Snape crossed his arms on his chest and locked eyes with the young woman.
"Horcruxes are soul fragments, hidden inside object or living beings. They are what keeps the Dark Lord alive. No matter what happens, so long as they remain unharmed, he cannot be destroyed. This is why Dumbledore prepared for his inevitable return all those years."
"So the Potters died for nothing," Hermione muttered.
"They saved their son, which was their main objective," Snape said with some bitterness.
"And you said that living beings can be Horcruxes? Are you thinking about anything in particular?"
"Merely a hunch... but I always thought there was something off about Nagini. Even considering that Voldemort speaks Parseltongue, that snake shouldn't behave the way she does. There is something... off about her. Something dark," Snape murmured pensively.
"Are you sure? Is there a way to find out?" the witch asked eagerly.
"Probably not without killing it. Which wouldn't be a great loss in any case."
"I suppose so," Hermione sighed. "What else do you know about these Horcuxes? Do you know of any?"
"According to the research my masters have conducted, there were probably six total, three of which remain active to my knowledge. There was the diary, which Mr. Potter destroyed... a ring, that the headmaster also destroyed."
Snape's grimace didn't escape Hermione.
"Albus was unequivocally idiotic," the professor muttered, staring into nothingness. "For no apparent reason, he actually tried to wear the ring. It was naturally protected by a curse... and a deadly one, impossible to counter."
"Are you telling me he was going to die? From that curse?"
"Sooner or later, certainly. He didn't have more than a few months to live, at best. Such folly... I will never understand what could drive him to do such a thing. Anyway, he destroyed the ring shortly afterwards, that particular Horcrux won't bother anyone again."
But Hermione wasn't fooled by the subject change.
"So does that mean he asked you to kill him? It was staged, wasn't it? He planned it?"
There was such hope in the young witch's voice that Snape couldn't help but pity her. These children would have to learn quickly that the world wasn't fair, heroic or controllable... but in this instance, he couldn't deny that Granger was right. Stupid Gryffindors...
"Yes. Albus Dumbledore chose his death," he answered.
"And then he let you take the blame for his murder," Hermione muttered.
"For the greatest good, once again," Snape said darkly. "But he knew that I would be unreachable for all prosecution only a few weeks afterward."
"Still," Hermione murmured pensively, "he could have left something for Harry, a note, to tell him..."
"I'd thought he would have, yes," the professor bitterly replied, "but he probably didn't have time. It was very... sudden. At any rate, the ring has been destroyed, as well as the locket used to be in that cave."
"But you already knew that, didn't you? Why didn't you tell the Headmaster before he took Harry there?"
"I did; he didn't believe me. At that time, Voldemort was aware that Regulus was hunting Horcruxes, and Albus was convinced that he had swapped the locket with another one to trap the lad. He was wrong. Somehow, I believe he also viewed that particular expedition as some kind of initiation..."
And Merlin knew that the old man loved initiations. If it had been up to him, he would gladly have spared his young master from facing the Dark Lord at eleven, or a basilisk at twelve. Despite all the repulsion the boy inspired in him, he was still Lily's son. But no, he had to fulfill his destiny, and so face the worst of creatures so that he could become the arrogant, insolent young man he was now. What a success. And now that they were at the very heart of said destiny, Snape had a nasty suspicion that Dumbledore had been wrong. He hadn't given the boy the right weapons.
From what he had seen so far, Potter's best chance laid in the closely knit friendship of his two companions and their collaboration.
And, now, his new slave...
"But the Horcrux, what happened to it?" Hermione asked, frowning.
"I destroyed it," Snape said. "Fiendfyre, a simple if extreme method for someone who is familiar with dark magic."
"I am not sure Harry would approve..."
Probably not... and there were certainly going to be a lot of things that his master wouldn't approve of in the near future. But one way or another, the boy would have to deal with it.
"There aren't many alternatives," the professor explained. "If, as I understand, you started a hunt for the remaining Horcruxes, you will be forced to use either this option, or an exceptionally potent poison, such as basilisk venom. But I assume Mr. Potter has already researched this."
"I don't know," Hermione admitted. "As you said, everything was fast and confusing. He pretends he doesn't know anymore than what he told us, and I must admit it worries me. What are we looking for, Professor?"
"Cursed and well hidden artifacts. Probably objects with some prestige, such as Slytherin's locket. And of course, they are all possessed. Charming outlook, isn't it?"
"Well, it's not as if we have a choice," the young woman answered with resignation. "Unless you have a better idea?"
