A/N: It's been months, I know. I'm teaching several classes on top of research and coursework, so extra time is hard to come by. As those of you who follow me on Twitter likely know, about the time I thought I could eek out another chapter, my grandfather - who inspires my interpretations of Snape - passed away. A month later, my aunt passed away the day before his funeral. I needed to spend some time with my family, and then had to catch up on everything at school. So... it's taken me a while to simultaneously have the time, inclination, and emotional stability to write this chapter. I greatly appreciate those of you who patiently waited or sent encouragement, and hope you all find this update satisfying.


Bound to Him

Chapter 80

"Hey, Hermione."

Though she had thought she could handle seeing her best friend, Hermione froze at the sound of his voice. "H-Harry, what are you –"

"They released me from dorm arrest," the boy answered.

"Oh. Right," she murmured. "Dean's not pressing charges."

Ignoring the statement, Harry cocked his head. "I didn't see you all night. You didn't come to supper, so I went looking for you in the library, but you weren't there either."

"Oh, I… I…" Hermione lost whatever she had intended to say the moment she met Harry's gaze, for everything that had been revealed earlier came walloping back. Harry had a piece of the Dark Lord's soul embedded within him. Because of that he had been subject to abuse and gross manipulation so that he would be willing to die to defeat the Dark Lord.

"Hermione, are you alright?"

Inwardly, she cursed Severus for having been right. Before dismissing her rather coldly from McGonagall's quarters, he had predicted she would be unable to hold together in front of Harry.

"Hermione, what's wrong?"

"I…" Recalling the cover story Professor McGonagall had concocted, Hermione grabbed hold of Harry's hand.

"Hermione?" he questioned upon being tugged up the staircase.

"I can't talk about this here."

"Can't you use a Muffliato, then?"

Hermione pretended not to hear the question while leading him back toward Gryffindor Tower. Once in the Common Room, she quickly checked to make sure no one else was there. She cast Muffliato and pushed him onto the nearest sofa cushion.

"Hermione? What's going on?"

The girl tensely sat beside him on the sofa. When reasonably in control of herself, she looked into his concerned eyes.

"Hermione, you're really worrying me."

She tried to ignore the churning of her stomach. "I was hiding."

"Hiding?" Harry repeated. "Where? Why?"

"Because I couldn't face you yet."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

Hermione took in a deep breath. "I tried to figure out what happened –"

"What did you find?" Harry interrupted excitedly.

She shook her head. "There's nothing I can tell you about why or how you attacked Dean."

The boy sank back into the couch. "So you were afraid I'd be angry with you for not figuring it out?"

"No." Hermione dropped her gaze to her lap. "I… I fought with Draco about it. He thought I was trying to find a way to blame him for it. I wasn't, but he couldn't see that. I said I didn't agree with you – I didn't think he bewitched you or anything."

"But now you –"

"I still don't," she cut off his comment. "I was trying to figure out what happened to I could prove both of you innocent, but he saw it as me choosing you over him. I told him you're my best friend, that I'll always try to help you when you're in need."

"Hermione." Her friend placed a hand on her arm. "What did he do?"

Hermione sniffled loudly and flicked her eyes to him. "He broke up with me. He s-said that he was willing to turn his back on his friends and even his family for me, but if I wasn't willing to do the same… we couldn't be together anymore."

Harry breathed out an uncomfortable breath, but scooted closer to her and put his arm around her. "I'm sorry he hurt you, Hermione. I never trusted him, and I know you don't want to believe it, but I know he had something to do with what happened to Dean."

"Harry…" She squirmed in his grip.

"Sorry. I know it's not what you want to hear –"

The witch pulled away from him and met his eye. "Then maybe you could not say it? At least not right now?"

"Fine," he relented.

Satisfied for the moment, Hermione leaned back against him. Closing her eyes, she tried to take comfort in being with Harry. She certainly was not ready to lose him.

A few minutes passed before Harry could not keep silent anymore. "You're not ready to believe it, I get that, but soon you'll see. Malfoys aren't to be trusted."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Exhausted, but unable to sleep, Hermione rolled over on her bed. Shortly before supper, she had had the misfortune of running into Dumbledore. Despite her best efforts to avoid catching his notice, he had called out to her. As much as she wanted to ignore him – or even more so, tell him to take a fucking leap off a steep cliff – she knew she had to tread carefully. Angering Dumbledore could prove just as fatal as angering the Dark Lord.

"I realize you must think poorly of me, Miss Granger, but what I do is done for the greater good. You must not lose sight of that, my dear girl."

His gentle touch on her shoulder had made her skin crawl. Where the Dark Lord's touch was like ice, his had been like fire. Opposite to one another, but altogether the same. She had not trusted the Headmaster in many months – not since learning he had been using Legilimency on her without her consent – but until yesterday, she had thought him a lesser evil than the Dark Lord. She knew Dumbledore was a master manipulator, but she had not considered him capable of using rape, torture, or murder to get what he wanted.

But now, having learned what he had done – and was still doing – to Harry, what he had done to the Dursleys, what he had put Severus through... Now, there was not any horror from which she could envision him shying away. And just like with the Dark Lord, Hermione had allowed the Headmaster's quiet words to influence her thoughts. She knew she should not have listened, but still those seeds had taken root.

"I promised Severus I would never speak of this… but I feel it best that you know, given the nature of your involvement. I would advise you to keep your own council, my dear, for I fear he would not take kindly to your knowing of it."

Here he had paused for several seconds. "You may wonder, Miss Granger, why I shall never doubt Severus's loyalty to the Light… and the answer is love. You see, Severus gave his heart many years ago to another… to a young woman… an incredible, young witch who died far too young, murdered by Lord Voldemort himself. Despite the years that have passed, despite everything that has happened, that love for her has never wavered. If ever I have doubts, I only have to look to his Patronus, for it is his love for her which predicates its' form. Can you guess who that young woman was?"

Somehow Hermione had kept herself from screaming at the old man as he spilled Severus's closely guarded secrets. There was no Pensieve this time; he had just blurted them out to her in the bloody hallway. Thankfully, no one else had been within earshot. Perhaps Dumbledore had known that, or perhaps, in his haste to manipulate the situation back under his control, he had neglected to think of the danger associated with eavesdropping.

Obviously, Dumbledore was unaware that she already knew about Lily and what had spurred Severus to join the Order. As such, she forced herself to standing there in silent, feigned shock while inwardly her anger broiled.

Presently, it was not her anger keeping her preoccupied, but something Dumbledore had said.

"Severus has dedicated his life to protecting Harry. Though it's no fault of yours, Miss Granger, your bond has complicated matters. Severus has known for fifteen years that fulfilling the promise he made to Lily to protect her only son may require the ultimate sacrifice. He was fully prepared for that, but now… he hesitates to act given that your life is bound to his. Should he have to choose between you or Harry in a moment where expediency is required, that hesitation could prove costly. It brings me no pleasure to tell you this, Miss Granger, but I thought it best you were informed should you be questioning why Severus has become more distant."

