Chapter 18: Remorse

That evening, Harry and Ron elected to stay over at the castle. Consequently, the returning Gryffindor students gathered in their common room, and Hermione enjoyed the immense feeling of contentment as things felt much more close to normal than they had in a long, long time. Their classmates seemed to avoid discussing the events leading up to Voldemort's demise by unspoken agreement, and Hermione could tell that Harry in particular was relieved. Instead, talk turned to everyone's plans for their life after school, the latest Wizarding rock bands, and, most importantly, whether or not the new Headmistress would allow Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes products to be used when not in class.

Lavender tired quickly and Parvati escorted her back to the Hospital Wing, leaving the trio with Neville and Ginny. Neville managed to produce some contraband Firewhisky and Hermione watched, brows raised, as he and Ginny downed two shots apiece without blinking an eye. Catching her look, Ginny merely shrugged; but Neville at least had the grace to look slightly abashed. He opened his mouth to speak but Hermione waved her hand to cut him off.

"Let me guess—DA?" It had been Ginny's answer often enough over the course of the summer, so Hermione was unsurprised when Neville nodded. Deciding that this was one of those times to stop thinking and just live in the moment, Hermione conjured her own shot glass and extended it to Neville. Harry and Ron followed suit, grinning broadly, and so the next hour passed companionably if not quietly.

After another hour Neville was snoring on the couch closest to the fire and Hermione was disinclined to return to her lonely quarters. It felt safe here, and besides, Harry and Ron were planning to sleep here for tonight, so why shouldn't she? Their time alone together was dwindling away, and Hermione knew once Harry and Ginny married she would hardly ever see her friend without his wife. Which was fine, honestly, because Hermione had grown to care for Ginny rather a lot, but—well, it just wouldn't be the same. So she stayed put and shushed the boys whenever they got too rowdy, so as not to wake Neville.

At some point in the wee hours of the morning, Ginny's happy-go-lucky Firewhisky mood apparently wore off, because she started shooting significant looks at Hermione. Confused at first, Hermione frowned back at her friend. Then Ginny tapped her wrist and mouthed "Snape."

Hermione scowled. Of course, her bizarre situation with her professor would intrude on even the most sacred of moments. She tried glaring at Ginny but the redhead simply glared right back, and Hermione acknowledged that Ginny had been raised by the best intimidator in England. Hermione would not win this battle of wills. She sighed and sat up. Harry and Ron were debating the dubious merits of the Chudley Cannons, but Hermione forged ahead. "Could I, um, talk to you both about something important?" she started tentatively.

"I already told you, Hermione, I'm not going to free Kreacher from Grimmauld Place. He loves it there and it would devastate him," Harry said automatically.

"No, that's not—I mean, you ought to at least offer him wages but—no. I wanted to tell you something that might seem a little bit crazy, but—"

"Uh oh, what's that? Did you finally manage to read every book in the library?" Ron snickered and nudged Harry with his elbow. Hermione graciously decided to chalk their laughter up to the amount of Firewhisky they'd imbibed this evening.

"No, Ronald, that's not it either." She took a deep breath and then, before either one could interrupt her again, she blurted out, "I think Professor Snape made a Horcrux!"

Silence met her proclamation. Ron and Harry stared at her as though she'd spoken in Parseltongue. She wet her lips nervously, wondering if perhaps she ought to have approached that differently.

After what felt like an eternity, Ron spoke. "That's not funny."

"I didn't mean it to be," Hermione replied tartly. "It's—you know how I've been having those nightmares? Well, I—"

"Wait. Those are still happening?" Harry asked.

"They've never stopped, only changed a bit." An understatement. Hermione struggled with how much to reveal and how much to keep to herself still. "Actually they've gotten...more difficult to ignore." She decided not to tell them about when she'd seen Professor Snape at Harry's party. Probably at this point, the less she burdened the boys with, the better. "Anyway, I looked at his will again, and some things were really odd. Then one night it just kind of hit me—what if he'd done it?"

Ron was scowling now. "Who cares if the bloody great git did make a Horcrux? What's it to do with you?"

Hermione opened her mouth to respond then snapped it shut again. How to explain, without explaining everything? If she had been hesitant to involve others before, she was even more reluctant now, faced with Ron and Harry's less-than-enthusiastic response. Apparently her silence was too much for Ron to handle, because he staggered up from the sofa and pointed an unsteady finger at her.

"I won't believe it. You're just seeing Horcruxes everywhere!"

