Disclaimer: Not mine.

Their kisses turned frantic, Hermione cupping Severus' face in her hands, her blunt nails digging into his scalp. He clutched her to him, reassured by the warmth and solidity of her, despite the sharpness he could feel through her thin shirt, her spine and ribs too prominent. She shivered and he pulled away, light-headed, fumbling on the ground for the quilt that had dropped away earlier. He wrapped it around her shoulders.

"I suppose we have a lot to talk about," she said, and Severus didn't think he was imagining that she sounded as reluctant as he felt. His heart was still beating far too fast; his thoughts refused to remain still.

"Yes," he made himself say.

She tugged the edges of the quilt more tightly across her chest. "I hate this," she whispered. "I wish…" She scrubbed the back of one hand across her face and shook her head. "It doesn't matter. I just… it would be nice to have more time."

Severus' mouth felt swollen from the pressure of hers. "I agree."

Hermione touched her fingers to her own mouth and spoke around them. "I should… I want to tell you our plans. Such as they are." In the moonlight, he could see that her forehead was creased with anxiety. "If you don't think that's a bad idea."

"At this point," Severus said, "I don't see what difference it makes." At her questioning look, he exhaled a breath, glancing away from her over the beach. "I know so much already - we both do - that all will be lost should the Dark Lord suspect anything, and our Shields fail."

"Mine didn't, back at the Manor," she said softly.

Severus felt something tighten painfully inside his ribcage. "I am so sorry," he said, the words rushing from him like poison from a lanced wound. "I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am that I couldn't help you."

Hermione pulled away from him, eyeing him sharply. "What do you mean, you couldn't help me? You saved me," she said. "You saved all of us."

When he stared at her, uncomprehending, she squeezed his wrists, hard, as though trying to force him to believe her. "You taught me Occlumency," she said. "Without it - she tried Legilimency first, you know, before she started using Crucio. She only started torturing me in earnest when she realized she couldn't get past my Shields." She thrust her face very close to his and said, without breaking eye contact, "You saved me. Me, and all my secrets."

Severus swallowed audibly. "You saved yourself, then," he said when he could speak. Hermione opened her mouth as if to protest and he smiled, very slightly, and interrupted her before she could begin. "Who demanded that I teach her to Occlude?"

She closed her mouth with a click, and Severus smiled a little more widely before sobering once again.

"Now," he said, sensing that he was not going to like whatever she had to say, "what is it you are planning?"

Hermione stopped talking and stared down at her fingers, which were twisting together in her lap. She could sense Severus' eyes on her but was reluctant to look up, afraid of what she'd see on his face. His tension as she spoke had grown almost palpable, even though they were not touching.

After a long moment, he said, "Are you mad? That is your plan?"

Hermione flinched. "No, I'm not," she said, though at times she had wondered the same thing herself. "We're not. Severus, we have to go to Gringotts -"

"Do you have any idea how impossible such a mission is?" he said, his voice a snarl. He stood up and began pacing, his boots loud on the rocky soil. "The goblins' security is legendary, and they are not merciful toward those who try to breech it!" He stopped pacing and bent at the waist, thrusting his face close to hers in a way that was startlingly reminiscent of Professor Snape, rather than Severus. Hermione narrowed her eyes.

"You might die," he said, enunciating each word with great precision. His lips were twisted into a scowl, but his eyes burned with something other than anger. "This is - this is at least as insane an idea as your plan to break into the Ministry."

"And we survived that!" Hermione cried, teetering between knowing he was right and knowing it didn't matter because this was something they must do. She lowered her voice and hissed, "We have to get the Horcrux from the Lestrange vault. Unless you have a better idea of how to do it, I don't see that we have any choice!" She looked away from him, blinking away the sting of tears. "Believe me," she said, "I've been over and over this is my mind. I don't like it any more than you do, but I can't think of any other way."

There was another long pause, and then Severus let out a shuddering sigh. Hermione looked up at him again, to find his eyes fixed on her, his throat working. At last he said, very quietly, "I would far rather it be me who makes the attempt."

