After sealing their alliance with a handshake, Snape had escorted the three to a large country house that was furnished but appeared to be empty.
"Where are the owners?" Ron asked, looking around the main entrance hall where they stood. He eyed a large ornamental vase, and moved to pick it up to examine it closer when Hermione slapped his hand away.
"Out," Snape answered.
Harry glared at him suspiciously. "Out?" he asked.
"Yes, Mr. Potter, out. As in, not here."
"A step up from your family home," Hermione muttered softly to herself, but trained as a teacher as he was, Snape could hear the quietest of rebellious comments. He glared at her, but didn't deign to answer.
"You can change in there, Miss Granger," he said instead, motioning to a door off the main foyer. "I'm sure you'll want to get out of that ridiculous costume." His face twisted with a sick smile as his eyes raked up and down her disguise, from the fake blond hair to the short skirt to the precarious heels. Hermione blushed red, but scurried to the bathroom nonetheless. Turning to Harry and Ron, he pointed through to the drawing room. "You, sit in there and wait for me."
"Where are you going?" Harry asked. He didn't want to let Snape out of his sight. There was no telling what the man would do next.
"To get us some refreshments, Potter. If I'm going to discuss strategies with an arrogant, inexperienced, and irritating person such as you, then I insist on having some alcohol present."
Harry stepped forward, his hand on his wand. "I am not arrogant…"
Ron grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back. "Not now, Harry," he pleaded. Harry glanced back at Ron. He let go of his hold on his sleeve, but his eyes implored him to stop. When he turned back to Snape, he was smiling malevolently.
"You would be wise to listen to your friend. I'll be back. Wait for me here, or wait for me in there. I hardly care," he said before turning and leaving Harry and Ron in the hall. Harry clenched his fists, and forced himself to take slow calming breaths.
"He's just not as impressive without the robes," Ron remarked. Harry wheeled around and stared at his friend. "What?" Ron asked.
The absurdity of the comment combined with the idea that it was the billowing of his robes that made Snape scary made Harry erupt in laughter. His loud guffaws echoed off the marble of the floor, muffled only slightly by the tapestries that adorned the walls.
"You're mental, you know that?" Ron said.
Harry nodded but kept laughing as he followed his friend into the drawing room. He was mental. The stress of knowing that he had to find and destroy these Horcruxes before he could defeat Voldemort was wearing him thin. There were so many things that could wrong. Which is why they needed Snape, why he needed to control his temper around Snape. He would continue to push. And Harry would have to learn to not push back.
"Where did Professor Snape go?" Hermione asked, joining them. She was back to her normal self—bushy hair, a pink t-shirt, and some jeans.
"To get some refreshments," Ron said, putting his arm around her. "You look nice."
Hermione shook her head, but smiled at his compliment. "That's nice of him," she said cheerfully, overcompensating for Harry's rudeness, despite Snape's cruelty towards her.
Snape entered the room scowling and holding a tray with a bottle of wine and four glasses. Sitting down in the chair opposite Harry, he took one, filled it generously, and took a large swig before starting.
"Do we know how the Dark Lord created these Horcruxes?" he asked.
Harry didn't bother to ask how Snape even knew what a Horcrux was. He was so passionate about the Dark Arts that it was logical he would know something even as obscure as this. Although he briefly wondered if Snape had helped Voldemort create them, but then decided that he was too young and Voldemort was unlikely to have shared that particular information with anyone.
"No," Hermione answered, her brow furrowed. The lack of information surrounding the whole subject had been a never-ending source of frustration for someone so used to finding everything she needed in the library.
"It will be hard to destroy them without that information. You must know your enemy before you can defeat them," Snape said softly, sounding much like he did in class. He stood and began pacing the room. "How did you come to know of the Horcruxes in the first place? I can't imagine there are many books on the subject," he asked, coming to a stop in front of the fireplace, his hand resting on the mantle.
"From Professor Dumbledore," Harry said.
"But where did the Dark Lord learn of them. Certainly not from the headmaster," Snape said quietly, almost to himself.
"Slughorn. He asked Slughorn," Harry answered, reaching for a glass. He poured himself a glass of wine. He took a quick gulp and instantly regretted it, the sharp taste burning the back of his throat. Snape smirked, but didn't comment on his lack of experience with alcohol.
"We should talk to him," Ron suggested. Hermione and Snape both nodded.
"But what did you do for Dumbledore?" Harry asked. Other than kill him? he thought, putting his glass down.
"I brewed him a potion to draw out the Dark Magic that he took on when he destroyed the objects. I didn't realize what I was dealing with at the time. He didn't trust me with that information," Snape sneered, laying extra emphasis on the word trust. He seemed upset that the man who he had betrayed hadn't trusted him further than he did. Harry clenched his fists and bit his tongue to keep from replying, watching as he paced the room. His robes billowed up behind him, reminding Harry of Ron's earlier comment, and he had to suppress a snicker
"It only worked to a point. No doubt you noticed his hand. But if I have more information I can tailor the potion better."