Hermione huffed and sat forward, running her hands through her hair. She hated Dumbledore, wanted to discount everything he said for the blatant manipulation it was, but the man was probably right. Severus had told her he had been prepared to die until she had been bound to him. Undoubtedly, he was conflicted. Given his reaction to learning Harry was expected to die, it was clear he desperately wanted to keep Harry alive. If there was a possible way to save Harry, she knew Severus would attempt it.

But what if my life obstructs that? Would he forgive me? Could I forgive me?

"Damn it," she hissed. Slipping off the bed, Hermione checked the time and found her shoes.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Oblivious to anything beyond his own musings, Severus slouched in his chair, staring at his desk blotter. Since discovering the extent of Dumbledore's treachery, he felt as though he was in a fog – unable to think clearly. He had raged at first, shouting at Minerva and Hermione, before storming back into his own quarters to destroy his furniture again. Eventually the anger had vanished, leaving a gaping hole to be filled with shame and despair.

It was shameful how easily, how resolutely, he had been duped. He – a Slytherin, a survivor, a skeptic – had foolishly fallen for the false promises of recognition and respect offered by the Dark Lord, then immediately fell for the false promises of redemption offered by the Headmaster. Dumbledore had highlighted the way forward: protect Harry Potter at all costs. It was a path fraught with danger and sacrifice, but at the end there would be atonement. Now, however, the lights lining the path had all been extinguished, leaving Severus stranded in darkness with naught but the knowledge it had all been a mirage. Not only could he not save Potter, he would be the one to send the boy to his death.

Dumbledore must be taking perverse pleasure in this. Fucking sadist. Snape sighed and closed his eyes. Minerva wanted to believe there was some way to keep Potter alive, but he could not see it. Even if there was, what were the odds he would also be able to keep Hermione, Draco, Narcissa, and himself alive as well? Fat fucking chance.

Beyond that, Severus hated himself for losing control of his anger in front of the only two people who cared about him. That was his father's modus operandi – screaming at women who had absolutely nothing to do with what upset him. Embarrassed at having reacted in such a fashion and not yet trusting himself enough to apologize, he had avoided them along with everyone else.

He needed to pull himself together quickly, though. Draco would be coming by for Occlumency practice, which was something else suddenly causing Severus to feel out of his depth. Draco was not like Potter in that he had no aptitude for the art – far from it, in fact – but he was still struggling. The boy needed to be able to fool the Dark Lord and the Dark Mark on his forearm into believing he was loyal to the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, there did not appear to be a snowball's chance in hell that Draco – who hated the Dark Lord with every fiber of his being – could manage to convince himself he wanted to serve the reptilian tyrant.

A knock on the door yanked him back to the present, and prompted his heart to beat faster. It could not yet be time for Draco's appointment; he was not the least bit ready. Hurriedly, he slammed down his Occlumency shields in an effort to stifle his emotions until it was safe again to fall apart.

"Enter," Severus called, sparing a glance at the clock and frowning. Draco was not due for nearly a half hour. The door opened to admit someone else instead. "Granger?"

Hermione gave him a nervous smile as she shifted the box she held to one hand and pulled the door shut with the other.

"Where are the Aurors?"

The girl shrugged her shoulders. "You have the map."

"Hermione."

"If they take an interest, I was coming to you as a Head of House to turn in confiscated items." She set the box down on his desk and gestured to it. "See?"

He leaned forward, propping open the box to peer at the Weasley products held within. "And if they ask why you didn't take them to Minerva?"

"I suppose she wasn't in her office when I tried to do just that."

He grunted and sat back in his seat. "What is it you needed to discuss?"

"This wasn't just a prop." Hermione touched the box containing her Christmas gifts from Fred and George. "I thought they might be of some use, you know, if you require a distraction of some sort."

"I see. Thank you." When she hesitated, he eyed her carefully. "Is there something else?"

The witch nodded and crossed her arms. Her eyes were fixed determinedly on the desk between them. "I don't exactly know how to say this, but… Severus, if it comes down to a choice between protecting Harry or protecting me… I want you to choose Harry."

"Hermione –"

"No, I mean it." She raised her eyes to meet his. "I want you to choose Harry. You were prepared to die for him, weren't you? You said as much, but now you don't know what to do because of the promise you made to me, yes?"

Severus swallowed heavily.

"Please don't misunderstand me." She blinked quickly, worry painted across her face. "I'm not feeling suicidal. I would like to be happy and safe and know that good triumphed over darkness because of every difficult decision, every questionable action, every sacrifice we made. I don't want to die, Severus, but I would choose it if it means Harry would live."

Her eyes were moist as they stared expectantly at him. The man wanted to say something, but truly he did not know what to say. The words lodged in his throat, leaving them in tense silence until finally he heard himself say, "I'm expecting Draco for Occlumency."

Nodding, Hermione wiped her face and moved toward the door. She quietly wished him good night, then disappeared.

Snape stared at the door for several minutes before covering his face with both hands. "You fucking idiot."

"Well, good evening to you, too," Draco sneered, closing the door behind him.

The professor lowered his hands and exhaled loudly. "Apologies, Mr. Malfoy. I was… distracted."

Draco nodded once, then gestured at the box on the desk. "Did you go shopping or something?"

The man rolled his eyes. "Granger dropped it off in case we thought something might be useful."

While the blond curiously rifled through the contents, Severus found his attention drifting back to Hermione's declaration. She did not want to die, but she would choose it if it meant Potter would be protected.

"Good gods, could they be any more Gryffindor?"

Snape looked up to see his student smirking at the bottle of U-No-Poo. Watching Draco with Hermione's words ringing in his ears, something clicked. "I think I've been having you go about this the wrong way."

"Sir?" Malfoy dropped the items back in the box and focused his attention fully on his Head of House.

"Your Mark."

Draco scowled and dropped onto the chair. "Oh. That."

"You don't need to fool it into sensing you want to serve the Dark Lord."

"I don't?"

"You just need it to recognize you've chosen to serve him."

Malfoy's face scrunched up in confusion. "What?"

"When the Dark Lord returned, he knew I was still loyal though I did not respond to his summons to the graveyard."

"Where Diggory died?"

Snape grunted in confirmation, forcing himself not to dwell on the image of one of his most promising students returning as a corpse. "By no means did I want to return to his service, but I never questioned that I would. I knew it was what I needed to do."

"But your Mark was already set," Draco countered. "You said that yourself."

"I know I said that," he grimaced. "But I think the principle still applies. I've told you before that intent matters in all aspects of magic, but I was recently reminded that sometimes multiple interpretations can exist. The Mark requires willing acceptance, but you can be willing to do something without wanting to do it. You will choose to serve him because to do otherwise would spell your mother's death. If you want to protect her, the only way to do so is by accepting the bonds of servitude placed upon you by the Dark Lord. Do you recognize that?"

