(About an hour ago)
As Hermione made her way back toward Gryffindor Tower, she wondered what could have had Severus so preoccupied that evening. Why couldn't he have just told her about it? What was he afraid of? She knew that whatever it was had something to do with Phineas' surprise visit that evening, and couldn't stop wondering whether Dumbledore's portrait had something to do with that.
Though neither Ron nor Harry had mentioned anything about speaking to Dumbledore's portrait, she was well–versed in the tradition of hanging former headmasters' portraits in the Head office, as expounded on in Hogwarts: A History. It stood to reason that Dumbledore's portrait would be hanging there, now, and—knowing Dumbledore—he wouldn't have left behind a shabby rendering of himself... According to the text, the portraits of former headmasters were imbued with the personalities and knowledge of their subjects inasmuch as they were trained by their subjects, which meant that either Dumbledore had taken the time to see that his portrait was an adequate representation of himself, or else he had left behind a dummy incapable of much more than reiterating some choice catchphrases. Considering that the Headmaster in question was none other than Albus Dumbledore—undoubtedly one of the greatest wizards of all time—she would hedge her bet on the former.
But why wouldn't Harry be in communication with Dumbledore's portrait, if he were active? Why would Phineas be arranging secret meetings with Severus behind Harry's back, if indeed that was the case? Hermione supposed that it was pointless to speculate along such lines before confirming that Dumbledore really was the subject of Severus' concerns, but what else could it be?
Pausing outside the portrait of the Fat Lady to consider the question, she was just about to slip past the frame of the sleeping portrait before she heard a slight hissing sound coming from a little further down the hall.
"Pssst! Girl!" A voice hissed, causing her to look about in alarm.
"Yes, you! Come over here!"
Recognizing the whispered voice as Phineas,' Hermione scrunched her brow as she crept down the hall, scanning the sleeping portraits. She finally found her prowler in a frame set aside from the rest, in a particularly dim corner. She had to squint at him as her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
"Professor Black," she whispered, "what are you doing here?"
"What am I doing?" The portrait scoffed, "Perhaps the more appropriate question, young lady, would be what are you doing?"
"Me?" Hermione blinked in confusion, "I'm trying to go to bed..."
Phineas huffed indignantly at that, saying, "Well that much is shockingly apparent!" At Hermione's look of further confusion, he added, "It is with whom you are intent on bedding that drives me to seek an audience with you."
Narrowing her eyes, Hermione flatly replied, "You're here about Severus?"
"Good," Phineas drawled, "you can infer simple conclusions. Let us try for another, shall we? However, this next one won't be quite so simple."
"I'm too tired to play games with a portrait," Hermione snapped, flustered by his rudeness. "Just get to the point, if you could."
"Well, well..." Phineas tisked, "that is no way of addressing someone attempting to be of service to you, young lady," Phineas warned, something in the way he referred to her making her decidedly uncomfortable. "I suggest you rethink that tone."
"Excuse me, sir," Hermione replied, injecting as much venom into the honorific as he had put into hers, "but I can't imagine how you intend to be of service to me, if that is your intention at all."
"Well! I am hardly interested in the scope of your imagination!" Phineas rebuked, "Now then, do you want to hear what I have to say, or not?"
"I'm not sure that I do, but you have my attention anyway."
"Insufferable little..." Phineas started, before he bit back his reproach and looked Hermione dead in the eye. "All right, then, Missy, you give me no choice but to spell it out for you bluntly. Professor Snape is not the fool that you take him for."
Hermione blinked in surprise at that statement, her mouth opening to object before Phineas continued, "Oh, I know well enough how you've managed to ensnare him with your feminine wiles. You think that you have him wrapped around your little finger, do you not? You think you can trap him so easily?"
"Listen, you—" Hermione started, turning red with anger, before Phineas cut her off.
"No, you listen, girl! You are doing more harm than you realize! Severus Snape is not a well-adjusted man!" Hermione paused at that. "He is not of sound mind where young women are concerned, but neither is he a fool! You may have managed to lure him into an indecent arrangement for now, but it won't be long until he realizes his error, and once he does, what then? What will you do when he figures out just what you are to him; when he discovers his great self-deception, and casts you out?"
Phineas allowed his words to sink in as Hermione's indignation seemed to falter for a moment, before he continued in a less emphatic tone.
"Though it would not ordinarily behoove me to worry about the fate of such a misguided little Jezebel, there is still the matter of this war to consider; specifically the role that everyone is so certain you must perform in order to ensure a just outcome. I wonder, then, how well you would take to such a role when you find yourself spurned and brushed aside as if you were no better than mud clinging to a boot? Ah, there it is! It hurts, does it not? The very thought of it? Best to prepare for the reality, then!"
