Promises to Keep
Snape watched his former pupil, the Gryffindor Know-It-All, stride angrily from his apothecary and smirked. Seems he still had the touch, though she didn't appear quite as cowed by his antics as she had been when his student. Growing up had its disadvantages. Though there were a few benefits as well. Miss Granger had matured in other ways besides her attitude. He told himself that he really hadn't noticed that change. Really, he hadn't. Much.
He Summoned the ancient book of contracts from the shop's counter and opened the first door on the right, his library. Shelving the tome with a flick of his wand, he sat down heavily in the worn but comfortable leather chair behind his desk. Pulling out his journal, he dipped a quill into the silver ink pot that had been among the items that Dumbledore had bequeathed him and began recording his observations and associated musings.
Miss Granger's visit and subsequent appeal for his assistance had been a godsend in more ways than one. With time running out and two major projects that had to be completed before he himself exited this mortal coil, her help would be invaluable. Of all the students he had taught over his sixteen years at Hogwarts, she would have been his personal choice to take up this position. It was unfortunate that he had to force her to do so, but he didn't have the time or the skills to persuade her to such a decision. She could manage the shop, freeing up his time for research, and she could also help with that research. Her assistance might very well prove vital to both projects he needed to finish before he died. He couldn't think of anyone more suited to what he needed to accomplish than Miss Granger. On top of that, she would attract the proper clientele.
He had also felt the gentle influence of the strange magic that radiated from her and that, for some unknown reason, had seemed to bolster his strength. And as her exit receded in time, he felt the previous weakness return and his breath became slightly labored again. He had no idea why her presence would affect him so. Pye had suggested that the love of Arthur Weasley's family had aided in curing him of Nagini's poisoning. Miss Granger had no love for him, that was certain, but for her parents? If she was willing to spend seven years in his service in order to bring them back into her life, that indicated she had a profound love for them. Could just her presence help him feel better? And would that possibly extend his life somewhat, giving him more time to resolve the conundrums he faced before he had to die? Another reason to have her about. When she returned this evening, he would carefully observe whether he experienced the same effect that he had seemed to sense earlier.
Maybe the fates were on his side this time around? Snape heard the faint chime from the monitoring spell he had set up, signaling a customer had arrived. He put his musings and quill away and headed down the hall to the apothecary.
"So you'll be out by the end of the month?" asked the graying woman, leaning against the door frame to the landlord's apartment where Hermione's flat was located. The old Muggle had been very kind to her since the day she had moved in, which had been a scant few weeks after Harry had defeated Voldemort.
"Actually, I'll be out by the end of the day, Mrs. Murphy," she replied, disliking how final that sounded in her ears.
"I'm sad to hear so, dear," Mrs. Murphy said, her face pinched in genuine mournfulness. "You've been a lovely tenant and that cat of yourn is a pretty one and devil on the mice. I fear they'll sneak back in just as soon as you leave."
Crookshanks! Hermione could kick herself. She hadn't given a single thought to her faithful part-kneazle companion when she signed that distasteful contract. She muttered a quick, fervent prayer under her breath that Professor Snape wouldn't mind if she brought the old feline with her. Then she remembered his run-in with Neville's toad Trevor. If that beastly man so much as harmed a hair on Crookshank's head, she'd have his innards for garters, contract or no.
"I think Crooks frightened them so badly that you'll be mouse-free for quite some time, ma'am," Hermione told the woman and started rifling through the spells she knew for one that might repel rodents. It would be the least she could do in repayment for Mrs. Murphy's many kindnesses.
"Come back for a visit whenever you're in the neighborhood," Mrs. Murphy called out as Hermione mounted the stairs.
"I will," she called back, wondering if the old woman would remember her in seven years; indeed, would Mrs. Murphy even be alive? Seven years. It was seven years ago that Hermione had entered Hogwarts for the first time. She had changed so much since then. What would she be like seven years from now? But her envisioned future was too bleak to promise much progression. It would be spent scrubbing his floors, fixing his meals and shut away in what was essentially a house elf's nest. She wondered how Harry had survived his cupboard under the stairs.
