was looming over her, using his intimidating height to its full advantage. He really knew how to make his students cower. "I don't know what kind of amusement you find in coming down here insulting my intelligence by telling me this absurd, elaborate story, and I fail to understand what made you think that this is even remotely funny! But know that I don't share your and your friends' inimical sense of humour! If you have now sufficiently fed your twisted need for entertainment at my expense, I advise you to leave post-haste – before I lose hold of my temper and do something I might or might not regret later!"
"No, Sir, please!" Hermione exclaimed, horror-stricken. "It's not a joke, I swear! You can use Legilimency on me if you wish. I'm not lying to you... I wouldn't – certainly not about this. Please, you must believe me..."
He glowered at her, and his voice was deceptively and dangerously smooth when he asked: "Believe that when you thought of a deed you wished to see done before dying, kissing your evil Potions Professor was what came to your mind? And furthermore believe that kissing said Potions Professor was considered an adequate sacrifice in the eyes of the supposedly drama-loving Netherfairies to grant you your wish to live? Do you have any idea how insulting that is? Or do you possibly think I should feel flattered, being the greasy git of the dungeons that I am?"
"You never were that to me!" Hermione exclaimed vehemently, realising that she had jumped out of her chair as well and stood facing him and his wrath. This was worse than she had feared, especially after the almost amiable talk they had shared before things had gone down the drain with her revelation. "I never meant to insult you with anything I said or did," she repeated imploringly. "You didn't listen: Kissing was not the sacrifice. Facing and acting on one's regrets or desires was!"
"And kissing me was your deepest desire? Not having kissed me would have been your deepest regret if you had died in the war? Do you think me stupid, Miss Granger?"
"No! I think you're brilliant! Except in moments like this, right now, when you are not – when you're too upset and angry to even listen! The oath I made was not for me to kiss you. I pledged that I would approach you and ask for you to kiss me."
He failed to see the difference, and his anger was undiminished by her attempted hair-splitting explanation. "Didn't find enough of that legendary Gryffindor courage to take action yourself and be done with it?" he sneered.
"On the contrary," she shot back. "That would have been much easier. Kiss and run and deal with the detentions later! It seemed like the coward's way out to me."
"You would have needed all your courage to face the repercussions for such a blatant display of disrespect towards a teacher later!" he replied, still shouting. "In fact, you will still find yourself in dire need of it, because there will be serious repercussions for this utterly inappropriate behaviour, rest assured of that! Right now, I'm thinking of multiple, lengthy and most disagreeable chores for detention, or better yet, detentions with Filch, who will be pleased to keep you busy every evening until the end of term; not to mention the loss of all of Gryffindor's house points! I will also inform the headmistress, and..."
She had the nerve to laugh at him. "You think that after all we've been through, I'd give a damn about those stupid house points?" she asked, incredulous and still very visibly agitated. "You think that de-gutting Flobberworms or squeezing out Bubotuber Pus would disgust me, after having stepped through gore and blood and torn limbs during the final battle, after having seen classmates being ripped apart by Acromantulas right in front of my eyes? Do you seriously believe you can scare me by assigning months of detention with Filch after I lay writhing and screaming on the floor for what felt like an eternity at Bellatrix's mercy? Take the damn points, for all I care, and give me detentions! There's nothing you can do to me that could possibly be worse than what I've been through already!"
This sobered him instantly. He knew that she and her friends had been taken prisoner and held at Malfoy Manor a few weeks before the final battle. They had all made a very narrow escape, though clearly not unscathed. No one came out unscathed after being interrogated by Bellatrix Lestrange. Imagining what she might have done to the girl had sickened him. Bellatrix herself hadn't been too forthcoming with information – he had learned most of it from Draco much later, who had confirmed that the girl had been tortured brutally and most likely still bore the scars.
For a brief moment, he felt the urge to apologize... though for what exactly, he didn't know. It wasn't his fault that she had experienced hardship and torture, pain and mortal fear, nor was it his fault that she had faced death and destruction. They all had, including himself.
But he also knew that didn't make it right. He was an adult; he had made his choices. All she had experienced had been forced upon her – things no child should ever have to go through. Her age and her status as his student demanded that he regarded and treated her as a child, but a look into her haunted eyes made clear that she was a child no longer. He shouldn't belittle her sacrifices by treating her as such.
