If the choice were mine to make

Shadows of the past

It was a warm night in late September. Snape was sitting in his living room, the windows wide open, staring at a glass of dark red wine he had just poured himself. About an hour ago he had had a real breakthrough in his research. He wasn't certain yet if it'd work, but as soon as the potion that was now brewing in the laboratory would be finished he'd know for sure. A small smile played around his lips. Tomorrow he'd write to Hermione about it. He had used one of the approaches they had discussed at their last meeting, and it had worked out very well indeed. She'd be so excited…

He allowed his thoughts to linger on how she'd react when she got his letter. It would be nice to be there, to see her surprise and joy… But he called his thoughts back, knowing that he was venturing into dangerous territory there.

Snape took a sip of wine. He could ask her to meet him in London next week, to talk about his – their – breakthrough… There was still much work to do, though – which was good, because otherwise there would be no reason for them to keep up their correspondence, would there? He took another sip, his brow furrowing. He was surprisingly alarmed by that thought. Not for the first time he wondered how on earth he had become so attached to his former student. Yes, he should never forget that: his former student, much younger than he, who had not only been best friends with Potter but also terribly annoying.

Suddenly Snape felt a dull pain in his temples. He had hardly slept for the last few days, too preoccupied with his experiments. Perhaps he should switch to water instead of wine? With a flicker of his wand he conjured a glass and took a deep drought. It didn't help much, though, during the following minutes the pain in his head was getting worse. Snape rubbed at his temples, wondering if he should get a headache potion. But somehow it didn't seem so important.

Snape stared at his wand which he had pot on the table next to his armchair. There was something he wanted to do with it, wasn't there? Or something he wanted to get? He wasn't quite sure. His thoughts were drifting and he found it increasingly hard to focus on anything. There was only throbbing pain and a strange feeling of dissociation, as if he didn't really care. His vision was becoming blurred, too. But somehow this didn't worry him that much. Only at the edge of his consciousness was the nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. Snape shook his head, ignoring the pain, trying to think straight again. But it was so hard, so hard to focus, to even keep his eyes open. If he'd just go to sleep, perhaps then everything would get right again? Sleep would be really nice… His thoughts drifted off, but at the back of his mind there was an irritating voice which just wouldn't let him sleep. Think! An increasingly smaller part of his consciousness tried to tell him. Concentrate!

With a huge effort Snape hit his right hand hard against the table. The sudden pain woke him out of the strange haziness that had settled over him, and for a second he could think again. Suddenly adrenaline was cursing through his veins. Poison. It must be, nothing else could bring about such a state. He staggered up, swaying, the haziness washing over him again. He had to get to his laboratory, had to get a bezoar. How silly, Snape thought as the room was swirling around him and he frantically searched for the way out. How silly not to have one at me as I had in the old times. How silly to feel save.

Finally he found the door. Fortunately the laboratory was only two rooms away, but it was increasingly hard to see anything at all, to keep conscious. It seemed ages until he arrived at the door to the laboratory. Everything was swimming before his eyes and there was a strange sirring sound in his ears. At least he knew exactly where he kept the bezoar, on a large rack in the right corner of the room. Concentrating furiously, Snape lunged towards the shelf, his head now filled with panic. He mustn't lose consciousness before he found the bezoar, he just mustn't. Finally his hands made contact with the rack, but where was the stone? Snape was nearly blind now, groping around the shelves, trying to control his shaking hands which unintentionally knocked items off the cupboard. His breath was coming in ragged gulps and with the little part of his brain that could still think he was hoping fervently that the bezoar wasn't among the items he had knocked off. The sirring in his ears was getting louder and louder and suddenly his knees buckled. Frantically Snape held on to the cupboard, not able to keep himself upright any longer. From far away he suddenly heard the worried voice of his house elf but he couldn't understand what she was saying and when he tried to answer only incoherent mumbling came out of his mouth.

Snape wanted to sleep. What was he doing here anyway? All he wanted was to let go, to lie still on the floor and sink into the darkness that appeared more tempting with every second. Suddenly his groping hands hit upon a familiar shape, but he didn't know or care what it was any longer. He just wanted to sleep. But somehow his fingers didn't let go, and as he sank onto the floor a last spark of realization hit him and he shoved the stone into his mouth. Then all turned into darkness.

Hermione had decided to call it a day. The following morning she'd go home to her parents' to look after their house and Crookshanks while they were on holidays in France. Her bag was packed, her work finished and she was looking forward to a few lazy days of reading before the new term would start early in October. She was standing in her small bathroom, brushing her teeth, when she suddenly heard the familiar sound of someone apparating. Hermione whirled around to look through the open door into her room and saw a house-elf she had never seen before. It looked extremely distressed and its eyes were large with fear.

