AN: I have a beta! This chapter was beta'd by the lovely Sigridhr. I owe her so much for putting up with my slow pace of writing this fic, and dealing with my general insanity.

x

Chapter 13

Once Forward, Twice Back

The crown was resisting.

The horcrux was attacking her mind, forcing her to her knees as it brought forth every single painful memory Hermione had. She looked up to see a snake made of red flames launching itself towards her, and Hermione dashed to her feet and avoided the hit, crying out when the it managed to singe her legs.

"Granger!"

Hermione covered her mouth with her arm as she started coughing, and vaguely saw an outline of a boy bursting into the shack.

"STOP!" Hermione shouted as he raised his wand. Scabior was taken aback by her scream and hesitated for a moment, but it was enough. With a violent movement of her arm, she wrenched the diadem from her fingers and flung it into the fire.

Scabior and Hermione were thrown back as the flames roared and amplified. She registered vaguely that she could hear the horcrux screaming in agony, and that she couldn't breathe properly, but her vision was starting to darken and her thoughts began to slow. With a last effort, Hermione raised her arm and slashed her wand in the air. The fire disappeared.

"Get up, Granger!" Scabior shouted. Was she still lying down? Evidently yes, and she staggered to her feet when two arms lifted her from under her arms.

"Stupid bloody girl!" Scabior growled, and then glanced around. The Shrieking Shack was badly burned, and with the fiendfyre now put out, Hermione could see the charred remains of the diadem. It was silent. Hermione smiled faintly.

He must have seen her looking at it, because in one fluid movement Scabior picked it up and then grabbed her again, clutching her to his side as they stumbled out of the Shack. He threw her to the ground in disgust and dropped the diadem to her feet, and Hermione saw Severus kneel beside her and wrapping an arm around her. She kicked the diadem and watched in satisfaction as it reduced to dust.

"Hermione, what were you thinking?"

She turned to see Severus looking at her with a troubled expression. "She's injured," he announced as he inspected her, and looked up at a seething Scabior.

"Well of course she's bloody injured, she just cast bloody fiendfyre in a wooden bloody shack," growled Scabior, running his hand through his hair angrily. "And what the hell was with that crown? What are you playing at, Granger?"

"Fiendfyre?" Regulus said in alarm, casting another look at the burned shack. "How—"

"Somebody's coming," Severus said urgently. He glanced up at the Shrieking Shack. "At least the shack doesn't look too bad; it only got blacker. If anything, this'll just encourage the haunted shack theories."

"We have to get out of here before anyone sees us," Hermione gritted her teeth as she stood up. Severus still had an arm around her as he helped her stand, and didn't seem very keen on letting her go.

They immediately bolted towards the castle. Hermione grimaced as her shins and thighs began to sting very badly, and her hands—she didn't even want to look to see how much damage there was. Severus clearly had no problem looking at them, for once they were safely inside the castle, he pulled her to the side and held them up to his eyes.

"I'm fine," Hermione snatched her hands from his inspection. "They're just burns."

"Oh no, sweetheart," Scabior's smiling was scathing as he walked up to her. "Those aren't just any burns. They're cursed burns." Hermione's eyes widened. "What? Didn't come across that part in your reading?"

"I did," said Hermione mutely. "I might've…overestimated my accuracy."

"You need to see Madame Pomfrey," said Severus at once.

Hermione shook her head impatiently. "If I go to her, she'll know what this is! And once she finds out someone set fire to the Shrieking Shack, it's only a matter of putting two and two together."

"No offense, Hermione, but looking at the state of you now, anybody can put two and two together," Regulus said bluntly. Hermione glanced down and winced at the abysmal state of her attire. "Come on."

Hermione took a step back. "Where are you taking me?"

"The common room."

Hermione wrenched free of the trio and backed away. "And going to the bloody Slytherin common roomis so much more inconspicuous!" Hermione laughed incredulously. "No, I'm not going with you."

Severus glared, but Scabior shrugged. "Well go then, Granger, just go head up to your room and try a bit of spellwork on those burns. Doesn't take more'n a week for your hands to completely blister, until all that's left is bone."

"Stop being horrible, Scabior," Hermione snapped, but she reflexively cradled her hands closer to her chest. She could feel the burn digging deeper into her skin already. The terror must have shown on her face, for Scabior's glare softened a fraction.

"I'm no master in potions," said Scabior, as if the words were being wrenched unwillingly from his mouth, "but I know what could heal that."

"Of course you do," nodded Hermione. "You'll know all about how to work with the family trade secret."

Scabior's lip twitched, but he remained silent. Severus glanced between the two warily, and said quietly, "Lucky for us, I am something of a master in potions. I will make the antidote."

Scabior's expression instantly darkened. "You really think I'd tell you my family's legacy? You daft?"

"Somebody has to make the potion, Scabior," Hermione frowned. "And since I'm a bit indisposed at the moment—"

Regulus, who had been watching the exchange with growing annoyance, snapped impatiently, "Are we really going to have this discussion in the entrance hall of the school?"

"Right," Hermione bit her lip, looking around distractedly. Suddenly she gasped. "The old classroom!" she turned to Scabior emphatically.

"Oh yes, of course!" he replied sarcastically, looking at her as if she had two heads.

Hermione made an impatient noise. "The one we were practicing in! I have still have permission to use it. No one should be down the corridor right now."

"Alright," Scabior agreed gruffly. He gave a hard look to Severus. "We need to get to the potions supply closet. Black, go with Granger to the classroom." They began to separate, but Scabior grabbed Hermione's upper arm and lowered his voice. "You will tell me what this was all about afterwards. You owe me."

Hermione swallowed, watching him walk away with Severus.

It was an odd arrangement to say the least, and despite the sharp pain shooting up and down Hermione's body, she came to realize that three boys—three Slytherin boys who were already on the path to the dark side—had helped her. And were going to make an antidote for her own silly mistake. Hermione shook her head in wonder. She was slowly starting to realize just how foolish a lot of her assumptions about people were….

"Down here?" Regulus's voice interrupted her thoughts. Hermione nodded.

"Yes, down here." She noticed Regulus was keeping in pace with her as she trekked slowly down the corridor, his eyes darting around carefully. "It's okay. Everyone's getting lunch in the Great Hall right now. No one will be looking down here."