"Absolutely not!" she snapped. "You're far too important -"

He snorted, an oddly bleak sound, interrupting her before she could say, to the students at Hogwarts, or to me. "Hogwarts is a place of farce and horror these days," he said. "And there is very little I can do about it, except ensure that fewer First Years are subjected to torture than would be if the Carrows had free reign." He held up a hand, seeing Hermione open her mouth to respond, and added, "I know that as things stand I cannot be the one to go. I only… wish I could be."

There was a short silence following his pronouncement, and then Hermione offered Severus a very small smile. "That's… lovely," she said, sounding rather shy.

Severus, struggling to ignore the heat creeping up his neck, had no answer to that. He sat instead, cautiously upon the ground, and drew in a sharp breath when she shifted so that she was leaning against him.

"I feel like I can see my Boggart," she said.

Severus tucked her voluminous hair behind her ear so he could see her profile. In the moonlight it was stark, her thinness emphasized by the sharp line of her jaw and the shadows under her eyes and cheekbones. She was fierce and, to him, beautiful, yet he ached for the face he remembered, the face from not so long ago, with its curved cheeks and the softness when she smiled.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"In Third Year, Professor Lupin made us all confront a Boggart," she said, turning slightly to look at him.

A sour expression crossed Severus' face. "Yes, I'm aware. Longbottom's Boggart made me a laughingstock in the staff room for weeks."

"Oh." She leaned against him more firmly and his arms tightened around her instinctively. "I'm sorry."

He shrugged awkwardly. "Never mind that," he said, uncomfortable. He inhaled the scent of her hair; it was floral, and not quite right for her. She had been using the Veela's shampoo, perhaps. "What was your Boggart?"

She hesitated, then said, "It was - it was Professor McGonagall, telling me I'd failed all of my exams. And… Well, Harry and Ron made fun of me for ages, but now… Well, now it would be very different, I'm sure, as far as content goes." Severus could feel her sudden tension. "I mean, I don't think I want to see my worst fear actually embodied, right now. But I think - I think the, um, essence would be the same. If you know what I mean."

Severus was quiet for a moment. "Failure," he said softly, and touched her cheek with the tip of one finger. "Failure is your biggest fear."

Hermione made a damp sound. "It's just that now the tasks I might fail at are a bit more serious than end-of-term exams." She leaned her head back against him and Severus closed his eyes.

"Have you ever seen a Boggart?" she asked.

He exhaled the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Yes."

"What was your fear?"

"Azkaban." The word was clipped, the very syllables enough to send a shudder through his entire body.

Hermione pulled away slightly, turning to look at him. "Oh - I'd… well, I'd not forgotten, but…" She peered at him through the darkness. "How long were you there?"

Severus paused. "I don't entirely know," he said at last. "Time there is… difficult to track. I wasn't there long, all things considered; just until my trial, when Dumbledore… But it was long enough."

He closed his eyes, seeing behind his lids the bare stone floors and walls of his cell on the island prison. There was no natural light, making it impossible to know the time of day, but that hardly mattered when the presence of the Dementors forced him to employ his Shields constantly or go mad with the pain of his own memories. He had been horribly, violently ill after his release, and even then it took days to fully let his Shields down, their grip on his mind having become over the few days of his incarceration so strong that he could not wrench them down all at once. Being returned to the Wizarding prison at the war's end, in the unlikely event that he survived at all, was a fear that buzzed constantly at the back of Severus' skull.

"I cannot go back," he said. Hermione's fingers tightened around his. He opened his eyes and caught her gaze; she looked shaken by his words. "It was terrible beyond imagining."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, and Severus shook his head, impatient.

"My… Boggart, I suspect, would be much the same as yours, these days. But still I… cannot go back to Azkaban."

She nodded, slowly, her eyes never leaving his face. They seemed to be trying to read something there, and Severus felt his mouth go dry, though he was not entirely certain why.

"Did you," Hermione began, then cleared her throat when her voice came out as a squeak. Flushing, she tried again. "Did you mean what you said, after what happened at the Manor?"

Severus grew very still, striving to keep his face a blank mask. "What do you mean?"

She looked, if anything, more embarrassed, and rather than tell him she unclasped her necklace, enlarged it, and flipped to the right page, pointing to his words with a finger that trembled slightly. "I just… wondered if you, um, meant them the way they sounded."