He was angry, really angry. Hermione held out her hands beseechingly. "Ron, just hear me out—"

"No! I'm tired of bloody effing Horcruxes!" He stormed out of the common room, clomping up the stairs to the boys' dormitories still bellowing obscenities. Hermione felt tears well in her eyes—could it be that after everything else they'd been through, this would be the thing that drove a wedge between them? She didn't know if she could bear it. But she also couldn't abandon their professor.

Hermione flinched when a door slammed at the top of the stairs. Glancing over at Harry and Ginny, she noticed that Harry looked extremely troubled. He turned to his fiancée and asked, "What do you make of all this?"

Ginny stared intently at Hermione and then turned to face Harry. "You haven't seen her. She talks to him nearly every night while she's asleep. I know we're all having nightmares, but this seems different. Besides, it's Hermione we're talking about. If she thinks it's true, I'd bet my last Galleon it is."

Harry nodded slowly and then they both looked back at Hermione. She tamped down her feelings of disappointment and betrayal from Ron, and tried to plead her case to Harry. "It's just—well, you know more than anyone what he had to live with, Harry. If there's even the smallest chance that I can help him, somehow, then—then I think I owe it to him. We all owe it to him."

"I'm not denying he deserves a second chance," Harry said. "But I just don't understand why he would have done that...and why it's you that has to fix it."

Hermione shrugged helplessly. She hardly knew, herself.

Ginny stood and reached a hand out to pull Harry up. "Reckon we ought to sleep on it," she said. Hermione glanced over to where Neville was still snoring softly. Ginny followed her gaze. "Best to let him be," she suggested. "He's got a nasty hexing reflex when he's woken."

Hermione and Harry exchanged a look. Hermione decided she would try to get that information out of Ginny sometime later. She stood by the door and looked away while Harry and Ginny said their goodnights, and then Harry was there, squeezing her hand reassuringly.

"I don't like it, but if you need my help..." he trailed off.

"I know, Harry. Thank you." Hermione squeezed his hand back and tried not to think about the other third of their group, who was currently pouting upstairs.

"I'll talk to him," Harry whispered. She nodded gratefully, tears filling her eyes again.

Then Ginny was there. "I'll do anything I can to help you too, Hermione," the younger girl declared, "if only so I can hit him with my best hex once he's back."

Harry and Hermione gaped at Ginny, who flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "What? He deserves it after what he did to this school while he was in charge. Bloody git."

Despite her mixed feelings, Hermione found herself laughing uncontrollably. She was still smiling as she climbed into bed, and when The Dream swirled up around her, she was at peace with her task once more.

The next morning, Harry and a very sheepish Ron joined Hermione and the others in the Great Hall for breakfast. The boys were headed back to London today to prepare for their month-long excursion; Ginny was gearing up for her two-week refresher course; and Hermione was feeling at odds and ends. While her companions were busy with the course, she would be mostly left to her own devices before the rest of the students arrived. She supposed she ought to practice her lectures or prepare lessons, but in reality, she was likely going to spend every waking moment pouring over the texts that Professor Snape had left for her, hoping to find something useful.

Before they left, Harry and Ron both gave her rib-cracking hugs. While Harry said goodbye to Ginny, Ron pulled Hermione to the side and murmured, "Sorry for being an utter ass. Too much Firewhisky. It's just that, well, I rather thought we were done with Horcruxes, you know? It's not fair that he's managed to put this on you. If you wanted to just leave him to rot, Hermione, no one would blame you."

"No one, perhaps, except Professor Snape and myself," she replied, but without rancor. It was Ron's roundabout way of apologizing, so she simply smiled up at him and said, "It's okay, Ron. I may not even be able to do anything. Don't worry about me."

He hugged her again and Hermione just held on, closing her eyes against the unwelcome realization that his reaction to her news had managed to evoke the first feelings of gladness that she'd had about their break-up since that evening on the beach in Australia.

Late afternoon found Hermione once again at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. She hesitated, taking a moment to fidget with her journal and re-secure the hair that had escaped her quick and admittedly lousy attempt at a braid. Glancing around, she wondered if perhaps she ought to wait and come back another time—the light was dimming, wasn't it? Yes, it was certainly cloudier than when she'd first exited the castle.

She took one step back in the direction she'd come, then straightened her shoulders and plunged into the Forest as she'd originally intended. This conversation could not wait any longer. She was only avoiding the confrontation because of the way her previous discussion—if one could call it that—with her professor had ended.