The boy sighed, but nodded.

Severus leaned onto his desk. "Draco… I need you to speak honestly, and regardless of your answer, there will be no judgement. Would you willingly trade your life to save your mother?"

'Of course I –"

The wizard held up a hand in caution. "Think it through very carefully. Consider everything you would sacrifice."

Draco took a deep breath and stared at his hands. When he finally raised his eyes again, they were resolved. "I would."

Severus nodded in return. "Then use that truth to motivate your entrance into the Dark Lord's ranks."

"You're certain that will work?"

"Relatively."

Malfoy leaned back in his chair. "Well, then I'm relatively certain I can do that."

His mentor allowed himself a slight smirk. "Then I think we've made progress."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Having watched Harry tear apart the dormitory again looking for the Marauders' Map, Hermione descended to the Common Room in time to witness her Head of House stepping out of the Floo.

"There you are, Miss Granger," Minerva smiled, nodding in greeting to a second-year who was reading in one of the armchairs. "Have you finished packing for your visit home?"

The young witch paused, confused as to why McGonagall was the one asking her. "Essentially. I just have a few things left to put away."

"Good. When you and Miss Weasley have finished, would you come down to the Entrance Hall? Mr. Thomas and I shall meet you there, and then the four of us will be on our way. I hope you don't mind, I think it best to take Mr. Thomas home first, and then Miss Weasley."

After a second, Hermione smiled. "Yes, alright. I don't mind."

"Excellent. Do try to keep Miss Weasley on task, would you? Mr. Thomas's parents are no doubt anxious to verify the Headmaster's reports of his well-being." With another nod, the Deputy Headmistress stepped back into the fireplace and disappeared in a flash of green.

Hermione frowned as she sluggishly climbed the stairs to her room. She tried not to feel hurt that Snape, who was supposed to take her to the cabin, had sent McGonagall to escort her instead.

"Hey, Hermione! Did McGonagall find you?"

"Yes."

"I should have packed earlier, but I didn't want to leave Dean alone in the infirmary." Ginny pulled a sweater from her wardrobe, balled it up, and shoved it in her trunk.

Hermione contemplated commenting on her friend's packing method, but kept quiet. Instead, she moved to her own side of the room and finished filling her trunk in a neater fashion.

"I'm glad to go home so I can see Mum and Dad, and Fred and George. Bill should be home, too, but that means Phlegm will be about." The redhead sighed deeply and sank back on her haunches. "I probably won't be able to see Dean again, though, until after break. I swear to Merlin, if Ronald says anything about him, I'm going to…"

Tuning out her roommate, Hermione pulled open her desk drawers to ensure she had not missed anything important or incriminating. There was a chance, after all, she would never return to Hogwarts. If the assassination attempt were to go horribly wrong, Snape could be killed or imprisoned, and she could die.

Her hands shook slightly as she shoved the last drawer shut. Gulping down air, the witch collapsed onto her bed and closed her eyes. She rubbed her sternum, realizing why it hurt so much. They could very well be dead within a fortnight, yet Severus was dismissing her.

We're supposed to be partners. We should be working together, comforting each other, but I've hardly seen him lately.

Snape had looked so broken after piecing together how much Dumbledore knew. Hermione had wanted to help him, but he sent her back to Harry. He did not seek her out the next day and scarcely said anything to her when she had gone to him. She told him she was willing to die to protect Harry, and his response was to send her away. Now he was having Minerva send her even further away. He was distancing himself – literally – from her just as Dumbledore said.

"Hermione!"

Startled, the witch opened her eyes to see Ginny staring down at her.

"I asked you a question, but you didn't answer. Did you fall asleep?"

"I guess I must have dozed off," Hermione fibbed, raising into a seated position. "Sorry."

"It's alright." The redhead shrugged, then gestured to Hermione's trunk. "You ready? I don't want to keep Dean waiting."

"I'm finished, yes. We should probably say good-bye to Harry first before –"

"Feel free to do so," Ginny snarled, her demeanor freezing as she whirled around. "I'll wait for you by the Fat Lady."

Hermione winced. "Gin, I'm sorry."

"Don't take too long."

Shite. With everything coming to light during the past few days, she had focused less on the fact that Harry had very nearly murdered Dean a week ago. She knew it had not been Harry's fault, but beyond Snape, McGonagall, and Dumbledore, no one else did. Ginny had every right to be pissed at Harry, and to be pissed at Hermione for what had carelessly fallen out of her mouth.

Levitating her trunk, Hermione exited the room. She was halfway down the staircase when another realization hit her. "Damn it!"

When she had gone down to Snape's office, she had only meant to relieve some of the concern Severus might have about choosing whether to protect her or to protect Harry. Perhaps, though, she had unintentionally implied she would rather Harry lived than Severus.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Well, this is it." McGonagall gestured as they approached a grey stone cabin situated in the wilderness.

"This is yours?"

"Mmm, technically it was left to my younger brother," the grey-haired witch explained, "but he's allowed me use of it."

Hermione made a small noise of gratitude when the door was held open for her, and stepped into the cabin. The majority of the main floor was one sizable room with dark wooden flooring and dedicated kitchen, dining, and sitting areas. An old wicker chair and matching sofa with faded, patterned cushions sat in front of a small fireplace.

"The loo is just there, off the kitchen, and the two bedrooms are upstairs." Minerva pointed toward a narrow, twisting stair in one corner of the room. "It has running water, but you'll have to let it run a bit to get the rust out of the pipes."

"Alright." The girl moved toward the bathroom, where the door had been left ajar. It was a tight space, but still managed to fit an ancient looking tub beside the porcelain sink and toilet.

"No shower, so you'll have to make do with baths."

Hermione gave a tight smile. "That's fine."

Minerva shifted nervously. "The pantry is fully-stocked, and there ought to be plenty of linens in the cupboards upstairs. There's wood chopped and stacked out back if you'd prefer a fire. It does get quite chilly at night, so I suggest warming charms at the very least. Especially in the bath. The water doesn't get terribly warm."

"I'm allowed to do magic here?" she asked, turning around.

"Of course! You're of a majority now. Why would you think you weren't?"

"The cottage where my parents are… no magic, no wards."

"Ah," McGonagall nodded. "Severus doesn't want to risk monitoring by the Ministry. Shouldn't be a concern here. The cabin's been warded for decades, and my family use it periodically. It shouldn't raise any flags with the Ministry."

"That's good," Hermione replied. "Thank you for letting me stay here."

Minerva touched the girl's shoulder and smiled. "You're quite welcome. If only it were under better circumstances."

The young witch sighed loudly. "I think we all wish that."

