Severus Snape was many things, and coward was once one of them.
Water dripped from the ends of his hair to his bare shoulders as he stared at his wardrobe. It was sparse with dust collecting at the bottom, the wood chipping dangerously along the surface. His fingers brushed across the fabrics and frowned at the cheap, patched texture. Most of these didn't originally belong to him, and some of them he had tried to mend himself with no luck. But it would have to do.
Severus wasn't brave. He wasn't memorable. He disliked most things and liked even less people; but somehow, in just one year, he had changed—and suddenly Severus was starting to be some of those things.
Snatching the darkest shirt and coat he could find, he shrugged them on and stared down at himself. They were shabby, but they would do. There were no mirrors in his room and he didn't care enough to go to the bathroom and see for himself.
He glanced at the clock. Still time.
Severus retreated to his bed and stared up at the ceiling. Everything was so detestable—the walls, the cupboard, the bed, the air. It wasn't filthy, but it was as close as it could get to it. It was why nobody knew (except Lily, of course) where he lived or why he never allowed any friends—the few he had—to come over during the holidays. No one needed to see this part of his life.
Severus looked at his nightstand and saw the rolled piece of parchment that'd been delivered to him yesterday. Hermione had instructed him to burn it, and Severus had full intentions to—just not yet. His eyes roved over the small, neat handwriting as he delicately picked it up.
What was it about her that made him befriend her so quickly? At first he thought it was because of Lily—she was the one who had introduced them on their first day of fifth year, after all. But Lily had introduced him to her all her other friends, and Severus just barely tolerated them (and learned the hard way not to refer to them as 'those air-headed ninnies' whilst in Lily's company). This was different. She was different. And though he wouldn't admit it out loud, he was glad of it.
His heart lurched when he heard a loud thud and muffled shouting downstairs, and his eyes narrowed at the instinctual anxiety that filled him whenever his parents argued. Normally this would be the part where Severus would be filled instantly with repressed rage, but the feeling didn't come. After all these years, all that remained in him was disquiet.
His mother was shouting in earnest now, and Severus sighed. Crushing the parchment tightly in his fist, Severus sauntered to the bathroom and pulled out a muggle lighter his father had given him for Christmas. Holding the flame against the edge of the parchment, he dropped it into the rubbish bin and watched as the orange tendrils of smoke curled and bent around the paper, until all that remained was a pile of ash.
He walked down the stairs quickly and headed to the door. "And where the hell do you think you're going?" he heard his father sneer. Severus did not bother glancing behind him.
"Somewhere where your stupidity can't touch me," he muttered.
A hand gripped his shoulder and whirled him around, forcing Severus to look at him. "Give me any more cheek and you'll have a red one for the rest of your holiday."
"Leave him alone, Tobias," Severus's mother pulled Snape away from his father. She looked him up and down to make sure he wasn't hurt. "Off you go."
Severus pressed his lips together and fought off the disappointment when his mother turned away from him and went into the kitchen. Not wanting to be further berated by his father, Severus squashed down any lingering disappointment and left the house.
Spinner's End was a small street in Cokeworth, and coincidentally it was a two minute walk to Lily Evans's house from his. It was how they met each other, after all, but as he walked past the muggle residence today, he didn't feel the usual rush of warmth; instead he felt cold, as if a bucket of ice had been dumped down his head. They were more or less on speaking terms now, but he…did not know how she would react once she found out he'd gone and joined the Death Eaters. He was certain he did not want to know.
Could he really pull this off? Could he really, earnestly, fool a deadly organization into believing he was on their side? He'd meant every word when he told Hermione he would join the Death Eaters to help her bring down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but the closer he came to upholding that decision, the less certain he was that he was truly capable of it. And now, with Regulus relying on his help as well…
Severus shook his head. There was no room for second thoughts.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he stopped at the bus station and began his journey to London.
"James, you really don't have to escort me," said Hermione, but knew it was to deaf ears. James was practically bouncing with every step, smiling cheerfully at any muggle that would look in his direction.
"Well actually I do. You heard Mum and Dad—there's no way you're walking all the way to Cokeworth of all places by yourself."
"I wasn't planning on walking," said Hermione, exasperated. "I would've taken a bus. But then you walked right past it and rambled off about healthy walks and quidditch."
"I don't want to lose my shape during the summer months," James said darkly, then continued to stare at the road ahead. Hermione sighed, knowing a losing argument when she saw one.
In truth, Hermione did not mind very much that James was accompanying her to Lily's house. What did concern her was what James planned on doing once they arrived. "So, are you going to walk all the way back home once we get there, then?"
Hermione narrowed her eyes. "You do realize that no one is safe alone, right? It's not just a sexist forethought—yes, I said it, don't look so surprised—your mum and dad will be equally angry with you when they see you've walked home from Cokeworth by yourself."
James shrugged. "Then I'll try the muggle bus system. Do you have some coins on you by chance?"
"Yes, I do…"
"Then we're set!" James flashed her a good-natured smile. At her troubled expression, he looped his arm around her gently. "It's alright, Hermione. Really."
Hermione smiled slightly, if not a little fretfully. Even without the worry of James's safety, there was something else entirely that was eating her mind…and it partly involved her trip to Lily's house.
When she promised Lily that she would come over to her house this summer, she knew she would honor it. And at Lily's enthusiastic owl that her sister was leaving for the weekend for a summer academic competition in the country, Hermione sought her chance.
Was it coincidence that she was going to the same town Severus lived in? On the day he was to be initiated? Hermione liked to think so.
But Hermione liking anything never changed the truth.
Because the truth was, Hermione was terrified. This wasn't just her anymore. She was not alone anymore, finding horcruxes by herself and keeping her promise to end Voldemort before he could destroy everyone she loved. She involved others. Severus willingly involved himself, to the point of joining the Death Eaters and finding Tom Riddle's Diary, if he could.
What was terrifying her most was the prospect of their plan completely falling through. Voldemort did not achieve the title 'most dangerous wizard of all time' without reason. Voldemort in the flesh was much more dangerous than any horcrux she'd pick up. Voldemort living, breathing, and watching during the initiation…Voldemort burning the tattoo in Severus and Regulus's forearms permanently…Voldemort penetrating their minds to ensure absolute loyalty….
