Standard disclaimer applies.
Severus flew across the grounds, heedless of the cold and the snow that was falling heavily around him. The gates were a dark blur far below him, and he was grateful for the Disillusionment Charm he'd cast before leaving his tower when he executed a clumsy landing, slipping on the snowy earth and nearly falling flat on his arse. Steadying himself, he murmured, "Homenum revelio," and saw a brief flash of blue light just outside the scrolled ironwork, accompanied by a faint, corresponding tingle in his wand hand. He canceled the Disillusionment spell and stepped forward, tapping the gates with his wand to open them.
Were it not for her footprints in the snow, Severus would not have known Hermione had entered the grounds until she brushed against his arm, sending a flare of warmth through his entire body. "Follow me, and keep close," he said, voice low. "If we are seen, remain perfectly still-let no sound betray your presence. And do not remove that cloak until we are in the privacy of my quarters."
"Of course," she whispered back, her tone a mixture of exhaustion and how-stupid-do-you-think-I-am.
He listened to the crunch of her footfalls behind him as he made his way back to the castle. Anxiety made his mouth taste of bile-this was folly, this was madness, what was he thinking to allow her in the castle?-but they made it to the moving staircase without incident, and Severus could feel Hermione as a warm presence one step below him for the entire, interminable ride to his office. Inside, the portraits were awake and curious, having witnessed his departure through the window, the first broom-less flight he had taken since the Dark Lord imbued him with the power many months earlier. Severus ignored them, keeping his face turned pointedly away from Albus. He held the door to his sitting room open behind him until he felt the sweep of fabric against his body as she edged past; once he'd closed and warded it, he remained staring at the heavy wood for several breaths before he gathered the courage to turn and face her, his heart beating with such ferocity in his chest that he was certain she must be able to hear it.
She had dropped Potter's Invisibility Cloak and stood with her wand clutched in one fist and an indefinable expression on her face. She looked exhausted and unhealthy, shadows in the deep hollows of her cheeks and under her eyes, her hair wild and tangled and brittle. Severus stared at her, suddenly incapable of breathing. She truly was here. It seemed impossible; a dream. So many months, and now she was here, and he, Severus, was utterly incapable of forming an intelligent thought, much less speaking.
Hermione shifted. "I-ah-Happy Christmas," she said, and then put her hands over her face. "Oh my God" -an edge of hysteria in her voice- "what a stupid thing to say."
"I cannot-" Severus cleared his throat. "I cannot think of anything more appropriate, myself."
She let her hands drop away from her face, but did not quite meet his eyes. There were damp tracks on her cheeks. Severus resisted the urge to wipe them away with his thumbs.
"I guess-I guess, 'I'm happy to see you' works, too," she said, but her voice went up at the end, turning the words into a question.
Severus felt his face burn, and was glad she was not looking directly at him. The words nearly stuck in his throat, a ridiculous nervousness overcoming him, but he forced them out. "I am very happy to see you," he said.
Now she did look at him, her expression one of undisguised hope. "Really? I wasn't sure you'd let me in."
"I probably should not have. I nearly did not. It is… lunacy." With two other Death Eaters on staff, Albus' portrait a closed door away from them, and no way of predicting when the Dark Lord might choose to make an impromptu visit… He had not come to Hogwarts since the night before classes began, nor had he required Severus' presence at his side. Knowing how important the students' indoctrination was to the Dark Lord, Severus was unsurprised that he was allowing his one-time spy to focus his energies on running the school. But it would be Sod's Law that he would visit tonight of all nights.
Severus looked at her. "You said you needed my help."
"Oh," she breathed, looking like she might start crying again. She swiped at her eyes with the back of one hand. "Sorry. I… it's just…"
He took an involuntary step forward, one hand outstretched-to do what, he didn't know-and then somehow she was against him, her fingers pressing into the flesh of his sides, her nose bumping against his chest, and she was weeping, her body shaking with the force of it. For a helpless moment Severus stood frozen, and then, tentatively, he wrapped his arms around her back and buried his face in her hair. Her hair smelled… unclean, somehow, and even through her layers of clothing he could tell that she was far too thin.
"Calm down," he murmured into the top of her head. "Calm down. I-I'm here."
Hermione hitched a sob, gasping into his armpit, and Severus felt the sudden, utterly inappropriate stirring of an erection. Mortified, he jerked back from her, desperate to put distance between their bodies before she noticed, then tried to cover the movement by ushering her towards the settee. "Sit down," he said, and sat at the opposite end, crossing one leg over the other, feeling unhinged.