"Can you start that while we question Slughorn?" Ron asked.
Snape nodded. "I can brew the base and make any alterations later, if you can provide with me any information."
"If?" Harry asked, incensed at the implied insult.
"Yes, Mr. Potter, if. Now unless there is anything else I think we should retire for the evening. There are beds upstairs. I would prefer you stay here. Too much coming and going will make the neighbors suspicious, especially since the owners are in Greece for the summer months." And with that, he swept from the room. All three heaved a sigh of relief and lay back on the couches, Ron with his arm around Hermione. For a moment they were silent, each processing the last twenty-four hours—the debacle in the pub, discussing strategy with Snape, staying in a strange Muggle's home. It was all too much. Ron let out the first laugh, and it wasn't long before the other two joined him. It wasn't that there was anything funny about the situation, because there really wasn't. But it was all so unlikely that it was indeed laughable.
Not for the first time, Harry was happy to have his two best friends at his side—two people who understood him, knew why he needed to laugh now, would know later on why he would cry. They sobered too quickly and with serious and intent looks on their faces, they made their way to bed.
Left to find their way upstairs, they crept through the darkened hallway, resisting the urge to turn on the lights, unsure of what the neighbors could and couldn't see. They were quite far from the nearest house but there was little in between in the way of tress and bushes and Hermione assured them that even a hallway light might carry, insisting that they use only their wands. Harry smirked at the face Ron gave him when she said this, but they followed her advice anyway.
The first three rooms they found appeared to be empty, and two of them had the advantage of being connected to each other. Ron had suggested that they stop looking after the second room, but once again, Hermione had taken charge and had ordered them on to Ron's great disappointment. He brightened up a bit when she pecked him on the cheek, bringing thoughts of Ginny to Harry's mind. But he pushed thoughts of kissing anyone, especially Ginny, out of his mind and focused on sleeping. He was going to need every ounce of energy to control his temper tomorrow around Snape.
Snape started the day early. In his mind, there was no reason to lie abed, especially when there were Dark Lords to defeat. Harry awoke to a loud clanging just outside his door. Bounding out of bed, he grabbed his wand, and poked his head out the door ready to fight. Instead, he found a smirking Snape who snapped at him to get dressed.
Hermione and Ron stuck their heads out their doors, but quickly shut them again in order to get dressed and ready. Counting to ten in his head, Harry renewed his promise not to kill Snape until after they had destroyed the Horcruxes. The four met downstairs in the kitchen to discuss their plan of action.
"You two will go to question Professor Slughorn. Miss Granger and I will remain behind to begin brewing the base of the potion we will need to save your life after you've destroyed the Horcrux. If you happen to gather any pertinent information then we can make adjustments to it later," Snape said in an imperious voice that irritated Harry.
"Who are you to give orders, Snape?" he asked. If anyone was in charge here, it was him. "You can stay behind and brew the potion. Hermione is coming with us."
"I am the adult in this situation, and I refuse to take orders from a Potter. Miss Granger will stay here with me," he said, reaching for Hermione's arm and gripping it tightly. She stumbled as he pulled her closer. Both Harry and Ron drew their wands.
"Let go of her, Snape," Ron said, trying hard to sound menacing but failing.
"You do not need her to question Slughorn. I require her assistance with a potion, and she will serve as insurance." Hermione's eyes darted from Snape back to Ron and Harry.
"Insurance?" Harry asked.
"That you won't run to your Auror friends," Snape said with a sneer.
"I'm standing right here," Hermione huffed, wrenching her arm from Snape's grasp. "And I'll thank you not to talk about me like I'm not. Now, he's right, Harry, you can question Slughorn on your own. You've done it before, you can do it again."
Snape wore a triumphant smirk, but she rounded onto him next. "And if we were going to turn you into the authorities we would have already done so. If this is going to work, then we have to trust each other."
Both Harry and Snape frowned. "Set aside our differences and recognize that we both have something to gain by working together?" she tried instead.
"Fine, but if he hurts you, and I mean even looks at you the wrong way, then we will go to the authorities," Harry said.
"Just get going," Hermione said, turning back to Snape. He ushered her into the makeshift lab he had set up in one of the back rooms, motioning to the ingredients lined up on the table next to a brass cauldron. All the furniture, antique it looked like to Hermione, had been shoved into the corners and along the walls. In the middle of the room sat a long table covered in bottles similar to the ones that had lined the walls of Snape's office. Not the ideal lab, especially if something were to go wrong, but it was the best they could do in the circumstances. For a man on the run, Hermione was impressed he had succeeded in getting together this much.
"This should do for now, but I might require you to go to Knockturn Alley to procure some of the more rarer ingredients depending on the information Slughorn provides us," Snape said.