"Reassuring," replied Regulus. Hermione couldn't tell if his reply was sarcastic or not. She didn't wait to find out.

"This one," Hermione pointed at the door to an empty classroom, pressing her injured hands closer to her chest. Regulus stepped forward and opened it, gesturing for Hermione to walk through first.

He closed the door behind them and leaned against the wall, watching Hermione speculatively as she slowly sank into a chair. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Silence… there was complete silence. No longer did the horcrux ring in her ears. The constant ache in her chest disappeared. She was finally, finally free.

The relief was short-lived as Hermione thought of the other horcruxes she would need to find and destroy. Were all of them even made yet? She destroyed the diadem – leaving the ring, the locket, the snake, the cup, the diary… was the locket even a horcrux yet? Hermione tried to wrack her brain and recall what Dumbledore had told her before her journey into the past, but her mind refused to cooperate.

And the snake… if he had Nagini right now, then surely she'd become a horcrux. Harry wasn't even born yet, so then….

"You're really stupid, you know."

Hermione was pulled from her thoughts at Regulus's words. She looked up to see him watching her with his arms crossed lazily.

"Thank you for that assessment, Regulus," said Hermione.

"I mean, what kind of idiot wakes up one morning and thinks, 'I'm going to blow up the Shrieking Shack today. I feel lucky.'"

"I didn't blow it up," Hermione snapped.

"Don't understand why everyone's putting such a fuss about you," Regulus continued as if she hadn't spoken. "Scabior and the greasy git tripping over themselves to help you. It's pathetic."

"I didn't ask for their help, and I certainly didn't ask for yours," said Hermione coldly. "You can leave now."

"But you're so stupid that people can't help but try to help you," Regulus said patiently.

"What's your point, Regulus?"

He shrugged. "I don't even know. It's just curious, is all. And what was that thing that Scabior had dropped on the grass before? A crown?" Hermione pressed her lips together. "I see I've reached the touchy subject. How about this then: where in Merlin's name did you learn to cast fiendfyre? And why?"

"It's a long story," Hermione looked away, feeling suddenly very old. "And none of your business."

"Yeah but why though? Why did you do it? That's really dark magic, Granger. I didn't think you would ever use it—thought you were just really curious about it."

Hermione glanced at Regulus with a raised brow. "Are you curious about it? Enough to use dark magic again?"

"Who's to say I don't already?" he challenged.

Hermione shrugged her shoulders. "You don't seem that interested in it anymore."

"There you go again, acting like you know me," Regulus muttered, but behind his words was something she couldn't quite recognize—and for a moment, she thought she saw a glimmer of fear flit in his eyes. Hermione recalled what Sirius had discussed with her the night before, about Regulus receiving a letter from his family, and wondered if now would be a good time to bring it up.

The door opened loudly and Scabior and Severus walked through. Evidently not.

"Unfortunately, Hermione," started Severus curtly, "I'm not sure how quickly I can brew the potion, since the oaf beside me refuses to give me a sheet of instructions on how to brew it."

Scabior glared darkly at Severus, who was setting up the cauldron on one of the desks. Hermione suppressed a sigh. "Give him the instructions, Scabior. The quicker we can get this done, the quicker we can get out of each other's hair."

"And in our case, it'd be much safer for all of us to stay out of Snape's," Regulus remarked with a slight grimace.

With great reluctance, Scabior did what she asked, and Severus was well on his way to a bubbly, boiling solution in his cauldron. Regulus had taken to a nap in the corner of the room, his feet propped up on a desk and leaning against his chair. Scabior was watching as Hermione transfigured her clothes back to a somewhat normal state. It wasn't a perfect result, as she was having trouble keeping a firm grip on the wand, but she reached success after a few minutes and smiled triumphantly as she sat down on a chair.

Hermione attempted to ignore the stare burning through her forehead. Finally, she sighed exasperatedly. "What?" Scabior didn't reply. "What?"

"How did you learn to cast it?" Hermione looked away nervously. "I mean, we only practiced the countercurse. Once. And then the next day you do this."

"I did do my research, you know," said Hermione quietly. "And you gave me the history lessons about it in exchange for the essays."

"But why? You never really answered why you're doing this, why you were interested in fiendfyre." He let out a harsh laugh. "Blimey, at first I thought you fancied me, but when that fell through I couldn't understand why you continued."

Hermione breathed in deeply and looked Scabior straight in the eye. "I know you want to know, Scabior. Everyone in this room does." Her eyes flitted over to Snape, who was carefully brewing the potion. She knew she had a lot of explaining to do to him. "But you really, really don't want to know. It's not safe for either of us, and believe it or not I think we might be friends now. And I don't… I don't want you to get involved in my mess. At least, not yet. It's not fair to you."

"Do you fancy the dark arts now?" he asked with genuine curiosity. "You know… you know they don't really allow your kind in."

"My kind…?"

"It's their thing, not mine," Scabior said quickly. "I don'—I don' really care, just in it for the fun—"

"I don't fancy the dark arts," Hermione assured, not particularly interested in what he was trying to say. "I just need to borrow one of its spells for a short while…" Hermione glanced down at her hands again, and sighed. "I definitely need more practice."

Scabior looked at her dubiously, but did not comment. "Are you going to tell anyone?" asked Hermione. The question had been worrying her for the past hour. After all, she didn't exactly have his loyalty from just a few days of chatting.

"But of course. I went through all this bloody trouble of getting you antidote just to tell the whole school you set the Shrieking Shack on fire," said Scabior dryly. "Which, well..." Scabior coughed. "You did a decent job, that. For a day's practice, that is. Was stupid, but still good. You put it out yourself n' everything."

"Did you just give me a compliment?"

"Don't be daft," Scabior scowled. When she found herself smiling, Hermione wondered when exactly she had stopped thoroughly disliking the boy.

"The potion is ready," Severus announced as he sauntered up to the pair. His eyes were narrowed shrewdly as he regarded Scabior. "If what he says is true, you'll need to apply this every three hours for a week. I've made a cauldron full, so it will last you the trip home."

"Guess my job is done," Scabior jumped to his feet and strolled to Regulus, giving his chair a swift kick. "Time to go, Black."

Regulus woke with a start, glaring at Scabior's back as he left the classroom without another word. Muttering darkly under his breath, Regulus stood and brushed out his robes. He glanced at Hermione and Severus and then left as well.