These thoughts were so oppressive she suddenly felt their weight in her physical limbs, as if she were chained hand and foot. How was she going to survive such a life? What would happen to her mind after seven years of such drudgery? Her lungs didn't seem able to take in enough air and she was getting dizzy. Pausing in the middle of the stairway, she clung desperately to the hand rail.
She would have to hang a picture of her parents in that miserable excuse for lodging that he had assigned her and simply attempt to live one grinding day at a time. Forcing herself from step to step, she reached the landing. From there she goaded her feet to the front door. Barely gaining her bed, the tears started. She missed her parents. The empty ache in her heart left her feeling hollow and shaken.
Crookshanks meowed and jumped up to the mattress to join her. He cuddled close to her heart and began purring. Wrapping her arms around the large ginger cat, she cried harder. When she had altered her parents' memories, she felt certain she would be able, if she survived, to restore them after Voldemort had been defeated. So in the back of her mind, her parents were always there and the anticipation of their return had bolstered her through all the difficulties and dangers of hunting Horcruxes. Now, as each attempt failed to recover their memories, she seemed to be losing her moorings, cast adrift in a strange and hostile sea. Severus Snape was her last hope.
Severus Snape. Today had been the first time she had seen him since leaving him for dead on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. The wizarding world had been shocked to discover that he had been on their side the entire time and she had felt somewhat vindicated about defending him to Harry for all those years. It certainly didn't seem like he was on her side now. What had she expected? That the dour man would instantaneously change, turning into some kind of happy-go-lucky harlequin in black?
Crookshanks meowed again and licked at the wet streaks on her face. His rough tongue tickled. She smiled, then laughed and hugged him closer. In her new life as Severus Snape's servant, she would protect this creature with all that was in her. She let her anger overcome the despair that she had unwittingly let claim her mind. It was time to pack.
Nearly a quarter of Hermione's belongings had been miniaturized and loaded into one of three Muggle suitcases opened on her bed, but now she leaned against the casing of her one lone window, watching the London street below for any signs of Harry and Ron. They were usually a few minutes late for their weekly lunch date, but today she really didn't mind. The anticipation of seeing her best friends warred with the prospect of having to tell them about the contract she had signed with Professor Snape. They would not be happy. Especially Harry.
Although The Boy Who Lived had radically changed his opinion of Professor Snape after encountering the potion master's memories in Dumbledore's pensieve, of late he seemed to be talking himself back into hating the man all over again. Her freshly minted servitude wasn't going to help things, though at this point she was seriously considering adopting Harry's point of view herself.
She spied them on the corner by the alley to which they usually Apparated when coming to visit her and relaxed a bit when she saw that neither of them had a large bag that would indicate they had brought takeout to consume in her apartment. All the better, since her two friends were less likely to make a scene if they were in a restaurant. Due to their notoriety as the Trio That Defeated Voldemort, they always went Muggle when choosing where to eat. Although she and Harry had substantially more experience than Ron at it, the youngest Weasley boy had taken to Muggle restaurants like ashwinders to magical fires. Most likely that was because food was involved. She smiled at that thought, grabbed a Muggle sweater, excellent camouflage for the outing, and hurried down to meet them.
Snape decanted the luminescent golden potion into a goblet and leaned across the Minister of Magic's desk, offering the libation to the man who sat behind it. Kingsley Shacklebolt accepted and downed the contents in one go.
"You can't make it taste any better?"
"A perennial complaint. No." Snape watched the Minister's countenance as he silently numbered the time in his head. The wearied expression in Shacklebolt's eyes began to lift as Snape's count reached twenty, five more seconds than last week. Damn.
"And your shoulder?" Snape asked, trying to divert Shacklebolt from his usual question. The Minister reached up and ran his hand from collarbone to bicep.
