**Caution!* Chapter 78 was posted on May 6th, but due to some glitch on FanFiction, alerts did not go out and the update date was not changed. Therefore, if you have not read this story since before May, you have missed a chapter. Go back and read it. Because some things happened.*

A/N: Those following me on Twitter got the scoop in real time and a few others even managed to find Ch 78 on their own - ten points to each of your Houses! For everyone who messaged me in the last 6 weeks reminding me I "haven't posted since January," fifteen points will be deducted from Gryffindor. (Because y'all are Gryffindor. Ravenclaw and Slytherin would have been more observant, and Hufflepuff would have been too nice to chastise me.)

As always, I'm eagerly awaiting your reviews.


Bound to Him

Chapter 79

Hermione settled into the comfiest armchair in front of the library windows and cracked open Magic and the Higher Self. She flipped deliberately through the pages until coming across a passage appearing relevant to her discussions with Severus on the subject.

Emotion and Feeling are considered by most to be separate constructs, distinguished by their underlying mechanisms. Emotions are physical and temporary, prompting actions in response to stimuli. Conversely, feelings are states of being involving the mental dimension, and are representative of one's true nature and temperament. As accumulations of emotion over time can influence feeling, it is not surprising that uncontrolled emotions can impair one's perception of reality. Even those highly gifted in mental arts are subject to the influence of emotion, whether those emotions are one's own or belong to another.

The witch sighed as she skimmed through several paragraphs similar to readings Severus had assigned for Occlumency. She paused, however, at spotting the word 'soul' and began reading carefully again.

To elevate one's soul into a higher state of being –where decisions are not swayed by emotion, but are instead guided by true feeling and reason – one must learn to regulate their emotional realm. This is a spectacular feat, indeed, as evidenced by the utter scarcity of wizards demonstrating success in the mental disciplines.

Hermione flipped a few more pages until coming to an actual chapter on the soul.

Magical and Muggle scholars alike describe the soul as the incorporeal – possibly immortal – factor animating the living organism. The infamous wizard, Socrates, believed subsequent to the destruction of the body, the soul continues to exist and think, repeatedly rebirthing itself like a Phoenix through successive bodies. His apprentice, Plato, further clarified this idea by arguing only one aspect of the soul, of which there are three, could be considered immortal. This particular aspect, the logos, is associated with reason and is located in the head, while the others – the thymos (emotions) and the eros (desire) – are located near the chest and abdominal regions, respectively.

The witch leaned forward in her chair.

A soul centered and at peace requires a balance of these three aspects, although logos must govern thymos and eros in order for optimal functionality to occur.

"Reason should regulate emotion and desire for stability. Makes sense, I suppose."

Hermione pinched her lips as she wondered how splitting one's soul into multiple Horcruxes disrupted that balance.

The soul is not believed to be the highest dimension of life, but the middle ground linking the corporeal body to the spiritual being and, thus, shares characteristics of both. The spiritual dimension is eternal and cannot be corrupted, though the same cannot be claimed for the soul.

Unconsciously, she began playing with her amethyst pendant while reading the next section.

The Darkest Arts, especially those deemed to be Unforgiveable, are well known for their ability to taint the soul. Other forms of magic – including Pink Magic and some forms of sexual magic – can have opposite effects, strengthening the soul or shifting its balance toward a more spiritual, and thus more pure, state. In certain instances, it is thought an afflicted soul may seek out forms of magic it feels would best soothe its malady. The direction this takes, of course, can be affected, sometimes drastically, by the temperament of the particular individual.

Hermione closed her eyes as she recalled her reaction the week prior. She had marred her soul by using the Unforgivable, and it in turn had all but demanded sexual intercourse with Snape. He had assumed she would desire further destruction, but she had taken a different path. She had needed him not once, but twice, and the sensations that had filled her afterward had left her feeling whole again.

Does that mean I have a better nature and temperament? That the aspects of my soul are balanced? Is that what sets me apart from Bellatrix?

For a week, she had been disgusted with herself. Despite what Severus had said to her – that she was nothing like Bellatrix, that sex had been the far more palatable option – she had not fully believed him. To her, it seemed the worst possible reaction. She could have forgiven herself if further violence had been her outlet, written it off as Dark Magic manipulating her anger and frustration, but sex? It had horrified her that torturing a man to the brink of death could have aroused her to such a state. And the fact Severus had not been bothered, but relieved, by it contributed to her irritation with him.

But this account implied he was right. She had not sought physical intimacy with Severus in celebration over using an Unforgiveable, but in an effort to heal the damage she had wrought. If the book was right, she could stop hating herself for that one act – or two acts, as the case had been. She could forgive Severus for not hating her for it.

Letting out a slow breath, Hermione returned to the book. Her eyes skimmed quickly over the words until they happened upon a sentence referencing soul bonds. She closed her fist over her pendant as she started reading.

Soul bonds, though having lost the popularity seen in days past, are still relatively commonplace in most Magical societies. Many forms of these exist, each differing in their manner of connecting souls and the level of involvement required of the caster. The loosest of these bonds partially link a lone aspect, most likely eros or logos, while more constrictive soul bonds tie together multiple aspects of the soul. When the caster is not solely the caster of the binding magic, but also a participant of the bond, the bond almost always disproportionately favors the caster. For a bond to be centered betwixt connected souls, a person external to the bond ought to serve as the caster. Regardless of the nature of the connection and the identity of the caster, all soul bonds include a physical manifestation of the bond, which can neither be removed nor disguised, on the body of at least one of the bonded.

That was why the Dark Lord had not catalyzed the bond between her and Snape, but had required Snape to control the binding process. It was similar to the Dark Mark binding, in that the connection was one-sided. She had not considered that either of these connections were soul bonds, but they must be.

Hermione was not certain how the Dark Mark was tied – was it part of the logos? The eros? – but her bond with Snape certainly was woven tightly through both of those aspects. Her desire was tied to him, as was her mind. Not only was he privy to all of her thoughts, he could control her speech and actions if he so chose. His magic, an extension of his soul, drew upon hers to establish the connection. Keeping it fueled required copulation, which she later found described as 'an act allowing for temporary joining of souls through the exchange of life's essences and, occasionally, a higher spiritual connection'.

After a few minutes' further reading, Hermione found herself gripping the book tightly.

The immortality of the soul has spurred many throughout history to question whether that phenomenon may be manipulated to produce immortality of an individual life. When a soul rebirths through a new body vessel, a new life is created. This is by no means a perfect separation: new lives may glimpse pieces of past lives, predominantly when conscious barriers are more permeable – while dreaming or in moments of heightened emotion, for instance. The belief that detaching and tethering a piece of one's soul prior to its ultimate departure from a body may immortalize all three aspects, allowing the past life to be restored with the new life in a new vessel. This ought to remain only in theory, however, for a fractured soul is undeniably dangerous and unpredictable.