Hermione looked down at her hands, fingers laced tightly together in her lap. She appeared at once vulnerable and hardened, childish and far too old, and Severus felt hopelessly out of his depth.
"Tea," he snapped, and moments later a tray with tea and biscuits appeared on the table before them. Severus busied himself pouring out two cups. "Milk? Sugar?" he asked, glancing at Hermione, who was looking at him as though the scene felt as surreal to her as it did to him.
"Please," she managed, and when he handed her the cup she wrapped her palms around it, trying to warm them. Severus passed the plate of biscuits to her and watched as she snatched one up; it was gone within seconds, and she had already bitten into another before she seemed to recollect herself, her cheeks burning.
"Sorry," she said, not meeting his eyes. "I-we-haven't had a great deal to eat."
Something seized in Severus' chest, and he swallowed hard, uncertain what to say. Finally, when the silence between them had stretched uncomfortably taut, he managed the obvious question, his tone rougher than he intended.
"What has happened?"
Hermione exhaled a breath, staring into her tea cup. It was bone china, she noticed, far more delicate than anything she'd have imagined Severus choosing. It must have been Dumbledore's. Or maybe this was just what Hogwarts' teachers were always given; the student mugs, of course, were made of sturdier stuff. She'd had only a brief glimpse of his office on their way through to his quarters, but it was clear he had changed a great deal. In here… Hermione raised her head, looking around. She'd only been in this room once before, for that Order meeting when she and Severus had sat, sides pressed together, on this very settee, but she could tell he had made changes here, as well. There were no gaudy ornaments, and she was fairly certain the upholstery had been yellow rather than navy. She flicked a glance at Severus, who was watching her with obvious impatience.
"Um." Where to begin? Now that she had to explain herself, Hermione felt that any explanation must be inadequate. What was she thinking, coming here? "I was afraid. Freaking out. I wanted to be near you." Right. And she'd left Harry Potter alone and injured and come to a school controlled by Death Eaters. That was brilliant.
Severus took a sip from his cup, watching her over the rim. Hermione licked her lips.
"I-we need potions," she said. She dropped her eyes to her lap. Her fingers were shaking against the cup. "I used the last of our Dittany on Harry. The last bezoar, too. And, um. It seems like we shouldn't be without healing potions. We've already needed them a few times. And obviously I can't go to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley-"
Hermione subsided; there was an edge to his voice that she couldn't read. There was a long silence, awkwardly long, and she felt panic lapping about her heart.
Finally, he asked, "So, you are here for… potions." She nodded, cheeks flushing as he watched her. "Because you used yours up." She nodded again. "How?"
"The snake," Hermione said. She stared into the fire. "It bit Harry, nearly got me..."
A strangled sound came from Severus' throat, and she glanced at him.
"He's okay," she said quickly. "I mean, it was a near thing, but luckily I had-I had a bezoar and… We went to Godric's Hollow." Severus opened his mouth, expression thunderous, and she shook her head to forestall his censure. "I know, I know it was stupid, but you've no idea-" Her voice was pleading, but she didn't care- "we didn't know what else to do. And it's my fault, of course Harry wanted to go there, and I'm glad he got to see his parents' graves and-but I shouldn't ever have agreed. I let myself believe we might find answers there, that Dumbledore might have… but we didn't, and now Harry's wand is broken and I used up our medical supplies and I just-I just don't know what to do. I don't know what to do."
Severus was staring at her, his mouth slightly open. Hermione looked at him-his hair was longer, the unkempt tips of it brushing his chest, and his face seemed more deeply lined than she remembered. For the first time since he'd appeared before her at the gates, she took in his state of dress-or rather, of undress. Apparently he'd thought to put boots on, at least, before coming down to the grounds to collect her, but he hadn't taken the time to change out of his nightclothes. Hermione felt warmed by this, in a way she tried not to dwell on, just as she tried not to stare at the hem of the threadbare nightshirt peeking from beneath his dressing gown, or the pale triangle of naked chest that was visible about the gown's overlapping collar. She flushed and lowered her eyes; his calves were thin and hairy. When she glanced back at his face, it was burning red, and he crossed one leg over the other as though he'd been reading her thoughts.
Hermione was seized by a desperate desire to kiss him again, a true kiss this time. To plunder that incredible mind of his so that together they could figure out the location of the bloody Horcruxes. She wanted to lie naked, pressed against Severus in the aftermath of their lovemaking, and to fall asleep that way, tangled together, in the middle of a whispered conversation.
She wanted, she wanted, she wanted.
"Why-why did you stop talking to me?" she whispered.