Hermione finally turned to look at Severus, and released her breath with a whoosh.

"Well." Hermione leaned back against her chair tiredly. "Hello."

Severus carefully took a seat before her and set the cauldron on the table. "Hello." He held out his hands expectantly, and Hermione offered her own. He started to apply the thick liquid from the cauldron onto the burns, and Hermione couldn't help the sigh of relief that escaped her the moment the ointment met with her skin. Severus's lips twitched in a self-satisfied manner, knowing full well that his potion was, as always, flawlessly brewed.

"Thank you for doing this," Hermione said meekly after several minutes of silence. Severus nodded in acknowledgement. He began wrapping her hands in bandages, and Hermione raised an eyebrow. "How exactly will I be wearing these wrappings without causing suspicion?"

"Bad potion accident," Severus said automatically. "That excuse always works."

"I suppose…" Hermione said slowly. She expected he would be bursting with questions and accusations the moment they were alone, but this was something else entirely. He was quiet and calm, and was actually talking to her. Well, progress was progress. It didn't do well to look a gift horse in the mouth, Hermione supposed, but it didn't make the uneasy feeling in her stomach disappear.

Severus cleared his throat then, and Hermione focused again on his face. He was sitting rather stiffly in his chair and was not meeting her eyes. "Your other burns?" he said almost coldly. Hermione frowned, and then looked down at her shins.

"Oh," she said in surprise. "Well, you can just… oh honestly, Severus! They're just legs! Here, give me," she reached for the cauldron but her hands were swiftly batted away. Hermione scowled. "Well if you won't let me then just do it. I didn't know the one thing that frightened a Slytherin was the sight of a girl's shin."

At this Severus began to glower at her deeply, one that would have sent a first year scuttling away quickly. Hermione merely raised an eyebrow and lifted her leg forward a bit so he could reach it. Immediately he began applying the ointment liberally, and within moments he was frowning deeply.

"Merlin, these are even worse than your hands," he muttered.

"I've had worse," said Hermione off-handedly. Severus paused and lifted his eyes up to look at her.

"I really hope not."

Hermione blinked, watching him resume his work. Hermione bandaged her shins herself, now that she had the use of her hands again. Wincing slightly as she pulled her repaired stockings over them, she sighed in relief when the job was done.

Severus was pouring the remaining contents of the cauldron into several flasks, and handed them to her. "Every three hours for a week," he reminded her sternly. "And it'll be like you never got burned."

"This'll last me more like a year, to be honest," Hermione murmured as she put the vials into her bag.

Severus did not meet her eyes. "I figured you would be in need of it again, so I doubled the measurements."

Hermione looked at him with a startled expression. "You—you made extra on purpose?" Severus nodded. Hermione set the bag down with a thump, and fixed him with a hard look. "Alright, why aren't you asking me questions? Everyone else has but you. Aren't you wondering why I cast that bloody spell? And you—you went and made me extra, because you knew I would cast it again."

Severus gazed at her firmly. "Of course I am curious. But if you wanted to tell me what happened, you would. And…" Severus shifted uncomfortably. "I wasn't sure… I haven't been a very… it's been a strange few weeks, and I wasn't sure you even wanted to talk to me, not after I…" Severus trailed off, and Hermione understood.

"Well, you're talking to me now," she said, daring to sound the tiniest bit hopeful. Severus cracked a slight smile.

"Yes, I am."

"And you're not… running away. Or accusing me of, you know. Bad intentions."

"No, I'm not."

"So have you been deducing what could be going on?" asked Hermione curiously.

Severus straightened, and peered into her eyes carefully, as if trying to decipher whether she would be angry with him or not. When he saw no such thing, he began to speak quickly. "I've been thinking on this for a few weeks. And after today, well—I know you're from the past, I know you're incredibly smart and powerful with moral standards so high nearly no one could reach—and yet you cast one of the most dangerous and darkest spells just to destroy some trinket."

Hermione blinked rapidly. "Well, you're right on the margin so far," she acknowledged, blushing slightly at having someone else tell her how he perceived her as.

"And you've been in pain," said Severus a little quieter. He looked at her with worry. "I noticed it during the OWLs. Saw you run to your dormitory after. Looked like something was torturing you." As if realizing something that instant, he looked at her in shock. "That thing—the crown—was that hurting you?"

"You noticed that?" said Hermione in surprise, her stomach doing an odd flip when he nodded. "Yes. For… for quite some time now."

Severus looked at her for a long moment, his eyes latched onto her so attentively that Hermione had to fight not to look away from the eye contact. Hardly anyone looked at others directly like this for so long, and Hermione was perturbed by the broiling questions and careful assessments underneath those black eyes.

A bitter smile twisted Severus's lips. "I did exactly what those buffoon friends of yours did to you not too long ago. Made myself a right hypocrite and jumped to conclusions."

"To be fair, it wasn't an easy subject to digest," said Hermione helpfully, though inside her mind was in complete disarray. Days and days of not speaking, and then this. She was slightly annoyed that it took burning the inside of a building for him to realize how foolish he had been towards her.

"Well," he gruffly cleared his throat. "Well."

Hermione frowned, but shook her head. "Right. We should get going." She rose to her feet and brushed the remaining ash and dust from her clothing. He stood with her, his eyes flickering over her unsurely and then turned to the door.

They strode outside and came upon the grand staircase. He turned to head downstairs, but paused and whirled around.

"Are you doing anything over the summer holidays?"

Hermione paused. "Er, not that I know of," she replied hesitantly, taken aback by the sudden question. "Why?"

Severus shrugged his shoulders awkwardly and looked to his shoes, locks of long hair partially covering his face. "Just wondering."

She didn't believe it for a second, but she decided to humor him; he was, after all, back on speaking terms with her, and she didn't want to push his buttons more than necessary. At least, not right now. "I'll owl you. Is that alright?"

He blinked and nodded quickly, not quite meeting her eyes still. Suddenly his face sobered, and he glanced up the staircase, as if searching for the Gryffindor tower. "Has she….Has Lily…?"

Hermione glanced up as well, and then looked at him with sadly. "No, she hasn't said anything."

For a brief moment, he looked completely like the broken boy who'd sat in front of the portrait of the Fat Lady, begging Lily to come out. But the expression disappeared, replaced with a look of cold solemnity, and he straightened his shoulders. "Right. Well, good day."