"He wouldn't..." Hermione started, struggling to come up with the right words, "...you're wrong. It isn't... he isn't like that!"
"Isn't he?" Phineas retorted, "And just how well do you know him, girl? Just how well do you think one such as you can know the mind of one of the greatest Slytherins to come out of Hogwarts in the last several centuries? How can you truly know of a past fraught with such unspeakable tragedies, when you hadn't even been born before they transpired? There is so much you don't know... so much!"
"I know that what we feel for each other is real," Hermione nearly whispered, resenting that she was admitting it to this portrait.
"Real?" Phineas scoffed, "You think you know what is real? That is no besotted schoolboy you've gotten entangled with, you know," Phineas insisted, pointing toward the dungeon. "That is a man who has spent the greater part of his life as a double spy. Nothing is 'real' to a man such as that; nothing but undying duty to his cause. And once he realizes just how seriously you are jeopardizing that cause, he will do what he must."
"No," Hermione insisted, "you're wrong."
"I am afraid not." Phineas countered. "You see, I know a bit more about it than you, girl. I know a bit more about him."
"Like what?" Hermione asked, warily.
"I know that Severus is using you as a substitute for the only woman he ever loved," Phineas bluntly replied. His words seemed to hit their mark as Hermione gaped at him in disbelief. "What, you think you were the first? A man who has lived through as much as him? Oh, no. This is not the first time Severus has allowed himself to be led astray by a pretty face. Only this time, he won't be making the same mistake. Not when he remembers how much she cost him; not when he still fights in her name. He will never forget that."
"Forget what?" Hermione asked, desperate for the truth, "Whose name? Who is she?"
"She was someone whose tainted blood cost him more than he bargained for. Oh, yes," he pressed, seeing Hermione's look of surprise, "she was like you. Another mudblood."
Hermione was too shocked by the revelation that Severus had once loved another muggle-born to take offense to Phineas' use of the derogative term. She had gone quite pale in the reflected moonlight.
"I don't believe you," Hermione whispered, though her quiet words lacked conviction. "You're just saying all of this to upset me. You want me to doubt him."
"Come now, child," Phineas patronized, "do you really think I would contrive such a story merely for the benefit of upsetting you? I will grant that the life of a portrait can be dull at times, but we cope with it well enough. I can assure you that I would much rather be sleeping in my own frame right now, instead of colluding in a dark hallway with the concupiscent little mudblood whose misplaced designs on a weak-willed, self-deceiving and thoroughly damaged Professor of hers could be the very straw that breaks the camel's back in this already precarious war! But someone has to fly the flag of better judgement around here, and it so happens that this burden falls to me."
"If you're not making all of this up, then who is she?" Hermione demanded, "Does this woman even have a name?"
"Oh, she does, indeed," Phineas nodded, looking far too devious for Hermione's comfort. "But I should warn you that this is the gravest of secrets. If I tell you, you must have the sense not to go off and tell Potter what I have said here, else you would put much more at risk than anyone's feelings..."
"What does any of this have to do with Harry?" Hermione asked, thoroughly perplexed.
"A great deal," Phineas confided, lowering his voice until Hermione had to strain to hear him, "she was his mother."
Hermione stumbled down the staircase as she rushed toward the dungeon, her tears blurring her vision in the paltry light and making her bump clumsily against one thing after another, likely forming bruise after bruise, though she was too upset to notice. She hardly knew how to feel about what Phineas had told her—hardly knew what to make of it all—but she knew that she was intensely unhappy. She was much too tired to try to make any sense of it, so she simply allowed her fears and insecurities to consume her as she gracelessly made her way down to the dungeon. She had no idea what she would do when she arrived — what she would say to him — she just knew that she had to confront him, lest she be left to draw her own conclusions. And she didn't like where that would leave her.
Oh, God — could it be true? Could Severus really have been in love with Harry's mum? Was he, still? Was this why he was fighting against Voldemort? To avenge her death?
She shook the thought away as another full-bodied sob wracked her tired frame, causing her to collapse against a balustrade for support. She clung to it weakly, pressing her heated face against the cool stone and leaving tear stains before pulling herself up and continuing on. She felt sick, nervous and exhausted, with a tight pressure in her chest as if her heart were being strangled. She needed to find Severus; she needed him to make it right...
"What is Harry's mum to you?"