Severus started. "I have not-"
"You have. I mean, you still respond to my messages sometimes, but it's not… not like it was. Not like it matters."
He held himself stiffly. "It matters," he said.
Hermione's breath stuttered. "Then why?"
"I have had a great deal to do," he said. Hermione opened her mouth, but he cut her off, watching his hands as they turned his teacup around and around. "As," he said, his tone casual, "have you."
Hermione's eyes narrowed. What did he-? But abruptly, Severus set his cup down and rose to his feet.
"Are Misters Potter and Weasley aware of your whereabouts?" he asked.
Startled, Hermione said, "Then you don't know." She closed her eyes in a brief, silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity might be listening. It wasn't a sure thing, of course, but if Severus hadn't heard that Ron was dead, it was likely the berk was still alive, somewhere.
"Know what?" Severus asked. Hermione opened her eyes to find him scowling at her.
"Ron left us," she said, tracing one finger along the edge of the sofa cushion. "Awhile ago, now."
"What?" Severus said. He looked stunned, and furious, and oh, it was so good to see him Hermione ached with it. "He left? That idiotic, selfish-where did he go? And-why?"
"I have no idea where he went," Hermione said. She shrugged, striving for casualness but suspecting she'd failed miserably. Severus frowned. "As for why… A lot of things, I guess. A lot of it was my-my fault. Because… well, that doesn't matter. And we're not… we're not really having a whole lot of success with-with what we're doing. It's wearing on all of us, but Ron… well, there's this…" She stopped and ducked her head. Dammit, how much could she say? "Dark magic," she said finally, inadequately. "There is, er, this dark magic, and it had more of an influence on Ron than on Harry or me."
"Dark…" Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't suppose you could be any more specific?"
She inhaled sharply. "Are we… are we trading secrets, now?"
The look he gave her was devastating in its vulnerability, a vulnerability he neatly covered by snapping, "I don't fucking know, do I? There is no way to know." He leaned forward, eyes closed, and rested his forehead on his knees.
No way to know whether, in trying to make things better they wouldn't make a cock-up of whatever Dumbledore's grand plan was. If such a thing even existed. Hermione felt despair return, crushing the air from her chest. She sucked in quick, short breaths of air. She didn't know how she and Harry could continue on their own, and, looking at Severus, she thought perhaps he, too, was floundering. With his head bent forward the candlelight made new threads of silver gleam amidst the otherwise black strands of his hair. She felt a stinging at the backs of her eye sockets, looking at his hair, looking at the sharp top knob of his spine above his dressing gown's collar. She shook her head, hard, as though to deny… something. Something hard, and fundamental, and terrifying.
"How did Dark magic make Weasley leave?" Severus asked, his voice muffled by his knees.
"It… it's suggestive," Hermione said carefully. "It plays with your mind and magnifies every single awful thought you have. It wants… it feels like it's stripped your soul bare and taken the worst bits and stretched them until they cover anything good you've ever been or ever done." Severus slowly raised his head and looked at her with dawning horror. Hermione's mouth went dry. "And," she said hastily, "he couldn't handle any of it, I guess, and he… left." She stopped talking before she gave away anything more, though she could feel the words crowding behind her teeth, clamoring to be let out.
"But-" There was something odd, choked, about the way Severus stopped himself, and she looked up sharply. Two bright spots burned high on his cheeks.
"But what?" she said.
He looked away from her, opened his mouth, closed it again. When he turned to face her once more, his dark eyes were burning with something like anger, and Hermione felt a quick stab of apprehension.
"You and he-Weasley. You are…" He waved one hand back and forth, oddly.
Shock kept Hermione from speaking for several seconds. "How did you know?" she finally asked. Her voice was barely audible to her own ears, but Severus clearly heard, his upper lip drawing into a familiar sneer.
"Six years in this castle, and you still manage to forget that portraits have nothing better to do than snoop in on others'… activities." Hermione felt herself blanch, and Severus affected an expression of nonchalance.
"Do remember to close your bag next time you wish to engage in intercourse," he said, and Hermione felt simultaneous surges of anger and humiliation that sent her right back to the Potions classroom. Severus made to leave the room.
"I shall go myself to gather the potions you need," he said, then stood waiting, thin-lipped, until Hermione realized he expected her to speak.
"Oh," she said, her voice thin and strange. "Um… Blood-replenisher. Dittany. Some bezoars, if you have them. Ah, probably Burn Paste, too… Skele-Gro and Calming Draught? We didn't have those but they might be useful…"
He was giving her an unreadable look again, but he merely nodded when it was apparent she'd come to the end of her list. He turned to go.