"Severus," Hermione said softly, catching his arm before he could take a step down. He froze, not turning around to meet her eyes. "I know it's not my place. But she won't see you. And she doesn't want to speak to you."

"Yes, I know that," he said icily, ineffectively attempting to shrug out of her grip.

"So then do it another way," she glared. "Write her a letter. She needs to know how you really feel, that you don't…you need to apologize," Hermione said firmly.

Severus whirled around. "You think I haven't tried? You think I don't regret every day, every time I see her, how much I didn't mean what I said?"

"Don't you yell at me," said Hermione sharply. "I know what you said to her, and if I was in Lily's place, I would make you work for it too. I've been—I've been desensitized to being called a mudblood, because of how often it's been shoved at me as if I were a disease. Don't look so surprised."

Hermione glowered at him reproachfully when he winced. "But it is still a hurtful word, and nobody deserves to have their entire identity be reduced to their bloodline; to be told they are disgusting for what they were born as. It doesn't matter how angry you were at the time, it doesn't matter what the situation was. It shouldn't have been said."

"I know," replied Severus quietly. "I know, Hermione. I know."

He was visibly sagging, and Hermione sighed. "It's not the end of the world, Severus. Not yet. You're still young; you can let her know the truth. That you will never say something like that again."

He looked at her then, gazing at her with a mixture of curiosity and questioning. "You say that a lot, you know," he noted. "You say things sometimes, like you know more than you let on, like you're older than we think. Sometimes I forget you're not from here. How old are you, really?"

"I'm—" Hermione stopped. "I…I don't know? I don't know which timeline I'm following anymore. I came here when I was sixteen, and it's been a year already so I suppose…" Hermione let out a short, incredulous laugh. "I'm seventeen. My birthday's passed on both timelines now, I think, so… Seventeen. I'm seventeen now."

"You were still at Hogwarts?" said Severus in shock. "You haven't even finished, have you?"

"No, I haven't," she replied distantly. "It was the end of my sixth year when Dumbledore… came to me and… and now, here I am." She shook her head in wonder.

"You're of age then," Severus observed. "You can do magic outside school now."

"I suppose you're right," Hermione nodded, realizing that he had a point. This would greatly improve her hunt for horcruxes since the Trace wouldn't be on her. "It feels weird being able to finally tell someone this."

Severus looked at her incredulously for a second, and then stepped closer to her. "This summer, I'll write to you. And I think, well. I think we should see each other at least once during the holidays. I have been a fool, and—and everything is so confusing right now, the people I spend time with—" He broke off suddenly, as if fighting with himself, and Hermione felt a wave of sadness as she knew what he was referring to. "They abandoned you, those bloody Gryffindors, and I was no better."

"Not all of them," Hermione reminded lightly. Lily had never left her side, and that thought made her feel terribly guilty for taking their friendship so lightly this entire year.

Severus narrowed his eyes for a moment, as if understanding what she meant, but chose not to comment on it. Hermione knew full well why. He was shaking his head again as he continued, "There's so much about you, Hermione, that I can't believe is true. You're living day by day like this, and it's slowly making sense to me; everything that you've been doing, the fiendfyre and the crown—" He broke off, but then looked at her with a renewed sense of purpose. "I will write to you. And I will write to her." He glanced up the staircase briefly, and then gazed at Hermione seriously. "You don't have to be alone anymore in this, Hermione."

Hermione's throat threatened to close as she listened to Severus's words. "You daft Slytherin," she shook her head, a slow smile spreading on her lips. "I'll see you over the summer."

And with that they parted, and neither had a chance to speak to each other for the remaining week at Hogwarts. It wasn't until Hermione was boarding the Hogwarts Express, trunk in hand and a crowd of students surrounding her, did Hermione catch a glimpse of Severus again; he was settling his own trunk down, a hoard of Slytherins surrounding him, of which she recognized Scabior, Regulus, and Avery and his gang. The latter sneered at her, with the former merely holding her gaze as she dropped off her trunk. Scabior's eyes flickered to her hands, and saw the fresh bandages that were wrapped around them. Nodding in acknowledgement, he disappeared, as did Regulus and Severus.

"Come on, Hermione," Peter said jovially behind her, patting her shoulder with a smile as they began looking through compartments. "We should still be able to find a good one before the underclassmen climb aboard."

"Very true," Hermione agreed, and began to look eagerly for a compartment to sit in. A throat cleared behind them, and James was standing with Sirius and Remus. "There's an empty one here," James pointed at the one beside him, opening the door. "If you want." His voice was neutral, but his eyes were unsure with a small, glittering bit of hope.

Hermione's eyes slid to Remus, who appeared very tired but very keen as he watched her, and Sirius seemed to be in higher spirits as well. Hermione and Peter exchanged looks, and Hermione shrugged. "I suppose it will do."

A wide smile spread on James's face and held the door out for her. Hermione caught the sight of bright red hair and paused. "You go in first. I'll be back in a minute."

Quickly brushing past the mass of excited students, Hermione caught up with Lily and grabbed her shoulder. A smile bloomed on Lily's face.

"Aren't you supposed to be sitting with you four-man army?" she said lightly. "They speaking to you again?"

"I suppose they are, yes," replied Hermione vaguely. "It's all very weird. But they can wait," Hermione waved her hand distractedly. "Have you got a compartment?"

"This one right here with my mates," she pointed to the door beside her. "Would you like to join us?"

Hermione smiled genuinely. "Thank you, but it's alright. I just wanted to see you beforehand. It's been a really strange year." Lily snorted, and Hermione rolled her eyes. "But I wanted to thank you. You were the first person to really welcome me to this school, and you didn't even know me. And I'm certain if it weren't for you, I would've gone mad within the first month here."

"I wouldn't blame you," said Lily darkly, but patted her shoulder with a smile. "I'm glad I met you, Hermione."

"Can I—I mean, do you want to meet up this summer? I'm not sure how I feel about three months without seeing you."

Lily blinked, and then grinned. "Of course!" she said cheerfully. "Merlin knows I'll need the company. My sister drives me barmy every summer, so it'll be nice to have someone fresh company. And you could meet my parents! They'll love you."

"You should come to my home too, the Potters will adore you," said Hermione enthusiastically.