It was a dangerous game to play. Hermione was not ready. But Hermione did not believe anyone could ever be ready to face grievous uncertainty—to face death. Hermione could not imagine how strong a wizard would have to be to willingly accept his fate. But, prepared or not, she had to go forward. There really was no going back anymore.
"Here we are," said Hermione, stopping in front of a modest brick house. The houses around them were identical and in neat little rows that reminded Hermione of Harry's description of Privet Drive.
"Ah," said James, his eyes transfixed on the brick home. He shifted his weight, scratching the back of his ears. He cleared his throat. "Well, I guess I'll go then."
He whirled around so quickly that Hermione almost didn't catch his words. "James!" She grabbed a fistful of shirt before he could disappear, and he jerked to a stop. "What are you doing? You can't leave now!"
"You don't need me any further than this," he replied nonchalantly, but behind the calm exterior she could see he felt differently.
Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. "Let's just walk to the door. Then you can leave. Okay?"
Hermione was not entirely sure why she was pushing for him to stay a few minutes longer, but her grip remained firm. James hesitated, then looked back at the house. Reluctantly, he nodded.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, James sauntered behind Hermione as they walked up the front steps to Lily's home. She rang the bell once, and waited.
The door swung open and Lily was suddenly before her, smiling brilliantly and taking a step back to let Hermione inside. "I was starting to think you wouldn't make it."
"We chose to walk," Hermione informed with a sheepish grin.
"Why don't you ask for a house phone? They're dead useful, and much faster than owls."
"Merlin, I wish we could have a phone in the house," Hermione sighed wistfully. "That and a tele."
"Luckily I have both those things," Lily grinned, until her eyes fell on the boy standing quietly on her doorstep. "Potter?"
James looked up quickly and cleared his throat. "Erm," he said lamely. "I was just, er, dropping Hermione. Off. Dropping her off. And she is dropped now. So…I'll be going."
"Hang on," said Lily quickly. "This is actually what I was going to tell you about anyway with the phone and owl thing—as it turns out, my parents will be staying with Petunia overnight for the competition. So I don't have a ride home for you, Hermione. I'm so sorry," Lily looked at Hermione with a deeply apologetic look. "Honestly, I hate to tell these things last minute, but they literally just rang—"
"It's alright," Hermione stopped the onslaught of self-depreciating apologies before they could go further. She glanced at James, who was looking between the two girls unsurely, like a fly caught in particularly troublesome web. Hermione's lips twitched into a smile. "Well, James, I suppose it's a good thing you walked me here anyway. If that's okay with you, Lily."
"Come again?" said James weakly, clearly not following the conversation; or if he was, his mind was far too befuddled to string words together coherently.
"You'll have to stay," Lily told him. Her forehead wrinkled as she looked James up and down, as if sizing up how much aspirin she will require for the next few hours.
If there was a way to look both terrified out of one's wits and pleased beyond measure, James was doing a marvelous impression of it. Dumbstruck and unmoving, James stared unfocusedly between Hermione and Lily. When Hermione cleared her throat, James finally snapped out of his reverie and blinked several times.
"May I come in?" he asked solemnly. Lily seemed surprised at the request, and nodded slowly.
"Obviously. You too, Hermione, come in," Lily stepped backward and turned around, leaving the door wide open for them to enter. James gestured for Hermione to go in first, and then closed the door quietly behind him.
The moment Lily was out of earshot, James gripped her upper arm and whispered in her ear, "I feel very very very very wrong being here right now."
"This wasn't your end goal, then?" Hermione asked innocently. James began to speak, but snapped his mouth shut before words could come out. The resulting wounded look made Hermione sigh. "Well, you'll have to stay regardless. Just…I dunno…don't be a prat and then maybe Lily won't kill until you've at least had dinner."
James nodded furiously and looked as if he were taking mental notes of Hermione's every word.
The living room was quaint and sparse, with a small television box set up in front of a sofa and armchair. James was immediately entranced by the box that shouted noises and moving pictures, shuffling towards it until his head was level to the screen, inspecting every pixelated square.
"What is this?" he breathed, intrigued.
"That would be the latest episode of Doctor Who," said Lily amusedly.
"More specifically, a television," Hermione added.
"This is the thing you were talking about getting a few days ago?" asked James. Hermione nodded. "What does it do?"
"It can tell you the news, the weather, music, and lots of programs on the front screen there at the click of some buttons," Lily explained. She had a strange smile playing on her lips, as if suppressing the urge to grin at James's genuine curiosity. James looked at the box with wonder.
"And these people can talk in it? Like moving pictures, but with voice?"
Both Lily and Hermione nodded. Hermione's eyes slid to Lily's, and they both smiled knowingly. James slowly backed away from the television, his eyes still transfixed on the screen.
"Uh huh. Well, this is very interesting, marvelous…"
After a few more moments of marveling, Lily showed James and Hermione the rest of her house (they had to pause several times for James as he inspected the more elaborate muggle contraptions), until finally retiring in the parlor.
"I had hoped you would get to see my parents at least," said Lily with a sigh. "It was kind of the whole point. Though it's nice to have Petunia away."
Hermione leaned back against the sofa and shrugged slightly. "I had the chance to see them when they came to pick you up from our house the other day. They seemed very nice."
"Sorry, but who's Petunia?" asked James confusedly.
Lily glanced at him oddly. "My older sister."
James raised a brow in surprise. "I've never heard of her," he said mildly.
"There's nothing really to say about her," Lily said dismissively, and a little too quickly not to be noticed. James tilted his head with a knowing look.
"You don't get along with her."
"She doesn't get along with me," Lily corrected sharply. "I have nothing to do with it. I'd happily talk to her more if she wouldn't—" Lily stopped abruptly, casting a wary eye at James. "What do you care, anyway? It has nothing to do with you."
"Ah, no, it doesn't," James conceded, settling more in the sofa as his hand instinctively went up to tangle in his hair. "I apologize at my attempt of small talk."
Lily pursed her lips and looked away, traces of embarrassment and resignation in her demeanor. Hermione sighed. While it was absolutely amazing to see her best friend's parents at their budding stages of friendship, it was equally exhausting.