Horcruxes. They must mean Horcruxes. Hermione frantically scanned the next several pages trying to find any further mention of soul fracturing, but found none. Words and thoughts swirled about in her head as she stared unseeingly at the pages in front of her. Memories, magic, emotions, actions – they were all associated with the soul.

A Horcrux kept those intact, but how are they restored in a new vessel? Do pieces of the soul find each other? Can they recognize one another?

A fractured soul is dangerous and unpredictable. If Dumbledore was correct, the Dark Lord split his soul into seven pieces. At a certain point, can you even control the fracturing? Can a Horcrux be unintentionally created? Or perhaps the soul tethers to something other than what you intended? Is the danger of a fractured soul only to the individual, or can it affect others? If so, how? Do the emotions tied to the soul piece influence others?

Hermione chewed on her bottom lip as she considered Harry's visions from the Dark Lord. They slipped through while he was sleeping, when his conscious barriers were lowered. It had never made sense to her how Harry could have a connection with the Dark Lord that allowed for something like that, but it existed.

Harry's scar could be considered a physical manifestation, just like the Dark Mark or Snape's signature on her back. They could not be removed; they could not be hidden. The Dark Mark burned on the Dark Lord's summons. Her back burned when she disobeyed or the bond needed to be renewed. Harry's scar itched or caused him pain when he had his visions and when the Dark Lord was near. He claimed he could sense what the Dark Lord felt at times.

Harry had demonstrated the ability to do things he had not known he could – speaking Parseltongue, for example – and had been acting increasingly strange recently. Emotional outbursts, sudden changes in personality, actions he could not remember. Releasing the Bludgers which had injured Katie, not paying attention during the Quidditch match and winding up in hospital, attacking Dean and referring to him as a filthy Muggle. His sudden obsession with Ginny when before he had had very little interest in her. He had actually disliked her the first few years he had known her, and now was mooning over her like a deranged stalker.

But that still doesn't make sense. Why would a soul connection with the Dark Lord include desire for Ginny Weasley? It's not as though the Dark Lord had spent any time with… oh. Oh, god! Severus said Tom Riddle's diary had been a Horcrux. Ginny had been possessed through that diary, had opened up the Chamber of Secrets among other terrible things, and nearly had her life force drained by Tom Riddle's memory. Ginny touched the Dark Lord's soul, and now Harry was unconsciously drawn to her.

"Fuck!" Hermione cried out as the realizations slammed together in her head and propelled her out of the chair. With the book clutched tightly in one hand, she sprinted out of the library, barely registering Madam Pince's shout.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Severus, I wonder if we might have a moment of your time."

Expelling a deep sigh at the sound of the werewolf, Snape pressed his forehead against his office door before begrudgingly reopening it.

"Wotcher, Professor," Tonks smirked as she followed Remus inside.

The Slytherin glared at the ceiling for a second, then slammed the door shut with a locking charm. He wordlessly cast a Muffliato while stalking toward his desk. "What is it now?"

Lupin looked meaningfully toward his witch, who stepped forward. "I've been instructed to stand down from the Thomas investigation."

Severus raised one eyebrow as he sank into his chair. "And?"

"And?" the Defense instructor repeated. "What do you mean, 'And?'?"

"I mean, 'And why are you here bothering me with this?'" he retorted with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Remus frowned. "Albus has convinced Dean Thomas to decline any action on the part of the Aurory. I would have thought you, of all people, might understand –"

"I would have imagined the two of you, of all people, might understand just why an investigation should not proceed," Snape interrupted, leveling a cold glare at his former classmate.

Tonks glanced curiously between the two men, who continued staring each other down. She placed a hand on her hip and cleared her throat. "And why might that be? Explain it for those of us who don't speak Slytherin."

Snape shifted his gaze away from the wolf and settled it on her. "Were the Aurory to keep looking into the unfortunate incident, which nearly killed Mr. Thomas, they would have to continue looking into Potter. The Aurory would leak, as it always does, and then the speculation will be in the Daily Prophet, which has already demonstrated its ability to tear apart our Boy Saviour's not-so-savory reputation, as well as that of our illustrious Headmaster. While the populace does finally recognize the return of the Dark Lord after the fiasco in the Ministry, they have not magically regained their love for the tot who defeated the Dark Lord, seeing as the Dark Lord is not, as it were, defeated. With the Aurory, the press, the populace, and the Dark Lord working against Potter, it would make it incredibly unlikely the defeat of the Dark Lord would actually come to fruition."

The witch let out a deep sigh and tugged at her pink locks. "Damn."

Grunting in agreement, Severus leaned back in his chair and studied Lupin, who had folded his arms to his chest and was glaring at the wall. "I'm fairly certain Potter had no control over his actions that night. Perhaps time will elucidate just who was, but he will be cast as the villain in the meantime. Surely, you can understand why the Headmaster wants to protect him."

Remus's expression was tight as he met the man's eyes.

"And if Potter isn't held accountable, it will be Draco Malfoy who takes the fall for no other reason than he was in the same castle at the time of the attack. They will continue to investigate him, likely uncover his relationship with Miss Granger, and get a hefty price put on both of their heads." He flicked his eyes between them. "Unless the two of you have reason to suspect he was purposefully using you as an alibi to disguise his involvement."

Tonks inhaled loudly and shook her head. "I highly doubt it. It was not as though Malfoy wanted to engage with us. It was very evident he wanted to be left alone, but you know me –"

"Indeed," Severus mumbled.

"—it's almost like I can't take a hint," she winked. "There was no indication he was hiding anything, and his reaction to being accused was entirely sincere."

The spy cocked his head. "I was not aware the Aurory included Legilimency as a part of their training."

"Again: Metamorphagus. Reading micro-expressions is a skill I've picked up over the years. Comes in handy."

"And yet you couldn't tell that that ignoramus," he gestured toward Remus, "wanted to stick his snout up your skirt."

A faint blush graced the Auror's cheeks as she laughed and peeked at her red-faced, scowling boyfriend. "Well, it's not fool-proof."

"Meaning you allowed emotion to cloud your perception."

Tonks shrugged, then elbowed Remus to get him to stop glaring at the Slytherin. "'Spose so, yes. But I don't think I'm wrong on Malfoy."

"I admit I am relieved to hear…" His eyes snapped to the door as it suddenly burst open, and he quickly made a show of canceling the Muffliato. "Damn it, Granger! Have we not already addressed your blatant disregard for polite behavior? I do not tolerate students barging into my office without being invited to do so."