"Mistress," it said, and Hermione realized that it was female. "Are you Miss Hermione Granger?"

As Hermione quickly spat out the toothpaste a host of worried thoughts were chasing round her mind. A house elf apparating to her rooms in the middle of the night – whatever did this mean? Nothing good, probably. And she had thought that she had left all this behind. "I am," she told the elf, turning towards her, "but who are you? And what are you doing here?"

The elf's eyes lit up. "I am Rose, Mistress. Please, come with me, my master needs your help. Please."

Hermione furrowed her brow. "Who is your master?"

The elf didn't say a word, but her face twitched and she looked at Hermione imploringly. An inner fight seemed to be going on inside her, and she wrung her hands. "Please, Mistress…Rose…can't tell you, but please, come."

Hermione had a sudden idea. "Wait. Is it Snape? And did he forbid you to tell anyone that he is your master?"

Relief flickered across the house-elf's face. It seemed as if she was about to nod, but then her face contorted and she was shaking all over.

Hermione was pretty sure now that the elf belonged to Snape, and suddenly what she had been saying hit her. Something had happened to Snape, something very serious that made his house-elf disobey his orders. All of a sudden it felt as if a cold hand had gripped her heart. "All right," Hermione said, glad that her voice didn't betray how shaky she suddenly felt. She quickly grabbed a jacket and cast around for her shoes. Luckily she hadn't got undressed yet. "Tell me what happened."

The elf's face twitched even more. "Master's…not well…," she managed to press out.

Hermione realized that there was no use forcing the elf who was obviously under a strict order not to tell anything about Snape. "Can you take me to him?"

"Yes Mistress, just hold onto me."

Hermione got into her shoes, silently cursing herself that she hadn't got her wand yet. There had been a few times during the last months when she'd been very close to taking it with her to Cambridge, but she never had. Well, she'd have to do without it. When Hermione was finished she reached out for the elf, and as soon as she touched her she felt the familiar disapparation sensation.

They apparated in what appeared to be Snape's laboratory. A few feet away, he was lying on the floor in the middle of what looked like the spilt contents of a rack that was standing at the wall next to him. He was motionless.

Hermione quickly rushed towards him, her heart beating fast. She put her fingers to his throat, searching for a pulse, and after a few, horrible moments found it, very weak but steady.

"He's alive," she said and the elf, who was crouching next to her, made a few noises of happiness.

Hermione shook Snape lightly, then stronger, but nothing happened.

"Master won't wake up," Rose whispered, "I tried."

"What happened?" Hermione asked, her mind racing what to do now.

"Rose doesn't know. Rose heard odd noises, and when she entered the laboratory she saw master acting strangely, as if he was blind. And he couldn't speak anymore. And then he put a stone into his mouth and fell down."

A bezoar! Hermione thought. She quickly checked Snape's mouth and removed the stone. So he thought he had been poisoned. And really, that seems to be the only explanation.

"Is Dumbledore in his portrait?" she asked in an urgent voice.

The elf shook her head, looking troubled. "Rose wanted to ask him for help first, but he wasn't there. And then Rose remembered master's friend and thought that she might help."

Hermione was thinking fast. Snape didn't seem in immediate danger, but she really had no idea what was the matter with him. For all she knew he could suddenly die. "Did he eat or drink anything before that happened?" she asked.

Rose nodded. "Some wine."

Hermione's pulse quickened. "Where is it?"

"In the living room."

"Rose, please make sure that whatever remains there are of the things your master ate or drank today are secured. We will need them to determine what poisoned him. And then please get Dumbledore's portrait here, so we know when he comes back." Which will hopefully be quite soon, she thought fervently. When Rose had left, Hermione started to search Snape's robes. She had to make sure that he was in no immediate danger, and she could only do that with a wand.

She found it quickly, a long, slender wand made of some dark wood. Hermione hesitated for a moment, then spoke a spell that would tell her if Snape's vital signs were all right. She had learned several first aid spells before she had set out for the Horcrux hunt with Harry and Ron, and they came back into her mind as if she'd learned them just a week ago, not more than seven years.

The air above Snape's body started to glow in a bright orange colour, which meant that his metabolism was down, but that his status was stable. He looked disconcertingly still and vulnerable, lying on the bare floor. Quickly Hermione got out of the jacket she had pulled over her T-shirt and shoved it under his head. Then she cast a warming spell to keep him from the chill of the laboratory's cold floor. After that she performed two more diagnose spells and two spells to revive him, but he stayed unconscious.

Hermione was glad that she could concentrate on doing magic. Performing those spells kept her reasonably calm and helped her keep her thoughts away from what had happened to Snape. It was surprising how easily the magic returned to her, after such a long time and with a strange wand. And it felt…natural.