"I'll be back shortly. And…" He stopped at the door, not-quite-looking at her over his shoulder. "I shall send an elf in with something of substance for you to eat." Without waiting for a response, he was gone.
Poppy was, thank Merlin, nowhere to be seen when Severus slipped into the Hospital Wing. The room was darkened, and only one bed had a curtain drawn around it. Keeping silent, Severus made short work of collecting the vials Hermione required from the store room, then made his way back through the silent halls to his quarters.
His thoughts were disconnected and slippery. He kept remembering Hermione's face when he confronted her about Weasley, the shock and hurt in her eyes and the dark smudges under them. She looked so very unhealthy. And she had come to him for help and he had… He was a bastard. He was a fool. He was going to lose her entirely, lose her to his wounded pride, and yet he couldn't think of words to say to mend the rift between them. The very idea of Hermione and that wanker together made him feel physically ill; he was doomed, it seemed, to want women who did not want him in return. He ground his teeth together, feeling impotent and absurd.
He had lost Lily's friendship for many reasons-in part because her relationship with James Potter forced Severus to realize that she would never want such a thing with him. And now, with the hard-won wisdom that came from all the intervening years…
No. Severus shook his head, almost angrily, as he forced his own train of thought to derail. It wasn't experience or age or anything of that sort that had made him acknowledge, in the most private recesses of his own thoughts, that Lily had never been a true friend to him, not really. No. It was Hermione-Hermione, in whose mind and company he had found comfort and acceptance. Hermione, who, difficult as it was to believe, truly cared for him, even it was not in the way Severus wished. It was her unlikely offering of friendship, despite all that she knew about him, despite the things she had seen in her forays into his mind, which proved to him how very shallow Lily's feelings for him had been.
He hesitated when he reached the stone gargoyle, drawing the edges of his dressing gown more firmly across his chest, wishing he had taken the time to put on some decent clothing before retrieving the potions. But time was of the essence, with Potter alone wherever it was he and Hermione were staying. Gods above, this wasn't right; he felt in the marrow of his bones that it wasn't right. First Hermione and Potter and Weasley had infiltrated the Death Eater-controlled Ministry, only barely avoiding capture, and now she and Potter had blundered their way into one of the Dark Lord's traps. Severus reached up and touched his pendant with his thumb, pressing until it almost hurt.
Severus had hurt her, he knew now, when he gave nothing but lame excuses regarding the curtness of his replies to her messages, and he did not-he did not wish to hurt her, anymore. She was splintering, and it was terrifying to see; he was a selfish bastard for having abandoned her in such a way.
He and Hermione had defied the old man once, already, by Charming their pendants. Twice, really, for they had maintained contact with one another even before that, despite Albus' insistence that their friendship was a danger to the Light's cause. Their defiance had kept Severus far more together than he would otherwise have been; without someone to whom he could reach out when the fear and isolation were too much, he would have come apart entirely long ago. He had no illusions on that count. Perhaps if they defied Dumbledore again, if they chose to work together rather than separately toward their shared goal, they might actually win the war. Severus' pulse pounded in his ears.
It would mean telling her about Potter. About Potter's destiny, his true role in the fight. Severus tightened his lips. She had to know eventually; this way, at least, he might have some help convincing Potter of what he had to do. That he had to die. The boy Severus had sworn to protect, the best friend of the only person who had ever truly given a damn about him. He straightened his spine, and had to force himself not to erect his Shields. For this conversation, he had to be fully present. He owed her that, at least.
He spoke the password, and the gargoyle moved aside with a hideous grimace.
Hermione ate the meal the House-elf delivered far too quickly, her mother's voice in her head the entire time, admonishing her for her appalling lack of manners. But oh-roast beef and green beans and mashed parsnips, and then the most delicious Christmas cake she had ever tasted, rich with fruit and nuts and decadently soaked in brandy. She actually felt rather ill when she was through, and for a dreadful moment thought the entire meal might come back up again, but instead it settled heavily, warmly in her stomach. She leaned closer to the fire and closed her eyes.
It shouldn't matter-Hermione's relationships were, really, none of his business, after all-but somehow it did matter very much, indeed. He had seemed… unsettled. Flustered. Jealous, even, which was ridiculous because he hadn't even reacted when she kissed him at Grimmauld Place. And he-he was in love with Harry's mum. A beautiful, intelligent, perfect dead woman.
The door to the headmaster's office creaked behind her and Hermione's eyes flew open. She twisted around where she sat on the settee, wand at the ready and a jinx half-formed on her lips, then gasped with relief to see only Severus.
