Author's Notes: Thanks to t_geyer for finding my mistakes, for encouragement, opinions and all the rest, especially putting up with me for so very long.
Thanks also to Bambu, who started out by skimming through these and offering reassurance. Her feedback has become one of the things that keep me plugging away at this.
Finally, I need to thank alwaysJBJ for nagging me on Yahoo.
The characters will never be mine, but JKR hasn't sued me for playing with them (so far).
Unsurprisingly, this is not Deathly Hallows compliant.
Hermione ignored the faint warmth on her wrist until it deepened into something far more insistent. She dithered over whether she should disassemble her camp, but eventually decided against it.
"Damn you, Severus!" she muttered. "Couldn't you wait a bit longer?"
It had been over a week since she had seen either Viktor or Severus. Every night she convinced herself she had come to a decision and would put it into action the following morning. Every morning her misgivings led her to ponder the matter further."
His watch fob guided her to him.
"You better be at death's door, Snape!"
The gravity of his expression froze any further complaint on her lips.
"Not I." Severus passed her a copy of that morning's Daily Prophet. The front page headline read, 'KRUM FOUND DEAD IN MINISTRY!'
"But he can't be. He just can't..."
"Hermione, inaccurate as The Prophet may often be, I doubt they would print a story of this magnitude without checking their facts."
"But it was just meant to be a routine appointment. It doesn't make any sense. He wasn't a threat to anyone." Phrases leapt out at her from the report: 'no visible injuries', 'near Auror Headquarters', 'Level Two'.
"A routine appointment with whom?" Severus asked softly.
"I don't know. It was supposedly a formality. He had to take some paperwork to the International Magical Co-operation people, proof of employment or something... to prove he didn't take a job to get in the country and then get himself sacked the minute he got here."
"I think there are wizards in Australia who could tell you he was gainfully employed. It seems bizarre that the Ministry is demanding proof."
"It's just something he has to do for his visa," Hermione replied crossly, "but International Magical Co-operation is on Level Five."
Severus stepped forward and tentatively put a hand on each of Hermione's shoulders. "It's him."
Hermione shook her head, her long plait whipping from side to side. "No, it can't be. It just can't."
"If you give me a few days, I can probably find out what happened," Severus offered.
"Nothing happened. It says there wasn't a mark. That means the Killing Curse, and that means Death Eaters, and they'd want to turn him, not kill him. It doesn't make sense."
"The Killing Curse isn't the only thing to produce that effect," Severus answered, as he drew her in close.
"Breaking an Unbreakable Vow produces identical results."
Hermione pushed away from Severus as if she'd been slapped. "You're saying Viktor betrayed me?" she demanded.
"I'm saying he may have been forced into a situation where his best option was to activate the Vow," Severus corrected.
"You're saying the Vow killed him?"
"As you pointed out, Krum would be more valuable to The Dark Lord Imperiused."
"So I killed him?" Hermione whispered.
Severus shook her roughly. "If... If the Vow did the damage, the blame lies with Potter and Weasley. It wasn't your idea." He took her in his arms again.
"I could have stopped them," Hermione whimpered against Severus's chest.
"Could you?" Severus asked. "Really? They didn't let you in on their plans in advance. They didn't give you time to investigate alternatives or formulate arguments. I can only conclude that they both judged you to have too great an emotional involvement and therefore excluded you deliberately from the decision-making process. Even if you had presented a viable alternative, they simply would have refused to consider it."
"I could have gone with him. They wouldn't have tried anything if he'd been with someone."
"Or they may have killed you both."
"Personally, I'm grateful you were elsewhere. That may make me selfish, even unfeeling, but I prefer my life with you in it."
Hermione drew in a shuddering breath, and her tears began to fall. "Why, Severus? Why him?" she sobbed, as Severus guided her toward the sofa where he settled her on his lap.
"I don't know, dearest, not yet, but I will find out. Give me a few days."
She looked up at him through tear-matted lashes. "Tell me you didn't know anything until you saw The Prophet."
"I didn't. I had no motive. You're in love with me."
"Viktor gave up so much."
"And that is why it was taking you so long to come to terms with what you knew you would eventually do," Severus soothed. "You wanted to love him as he loved you. You wanted to, but you didn't. You don't. You love someone else and you are too much the Gryffindor to deprive Krum of the opportunity to find someone who loved him as he deserved."
"And someone else?" Hermione enquired.
"Someone else cares for you enough to wait until you're sure he's who you want."
"Because you know I'll choose you?"
"I should go," Hermione whispered without taking her head from Severus's shoulder.
"Shh." Severus brushed a brotherly kiss to her temple. "Let me take care of you. It's time I repaid the favour."
"I should go back to the cottage. I need to find out what's happening with Viktor. I don't know if anyone's contacted his parents or who should be arranging the funeral. I don't even know how far in advance the rent is paid."
"Do it tomorrow. Turn back the whole day if you must."
"I can't." Hermione's tears began anew, drawing Severus's attention to her missing locket.
Severus didn't waste time asking about the Time-Turner. All that mattered was that it was gone, and if Hermione didn't make a public appearance soon, suspicion, real or fabricated, might fall in her direction.
He wiped at her tears and helped her to her feet. "If I could help you I would, but we both know that's impossible. Go to Molly. She'll guide you through the formalities. See you are never questioned alone. Molly can enlist legal representation for you if need be."
After he left her in the secluded orchard, the bracelet on Hermione's wrist began radiating reassuring warmth.