Hermione's gaze traveled idly to the open window, and promptly froze. Across the parlor's window and hidden behind a curtain of slick, black hair, walked Severus Snape with his head bent down. Her heart jumped in her throat when he lifted his head briefly, as if it was something he instinctually did every time he passed by Lily's house, and locked eyes with Hermione. He stumbled slightly as his eyes went wide in shock, not anticipating to see Hermione at Lily's home—or anywhere near his for that matter.
"I'm going to get some air, do you mind?" Hermione jumped to her feet, surprising Lily and James.
"Do you want me to come with you?" asked James. Hermione smiled and shook her head.
"I'll be fine. I just need to clear my head a bit, get some fresh air. I'll be back in a minute."
"Yes, of course…" Lily trailed in confusion, watching the brown-haired Gryffindor briskly walk out of the parlor and out of sight.
Hermione's heart was pounding with dread and anticipation as she quietly slipped out of the front door and ran across the lawn. Severus was no longer in sight. She quickly rounded the corner of the next street, her eyes glancing around searchingly until she felt a hand wrap around her wrist and yank her into the shadows.
"What are you doing here?" Severus hissed, standing very close to her.
"I'm—Lily, she invited me," said Hermione breathlessly. Her gaze drifted to his left arm, staring at the long black sleeve of his coat piercingly. "Did you—did they—?" she did not finish, but Severus swallowed and nodded once.
"It's okay, Hermione," Severus reassured softly, his fingers brushing against her shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "I'm…alright."
"I'm sorry," she blurted.
"I don't know. I feel like I should be apologizing about this. It's because of me that—"
Severus cut her off. "If you still think this is all for you, you've let this get to your head too much," said Severus slowly. "At the end of the day, this was my choice. And it was Regulus's. Putting the blame on yourself solves very little."
Hermione bit her lip. "How's your forearm?"
Severus stiffened at the unexpected question. "You know about that?"
Hermione nodded. Severus looked down.
"Liar," Hermione shot back, shaking her head as she glanced at his arm again. "It hurts a lot. I can tell."
"It's manageable," Severus replied smoothly. "And I would think you'd be more interested in what I've got with me than the state of my arm."
Hermione's breath caught in her throat.
"You don't—you don't mean—?"
Severus reached into the folds of his clothes and pulled out a black, aged diary with golden lettering written on the front.
Hermione stepped back, looking up at Severus in awe. "How did you find it?"
"You asked me to look for it, and I did."
"Yes I know, but I didn't think you'd find it so quickly! Did they see you? Where was this? This, oh Merlin…but this is very…this is good…."
Severus held out the book. With trembling fingers, Hermione willed herself to push aside the familiar fear of the horcrux and hold it.
She could feel it immediately, the slight thrumming of the leather, the heavy weight against her skin…it felt as if it could burn through her, and it would only be a matter of time before the whispers and the headaches would begin—
"We have to destroy this," Hermione finally said. "Quickly." She looked at Severus seriously. "I should go back now, they're probably worrying. You're going to tell me everything that happened, Sev. Wait for my owl."
She looked down again at the diary hesitantly.
"Keep it," Severus said quietly. "It'll be safer with you."
He did not mention the strange sensation that took hold of him the moment he held the diary in his hands, nor the sudden relief he felt once Hermione had taken the wretched thing from him. No, he did not think he could handle keeping the diary. He felt terribly guilty at shoving it to Hermione knowing what it would do to her.
What it has already done to her, a voice reminded him, and it took a great amount of self-control not to shudder.
"I'll see you later," said Hermione, and Severus nodded slowly. She quickly sprinted towards the corner of the street and disappeared from sight. After a few moments Severus stepped out of the shadows and slowly began to walk.
His house was silent upon entering. Severus walked up the staircase and into his room, locking the door behind him. His movements began to quicken as he shrugged off the coat and the shirt, wincing in pain as the fabric brushed against the tender flesh of his forearm. His actions grew quicker and more desperate, shucking off his garments until all that remained were his briefs. The white hot pain from the Dark Mark, now engraved under his skin, flared suddenly as he stepped into the bathroom. His frame shook as he lifted his gaze to stare at his reflection.
What he saw shocked him. It was still him; still slick, shabby Severus, tall and gangly with awkwardly hunched shoulders and dark circles under his weary eyes, now branded with a slithering skull and snake—it was him, but something had changed. The boy staring back at him no longer had gaunt, haunted eyes. He was determined. He seemed…free.
Severus's lips twitched into a smile, and the pain in his forearm began to fade.
But where Severus's bravery began to shine, Hermione's nervous disposition returned with the heavy weight of a horcrux under her arm. She entered Lily's house as quietly as she could and immediately headed towards her purse, currently sitting idly by the door. Stuffing the diary quickly inside, Hermione made for the parlor.
Her steps slowed as she approached the doorway. From a distance she could hear them—even the dimmest mountain troll would notice the racket—and it wasn't until James and Lily came into view that Hermione paused.
Arguing, they were always arguing…but something about it this time made Hermione stop. They were acting no differently than they would in front of everybody else, and Lily certainly wasn't going easy on him no matter how many times James tried to charm her, but something was there. Something small, almost imperceptible, but there. And for now, it was enough.
In the weeks that passed since the marauders discovered Hermione's plans to overthrow the Death Eaters, something unusual caught Hermione's attention (though upon further inspection, it wasn't very unusual). Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—while Hermione would be reading a book or sitting in the living room, she would catch James looking at her curiously. He'd immediately look elsewhere and ruffle up his hair the moment Hermione would catch his eye, pretending for all the world that nothing had happened.
Though James's strange behavior didn't truly alarm her—especially considering he was always this strange and comical—Sirius's behavior did. It was nothing like how he would usually act around her, and that was saying something considering she'd seen nearly all facets of his temperament; quiet, moody, raucous, accusing, cheerful…but he was none of these during these times. He would look at her sometimes as if wanting to say something, the words just on the tip of his tongue. He would gaze at her distantly as his mouth parted, but every time he would close it and clear his throat, smiling sheepishly and moving on.
