Hermione chose to Apparate instead of Flooing, as she thought that would give them a better jump on Ernie. She had not received a response from Harry or Ron, but as an extra precaution, she sent Ernie's address through the Galleon, hoping they would be able to locate her in the event of trouble.
She Apparated to Hogsmeade, chewing her lip as she attempted to find the right street. Snape whispered in her mind, a constant presence as they traveled along. His touch sent warmth through her on the chilly Autumn day, and she was thankful that she had him there. She knew she wouldn't be there without him.
Newt's Eye Circle was a sidestreet for middling income individuals. She finally found it midway through town. Before rounding a corner and turning onto it, however, she glanced around to make sure no one was watching. Confirming that, a tap of her wand atop her head took care of her Disillusionment. She was no only a faint shimmer in the air, visible to the sharpest eye.
She hoped Ernie wasn't paying too much attention, but she knew she couldn't bank on that.
Proceed with caution. I will be of no help to you here if something goes wrong.
Snape didn't have enough power to affect Ernie in any significant way, besides tossing blunt objects at him. Even then, to anyone with half a brain and a wand, that wouldn't be too much of an obstacle.
Arriving at number 6, she noted that the curtains were drawn, and the house looked empty. He might have fled already. Oh, well. That would give her an opportunity to search his house.
Snape, swimming around in her stream-of-consciousness, gave what sounded much like a snort. You're not the most upstanding of detectives.
"I don't know what you mean," she murmured as she quietly and efficiently scaled Ernie's garden fence.
Summoning a shade to assist you in your case, assaulting a Potions Master and wiping his memories, and now breaking and entering. Tsk, tsk. When will you learn to abide by the law, Detective Granger?
"I'll learn to abide by the law when people aren't being murdered left and right."
Snape stopped talking to her, which she took as her cue to remain silent for now. She cast an identification charm around Ernie's house, and, sure enough, a number of very powerful wards pulsed in response. Her version of the spell, self-crafted, had been designed not to actually trigger wards when detecting them, a problem with most spells of that nature.
That's a handy bit of spell-work. I don't know why you aren't in research and development already.
You saying you doubt my abilities as an investigator?
I'm saying your talents would be put to much better use in pursuing progress for the wizarding world. Your mind goes to waste in this field.
Hermione filed away that compliment to mull over later. It wasn't everyday Severus Snape indicated he approved of you in some way. She had no time to be pleased, though. The third and final layer of the wards dissolved silently as she twirled her wand. With a nonverbal Alohomora, she was in.
She closed the door quietly behind her, leaving it unlocked in case Harry or Ron chose to enter that way.
Hermione was just about to head upstairs when the bookshelf in the living room caught her eye, and she stopped.
What are you –
Look. Her response stopped Severus in his tracks, and she ran her fingers carefully over the third shelf, the one at chest level. One book seemed to be slightly askew, a battered, much-loved copy of Crime and Punishment. On a hunch, she yanked it, and the entire bookshelf slid aside with a grinding noise.
If he didn't know we were here, he does now, Snape said. Prepare yourself.
What is it with sneaky people and bookshelves, anyway?
It's a legitimate hiding place. He sounded slightly affronted.
Ah. So what you're saying is, you had one of those.
He didn't respond. She would have laughed at any other time, but the stairs leading into the darkness below made her stomach clench.
Disillusiond as she was, Hermione hoped that it would allow her to get the jump on Ernie. There was virtually no way he hadn't heard the bookshelf move aside, so she decided to proceed at a slow pace. She descended into the dark stairwell, her footsteps almost inaudible, she was moving so carefully.
Running her hand along the concrete walls beside her alerted her to when the stairwell terminated and she had entered a room. It was completely dark.
The shadows spat a green jet of light in her direction, and she tucked and rolled to escape it, banging her knees hard on the stone floor as Severus shouted instructions in her mind.
Lumos, woman! Go, there's no point in allowing him the cover of darkness! He knows we're here!
She cast a special lighting charm – not the feeble Lumos she had relied upon in school. She had designed it to detect any light-emitting device within a fifteen-foot radius and activate it. Torches in sconces on the walls burst into life, illuminating the room and casting leaping, twitching shadows all around her.
"Ernie MacMillan," she called, infusing her voice with as much authority as she could muster. "Come out with your wand where I can see it."
"What good reason do you have for breaking into the privacy of my home, Hermione Granger?"
She assumed he was also Disillusioned because she couldn't see him anywhere. Normally, she might be able to detect his position by the source of his voice or the shimmer in the air, but the echoing effect in the room distorted sound, and the torches made it impossible to pick out anything abnormal in the air.
"You are under arrest under suspicion of the murders of Dolores Umbridge, Lucius Malfoy, and Pansy Parkinson via the use of the Anima Damnata potion. Come quietly, so that we may take you in for questioning."
"I'm not going anywhere with you," he spat, his voice trembling a bit. "I've done nothing wrong!"
"Come now, Ernie," she coaxed, creeping to her right around a table filled with notes and scattered POtions ingredients. "If you've done nothing wrong, then there's no reason not to come with me to the Ministry to answer a few questions."