Hermione winced at his words and sheepishly examined the room. "I'm sorry, Professor, but I -"

"Am I to be invaded by every hard-headed do-gooder in the castle? Your Head of House wouldn't happen to be lurking about out there, as well?" Severus sneered, noticing Tonks eyeing the door with interest. Fuck. She knows I locked it.

"Hermione, are you alright?" Remus inquired.

"I…"

Snape sat forward in his seat. "I presume this is a matter of some urgency, yes? That door would not have allowed you in, otherwise."

"It is, yes," she nodded, emphatically. "It's… it's about Draco. Please? You're the only one I can talk to."

The Slytherin Head gestured for her to step forward, and then glared at the two Order members. Neither of them showed any signs of exiting the room, though it did appear the Auror had accepted his explanation regarding the door. "Given your reluctance to speak, and the fact I'm the only one you can talk to, I presume you wish not to have an audience? I'd suggest my sitting room, but seeing as I have no desire to have my head bashed in again by a werewolf…"

Tonks raised two eyebrows at Remus, who shifted uncomfortably. With a bemused grin, she took his arm and moved toward the door. "We'll just wait outside."

Wait for what, exactly? There's nothing more to be discussed. I'm not inviting you back in for tea.

"Feel free to wait farther away than that. Much farther. I insist." Severus sighed and waited for the door to shut before recasting his muffling charm. "What was so bloody important that –"

"Can a living being be turned into a Horcrux?" Hermione blurted.

His eyes went wide, surprised by the question. Regaining his thoughts, he cleared his throat. "I'm certain that damn snake of his is one, yes."

"I'm not talking about the snake!" she exclaimed. "Though, that does make complete sense. Especially given what happened with Mr. Weasley…and with me earlier this year. I can't believe I didn't -"

"If you were not referring to the snake," Snape questioned, attempting to regain her attention, "then what –"

"Harry."

His brow furled as he noticed her anxious expression. "What?"

"Could he be a Horcrux?"

"You think Potter is…" Snape tilted his head in question. "Why?"

Hermione dropped a book down on his desk, nearly upsetting his inkwell, and shakily flicked through pages. "It's in here…"

He grabbed hold of her hands. "Just… why don't you just tell me what it is you found? You're going to do so anyway, whether or not I attempt to read this."

"S-sorry." Heaving in a deep breath, the witch launched into a detailed explanation of everything she had read, and the connections she had made to Harry's behavior.

Severus focused intently on her words for several minutes, until his own unanswered questions resurfaced and suddenly began to make some sense. If it were true Potter had had a piece of the Dark Lord's soul embedded within him, then perhaps Petunia's tale was not entirely exaggerated. It could account for why a babe unable to do much more than soil himself could have demonstrated such control over magic, or how he had become a Parselmouth, though no Potter in recent history had possessed the skill.

And it would explain why, assuming Petunia's being truthful, things about the Dursley home are more pleasant when Potter's away. He briefly pinched his eyes shut. Dark Magic could negatively impact bystanders, altering their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The influence of Dark Magic would be even more pronounced on Muggles, who had no magic of their own to protect them. Potter was little more than a year old when the Dursleys took him in, which meant they could have been living in close quarters with a Horcrux for a decade before the boy finally left for Hogwarts. A decade housing a shard of the Dark Lord's soul, having their anger, fears, and frustrations preyed upon and manipulated. They probably recognized it enough to know their discontentment stemmed from Potter, which makes it more likely he became a target of their abuse.

For what was probably the tenth time in the last few days, Snape cursed himself for not pressing Petunia on what she meant by 'time out'. Perhaps they found placing a physical barrier between themselves and Potter relieved some of the effect. Which would be why Potter spent more time in time out than out of it.

Fuck. He stared down at the book on his desk as he debated if it could be true and whether or not Dumbledore knew about it.

"Severus?"

His eyes gradually raised to her face. They stared at one another silently until he shot out of his chair.

"Where are you going?" she asked, whipping around to watch him hurrying toward the door.

"To confirm your fucking theory."

"Severus!"

Pausing with his hand on the door knob, he turned back to look at her.

"Tell me I'm wrong," the girl pleaded. "Please."

He pinched his lips into a thin line before uttering, "I hope to God you are."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Severus! What can I…" Dumbledore observed the dark expression on the man's face, and then inhaled dramatically. "If you are here to protest about Mr. Thomas –"

"At the present moment, Headmaster," the Slytherin ground out, "I couldn't be arsed to give two shits about Thomas."

The old man's eyebrows rose in surprise. "So, your storming in here without appointment has to do with –"

"Potter."

The corners of his lips twitched upward. "Of course. I should have known –"

"Is he a Horcrux?"

Albus froze, staring at him in shock.

Snape shifted his stance and placed his hand atop the nearest chair to steady himself. "He is, isn't he?"

The Headmaster remained still, which was all the confirmation the Slytherin needed. Slamming down his Occlumency shields, Severus forced his voice to remain calm. "How long have you known?"

Finally, Dumbledore moved his head. "I began seeing evidence pointing to that conclusion during his second year."

"When he spoke Parseltongue," the younger man surmised bitterly. "I came to you, Albus, with my concerns about that, and you dismissed them as being unnecessary."

Albus leaned back in his seat. "I recall telling you I thought some of Voldemort's power transferred to Harry–"

"His magical ability, yes," Severus interrupted. "You said nothing about his fucking soul having transferred."

"Magic is merely an extension of the soul."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Are you implying I should have pieced it together then?"

"Of course not," Dumbledore replied. "You were not yet meant to know."

"Not yet," he repeated. "But I was meant to know?"

"I was not certain of that until recently, but yes, I did intend to tell you… before the end." The wizard folded his hands in his lap. "I suppose now is as good a time as any. Might I ask how you came to this conclusion?"

Though he did not want to take credit for the discovery, he had no desire to place Hermione in the crosshairs. "I've been researching to better understand how Granger and I are connected. Reading in the aftermath of Potter's attack on Thomas led me to consider the possibility."

"I see," Albus murmured. "I did not anticipate such an event might occur."

"You did not anticipate the Dark Lord might influence Potter to harm someone," Severus interrogated, "or that someone might figure out the nature of their connection?"

"I was referring to the former."

That does not exclude the latter. The spy rubbed at his forehead in frustration. "This is why Potter needed to practice his Occlumency. So he couldn't be influenced!"

"Were you so concerned about Potter's Occlumency, I wonder at your dismissing him so resolutely from your lessons," the old man stated quietly.

Fire flashed across Snape's eyes as he stepped closer to the desk. "You know as well as I do it was a mistake to have me train him. He's never respected my authority –"

"Respect typically has to be earned, Severus."