Hermione knew something was on his mind, and he desperately wanted to ask her a question. She was certain all the marauders wanted to ask her several questions, but none of them plucked up the courage to do it.
The tenth time she caught Sirius looking at her strangely with that questioning look, Hermione was in the backyard with a large volume of Young Witches Who Rose To Power on her lap. Slamming it shut, Hermione turned to Sirius and scowled.
"What is it, Sirius?" she snapped.
Sirius jumped slightly, bewildered and stammering, "N-nothing, just looking at this magnificent garden around us—"
"Oh come off it. I know you've been wanting to say something for weeks, don't deny it. You and James are terrible at concealment."
Sirius looked like he was going to argue, but wisely stopped at Hermione's glare. "Yes, we're all curious," he ceded reluctantly. "But what they're curious about, you'll have to ask them yourself. I'm not entirely sure."
"What is it that you want to ask me, then?" said Hermione.
Sirius glanced down, gathering his thoughts. Inhaling deeply, he looked back up and the intensity in his grey eyes startled her.
"You told us that you were planning on stopping the Death Eaters. It's how you were able to help Reggie when he insisted he couldn't stop from joining them."
"Yes…?" Hermione frowned.
"I want—I think—I meant what I said then, that if we don't stop fighting back now, it will only get worse. Every day people are going missing, Dark Mark or not. I think what you're doing—it's the right thing to do."
He smiled a little, and Hermione smiled hesitantly back. She felt relief at his words, for she hadn't been expecting this to be what Sirius wanted to talk to her about. She'd been almost afraid that Sirius would go back to distrusting her like he had last year, but it didn't seem like that would happen again anymore. He was…growing.
"You don't know how happy that makes me, Sirius," Hermione said honestly. Sirius shifted his hand as if making to grasp hers, but he glanced at her unsurely and let his hand drop, and instead smiled encouragingly.
"James I'm certain still thinks you're barking, but I know he knows you're doing what you think is right," said Sirius with a sigh. "Peter and Remus are worried. I think they're planning an intervention, to be honest."
"No," Hermione groaned, and put the book down onto the grass so she could prop her elbows on her knees and drop her head in her hands. "This is exactly why I held off telling anybody about this."
"Would you rather they didn't care at all?" asked Sirius. "We're your friends. It's natural for us to worry for your safety."
Hermione bit her lip guiltily. "You're right," she said. "They're doing what any friend would do. You're all doing so much more than any normal friend would do."
"That's because we take everything to much higher levels," Sirius chuckled. "Blimey, we became Animagi just so Remus wouldn't feel alone anymore."
Hermione smiled softly. "You love with all your heart, all four of you. You're more like brothers than friends. You would do anything for each other."
"And you're part of that family now," said Sirius quietly. "Which is why I have to ask you something."
Hermione looked at him in surprise.
"This thing—this struggle against Voldemort and his followers—it's not just yours anymore. My brother is involved, and I can't just sit in the sidelines and hope he doesn't get killed someday. I want to be a part of this, Hermione. This is more than you or me, this is something bigger than anything we've faced before."
Hermione looked at him disbelievingly, her mouth parted but no sound coming out. Shaking her head, Hermione managed, "You want to help? To join me?"
"Yes," said Sirius firmly.
Her heart was racing. "And what about James? And Remus, and Peter—"
"I can't tell you what they're thinking. I only know what I want, and that's making sure my brother doesn't die at the hands of a sodding Death Eater. Or worse—doing something he would never forgive himself for."
"I…I don't know what to say," said Hermione weakly. "I'm really happy you feel this way, don't get me wrong. But I told you before that I can't…I can't tell you everything of what I'm doing just yet."
"Why not?" Sirius pressed, his eyes looking through hers searchingly. "You're carrying so many secrets, and for what? Why won't you let someone help you?"
"To keep you safe!" Hermione exclaimed, panic stricken. Against rationality, Hermione was shutting down the idea of telling him everything, she wasn't ready, no, she wasn't ready at all for this. "Don't you remember what they did to my parents? Have you forgotten why the Potters adopted me? This is dangerous, and I only told you because Regulus's life was at risk and I had to help him!"
"So were you never planning to tell anyone else?" said Sirius in disbelief.
"I don't know," said Hermione truthfully. "Sirius, I'm not saying you shouldn't try to help. I just don't know how much I can tell you of what I'm doing just yet. I want you to do what you believe is right too."
Sirius was scowling and looked away. Hermione's insides turned over as she bit her lip. Was she being too stubborn? Was it…was it finally approaching the time where she would have to tell him?
"I will tell you everything," Hermione said quietly. Sirius looked up in surprise. "But not today. Not for a while. You have to respect that, Sirius, or this will never work."
Sirius looked down at his hands once more as they fiddled together idly. "As long as I can help," he replied quietly. "As long as I can keep the people I care about safe. Your secrets are not mine to pry for, anymore." He gazed at her gently. "Just let me fight against those bastards with you."
The honesty and passion in his words took Hermione aback. This conversation had happened between them so many times, and each had ended with Sirius furious at Hermione for steadfastly keeping her secrets well-guarded. It was different now. They were different now, and Hermione finally reached between them and firmly gripped his hand.
Sirius grinned. "Excellent. Quick question, though, because this has been on my mind for weeks—what exactly is your strategy? You don't have to go into detail, but you must have some sort of plan, surely."
A slow smile spread across Hermione's lips. "Have you ever heard of the muggle story of the Trojan Horse?"
The opportunity never arose for Hermione to leave the house again for the rest of the summer—at least, not by herself. So she went to the last resort.
The Potters, Sirius, and Hermione took the summerly trip to Diagon Alley in late August to prepare for their new school year ("No, James, you cannot have the Chudley Cannons broom set"), and spent the last week of the summer holidays drinking ice cold pumpkin juice in the Potters' backyard while watching James and Sirius attempt to knock each other off their brooms using disgruntled garden gnomes (they were supposed to be de-gnoming the garden but quickly found a much more amusing way to pass the time). It was the night before the first day back to Hogwarts that the plan would proceed.
Hermione waited until well past midnight, when even Sirius's lamp light extinguished. The house was silent save for James's loud snores that could be heard down the hallway (he rarely kept his door closed). Quietly, Hermione rolled out of bed and crouched down.