"Right. Well, is there anything else I can tell you? If you have need of something, call on Dobby. He'll either fetch it for you directly, or come to me if necessary. I can try to sneak away and check on you if you'd like. I know it can get quite lonely being on your own."

"Oh, you don't need to," Hermione assured her. "I'll be okay. I have several books and assignments to keep me occupied. Though, would you mind keeping an eye on Crookshanks?"

"You didn't want to bring him here?"

She shrugged. "I know I'd prefer to have him with me, but… I… I was just worried."

McGonagall smiled in understanding. "I'll bring him here tomorrow afternoon. Malina ought to track him down quick enough."

"Thank you."

The Deputy Headmistress stepped forward and wrapped her arms about the girl. "Take care of yourself, dear. And don't hesitate to send Dobby for me."

After the elder witch departed, Hermione climbed to the second floor. Ahead of her was a few built in cabinets that likely held the previously mentioned linens, and on either side of her were doors opening into small bedrooms. One contained a double brass bed, while the other held two single beds separated by a few feet. She hesitated, then walked toward the larger bed.

Running her hand across the quilt, the witch closed her eyes and focused on sending a mental Patronus. She had put off talking to Severus most of the day, wanting to wait until she was alone. She felt guilty for waiting so long, but delivering Dean and Ginny to their respective parents had taken longer than she had anticipated – not just because of the lengthy, teary goodbye that had taken place between the young couple at the Thomas residence.

Seconds ticked by into minutes, however, without receiving a reply from Severus. Groaning, Hermione leaned back and curled into a ball atop the bed. She just wanted Severus to talk to her so she could apologize.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Severus was surprised by the silver figure that danced across his vision. It appeared cautiously, as if hesitant to bother him, and not frantic like Hermione's previous Patronuses had done when she was in trouble. Thus, he decided it best to delay speaking with her until it was safer to do so. It was ill-advised to approach the Dark Lord without having full control of his faculties.

"Severus! I trust you are not wasting my time."

The spy lifted his head, firmly latching his Occlumency shields into place. "I do not intend to, my Lord."

Voldemort settled into his chair and waved his hand. "Bella's been an obedient little girl as of recent, so I know you aren't disturbing me to whinge about her again."

"I came to speak with you regarding Dumbledore's demise. We've finalized a plan."

Suddenly interested, the tyrant leaned forward. "You have my full attention."

"The twenty-first," he began. "Dumbledore will be away most of the evening for an Order meeting and will return quite late. He will send for me upon his return to discuss whatever he deems suitable for my ears. He'll choose a location other than his office, isolated from any potential discovery by Aurors or staff or students sneaking out of bed. When he sends for me, I shall bring the Malfoy boy with me, and we will catch him unaware."

"I do hope you haven't forgotten about your brethren. How is it you plan to ensure their involvement in this little plot?"

Snape let a smirk grace his face. "My Lord, I must confess Miss Granger has been invaluable in that respect."

"Has she now?" Voldemort steepled his long, pale fingers and a smile spread across his features as he patiently listened to the description of the tunnel running beneath the wards. "My, my. She is exceptionally eager to please teacher, isn't she?"

"Indeed."

"Very well." The Dark Lord rested against the back of his chair. "I shall inform Bellatrix and the others that they shall be entering from Hogsmeade. You will do nothing until they arrive. Even if you dispatch of the old fool, I shall be seriously displeased if you act without witnesses."

"I understand, my Lord." Severus shifted. "May I ask how many to expect, so I know when we may proceed?"

Voldemort relented, listing Yaxley and Dolohov in addition to the three Lestranges, and Severus inwardly cringed at the amount of havoc he envisioned them wreaking. Deciding it might be worth the risk, he suggested, "Though the majority of the students are away for holiday, I wonder if it might be best to tread with caution for those that do remain. There are no Muggleborns residing over break, so any blood spilled will be that of magical origin."

"And would be a tragedy that could have been avoided," the tyrant agreed. "You speak wisely, Severus. I shall instruct them to save their enthusiasm for only those Blood Traitors daring to stand in opposition."

Snape dipped his head in acknowledgement. "With your permission, I thought also to remove Miss Granger from the castle prior to the event."

Voldemort sneered. "Concerned about your little pet?"

"Not as concerned as I am about protecting your interests, my Lord," he lied. "I fully expect we will be successful in this endeavor, but should I fail to escape school grounds in the aftermath, I do not wish to risk discovery of my control over the girl."

"I see." The Dark Lord tapped his fingertips in contemplation. "Better she inexplicably vanish, I agree. Do so immediately, however, for it would not do to arouse suspicion by removing her from Hogwarts too close to the assassination."

"I thank you for your suggestion, my Lord. I shall see to it straightaway."

"Then do so," Voldemort stated coolly. "I expect you do not need further assistance from me?"

"No, my Lord. I apologize for the intrusion." Severus bowed slightly, then took his leave of the room.

Upon exiting the Manor, he paused to consider his next destination. After a moment's deliberation, he disapparated with a soft crack and appeared a second later in the Scottish Highlands.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

At the sound of the door opening, Hermione quietly crept down the stairs, wand in hand. Professor McGonagall was not supposed to return until the following afternoon. She immediately calmed upon seeing who had entered the cabin and sheathed her wand. "Severus."

The wizard looked up at her voice. "Granger."

Her shoulders sagged at his using her surname again. Well, what do you expect, Hermione? You all but told him you'd rather he die than Harry.

Snape's eyes glanced about the room. "I see you've settled in."

"Trying to, at least." Crossing her arms, Hermione stepped off of the staircase and came to stand behind the wicker sofa. The awkwardness between them bothered her, given how intimate they had been just a few days ago. He had sex with her, used her as a mouthpiece to communicate to McGonagall, and then seemingly shut her out.

"I apologize for not responding earlier," Severus murmured. "I presume it was not an emergency?"

Hermione shook her head. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"Upset me?" He frowned, confused. "Why would I be upset with you? I was speaking with the Dark Lord and did not think it wise to divert mental focus elsewhere."

"Oh."

Severus stepped closer. "What is it you needed?"

"I just wanted to apologize is all."

He stared blankly. "For what?"

"For what I said the other night…in your office." She shifted nervously. "I think it came out entirely different than what I intended. I didn't mean to imply I wanted you to die. I don't by any means. You have to believe me, Severus."

"Hermione." Snape moved beside her and raised her chin. "I was never under that impression. I took you to mean you wanted to protect Potter if it were by any means possible."

"I did, but I realized what I said might have come across…poorly." The girl heaved in a breath and rested against his chest. "I don't want you to die…ever."

His arms circled her. "I assure you I took no offense."