Hermione gulped. Knockturn Alley? She hoped he wouldn't expect her to go alone. "Why?"
"I can hardly go myself, now can I?"
"Oh, right." He scowled at her as he handed her a Potions manual. It was thick, heavy, and definitely Dark. A cold shiver traveled down her spine as she took it in her hands.
"We'll be making the potion on page 238," Snape told her. She flipped to the page, disgusted to find a picture of a man writhing on the ground, a bright light protruding from his chest.
"This looks like a potion designed to sap the magic from a person," she said after scanning the ingredients.
"Very good. A pity I can't award points any longer."
"Not that you would anyway," she muttered under her breath.
"But why? Harry is going to need every bit of his magic to defeat Lord Vol—" Snape glared at her. "To defeat You-Know-Who," she finished.
"With a few minor adjustments it will drain only the Dark Magic—exactly what he will need after dealing with the Horcrux. It will still weaken him some, but he will recover," Snape explained.
"But Dumbledore didn't," Hermione said, remembering the headmaster's blackened hand.
"He was much older. His reaction and recovery times were much slower than before."
"That makes sense," she said. Snape quirked an eyebrow, not deigning to remark. He set out the ingredients they would need according to the text, handing Hermione a knife.
"Peel and cut these into cubes two centimeters across," he instructed her, pointing to a shrivelfig. She took it and started right away. "I'll decant the rose oil and prepare the belladonna. When that's ready you can begin brewing."
"Me?" she squeaked. He was the potions expert here, not her. Why would he entrust such a task to her?
"You will be brewing the potion, Miss Granger. I will only be supervising."
"But…" she said, pausing to wonder if she should continue. "Why?" she asked, deciding that her curiosity was enough to risk Snape's wrath.
"You do quite a good impression of a toddler," he answered. Hermione bit her lip and concentrated on cutting the shrivelfig.
A few moments later, he finally deigned to answer her question. "It must be brewed by someone who cares for the recipient. If I were to brew it your friend"—he said the word with as much malice as he could muster—"would die. You wouldn't want that, would you?" Hermione shook her head. It was all so fascinating. She chopped away, mulling it over in her mind.
"Who brewed it for Professor Dumbledore?" she asked a few moments later.
"I did." His answer was short and curt. He didn't look up from what he was doing.
"But you just said…" She stopped as he looked up, fixing on her a cold stare.
"Then why…I don't understand…," Hermione, stuttered, her knife hovering over the table.
"I did what had to be done." Hermione hesitated. Was it a good idea to pursue this line of questioning with a known murderer? But it sounded as though…as though there might have been a reason for it, something other than he had hated the headmaster.
"Harry told us about the Unbreakable Vow," she said softly. Snape put down his knife and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was the same pose he struck when faced with a particularly tiring student.
"Then you know it was my life or the headmaster's that night."
"I don't understand," she said. She had all the facts but they refused to coalesce together in her brain. The whole picture remained fuzzy and out of focus.
"Why did the Dark Lord want Draco to kill the headmaster?" Snape asked.
"He wouldn't have expected him to succeed so he must have expected Draco to fail and then he would be justified in killing him," she said.
"The Dark Lord doesn't need justification to do anything. And his father's failure to get the prophecy would have been more than enough. No, Miss Granger, think! Why would he send Draco to kill the headmaster? What would he gain from it?"
"He expected him to fail…."
"He…he expected Dumbledore to kill him!" Hermione said, the picture coming a little more into focus.
"Make no mistake, the Dark Lord is no fool. He knows that fear and terror will only take him so far, but if he had a Pureblood poster child around which to rally…Draco's death was meant to unite the Death Eaters and convince those who wavered to finally commit," Snape explained.
"But Professor Dumbledore never would have killed Draco!" Hermione exclaimed. It was unthinkable, especially when she thought of what Harry had told that the headmaster had offered him even as he threatened his life.
"No he wouldn't have."
"So why…?" She didn't dare voice the rest of that thought, averting her eyes from Snape's deadly gaze. She hoped she hadn't pushed him too far.
"Because no one would mourn my death. No one would erect a memorial to me. Tell me, how determined is Potter to defeat the Dark Lord now that the headmaster is gone?" She contemplated the question. Harry had always known that he would one day face Voldemort. Even before he knew about the prophecy, he had a certain determination, a fervor about it. But that night on the Astronomy tower had changed everything.
"I've never seen him so focused, sir."
"Then you see that it served both strategy as well as my own selfish desires for survival."
So straightforward and cunning, no wonder the man was in Slytherin. She tried to integrate the differing views she had of him—spy, teacher, murderer, ally—but none of it fit. He refused to be boxed in and understood. Giving up for the moment, she wondered how Harry and Ron were progressing on their current task.
She hoped their answers would leave them surer than the ones Snape had provided her.