He didn't apologize. He never did. It was pointless – he was never forgiven. But the feeling of guilt and regret calmed his anger and softened his features. He leaned back again and stepped out of her personal space, giving her room to compose herself. The memories clearly had shaken her badly.
Hermione briefly closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Do you really think..." she continued, a lot calmer herself, "that after all the sacrifices you made, after all you've done to help us and protect us and ensure Voldemort's downfall – that I would insult you by playing a stupid and childish prank on you?"
Did he? It wouldn't be the first time that he had been singled out for a prank, laughed at and insulted. Yet to think that she would participate or even initiate such a thing or that any of her friends would find it funny after everything that had happened seemed pretty absurd, even to him. It was petty and childish, and she was neither.
"I concede your point, Miss Granger," he finally managed to say. "You are not a child anymore. However, you are still my student, and whatever your reason was for involving me in the pledge you made, it was entirely inappropriate, and I will have to deal with it accordingly."
She fell back on her chair, but her eyes remained on him. "How ironic," she said, and he saw an emotion flitter across her face that, for once, he couldn't identify. "Here we are back at Hogwarts again, no longer fellow Order members, allies or companions fighting on the same side. After all we've been through together, we're back to being students and teachers, subject to house rules, curfews and disciplinary measures if we break them – as if nothing has changed. Yet things are not the same anymore."
He nodded, and sat down again as well, albeit a bit stiffly. "I agree. But it doesn't change the facts. We are all back in our familiar roles and have to act accordingly. You might try to find comfort in consistency, Miss Granger."
He was right. She had discovered it herself, already. Being back at Hogwarts, picking up where they had left off before things had escalated out of control, gave her a sense of normalcy. It was grounding, in a way, and it offered a chance to forget the past for a while. Until she found herself in a situation like this, where playing their old roles seemed utterly ridiculous. In pre-war Hogwarts, they would never have talked to each other like this. She would never have felt on equal footing with him, as she did now. Whatever the roles required, she didn't regard him primarily as her professor anymore. She saw in him a companion, a confidant, someone she could trust. Someone who had been to hell and back, just like she had.
"I guess I'll just need some time re-adapting," she sighed woefully. She then raised her gaze and looked at him with a pleading expression. "I will accept whatever punishment you feel my behaviour deserves, but please, Sir, let me first tell you my reasons for involving you in my pledge. You will see that I never meant any disrespect. Though I can understand why you might suspect something like that."
"Can you, Miss Granger?" Depending on how much The-Boy-Who'd-Seen-His-Memories had spilled, she probably could. She would know that, in his experience, it was exactly the sort of game Potter and his friends would play, preferably with him as a target. He hadn't forgotten. But Harry wasn't James, Granger and Weasley weren't the Marauders, and he himself was no longer the awkward, insecure boy he used to be. There were worse memories that haunted his nights, now.
"Yes, Professor Snape, I believe I can," she said softly. "But it was a magical ritual meant to be taken seriously, not a foolish game or a wizard version of "Truth and Dare" aiming to cause the utmost humiliation to all involved. I would never have involved you, otherwise."
"Well, then, Miss Granger," he conceded, relaxing his rigid stance a bit. "You have five minutes to explain how I, of all people, happened to become the object of your greatest regret – or that of your unfulfilled desire, which I find even harder to believe."
"Thank you, Sir," she said, and he saw her unwind a little, too. "Firstly, I want you to know that you misunderstood me earlier – kissing you wouldn't have been a sacrifice on my part at all. It would have been a thorough test of Gryffindor courage, for sure, but... I wouldn't have minded. It would have been most disrespectful, though, given that you wouldn't have had any say in it. And although I'm an advocate of women's equality and self-confident to some degree – I'm not in this. Surprising as it might be, the heart of a romantic can be found beating even in a bookworm. I would want you to kiss me of your own volition."
Her explanation only added to his confusion. A small, deeply distrustful part of his brain still insisted that it had to be a prank and demanded that he throw her out as long as he still had a shred of his dignity intact. Another part acted instinctively and took the usual pre-emptive measures: Strike before it hits you.