By moonlight, Severus read his own words, faintness washing over him: I cannot do this without you. The world cannot go on without you.

"I - yes," he said, and closed his eyes, feeling vaguely ill.

"Severus," Hermione said, and took his face in her hands. Her palms were warm against his cheeks; her thumbs stroked the sides of his nose.

Severus started, opening his eyes, and watched her warily as she moved closer to him before closing his eyes once more as she kissed him. Hermione shifted so that she could put her arms around his neck and lean into him, urging him back against the earth, their chests and stomachs pressed together, their legs tangling. Severus sucked in a surprised breath, eyes flying open, wonder and disbelief chasing themselves around his head. Then, almost of their own accord, his arms stole around her back. He raised his head and caught her lips again, his heart thundering inside his chest. When his fingers brushed against the bare skin at her waist where her T-shirt had ridden up, they both shivered.

"I want more," Hermione gasped. "I want -"

Severus pulled back to look at her, his chest feeling squeezed with hope and fear. "What do you -"

"Everything," she said, holding his eyes. "I want everything."

Later, Hermione would not be able to remember every detail, recalling what followed in beautiful bits and pieces, like images flicking past during Legilimency. At the time, though, she was aware of everything, as though her subconscious knew this would likely be her only opportunity to experience this with him.

Severus took the quilt from her shoulders and spread it upon the ground, his expression hidden behind his hair but his hands gentle as he urged her to lie back; small stones pressed into her spine and hips from under the quilt, and the intense, damp scent of the earth filled her nostrils.

Severus lay on his side beside her, putting a tentative hand on her head and stroking her hair. When his eyes met hers, his were guarded. "Are you certain?" he asked.

She could feel the erratic rhythm of his heartbeat against her own chest, and his obvious nervousness actually calmed hers. She smiled up at him.

"Yes," she said.

He inhaled a shaky breath, and then he was kissing her again, gently at first and then with a desperation that matched her own. Their teeth clicked; their fingers scrabbled for purchase on one another's bodies. This time, Severus slid his hands deliberately under her shirt, his palms and the pads of his fingers callused and warm against the skin of her waist, her back, her belly. Hermione made a frustrated noise against his mouth, tugging futilely at his layers of clothing.

"Off," she said, pulling back far enough to reach the buttons of his frock coat. They slid stiffly through the holes, one after the other; Severus held himself just as stiffly. Hermione eased the coat off his shoulders, leaving him in a thin white shirt, buttoned up to his throat. She reached for the top button, but he stilled her hands.

"Wait," he said, and stood, leaving her feeling alone and foolish. Then she heard his murmured words as he walked in a circle around her - "Salvio Hexia. Cave Inimicum. Protego Totalum." - and pressed her fingers to her mouth, amazed she hadn't thought to cast the protective enchantments herself.

Once he was finished, Severus stood for a moment with his back to her, his wand held loosely by his side. Then he turned, looking terrified for all that he was trying to appear impassive, and said, "It's been… I have not done this in a very long time."

"That's okay," Hermione whispered. "I haven't done it much at all." Then she could have Stunned herself for the idiocy of mentioning Ron, even obliquely.

Severus swallowed and looked away, putting his hands to his buttons. He looked down at his fingers, as though surprised to see what they were doing, then looked back up at Hermione, quirking a brow in question; though the gesture looked casual enough, there was an uncertainty in his dark eyes that made her shove aside her own fear.

"Yes," she said, and pulled her T-shirt over her head.

It took Severus a moment to remember to look away, but the sight of Hermione's bare torso - the too-prominent ribs and clavicle, the gentle way her belly folded where she sat, her small, pale breasts - felt burned into his memory. Her Order pendant caught the moonlight where it lay against her chest.

He realized his mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut. Feeling more self-conscious than he would like, he began opening his shirt, his fingers clumsy on the buttons. It had been… years… since a woman had seen him unclothed, and there had never been one who was truly pleased with what she saw. His heart was beating far too quickly, and dimly, at the back of his mind, he heard the old, snide comments from his youth: Slimy, ugly, greasy, who'd-want-to-kiss-him?

