He told himself she wasn't his responsibility.

Sadly, habit did not agree. That, and the sure knowledge that Minerva was certain to blame him for this little contretemps. The old cat was a right hag when angry, and he had no desire to spend the rest of his life as a teacup.

His apprentice had actually had the gall to order him to chase after Miss Granger before Potter's little friend did something Severus Snape would regret. Not that he would. Regret it. It was none of his business if she chose to run back to Muggleville.

Unfortunately, he had recognized the look on the overly-wanded, bogle-infested Goblin Queen. No doubt she planned to nag him senseless until he gave in out of sheer desperation. Or hexed her morning pumpkin juice. Regrettably, there were certain immutable laws that protected apprentices. Even the annoying ones. He would have to take his revenge later.

Once he had assessed the safety issues involved.

By now, his missing Gryffindor would have discovered the safeguards the Ministry had instituted for the protection of the walking wounded. Charming his wand to find one wayward child was easy enough. Deciding the best way to approach a battle-fatigued witch would be something else.

He finally found her sitting on a remote bench, next to the lake.

She must have sensed his approach.

"The Aurors wouldn't let me leave,"she said resentfully, without turning her head.

For once he agreed with the Ministry.

"Snapping your wand would have been more impressive had you snapped your back-up as well,"he said conversationally.

Then he dropped the pieces of her murdered wand in her lap.

He waited for the guilty flush. The embarrassed drop of the eyes as the enormity of what she had done made itself known. Instead, he found himself frowning when she fingered the jagged edges of her wand, then folded her hands in her lap.

"I don't have one,"she said finally.

Anger crept into his veins, a familiar sting when it came to this particular student.

Of course she didn't.

"You ran around chasing horcruxes with traceable wands?"

Her head jerked around, temper flaring in defense. "What else were we supposed to do? Anyone willing to sell one to us, would have been willing to sell us too. No one ever thought to show us how to make our own."

You should have stayed where you were supposed to, he wanted to shout. You should have trusted us to protect you.

But he didn't.

Plans had been made of course. But in retrospect, Severus was beginning to wonder whether those plans had been designed to save the children, or to deliver Potter to the final sacrificial moment. It was a bitter thought and it tasted no better now than the first time he realized Albus had always known the boy would have to die.

Potter had claimed victory over Dumbledore when he broke the man to his will in that cave. The old wizard had surrendered his life into Potter's hands and that would have been enough for the Elder Wand. Severus had thought...

No.

Severus had been deliberately led to believe that had been the plan all along. That there was a way to exorcise Riddle's soul from Potter's scar without harming the boy. Then, with the Elder Wand in his possession, Potter could have defeated the Dark Lord and lived happily ever after. Lily's legacy would have lived on, and all debts would have been paid.

Instead, brief seconds of Legilimency on a besieged tower had revealed that the old man had lied. Dumbledore taken back control by disarming Potter and then he deliberately passed control to an unknowing Draco. That was when Severus had known, and it had been far too late to do anything about it.

The hate had been very real, when he cast the final curse.

Severus wondered if Dumbledore had considered it a kindness, his intent to send Severus to his death thinking his honour had been redeemed. After all, if Potter and his friends hadn't been so blasted unpredictable - so incomprehensibly Muggle in their thinking - without those revealing seconds on the Astronomy Tower, Severus would have died never knowing he had failed.

Without a way to remove Voldemort's soul from Potter's body, the boy could never be permitted to gain control of the Elder Wand. No matter who died first, Riddle would take possession in the end. Either with his own hand, or Potter's. So if it was a risk Dumbledore never intended to take, then Potter had never been meant to win.

Instead, he'd been the stalking horse. The visible enemy. The feint, the pawn, the misdirection. In short, all his pain and fear and effort had been intended to do nothing more than distract Voldemort from the traitor in his midst. Inevitably, however, he would die, because when all the horcruxes were gone, Severus himself would have no choice but to kill him.

Not if there was any chance of Voldemort gaining possession of Potter's undamaged soul.

The cycle of horcrux creation could not be allowed to begin again.

"Did it never occur to you, that you weren't supposed to go haring off on your own?" he asked irritably.

He waited for the outrage, the furious protests of destiny and competence. The overweening Gryffindor pride he would have taken pleasure in puncturing.

"We still thought we were supposed to win the war," she said bitterly. "We thought that was what we were supposed to do."

Something inside went cold at that clear-voiced statement. It was familiar, the chill emptiness he heard. The gray certainty that comes with being used. Willingly perhaps, but used nonetheless.

"But it wasn't our job, was it? It was yours."

Bloody Gryffindor hardly sounded impressed by the conclusion. Well, why would she? It had only been his life and soul on the line. Nothing anybody would miss.

