Chapter Fifteen

The days gradually grew shorter and the mornings and evenings cooler as summer stretched out. September 1, the day that had always marked the beginning of a new year at Hogwarts, came and went, and the school sat empty and desolate, echoes passing through the hallways of years past. Not much later, Hermione's birthday came and went, and she didn't even realize until two days after her birthday that she was eighteen.

Her friends looked at her, half-surprised they could have forgotten and half-surprised she had brought it up. By this point in their journey, they had traveled through several villages in Britain, keeping their profile as inconspicuous as possible. Their tired, dirty, sweat-stained faces gazed at her as they wished her a belated happy birthday. Hermione smiled slightly, both sad that they were in this state when they normally would have been sleeping comfortably in beds each night and grateful that she had such wonderful friends to have even taken the time to wish her well on her birthday, despite their current circumstances.

She kept in regular correspondence with Snape, receiving owls usually at night when the others had gone to sleep. She could always say the letter was from her parents, and while she felt bad having to lie to her closest friends, she knew that, in the long run, it would be worth it. Snape was risking a lot by helping them, and since she had agreed to keep in touch with him, she was not about to suddenly change her mind and break her promise.

Harry, Ron, and Ginny were impressed with Hermione when she told them the location of Hufflepuff's Cup, which was buried in the middle of Stonehenge, a very powerful magical place that would naturally offer much protection. The problem the foursome faced now, of course, was how to get past the barriers and destroy the horcrux.

Days seemed inconsequential. They came and went like flashes of lightning, and by now, autumn was in its prime, the days definitely chillier and the nights longer. Arriving one mid-October evening after the sun had already set at Stonehenge, the four young wizards and witches glanced about their surroundings, taking in every detail. As Harry had learned from his trip with Dumbledore to the cave to retrieve the locket, details were important. One never knew what to expect.

Holding their wands at the ready, they approached the first circle of megaliths, expecting a magical barrier to be erected that would prevent them from entering. But there was nothing. Harry, especially, was quite suspicious about this.

"Someone might have gotten here before us," he muttered.

"What makes you think that?" asked Ron, clearly worried.

"Surely you'd expect some sort of protection," insisted Harry. "Trust me, after having been to that cave a few months ago, I would know."

"No one's questioning your judgment, Harry," Ginny reassured him softly, placing a hand on his arm.

Nodding, Harry murmured, "I know. Just... be ready for anything."

Hermione felt butterflies whirling about frantically inside her stomach. What if Snape got here first and found a way to release the wards? Sure, that would be helping us, but we never agreed to him actually being present at the sites were the horcruxes are. If Harry sees him...

Too late.

Hermione was watching Harry as he trekked past the massive stones and into the center of the structure. He stopped, tensing, and when she managed to see his face, it hardened, and the grip on his wand became white-knuckled. He raised his wand and silently cast a spell.

Snape, who had raced behind a stone at the last minute, avoided being hit. Hermione wasn't sure what spell Harry had cast, but she wagered it had not been a nice one. She hoped he wouldn't be foolish enough to cast an Unforgivable. Before she realized what she was doing, Hermione dodged in front of the area where Snape was, shouting, "No!"

"Hermione, are you bloody mad?" barked Harry. "Get the hell out of there! That bloody bastard deserves nothing short of death after what he's done!"

Harry charged toward Snape, ignoring Hermione as she tried to push him back, but he was too strong. With all her strength and determination, Hermione sprinted toward the two wizards and positioned herself directly in front of Snape. She didn't have a chance to see the older man's face, but she heard his voice in her ear.

"Miss Granger, don't be foolish. Move out of the way before he hits you with something he intends for me."

"No," Hermione said, her teeth clenched. She was glaring at Harry, who was now just five feet away. He stopped, breathing heavily, glaring back at Hermione.

"What did you do to her, Snape?" Harry demanded. "Put her under the Imperius? Hermione, move!"

"I did no such thing, Potter!" snarled Snape. "She, unlike you, has some sense and brains."

There was a long pause. The tension was so thick, it could have been severed with a blade. Ron and Ginny stood off on the sidelines, their wands in their hands, but completely dumbfounded. Finally, it was Snape was spoke again.

He made to step around Hermione and said evenly, "Do what you have come to do, then, Potter."