"Here," he said, crossing the room. He stopped before her and emptied his dressing gown's pockets of several vials and jars, setting them on the coffee table.
It was difficult to look at him directly, somehow, but she forced herself to do so anyway, gathering the potions together and putting them in her beaded bag. "Thank you," she said.
Severus crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Yes," he said, and cleared his throat. "I… ought not to have spoken to you the way I did earlier. It was… inappropriate. And not conducive to-that is, we have much to discuss, and little time, and to be perfectly frank, I've no wish for what might well be your last impression of me to be so-"
Hermione had been staring at him throughout this bizarre speech, watching a muscle twitching in his jaw and the way his fingers gripped his elbows. He stopped talking when she stood abruptly, her heart beating quite fast even though she actually, suddenly, felt rather calm. She met Severus' eyes.
"I nearly died tonight," she said.
He was seemingly at a loss for words-something Hermione would have had trouble imagining when she was still his student. She took advantage of it now, however, to close the distance between them until her filthy trainers and his boots were toe-to-toe.
"I nearly died tonight," she repeated. "And that seems to have rather put things in perspective."
Severus' Adam's apple bobbed when he swallowed. "Indeed?" he said.
"Yeah." Hermione swallowed, too. "I didn't come here just because I needed potions," she said.
Severus' eyes narrowed, but he didn't respond, and Hermione forced herself to speak before her nerve deserted her.
"I came here because I needed-because I needed you. I can't tell you how frightening tonight was-how awful these past weeks have been, really, and, well, you were the person I wanted when it all… broke."
Severus' face remained impassive. Once, not so very long ago, that would have intimidated Hermione, but right now, tonight, it didn't matter that she couldn't read him. Very little mattered, really, except that she might never see him again, never hear him bumble his way through an unexpected apology after being thoroughly horrid. Never get the chance to notice the way he watched her, concern in the line between his eyebrows.
"I'm sorry," Hermione said, though she wasn't, not really. "I know this is probably not something you want to hear, but-well, like you just said, this might the l-last time we see each other so…" She shrugged awkwardly.
His mouth was hanging very slightly open, showing his terrible teeth. He saw her looking and closed his mouth with a click, glancing away from her. "I do not believe I entirely understand your meaning," he said.
Oh, God. Hermione took a deep breath. "I mean-you're-you're the person I-want. When things are bad. Except that's not right, really, because even when things were-were good, I wanted you then, too. I just… want you." She exhaled a shaky laugh. "All the time."
Severus' eyes flew to hers, his entire being radiating disbelief. "I-you-I must be misunderstanding you," he said; his voice cracked on the last word. "You and Weasley are-"
"Over," she said. "We're over. That is, I ended things a few days before he left. I think-I think that must be partly why he left. He and I, we're friends but-I realized I didn't feel right, with him. Not the way I… well. I just realized he wasn't what I want. What I need." She flushed. "Again, I-I wanted you."
"I see." Severus' expression was guarded, and Hermione realized that she had been lying to herself when she thought she was convinced there was no hope of him returning her feelings, for she could feel, at that moment, the withering of the tiny bud of hope she must have been guarding secretly somewhere under her ribs.
"I shouldn't have said anything," she said, backing several steps away from him. "I know that you're-that Harry's mum is your… I'm sorry." And now she truly was; it felt as though she was fighting for air, her lungs refusing to work properly.
But then Severus was there, right in front of her again, and he had reached out to tip her chin up and force her to look at him. Hermione resisted at first, and then he said, "May I? Please-I need to know-" and then he was inside of her, and she had to focus all of her energy on not slamming her Shields down.
He was exceedingly gentle and didn't pry into her memories, just remained very still inside her mind and allowed himself to feel what she was feeling. Then he slipped out again, and stood before her with his hands hanging loosely at his sides and his face full of fear.
Hermione whispered, "Yes?" He lunged for her, taking hold of her shoulders and peering down into her face; but there he stopped as if frozen, looking frustrated. Hermione's heart fluttered about in her chest like a mad thing, but that was nothing compared to the pounding of his heart, which she could actually hear. Severus' fingers tightened around her upper arms, almost to the point of pain, his eyes searching hers, gaze intense; and then his eyes dropped to her mouth and he muttered, "Sod it," and kissed her.
His kiss was inexperienced, all teeth and great hooked nose getting in the way, and he pulled back almost immediately, face flushed, all but shoving Hermione away from him. "I-" he began, but she was breathless and impatient, and grabbed him by the collar of his dressing gown.