The trunk was beneath her bed exactly the way she left it last. And even though the book was locked and sealed away tightly inside, charm after charm placed on it to make sure it was hidden, she could feel it. She could feel its blasted heartbeat. She could hear its soul, cold and small though it was, as it whispered unintelligible things in her consciousness. It was just like last time.
One would think that, having already dealt with one of Voldemort's horcruxes in the past, Hermione would be able to handle having another one in her proximity much more calmly and resolutely; but in reality, it was much worse. Hermione didn't think it was possible to be worse, but the feeling—the heavy, burdened feeling pushing against her heart, the familiar headache that only increased as the hours ticked by—was more oppressive and damaging than ever before.
And like before, every night Hermione would sleep with the trunk under her bed and feel the horcrux reverberating against her heart like a steady rhythm of drums.
It was not silent tonight either. Hermione bit her lip as she raised her wand with trembling fingers. Breathing deeply and shaking off her nerves, she began to mutter incantations under her breath as one by one, the charms on the trunk were removed.
When the last charm was lifted, Hermione sat still, frozen, as if waiting for the horcrux to spring to life and transform into Lord Voldemort himself. No such thing happened. Hermione released her breath and slowly unlocked the trunk. Digging to the bottom, her fingers grazed against the leather of the book and grabbed hold of it.
She barely looked at the diary as she stuffed it inside her purse. Rising from her haunches, Hermione stuffed her wand in her pocket and went to her bedroom window. Peering down, she squinted hard until her eyes caught the shadowy figure standing beneath her window. Nodding affirmatively, Hermione stole out of her room.
The hallway was dim and the staircase pitch black, but she feared to use a quick lumos in case it woke anyone up. Charming the stairs so they wouldn't creak, Hermione padded softly down and made for the front door, not noticing that faint lamplight was coming from the dining room.
Just as her fingers brushed the doorknob, she heard, "Hermione?"
Startled with fright, Hermione spun around and raised her wand. Breathing rapidly, she stuttered, "S-Sirius? What are you doing awake?"
"Getting a glass of water," said Sirius slowly, his eyes following her wand to the purse hanging from her shoulder. "Are you going somewhere?"
Shit, she cursed inwardly. Her mind came up with a dozen scenarios and explanations she could give, and none of them were promising. Sirius, however, was quicker to deduce.
"Does this have to do with…?" Again, Hermione seemed to have lost control of her voice. Guilty and speechless, Hermione winced. In a second Sirius was in front of her.
"Have you gone mad?" he whispered fiercely. "It's the middle of the night! It's not safe out, not even in the daylight! Bloody hell, woman—"
"Sirius this is important," Hermione pleaded. "Please, you can't tell anyone, no one was supposed to be awake—"
"Clearly that was your plan," Sirius growled and shook his head. "What happened to keeping me informed? You could've bloody told me you had plans for whatever it is you're going to do!"
"Remember when I mentioned there's certain things I can't tell you just yet because they're so dangerous that knowing it would threaten all of our lives?" Hermione whispered harshly. "Yes, well, this is exactly one of those moments."
Sirius stared at her, fuming silently. "I don't like this. You shouldn't be out there alone."
"I won't be alone," said Hermione impatiently. "Now, please, I need to go before it's too late."
Sirius cursed. Stepping back from her, he waved at the door. "Go. I won't tell anyone, so you can stop looking at me that way. But if you're not here before sunup, there's nothing I can do for you."
"I'll be back earlier than that," Hermione promised. She stepped forward and placed her hand on his arm gratefully. "Thank you. I'll be back soon." Quickly and quietly, Hermione stepped out the front door and into the starry night.
The figure that had been beneath her bedroom window emerged silently from the shadows, and Hermione lifted a finger to her lips before he could let a word in. Raising her wand, she silently cast a Disillusionment charm on the both of them. Satisfied, Hermione ushered him along the sidewalk and walked quietly.
They reached a forest some distance away. Severus was the one who'd suggested it, and Hermione, having no other options or ideas where to do this, reluctantly agreed.
"Am I allowed to speak now?" Severus muttered under his breath as they trekked through the trees and shrubbery.
"Obviously," she said. "And surely there must be some other forest to do this, this is far too close to town," Hermione worried her lower lip, flinching whenever she heard a distance noise or a twig snap. The bag hanging against her hip was starting to weigh down heavily, until a thin layer of sweat collected on her forehead and she was struggling to catch her breath.
"It's the only option we have in the time restraint we're being dealt," replied Severus. "Is something the matter?"
"Sirius knows I'm here," Hermione blurted. Severus's mouth dropped open. "I didn't know he was still awake! It doesn't really matter anyway, he's asked to help us with all of this—"
"That idiot is going to help destroy horcruxes?" Severus snorted. "Don't tell me you told him."
"No, of course not," Hermione snapped. "He just wants to help any way he can, especially with Regulus joining the Death Eaters. You can't blame him for wanting to protect his family and friends."
"You'd be surprised."
Hermione scowled. "He's not going to say anything, so come off it already."
Severus glanced at her and furrowed his brows. "Are you alright?"
"Fine," she said shortly.
"I said I'm fine, Severus," she glared at him sharply. Severus frowned, and it annoyed her even more. "That's all anyone's been asking me since I got to this decade. I'm fine. I can handle myself."
Severus looked at her strangely and lowered his eyes briefly to her purse. His stomach churned at what he was about to say, but it had to be done. "Let me hold it until we reach the clearing."
He did not wait for a response as he quickly slid the bag from her shoulder and looped it around his. Hermione's mouth parted in surprise and fury, but she stopped. Instantly a swooping calm overcame her and cleared her thoughts and she blinked, as if stepping out of a fog.
Severus nodded curtly and looked ahead.
"It's coming up," he said softly. "Just beyond that row of trees. We should be safe there."
"I don't know how I feel about this," Hermione said, looking nervous. "The last time I did this I almost destroyed the Shrieking Shack. We're surrounded by trees this time." Hermione shook her head. "This will be be very difficult."
"It will be difficult if you refuse to believe in your abilities," Severus replied smoothly. "You have the power to control it. You told me that the horcrux fights back and fills your head with nonsense, am I right?" Hermione nodded. "Control your mind. I taught you the beginnings of Occlumency, use it. It still applies here."