"But you didn't say anything." The witch pushed back from him to meet his eyes. "You dismissed me like I was impinging on your time. You haven't spoken to me since, and then you sent Professor McGonagall to bring me here today. You ignored me when I called for you, so I thought…"

"Christ," he hissed. "Hermione, I'm sorry. I didn't… I've been preoccupied lately and not suitable for conversation. I sent Minerva because it would not be ideal if Lupin, for instance, knew I had dispatched of you somewhere before I permanently dispatch of the Headmaster. If Minerva brought you, she can claim she was the last to cast the wards protecting your family. If they thought I had done so, the whole Order would be trying to sniff you out. I suppose I should have made you aware of that decision. I apologize for not doing so."

Hermione returned to his embrace. "I'm sorry for over-reacting. How did it go with the Dark Lord?"

"As well as can be expected. He was impressed with your contributions." He rubbed her spine when she tensed. "Nothing that happens will be your fault, Hermione. In addition, he promised to instruct his merry gang of sociopaths to curb their enthusiasm."

The girl relaxed and, after a minute, asked, "Will you stay tonight?"

"I'm not sure it would be wise to -."

"Not for sex!" she blurted out before covering her flaming cheeks with her hand. "Merlin, I just meant it wouldn't be the best idea for the next few days, but you could still stay if you wanted to."

Severus shook his head. "As tempting as the invitation is, it would be best if I'm seen at Hogwarts for supper. I have rounds tonight, and I should be on hand in case any other disaster unexpectedly arises and requires troubleshooting."

"I understand." Hermione managed to keep her disappointment out of her voice. "But you'll come back before…?"

"I will. I'll return on the twentieth."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Severus should be here soon," Hermione cheerfully told her familiar, who sat beside the sink. Though she had intended to leave Crooks at Hogwarts in case the worst were to happen, she was entirely grateful to Minerva for convincing her otherwise. Without the half-kneazle for company, she would have had no choice but to talk to herself the entire time.

"At least I think he should be here soon." She sighed and set down her spatula. "I just assumed he would come for supper, but maybe he won't?"

Crookshanks blinked at her before hopping down and sauntering toward the fireplace.

"Well, at least I can pretend I'm not talking to myself," she mused. Perhaps it was a bit ridiculous how much she had looked forward to Severus's visit. It was not a date, and it certainly was not a happy occasion. But after ten days of having nothing to do but study, research, clean or cook for herself, the chance to spend a night with Severus was incredibly appealing.

Tempering that happiness, however, was the notion that this could very well be the last night they spent together. In the matter of a day, Severus would be a fugitive murderer at best, and at worst, a dead one. Or perhaps that was better than if he were to be captured.

Thankfully, the front door opening distracted her from those thoughts. Snape, muttering under his breath, threw the door shut and removed his cloak.

Hermione stepped away from the stove to watch him restore a handful of crates to their original size. "Severus?"

"I didn't want to leave anything important or valuable behind," he explained. "The Aurors will no doubt destroy whatever remains."

"Your books!" she gasped, wide-eyed.

Severus kicked a particularly heavy crate. "Half of them are here; the other half have been left in Minerva's care."

"Good," she whispered. "Are you hungry? I made –"

He shook his head. "No."

"Oh." Hermione turned back to the food she had prepared and tried not to feel like an absolute idiot. After all, it was not as though she had only cooked for him. She still had to feed herself, and Crookshanks would not turn his nose up at the leftovers.

"You made all of this?"

The girl nodded as she fixed herself a plate. "I've always wanted to learn how to cook eventually. I found an old cookbook in the pantry, and since I might only have a few days of eventually left, I figured I could at least make an effort to cross something off my bucket list."

Severus grimaced, following her to the table.

"You're certain you don't want anything? I made plenty of extra."

He shook his head. "Thank you, but no."

"You ate before you left, then?" She frowned when he made a dismissive motion. "When did you eat last?"

He stared at her darkly and leaned back in his chair.

"You demand that I eat regularly."

"Was becoming a nag on your bucket list as well?" he scowled.

So much for a happy last evening. She ducked her head and picked at her food.

"I'm sorry."

Her sharp eyes raised to his face. "Pardon?"

Snape shifted in his seat. "With tomorrow… Just the thought of eating anything…."

Experiencing sudden difficulty in swallowing, Hermione set down her fork and scrutinized his person. He was paler than usual and sat rigidly in his seat. His eyes mostly remained fixed on the window, but when they momentarily flicked toward hers, she noticed they betrayed a hint of anxiety. Her appetite vanished, chased away by guilt for not fully considering how uneasy he must be.

His eyes followed her as she pushed her chair back and rounded the table toward him. When she stared at him pointedly, he uncrossed his legs.

Perching on his lap, Hermione slipped one arm behind his head. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine."

"Severus," she chided. "Please don't lie to me."

Eventually, the wizard pulled her against his chest, pressed his nose into her hair, and closed his eyes. He said nothing, but held her tight.

"It'll be okay, Severus," the girl whispered. She cursed herself for her earlier comment about only having a few days left to live. "It's going to go well. You'll do what you need to, and we're both going to live to see another day."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Severus quietly followed Hermione up the spiral staircase to the second floor. The ceiling was lower than on the main floor, so he had to duck his head while stepping through the door into the bedroom.

The low ceiling was the last thing on his mind, however, when Hermione turned and raised up on her toes to kiss him. Slipping his arm about her waist, he returned and deepened the kiss. This is how he wanted to spend his time, wrapped around a beautiful, intelligent witch who smelled, tasted, felt divine. He did not want to spend it being universally hated for doing the dirty work of two opposing megalomaniacs.

He felt her fingers on his chest, attempting to undo his buttons, so he leaned back to allow her better access. Once she had succeeded in her task, he grasped the bottom hems of her jumper and undershirt, and tugged them over her head. Her hair snapped with static electricity, prompting her to laugh. He smiled at the sound. His smile fell a moment later when a voice reminded him it was probably the last time he would hear it.

As if sensing his distraction, Hermione grasped the sides of his open shirt and tugged him into another kiss. His dark thoughts receded while his hands slid up her back to remove her bra. A shiver rippled through her as her breasts were bared to the chilled air, and she immediately sought his warmth.

Severus picked her up and climbed with her on the bed. He heard a quiet creak of the bed springs, but forgot it as soon as her mouth attached itself to his again. He moved down to suckle her breast, and her hands threaded through his hair as he worked to remove her bottoms. When he had finally rid himself of his own pants, he quickly slipped inside of her.

Though he had thought to take it slower, he found himself incapable of doing so. He needed her, to feel her, to lose himself inside of her. She likely was not expecting such impatience from him – apart from their horrendous first handful of couplings, he had always tried to see to her pleasure first – but having held so much back the past few weeks, having turned off his emotions as much as possible, he just needed to feel something other than fear, pain, sorrow, or anger. He hoped that did not make him as terrible a person as he felt.

"Unngh," she groaned, arching as he buried himself to the hilt within her. "Gods, Severus… again."