"I stood in front of a fully transformed werewolf for that boy! That should have earned me enough respect for him to keep his nose out of my memories!" he protested. "I placed those copies in the Pensieve so they were less vibrant in my head, less likely to be stumbled upon should a backlash occur. Had I not come back when I did, he would have seen everything! You've never seemed terribly concerned about that fact, which is especially curious given you've known for more than four years that Potter's been carrying around a piece of the Dark Lord's soul in his head. Had the Dark Lord seen… or had he any inkling I actually wanted Potter to learn to protect himself, I would not be standing here before you right now. I would be dead. Or still being torn into pieces, praying for the mercy of death."

"I realize this, Severus." Albus sighed. "But I do not think it was as dangerous as you think –"

"I'd wager Black might see it differently."

" – as Riddle does not seem to recognize the true nature of his connection with Harry. Consciously trying to influence Harry was incredibly painful and exhausting because he was, in effect, striving to do the impossible. Once a soul has been split and physically separated, the pieces cannot be recombined." Dumbledore inhaled deeply and shook his head. "We can rest assured Riddle has not recognized why it affected him as it did, however, for if he did, his desire to kill Harry would quickly come to an end."

"Perhaps Potter is protected from intentional manipulation by the Dark Lord, but clearly the unconscious influence has proven just as dangerous. Had Dean Thomas died, you would not have been able to sweep this under the rug so easily, seeing as a corpse cannot refuse to press charges," Snape argued. "You need to stress to Potter how important it is that he practice and employ Occlumency tactics. He cannot let his guard down!"

"I appreciate your concern, Severus," the Headmaster acknowledged in a weary tone, "but you do not fully grasp the situation."

"Then explain it to me," he hissed, feeling guilty for having been similarly condescending toward Tonks.

"There is a piece of Voldemort's soul embedded within Harry," Dumbledore began, leaning forward. "He can sense not only Voldemort, but Nagini as well. Without this connection, we would not have known Nagini was a Horcrux."

"Hardly," Severus countered. "I considered that beast from the start."

"Perhaps so, but have you determined the identity of the other three?" Albus chided with a tilt of his head. "Harry is the key to finding them. Any inanimate object could have been corrupted by Voldemort's soul, and without the ability to discern what is actually a Horcrux from any other manner of cursed object, we would stand no hope of success."

"You mean Potter can see where or what they are?"

Dumbledore shook his head. "Not quite. I believe Harry receives visions from Voldemort and Nagini because they are living organisms. He has not received visions that cannot be attributed to either of those, which leads me to believe the remaining Horcruxes are inanimate objects. It surprises me that Voldemort did choose Nagini since there are obvious disadvantages to using an animate being to house one's soul. But regarding Harry, while he cannot see the other Horcruxes, he can sense when they are near. He will be drawn to them. Just as he was drawn to Miss Weasley."

The younger man blinked at the admission. "The ring. He detected the ring that put us all into this mess."

With a sigh, the Headmaster nodded.

A heavy feeling settled in Snape's stomach. "So once the other Horcruxes are found and destroyed, how do we separate the Dark Lord's soul from Potter?"

Albus remained silent for a few seconds and then cleared his throat. "The prophecy you overheard and delivered to Voldemort… there was more to it."

Severus swallowed slowly, trying to ignore the guilt that always crept in whenever the prophecy was mentioned. "The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches, born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…"

"And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not," the old wizard added. "And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives. The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies."

"How does that change anything?" the spy asked. "We've known Potter was meant to bring about the Dark Lord's demise. Does this mean he is the only one who can kill him?"

Dumbledore shook his head.

"But either must die at the hand of the other. That seems to suggest…" Severus trailed off upon noticing the man's blank face. "You mean… No. No, that cannot be."

The Headmaster gave a slow nod. "A Horcrux depends upon its host for survival. As long as Harry lives, so too does that piece of Voldemort. A parasitic growth that will gain in strength, consuming him while it keeps Voldemort's main soul tied to this world, allowing him to regain another physical form."

"Then the boy has to die?" he enunciated slowly, struggling to keep control.

"And Voldemort himself must do it. That is imperative."

Snape shook his head. "I thought we were protecting him. I swore to you that I would protect him! For her. For Lily."

"We've protected Harry because it was necessary to train him so he could step into the role for which he was destined. But the only way to destroy a Horcrux is to destroy it's vessel beyond all repair."

"He's not a vessel!" Severus snapped. "He's a human being – a child, for fuck's sake! And you've been manipulating him to his own death."

"As regrettable as it may be, it is for the – "

"The greater good? And who the fuck made you Lord Supreme! Just how many of us have you slated to die?"

"Severus, it is the only way."

As his stomach twisted, Snape stared at the man in horrified disbelief. "Does… does Potter know?"

"It is not yet time for him to know."

"Not yet time," he repeated in a whisper.

"When the time does come," Albus continued calmly, "you must be the one to tell him. At that time, Harry will know in his heart that it must be. I am confident he will do everything he can to ensure things are arranged in such a fashion that when he does face his death at the hands of Voldemort, it will spell the absolute end of Voldemort."

The Slytherin stood silent for several seconds. "You've suspected the boy was a Horcrux since his second year. When did you realize he was meant to die?"

"That is not –"

"How long have you fucking known?" he snarled.

Dumbledore huffed quietly and folded his arms. "I was not immediately certain."

Severus ineffectually raised a fist and then dropped it to his side. "You've intended for him to die… all these years… you've just been keeping him alive so the Dark Lord can murder him at the proper moment?"

"I cannot fathom why you seem shocked by this, Severus," the old man stated as he rose from his chair. "You know we are fast approaching all-out war. Men, women, children will die. There is no denying that. But more will die if Voldemort remains in power. You've been in his service nearly twenty years. How many deaths have you witnessed? How many men and women have you personally sent to their deaths? How many were tortured, maimed, raped while you stood by and did nothing? How many did you -"

"Which I've done on your orders!" Snape shouted, retreating a step as the Headmaster advanced. "For seventeen years, I have done everything you asked of me. I have spied; I have lied; I nearly died on several occasions. For you. All of it was for you, for Potter… for Lily. Because you told me it was all necessary to keep the boy safe! But you've merely been using me while you raise him like a prized hog – once he's finished snuffling out all of the truffles for you, you'll send him to slaughter!"

"Well isn't this touching?" Albus said with a half-smile. "Don't tell me, despite all of your criticisms and condemnations throughout the years, you've grown to care for the boy?"