"It never made sense to me," she continued," that Dumbledore meant to send Harry after the horcruxes. Chosen One or not, none of us had the right training for that sort of thing. Not to fight Death Eaters."

Oh, but that look of clarity was familiar, too.

He'd seen it in the mirror often enough.

"You weren't supposed to have to fight Death Eaters,"he said shortly.

Training them would simply have encouraged them to go looking for battles they couldn't win.

"Shall I tell you what I learned at Hogwarts instead?"she asked, sounding almost as disillusioned as he had expected her to be.

He resisted the urge to sigh.

"My first year, "she said carefully,"I learned that people wanted me dead, simply because I was Muggleborn."

It was such an obvious conclusion he wondered why she thought it all that important.

"I thought someone had locked the troll in with me on purpose. I was running for the door, and it slammed shut, and I heard someone turn the key."

Her eyes were bleak when she looked at him. The knowledge that he of all people should have understood the fear, the rage, and the helplessness of being deliberately trapped with a monster was there in her eyes.

So was disappointment.

"I was twelve years old and I going to die because no one liked me, and someone hated me enough to kill me. Because I was alone and no one was coming to help me. Because I was Muggleborn. Because Voldemort had gathered up the scared and the stupid and told them it was okay to hate me and my parents, if it made them feel better about themselves."

Then she smiled a strange little smile and whispered.

"Which were you, Snape? Scared or stupid?"

The pain slipped effortlessly beneath his defenses. With the echos of her terror and helpless fury seething around her, he remembered long ago nightmares. Terror-filled nights when he woke sweat-soaked and crying, still hearing sharp claws as they tore through wood, and feeling the hot breath of a werewolf across the back of his neck.

"Did you know about the basilisk as well?"

He closed his eyes. More sins come home to roost. Not his alone, but he had been complicit.

"It was...one of several possibilities,"he said curtly, she of all people was owed this much honesty."Once we knew the Chamber had been opened."

Potter hadn't been the first to question Moaning Myrtle. The Ministry had simply been uninterested in pursuing the truth, when Hagrid had been so convenient. But Headmaster Dippett had questioned her. So had the Aurors. And Acromantulas didn't have glowing eyes.

"So, in First Year the Headmaster used the Philosopher's Stone to test Harry and...?"

"...draw Voldemort out of hiding,"Severus finished grimly, giving her the answer she already knew.

The window of opportunity had been so narrow. Lily's protection. Their control over the boy. Once he matured, once he left Hogwarts, their ability to manipulate events would become limited. It had been a risk they both had deemed worthy.

"And in Second Year he didn't send us home because...?"

Severus sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose."...because if we closed the school, there was no guarantee we'd get it open again. Not quickly. If we lost control of the school, we lost control of Potter. Not only couldn't we protect him, we risked..." he cut himself off sharply.

"You risked him not caring enough to die for you,"Miss Granger said softly.

Yes.

That.

"In my own defense, I didn't know that was part of the plan,"Severus said finally.

"Would you have chosen differently, if you had known?"

Fuck.

"Probably not,"he snapped.

She nodded, and he wanted to do something suitably violent to take that knowing expression off her face.

"Lucius Malfoy threatened my parents that year,"she said unexpectedly. "In broad daylight. With witnesses. I told Dumbledore and he said that anyone connected with Harry was being protected. I don't think he meant it as a threat. It didn't really matter though, did it? He couldn't protect any of us."

Belatedly, he remembered that was the year she got herself Petrified. Somehow, over the years, it had been easy to forget that the only reason no one had died, was sheer dumb luck. Or, perhaps, in Miss Granger's case, a bit of quick-thinking.

He suspected she remembered all too well.

"Is that why you brewed the Polyjuice for Potter?"he asked abruptly, a random memory from his Occlumency lessons with Potter suddenly taking on new significance. Miss Granger's hair had snapped with traceries of blue fire and Potter's immediate reaction had been one of willing trust and trepidation.

She turned her head and gave him a steady look." No. I brewed the Polyjuice because someone was trying to kill Muggleborns and no one else seemed to be doing anything useful about it."

He stayed silent, experience and instinct humming to life. Belatedly. Seven years of memories, memories he had tagged and filed with the confidence of a trained Legilimens crashed down around his feet, leaving certainty and assumptions upended and jumbled.

He looked at her absurdly young face and wondered these memories mattered. Her days of being the brains behind Potter's impulsive adventures were over. Voldemort was dead, and life went on. So why oh why were Slytherin instincts screaming to duck and cover?

What did it matter if her motives had been more than the absurd loyalty of a lonely, socially isolated witch? Even Albus had just sighed and shaken his head at how easily the normally rule-abiding, rule-defending Miss Granger got dragged into misadventure by her devotion to her friends. In all other circumstances the child had been neurotic about her lists and schedules and attempts to control the world around her.