Fumbling, he managed to get the last button undone and stood, foolishly, uncertain how to proceed. He looked at Hermione; she had apparently been watching him, that familiar assessing look in her eyes, her dark brows drawn down in thought. When she realized he was looking at her, her expression shifted to one of nervousness, making a quick, aborted movement of her hands as though she had wanted to cover herself. But she didn't, fisting her hands in the grass at her sides, her face still nervous, but determined.

Severus' throat felt tight, and he held the edges of his shirt in both hands, willing himself to stop being such a weakling and take the damn thing off!

"Severus," she said, rising until she stood before him, tipping her head back to look into his face. "Severus - if you don't want -"

"No-" he rasped, horrified that he was making such a mess of this, that she thought he might be spurning the gift she was offering. "No, it's -" He closed his eyes, agonized.

Hermione reached up to touch his jaw. "It's okay," she whispered. "You don't have to - we don't have to… But I want you to know," she said, more loudly, "that I already - it doesn't matter that I haven't seen… I already know you're beautiful."

Severus stared at her, blood pounding in his ears, a strange and triumphant tattoo. "You're… incredible," he breathed, looking at her where she stood before him, naked to the waist. She looked brave, and strong, and confident, but Severus knew - for he knew her - that Hermione's true courage lay in overcoming her own fears. How could he do less, for her?

Slowly, he eased his shirt over his shoulders and down his arms. The cuffs caught over his hands, and he flushed, shifting his arms awkwardly so he could undo the buttons he'd forgotten. Then it was off, and before he could feel any more uncertainty Hermione was kissing him again, and the friction of her bare skin against his drove all other thoughts from his mind. He was vaguely aware that she was tugging him down until they were both kneeling on the quilt; her fingers worked at his belt, their mouths never losing contact, and he skimmed his own hands down her sides, over her hips, hooking his thumbs in the waistbands of her pajama pants and knickers and sliding them down her legs. Hermione stilled for an instant, her eyes opening and meeting his, surprise mingled with apprehension; and then her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she closed them and began kissing him again, at the same time working Severus' trousers and pants down over his own hips.

Then they were pressed together, lying on the quilt, the smell of the earth heady in Severus' nostrils, the sea air cool against his bare skin. Their kisses once more turned frantic, Hermione hands seemingly everywhere upon his body, stroking his cheeks, his sides. She ran her palm down the length of his spine, and she pressed the arches of her feet against his calves, curling her toes. Then, suddenly, she stopped - pulled away and said, "Wait, wait -" and scrabbled for her wand on the ground beside them. Severus braced himself on his palms, panting, holding himself tense above her, watching her forehead wrinkle in concentration as she pointed the wand at her abdomen and murmured a contraception charm. She frowned.

"That… didn't feel like it caught," she said, and glanced up at him. "This wand… Would you mind…?"

Severus felt for his wand, rising up on his knees and pointing it at her. He had never spoken this particular charm himself, before, but now he did, and watched as Hermione smiled faintly, looking satisfied. He touched her belly where the charm had flared briefly purple before sinking beneath her skin; her skin was warm, the residual magic making his fingertips tingle. He nearly asked why her charm hadn't worked, but dismissed the thought as utterly irrelevant when she reached for him once more, drawing him down on top of her, lifting her hips to press against him in clear invitation.

Severus shifted so that he could take himself in hand, and only realized that his hand was shaking - with eagerness, with nerves - when he had trouble positioning himself properly. Heat blazed in his cheeks as he failed to find the right angle.

Then Hermione whispered, "Shh - slow down," and gently pushed his hand aside. She touched him, the grip of her hand making something give way at the back of Severus' head, a cascading sensation that made him inhale sharply; then she guided him inside her.

Hermione's eyes remained on his face, her expression, as was so often the case, complicated - a combination of intensity and uncertainty that made Severus bend his head to catch her lips, something inside him threatening to shatter.

It took them several moments to find a rhythm, Hermione's gasping breaths warm against Severus' cheek, his hair falling in a curtain around both their faces. They rocked together and he pressed his forehead against her clavicle, focusing on the way her hands clutched at his shoulders and the pressure of her legs against his ribs where they were drawn up along his sides, trying desperately to last for more than a few minutes. Then she was touching his jaw, drawing his head up so that she could kiss him; for an instant, their gazes caught, and then, without meaning to, he was slipping inside her defenseless mind.