"No change that I can tell," he replied, "A good sign, isn't it?"
"Should be," Snape said cautiously. "Let me take a look." The Minister nodded and, with his wand, widened the neck of his robes, pulling them down to expose the area to which Snape had managed to confine the curse. The potions master rounded the desk to ascertain the current condition of the wound. Indeed, it had not changed. The charred-looking skin had not crept beyond the boundaries he had marked last week; very good news. Perhaps the extra drop of Lethe Water had helped in that respect.
"Yes. Well. Not to encourage your fantasies, but watch for signs of improvement in the week ahead. The adjustment I made this time might give you a bit more mobility in that joint."
Shacklebolt nodded and resized his robes to cover the injury. "I'm grateful for what you've done so far." He looked up at Snape, hope filling his eyes. "Prognosis?"
"Same as last week - I'm not sure," Snape hated having to guess. "Dumbledore's curse was much more deadly since the spell had been placed on the ring numerous times and they all went off at once."
"But Slughorn . . ." began Shacklebolt.
"Horace took the brunt of the spell full in the chest. You received the tail end of it across your shoulder. And he was older and your health is much better than his ever was. I expect, as I've said before, that you have at least three years and that should be enough to either find a cure or fine-tune this potion to stave off the effects indefinitely." Snape didn't bother mentioning that Shacklebolt successfully surviving the curse also depended on how long he himself would live, but adding more stress to the situation would not help the man in any manner whatsoever.
And, as always, Shacklebolt nodded. Then he indicated the armchair across from him. "And about our other project? More good news, I hope?"
Tired, Snape sat down and stretched out his aching legs. "I believe so. Miss Granger will be moving into my shop this evening."
"How on earth did you manage that, Severus?" Shacklebolt's enormous grin generously reflected the pleasure in his voice.
"I took advantage, as is my wont," Snape replied. At the Minister's confused frown, he added, "The girl needs a favor and I essentially parleyed that into an indenture which requires her to be on the premises full-time."
"And the other two?"
"It would be suspicious if I moved all three of them into my shop, don't you think?" Snape said, though he suspected Potter and Weasley would now be frequenting his establishment with annoying regularity. "Your Aurors will have to continue to oversee their safety."
"Having at least one of them under your protection will help me sleep better at night," Shacklebolt said and leaned back in his chair, relaxing. "Her presence won't put off the people we want to attract?"
"On the contrary, I believe it will enhance the possibility; once they hear that she is, in effect, magically enslaved to me," Snape said, and then saw that abrupt bit of doubt flash in Shacklebolt's eyes. Always the suspicion, thought Snape wearily, though he knew this was a good sign. Delicately balancing on that fine line between trust and distrust is what had made him such a superb spy against the Dark Lord. And it's what would make his current operation successful. But he needed to get back to the apothecary. He could count on a lull in business just after the lunch rush, but customers usually began trickling back in about now. And he had a few tasks to complete before Miss Granger's arrival. He stood.
"Until next week then, Minister?"
When the man nodded, Snape headed to the large fireplace on the far wall and reached for a generous portion of Floo powder.
"You did what?"
It was almost a chorus; a Ron and Harry duet, at least.
"Please tell me that I just misheard you, Hermione," Harry said quietly, concern and worry in his eyes.
"I'm at the end of my rope, Harry. He is the last chance I have left. What would you suggest I had done?" She was glad now that they were at one of their favorite eateries; she was sure the Muggles at neighboring tables were dampening her friend's response.
Harry was, as ever, Harry. She was so grateful that she had this constant in her life. Although he had turned eighteen only 4 months ago, his features had been changing quickly. His jaw was squaring off and his beard was getting thicker; with his black hair, his five o'clock shadow was now perceptibly showing up much closer to four. Always a skinny kid while at Hogwarts, he was muscling up very quickly. But his eyes - those green eyes - they would always be the same. She expected it would take years, possibly decades, before their habit of wariness would erode sufficiently so that it wasn't always foremost in his gaze. Of course, his choice to become an Auror might make that an impossibility.