The wizard did as instructed – withdrawing, then slamming his member back into her – slowly at first, then with increasing pace. Every thrust elicited a muffled sound from Hermione and a slight squeak of the bed. Though it at first seemed to hold off the darkness of his thoughts, soon the only thing his subconscious allowed him to focus on was the rhythmic creaking. He was no longer certain whether the noises escaping the young witch were ones of pleasure or pain; he could only hear the bed.

A memory flashed in his head – the one that had haunted his dreams for so long. For a second, he was a child again, listening to his father raping his mother. His eyes flared open to see Hermione's face screwed up in pain.

"Gods, fuck!" Severus exclaimed, yanking himself off of her and off of the bed. Backing into the wall, he sank into a heap atop her discarded shirts. Struggling to breathe, he knew that had he eaten anything in the past day, it likely would have just resurfaced. Pressing the butt of his hands into his eyes, he croaked, "The hell am I doing?"

Hermione opened her eyes and growled in frustration. She had been so close; on the brink of orgasm when he inexplicably removed himself. With great effort, she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "Severus? What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" he scoffed, raising his reddened eyes to her. "How could you not know what's wrong?"

"Because I don't!" She pulled the pillow in front of her to hide her nudity. "One moment we're having sex, and then the next you're on the floor snarling at me! You said you weren't upset with me, so –"

"I'm not upset with you!" Snape shouted before grimacing and rubbing his hand over his face. "Jeezus, fuck! I'm sorry. I don't know what the fuck is wrong with me."

Concerned, Hermione slipped down to the floor and crawled beside him. "Severus?"

"I was hurting you," he murmured, avoiding her eyes. "I'm sorry."

The witch gently touched his face. "You weren't hurting me."

"You were in pain."

"No," she shook her head. "I wasn't in pain."

"You're certain? You looked like..."

"I should think I'm aware of what I was feeling. It definitely wasn't pain. Quite the opposite actually."

"Fuck," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I… the bed springs were so loud that I just… I was stupid."

Hermione glanced at the bed in confusion. She had hardly heard the noise at all, but perhaps she had been too distracted by the feeling of Severus inside of her. Stretching backward, she tugged the quilt off the bed. The wizard silently stared at the floor while she climbed onto his lap and wrapped the blanket around them. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Snape shook his head and held her hand in his. "Not particularly."

"Okay." She stroked her thumb along his fingers, and then lightly kissed his jaw. "We're going to get through this, yes?"

The wizard looked down at their joined hands and then at her face. When she offered him a shy smile, he nearly returned it. They held each other's gaze until Snape hesitantly pressed his lips to hers.

Hermione smiled into the kiss and then repositioned herself so as to have better leverage while snogging.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

"Severus…" Hermione arched against him. "Unnghh… Severus! More!"

Her hand reached out for him, but fell short of touching him. "Severus? Severus, please. Please! I need… I need you, Severus. Severus! Please!"

As her cries became more desperate, Severus attempted to move closer to her, but kept sliding further away. Pain and fear were evident in her eyes, which were locked onto him as she continued to plead with him to help her. Clenching his jaw, he struggled to pull himself along the floor and extended his arm as far as he could to meet her outstretched hand.

His fingertips brushed against hers. Before he could grab onto her hand, however, Snape was thrown back against the wall. Having had the wind knocked out of him, it was difficult to pick himself up from the floor.

"SEVERUS!" Hermione screamed.

The wizard ran toward her, but it was as though he were running against a strong current. One foot slipped on the rock floor, and he came down, slamming his knee against the floor. Still, he tried to move forward until he found his path blocked by the bars of a prison cell. He could see Hermione scrabbling onto her knees, whimpering as she crawled toward him. The rough rock scraped at her palms and her bare knees, but it did not stop her attempts to reach him.

Pressing his face against the bars, he stretched one arm as far as he could through one of the narrow gaps.

"Severus!" she gasped, grabbing hold of his hand and using it to pull herself closer to him.

"Seize her!" A familiar voice shouted.

Snape glanced up to see Alastor Moody emerging from the shadows. Hermione shrieked, and he slipped his other hand through the bars to better hold onto her as the Aurors Ulton and Muggins approached. It was of no use, for they easily yanked her out of his grasp and dragged her away by her ankles.

"Noo!" she cried. "Please! Severus!"

"Noo! Please! Severus!" Ulton mocked as he pulled the struggling girl closer to him. "You'd do well to shut your mouth, witch."

With a shadowy expression on his face, Moody hobbled up to the bars. "Never thought I'd ever see a witch so desperate for your greasy cock, Snape."

"Well," Muggins grinned lewdly at Hermione, "if it's a cock she needs…"

"NO!" Severus shouted, frantically throwing himself against the immovable bars. "Don't you fucking touch her!"

"You want us to leave her alone. Snape?" Moody bent down and growled in his face. "Tell us everything the Dark Lord is planning. It won't spare you from the Dementor's Kiss, but it might spare her."

He tried to plead for her life - to tell them everything about the Dark Lord, Dumbledore, the bond – but as loud as he tried to scream it at them, no sound came out. Trying to break out of his cell was similarly ineffective for he had lost the ability to move. He could do nothing but watch in horror as the stockier Auror pushed up the skirt of Hermione's school uniform and then tore off her knickers.

"Nothing to say, Professor?" Moody sneered. "Perhaps loosening her lips will loosen yours."

Keeping his magical eye trained on Snape, the grizzled Order member crudely gestured to the two Aurors. Ulton snatched up a handful of Hermione's hair to hold her in place, while his partner slammed into her from behind. Unearthly screams tore from the girl's throat as though she were being burned alive from the inside out.

And then she fell deathly silent.

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

With a strangled gasp, Severus awoke from his nightmare but still found himself incapable of movement. It took a moment to realize why – he was lying on the bedroom floor with a naked seventeen-year-old witch sleeping on top of him. Panting and blinking away tears, he wrapped both arms, one of which had gone quite numb, about her frame. The rhythmic puffs of her breath on his throat calmed him, for it assured him that she was still alive.

Eventually his heart finally resumed a normal beat, and he did his best to sit up without disturbing Hermione's slumber. Once free, he rubbed his face and looked about the room. They had never returned to the bed after his embarrassing breakdown. Instead, they had made love before falling asleep on the floor. Regardless of how slow and gentle it had been, she undoubtedly would be sore for a few days as a result of their coupling on the hard surface.

Groaning, Snape rose to his feet, then bent down to pick up the sleeping girl. She stirred while he carried her over to the bed, but did not wake. He tucked the quilt around her and kissed her temple, before quickly dressing himself. He descended to the main floor and, after starting a small fire in the fireplace, sought out one of the crates holding potions materials. Kneeling, he dug through the carefully packed vials before finding and removing a small wooden box.

At the feeling of being watched, the man stood and surveyed the room. In the low light, he made out the shape of the ginger cat staring at him from the kitchen table. Sighing, he approached the beast and held up the box. "This is meant only as a last resort."