Just for a moment, they both froze, Hermione's eyes as wide and startled as Severus felt. It was on the tip of Severus' tongue to apologize, and then Hermione breathed, "Ohhh," and Severus felt it all around him: a sense of welcome. He felt warm all over, as if he were under the influence of the Felix Felicis that he had not ingested.

Tentatively, he began to move again, never breaking eye contact. Hermione's head was so full that it was nearly overwhelming - full of grief, and joy, and quiet astonishment. There were brilliant sparks of pleasure flitting over everything, each time he moved into her once again, and it was all driving him far too close to the edge of something that felt like a precipice. An ending.

Hermione was transfixed by Severus' eyes on hers. He was impossibly perfect, for all his flaws; beautiful, for all his unloveliness. He hovered inside her mind, the sensation making her ache, deep inside. She longed, desperately, to hold onto this moment forever - the way his forearms were tightening, trembling slightly with strain, alongside her own upper arms; the damp heat of his chest; the intensity of his focus on her. He was less solidly built than Ron, with the slightly hunched shoulders and narrow chest of an academic. His sternum was covered in fine dark hair; his Order pendant swung away from his chest, trailing over her cheek each time he moved. The Amortentia smell of him, combined with the scents of cool dirt and the small green plants they were crushing, was primal, as was the sight of the sky above them, vast and dark.

She wanted to remember every bit of him; she touched his calves with the soles of her feet, learning their shape and hairiness. Then she tucked her legs back up alongside their torsos, drawing him further inside her.

Hermione knew Severus was nearly there when his Legilimency slipped. He slid out of her mind gently, his eyelids fluttering closed and his lips drawing back in a grimace over clenched, crooked teeth. "Fuck," he panted, his movements growing increasingly erratic; Hermione gave up trying to match them and just held onto him instead, cupping her hands around the back of his neck, her fingers pressing into the base of his scalp.

"Fuck -" he said again, and then made a low, pained sound, ducking his head to touch his brow to her shoulder as he rode out his orgasm.

At last he stilled, and only his panting breaths and the way he kept his weight on his own forearms convinced Hermione he hadn't fallen asleep. Then, suddenly, he raised his head, his face flushed, and kissed her breathlessly.

"I'm sorry," he said then, pulling back. "You didn't - did you -"

Hermione smiled, reaching up to thread her fingers through his hair. The knowledge that he would have to leave soon danced at the edges of her thoughts. "It doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters!" Severus said. He pushed himself up on his palms, and glared down at her, the color in his thin cheeks now as much from embarrassment as the aftereffects of lovemaking. He turned his head, letting his hair shield his expression, and Hermione's heart twisted. She reached out and moved the hair behind his ear, then stroked his cheek with her thumb.

"It was perfect," she said, her voice breaking, and then the words just slipped out. "You were in my head, love; you know what I was feeling."

Severus looked back at her, his dark eyes unreadable. "May I…?" he said, and reached down between their bodies.

Hermione wanted to say no, it wasn't necessary, because it wasn't. But she nodded slowly, parting her thighs when his fingertips brushed against them.

It was obvious, both from his first, tentative touches and from the guarded expression in his eyes as he watched her face, that Severus was inexperienced in this, and something so joyous it was almost like grief welled up inside of her, that he was trying anyway. After a moment, Hermione reached down and took his hand in hers, showing him what she liked. Then she closed her eyes and let go of his hand; if Severus' attempt was a little clumsy at first, he soon got the hang of things and looked endearingly pleased with himself when she came apart under his fingers several minutes later.

Severus lay down beside her and Hermione turned so she was on her side facing him, throwing a leg over both of his and an arm across his ribcage. He cupped the back of her head under her hair, caressing her scalp.

"How long do we have?" she murmured, an echo of her words in the tent on Boxing Day. All they had were snatches of time; Hermione thought that if she could have anything at that moment, anything at all, it would be a Time-Turner - Horcruxes be damned.