The spy glared at him. "You know I've loved Lily Evans since I was a boy. He is her son. 'If I truly loved her,' you said…"

"Given the fascination with Miss Granger that has consumed you of late, one might question whether you've retained any devotion to Lily Potter."

Severus squared his jaw and drew his wand. Without breaking eye contact with the Headmaster, he cast his Patronus. A curious expression on his face, Dumbledore watched the silver doe springing gracefully about the office. It moved skittishly past the old man before circling tightly about Snape, gently butting its head against his outstretched palm. The doe then leaped up on the desk and, with one last peek over its shoulder, jumped at the window, fading from sight.

Dumbledore swung his gaze back to the man standing before him. "I have not seen your Patronus since Christmas, and even then it was barely corporeal. It's still Lily who resides in your heart?"

"Always," Snape breathed. "Nothing can change my love for her. I would die to protect her son."

The Headmaster eyed him critically. "Even if it meant sacrificing Miss Granger?"

Shame flooded his system upon realizing he had neglected to consider the consequences of their bond. Uncertain as to how to answer the question, he ducked his head.

"You may condemn me for my tactical decisions, for placing the fate of the entire Wizarding World ahead of a handful of lives," Albus commented calmly, "but do not forget you also deal in death."

Severus closed his eyes and pivoted to leave.

"Before I excuse you," Dumbledore challenged. "I'm afraid I must be certain you will not share what we've discussed with anyone but Harry when the time comes."

The Slytherin slowly turned around. "What about Minerva? Should she not know?"

The Headmaster shook his head. "There is no need for her know. It is enough that you do. You will find a way to tell Harry."

"But she'll be the Head of the Order."

"And she will know exactly what she needs to know. The more people who know of Harry's true connection with Voldemort, the more likely it is Voldemort will come to learn of it. Furthermore, I do not trust that Minerva, nor the rest of the Order, will be able to set emotion aside enough to see the reason why Harry must eventually meet his death. It must be you, Severus."

The Headmaster cleared his throat and gestured toward the man's hand. "I do not think a wand oath is not too much to ask."

"And if I refuse?"

The hint of a smile on Dumbledore's face vanished. "I have tolerated enough insubordination from you, Severus. I have been far more lenient with you than I ought to have been. I have agreed not to allow all ties between you and the Order to be severed after my death, so do not tempt me to reverse that decision."

"You swore in Minerva as your successor," Snape argued. "You cannot revoke that."

"It is true I promised that Minerva will head the Order of the Phoenix," Albus nodded. "But that does not prevent me from disbanding the Order of the Phoenix and founding a similar organization to be led by Alastor Moody."

The spy's eyes widened, and his brow furled. "You would cut her out?"

"That would be the more agreeable option."

Severus reeled back, recognizing the statement contained an unspoken threat against Minerva's life. "You wouldn't…"

"I don't believe you are in a position to dictate what I do," the wizard asserted calmly. "I may have conceded to your demands out of gratitude for you agreeing to kill me, but do not think you possess any great leverage over me. I will be dead soon regardless of your participation, but your fate could vary greatly depending on my say so. Given your dedication to Lily Potter, I would presume you would prefer being in a position to aid her son over rotting away in Azkaban awaiting sentencing for all of your crimes. Perhaps when Voldemort secures victory, he'll take pity on you and release you from the dementors' custody."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

How fucking stupid could you be? Severus strode angrily through the corridors, grateful the majority of students had already vacated the castle. His emotions had been running high since leaving the Headmaster's office, and he did not need any students witnessing his impending meltdown.

He slowed his pace outside a familiar door, but stopped short upon finding it locked. The pause allowed his brain to catch up with the rest of him. With a loud thunk, Snape hit his forehead upon the wooden door of the Deputy Headmistress's office. Why the hell are you here? You can't tell her anything, fuckwit.

Severus pounded a fist against the door in frustration. He then pushed away and hesitated at the nearest set of staircases. Not wishing to run into Lupin or Tonks, should they still be lurking outside his office, he opted to head upstairs to his quarters instead. Once he had a better grip on himself – and figured out just how much he could not say while under his oath of silence - he would check on Hermione and find a way to give Minerva the information she needed.

As soon as the portrait door shut behind him, the man kicked the nearest end table, then blasted it into several pieces with his wand. His eyes watering, he sagged against the back of the armchair and covered his face with his hands. He cursed himself again for not stopping to think, for not going to Minerva first, before he stormed into the Headmaster's office. He was not some bull-headed Gryffindor, for Circe's sake!

With a roar, Severus grabbed both sides of the chair and heaved it away from him. It teetered on two legs before toppling into the bookshelf, displacing several of his books.

He should have known better than to press Dumbledore further after everything that had occurred recently. Of course Dumbledore would have felt threatened – even his faithful wolf had taken to questioning his decisions – and would do what he could to ensure he maintained control over the situation.

Snape's hands began to shake, and within moments he heard glass shattering. A startled cry caught his attention. He whirled about to see Hermione standing in the doorway to his bedroom, staring in shock at the glass lamp that had just exploded.

"Granger!" he snarled. "Why are you always here?!"

The witch flinched at his tone, but stepped nearer. "I needed to know. Is it… is it true?"

Severus opened his mouth, intending to rage 'Of course it fucking is!', but no sound came out. With a grimace, he turned on his heel and hissed, "You blithering imbecile!"

Hermione's eyes narrowed and lips parted at the exclamation. Though she did not think the statement was directed at her, it still stung a bit. Swallowing in apprehension, she moved a few steps further into the room. "Severus… please tell me what you found out."

When he refused to answer, she frowned and crossed her arms. "Severus! Harry is my best friend, and I'm the one who came to you about… about this. I deserve to know what you know!"

Snape punched the mantle, but was saved from having to say something when the door opened.

Closing the door behind her, Minerva peered at the broken end table and shattered glass before eyeing the pair of them. Concern was etched on her face as she meandered into the middle of the room. "Severus? One of the portraits said you were looking for me. What's happened?"

The wizard stared at her, trying to find something he could say. Failing, he swore under his breath and turned away.

McGonagall watched him for a moment before looking toward the girl. "Hermione?"

"He went to speak with Dumbledore earlier about a concern I had, but now he's refusing to tell me what he learned," the young witch grumbled. "He just keeps cursing at me."

Frowning, the Deputy Headmistress returned her gaze to Snape, who met it. She could see the shame held in his eyes, which spurred an uncomfortable feeling to roll in her gut. "Severus… He swore you to silence, didn't he?"

He dropped his eyes to the floor. As the elder witch groaned and tugged on her hair, Hermione glanced between the two of them in confusion. "What?"

Minerva sank onto the arm of the sofa. "Albus Dumbledore appears to have a penchant for keeping information to himself by silencing those who discover it."