"I keep forgetting you live with the Potters," Lily said sheepishly. "Would that be alright, then? If I came over?"

"Of course," Hermione frowned. "I'll have to ask Dorea or Charlus, of course, but it should be fine."

"Alright then," Lily beamed. "I'll see you soon." The two girls embraced, and Hermione caught the sight of a letter being discreetly tucked inside Lily's robes; a letter addressed to Lily, in what appeared to be Severus's neat handwriting. She looked up at Lily, who seemed frozen for being caught in the act, but quickly schooled her features and shrugged, as if to say, 'it is what it is'. Hermione smiled understandingly, and was exceedingly happy that for once in her life, somebody had listened to her advice.

xxx

It was a full month before Hermione received her first letter from Severus.

She'd been sitting in James's room, odd as it sounded. They were on speaking terms again, more or less, the moment she sat with him and the rest of the marauders on the train back home. It had also helped, of course, that he had apologized to her once they reached home for treating her so coldly since Christmas. There was plenty of groveling that Hermione felt was completely necessary in this circumstance, and so, here they were.

James was absorbed into today's Quibbler, so he did not take notice when a tawny owl swooped through the open window and dropped an envelope onto Hermione's lap. It gave a low hoot and took off, leaving Hermione to rip open the letter fervently.

Hermione,

I hope your holidays are going well. Are you free this week? We have a lot to discuss, especially about your plans of next term. There is a bakery nearby Godric's Hollow that we could meet.

S. Snape

Hermione read it twice, frowning. How did he know she lived in Godric's Hollow? She cast a glance at James and then understood. Know thy enemy.

Wordlessly leaving James's room, Hermione went to her own and quickly scribbled a reply.

Severus,

I am free this week. We could meet today, if you like. I've never been to that bakery yet, so it'll be fun visiting.

Hermione

She sent off the letter with anxious anticipation. She knew this would be it—the day she finally told him who she was. It terrified her, but part of her was almost glad she could finally tell someone, to not be alone anymore. Even though Hermione had her fair share of friends this past school year, it was unmistakable that Hermione was utterly alone in her quest, and thus nobody actually knew who she was. To be free of this burden, to finally have someone else know

Hermione did not muse on this longer, for her owl returned with another letter in its beak. For a moment she thought it hadn't been able to deliver hers, but when she saw her name written on the envelope, she hastily took it and tore it open.

Three o'clock today, then. I'll meet you at the door.

Hermione's eyes widened, and she checked the back of the envelope to see if anything else was written. There wasn't.

Meet her at the door? Surely, surely he would not do that. Severus Snape, show up at the Potters' front door? The idea was laughable, not to mention dangerous. If Sirius or James saw him… well, she was glad magic was forbidden outside Hogwarts.

Hermione still did not dare to test her magic outside Hogwarts. Her body was most definitely seventeen right now, so the Trace couldn't possibly be on her.

But this was no time to think of this. Three o'clock was two hours away. She worried her lower lip, wondering if she should bring her bag from her own time with her, the one filled with textbooks and things she owned from before. And the empty Time-Turner that brought her here… no, he had seen that already. There was no point in showing that again.

Hermione prepared herself and grabbed the purse, then went to Mrs. Potter and told her of her departure. Mrs. Potter—Dorea, as she urged Hermione should call her—was skeptical of her leaving so suddenly, but did not protest. After assuring she would be back before dark, Hermione hovered anxiously by the door, glancing every few seconds out the window, as if expecting to see long, dark hair and a hook nose at any instant.

On her last glance she saw him. Her stomach did an uncomfortable flip, and immediately she opened the door before Severus could knock. He looked surprised at her sudden appearance, noting she closed the door quickly behind her, and gave a wary smile.

"Hello," he said.

"Hello," said Hermione, breathlessly. "Nice day, isn't it?"

"Very," Severus agreed amiably. He glanced up briefly up at the house, and the faintest of sneers curled his lips. "Potter and Black inside, then?"

"Just James," Hermione shrugged, stepping away from the door. "Sirius went out to see his other friends some hours ago."

Severus looked as if he swallowed a particularly bitter lemon at the mention of James and Sirius's names, but made the effort to school his features back to one of indifference. "Let's go, then. Don't want to get there when the bakery closes."

Hermione nodded and fell in step with Severus, walking along the sidewalk together. "Where do you live, by the way?" Hermione asked. "I feel terrible that you had to come all this way. I could've met you at your house."

"Spinner's End," Severus said brusquely. "You needn't bother come there. It's far from Godric's Hollow, and a dreadfully dull place."

His expression was hard and closed, staring straight ahead at the street. Hermione did not comment, for she knew, though he would not tell her outright, that home was not an endearing place for him. She didn't have to guess very hard why.

The bakery was very close to Godric's Hollow; they reached a little shop on the corner of a street about three blocks away. She was instantly chilled as she stepped inside, and felt grateful for muggle air conditioning. They sat at an empty booth, Hermione noting that it was quite a private little shop, and knew why Severus chose this place in particular. He wouldn't let her near his house and would be caught dead before actually stepping inside the house of James Potter and Sirius Black, so a bakery nearby her home was both private and safe.

Severus shifted a bit in his seat, his hands folded under the table. Hermione cleared her throat.

"So how has your summer been?"

Severus shrugged indifferently. "Yours?"

Hermione shrugged as well. "Rereading lots of books, mostly."

"Books for school, or books for other… things?"

Hermione looked at him sharply, taking in his nonchalance. "Both," said Hermione carefully.

Severus looked at her for several more moments before sighing raggedly. "I think we've danced around this subject long enough. I meant what I said before we left Hogwarts, Hermione," said Severus seriously. "I am sorry for how I handled what you trusted me with. But –" He took a deep breath. "I'm ready to hear the whole story, and I won't run away this time. If you want to tell me, of course," he added quickly, taking in Hermione's surprised expression. "Only if you want to."

"I do," Hermione answered immediately. "I really do. But you have to absolutely, absolutely swear that this stays between us."

"I swear," Severus said solemnly, and Hermione believed him. Perhaps this would be her downfall. She knew a thousand ways how it could be. But she also knew she could not do this alone, not anymore. She already tried doing it alone. And she knew she couldn't spend the rest of her life living like this.