Firming her resolve, Hermione marched into the middle of the Forbidden Forest, not particularly caring how much noise she made. She only hoped that no creatures here would approach her with Professor Snape's ghostly presence. In fact, she suspected he must have spent considerable time in this forest himself, gathering ingredients or coming and going to meetings with Voldemort. So she reasoned that surely nothing and no one would want to come near.

When she once again felt as though she'd come to the right spot, she stopped and set her journal and backpack on the ground. "Professor? Are you here?"

He materialized almost immediately this time, causing Hermione to jerk in surprise. Oh, he was even less happy to see her this time than the last. Clearing her throat, Hermione hurried to jump in before he began to chastise her. "I'm sorry for storming off the last time. It was rude of me. You must have been so lonely and worried these past few months and here I just—"

"I am accustomed to the quiet and as such have not been bothered by it here," he snapped at her.

Hermione grimaced. How he could manage to both reassure and insult at the same time was surely an art. "Yes. Well. I am sorry, for what it's worth, which I suspect is not very much to you. I was simply overwhelmed by seeing you in person and all the implications that included. Not to mention the fact that you're still haunting me at night. I don't think I need to explain to you that I really could be more focused on the issues at hand if I was perhaps allowed to sleep without interruption. However, I—"

"You are mistaken. I am not 'haunting' anyone." He crossed his arms and looked extremely put-out.

"Er. Yes, you are. The Dream hasn't disappeared, even now that I've found you, you see, and so—"

"No, I do not see." He glared at her. "Are you telling me, Miss Granger, that I somehow appear to you each night?"

Hermione gaped at him. The nerve! "Yes, exactly. I dream about you, in the Shrieking Shack..." She trailed off, her cheeks heating. Good job, Hermione, she tutted at herself. Just remind him, why don't you, that you let him die that night. That ought to secure his cooperation. Hermione blew out a breath. It seemed today would be her day for apologizing. "Since I've just mentioned it, I suppose now is as good a time as any to apologize for not being able to save you that night in the Shack. It all happened so quickly..."

Her apology was weak and they both knew it, but to Hermione's surprise Professor Snape waved his hand dismissively. "That does not matter. As you are well aware, I am not truly dead. I do wish, however, to hear more about this dream version of myself." He paused and looked highly uncomfortable. "Much as it pains me to admit it, I truly do not know anything about what you have been experiencing." Then the sour look returned. "I would rather die in truth than waste my nights appearing in silly schoolgirl reveries, I assure you."

Hermione frowned, confused. "Well, if it's not you, then—then what is it? Because you—he—appears to me every night without fail. It's always 'Find me' and then sometimes it's 'Think, you foolish girl,' and even occasionally 'You're running out of time!'" Hermione bent down and dug through her backpack, extracting her dream diary. "See, it's been happening since the night after the battle ended. I even tried Dreamless Sleep, to no avail."

She held the diary out to Professor Snape and after a moment's pause he bent his head to look. She watched as his eyes darted back and forth over the open pages. When he seemed about to say something, Hermione wordlessly turned the page. His head jerked once—she supposed it was his version of a nod—and he continued to read. Hermione continued to turn the pages as he finished them, deciding to save that particular question for when he was done. When he reached the end of the diary, he turned and paced away from her, prowling agitatedly back and forth at the edge of the clearing. It was odd, seeing the trees and brush filtered through him, but oddly beautiful, as well. Occasionally she would hear him muttering to himself. Wisely, she waited for him to speak first.

She was rewarded a minute or so later when he strode back to where she stood. His lips were twisted into a fierce line of displeasure. "Miss Granger. I have no knowledge of whatever magic has caused this to happen, but I assure you, disruption of your sleep in such a manner has never been an intention of mine."

"It's alright," she replied. Disbelieving eyes rose to pierce her own. "No, truly. Now that I know why you've been appearing to me—well, it's good, really. I might never have put the pieces together, otherwise." She tapped the diary against her leg, thinking. "It is curious though, isn't it? I mean, how can this version of you be acting independently?" A horrible thought dawned. "Did you make more than one Horcrux?"

"No. Even I was not so...desperate." Professor Snape pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a quiet breath. "It seems there are many unknowns surrounding this particular branch of magic."

"Yes," Hermione agreed heartily. "Although, I believe there are at least a few questions that—that you might be able to answer for me. And then perhaps we can, er, put our heads together from there."

"Very well." Professor Snape crossed his arms again, waiting. Hermione reached down to retrieve her journal and a quill, catching his look of amused resignation when she straightened. Suddenly feeling very childish, Hermione took her time finding the right page in the book and composing herself. He cleared his throat, likely to hurry her along. Well, he'd basically forced her to help him with this, hadn't he, so now he was going to have to accept her methods, as well.