"I don't have any ideas, Miss Granger," Snape answered. "I merely serve my master."
"Do I need to ask Harry to order you to think?" Hermione asked sarcastically.
"To think is one thing, finding solutions to defeat the Dark Lord on the other hand... for two galleons an hour, that is asking a lot."
"Two galleons an hour? What are you talking about?"
"That is the price the late Regulus Black paid to rent me to Lucius. For all the good it did him," Snape ranted. "At that price, or for none, don't hope for more miracles that he got."
"But you've done this already, and you have some knowledge about it... to be honest, in our situation, that is a miracle in itself," Hermione sighed. "Don't take this the wrong way, professor, but you've arrived with perfect timing."
"If you say so, Miss Granger. Do you require anything else?"
"No. Yes. Stay here, I'll get the boys... better to tell them directly, after all. Good news is all too rare these days."
Raising from her armchair, she walked to the corridor.
"Ron, Harry? Could you come down for a minute?" she shouted to the upper level. Immediately the two teenagers ran to meet her, suspicious.
"What did he do this time?" Harry demanded, shooting Snape a dark look.
"I am tempted to say nothing, but that would be disrespectful to the professor," Hermione answered dryly. "Actually, Professor Snape has some interesting information about Horcruxes."
"Hermione!" Harry shouted, "Don't tell me you told him about that? I told you it was a secret, a secret Dumbledore confided to me, and you run to tell his murderer? How stupid are you?"
He was nearly screaming by the end of his tirade, and both Ron and Hermione frowned disapprovingly.
"Don't talk to her like that," Ron warned, his voice menacing. "Snape might be your slave, but Hermione isn't and you have no right to treat her like that! We are here to help, remember? And I think it was rather a good idea," he added with a nod to the young witch.
Hermione smiled at him weakly, relieved.
"At least wait to know what this is about before you mount your high horse," she said. "And remember that the professor cannot betray you, whatever he thinks about you and you think about him!"
"Oh, you can call him Snape," Harry sneered, "because if one thing is sure, as long as I am alive, he will never teach again."
"Harry!" Hermione shouted, dismayed. But the young man didn't seem to care.
"What? He's the worst teacher we ever had, you can't say anything else. Merlin, he was the worst teacher ever, incapable of teaching, too busy terrorizing students and taking revenge on kids. Well sorry, professor, but your career as a petty tyrant is over. Next topic?"
Hermione stared at him, mouth agape, unable to say a word. It was finally Snape who broke the silence, apparently unconcerned by the scene that had just happened.
"The actual topic was indeed Horcruxes, and as Miss Granger mentioned, I happen to have dealt with the objects you are looking for in the past, and even had the opportunity to destroy one. I hope it will be useful."
"Oh, you hope, eh?" Harry hissed.
"Harry James Potter!" Hermione shouted, finally recovering from the shock. "How dare you? May I know what allows you to act like a complete... complete..."
But before the young woman could drop the word, Ron stepped in, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"I get it now," he said in a quiet voice. "It's Sirius' room, isn't it? You found something?"
At these words, all the anger that seems to inhabit Harry disappeared, leaving him without energy as his shoulders subsided. With a sight, he collapsed on the arm of an armchair and pulled from his pocket a parchment and a torn photograph to Hermione.
Warily, she took and read the letter, her eyes getting damper with every line. When she finally stopped to look at the picture, her eyes were full of tears.
"Oh, Harry," she said softly, "I'm sorry. Did you find this upstairs? What about the rest?"
"I don't know," the young man said, taking the papers back. "I found them like that. Someone must have..." Stopping, he turned a suspicious glance in Snape's direction. "You! You did come here after Dumbledore's death, didn't you?"
All the eyes turned to the professor, and for the first time, the three teenagers saw what looked like fear pass on his face. Slowly, Snape reached into his robes to get something he handed to his master, carefully avoiding his eyes.
With trembling hands, Harry took what he immediately identified as the rest of the letter and the picture. It only took him a moment to read the last paragraph and contemplate Lily's face.
Then, straightening up, he stepped menacingly toward the professor who had cautiously retreated to the back of the room.
"You bastard," he said in a hoarse voice, wand ready.
"Harry, no," Hermione stopped him. "Let him explain."
"There is nothing to explain, Miss Granger," Snape said, his gaze obstinately fixed on the opposite wall.
"What did you come here for?" Harry roared, his wand pointed at the professor's throat. "Looking for all the information you could give to Voldemort before changing masters?"