A dangerous, chaotic world which hid a deadly face behind public affability and Ministerial corruption. A world where she had few friends and an outsider's understanding of the Ministry. A world that refused to deal with her on terms she could accept, a world that laughed at her desire for excellence, and threatened her parents.

Oh, hell on ice-skates.

"Why did you try to free the House Elves, Miss Granger?" he asked grimly.

And hoped her reasons had been as foolish and as innocent as he remembered.

They had assumed it had been the typical act of a rash, young Gryffindor. He had respected the courage of her convictions, been irritated by her arrogant assumption she had the right to force the elves unprepared into freedom, and despised the lack of thought and planning that went into her plan. All that research and the reality of the elves magical bondage had completely escaped her.

Or so he had assumed.

She grimaced.

"Miss Granger?"he demanded.

She turned her head back to the lake and shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

"Motive always matters."

Looked at objectively, there wasn't much difference between the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters unless one considered motive. Both were ruled by charismatic, powerful wizards, both operated outside the law, and both were committed to do anything, anything at all, to achieve their objective.

Both demanded the time, money, and unquestioning loyalty of their members, both considered themselves the true defender of the Wizarding World, and had any of the Phoenix been revealed as traitors, Severus had no doubt his orders would have been the same as those he had carried out in other service.

Motive was the only thing that mattered.

"It didn't work,"she said sharply.

The old irritation returned. "Surely you didn't think the elves would flock to your cause. That drunken wreck of Crouch's should have told you that."

Something flashed across her face. Annoyance, or perhaps frustration. It occurred to him that combined with her experience with the Time Turner, Miss Granger had learned more than one lesson about biting off more than she could chew that year.

Only instead of looking suitably embarrassed, she tilted her head and regarded him with a look that he belatedly recognized. Clear-eyed, considering, and ruthless. Dumbledore had worn it a lot, when he had looked at Severus.

"It was something my father said once, when I tried to warn him about Malfoy,"she said finally. "That he was just as vulnerable as any other slave owner and his sort of wealth made him a fool. Then he told me time would take care of people like him as long as people like me stood up for what I believed in."

She threw the words at him defiantly, like a challenge.

"I thought people would care,"she said."I had even hoped we could make changes legally,but no one cared. Not even the Gryffindors."

Oh...he would bet a few had cared.

"House Elves are considered a Pureblood privilege, you foolish girl. It was a dangerous time to make that sort of statement. Their parents would have known that, even if your fellow students did not."

She smiled oddly,"Yes."

He closed his eyes briefly and resisted the urge to curse.

"I had hoped there would be more like Dobby – once they heard about what I was doing."she said with a sigh.

Surely she understood by now that Dobby was not the radical she had assumed him? The elf hadn't chosen freedom, he'd simply chosen a different sort of service. The elf had worshipped Potter. He'd have bound himself to him in a heartbeat if the boy had ever asked. He hadn't wanted freedom for himself. He'd just wanted the freedom to follow his chosen master.

"I needed a handful of loyal converts to act as examples and form the core of an underground railroad. Perhaps even act as spies for the Order. That would guarantee that Dumbledore would take them in. His approval, and a noble cause to serve..."

He blinked, startled.

"You thought they would spy for us?"he asked, a bit dumbfounded he hadn't even considered the possibility.

"I thought they'd choose to serve Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter,"she said with a shrug. "That's what they really want isn't it, a chance to serve? As long as they were serving us, they weren't serving people like the Malfoys."

He considered his next words with care. "Don't take this the wrong way, Miss Granger, but that's a very Pureblood sentiment. In fact, it's the sort of reasoning that got the House Elves magically bound in the first place."

She met his assessing gaze and did not smile. "I know."

Yes.

Of course she did.

"You set out to insult Lucius Malfoy? Publicly?"

Regret flickered in her eyes, but he didn't think it was regret for the foolishness of her actions. Yea gods. Crossing wands with Lucius Malfoy when she was all of fourteen. Thank Merlin the man had never noticed. Then his blood chilled as she continued to stare at him, as if waiting for him to get the punchline of a much delayed joke.

She tilted her head. "Did you know that 85% of the Malfoy wealth derives from House Elf labour? The elves aren't just a symbol of their wealth – they are the wealth."

"Malfoy's holdings are so diverse I doubt even he knows half of what he owns,"Severus said flatly.

"Orchards, wineries, mills,"she murmured, ticking them off on her fingers."Several cottage industries ranging from textiles to binderies. All serving the magical community and most of them relying heavily on elf labour to remain competitive. Remove the elves – or require him to pay them competitive salaries – and his financial empire collapses."

Severus stared at her, open-mouthed and wordless.

"I didn't intend to insult him,"she said, a hint of steel and ice creeping into her voice."I planned to destroy him."

Then her mouth twisted with self-deprecation.

"The insult was just a bonus."