Hermione frowned. "You're saying I can keep the horcrux out of my mind if I use Occlumency against it?"
Severus nodded slowly. "I didn't realize it until I gave the diary to you. It had been invading my mind as well, and at the time I didn't realize that the most basic form of defense could be used against it."
"Are you using Occlumency against it now?"
Severus nodded again.
"And it's okay?" Hermione said in disbelief.
"The heavy, weighted feeling persists, but my mind is clear and focused. I am keeping it away from my thoughts. By no means is this easy, but it beats the alternative."
Hermione shook her head incredulously. "I…that's brilliant. I don't know why I didn't think of it myself!"
"I daresay you were preoccupied at the time," said Severus delicately.
Hermione shrugged. It was too true.
"We're here," Severus said. They stepped into a clearing and walked to the center. Trees surrounded them like a large wooden cage, the crickets going silent as they trekked through the overgrown grass. They stopped once they reached the center of the clearing, and Hermione reluctantly turned to Severus.
Severus breathed in deeply and carefully removed the purse strap from his shoulder, then extended his hand towards her.
"It's best if you took off the wards yourself."
Hermione took the purse quickly. "Right, you're not of age yet. Right..." Hermione took out her wand and lifted it in the air, pointing the tip at the purse, and slowly began to lift the various protective spells on the small bag. She lowered her wand and glanced up at Severus. He was watching her passively, but from the slight shake in his frame, Hermione knew he was as terrified inside as she was.
She lifted her chin and looked at the bag. "Okay. Okay…" Pursing her lips together, Hermione began to reach inside before halting suddenly. "Take your wand out and be ready. The priority is the horcrux. Not me. Do you understand?"
Severus swallowed hard, his eyes wide, and nodded quickly. He was taken aback by her sudden serious tone, but he knew this was extremely important; because for Hermione, this was her purpose—her entire existence in this decade was dependent on her success in bringing Voldemort down. And he would not do her the dishonor of not taking her word seriously.
"You will be performing fiendfyre as well its counter spell, correct?" Severus asked suddenly.
"Yes," said Hermione.
"Would it not be wise for you to show me at least the basics of the counter spell? In case something happens to you, we should still have a way to put the fire out."
Severus did not expect for her to roll her eyes and groan.
"I can't," Hermione sighed. Severus raised an eyebrow, and Hermione shook her head. "It's not what you think. If I could tell you, I would. But Scabior made me swear an oath that I wasn't allowed to reveal how to do the spell to any living person—an idiotic oath, truth be told, but since I don't have the means of properly telling you right now, I have to make do."
"What do you mean 'properly tell me'? Hermione, you made an oath!" Severus exploded, his lips curling with distaste. "And with that bloody oaf of all people. What were you thinking?" Hermione gave him a withering glare.
"I was thinking that I needed to learn how to dispel fiendfyre to destroy a horcrux, and I did whatever it took to learn it!" Hermione said heatedly. "And yes, I can still properly tell you. I'm not a complete idiot—I made sure there was a way around the oath."
"Which you can't do right now."
"Bloody useful clause," Severus hissed, and Hermione threw the purse to the ground angrily.
"I'm trying my best, Snape. I don't need another person to remind me how poorly I'm doing my job!" Hermione shrieked.
Severus snapped his mouth shut. "I—" he started, looking confused. He stepped back warily, his eyes shifting until they landed on the purse lying forgotten on the forest floor. "I don't—I don't know what came over me. I'm sorry. I know you're trying very hard."
Hermione's nostrils flared as she struggled to calm her breathing. "Thank you," she said finally. Looking away, she regained her composure and shook her head. "This is so different from last time," she said quietly. "It's affecting both of us in proximity. It only used to affect me without even any contact. This…will be a harder horcrux to kill."
"Clearly my Occlumency plan wasn't as foolproof as I believed," said Severus dully, his grip loosening on his wand. "It already got to me."
"This is a power beyond your knowledge, Sev," Hermione said patiently, all anger now forgotten. "You can't expect to know how to handle it immediately. We'll keep trying. For now, let's just—let's do this."
Severus nodded tersely. Raising his wand at the ready again, he watched as Hermione slowly crouched down and opened the purse. Severus gritted his teeth; he could feel its darkness and malice and poison surrounding him already. Cold fear clamped around his heart. Hermione's hand disappeared inside the bag, and an irrational thought of large, pointed fangs sinking into her skin like the Monster Book of Monsters filled his mind, but he brushed the thought away.
The book was smooth and silent as she withdrew her hand from the purse. Hermione paused to glance up at Severus, and he nodded encouragingly. She bit her lip, and set the book on the grass and slung the purse over her shoulder.
"You can leave if you want," Hermione said suddenly, her eyes bright with fear. "Merlin, this is—this is far too dangerous, you shouldn't be involved in this mess. Just get out of these woods. You'll be safer that way."
"Are you mad?" said Severus incredulously. "I'm doing this of my own free will. I am not going to run away like a—like a bloody coward. I chose this, I chose to help. You're stuck with me."
His words were said with strong conviction, and it surprised the both of them. Eyes wide, Hermione nodded once and swallowed. Severus tightened his fingers around his wand. She rose up and pointed her wand steadily at the diary.
The diary flipped open to a blank page in the middle, and the effect was immediate. Severus was nearly hurtled back from the impact; wind was spiraling around them and catching debris and twigs, their eyes streaming as a foul voice reverberated against the trees. The horcrux must have known they were intending to kill it—Severus had opened it himself after finding it in Malfoy Manor, and he did not encounter this whirlpool of death.
Severus couldn't catch most of what was going on—the roaring of the wind and the debris that was quickly leaving scratches on his face were distracting him—but when his eyes opened enough to see what was happening, what he saw he knew he would never forget.