"Okay," she nodded, feeling suddenly very nervous. She looked away from Severus and stared at her hands, folded neatly on the table. "Well, I don't know if I'll bore you the details of my entire life story. I'll just start with the basics. I was born in 1979 to muggle parents. Eleven years later I got my Hogwarts letter, and got sorted into Gryffindor. I made two best friends; Ronald Weasley, and Harry Potter."

"Harry Potter?" Severus repeated. "Do you mean—no, you can't mean. The only Potter with magic here is—" Severus stopped short. A look of cold dread filled Severus's eyes. "Potter's son. You were friends his son in school."

"Yes," Hermione admitted, feeling suddenly very sick now that she was finally telling him the secrets of the future. But she kept going. "We weren't friends at first, but we were by the next month."

"What does Harry Potter have to do with you going back to the past?"

The question was asked so innocently, with such genuine confusion, that Hermione almost began laughing. "What does he have to do with it? He's everything to do with it," Hermione smiled incredulously. "Harry Potter was famous when I was at school. There wasn't a witch or wizard who didn't know his name."

Severus's eyes darkened. "I see," he said quietly. "So, Potter and his family become famous. I'm not entirely surprised."

Hermione's expression changed instantly; a haunted look was about her, and her eyes filled with deep sadness. Severus furrowed his eyebrows. "What?"

"He's not famous because his parents were popular. He's famous because Voldemort tried to kill him as a baby."

Severus's eyes widened to saucers as he flinched at the name. "What?" he exclaimed in a harsh whisper, glancing around to make sure they weren't overheard. "Are you serious?"

Hermione gave him a hard look. Severus began shaking his head in disbelief. "Why would he do that? Why would he try to kill a baby?"

Hermione swallowed hard. "There was this prophecy," she muttered quietly. "Something about a boy born on the 31st of July that would be You-Know-Who's downfall. So he decided not to take his chances, and used the Killing Curse on him. But it didn't work; it backfired and ended up destroying his body."

Severus looked even more horrified. "Harry Potter survived the Killing Curse? How is that even possible? And you're saying that in the future, the Dark Lord is no longer alive because of that?"

Hermione shook her head, her lips pressed in a hard line as she clasped her fingers together even more tightly. "It was old magic that saved him," she continued hollowly. "That's the only reason. No one has ever survived the Killing Curse, except Harry. And Vol—You-Know-Who didn't exactly die. His body was gone, but the spirit remained."

Severus sat back in his seat, looking aghast. She could see his mind working rapidly, trying to figure out the meaning behind Hermione's words, and filling the holes that Hermione was intentionally leaving. She wasn't sure if she wanted tell him that it was Lily's death that saved Harry that night.

Severus looked up at her again, a renewed question in his eyes. "Why are you here, Hermione?"

Hermione took a long breath, trying to mentally prepare herself for what she was about to reveal. "Over the years, You-Know-Who took every chance trying to kill Harry. He tried very hard to restore his body, but never quite succeeded. But in my fourth year, he found a way. He came back, with a new body, and picked up from where he left off. The reason he could do this was simple, really. He's always looked for a way to cheat death, a way he could live forever. He found one—really old, really terrible magic."

This was it. This would be the hardest part for Severus to digest, but it was now or never. "He…he split his soul. Seven times. Hid them in objects and scattered them around the world, making it so that if one form of his body died, he'll always have a backup plan. That's how he was able to come back at all."

Severus continued to stare at her after she stopped talking, and waited for him to speak. His eyes were wide with shock, and she knew this was a lot of information to dump on somebody all of a sudden, but he had to know. He asked, and it was time to tell.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, Severus opened his mouth. "S…seven times? He split his soul seven times?"

Hermione nodded.

Severus peered at her searchingly. "Is that what it is, then? You're here to destroy those objects where he hid his soul." His eyes narrowed in realization. "That's what that crown was, then, wasn't it? It was one of the things you had to destroy."

"Yes, it was," Hermione agreed. "It's why I've been getting Scabior to teach me about fiendfyre. He doesn't know why, obviously. Fiendfyre is about the only thing at this point that's powerful enough to destroy a horcrux."

"Is that what they're called?" Hermione nodded. Severus began to nod fervently, grabbing the glass of ice cold water in front of him and taking a few long swigs. He set the glass down and gazed at Hermione with glazed eyes and renewed determination. "I believe you," he said. "It all sounds so ridiculous, but I know you're not lying. And it makes sense. What I want to know now is, why did Dumbledore send you? Why not Potter himself? And what actually made him give you a Time-Turner to change history?"

"Well," Hermione began carefully. "From what Dumbledore told me, he and Harry spent a lot of my sixth year trying to learn more about horcruxes and even went to find one on the day I came here. Dumbledore, well…" Hermione shrugged ineffectually. "I won't try to understand why he does the things he does. But he found a Time-Turner, a lost Time-Turner that was thought to be a myth, that could move decades instead of hours. The Sands of Destiny, remember?"

Severus nodded.

"Well, he used it, only he went into the future instead of the past. He saw terrible things, and realized that You-Know-Who had won. There was another war," Hermione added quickly, noting Severus's confused face. "And apparently I fought in it during my seventh year, but we lost. You-Know-Who had absolute power. And the deaths… so many people died, Severus. Everyone I cared about. So Dumbledore used the Time-Turner to come back to his proper time, and ran into me." Hermione smiled bitterly. "Sometimes I think it's because I was the first person he could reach. That's why he chose me to do it. But he said… he said he trusted me, that no one else could do this. It made some sense, because I've worked with Time-Turners before in my third year, when I took extra classes and got approval to use one to get to them all.

"He explained everything to me; about the horcruxes, about who died in the future, about going into the past and destroying them early on and therefore changing the course of history. And so… I left everyone I loved behind. To save the people I love. To save everyone from the rise of You-Know-Who."

When she finally finished talking, Hermione sagged in her seat. The weight was finally off her. She could breathe easier now; she felt it. Severus was unusually quiet as he contemplated everything she just told him.

"So this is what you've been doing here?" Severus finally spoke, looking at her questioningly. "This is what you've been hiding all year?"

"Yes."

Severus shook his head incredulously. "You must hate us! You have enough on your plate as it is, but instead you had terrible friends along the way to make matters worse."

"Not always terrible," Hermione said lightly, but the bitterness finally broke through and she looked away. "But it definitely didn't help." She shook her head quickly and pushed away the dark thoughts. "You know everything now. So… what do you think?"