"If word gets out that I've been taken into custody associated with these murders – Granger, do you realize what that will do to my reputation? I've just been appointed to the Wizengamot, for Merlin's sake!"
There. Two o'clock.
Sure enough, there was the faintest glimmer in the air by a shelf filled with assorted glass phials. Hermione continued to creep to her right, clearing some tables to give herself a straight shot to Ernie. If she could just hit him with a Stunner...
"Now, Ernie," she said, hoping that she could throw her voice well enough to confuse him, "no one will blame you if you're found innocent-"
"If?" he shrilled, voice breaking. "I tell you, I've done nothing wrong!"
Don't let him fool you, Hermione. He's lying. On the table to your right - don't look, keep your eyes on him – there's a book with a reference to the Damnata.
Hermione, in a rapid-fire motion, cast a spell to the left of the distortion in the air, then cast a Stunner to where she thought he might feint. It failed to strike anything but the wall, leaving a smoking hole in its wake. In the small explosion, she'd lost sight of him.
Look out! Snape bellowed, and she lunged. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong direction in her haste, slamming bodily into someone and sending them both tumbling to the concrete. They crashed into one of the tables, and before she could move, a heavy book tipped off and smacked her in the skull.
She blacked out, just briefly, and came to realizing that with her unconsciousness, the Disillusionment spell had ended. She was completely visible now.
A weight came down on her chest, crushing her spine into the concrete and forcefully ejecting the air from her chest. She wheezed, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. An invisible hand grabbed her roughly by the hair, and she felt someone's breath on her ear.
"It's a shame Terry assigned you to this case," Ernie said. "You're a valuable asset to the Ministry with that fabulous mind of yours. In time, perhaps you could have worked under me."
She thrashed, but he was planted firmly on her chest, and no amount of punching from her did any good. She could only hope that Harry or Ron would get there soon. That was assuming they were in reach of their Galleons when she sent the message.
She couldn't depend on them.
Gasping, she tried to speak. "They know... I'm here..."
Ernie materialized, his own Disillusionment spell terminating. His eyes burned with a mad light, and his golden curls stuck out in all directions. "It doesn't matter. I don't know how you figured out it was me. I slipped up, somehow, but it won't happen again. By the time they figure out where to go, it'll be like you were never here."
She bucked wildly, trying to throw him off. It was no use - he was a solid fellow, easily keeping her on the ground. Her head throbbed where the book had struck her, too, impeding her efforts to escape.
"Before I do, though, I'm going to tell you why. You've worked so hard to get this far, I might as well satisfy your legendary curiosity before I get rid of you."
As he spoke, he reached inside his robes and withdrew a vial filled with a potion so dark, it seemed to obliterate the light surrounding it. She recognized it from Severus's description: the Anima Damnata.
She prayed Severus was listening, so that he could tell Harry and Ron what happened when they finally arrived. She prayed that he wouldn't be sent back to the otherworld once she was gone. Someone had to bring Ernie to justice, even if she couldn't.
"Neville had it mostly right," he said matter-of-factly, staring into the potion like a starving man to a hot meal. Real fear stabbed through her gut. He'd lost it. "I've always wanted to be a part of the Wizengamot, Hermione. I believe in justice for all, and all of them had it coming. The Ministry's courts are corrupt, poisoned by greed and Galleons. If due process of the law couldn't bring the criminals of the Blood War to justice, then I knew I had to.
"I wanted to be a judge because I want to change the courts from within." He shook his head, chuckling ruefully. "It wouldn't be quick enough, though. I couldn't stand the thought of those... criminals—" Flecks of spittle hit her face, ejected from his mouth in his vehemence—"walking free, while innocent people had died and suffered at their hands.
"So I stood up for what was right. The Dementors are gone, now, so I found the next best substitute. The Anima Damnata…surely you know what it does, Hermione?"
She could only stare at him, willing herself not to shake as he waited for her response. He smiled.
"Of course you do. It's the next best thing to the Dementor's kiss. But I did some research. You see, when Dementors die – because they do die, Detective Granger – the souls they've collected are finally released. They've lived a thousand lifetimes of torment, a purgatory, if you will, and then they're allowed to move on to the otherworld.
"The Anima Damnata's just like that, except it destroys the soul entirely. That way, they don't get a second chance."
"You're sick," she rasped, finally managing to get enough air into her lungs to speak again. "Who are you to make that decision?"
His eyes narrowed. "They had their chance to submit to justice in this life. Instead, they used their status and money to escape their true fate. I fixed it."
"And Pansy?" She was stalling, and he knew it.
He shrugged. "She chose her side in the final battle. Just because she didn't fight doesn't mean she didn't choose the Dark. So she was punished. Bulstrode escaped by way of luck. The Malfoys too." His expression soured as he admitted it. "I admit, my plan was not foolproof. Not to worry, their times will come soon. After all, everyone must get what they deserve.
"And now it's your turn."
He uncorked the bottle as she struggled anew. "You think this is justice?" she cried. "What have I done to deserve this in your fucked up brain! This makes no sense, Ernie!"