Hermione was on her knees staring up at the middle of the wind tunnel. A figure was emerging from the diary in wispy, silvery swirls like a puff of smoke, materializing into an opaque young man. From behind Severus could not see his face, but knew that whoever he was, it was not the first time Hermione was seeing him. His words were soft and melodic, almost gentle, and it lulled wind around them like a trance. Suddenly Hermione's expression twisted in fury and she shouted something Severus could not catch. Immediately the wind amplified astronomically around them and it finally knocked Severus to the ground flat on his back. The soft voice was now roaring and hissing, the silvery figure of a boy now changing into something larger, shifting from image to image that Severus couldn't understand.
Cast the spell, Severus pleaded in his mind. It was getting harder and harder to breathe as the air whipping around him stole his breath. He looked at Hermione and she seemed acres away even though she was just a few feet across from him. She was still and shaking, her eyes wide and frozen with fear.
Severus found the strength to lurch himself on his chest and crawled desperately towards her, fighting the horcrux's poisonous words and clearing the awful visions in his mind. He reached her side and grasped her fingers, but she did not look away from the horcrux's projections. Whatever this was, it was much more terrifying and damaging than the previous horcrux she'd destroyed.
"Her-mione," Severus choked out. Hermione did not even blink. "The spell…Hermione…the spell…."
She would not respond. Whatever part of her that had control over the horcrux was now gone. Closing his eyes, Severus used his last resort: launching his mind into hers. What he saw there…Severus wished he could look away, but instead he mentally skipped past the horrors being projected in her mind by the horcrux and searched for Hermione's consciousness.
Don't listen to it, Severus ordered. It's wrong. What it's telling you is wrong. You must not give in! He could feel her uncertainty and her despair, and he could sense how desperately she was clinging to his words as if they were the last tether to sanity. He knew what he had to do.
Clearing his own turmoil and thoughts, Severus began to show her his own visions; their first Potions lesson together, the day they met in the Great Hall with Lily by his side; Sirius sitting across her during breakfast and making her turn pink with laughter, James slinging his arm around her and purposefully annoying her by giving an awful nickname, Lily studying with her at the library—and like a cool balm, Severus could feel Hermione's mind returning. The racing thoughts slowed to a calm stream, and slowly but surely, Hermione was coming back.
I'm right here, he said softly. You can do this. He has no power over you. Destroy it.
He opened his eyes and returned to the spiraling wind and the horcrux fighting against them, but this time its shrieks were not of malice, but of fear. For Hermione was no longer on her knees; she was rising quickly and had her wand pointing at the diary. Without even a moment's pause, she reached down and violently shoved Severus behind her, then slashed her wand in the air.
Roaring flames ignited in front of them. The cutting wind disappeared instantly and Severus gasped for breath, slowly pulling himself to his feet. His wand was raised but shaking and he winced at the echoing screams of the horcrux.
An enormous flaming beast was circling before them, destroying everything in its path. He turned to Hermione. Her eyes were red but a deadly calm had come over her, and with grim determination she steadily lifted her wand at the flames. She turned her head suddenly towards him.
"Look away, Severus," she said. Severus's eyes widened and he looked away quickly. He heard the wand slash in the air and as quickly as the deadly flames came, they were gone.
Darkness surrounded them again as their eyes adjusted to the sudden change in light. Around them was devastation like no other; trees were fallen over and burned to ash, and the grass was charred and nearly barren. The damage was deadly and quick, but the closer they looked, it was clear that the fire only touched the trees closest to them and did not spread outside the clearing. Hermione had successfully prevented the fire from escalating dangerously.
Severus's eyes fell to the diary. It was burned and almost completely diminished, and the soul inside of it destroyed. A sense of relief washed over him as Hermione reached forward to pick it up and the diary turned to dust at her touch.
Hermione turned to him then, smiling tremulously. "Thank you," she said, and promptly fainted.
The strong smell of smoke and wood stirred Hermione from her sleep. She felt aches and pains everywhere, but it was no question that her head hurt most of all. It was pounding incessantly as if she'd had one too many firewhiskeys, and it did not seem likely that the pain would go away soon. Groaning, Hermione blearily opened her eyes.
The first thing she noticed was that it was still dark. The second was that a soft blanket was draped over her. Hermione's eyes traveled until they landed on the hunched figure of Severus Snape sitting near her, his hands folded and legs crossed, and for all intents and purposes fast asleep. She must have made some noise, for his eyes suddenly snapped open.
"Hello," she said.
"Hello," he said. "It's four o'clock. You've been asleep for three hours." Severus looked at her unsurely. "How are you feeling?"
"Been better," Hermione admitted. With some effort she managed to sit up, and pulled out a twig that was lodged in her hair. She grimaced.
"Does your head hurt?"
"Very much. I'll have to drink something for it once I get back home," Hermione winced and tenderly rubbed the back of her head. Severus merely watched her as she slowly gathered her bearings. Sighing, Hermione folded the blanket and stuffed it back in her bottomless purse, then faced Severus.
"There's two things I ought to say to you now," Hermione said quietly. Severus stared blankly. "First, I'm sorry."
"Yes. What happened was exactly what I knew it'd be. Completely out of control and utter chaos. I put you in grave danger."
"Let's not have that conversation again. I chose this too, remember?"
Hermione wanted to protest, but knew that for now she would get nowhere. Clearing her throat, Hermione nodded. "Second, thank you."
Severus's lips twitched. "You said that one already too."
"Properly this time," said Hermione. "I don't know how you did it, but…you pulled me out from whatever that horcrux was doing to me. I've never let myself get that way. Even last time when it was resisting, I was able to fight it off. For some reason it was different with the diary…and if you weren't there today, I probably wouldn't be here right now."
Severus patted her hand awkwardly and attempted a smile. "But you are, and that horcrux is not. That's all that matters."
Hermione nodded and sighed again. "I think it's time to go home now."
They rose up slowly and brushed their clothes, then began their journey back to their homes. Whether it was the excitement of their success or their tiredness, they did not know, but they spoke animatedly through the duration of the walk, barely stifling their laughter as they grew closer to Hermione's home. It was as if they were finally free, the horcrux no longer destroying their consciousness, and they could not be happier.
Severus stopped in front of her front door and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'll see you at Hogwarts, then?"
"Yes." Hermione paused, as if wanting to say something more but was too unsure to say it. Severus rolled his eyes.
"Spit it out, then."