Rose had come back by then, carrying a large empty picture frame and glancing anxiously at her unconscious master. "He's not in danger at the moment," Hermione tried to sooth her, sounding calmer than she felt. "Could you magic him into his bed?"

The elf nodded and vanished together with Snape. Hermione took up her jacket again and wondered if she should go in search for his bedroom or just wait until Rose would come and get her. She looked around the laboratory curiously. It was well equipped and it was apparent that Snape spent much time there. A potion was brewing over a low fire and when Hermione went and had a look at it she found a parchment full of Snape's spidery writing.

Does this have anything to do with the anti-werewolf potion? She wondered as she scanned the parchment. She didn't understand everything, but was pretty sure that it had some connection to what they had discussed last time in London. Hermione bent over the mud brown potion, sniffing it cautiously. I suppose I should try and make sure that the potion isn't spoilt – Snape would be very annoyed when one of his experiments went awry because of something as trivial as him getting poisoned.

On a second parchment Snape had written

Brew for 59 hours

Add 2 ounces of pulverized amber every 4 hours,

and 5 drops of infusion 82d every 8.5 hours,

stir slowly anticlockwise for three minutes afterwards.

Hermione looked around and saw three clocks nearby, all of which were showing 2 hours and 8 minutes. She glanced at her watch. It was 23:37 now, so she guessed Snape had started brewing this potion at 21:29. One clock was to keep track of the time the potion had been brewing, and the other two clocks would be used to keep track of when to add the amber and the infusion. She would have to remember to come back here in 112 minutes.

After giving a last, curious look to the potion, Hermione turned towards a window nearby to look out and see if she could find out where she was. It was rather dark outside, the thin moon casting only scant light on the surroundings. When Hermione opened the window to have a better look she found that she was on the ground floor of what seemed to be a large stone cottage. As far as she could see there weren't any other buildings nearby. The house seemed to be surrounded by a large garden and there was a dark mass in the background which might be a forest.

Hermione closed the window again and left the laboratory, taking Dumbledore's still empty portrait with her. Rose should have had enough time now to set Snape up in his bed.

She had hardly left the laboratory when she met the elf who led her along the corridor and up a staircase to the first floor corridor and Snape's bedroom. It was rather bare, but surprisingly bright and friendly looking. Snape was lying on a narrow bed, wearing gray pajamas and covered with a blanket. Hermione quickly ran a further scan, but his condition hadn't changed.

"What's going on here? Miss Granger, what are you doing here?" Hermione turned around, feeling greatly relieved. Dumbledore had returned to his portrait and was now unsuccessfully trying to crane his painted neck to look at Snape.

"Professor, I'm so glad you're back," she said and then told Dumbledore what had happened. When she had finished he looked deeply troubled.

"I'm afraid there is only one way," he finally said. "We need to get Poppy."

Hermione nodded, but Rose gasped. "Please," she said trembling, "you mustn't tell anybody about master!"

Dumbledore looked at her with pity in his eyes and shook his head. "I know you only want to serve your master's wishes, but he is in great danger. Neither Miss Granger nor I can help him."

Rose looked at him, still obviously distressed.

"Don't worry," Dumbledore said gently, "I'll take the full responsibility. Your master will know that you didn't want to betray him and only followed my orders."

Rose still didn't look happy about it but finally nodded.

"Good," Dumbledore said. "Hermione? I'll leave now for Hogwarts and take Rose with me. Nobody can apparate to this house or the grounds without her help. Please stay here and look after Severus."

"Of course," Hermione replied and saw Dumbledore walk out of his portrait and Rose disappear. Then she was alone with Snape.

He looked surprisingly peaceful and somehow younger than usually. More vulnerable. You're switching into nurse-modus, Hermione thought with a wry smile as she sat down on a chair nearby, twirling his wand in her fingers. She still felt very worried, but Dumbledore's return and the knowledge that Poppy would be there soon had calmed her down considerably.

Her eyes switched from Snape's thin, pale face to his wand between her fingers. The first voluntary magic she'd done for over five years… And it had felt good, natural… Hermione sighed. She'd think about this when this was over, when Snape was conscious again. But what if he never woke up again? Her throat constricted and there was a strange ache in her breast. No, of course he would recover. Poppy was the best medi-witch she knew, she'd know what to do. And Snape had survived so much, he just wouldn't die now. But she had thought the same of Harry, hadn't she?...

Just to make sure Hermione ran the diagnostic scans once more, then started pacing around the room, waiting for Dumbledore to return. About 10 minutes later he reappeared in his portrait and Rose and Madame Pomfrey apparated a few seconds later.