"Silencing?"

"Through wand oaths," she explained, then shifted her eyes to the man standing before the fireplace. "He had leverage on you this time?"

Severus winced and leaned against the mantle. "Granger can tell you what her concerns were."

Feeling guilty for having shouted at him, Hermione nervously explained everything she had brought to Snape earlier.

"A Horcrux?" McGonagall queried, having lost all color.

"It's a –"

Her Head of House held up a hand. "I am aware of what it is. I worked in Magical Law Enforcement for a brief spell. But you're saying You-Know-Who was able to create a Horcrux?"

"Not just one," Severus sighed.

"Six, according to Dumbledore," Hermione added.

The Slytherin turned back to face them. "He intended to make six."

"So six Horcruxes plus Potter. Lord above."

"Two have already been destroyed."

"So we have four more to find. Potentially. If Albus isn't mistaken on that count, or provided You-Know-Who didn't unintentionally create any others." Minerva rubbed her hands over her face and shook her head. "What does this mean for us? For Potter?"

After a minute, Hermione dared to whisper, "It means Harry has to die, doesn't it?"

Severus closed his eyes and turned back to the fireplace. A heavy silence descended upon the room while the two witches digested the news. Eventually, Hermione could not bear to stand around uselessly any longer and moved to clean up the broken lamp.

As she crouched down, Snape spun around with his hand extended. "No! Leave it alone!"

The girl startled backwards at his shout, but kept her balance enough to resume standing. "I just wanted to –"

"Don't."

Minerva took in a slow breath and then cleared her throat. "Hermione, could you perhaps give us a moment?"

With a quiet huff, the girl returned to the bedroom and closed the door. The Deputy Headmistress then stood from the sofa and approached her colleague.

"Severus." She rested placed her hands on his arms. "Take a deep breath."

The man attempted to turn away from her, but she held firm.

"Look at me, Severus," she whispered, raising one hand to his face. When his dark eyes finally met hers, she willed her voice to remain steady while she stroked his cheek with her thumb. "This isn't your fault."

"I should've come to you first," he declared.

"Perhaps," the witch agreed. "But then what would I have done? I likely would have responded similarly, storming into his office and getting the pair of us in trouble."

Snape snorted tiredly. "You're a Gryffindor. It's to be expected."

"And you're human, Severus," she countered. "Humans don't always respond with complete logic in every situation."

"I can't afford to make mistakes."

Minerva sighed. "It was a minor setback, Severus. That's all. We've already overcome it, haven't we?"

"Not entirely."

"There's more you'd like me to tell me?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "Small details could be important."

"Well, you'll find a way to share them with me," she replied, returning her hand to his forearm. When he regarded her dubiously, she squeezed his arm. "You will. Get some sleep, clear your head…and then, you'll figure it out."

The woman gave him a sympathetic smile before she made to step away. When he gently gripped her wrist, however, she paused and looked back to see pain written in his eyes. "Severus?"

Almost immediately, Snape shook his head and released her. "Nothing. I'm sorry."

She watched him move toward the sofa. "Severus, what is it? Please… I'd like to know."

His shoulders were rigid as he kept his back to her. When he did finally speak, it was in a throaty whisper, which she almost did not catch. "I've failed her."

Minerva narrowed her brow as she reached his side, turning his body to face her. "Lily, you mean?"

He gave the briefest of nods without meeting her eyes.

"No." She grasped his robes and shook her head. "You've done so much for Potter. More than any of us."

"It's not enough."

McGonagall blinked back the urge to cry. She knew Severus felt guilty for being unable to protect his mother and similarly felt inadequate about keeping Hermione safe. He blamed himself for Lily's death, and had sworn his life to protect her son. Now, it seemed as though he was destined to fail in that regard. "It isn't your fault, Severus. No matter what happens."

"If I hadn't given him the prophecy…"

Unable to contain herself, the woman slipped her hand behind his neck and tugged his head down against hers. Their difference in height made it a bit awkward, but the wizard raised no protest. Closing her eyes, she held onto him for several seconds before she intoned, "Albus Dumbledore does not know everything. I don't care what he says. We will keep trying. We're not giving up just because he thinks it must be so. Even if all we can do is pray for a bloody miracle, we will not give up. Alright?"

Severus sniffed audibly, but nodded his head.

"Good," Minerva grunted. As he pulled back, she held onto him just long enough to touch her lips to his forehead. He tossed her a disgruntled look, but she merely patted his chest. "Will you be alright tonight?"

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Irritated, Hermione trudged into the bedroom and shut the door almost all the way. Having been snapped at by Snape and then asked to leave the room by Minerva as though it had been her fault, she felt justified in peering through the crack of the door. Upon witnessing McGonagall attempting to comfort the wizard, however, her anger deflated. Not wishing to intrude on their privacy any longer, the girl retreated to the bed. She tugged one of the pillows down under her head and curled into a ball.

A small part of her was jealous. Severus, though he did want to see Harry prevail over the Dark Lord, did not even like Harry. Yet he was the one receiving comfort, while she had been sent away. Harry was her best friend. Though she had been frustrated and angry with the boy recently, she had never stopped loving him. He was as close to a brother as she had ever had, and she was going to have to let him die.

Tears trickled down her cheeks as she clung tightly to the pillow as though she were afraid it might leave her as well. The more she thought about Harry – about their friendship, about everything he had endured, about how a shard of evil was attempting to corrupt him from the inside out – the worse she felt, until finally she was sobbing silently into the pillow.

The warmth of a hand on her shoulder surprised Hermione enough to turn over. Severus sat beside her on the bed and, though he was not looking at her, she crawled closer to him. She rested her head on his thigh for a minute before moving onto his lap and burying her face into his shoulder. His arms came around her, and he silently held her until her tears finally stopped.

"I am sorry," he whispered.

Hermione wiped at her eyes with her sleeve, but did not remove her head from his shoulder. "You don't need to apologize. It's not like you turned him into a Horcrux."

The wizard went rigid and after a moment moved her aside.

"What… Severus?" the girl exclaimed as he disappeared into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. When he did not emerge for several minutes, she slipped off the bed and knocked on the door. "Is something wrong?"

Her question was met with silence, so Hermione cracked open the door to find the Slytherin bent over the sink with his eyes closed. "Severus?"

Snape straightened and faced her. "The Dark Lord knew of the prophecy because I was the one who told him. Based on my information, he decided it was Potter. So, yes, in a way, I am responsible."