Hermione took a deep breath and began. "How did you make the Horcrux?"

Professor Snape actually let out a bark of what seemed to be laughter. Hermione stared, amazed, and certain that she had never heard that sound from him before. He shook his head and dropped his arms, burying his hands in the pockets of his robe. "Trust you to get right to the heart of the matter without preamble," he drawled. Then he sombered. "I expect you have already pieced together that I created it the night I killed Dumbledore?"

Hermione nodded slowly. "Yes, but how—"

He held up a hand. "I suppose you've also managed to find a book explaining how the objects in question are made?"

"Actually, Dumbledore left them to me." At this, her professor started, his expression beginning to grow stormy. Hermione hurried on. "Well, not to me per se, but I was able to Summon them from his office after his death, so it's really the same thing..."

Professor Snape looked as if he would question her further, then he shook his head and continued. "Regardless, you know, then, that the ritual requires the maker to utilize a part of the subject's flesh. Among other things."

"Precisely. But that's the bit that confuses me. When I asked Dumbledore about it, he seemed convinced that—"

"You asked Albus about this?" Professor Snape snapped.

"Er, yes. I didn't know where else to go. And I hardly wanted to involve the Ministry."

"Perhaps there is hope for you yet, then." He looked at her greedily. "And what did Dumbledore say?"

"Well, that's the odd thing. He was adamant that there was no way you might've created one. And then, when I went back and showed him the parchment, he—he knew right away." Hermione saw the understanding light Professor Snape's eyes. He began to pace again, one hand coming up to press at his temple. "But the thing is, Professor, how could he not have realized? He fell from the Tower, didn't he, and then you and Draco were chased from the school, so you must have taken your, uh..." Hermione sought for the least repulsive word, "sample before you fired the Avada. But then he would have known, wouldn't he?"

Professor Snape stopped abruptly, staring at Hermione with an odd expression. When he spoke, his words were very measured and deliberate, moreso than normal. "Yes, he would have. If I had taken the necessary samplethat evening. Which I did not."

Hermione's mind raced. She recalled the provisions of the professor's will, and his realization that his time was coming. She thought back to the way Dumbledore had acted when she'd approached his portrait, and the things he'd said—and not said. She remembered what Harry had told her of Professor Snape's memories, and then she knew. It seemed obvious now. "His hand."

"Yes, his hand," Professor Snape concurred, pacing again. "When he came to me with that bloody ring on, I did everything I could to halt the damage. I tried every potion, every spell, every blasted healing ointment I could find. We even attempted some unproven Dark spells, all to no avail. He was far more equanimous with the situation than I. Simply suggested I take a portion and continue to study it after he was gone—that perhaps something might come to me later on. As though any future situation could have possibly provided more motivation than keeping him alive!"

Professor Snape's movements were less fluid now. His steps faltered as he turned a hard glare in her direction. Then he hissed, "Do you have any idea the lengths I would have gone to save him? I tried to reason with him, but he would not hear it."

Hermione processed this information. She knew that Professor Snape had come to Dumbledore after Lily's murder, and had worked on the side of the light from that point on. She had rather thought, however, that perhaps Dumbledore had guilted their professor into continually putting his life in danger. After hearing from Harry about the memories, she wondered if maybe there had been actual respect and affection between the two men. Something more congenial than puppet and master.

Sighing, Hermione gently closed her journal. She could write everything down later—the less she stressed her professor now, the more he was likely to tell her. "Well, that's that, then. We both know the procedure for creating the vile objects. So then what happened next? How did you keep the Horcrux near you? It seems as though—forgive me if I am speaking out of turn—as though you genuinely cared for Dumbledore. And the soul can't remain split if there's remorse."

"Ah, yes. Of course you would have committed all that you read to memory." His tone was dismissive but Hermione simply waited, her curiosity winning out over her desire to argue his point. He came to stand close to her again, and she only barely resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. She wanted to know if he was as transparent as he looked or whether there was some solid form there. But her musings would have to wait, because it seemed she was to receive answers to all her questions today, a rare event indeed. As he spoke, Hermione could picture the scene vividly. Her arms broke out in goosebumps despite the heat of the day.

"I happened across a rare manuscript, detailing the author's attempts at a soul-strengthening solution. He had been unsuccessful, but with more recent advances in magic and my own considerable skill I was able to produce the reverse—a potion that weakened the soul, hence allowing it to tear much more easily. Combined with an elixir that blocks remorse, it was almost laughably easy to create the Horcrux with the death of my mentor—what is so amusing, you impertinent girl?"