Severus cast a wordless Tempus. "A couple of hours," he said.

Hermione could feel tears prickling at the corners of her eyes and she buried her face in Severus' armpit. The soft hair there tickled her nose, making her smile, if weakly.

"I wish you could come back," she said. "We'll probably be here for another few days…"

His arm tightened around her, and she felt the brush of his lips against her forehead. "You know that's - I shouldn't be here at all."

"I know." She hated how small her voice sounded.

Long minutes passed in silence, until Hermione was lulled to sleep - finally, to sleep! - by the sensation of Severus stroking her hair.

He woke her just before dawn, when the sky was just barely turning grey at the horizon. His body was stiff from lying still for so long, his arm numb under the weight of her head, but he wished he could stay here with her indefinitely, pressed together against the earth with the sound of the sea in their ears. He woke her by brushing her hair away from her face and kissing her closed eyelids. He had never done that before, Severus thought, looking down at her as her eyes blinked open. He had never known what it was like to want to, not really.

And hard on that thought was another, and before he knew he was going to say anything he was already talking.

"I never truly loved Lily," he said, the words spoken so low they felt like a rumble in his chest.

Hermione stared up at him, her expression of sleepy befuddlement changing rapidly to one that Severus couldn't quite read. "You don't have to say that," she said, shifting away from him. The pins-and-needles pain of blood returning to his arm was instant, and Severus winced.

"I do," he said, and Hermione shivered. "I… thought I loved her. For… years." He touched her chin, forcing her to look at him. "You know this."

Hermione nodded. "Of course," she said, her tone less matter-of-fact than her words. She inhaled shakily. "Severus -" "No." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I saw… I felt… When I was in your mind, there was…" A wisp of insecurity, was what it was, and it was tinged with Lily.

"Oh. I… I hoped you hadn't felt any of that," she said.

Severus looked at her. "It only just occurred to me that I have done you a disservice by not… Do you remember what you said to me, when you found out Weasley had returned? That it… didn't matter?"

She nodded.

"It would be just the same for me, now."

Her smile was a brilliant thing. It was almost worth having spent most of his life pining for someone who would never have wanted him, and whom he should not have wanted, to see Hermione's smile now.

Hermione felt her smile stretch irrepressibly across her face, then reached up to swipe at her cheeks, where tears she hadn't felt had already begun to fall. "Now look what you did," she said, half-laughing.

His lips quirked upwards, but then he sat up fully, grimacing when his back popped in protest. "I must go."

She wanted to protest, wanted to reach out and grab his arm and not let go. Instead, she reached for her clothing, shivering slightly as she pulled her T-shirt over her head and her pajama pants over her hips.

Severus made fast work of his own clothing; within minutes he was buttoned up to the neck again. Hermione pulled the quilt over her shoulders, missing the warmth of his skin, and they stood looking at each other, unspeaking.

And then - "Oh!" she said, her voice too-loud. "I almost forgot. There's something else I think you should know."

"What is it?"

She paused, uncertain how to begin, and Severus glanced away from her for a second, his eyes on the subtly lightening horizon. Then he looked back at her, brows raised in expectation. Hermione drew the quilt more firmly across her chest, took a breath, and said, "Have you ever heard of the Elder Wand?"

Severus frowned. "The Death Stick? From Beedle the Bard?"

"Yes. It… well, it's real, we think. It's not just a story. It's a long story how we found out, but Dumbledore bequeathed a copy of the book to me and he clearly wanted us to know about the Hallows -"

"The Hallows?"

"Um. The wand, the cloak, and the resurrection stone. There are… people… the people who believe the story's real. They call those objects the Deathly Hallows. Possessing all three is supposed to make you Master of Death."

"I… see," he said, looking skeptical.

"I know, it's fantastical but… Never mind all that," she said quickly. "The point is that we believe You-Know-Who now has the Elder Wand. It was Dumbledore's, but… we were… I was stupid and slow and didn't really understand why Professor Dumbledore had left the book to me. Now, I believe he wanted Harry to be its master. I hope he did, anyway. Because if we can get all the Horcruxes and Harry has a wand that…"

She trailed off, her eyes widening. Dear God, how could she possibly have been so stupid? This wasn't like her, starting a train of thought and then failing to follow it all the way through. Because even if Harry had gone after the wand himself, he couldn't have been its master, any more than Voldemort could be its master now. Neither of them had defeated the wand's previous owner; and of course, Dumbledore was canny enough to realize that Harry would never, ever have consented to kill him. Which meant that in order to become master of the Elder Wand, Harry had to defeat the man who had.