"Still looking for my approval, Miss Granger?" he taunted. After all, that's what she had always been after in all those years he'd been teaching her. She needed constant praise to feel secure of her place in the world, and all other teachers had been more than willing to accommodate her. He had always thought that she needed a healthy dose of self-confidence more than flattery or a constant stroking of her ego. Her accomplishments spoke for themselves. Yet, that never seemed enough for her. The fact that he had always denied her his recognition had irked her – and driven her to work even harder for it.
"Yes," she admitted frankly, recognizing his spite for what it was – a poor and cruel means of defence that she rendered useless by her acceptance of it. "I guess I am."
"Why?" he asked mystified, not understanding this confusing and irritating Gryffindor at all. "Why does it mean so much to you?" He had always thought that just having one teacher not singing her praise had been unacceptable for her – like a name missing on a list, a piece of a puzzle not fitting into the picture, her view of herself and the rest of the world not making sense without it. Could it be that it had been more personal than that?
She took another deep breath to get over her embarrassment. He had a right to ask. And what he had not yet understood was that this part – her confession – was the meaningful part of her sacrifice. The truth she regretted never having said. The deed she never found the courage to do. The guilt she felt she had never amended. "There's more than one reason," she said, a hint of colour on her cheeks again. "While I can't say that I truly liked you all those years, I can't deny that I found you – intriguing. You were intimidating and downright scary at times, but mostly, I found myself awed by your knowledge, your skill and your intellect."
Ah, yes, no surprise there. The brainy Gryffindor admired him for his brains. That, he could understand. It was what she said next that he failed to grasp: "But I always admired you for your courage. You had my utmost respect for your decision to turn your back on Voldemort after taking his mark, and to come back to the Light. It takes a strong character to recognize that a path was wrong and a lot of courage to stop walking it. And considering the sacrifices you made... I was deeply grateful for the countless times you saved us and did your best to protect us, and I regretted that I never thanked you for that. A lot of times while the boys and I were out there together, fulfilling Dumbledore's last mission, I thought of you, sitting alone and isolated from the Order in his office, having to face the wrath of colleagues and students alike and being hated by everyone, when it was all so undeserved..."
In an instant, he was on her again with his doubt. Leaning forward with his hands on his desk, he pinned her with his intense gaze. Like a bird of prey about to go in for the kill, she thought. Intimidating, dangerous, but still magnificent.
"Let me get this straight," he said, his voice, though low and silky, cutting like steel. "Are you trying to tell me that New Year's Eve – merely six months after I had cast the Killing Curse at Dumbledore and was reinstated at Hogwarts as Headmaster from hell by no one other than the Dark Lord himself – you thought that I was being unfairly judged, and did not believe me to be a traitor?"
"I never believed you to be a traitor," she responded calmly.
He stared at her disbelievingly. It wasn't possible. She had to be lying. "Everybody did!" he insisted firmly. "Everybody was supposed to believe it! Dumbledore's entire scheme depended on it being convincing, on everybody believing it! And you claim you saw right through it?"
"Well, maybe you're not such a good actor as you think you are," she stated, not even trying to avoid his penetrating gaze. She was no accomplished liar, so he had to take it at face value. "I was, of course, confused about Dumbledore's murder, and for some time, I doubted you. But later, when analysing everything that happened, I couldn't help but notice that so many facts just didn't add up... and when I finally had worked through all of them, I knew that you had never truly turned you back on us."
For a brief moment, his mask slipped and a myriad of expressions flashed across his face. She couldn't decipher them all. There was doubt, surprise and disbelief, but also a brief flicker of something more vulnerable that she didn't wish to dwell on as it had a strange effect on her breathing.
"Explain!" he demanded, obviously still not sure if he should believe her.
"Well, the first strange thing was what happened right in the night of the Death Eater attack: When Professor Flitwick came running to the dungeons and Luna and I ran into you – you didn't hurt any of us. You merely told us to take care of him after you had stunned him. Had you been a true Death Eater, surely you would at least have killed me, now that you finally had your chance. And surely you would have killed or maimed or kidnapped Harry when he came chasing after you. Yet you didn't do anything to him, not even when he threw hexes at you. You merely blocked them and taunted him – like you usually did in class. In fact, it seemed like you were teaching him another lesson in defence. You even stopped your fellow Death Eaters from torturing, killing or abducting him.