"Those who would impede true justice must be dealt with," he said, shrugged.
Hermione knew that if even a drop of that potion entered her bloodstream, she would be done for, her soul lost forever. A fate worse than death.
At that moment, Severus appeared in a blaze of fiery light, his voice echoing in the chamber.
"MR. MACMILLAN! Do not move!"
Ernie's eyes shot open with surprise, almost popping out of his face. "You... P-Professor Snape?"
Hermione took her chance, pushing past the pounding in her head and throwing Ernie from her body. He toppled from her body, and she crawled away on all fours. The potion slipped from his fingers, and the phial shattered on the stones.
"No!" he screamed. "The Damnata!" Turning his mad eyes toward Hermione, he snarled with hatred. "You bitch!"
He stood and made a move toward her, but she had reached her wand. With a quick movement, she shouted, "FUMUS!"
The Damnata vaporized, shrouding Ernie's horrified face in a cloud of black steam. His knees buckled, his body seizing, and he fell forward with terrified eyes, foam spilling from his mouth.
Hermione scooted away, out of reach of his grasping fingers, almost gagging as he choked and twisted. Her head whipped around, searching frantically for Severus, and her eyes lit on him just as Ernie's flailing arms connected with his shimmering form.
He locked gazes with her, reached out one hand, then disappeared. She screamed.
Hermione realized, belatedly, that she was crying, tears streaming from her eyes unchecked. She couldn't feel Severus's connection to her anymore. He was gone.
Her heart broke as she came to the understanding that, in Ernie's soul-destruction by way of Damnata, he had touched Severus's essence and taken him as well. Severus Snape had, once again, given up everything for the sake of another.
She wept, bitterly, on the cold concrete floor, so absorbed in her crippling grief that she didn't look up the first time she heard her name.
She wept on, heedless.
A hand touched her sleeve. She almost screamed, but then she met the deep black, totally alive eyes of Severus Snape. Instead of screaming, she threw herself into his arms and kissed him straight on his living, breathing, very warm lips.
It wasn't a particularly good kiss, being frantic and proceeded by a hysterical crying fit, but she enjoyed it all the same. By Severus's open mouth and pink cheeks when she pulled back, he had as well.
"But how?" she breathed, her hands running all over him. It was him all right - the hooked nose, the terrible teeth, the tangle of black hair. Only the robes were different; they were definitely the clothes Ernie had been wearing.
"I'm... not sure," he finally admitted, after staring at her for a very long time. They were sitting on the floor, curled into each other, his hands in her hair. She never in a million years thought she would associate this kind of relief with Severus Snape, of all people, but he was alive, for Merlin's sake. She hadn't destroyed him.
"I think it had something to do with MacMillan's leaving his body," he continued. "When he made contact with me, as a shade, I felt this irresistible pull. Then this horrible pain. I woke up to you crying a few feet away."
Hermione rubbed a thumb over his cheekbone. "It seems, somehow, the departure of Ernie's soul from his body allowed space for you."
"That doesn't explain," he said, nearly crossing his eyes to look at his own nose and examine his oily black hair, "why I look like, well, myself. Not Mr. MacMillan."
"This is new territory for me as well," Hermione admitted. She didn't really care what he looked like, as long as he was there. "We're going to have to run some tests."
"We're going to be in the lab very late." Wonder sparked in his eyes as he studied her. After a moment, he disentangled himself, and disappointment flooded her.
Then, he held out one elegant hand and helped haul her to her feet. He stood very close to her.
"I don't know how we're going to explain this."
Her eyes welled with tears. "Oh, Severus. I'm so sorry. You can't even have a peaceful death now. I've screwed everything up for you."
"Don't be stupid," he growled. "If I wanted a peaceful death, I'd Avada myself right now." He brushed some dust from her shoulder, and she tried not to get her hopes up. Her heart swelled when he said, "I think I might like a second shot at life, now that I've got it."
She wanted to kiss him again, and the way he was staring at her made her stomach do cartwheels.
"I just can't believe it," she said finally. "Ernie MacMillan. Who would've suspected?"
"Never underestimate an insane person, Hermione. Especially one from Hufflepuff." He looked deadly serious.
A commotion sounded upstairs, and Ron's voice squawked, "Bloody hell! There's a fucking passageway behind the bookcase!"
"Hermione!" Harry shouted frantically. "Hermione, are you here? Are you all right?"
"It's a good thing MacMillan's been taken care of," Snape sneered, "or they'd be cocking it up as we speak."
"They have terrible timing," she muttered.
"Explaining this is going to be bloody awful." Snape rubbed the bridge of his sizeable nose, already tired.
"Well, at least you've got your whole life to get your story straight," she chirped.
He pulled at one of her curls with two long fingers. "Cheeky."
When Harry and Ron stumbled out of the stairwell with a squad of Aurors behind them, Hermione couldn't help but laugh at Snape's smirk as their mouths dropped open.
Finally, Ron sighed, interrupting her laughter. "Could someone, please, tell me what the hell is going on here?"