At that point, Hermione was glad she got to know Severus Snape in his youth. This person was so, so different from the one she knew as a Hogwarts professor. She never would have known, for instance, that the younger Snape would reach over and take her hand in solidarity, staring at her wordlessly for several minutes.

"You won't be alone in this anymore, Granger," he said firmly, holding her hand tightly. "Dumbledore may be a brilliant wizard, but this is a burden no one should carry alone. Just tell me how to help, and I will."

The moment felt surreal as Severus's words registered in her mind, her vision swimming.

She was not alone anymore.

"You have to understand," Hermione said quietly, "what this means in the long run. I'm working against the people you've started to be friends with, Severus. I know how you feel about the Dark Arts, and after what happened with Lily… I know you've gotten closer to them."

"I thought you would appreciate that I would have access to their information, Hermione," said Severus in a light tone, looking at Hermione with a mix of smugness and mischievousness.

Hermione raised her eyebrows incredulously. "You would do that?"

"You are so daft sometimes," said Severus in wry disbelief. "Did you honestly think, after telling me all this, that I would continue on the path I was headed to? That I would abandon yet another friend?"

"But Lily—"

"Forget about Lily!" Severus hissed. "This isn't about her, this is about you. And the safety of this world against the Dark Lord. There are people I need to protect too, so I am offering you my help in the matter."

Stunned into silence, Hermione could do little but stare at Severus. She looked down, noting he was still holding her hand in a ferociously tight grip. It loosened immediately, until Severus released her and shifted awkwardly in his seat.

"Okay," she said finally. Hermione broke into a smile. "This is—this is so much more than I could have expected." She shook her head slowly in wonder. "Thank you. Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me."

Severus gave a little smile, but darkness was hidden in his eyes. He was still thinking about everything she had told him, and was still trying to come to terms with it. Something was different in the way he looked at her now. Hermione narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out what it was.

And then she recognized it—it was such a familiar look, one that she recalled Harry received so often—a look of pity.

A spark of anger flared in her, but she did not have time to react on it. The door to the bakery opened, letting the bell on the door to ring a few times. A shadow fell over the two, and Hermione looked up.

"Well, well," Severus pursed his lips, his eyebrows pinched in a dark expression. "If it isn't the lost stray."

Sirius glared at him briefly, but ignored him. "Mrs. Potter wanted me to find you," he muttered to Hermione. "She told me you'd be here. Something's come up at home."

"Alright," she nodded. Glancing briefly at Severus, who was already rising from his seat, she smiled unsurely. "Goodbye, Severus."

"Hermione," he nodded curtly, and gave one last look of pure loathing to Sirius, who was only too keen to give one in return. "I'll keep in touch," he told Hermione briefly, before exiting the bakery.

"Ready?" Sirius asked tightly. Hermione rolled her eyes.

"What is it, then?" Hermione asked as they left the bakery. "What's happened at home?"

Sirius shrugged. "She didn't tell me. I came home and she just sent me right back out to get you."

Hermione frowned, biting her lip. What could have happened that she sent Sirius to get her? Hermione checked her watch. It was still only five o'clock….

"So, you and Snivellous?"

Hermione looked at him sharply. Sirius looked as if trying to suppress a grin, but failing.

"You know we're friends," Hermione said tartly.

Sirius gave a sour look. "You do know what he said to Lily, right?"

"Yes, I know. And he knows he was wrong." Sirius made a disgusted noise, and Hermione glared. "And you bullied him because you were bored! Don't try to make yourself look better."

"You can't compare what I did to what he did. What Snape said is something far worse than any hex I have ever thrown," Sirius remarked, shoving his hands in his jeans.

"And he knows it! He's apologized to Lily. And she's forgiven him."

Sirius was taken aback. "How do you know that?"

"Lily and Severus are my closest friends," Hermione sniffed. "They've been writing to me all summer."

"So they're friends again?"

Hermione looked away. "I don't know that much."

Sirius let out his breath slowly. They walked in a comfortable silence for a few minutes, until Sirius finally spoke again. "Have you… spoken to Regulus?"

He would not meet her eyes when Hermione looked up at him in surprise. "A little," Hermione said honestly. "Before vacation started, I spoke to him briefly. But not enough to talk about… you know."

Sirius made no reply. He appeared to be walking stiffly now, a worried look in his eyes. "He doesn't have much longer," replied Sirius quietly. "I have to do something. Or else he'll never be able to escape."

Just as Hermione was about to reassure him that she would be sending and owl his way soon, the sound of a massive cannon firing caused both of them to jump in fright. The ground shook as Hermione and Sirius immediately ducked to the ground.

"What the bloody hell was that?" Sirius exclaimed.

"That didn't sound right," Hermione breathed. "I think it was something magical."

"What, like reducto or something?" Sirius asked in concern. He helped Hermione to her feet and kept a protective arm around her, looking ahead. They could see smoke and bits of debris from the corner of the road behind from where they were walking.

"Come on, somebody might be hurt," Hermione urged him forward, and they ran to the end of the sidewalk. Across the street, a small shop was billowing smoke. She squinted to read the name of the shop, but it seemed to have blasted off.

"The person who did this might still be here," said Sirius lowly, his hand reaching his back pocket. Hermione stayed his hand.

"Be careful," she warned. "Don't use that unless it's absolutely necessary."

"I know," said Sirius. Neither dared take out their wand in the broad of daylight, but both were ready to whip it out in case someone started to attack. Sirius peered closely at the shop. "The person who did this doesn't seem to be there. No one's come out."

"Let's go, then."

Sirius and Hermione cautiously crossed the road and peered inside the blasted shop. Hermione coughed, covering her face with her arm. "Can you smell that?"

Sirius grimaced, coughing slightly as he took another breath. "Yeah. There's definitely traces of a magical signature in the air. This was no accident."

"But this is a muggle shop," Hermione said in confusion. "Why would someone attack a random muggle shop?"

"Haven't you been reading the papers, Hermione?" Sirius frowned. "Blimey, and I don't mean to be disrespectful at all, but your own family was attacked and they were muggles. This is their sport," Sirius gave a disgusted look at the shop. "Killing and torturing muggles is just a game for them."