Severus gaped at Hermione, his brain short-circuiting as he tiredly struggled to make the jump from 'Hermione is outside my door' to 'Hermione knows about Lily.' The sheer force of that second concept soon had the blood draining from his face, and his body feeling like it had just absorbed the impact of a minor crucio. It took all of his willpower not to fall over.
"Who...?" Was the only word he managed to utter in between the opening and closing of a mouth uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
"Phineas," came Hermione's small reply. She looked so sad... was that pity in her eyes? For him... or for herself?
"Of course." Oh, when he found that black-hearted, two-dimensional little...
"...Severus?" Hermione asked after a long beat. He looked at her in confusion. "Is that all you have to say to me?"
Though her tone was more gentle than anything else, Severus still felt irrationally annoyed by the question. Without thinking, he bitterly replied, "It would seem you've heard it all already from Phineas."
"Not all," she countered, shaking her head in distress, "he wouldn't go into specifics."
"How specific would you like me to be?" he snapped, alerting her to the fact that this was a very sore subject indeed. "Shall I tell you about the manner in which she died? About how I arrived too late, and found her dead by the Dark Lord's hand? Shall I tell you how I held her broken body in my arms and wept?" he asked, his voice breaking from the old devastation still attached to his recollection of that night.
"So it's true?" Hermione whispered, her eyes brimming over in tears, "You loved her?"
Severus surprised her then by scowling dreadfully and pulling on the sconce outside his hidden door, pushing past her when it opened for him. She gasped as he brushed by her as if she were a nuisance, leaving her in tears outside his chamber while he strode over to a cabinet and produced a half-empty bottle of firewhiskey, tearing it open and taking an indecently long swig of the amber liquid, then slamming the bottle down on a table and leaning against it with hunched shoulders, breathing heavily. She had barely managed to summon the courage to step inside the unwelcoming space when Severus suddenly spun around to face her with a look she hadn't seen from him in ages (and never before directed at her).
"What exactly did that meddling old dolt tell you?" He demanded, the lines of his face contorting harshly from his barely-contained rage.
"He... he said that you loved her, and... and that she cost you a great deal..."
Severus just stared at her with an unreadable expression before reaching behind him for the bottle and taking another swig, his eyes fixed on Hermione the entire time. She watched as the alcohol slowly started seeping into his bloodstream, his demeanor shifting almost imperceptibly, but enough for her to notice the chill emanating from him, sucking the already negligible warmth out of the space. She shivered, and his eyes flicked over her before he took another swig, then lowered his arm so that the bottle hung loosely at his side while he leaned a bit too casually against the table. A peculiar brand of menace was overtaking him now—one that she didn't recognize at all.
"Well?" She asked, affecting a courage she didn't actually possess, "That's pretty much all he told me, other than trying to warn me off of you, ostensibly for my own good. I didn't believe him, though," she added, noticing his scowl at that last part, "I don't believe him; not about that."
"Why not?" Severus drawled, giving her an appraising look before sucking down another swig of firewhiskey, "Maybe he had a point."
Hermione's hurt expression was nearly enough to make him take it back... nearly.
"What are you saying?" she asked, at a loss, "You think I should stay away from you? Because..." she whispered, "...because you're still in love with her?"
Severus startled her by throwing the bottle against the wall, then, shattering it as he stood up and shouted, "I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT LILY POTTER!"
"Why not?" Hermione cried, stepping backwards as she spoke, "Does she still mean so much to you?"
Severus stalked toward her too quickly for her to do anything but gasp as he backed her against the wall, the smell of firewhiskey thick on his breath as he spat, "If you're that threatened by the idea of a dead woman, then perhaps you should scurry back to your little friends and let them tell you whatever soothing nonsense you want to hear, because you certainly won't be hearing any of it from me."
"I don't want to hear nonsense," Hermione replied, trying to make her voice come out as deep as she could, "I only want to hear the truth."
"The truth?" Severus sneered, "And what do you want with the 'truth,' Hermione? Do you even know how ugly a thing 'the truth' can be?"
"I think so," she replied in a hard voice, eliciting a harsh laugh from the man hovering over her.
"I don't doubt you've seen your share of hard truths," Severus conceded, "but you know nothing of my own. You know nothing of what I once was... what I still am."
"Then tell me," she said simply. He looked her over skeptically—consideringly—before pushing away from her and pacing back toward the center of the room.
"Tell me, Severus," she insisted, pushing off the wall to stand up straight. "I want to hear it."
"No," he said quietly, not facing her, "you don't."
He turned to look at her with another indecipherable expression before looking away again, taking his time before replying. She waited patiently. At length he spoke to the floor, "I am not a loving man, Hermione."