She turned her horrified gaze on Severus. "Oh my God," she whispered.

It took him a moment, but then he paled visibly. "Am I correct in my recollection," he said, very slowly, "that the wand's allegiance lies with the wizard who defeats its current master?"

Mutely, Hermione nodded.

"And Dumbledore," Severus said, his voice bitter, "was the wand's master."

"Yes," she whispered.

"I see."

No! her mind screamed. No, this can't be right, that can't be what Dumbledore meant...

But it was, and both she and Severus knew it. Fury was rising inside Hermione, hot and viscous; she wanted to throw something, hard, and hear it shatter. Instead, she took a deep breath, clenching her hands into fists at her sides, and said, "If you hadn't killed him already, I'd do it myself."

Severus barked a hollow laugh.

"I'm sorry," she said, and shrugged when he looked at her. "I… I only just worked it out, myself. I'm so stupid. I thought you should know that You-Know-Who might have an unbeatable wand, but I hadn't…"

"You are anything but stupid," Severus said roughly. He reached for her, pulling her against him; she could hear the ragged sound of his breathing and the stutter of his heart. "You've had… quite a lot to think on."

Hermione could feel herself starting to shake, adrenaline pumping wildly through her veins. "He expects… If he wants Harry to be the wand's master…" She couldn't organize her thoughts; hope and despair making her heart leap and plunge. "He didn't want Harry to die," she whispered. "He planned it so Harry wouldn't have to die. The wand… it won't work against its master."

Severus held her tighter. "Yes."

"But -" But the cost of Harry's life was -

"I won't sacrifice you for Harry's sake!" she cried, rearing suddenly away from him. "I won't!"

Severus' face was lined with pain. He opened his mouth as though to speak, then shut it again abruptly and pulled her to him once more. Hermione's nose was squashed against the front of his frock coat; his chest shuddered as though he was trying to get his emotions under control. The last few hours might never have been, for all the despair she felt now.

He buried his face, briefly, in the wilderness of her hair, then, finally stood away from her. "I really must go," he said. "I must… speak to Albus."

He looked calmer than Hermione thought he ought to look, and she narrowed her eyes, knowing he had to be Occluding. "We will figure something out," she said. "We will. This can't possibly be the only way. It's madness. It's… beyond cruel."

The smile he gave her was more of a grimace. "Of course," he said. He touched her cheek, his fingers trailing down to her jaw before falling away. "Be careful. Let me know how… everything goes."

She blurted, "I love you, you know."

Severus was Occluding too strongly for her to tell whether he was startled by her statement of the obvious.

"I love you very much," he said, inflectionless. And then he was gone.

Severus reappeared at the gates of Hogwarts, where his knees promptly buckled. He caught himself on his palms, the dew-wet grass slippery and soaking through the knees of his trousers. Breathing hard, he lowered his head to the ground, trying to shake the coils of fear and rage entrapping him.

At last, he stood and began the trek up the hill to the castle. The sky around the turrets was just turning faintly pink and he could hear birds greeting the dawn from the edges of the Forbidden Forest. The effect was cheerful and lovely and entirely surreal; Severus felt as though his head was clogged. His lungs did not seem to be working properly.

At the stone gargoyle, he paused, touching his fingertips to the cool stone wall to anchor himself. Then he drew in a breath, straightened his shoulders, and spoke the password. The gargoyle leapt aside, and Severus allowed the moving staircase to carry him upwards.

His office was eerily silent, given that every one of the portraits were awake and watchful. Severus moved with slow, deliberate steps across the room, keeping his eyes fixed on the portrait behind his desk. Dumbledore gazed back at him, hard-eyed.

"Well, Severus," he said. "I expect you can explain yourself properly?"