"And finally, although you had supposedly defected and knew the Order's hiding place, the Fidelius Charm of the Safe House was never compromised. You obviously never gave the secret away. I also knew from Ginny that every torture that was inflicted on students at Hogwarts was carried out by the Carrows, not by you, and that you seemed in fact to be trying your hardest to prevent them from going overboard with their brutal punishments. It all didn't fit in with you being the evil Death Eater.
"That all made me wonder... But I was finally convinced of your ongoing loyalty when the sword of Gryffindor suddenly appeared in that lake – just when we needed it most. The very sword that Ginny and Neville had tried to steal from your office without success. A deed for which, by the way, you assigned them a detention with Hagrid, of all people! Ginny told me they had tea and stone cakes and an altogether agreeable afternoon. How did the sword end up in the lake? Someone had to have put it there for Harry to find, someone who didn't want to be seen. And, mysteriously, I suddenly found healing potions and a bezoar in my supplies, none of which I remembered putting there.
"I had a lot of time to think things through while we were out there chasing for Horcruxes, and I came up with different scenarios to explain what had happened to Dumbledore... even up to suspecting that everything had been a set-up and that Dumbledore wasn't truly dead..."
"If only..." he muttered, his mind still reeling with her shocking revelation. That anyone had managed to see right through his and Dumbledore's deceit... Had it been anyone but her, it could have proved fatal. If anyone else had drawn the same conclusions, everything could have come crumbling down like a card house, just with more devastation. Voldemort would have killed him. And it would have been a long and extremely painful death.
"It still hurts that we lost Dumbledore," she said sadly. "Hogwarts is not the same without him. I was so incredibly relieved when I heard that you, at least, had survived. I felt horrible for having left you in the Shrieking Shack like we did, even though we thought you were dead at the time. When I got back after the battle, your body was gone – and for the longest time, I feared that the Aurors had found and burned your body along with those of Voldemort's followers..."
"You came back for my body?" he asked, astonished. He hadn't known that.
"Well, yes – the least you deserved was a full honours funeral." She averted her gaze and blinked a couple of times. If he didn't know better, he would have thought she was trying to prevent tears from forming in her eyes. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "We shouldn't have left you without making sure... but there was so much blood, your throat was torn, and we all knew how deadly Nagini's poison was. To think that you were still alive, so severely injured, and in pain, and we just left you to die alone! I felt so guilty when I heard that Draco had saved you – as a matter of fact, I still do. You could have died because of our neglect!" She wiped her eyes, as tears were flowing freely now.
He was strangely touched that she was crying over him. He couldn't remember anyone who ever had.
"Don't," he said curtly, reaching into his pocket and handing her a handkerchief. "It's not worth your tears. You couldn't have known that – as a precaution – I had been taking anti-venin ever since Arthur was attacked in the Department of Mysteries. And, according to the healers at St. Mungo's, my wounds were so severe that even they couldn't believe I pulled through. It must have been a cruel joke of fate, or maybe an oversight on the part of some celestial being. I never expected to survive the war, so I'm just as surprised about my continued existence as you doubtlessly were."
She dabbed her eyes and gave him a tentative smile. "Thank you," she said, and he liked to think that it was for his absolution, not for the handkerchief. For a moment, neither of them spoke a word. He noticed her shifting on the rickety chair, and with an internal sigh and a quick flick of his wand, he transfigured it into a more comfortable, cushioned armchair. She had been sitting there a while and had to have a stiff back by now. While he considered the extra discomfort adequate punishment for the miscreants who usually occupied it, she didn't deserve it. She had known more than enough pain to last a lifetime.
Again, she gave him a grateful smile that somehow made him uncomfortable. Emotional females always did. He cleared his throat.
"Tell me, Miss Granger," he said, wanting nothing more than to steer the conversation away from more dangerous minefields – as if that was at all possible considering what had brought her here, "how come your friends were still ignorant of everything you had figured out until Potter viewed those memories? Judging from your usual habits concerning your schoolwork, I would have guessed that you had shared your findings with your friends – especially any knowledge you had come by before they had."
"I tried, in the beginning," she admitted, ignoring his slight barb. "But their personal dislike for you and their suspicions clouded their judgement. They wouldn't even consider that you might be innocent, especially with all the hard evidence speaking against you."
"I'm hardly innocent, Miss Granger!" he interrupted darkly. "Don't make me for something I'm not."