Crookshanks blinked at him and flicked his tail in warning.

Severus plopped into one of the dining chairs and set the box down on the table. "It should only be used if I fail her, and then only if she chooses to use it. I will not recommend either way, but simply mean to provide her the option."

The cat blinked again, then stepped forward to butt his head against Snape's hand.

The wizard ran his hand along the half-Kneazle's spine. "I promise you, cat, that I will do absolutely everything in my power to protect her."

The low rumble of a purr could be heard as Crookshanks stepped down from the table and into his lap.

"Watch the claws," Snape muttered grumpily, but continued petting him anyway. He rested his cheek on his hand, and his eyes began to droop as the warm cat settled in for a nap.

XxxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Hermione paused on the stairs upon noticing Severus slouched over the table. It had confused her to wake up alone in bed when she had fallen asleep curled up against the wizard on the floor. She assumed he had left without saying goodbye, and that disappointment now warmed into irritation as she proceeded into the kitchen space.

Crookshanks, who was sitting on the counter beside the sink, meowed to simultaneously greet her and remind her it was time for his breakfast. With a small smile, the witch scratched his head before fetching him a bowl of food. Severus had not yet made a sound, and she was surprised to notice he was sound asleep with his head propped up on elbow.

Filling a tea kettle, she cleared her throat loudly. "You could've slept on the sofa at least."

Severus awoke with a start, narrowly avoiding falling out of his chair.

Hermione swallowed back a chuckle at the comedic sight as she turned to the stove.

"Had I planned on sleeping, I would have," he replied a moment later.

In that case, why wouldn't you have stayed upstairs? She wondered, though thought better than to ask it. She knew what was expected of him today and had no wish to send him off with a petty argument.

"Hermione, about last night… I cannot apologize enough."

The witch shrugged her shoulders, then turned to face him. "It's okay, really. You don't need to apologize. I know how much pressure you're under, and I completely understand how thoughts or memories can unexpectedly show up to haunt you. Perhaps one day, when Dumbledore and the Dark Lord are gone, you'll tell me about it."

Snape nodded and straightened some of the kinks out of his spine.

Claiming the chair across from him, Hermione folded her arms on top of the table. "Do you want anything to eat? Or some tea, at least?"

He shook his head. "I should return to the school shortly. The Headmaster is expecting me to go over the final details, and I'll have to do the same with Minerva and then with Draco. Merlin, I've talked this over so many times in the past two weeks, I'm actually relieved it will be over tonight."

Her hand extended to squeeze his arm until the tea kettle sang. Hermione stood up to remove it from the heat, and the wizard shifted his eyes to the small box near his elbow. With a sigh, he slid it to the center of the table, sparking her curiosity enough to ask what it held.

"A vial containing Draught of Moonseed," he finally replied.

Her hand froze midair, before being pressed into her midsection. "A poison, isn't it?"

Severus gave a slow nod. "A particularly potent one. It takes effect almost immediately. Death typically occurs within a minute and is entirely painless. Exposure to sunlight renders it ineffective, however, so do not open the vial unless you are ready to use it."

"Use it?" The girl gaped at him in horror.

"I do not know how tomorrow will end, Hermione," he explained. "If I am captured, I will contact you as I am able. If I am incapacitated, you shall hear of it from Minerva, who will visit you when she is first available. If I should be killed, likely you will know soon enough. I'm not certain what effects my death will have on you. I don't know if it's instantaneous or slow, or how much pain might be associated with it. If I die or am unable to tend to you before the bond needs renewing, I wanted to leave you with an escape from an agonizing death should you choose to take it."

When she remained motionless, Severus stood from the table. "I'm sorry to upset you. You shouldn't have to suffer for my failure."

It took Hermione a moment to comprehend what had been said, and by then the wizard was standing beside the sofa, donning his robes. Jerking to a start, she trailed after him. "Wait!"

He turned and raised an eyebrow.

"I…" The words she wanted to say caught in her throat. Instead, she slipped her hand behind his head and lifted up on her tiptoes to kiss him. He briefly returned the kiss, then met her eyes as she tightly gripped his robes. "You'll come back to me, yeah?"

"I will do what I can," he responded solemnly.

Hermione blinked and nodded as she held open the door and watched him step outside. "Be safe, Severus."

The wizard dipped his head, said goodbye, and disapparated.

She stared at the empty space where he had been for several seconds before whispering, "I love you."

Closing the cabin door, she pressed her head against the back of it. Tears slipped down her cheeks, while she slowly sagged down to the floor. "Please just keep him safe."

XxxxxxxxXxxxxxxxX

Mr. Moony wishes Professor Snape a good evening and requests he keep his freakishly large nose away from things that do not belong to him.

"You fucking ignoramuses!" Severus snarled.

Mr. Prongs agrees with Mr. Moony but retracts the wishes for a good evening for Professor Snape is an ugly git that doesn't deserve them.

Apparently it did not matter that he now knew how to activate the map; it was intentionally charmed against him. Cursing the four shitstains who created the map and himself for not having checked it sooner, the wizard stormed over to his fireplace and tossed down a sprinkle of powder. "Minerva!"

A moment later, her head appeared in the grate. "Severus? What is it?"

"I need your assistance. Immediately."

"Just a moment."

Shortly thereafter, the Deputy Headmistress stepped into his office and joined him at his desk.

"I need you to open this for me," he pointed to the folded parchment. "Hermione showed me how to use it, but I seem not to be allowed to activate it myself. I hadn't noticed until now because I had Hermione use it the few times it was necessary."

Minerva frowned at the lines of insults that continued scribing themselves across the parchment. "Alright. Tell me what to do."

Once the map appeared, Severus immediately snatched it up and refolded it to find the section covering the area around the One-Eyed Witch statue. His eyes landed on Draco Malfoy, who was lurking behind the statue as planned. As of yet, none of the Death Eaters had arrived.

Blowing out a relieved sigh that the delay had not cost them anything, he shoved the map in his pocket and picked up a sack from his chair.

Minerva grabbed his arm. "Be careful, Severus. Don't ever turn your back on her, you hear me?"

"I don't intend to do so," he replied. Bellatrix Lestrange may very well bring about his death, but it would not be because he had dropped his guard around her. Before leaving the office, Severus turned back to his colleague. "I presume you won't allow me to render you unconscious and ward you in here til the coast is clear."

She fixed him with a penetrating look. "And I presume you wouldn't want me to set fire to every last book you stashed in my quarters."

"You'd better not get yourself killed then," he stated quietly before making his way out of the dungeons. He settled into the Transfiguration classroom and spread out the full map on a table. Poring over it, he was relieved not to see any students –apart from Draco – outside of their dormitories.