Severus stopped in the center of the room. There was a tinny noise in his ears. "You expect Potter to kill me," he said.

There was a fractional widening of those blue eyes, and then Albus assumed a bland expression. "My dear boy, I don't know what you -"

"Don't patronize me, Dumbledore!" Severus roared. He began to pace, running hand through his hair, tugging it back from his scalp hard enough to hurt.

It was all so clear now, as if a puzzle piece had suddenly fitted itself into its slot, finally giving Severus a view of the entire picture. So bloody obvious.

"Am I not even supposed to tell Potter he must die?" Severus demanded, whirling suddenly on the portrait. "Or am I somehow meant to make him listen to me and then allow him to kill me?"

Albus observed him evenly over the rims of his spectacles. "From where do these questions stem?" he asked.

"I've just put a few things together," Severus said tightly. "Answer me, Albus. I deserve to know."

A long pause, during which Severus could hear faint mutterings from the other portraits. At last Dumbledore heaved a dramatic sigh.

"I had hoped you would not find out," he said, and there was a sadness in his eyes that made Severus feel sick to his stomach.

"I almost wish I hadn't," he muttered.

Dumbledore's eyes narrowed. "How did you?"

Severus sneered at him. "I think you know, old man."

"The girl." It was not a question. "She knows everything?"

Severus hesitated. But there was no reason to hide anything from Dumbledore anymore. The man was a portrait.

"Yes," he said. "Everything." The word reminded him of Hermione - Everything. I want everything. - and his breath caught.

Now Albus looked furious. He half-rose from his painted chair, his knobby fingers clenched around the armrests. "I told you, Severus, to distance yourself from Miss Granger."

"You told me to send Harry Potter to his death!" Severus said. "You told me it was the only way. That I was the only one you trusted to do it. You - you bloody psychopath -"

"Would you really have preferred the truth?" Dumbledore asked. He looked maddeningly calm, now, in the face of Severus' accusations, and Severus held his wand tightly, reminding himself that he could still hex the portrait into ribbons if he chose.

"The truth, meaning that I am expendable to you? I always suspected it of course, but -"

"Not expendable, my boy," Albus said. He settled back into his chair. "Merely… useful. I regret that your usefulness must take this form."

"Of course you do," Severus muttered. He touched a trembling hand to his temple. "Don't pretend you didn't tell me to spare my feelings," he said. "You didn't tell me because you didn't trust me to do what you thought was right. All that tosh about my being able to sacrifice Potter where the others of the Order would not… When it came down to it, you assumed I would still place my own life above the boy's."

Dumbledore studied him. "Will you not?"

Severus clenched his teeth. "I don't see what choice I have. If my living assures the Dark Lord's victory…" He inhaled a ragged breath, feeling light-headed from terror and lack of sleep. "I will not," he said very deliberately, once the room had stopped rotating around him, "watch another woman I… care about… destroyed by the Dark Lord."

Something like smugness played about Dumbledore's mouth. When he spoke, however, his voice was stern.

"I'll say it again - this is why I told you to leave well enough alone where Miss Granger is concerned," he said. "You are taking unacceptable risks to see her - what would have happened, had Harry discovered you so near the safe house? Imagine how Miss Granger would have felt, having to watch… well. Imagine how she will feel, Severus, when events unfold as they must." He smoothed his beard in a self-satisfied manner. "You might have spared her that, at least, had you distanced yourself from her as I requested."

Severus turned away, moving with stumbling steps toward the door leading to his quarters. He could feel the weight of all the portraits' eyes upon him. "As you requested," he said tightly, "I am going to fulfill my promise to you to protect Potter. Leave the rest of it alone, Albus." He looked over his shoulder, into blue eyes that had once seemed to see into his very soul, and which now, he realized, had seen only what they wished to see. "Just… leave it."

He opened the door to his sitting room and went through it on unsteady legs. When he reached the settee, he collapsed upon it and brought his shaking fingers up to cover his face.

A/N: Thank you to my wonderful beta, Ivy Amelia! And thank you as well to everyone who has reviewed; I'm sorry I've been behind in responding recently, but I'll do my best to get caught up, and please know that I truly appreciate your feedback. It really does motivate me to keep writing!