"Well, but you weren't the villain, either," she insisted stubbornly. "And when I had proof of that, I also realised how important it was to keep your secret. Telling Harry bore the danger of Voldemort reading it in his mind. You were safer if he remained in the dark."
The re-affirmation that she had held concerns for his safety brought on another unfamiliar surge of unease. Even with Dumbledore, it had always taken second place to 'the greater good'. Probably even third or fourth place. He cleared his throat again, this time to make sure that his voice sounded calm and detached. On second thought, he conjured a pot of tea and a cup, and, after a brief internal debate, an extra cup for her. She must have a dry throat after all this endless chattering.
If Granger was surprised by his hitherto unheard of gestures of hospitality, she didn't voice it. Thanking him, she picked up the offered cup, while he picked up the thread of conversation again. "Your pledge for the ritual must have caused quite a stir among your friends if both of them were as ignorant of everything going on as they were expected to be..." he mused, not quite able to hide is discomfort at imagining her – and subsequently his – public humiliation.
Hermione shook her head. "They didn't hear what I promised to do. Witnesses were not required for the pledge, so there was no need to share it with everybody. I just wrote it down on a piece of paper – and then vanished the note. I never wanted my feelings to become known, given how you felt about me, and given that I knew how angry you would be if I had allowed it to become public matter. You were always a very private person..."
She hadn't wanted her feelings to become public knowledge? He raised an eyebrow in surprise at her phrasing. What feelings? Her admiration for his intellect? Her gratitude for being on the right side after all? Merlin, she was seriously starting to mess with his abilities to think clearly. He needed to get a grip on himself, and get this conversation back under control.
"Well, I appreciate your keeping your perceptions – and your highly questionable choice of sacrifice – to yourself," he said, trying to sound unaffected. "It would have been a major setback in Dumbledore's plans if anybody else had found out at that point."
Frowning, she took another sip of her tea. "You know, I never understood Dumbledore's plan at all," she said disapprovingly. "It had a very low chance of working, not to mention that it was unbelievably cruel. How could he have asked that of you? What if nobody had ever figured out the truth even at the end, if you hadn't managed to give Harry your memories? They would have arrested you as a Death Eater and sent you to Azkaban. That is if they hadn't killed you right on sight, with all the hatred everybody felt. It was incredibly careless and shortsighted planning... he knowingly put you in a very risky position with all his scheming and his obsession for secrecy!"
He almost smiled at her rightful indignation and wished that Dumbledore was here to see. "I was at risk every time I was called in front of the Dark Lord, Miss Granger," he pointed out calmly. "And I was very aware of that, believe me."
"It still was a thoroughly stupid plan!" she insisted, still sounding angry. "How could he have believed that nobody would figure it out? If I could, so should have others... Minerva knew you since you were a student and was here the entire time. How could she not know?"
"Who's to say she didn't?"
She blinked. "Pardon me?"
"Miss Granger - what good is a spy if he has no one to report to? Minerva knew. She was my only contact to the Order after I killed Dumbledore."
"She knew?" Hermione repeated dumbfounded. "But – she fought you. She forced you out of Hogwarts right before the final battle. Why did you go back and join their ranks at that point if she knew about your true allegiance?" It didn't make any sense. Everything that had happened to him could have been avoided. Had his double play been revealed at this point he would have been in a much better position to tell Harry what he needed to know. He could have fought on their side.
He sighed deeply. "Because I still had an important mission to fulfil. And that required my cover to be intact."
"I don't understand." She gave him a confused look. "I thought your mission was to let Harry finally know the entire truth... to tell him why he was a Horcrux. That's why you gave him your memories..."
He instantly regretted having revealed too much. She was like a dog with bone. She wouldn't let go now. He could already see the wheels turning rapidly in her head.
"It never made sense to me," she said slowly, "why you of all people should be the one to tell Harry that he had to sacrifice himself for the cause. He was likely to react highly emotionally to that – what seventeen-year-old wouldn't, if he was to learn that he had to die? Dumbledore must have known that Harry mistrusted you, and that his dislike, after his alleged murder, would turn into rage and hatred. Why did he think Harry would even listen to you, least of all believe you?"
She blanched and stared at him in utter disbelief, as a suspicion began to form...