Well, except Potter. Neither he nor the Headmaster were on the map because they were off god knows where. Upon their return, Dumbledore was supposed to send the boy to Gryffindor Tower through the Floo and then make his way to the Astronomy Tower, where it was less likely for bystanders to happen upon the assassination. Dumbledore was supposed to have returned almost half an hour ago, but was still absent. Hurry it up, old man.

Movement caught his eye, and his heart thudded. Bellatrix Lestrange had appeared on the map, followed by the Lestrange brothers. He swept the map looking for the Aurors, and in that time, Yaxley and Dolohov had emerged from the tunnel. The gang's all here.

Severus started folding up the map when Fenrir Greyback suddenly appeared. Fuck. He's not supposed to be here. Good god, for once keep all of the children in their rooms.

The dormitories had been warded for protection against those with nefarious intentions since Sirius Black had broken into Gryffindor Tower, but that would not protect them if they snuck out. As Lupin could attest, Greyback had a penchant for biting children. The others, hopefully, would obey the Dark Lord's order not to harm any of the students, but Greyback had always struggled to obey the rules. The only reason the Dark Lord had not dispatched of him already was because he did not want to risk making enemies of the werewolves.

Dumbledore, you fuckwit. You need to get here now. Severus hurried through the corridors, mindful of where Aurors and staff had last been. He needed to minimize the risk of discovery and injury, and based on Hermione's suggestion, Misters Weasley were unknowingly assisting him in that endeavor. The majority of those he needed to keep away from the mayhem were on the lower levels, so it was necessary to restrict access to the stairs. The Floo network would be useless to anyone other than Dumbledore, McGonagall, and himself for the Headmaster had ordered the elves to hide all of the Floo powder.

Upon reaching the staircase, Snape dug a Decoy Detonator out of his sack and lobbed it as far down the corridor as he could. It bounced off the wall before hitting the ground and blaring its horns horrendously loud. He then sprinted up the stairs and deployed a Portable Swamp, which had been confiscated earlier that year, on the landing between the two floors. Making use of the Hogwarts Floo network, he was quickly able to similarly sabotage the two other staircases that led to the fifth floor, where the entrance to the Astronomy Tower was located. He then Flooed up to the sixth floor to distract those who were completing their rounds on the upper floors.

Hustling back down to the fifth floor, he ducked into the music room and hauled out the map once again. Draco, doing as instructed, had brought the group of Death Eaters up the farthest staircase and they would be nearing his location shortly. It concerned him that Greyback appeared to have split off from the group, but thankfully he also noticed Albus Dumbledore floating atop the Astronomy Tower.

Finally! Exhaling loudly, Severus tucked the map securely into the interior of his robes and then stepped out into the corridor. Feigning confidence, he strode down the corridor until he met up with Draco and five of the persons he least wanted to see.

"Sevvie!" Bellatrix called, shoving past Draco. "How good of you to join us!"

"Thought perhaps you got cold feet," Rodolphus added.

"We mustn't dawdle," Severus growled. "I've heard from Dumbledore. He's expecting me atop the Astronomy Tower."

Rabastan smirked as he stepped past. "He likes a view while you suck his cock, eh?"

The Potions Master ground his teeth as Bellatrix's cackle topped the rest of the chuckling.

"Speaking of cock-sucking," Dolohov leered, "just where is that Mudblood cunt of yours?"

Resisting the urge to cave in his skull, Snape bit out, "As per the Dark Lord's instruction, she is nowhere near here."

"Pity. I was looking forward to saying hello." With a waggle of his eyebrows, the man headed off in a different direction. Severus hoped he tripped down the stairs and drowned in a Portable Swamp.

"Heathens, the lot of them," Yaxley sighed, glancing at Snape. He then gestured at Draco, who was being rushed by his Aunt in the direction of the tower. "Think the boy's got it in him?"

Severus scanned their surroundings as they moved. "We're about to find out."

"I suppose the same could be said for you." Yaxley whistled smugly and increased his pace.

Glaring, the spy followed behind them. As the rest of the group started up the Astronomy Tower staircase, Severus froze. Out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he saw… Potter! Harry bloody Potter had just appeared from an alcove, wand in hand and eyes locked on the backs of the invading Death Eaters.

Snape knew then that Dumbledore had not done as he had promised. He must have brought the Boy Savior with him instead of stashing him away in Gryffindor Tower. Fuck! This boy really is going to be the death of me.

"Potter," he snarled, catching the boy by the elbow before he could manage anything. "Don't be stupid."

"Death Eaters! You brought them –"

Severus shoved him behind a statue and cast Pakastekupla before Potter could pick himself up from the floor. He then Disillusioned the boy, placed a Notice-Me-Not spell on the area, and sprinted back to the Astronomy Tower entrance. Immediately he encountered Yaxley and Rabastan Lestrange, who had come down the stairs in search of him.

"I thought I heard an Auror approaching," the spy waved them off. "It was just that bloody poltergeist."

The trio dashed up the stairs, emerging at the top to find Draco holding a disarmed Dumbledore at wandpoint. The Headmaster, appearing weak and sagging against a column, was attempting to get the boy to lower his wand.

"Do it, Draco!" Bellatrix hissed in her nephew's ear. "Think of the honor you'd bring our family. Think of darling mummy. How disappointed she'll be to learn of your failure."

"Ignore her, Draco," Dumbledore wheezed. "Despite her family, your mother is a good woman. You don't want to tarnish that by murdering in her name. I can help you."

"Shut up!" Bellatrix pointed her wand at Dumbledore, only to have it knocked down by her husband. Snarling, she returned to encouraging Draco. "How long will she endure the torture before it loses entertainment value and she loses her head? Perhaps we'll place it on the wall beside the Malfoy elves, hmm?"

The boy's wand hand began to violently shake.

"Severus, this young lad needs our help." Albus turned his eyes to his spy.

"Help?" Bellatrix scoffed. "From the Muggle-lovers? Ha! Stop being a baby, Draco, and kill him!"

Pushing past Yaxley, Snape placed a hand on Draco's shoulder and squeezed. As the boy lowered his wand, his mentor raised his own.

"Severus…"

The Potions Master kept his wand perfectly steady, but internally he was struggling to focus. He needed to keep calm, to keep sight of the right intentions. This was a mercy killing, not murder.

"I took you in, forgave you, protected you," Dumbledore stated, raising to his full height. "Severus, I've looked upon you as a father would his son."

White hot rage tore through him, bringing with it the memories of his father in the violent, drunken rampages that had left his mother bloodied, bruised, and broken. He thought of how callously the Headmaster had treated those that had assumed they were under his protection. Potter… Hermione… Minerva… even the bloody Dursleys. They were human beings, not pawns on a board to be used, abused, and discarded simply for the sake of strategy.

Severus had failed to save his mother from his father, but he could bring an end to Albus Dumbledore's tyranny. Tightening the grip on his wand, he firmly stated, "Avada Kedavra."