Hermione swallowed hard, trying not to be overwhelmed by the fear gripping her insides. She reached over and pushed against the wooden door, wincing when it crumbled at her touch. Glancing nervously at Sirius, they both stepped inside.

The inside of the shop lay in ruin. Bits of paper were scattered and charred everywhere, a strong smell of ink and ash filling her nostrils. "Do you know what this place was?" asked Hermione.

Sirius shook his head. "I can't remember. Never really walked down this street. The shops keep changing over the years too, when the muggle closes his business and another takes over."

Hermione nodded distractedly. They did a search around the shop and found nobody inside, much to their relief. Hermione stepped over a thick piece of paper that wasn't completely ruined, and bent down to pick it up. The text was faded and ash-ridden, and Hermione blew on it to get rid of the debris.

"What is that?" Sirius asked over her shoulder, peering at the piece of paper. Hermione's stomach plummeted as she made out the words, feeling suddenly very dizzy.

"It's a business card," said Hermione faintly. "Of Xenophilius Lovegood."

Sirius furrowed his brows deeply, narrowing his eyes at the paper. "Is that the man who writes for The Quibbler?" Hermione nodded. "Why does a muggle shop owner have that bloke's business card?"

Hermione stepped back and glanced at the remains of the shop, the puzzle pieces slowly fitting. "Look around you, Sirius," she whispered harshly. "What kind of store do you think this was?"

"A…" Sirius glanced around, taking in the paper and the broken bits of machinery. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "This was a supply shop."

"Of paper," Hermione confirmed, running a hand through her hair in frustration. "Mr. Lovegood probably bought loads of paper off of the muggle who sells it here."

"But why from a muggle?" asked Sirius with a deep frown.

"Why not? It makes sense, doesn't it? The Quibbler is constantly writing about muggle equality and all sorts of eccentric things—who better to acquire paper from? They're setting their own example by it."

"Or maybe nobody else in their right mind in the Wizarding World would want to supply paper to someone like him," Sirius observed. He took her by the arm urgently. "We need to get out of here now, before somebody else arrives. We don't want to be caught at the scene."

"You're right," Hermione agreed. "Let's go."

Quickly and quietly, Sirius and Hermione slipped out of the destroyed paper shop and crossed the street, dashing through alleys. They no longer felt safe taking main roads, and criss-crossed through the town until they reached Godric's Hollow.

The door to the Potter house opened the moment they stood in front of the door. Dorea Potter was waiting at the door, and she grabbed Sirius and Hermione and roughly pulled them inside.

"Where have you been?" she hissed, closing the door behind them. She saw the state of Sirius and Hermione's clothes and blanched. "What happened? Why are you covered in dust?"

"There was an explosion on the way home," Hermione informed her, but apparently she could not have said anything worse. Dorea's eyes nearly popped from their sockets, and she pushed them away from the landing and into the living room.

James was leaning against a sofa, but immediately sprang forward when they were shoved onto the couch. "Thank Merlin," he sighed in relief. His face was stricken with worry, and Hermione was filled with confusion.

"What is it? Why is everybody on edge?" asked Hermione. She glanced between Dorea and James. "And where's Mr. Potter?"

"He's been called away at the ministry," said James quietly.

"What happened on your way home, Sirius?" asked Dorea seriously, her voice low and even.

Sirius straightened slightly at the sudden attention on him. "I picked up Hermione from the bakery, and on our way home, there was an explosion. One of the muggle shops had been attacked."

James and Dorea exchanged troubled looks, and Dorea said, "And?"

"We—well, we checked to see if anybody was hurt—"

"You shouldn't have!" exclaimed reprovingly at Sirius and Hermione, who winced at the sudden shouting. "In these times, if you hear loud bang outside, you leave immediately!"

"Somebody could have been hurt!" Hermione interjected hotly. "We couldn't just leave!"

"And how would two teenagers help, hmm? Are you planning on putting law enforcement out of business? They're there for a reason."

Hermione and Sirius said nothing. Sirius's fist was clenched tightly, and Hermione felt very much the same. Nothing they could say would earn them any kindness tonight.

"Which store was attacked?" asked Dorea finally. Her anger seemed to have abated for the time being.

"It was a muggle supply store for paper," Sirius replied. He looked at Hermione for a moment, wordlessly asking her permission. Hermione reached into her pocket, and withdrew a charred piece of paper. She handed it to Dorea.

"We found this there," she said, and Dorea inspected it worriedly.

"Xenophilius Lovegood?" she whispered. James took a step back, his mouth parted in shock.

"Oh…" he breathed, and before anyone could say anything, James sprinted to the staircase.

Hermione looked back at Dorea with a frown. "Why did you send Sirius to get me? What happened before the explosion?"

Dorea looked at her gravely, her lips pursed. "The dark mark was spotted over a house nearby," she said. "We were told it was very close to Godric's Hollow. Charlus left for the ministry immediately."

Hermione's heart thudded in her chest. It was starting already. Things were already moving too fast, this was too soon, she only had destroyed a single horcrux—

The sound of tapping against glass sounded inside the living room. An owl was pecking insistently at the window, and Dorea immediately crossed the room and took the letter from its leg.

"What is it?" asked Sirius impatiently. Dorea looked up in surprise.

"It's addressed to you," she said. "To both of you."

Sirius and Hermione exchanged troubled looks, and Hermione reached for the letter. Hermione ripped open the envelope with trembling hands. There was no emblem or insignia, just their names. Inside was a small slip of paper.

Written in unmistakable handwriting, as if scribbled in desperate haste:

Help me.

Hermione looked at Sirius in horror.

"Regulus," said Sirius bleakly.

XXX

Hello! It's been a while, but by now this shouldn't be news.

I want to thank Sigridhr again for beta'ing this fic. She is seriously amazing. If any of you enjoy the Avengers/Thor, Star Trek, Amelia Peabody, or the Tolkien series, her works are definitely worth a read.

Some important things will be rolling out now that Severus knows and Sirius is a sudden partner in Hermione's little detective work soon-to-come. I can't wait until Xenophilius Lovegood is introduced. I can't wait until everyone and everything is introduced. You guys are going to hate me forever (but in a really good way).

As always, you guys have shown me so much generosity in the kindness of your reviews and feedback. I swear I try to answer all of them, and I sincerely apologize if I've missed replying to some of you!

Until Chapter 14! xx