Her mouth parted at the admission, and the witch leaned against the tub as she tried to wrap her head around its implications. She recalled a conversation from months ago in which Severus had mentioned that Dumbledore had secured his loyalty by granting him the chance to make reparations for terrible things he had done. One of those terrible things had been sharing the prophecy with the Dark Lord, then. Severus had gone to Dumbledore to try to save Lily, and had dedicated his life to serving the Order and protecting Harry because he blamed himself for her death.

And now he's blaming himself for failing Lily all over again because Harry has to die. Hermione covered her mouth with her hand as she realized that must have been why Professor McGonagall had sent her from the room. Severus had not been upset just because he had been forced into an oath of silence, but because he thought the debt he owed could never be repaid.

Gulping down air, the witch finally noticed the man had left the room. Quietly, she walked toward the sitting room, where she found him re-shelving the books he had displaced earlier. A part of her itched to assist him, but she reasoned he would only snap at her again for doing so.

Too tired, too numb to know how to deal with the situation, Hermione padded back into the bedroom. After using the lavatory and washing her face with cold water, she extinguished the lights, stripped down, and crawled under the covers. She laid there, silently staring into the dark, unable to sleep.

Eventually, the witch heard Snape enter the room and then close the bathroom door. A moment later, the shower turned on. Focusing on the sound of the water, she attempted to clear her mind enough to allow sleep to come, but she was still awake by the time he finished.

"I thought you had left," the man murmured while donning his sleep clothes.

Hermione finally rolled over to face him and then pulled herself up against the headboard. "Would you rather I left?"

"I don't care what you do, Granger."

With a frown, she folded her arms to her chest. "Hermione."

He peeked over his shoulder at her and then grunted, "Habit, I guess."

"It's habit for me to call you Professor," she countered, "but when half-dressed and in your bed, I don't deem it appropriate. Or would you disagree… sir?"

Severus sighed as he sank onto the edge of the bed. "My apologies, Hermione."

"Thank you, Severus."

"Would you explain why you're half-dressed and in my bed?"

"Because I'm not ready to face Harry just yet," she replied. "And… I like being with you. Usually."

His voice was stilted as he wondered, "Even knowing what you do now?"

She shrugged. "What does that change, Severus? I already knew you'd done awful things and that you've been working so hard to make up for them. Given all of the terrible things I've done, without thinking of the consequences, how could I judge you for doing similarly?"

When he merely frowned, Hermione crept toward him. "Not everything is your fault, Severus. What's done is done. We need to focus our energy on what is to come, not on what could have happened. You told me that. You also told me that I won't be responsible for whatever happens after the Dark Lord uses the information I provided about the tunnels. Were you lying to me?"

"No."

"Then why would I blame you, if you won't blame me?"

Snape sighed deeply as she took hold of his hand.

"You're a good man, Severus. I know that. Whatever terrible things you've done or will have to do won't change that."

The man eyed her for a moment and then lifted her hand. After pressing his lips to her knuckles, he gestured toward the pillows. "It's been a long day."

Nodding, Hermione returned to her side of the bed. She watched him slip under the covers beside her and turn on his side away from her. After several minutes, she snuggled into his back and slid her hands beneath his shirt.

"Hermione."

"I just need to feel you," she confided. "I like knowing I'm not alone."

With a quiet groan, Severus rolled onto his back carefully so as not to hurt her. He then lifted his arm and allowed her to rest her head on his chest.

"I don't want him to die."

"Nor do I."

Slipping her leg between his, the witch wrapped herself tighter around him and tucked her head beneath his chin. His hand stroked her shoulder, eventually prompting her to kiss his throat. His hand stilled momentarily, but resumed as she continued to deliver soft kisses along his neck and the underside of his jaw. She raised up to kiss his chin and then met his eyes before lowering her lips to his. As his hand moved up to her hair, hers unbuttoned his pajama shirt and smoothed over his chest.

"I want to feel better for a little while," Hermione whispered. "Please?"

Severus responded by seeking her lips again and raising the hem of her vest. She leaned back long enough for him to tug it over her head, then pressed her breasts into his hands as she desperately reclaimed his mouth.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Waking slowly, Hermione rubbed her eyes with the butt of her hand. Noticing the space beside her was vacant, she propped herself up on her elbow. Severus sat fully dressed in the chair, watching her as though he had been waiting for her to awaken.

"Severus?" she asked groggily.

'Harry Potter is a Horcrux the Dark Lord did not intentionally create.'

The witch stopped blinking to glare at him. "I know that! I was the one who told you, if you recall."

'But you heard it.'

Hermione huffed. "Yes, of course I heard it. I…"

She trailed off and widened her eyes. "I heard it, Severus!"

"When you're ready for the day and have eaten breakfast, we'll go to Minerva. There are details I'd rather she have in case something happens."

"Oh, right," Hermione nodded.

Snape could not prevent the hint of a smirk that came to his face when she all but leapt from beneath the covers. When she finally recalled her state of nakedness, her attention was partly diverted into finding her clothes.

After muttering a few choice words of frustration when it took her several attempts to clasp her bra, the girl tugged her jumper over her head. "We can go now."

The man snorted. "While I appreciate the expediency, I believe I mentioned breakfast was a prerequisite."

"I'm not particularly hungry, though, so –"

"When was the last time you ate anything substantial?" he asked, folding his arms.

"Well, yesterday, of course," she stalled, thinking back on the past 24 hours and realizing she had not eaten much of anything. Still, she had nibbled on a bit of the brunch that had been sent up to Gryffindor Tower.

"Even if I weren't presently in your head," Snape sneered, "I would be able to tell you were about to lie to me. One piece of toast and some fruit is not enough food for a Muggle, let alone a witch who has been training both physically and mentally. I hope you haven't forgotten our arrangement regarding meals?"

Hermione grimaced at the thought of being commanded to eat. "Fine. But you're eating with me. What's good for the goose, you know."

Standing from his chair, the Slytherin Head gave a mocking bow and then left to place an order with the kitchens.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"You two are up early," Minerva commented, attempting to finish her hair as she pointed them toward the sofa. "What is it you need?"

"I've found a way around the oath," Severus explained.

"That hardly took you any time at all."

Unintentionally flicking his gaze to Hermione, he replied, "Just needed to clear my head… like you said."

McGonagall snickered at seeing the girl's blush, and then crossed to the fireplace. "I need coffee at least before hearing this. Would either of you care for anything?"

Hermione cleared her throat as soon as the elder witch had taken a seat. "He can use me."

"The connection wasn't affected by the oath?" Minerva asked.

The girl glanced at Snape before answering, "He swore not to communicate what was discussed with anyone else, but our connection apparently isn't included in that. Why is that? Because I'm bound by your magic, is that it?"

Severus sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I simply thought to try it and it worked."