Hermione looked at Severus thoughtfully, and replied carefully, "One thing I've learned since I came to this decade is that nothing is set in stone, and that you should never assume anything of the future. And what you did today proved that whatever you saw of yourself in my memories when you were teaching me Occlumency isn't what you're going to be. You are brave and kind. The man I knew twenty years in the future was neither."
Severus was stunned speechless as Hermione gave him one last smile and went inside.
As she crept up to her room, she saw the lamp light on through Sirius's room. Quietly, she knocked.
The door opened to Sirius leaning against the doorframe. She couldn't seem him clearly as his face was hidden shadows, but she still make out the frown etched on his face.
"It's okay," she said softly. Sirius exhaled slowly and nodded.
"I'm glad," he replied. "You're a bloody reckless witch, did you know that?"
Hermione smiled widely. "Only too well." Clearing her throat and glancing down at her shoes briefly, Hermione whispered, "Well, good night, then."
"'Night, Hermione," said Sirius quietly, gazing at her in a way that made Hermione's heart beat quicken. Quickly she stepped away and headed for her room, not knowing why her face felt so warm all of a sudden.
"Can you believe this," said James with his mouth stuffed full of cauldron cakes, "'Mysterious Fire Mystifies Muggles'—and it was right on the outskirts of our town!"
Sirius glanced at Hermione, who immediately stiffened and shook her head warningly. "Eh, I wouldn't believe too much of it, James," Sirius said off-handedly as he took a swig of pumpkin juice. "Sounds like a bit more of that Skeeter rubbish."
" 'Two muggles taking a midnight stroll to walk their dogs witnessed an alarming fire in the forest by Kenilworth and Dixon,'" James continued. "'The Department of Security arrived at the scene before Muggle interference and cleared the area. Dark Magical involvement is suspected.'"
Hermione paled in her seat as the train to Hogwarts slowed down. James folded the Daily Prophet on his lap and stared out the window. "We were so close," he muttered sadly. "I didn't hear a thing."
"How could you, with you snoring so loudly?" Remus said quietly, causing Sirius to snort loudly.
"Did you hear anything, Hermione?" Peter asked hopefully.
Hermione glanced between Peter and the boys. She smiled wistfully. "Not a thing."
She caught Sirius's eye, who merely rolled his.
The train slowed to a stop after a few minutes, and everybody pulled on their robes and headed towards the carriages. It was dark and raining heavily as they headed up to the castle, the sweeping front lawn glistening with the light cast down from the castle. Quickly the sixth years ducked inside and went straight to the Great Hall.
Hermione's eyes roved over the four tables until they reached Slytherin. It was remarkable to her how many friends she had made from that House, yet at the same time it was no surprise at all. She saw Scabior sitting idly next to another sixth year girl, and Regulus sitting beside Severus. The latter caught her eye briefly, and without a hint of a smile, he looked away.
Had Severus read the Daily Prophet as well? The story was not front page news by any means, but the fact that the burning woods had not only been published, but the fire had been seen by muggles? Hermione shuddered to think what would happen if a muggle had been walking through the forest at that time…careless, she had been so careless….
"Hermione," said Sirius next to her, and Hermione glanced down to see him waiting for her to sit. Smiling sheepishly, Hermione sat beside him and watched as the plates and goblets instantly filled.
"Doesn't look any happier, does he?" Sirius noted. Hermione looked up in surprise. She followed his gaze to the Slytherin table, and said, "Regulus?"
"I saw you checking too. Merlin, what a year this will be—I don't think Regulus has hated me more than he does now."
"He doesn't hate you, Sirius," Hermione said patiently as she nibbled on a piece of chicken.
"He does. It's alright," said Sirius with a small shrug. "Has he told you anything since, er…since?"
"No," Hermione admitted with a sigh. "Neither Severus nor Regulus have told me any of it, but I know that…you know…it's done."
Sirius nodded, his eyes downcast. "I feel like a shit brother for letting it get this far. I should've—I dunno—steered him away from Mum more, kept his nose down and showed him the right way. I should've done something. Instead I pushed him as far away from myself as I could. I mean, you remember how I treated him at the start of last year?"
"I do," said Hermione, "But Sirius—blaming yourself because someone chose their own path isn't the answer. I highly doubt you were responsible for pushing Regulus towards the Dark Arts," Hermione challenged, and Sirius sighed. "He was always going to be interested in it no matter what you said."
"Suppose you're right," Sirius acquiesced, and then smirked, "as always."
"The sooner you accept that fact, the easier your life will become," Hermione said primly, but her façade broke quickly as a smile curved her lips.
Sirius laughed, but sobered quickly. "So," his voice lowered, and he raised a questioning eyebrow. "'Mysterious Fire'?"
Hermione felt herself redden. "Maybe."
"Hermione, as enthusiastic as I am for conflagration, you have to be more careful," said Sirius. "The Prophet reported it as Dark Magic Death Eater shit, but the Death Eaters know they weren't involved. If this persists, they're going to start asking questions, and they'll trace everything back to you."
"I know," Hermione moaned helplessly. "I really didn't think anyone would be out to witness it, and—and that fire, it's really hard to control—" she clamped her mouth shut. Sirius raised a brow, but chose not to comment on it.
"Be careful," he said again, and Hermione nodded weakly. Sirius went back to his plate, and Hermione wondered how long she will manage before she does get caught….
After the feast, Hermione and the rest of the Gryffindors sleepily trudged to the seventh floor and made their way through the common room and straight to the dormitories. Hermione changed into her night clothes and laid down on her four-poster bed with the red velvet curtains drawn around her, and stared up at the wooden ceiling until her eyes drooped, sleeping to the sound of the rain pattering against the windows.
Two horcruxes down!
Hope you all enjoyed this chapter! Thank you to everyone who's sent me so many encouraging and kind messages about my work and my school! It means so much, honestly every review I get just...fills me with such happiness. I don't know how I was lucky enough to have such a loving and kind fandom take their time to read my fic and spread such positivity.
This chapter ended amiably, and with good reason. Chapter 16 will bring us to Phase 2 of Hermione's time travel adventures. There will be definite parallels to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Thanks again to my best friend hinatas for beta'ing this chapter for me! She is a goddess!
Until Chapter 16! xx