When he didn't say anything else, she quietly replied, "I don't believe that's true." His shoulders seemed to slump further before he continued in a strained voice.
"If I love at all, it is a greedy, selfish thing. It is obsessive, and weak, and demanding in ways you don't yet realize. My love for Lily was all that and worse, and she died because of it."
Hermione shook her head at that, saying, "No, Severus — she died because Voldemort killed her... she died protecting Harry..." He turned around at that.
"Yes, and because I was the one who relayed the damned prophecy to him in the first place! I did it, Hermione! Me! — I didn't realize it meant that Lily's son must die, but that's how it happened!" He confessed, desperate with remorse, "And then she died, and all that was left was my guilt and her son — hers and James bloody Potter's — and there was nothing I could do to bring her back! Nothing!"
"So you turned to Dumbledore for help?" Hermione guessed, tentatively stepping closer to Severus, wanting to comfort him in his obvious torment but still fearing his erratic behavior.
"Help," Severus coldly laughed, "I tried that as soon as I realized my mistake. Dumbledore was supposed to protect her! But he — I failed her," he corrected. "It was my fault. All of it."
"Then Dumbledore took you in afterward by way of apology?" Hermione asked.
"Apology?" Severus scoffed, "From him? No. He only offered me a chance to make amends, however paltry. He offered the chance to ensure the child's safety."
"By spying for the Order."
Severus nodded, and Hermione stepped close enough to place a hand on his shoulder, making him flinch. "Severus, that's the least selfish thing you could have done for her, don't you see that?"
He looked up from the floor then, searching Hermione's eyes for any sign of judgment, but—miraculously—finding only admiration, albeit tinged with sadness.
"You devoted years of your life in service to her son — to the cause she lived for — and at great personal cost... Severus, how can you think that isn't the most loving thing any person could have done for another?"
Severus just blinked dumbly at her, swallowing thickly and looking away when he couldn't come up with a response. Hermione moved to stand in front of him and gently lifted his chin, forcing his eyes to meet hers.
"Honestly, Severus," she whispered, "what you did was nothing short of heroic, in the highest possible terms...I've never heard of anything so selfless, so brave..."
His eyes grew intense for a moment as he stared into hers, still trying to find something that just wasn't there. She didn't judge him for what he'd done, even when he'd admitted it to her as plainly as he could... What was wrong with her? Why didn't she condemn his actions for what they were? Why was she focusing solely on the outcome, rather than acknowledging the harm he'd caused? Didn't she realize? Didn't she understand?
"You're too naive to see the truth," he drawled, his words slightly slurred in his tired semi-drunkenness. Hermione looked at him as if he'd said something very stupid.
"Don't what," he challenged, "don't tell it like it is? You wanna pretend that this is all some pretty little fantasy that you can distort at whim? You'd rather make me some kind of twisted 'hero' than admit to yourself that you've been fucking a monster?"
"What? What else would you call it, huh?" He pressed, gripping her by the shoulders, then moving to grab her arms when she tried to twist out of his grip.
"You're hurting me," she pleaded.
"Good," he sneered. "It should hurt. It should hurt like hell!"
"What's the matter, girl? Finally seeing what I really am? Is it finally getting through to you?"
"Let go of me! You're drunk!"
"I'll let you go Hermione... I'll let you go," he drawled, his discomfiting assurances at odds with his tight grip, "but when I do, you'd better run, do you understand? You'd better run away and not come back, because this is your chance. This is the only chance you'll get from me. I'm a very. selfish. man, Hermione, and I don't let go easily... do you get that, now? So when I give you the chance, you'd better take it. There won't be another."
"Severus," Hermione cried, still twisting in his grip as tears fell down her face, "I don't like you like this."
"Good," Severus sneered, "very good. Then you understand what you have to do. You understand that it has to be you; I can't be the one. You have to go, do you hear me? Go back to your friends. Don't let me find you down here again."
"Stop," she cried, "you don't mean it..."
Finally releasing his grip with a small push, Hermione steadied herself and rubbed at her sore arms as she stared at Severus with hurt eyes.
"Go," he insisted, his voice small but full of darkness, "now."
Realizing that he was in no fit state to argue with, Hermione gave him one last look of betrayal before wandering out of the room as if she were lost. He watched her go with a feeling of dread, then lifted his wand to shut the door after her, so as not to hear her subdued sobbing as she retreated back to whence she'd come.
His head spun as he looked about the room in tired confusion, as if the whole sorry affair had been a nightmare he'd just woken from. As he slowly set about removing his clothes for the night, the smell of spilt firewhiskey making his stomach roil, he couldn't help but wonder: ...what have I done?