"Well, I'm glad it did." The Deputy Headmistress smiled as the coffee tray appeared on the table in front of them. She poured herself a cup, took a sip, and settled back in her chair. "Alright. I'm awake enough to make sense of things."

There was a brief pause before Hermione spoke again. "There was more to the prophecy than what was repeated to the Dark Lord."

Minerva frowned over her coffee as she listened to the complete prophecy. "Neither can live while the other survives? Well, if Potter's one of the Dark Lord's Horcruxes that isn't exactly true, is it? Unless it's speaking figuratively in that they each will be so preoccupied with trying to destroy the other that they never live for themselves."

"When have you ever known a prophecy to be literal in its meaning?" Severus scoffed as he caved to temptation and poured his own mug.

"Aye," the witch murmured in assent. "At the hand of the other… So one of them has to be killed by the other, or by a close follower of the other."

When the wizard snapped his eyes to her, Minerva quirked her head. "Didn't think of that interpretation?"

"The Headmaster believes the Dark Lord has to be the one to… to kill Harry," Hermione answered, grimacing as she stumbled over the last few words.

The Gryffindor Head frowned but waved them on.

A dark expression descended upon her student's face. "Dumbledore has suspected since our second year Harry could be a Horcrux. The visions and dreams Harry has had from the Dark Lord and his snake, Nagini, are a result of the connection between living hosts, which suggests the remaining Horcruxes are objects like the ring and diary were."

"The ring that cursed him was a Horcrux?"

Hermione nodded.

"And the diary?" Minerva questioned. "Are you referring to the Chamber of Secrets debacle?"

"Yes, and I think that's why Harry's become weirdly obsessive about Ginny. Because she inadvertently touched the Dark Lord's soul." The girl suddenly gaped at Snape. "That's why he's neglecting Occlumency?"

"What?" her Head of House asked.

With a sigh, Hermione faced her again. "Harry can sense the Horcruxes if they're nearby and will be drawn to them. Dumbledore's been letting him neglect his Occlumency because it apparently practicing it would decrease his sensitivity."

McGonagall carefully set down her cup before pressing her hand to her mouth in contemplation. After a moment, she fixated her eyes on Severus. "This is why he reacts to you differently, isn't it? Potter can sense your Mark and feels superior to you. The rest of us haven't seen that from him because we don't have a connection to You-Know-Who."

The wizard peered down at his left arm and then screwed up his face in distaste.

"I've always wondered why he distrusted you so much right away," Hermione commented. "I mean, you were an arse to him during the first class, but… I thought he was a bit disrespectful toward you as well."

"You noticed this while frantically waving your arm about as though trying to land an aeroplane, did you?" he glowered.

"I'm quite proficient at multi-tasking," she quipped.

Ignoring their quibbling, Minerva rubbed her forehead. "What about the Dursleys? You mentioned, Severus, that they had animosity toward Potter."

"I don't doubt they were influenced," Snape remarked. "I detested Petunia when we were children. She was domineering, self-righteous, whiny, and condescending… but she wasn't extraordinarily cruel. I would never have believed her to be someone who condoned the abuse of a child. Were her emotions, insecurities, and fears to be manipulated over the span of ten years, however, it wouldn't be surprising. I can only imagine the cruelties even the most saintly of individuals might be capable of committing under those conditions."

The color drained from Hermione's face as she recalled how easily she had been goaded into casting the Cruciatus in only a matter of minutes. She discreetly balled her hands into fists to hide their shaking. Noticing the direction her thoughts had taken, Severus focused his attention on her.

"Hermione," he said in a low voice. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"I know." She shook her head and flexed her hands against her thighs. "Sorry."

He touched his hand to hers. "I apologize for having to involve you in… well, all of this."

The girl gave him a tense smile and held onto his hand. "Don't. I'm glad to help you in any way I can, Se –"

"Hold on," McGonagall interrupted, all but oblivious to their exchange. Her wide eyes met theirs. "You're certain Albus said he suspected it during their second year at Hogwarts?"

"Yes, he…" Hermione paused to peer at Snape, whose brow had furled. "No. Dumbledore only said second year. Severus was the one who referred to it as our second year of Hogwarts. Dumbledore didn't correct him, so he assumed that was correct."

"Why?" Severus probed.

Minerva hesitated upon seeing his features drenched in apprehension. "Because Harry was 15-months old when Lily and James were murdered. That was his second year of life."

Hermione's mouth slowly fell open, and Severus's breathing intensified as they both stared unblinkingly at the elder witch.

"It's never sat well with me that Albus flatly refused to hear any other suggestions about Potter's protection," she explained. "He said it had to be the Dursleys, that it was best he be kept in the Muggle world. Blood wards or not, I argued that if You-Know-Who or his followers were as much a threat to the boy as Albus claimed they were, there ought to be an Order member assigned to the household. He said it was unnecessary, and until last year, he refused to assign anyone to keep watch on the area. Beyond himself, he left Potter entirely in the care of Muggles and Arabella Figg, a Squib. Why?

"He said it was to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the boy, and maybe it was," Minerva continued, "Just not in the way we thought."

"Because a fully trained witch or wizard would have eventually recognized the signs of Dark Magic," Severus caught on. "Or if it wasn't as noticeable as I presume it was in the beginning, they would have at least questioned how a babe could be so adept at magic. The things Petunia described as happening in the first two years… Truly gifted magical children might accomplish a few of those things, but not all and not as regularly as she seemed to imply they occurred."

"He barely let me see him, Severus," the Gryffindor Head confessed. "That night, when Albus and Hagrid delivered Potter to the Dursleys. I was there, waiting for them despite being told not to be. They'd barely arrived before Albus was shepherding me away. And Hagrid was the one he sent to fetch Potter from that house…"

"Hagrid wouldn't be able to detect Dark Magic if it bit him in the arse."

"He wouldn't," she agreed. "And the only one who saw the boy prior to that was Sirius."

"Who promptly went out and tried to murder Pettigrew in front of a dozen Muggles in broad daylight."

"Exactly." Minerva heaved in a breath. "When I questioned Albus last week, he admitted the Dursleys were not ideal caretakers, and though he seemed to dismiss the notion, he never explicitly denied that abuse had occurred in that house. He said it had been essential to have Harry stay with the Dursleys because living in the Wizarding World would have jeopardized his safety and hindered his development into the role he's been fated."

Growling, Severus launched out of his seat and moved behind the sofa. The two witches watched him as he paced back and forth several times with his hands folded over his mouth and nose. Eventually, he came to a sudden stop, slammed both palms down on the back of the sofa, leaned forward, and hissed. "He knew, Minerva! He fucking knew before he ever even spoke to me about Lily's death!"