"Besides, he's proven his loyalty to our side, hasn't he?" Hermione added. "You know that better than anyone." But Harry's face clouded and he frowned. She pushed a few bits of rice through what was left of the curry on her plate and then looked up at him again. His worry always seemed a contagion to her and many times she had to push her intellect strenuously up against that possible infection in order not to succumb to what she mostly considered debilitating emotion. She felt particularly vulnerable at the moment.
"I'm not so sure anymore, Hermione," he lowered his voice and both she and Ron leaned in closer to hear. "There have been rumors running rampant in the Auror department," he paused for a deep breath. "Snape has been seen in the company of those believed to have been in league with Voldemort."
"But he would have known those people from before you defeated Voldemort. Could he just be visiting with friends or acquaintances?" Ron suggested.
Hermione looked over at her other best friend. After Fred's death, he had abandoned his plans to accompany Harry in Auror training and had joined George at Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes. He was a tremendous support to the business and to his bereaved family. Although she had crushed on Ron off and on over the years, that kiss outside of the Room of Requirement had clenched it for her. It was like kissing her brother, if she had had one. Turned out that he had felt exactly the same way. They had settled back into their very comfortable friendship.
"He doesn't seem inclined to turn these 'friends' over to the Ministry. In fact, it's just the opposite. Word is he is protecting them," Harry replied. "And I have been wondering about the memories he gave me in the Shrieking Shack. It was easy to tell that Slughorn had altered his memories, but Slughorn was not an accomplished Legilimens or Occlumens. Snape was both. Would those talents allow him to manipulate the memories that he gave me? Or completely make them up? I don't know."
"But he gave us the Sword of . . ." a waitress passed close by their table and Hermione paused until she was gone. ". . . the Sword of Gryffindor. Why would he do that if he weren't on our side?" Hermione asked.
"What if he wanted to take Voldemort's place? Then he would assist us in destroying Voldemort and pick up the pieces afterward. That would perfectly explain his present behavior."
"Snape wants to be the next Dark Lord?" Ron sounded as incredulous as Hermione felt. She thought that Harry's suspicions about Professor Snape had been quelled after finding out what he had done for the war effort, but this current scenario? Could Harry's new take on the potion master's behavior be legitimate? And if there were any possibility his new theory was true she had just stepped in it big time.
"What if he does?" Harry continued. "I'm not sure that you should have signed that contract, Hermione, but it might actually work in our favor. You can keep tabs on him for us."
"Harry, that is just ludicrous! He's a very good Legilimens and I'm a very bad liar." She thought back to the fiasco in the apothecary that very morning with some degree of embarrassment.
Harry's eyes narrowed. "Snape is an uncommonly clever wizard. I suspect that he has already protected himself in some way from surveillance." She could almost see the gears meshing together as he thought aloud.
"He's logical," Hermione said, remembering the puzzle he concocted during their first year to protect the Philosopher's Stone. "That gives him an edge over most other wizards."
"Was there anything in the contract preventing you from divulging information about him or his operations?" Ron piped up. Hermione felt her face flush.
"I - I didn't read, uh, the whole thing," she finished by trying to soften the humiliation that was sure to eat up her insides when they realized what she had so thoughtlessly done. "I would have signed anything to get my parents back," she added with almost a whisper.
"Tell me something that he said after you signed the contract," Harry said after a thoughtful moment. That was easy. Professor Snape had consigned her to a broom closet.
"The r-room h-he gave m-me is . . . is . . ." she couldn't do it. The words dissipated before they got past her teeth and her tongue felt hobbled. She stared in horror at Harry.
"He's an opportunist of the highest order, Hermione," Harry said. "He can tweak any situation to his benefit."
What had she gotten herself into?