"Again," she breathed, and stood on her toes to reach his mouth with hers. She tilted her head, angling her chin just so, reaching up to cup his face in her hands. His skin was warm and scratchy with stubble, and after a moment Severus' hands came up hesitantly to cradle the back of her head. When Hermione opened her mouth, she felt his groan in her toes.
When they broke apart, Severus was panting, his fingers tangled in her hair. He bent his head until their brows were touching, and closed his eyes. Hermione let her hands fall from his cheeks, but only as far as his shoulders, which she clutched tightly, feeling dazed and unsteady.
Finally, Severus gave a sigh and straightened, pulling away from her. "As… pleasant as this is," he said, with a small, uncertain smile, "we have much to discuss."
Hermione nodded slowly. It felt as though an age had passed since he returned with the potions, but in reality it had only been a few minutes. But she needed to return to Harry.
Severus felt like a schoolboy when he reached for her hand to lead her to the settee, bumbling and unsure of himself. Her hand was very small compared to his, and very warm. He released it reluctantly when they had seated themselves and then wished that he hadn't, for he suddenly had no idea what to do with his own hands, which seemed disturbingly large and ungainly, dangling as they were from his wrists.
He forced himself to focus. "You said Potter's wand is broken," he said.
Hermione nodded, and retrieved something from the pocket of her cloak; Severus felt his heart drop when he saw the snapped wood, the bent Phoenix feather. Fuck.
"I don't suppose you have a trustworthy wand maker lying about?" she said. Her smile was a feeble thing, her eyes worried.
Severus rubbed his forehead. "Unfortunately not," he said. Briefly, he considered going to Olivander, who, as far as he knew, was still captive in the bowels of Malfoy Mansion, but dismissed the idea as being far too risky. He looked at the wand again; it seemed likely it was beyond repair in any case. "I suppose you shall have to make do until we think of something else," he said. The idea of Potter traipsing about without a wand, doing whatever it was he and Hermione were doing, was ludicrous and terrifying, but he could think of no good solution. He looked at Hermione and forced his tone to be serious, businesslike, trying to keep his eyes from dropping to her lips. Whatever had just happened-there was not time for him to think about that, just yet.
"I need you to tell me what it is Dumbledore has you doing," he said.
Her eyes widened. "Are you certain?"
No, he wasn't. Not of anything, anymore. "Yes."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "And will you be telling me anything I might need to know, too?"
Severus felt his chest tighten, but kept his voice steady. "Of course."
"All right." She squared her shoulders, and he felt a stab of admiration. Gone was the frightened girl who had come to him for comfort; Hermione looked as calm and sensible as she ever had when she was his student. "We're searching for these, well, they're powerful objects that we need to destroy before Vol-um, He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named can die." She reached into her handbag and pulled something out, handing it to Severus, who nearly recoiled when the thing touched his palm, so redolent was it of Dark Magic. He peered closer. It was a locket, unremarkable in appearance but clearly sinister in some way that his magic could sense. He looked at Hermione and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"This is one of the objects," she said. "Professor Dumbledore destroyed another one, a ring of some sort-that's how he injured his hand-" Severus waved his own hand impatiently; he knew all about Dumbledore's idiotic hubris - "and Harry destroyed one back in Second Year: Tom Riddle's diary." She leaned forward. "There are others, we think there are six altogether. They're the secret to his immortality. There are bits of-"
"His soul," Severus whispered. He felt suddenly very cold, despite their proximity to the fire.
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "Well-yes," she said. "You know about…?"
"Horcruxes." Gods above. Abruptly, he could not sit still; Severus rose to his feet and began pacing before the fire. He glanced at her, feeling defensive. "And before you ask, I only know the theory. I have never attempted to create one myself."
"Of course you haven't!" she snapped, looking angry. Then she sighed. "Sorry. I just… of course you haven't."
Severus felt his neck and face grow hot. He coughed awkwardly. "You have had no luck finding the remaining objects, or destroying the locket?"
She shook her head. "We've tried everything on the locket, but nothing works. And we have no idea where to find the others. That's why we went to Godric's Hollow, though-we finally think we've figured out a way to destroy them." She lowered her voice. "It's the Sword of Gryffindor." Severus started, and she shook her head. "We found out about Neville and the rest of them trying to steal it from your office, but that's a fake. We thought maybe Dumbledore had hidden the real sword in Godric's Hollow, but-"
"No." Severus shook his head violently; Hermione looked at him, a question in her face.
"What-?" she began.