Harry faltered. This was not what he had been expecting to hear. For a moment, he just stared back, but then, he raised his wand, intent on casting the Killing Curse.

"NO!" Hermione bellowed, roughly pushing herself in front of Snape again. "Harry, please!" She turned around briefly to Snape and literally grabbed his robes, shaking him. "What the hell is the matter with you? You would choose death over life? After all you've done?"

Snape locked eyes with Hermione, and even though in real time it had only been for a second, in the time of that shared moment, it could have been an eternity. All Hermione saw in those once black and cold eyes was desperation and emptiness. If she thought she had seen a man lost and without purpose several weeks ago, now she saw a man who wanted nothing more than to die.

"No," she whispered. "Please..."

Stupefied, Harry glowered at them, coming closer. "What is going on? Hermione, you aren't under the Imperius, are you?" It wasn't a question.

"No, Harry," she said quietly, afraid to look him in the eyes.

"You... you've been helping... him?" Harry asked, his voice cracking. He felt betrayed, like an icy hot dagger had pierced his insides.

All Hermione could do was nod.

"How long?"

"Since the Order meeting." Before Harry could say anything more, Hermione practically begged, "Harry, Snape has been helping us find the horcruxes. Please, you must listen to me. I'm sorry I went behind your back, but I knew you would have tried to kill him first thing if you knew. Remember what I tried to tell you at Grimmauld Place? He killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore's orders. He didn't want to do it, and now... now, can't you see? All he wants to do is die? Look at him, for heaven's sake!" she cried, pointed at Snape, who was at a loss for words. "Does this look like the face of a man who is cold-blooded? Harry, he's not Voldemort."

For the first time since the encounter, Harry noticed that Snape didn't even have his wand drawn. Harry had seen Snape's unpleasant face more times than he would have liked, but he had never seen him looking like he was already half-dead. Finally, Harry had some sense returning to him, and he lowered his wand.

"You could have taken me to him that night," Harry said to Snape, referring to the night of Dumbledore's death.

Snape's mouth went dry. He only inclined his head a fraction.

"So, is what Hermione says true?"

"Yes," Snape rasped.

Harry surveyed the henge, as if deep in thought, contemplating what to do next. "And I suppose you were the one who lowered the wards here? The one who lead us here in the first place?"

"Yes."

Harry wasn't pleased, but he wasn't ready to kill the other man, either. Hermione felt like Harry owed Snape an apology and a thank you, but that would have been far too much to ask, especially right in this moment. For Harry to have spared Snape's life was mercy enough to apologize and thank him a thousand times over.

"Let's get that cup, then," Harry said, turning away from Hermione and Snape and going back toward Ron and Ginny.

Once Harry had walked away, Snape was still in stock. He looked down at Hermione, blinking several times.

"You didn't have to do that," he murmured, his voice impassive but his eyes grateful.

"What? And let him just kill you? I don't think so, sir," Hermione replied. "Like I told you, after all you've done... to help us?"

"I am not sure I would have been half as noble as you had I been in your position, Miss Granger, but I thank you nonetheless."

Hermione smiled a little and placed a reassuring hand on Snape's lower left arm, where she knew the Dark Mark was. This time, Snape did not recoil. He allowed himself the small grace of smiling back, and Hermione felt a warmth invade her heart when she saw that smile.

"You should smile more often," she said simply. "It becomes you nicely."

"I haven't had much reason to smile," Snape replied sullenly, the smile slipping. "Until now," he amended, allowing its brief return.

"Come," Hermione invited.

Snape followed Hermione to the others, not knowing what might be down the road. As they uncovered the cup, Snape knew it was another step in the right direction. He thought about the direction his life had taken these past few months and realized in one startling thought that the path he had chosen was the right one, for once. Harry, too, finally felt that they were going the right direction in their quest. One step closer. One day at the time. Life grants us just the right amount of time to do what we must. It is left up to us to use it wisely.

"Where do I go from here?" Snape whispered later that night, not knowing that Harry was asking the same question.

The answer felt so much the surer than it had months before. Perhaps there was no definite answer, but the answer was to venture forth together, and together was a lot better than alone.

The End

Author's Notes: Many thanks to all my readers and reviewers! big hugs There will be a sequel, yes! It's called Hollowed and Hallowed, will pick up after the final battle, and will be SS/HG (Snape/Hermione).