Madame Pomfrey didn't seem surprised to see Hermione, so Dumbledore must have told her. She immediately went to Snape and ran a few, much more elaborate scans than Hermione had performed. Without turning her eyes away from him she asked Hermione what she had done and nodded approvingly when she told her. Then she started rummaging in the voluminous bag she had brought with her, took out a great bottle of what looked like strengthening potion, measured a small cup of it and gently instilled it into his mouth. After a few moments she had finished and turned towards them.

"You're right," she said, "he has been poisoned. Luckily he got hold of the bezoar, otherwise he'd be much worse affected."

"Do you know what it is?" Hermione asked anxiously. "And will he be ok?"

Madame Pomfrey gave her a searching look. "I have a suspicion," she replied, "but I'll have to run a few tests before I'm sure. If I'm right then, yes, he'll regain consciousness again." She turned to Rose. "Please show me to the laboratory and then bring everything your master ate or drank during the last twelve hours." She turned towards Hermione and pointed to the bottle. "This is a special strengthening potion. If I'm not back in 40 minutes, give him the same amount I gave him just now. And fetch me if his condition changes."

Hermione nodded and Madame Pomfrey left the room, leaving her staring down at Snape's still form.

"He will be fine again," Dumbledore's gentle voice woke her out of her reveries.

"I know," Hermione said with a slightly forced smile. "Do you have any idea who could have done this to him?"

Dumbledore shook his head, his face very serious. "I have a suspicion, but there are many people who hold some grudge against Severus… And it seems that one of them knows that he's still alive, and even worse knows how to get at him."

A sudden thought struck Hermione. "Is this house still safe?"

"I think so. Severus put some very powerful enchantments and wards around it and I checked, they are still in place. Nobody can enter here without his consent, or without Rose's help."

"And yet whoever it was managed to get the poison in here," Hermione said, not wholly convinced.

"That's true." Dumbledore sighed. "And as soon as Severus is awake again we will have to find out how this could happen." He paused, then said. "It was good of you to come."

Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "Of course I came. He's my friend."

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "I'm glad to hear that. How extraordinary."

Hermione smiled crookedly. "I know. Who would have thought that I'd ever say that."

"Who would have, indeed. But I am very glad."

Hermione didn't know what to answer to this. Now the excitement had abated a little she felt slightly uncomfortable in the former headmaster's presence. She had never been as close to him as Harry, and still didn't know how she felt about his behaviour during the war against Voldemort, about his way of manipulating them. She supposed that subconsciously she still held him responsible for Harry's and Ron's deaths, although she knew that he certainly hadn't wanted them to die. The few times she had seen Dumbledore's portrait since the Battle had been rather strained encounters. Hermione didn't really know what to say to him, how to behave around him, and so she just kept silent. Dumbledore didn't seem to mind, or if he did he didn't show it, and so the two of them just looked at Snape in silence.

About half an hour later Madame Pomfrey returned. "It's just what I suspected," she said after she had checked Snape again. "He was given the Memorate Potion."

"I see," Dumbledore said and Hermione drew in her breath. Only Rose, who had returned with the elder witch, looked bewildered.

"Please, mistress," she said to Madame Pomfrey, "what does that mean?"

Madame Pomfrey looked down on the distressed elf and her serious expression softened. "It is a potion that was used in former centuries to punish criminals. Whoever drinks the potion falls into a deep sleep in which he relives the most terrible moments of his life."

Rose stared at her, her large eyes wide with shock. "Will Master wake up again?"

Madame Pomfrey smiled at her reassuringly. "He was lucky. The duration of the unconsciousness depends on the strength of the potion and the amount swallowed. In earlier times it was made so strong that those who drank it never woke up, and finally died of hunger, dehydration and the stress of constantly reliving their worst memories. But whoever gave this to Severus didn't want him to die. The potion was not very strong, and it looks as if Severus only drank a bit of the poisoned wine. And he was lucky to get to the bezoar in time."

"So how long will it take?" Hermione asked.

"I'm not sure, but probably no more than 40 hours."

Hermione drew in her breath. 40 hours of reliving his worst memories seemed bad enough. But at least Snape would wake up again.

"He doesn't seem troubled right now," she said, glancing down at his still form.

"No," Madame Pomfrey replied, "it takes some time until the reaction sets in. But it definitely will, probably in about two hours." She looked at Hermione rather seriously. "I have to ask you to stay here and look after him. I have a severe case of Spattergroit at Hogwarts and I have to be with the student tonight."

Hermione felt rather worried but nodded. "Of course. What do I have to do?"

"There's really nothing much you can do," Madame Pomfrey replied. "Make sure that he doesn't hurt himself accidentally and that he drinks enough. You should also give him some of the strengthening potion every three hours. If anything changes or if he wakes up, send the elf to get me. And don't be worried. He will have some terrible hours, but he's been through worse, he'll live."

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