"Dumbledore did not hide the sword." Severus could feel fury rising within him, a hot wave of it that made him twitch with the urge to strike something. He clasped his hands behind his back, fingers clenched together. "He gave it to me-or rather, he told me to hide the original and create a copy, requiring that I bring the true sword to Mr. Potter when he" -with a jerk of his head in the direction of his office- "so instructed." He looked into Hermione's startled expression and added, "He did not, however, see fit to inform me of the use to which you and Potter would be putting the sword."
There was a moment of silence, during which Severus watched Hermione's expression transform from startled to furious. "I-that bastard!" she cried, and he felt something in his chest loosen. "I understand why he had to keep the sword out of Ministry hands, but to not trust you with the truth-"
"There's more," Severus said heavily. His nose felt as though it had been plugged with cotton wool, and he could scarcely look at her. "I… there is no easy way to say this. Before he died, Dumbledore told me… that is, there are actually seven Horcruxes. Did you-are you aware that a Horcrux can be created from a living vessel?"
She eyed him warily. "Yes, I am. We think the snake is one, actually."
Severus let out a breath, stunned by his own idiocy. Why had he never suspected? The fucking snake-the way the Dark Lord was able to communicate with her even when they were not in any sort of physical proximity to one another. "Ah," he said faintly.
"So there are-seven, then?" Hermione's voice sounded odd, pitched a touch too high. "What… what is the last, then?"
For an instant, Severus was sure he was going to sick up all over his boots, but what came out of his mouth instead was, "Potter."
Hermione felt as though she had been plunged into very cold water, and from very far away she could hear a voice-her voice, she realized-saying, over and over again, "No, that can't be right. That can't be right-"
But it was right. She knew it. Deep in her belly, she knew it. She just hadn't allowed herself to admit it.
It explained everything. Harry's connection to Voldemort's mind. His ability to talk to snakes. Possibly even the unusual strength of his magic.
Severus' hands were on her shoulders, but Hermione shook them off. "You knew," she said, and her voice, so frantic only a moment before, sounded dead. "You knew, and you didn't tell me."
"How could I?" he demanded, drawing away from her when she turned her face toward his. "I was forbidden to speak of it. And I-"
"You were a coward," she spat, and for a moment she relished his obvious, visceral reaction to the word. She leapt to her feet and turned on him, tears running down her face. "You should have told me!"
Severus face was white. "I know," he said stiffly, and Hermione felt her anger dissipate at once.
"Oh, God," she gasped. "Oh, God-this means-this means Harry-" She reached for Severus desperately, her hand closing around his bony wrist. "Is there any way to remove a Horcrux from its host without destroying the host itself?" She didn't give him a chance to answer. "There must be," she said. "There must be!"
"I know of nothing," Severus said, and Hermione was drawn from her own grief by the genuine pain in his voice. "Of course, we can research, but-"
"Oh, God," Hermione said again. The walls of Severus' sitting room seemed to be pressing in against her. Her shoulders slumped and she released her grip on Severus. The room was silent but for her shaky breaths and the over-loud ticking of the mantle clock, reminding her that she really had to get back, and soon.
"I do know something of what you are feeling," Severus said quietly.
Hermione looked at him. His expression was bleak, hopeless, and she thought dully that he was telling the truth, as unlikely as it seemed. But he couldn't feel everything she was, for he didn't love Harry as she did. He didn't know Harry's sweetness, his wry humor, his strength, only his propensities for recklessness and thoughtlessness. She scrubbed at her cheeks. She had to stop crying.
"All this time," she whispered. "All this time, we've been fighting to keep him alive and he has to die, after all." She felt ill. "And Dumbledore knew?"
"Yes," Severus said. His voice was steel. "He knew. I'm not sure for how long, but he knew, and he knows what Potter-what Potter means to me, and yet he has tasked me with informing the boy of his fate."
Hermione's mouth fell open. "Was he mad?" she demanded. "Had Dumbledore completely lost it? Why would Harry listen to you?" Then the implications of the rest of what he had said caught up with her, and she added tentatively, "What does Harry mean to you? I always… well, we all rather thought you hated him."
Severus' lips tightened, and he looked away, but he surprised her by answering. "He is the son of the woman I… loved." He glanced at her, and Hermione felt her heartbeat trip, wondering whether his use of the past tense was intentional or a slip of the tongue. "A woman who was once my friend, and who I betrayed, and who died for that betrayal. I…" He passed one long-fingered hand over his eyes. "After I realized to whom the prophecy referred, I came to Dumbledore and begged him to protect Lily. And when his plans to do so failed, I returned to him in despair. He… allowed me to seek redemption, of a sort, by working for the Order." He shuddered, and his voice dropped lower, a bass rumble that Hermione could feel under her skin. "In return, he required my vow to keep Lily's son safe when he arrived at Hogwarts. I have always… always… striven to uphold that promise, and then-" He broke off, clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides.