Hermione hadn't been able to curb her smile. "I'm sorry! It's just—it's funny that you did all this with potions rather than spells. I suppose it's just your approach to things."

He scowled at her. "I have no need for foolish wand-waving or silly incantations. Most magic can be performed with the proper potion. I kept both on me at all times after I had perfected them, not knowing when the moment would occur." He paused to glare at her again, but Hermione bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. She didn't want to miss any more of his tale by offending him further. When he seemed certain she wasn't about to laugh, he went on. "When Flitwick informed me there were Death Eaters in the school, I knew it was time. I imbibed both potions and you know the rest."

"I suppose I'm just amazed you had the presence of mind to do all of this given the events of that evening," she admitted.

Professor Snape made a moue of chagrin. "I confess that the anti-remorse potion was more necessary for me to complete the task of killing Dumbledore than it was for creating the Horcrux. It was beneficial for that purpose also, certainly, but the primary use was simply because—because I was in such opposition to casting that final spell."

He looked away and Hermione busied herself with her bag, wanting to give him a moment. She had seen many moments of discomfiture from her professor over the years—anger, distrust, violence—but none before of regret. Hermione wasn't quite sure how to respond. She rather thought giving him a hug would be ill-received, at best, if not physically impossible, and she didn't trust herself to find the right words. So she remained silent until he spoke again, his tone flat now.

"I had your homework parchment with me when I fled. The rest of your classmates' remained at school. I attempted to send it out over the summer with the others, but it was obviously delayed due to the extenuating circumstances."

"So that was your owl?"

"Hardly," he scoffed. "It was one of the many Untraceable post owls utilized by the Dark Lord at the time."

"Oh." Hermione fell silent. The rest of her questions could wait. She sensed that her professor was growing tired or impatient or—something. His outline was beginning to waver and she wondered whether he needed to disappear for a while. She really had no idea what the physics of being a spirit were. She supposed she'd have to research that, as well. Her list was ever-growing.

Which reminded her... "You left me to pay for those books," she chided him.

He did not even attempt to deflect the accusation. "I could hardly have made the purchase myself, you foolish girl. The Dark Lord was tracking every move I made outside Hogwarts grounds. It was hard enough having to hide my particular activity from Dumbledore himself, much less the rest of the castle population. Purchasing those books would surely have tipped the old codger off." He eyed her distastefully. "Not that my secrecy appears to have mattered, as you have since informed him. Who else have you enlisted to help you on your crusade?"

Hermione bristled. "No one, and I don't appreciate the insinuation, thank you very much," she snapped.

"I see I have struck a nerve," he drawled, sounding positively gleeful.

She huffed out an exasperated breath. "If you must know, I mentioned the possibility briefly to the boys, but they were unsurprisingly not in favor of assisting me overmuch."

He smirked. "They told you that you were bloody well delusional, I take it."

Hermione raised her nose into the air, just a bit. "Maybe."

"It is just as well. The fewer people that know about this, the better."

"I happen to agree, which is why I have not involved anyone," she reminded him through gritted teeth.

They stared each other down for a moment and then Professor Snape seemed to back down for the moment. He glanced in the direction of the castle, changing the subject. "I have not yet ventured out of the forest. Is the castle irreparably damaged?"

She relented in her pique to answer him. "Only in one or two places, which they've turned into memorials with educational plaques. The rest took some hard labor but things are mostly restored, with some minor alterations."

Professor Snape actually allowed a small smile to grace his features briefly. "Ah, yes. The castle would not have allowed herself to be simply replaced stone for stone."

There was a wealth of admiration and feeling in his words, and Hermione was taken aback. He clearly had a great love for the place. That one sentiment, perhaps more than any other, endeared him to her just a bit. She, too, had always felt an affinity with the great castle and all her ancient glory. Hermione turned to stare at the uppermost turrets as well. Something Harry had said once stirred in her memory.

"You know, I feel a bit like Voldemort must have when he tried to come back here," she mused. "Returning to buy himself some time."

Professor Snape glanced sharply at her. "You are not the first person to seek refuge here, Miss Granger, nor will you be the last."

Before she could even open her mouth to question his sudden anger, he had gone.

A/N: I suppose one benefit of my writer's guilt is that you're at least getting slightly longer chapters! Again, my view of the DA has largely been influenced by Dumbledore's Army and the Year of Darkness, an excellent fic if you're in the market for a darker story. I'm still operating without the guidance of my betas, so any problems are purely my own.