"I don't even know what to say," Hermione murmured. She felt exhausted, filled with a well of grief that she was certain she'd barely even begun to plumb. And the way Dumbledore had used his spy-it was sickening, truly sickening, and yet-as much as Hermione wished it, the former headmaster, however cold and calculating his orders seemed, was right. If they couldn't find another way, Harry would have to die, if the rest of the Wizarding World was to survive.
I can't dwell on that now, Hermione thought. She had to focus on the other things that needed to be done, or she'd never be able to go on.
"We mustn't tell Harry until-unless-he absolutely needs to know," she said. She looked at Severus beseechingly. "We need to dispatch the rest of the Horcruxes anyway, right? He can be the last. It should buy us time."
Severus shook his head. "I have no wish for Potter to know any sooner than necessary," he said. He looked at her from the corners of his eyes. "You might call it cowardice, I suppose, but there it is."
"I shouldn't have said that," Hermione said softly. She reached out to him, but he made no move towards her and she allowed her hand to drop limply back to her side.
"It was the truth," he said, bitterness heavy in his voice. "I was unwilling to risk our…"-he twitched a shoulder- "… our friendship, by telling you I was meant to send the boy to his death."
Hermione's eyes-Damn it-filled with tears again, and she looked away. "Right," she said shakily. "So. We'll concentrate on the other Horcruxes. If you somehow think of a place for us to look, well… I guess we can't use the pendants for that. But we'll think of… something." She swallowed, then hurried to continue before hopelessness overcame her once more. "So-I'll need the sword. At least we can finally be rid of that dreadful locket."
Severus hesitated. "My understanding is that the sword must be taken under circumstances of great valor," he said finally, mouth twisted into a sneer. "I do not know that my handing it to you now would satisfy Gryffindor's sense of the dramatic. Likely, the thing would be as useless to you as any other sword."
Hermione's insides tightened. "But-"
"I shall think of something," he said. "And… I will find a way to deliver the sword to you and Potter." He tapped his mouth with the tip of one finger. "Perhaps Headmaster Black can be of assistance in this matter. If you could leave your bag open again, and name your location each time you move, he could report that location to me, allowing me to find you when the time comes."
Hermione blushed, thinking of the last time she had carelessly allowed the portrait to hear what was going on around it, but Severus, to her relief, seemed disinclined to bait her on the subject.
"That could work," she said.
He nodded. "In that case, you should return to Potter."
No, she thought, irrationally. No. She couldn't just leave. Not like this. Not with so much still unresolved between them. And yet-she thought of Harry, asleep and ill and-and there was so much happening, how could she be so selfish as to delay returning, even if she wanted, more than anything in the world, to stay where she was?
"Yes," she said, and the word was audible, but only just. She had left Harry a note, in case the Dreamless Sleep wore off earlier than she expected, saying that she was looking for food and to be on the alert for her return, to let her back through their wards; and she had wrapped a hair elastic around the branch of a tree beside their tent, to ensure that she could find the right spot to wait for him to wake.
Severus glanced out the window, looking as though he were weighing something in his mind. "I shall bring you to the gates, then," he said, looking back at her. "Put on your cloak."
The walk to the gates was over before Hermione was ready. She followed a Disillusioned Severus closely, careful to keep Harry's cloak over herself completely, and when they reached the gates Severus tapped them with his wand to open them, giving a curt little nod in the direction of the lane beyond. Hermione paused; the air between them felt charged and strained, and she realized, with dismay, that she oughtn't even risk putting out a hand to touch him, on the slim chance that someone might be lurking nearby and see. All of a sudden, the desire to feel him with her fingertips was overwhelming, to be close enough to smell her Amortentia on his skin. She wanted to kiss him again. She looked at him through the Cloak's gossamer fabric, and couldn't tell from his face, held in its old, accustomed blank mask, whether he wanted to kiss her, too.
Drawing in a breath of freezing air, she moved past him, through the open gate. "Keep safe," she whispered, and turned to face him where he stood on the other side of the wrought iron, shivering slightly in his inadequate clothing.
She felt, more than heard, his murmured, "Farewell," the low-pitched timber of his voice sending a shudder of warmth across her limbs as she spun away into the night.
A/N: Thank you for all the lovely reviews! And another thank-you to Ivy Amelia for her edits!