"No," Snape replied, "Nothing like that. I came to find answers... I didn't find them."
"Answers about what? Who? How dared you steal these documents, destroy a picture of my family?" Harry said, choking with rage.
"If you would allow me," the wizard said before raising his wand. A quick spell later, the picture was in one piece again. Harry inspected it, suspicious.
"It doesn't change anything, you still had no right to do that," he hissed.
"Forgive me, master," Snape answered in a flat voice.
"And answer my question, what were you looking for?"
"Clues about Horcruxes. Regulus Black's notes. Books."
"Books? What kind of books?" Harry asked distrustfully.
"The Black's library once contained a large quantity of books about dark magic," Snape said without raising his eyes. No need to provoke the brat any further. "Original and very precious documents which I was hoping to find."
"And what for, exactly?" the boy continued.
At that moment only did the professor raise his eyes to meet Harry's, his expression so anxious that the young man was momentarily thrown off.
"Please, master, allow me to decline answering that question."
Harry opened his mouth to answer, but he was interrupted by Hermione who chose that moment to put a hand on his shoulder.
"Leave him, Harry. He cannot lie, don't make him keep talking as well. Professor, is this information important for us to know?" she asked, turning to the man in black.
"No Miss Granger," he answered, his eyes to the floor again.
Hermione turned to Harry and shrugged her shoulders with a slight smile.
"Very well," the young man groused. Actually, he was feeling rather nauseous now. All that had transpired, the way the professor had to bend his head, his slumped shoulders, this toneless voice... it felt all wrong. For a second, he wished he was faced with the potion master he had always known: sarcastic, cutting... he shook his head. No. No, he didn't want that, especially after what just happened. "Do you have anything else in this vein?" he asked sharply, showing the letter and the picture.
"No Master," the slave answered. "Only a few books of little value from your parents' library."
Master. Harry considered tell Snape not to use that word, but... changed his mind. Why not, after all? That was what he was now, whether he liked it or not.
"Where are they? The books, I mean?"
Snape hesitated for a second before answering reluctantly.
"I transferred them, as well as everything else I owned, to a house I bought a few years ago in Devon."
"Bought?" Hermione asked, surprised. "I thought slaves couldn't own anything?"
She blushed, realizing what she had said, but tried not to show her embarrassment.
"That is true," Snape confirmed. "I got help from Dumbledore for that. The papers were done under a fake name, which would have been necessary anyway. It is a muggle property, unknown to the wizarding world."
"And what money did you buy it with?" Harry asked skeptically.
"One year of wages in advance, as well as the money the Potters left me," Snape explained. "When I belonged to your parents, James Potter created a system for selling potions that worked remarkably well. At Lily's request, half of the profits were given to me, and I was able continue after I went to Hogwarts. Also, the house was very cheap, as it was but a ruin when I came into its possession. The place is perfectly habitable today though, I have spent considerable time there in the past few years."
"Then why didn't you take us here when the Death Eater attacked at the wedding?" Harry exploded. "What, you were afraid we would invade your private space?"
Snape shook his head, visibly annoyed.
"It is just an old, muggle, stone house, without any particular protection aside from basic spells, Mr. Potter. This place, on the other hand, is protected by Fidelius, a spell far more powerful than the simply muggle-repellants I placed on Mist Shack."
"Mist Shack? Is it its name?" Harry sneered.
"Albus' idea," the professor said, fighting to contain his irritation.
"Never mind," the young man finally said. "I suppose we'll be fine here anyways. But I'll keep it in mind. Though... who does the house belong to, now that Dumbledore is dead?"
"It's yours," Snape said. "As well as everything inside it."
"Mmm. I don't know what I would do with it. Anyway, don't go back there without telling me first. I want to know where you are."
The voice of the professor was weary, empty of his previous annoyance. Actually, Harry noticed, his eyes were unseeing, his mind obviously some place far away. At Mist Shack, probably. Well, that didn't sit well with him...
"You will keep guard tonight," he said. Then, under the force of Hermione's glare, he added: "For a few hours at least; I want to ensure that we are safe here. If all seems clear at one in the morning, go to sleep. If you have any doubts, wake me up. Do you need anything?"
Snape shook his head negatively. The only thing he wanted right now was to be alone, far away from these excitable teenagers, and especially far away from his overly sensitive master.
It was a bit late to start searching the house again. But once the brats were asleep... Potter hadn't forbidden him from continuing to search for the books, after all. A crucial mistake, really. The boy still had a lot to learn...
Tonight, he would resume his search. The manuscripts had to be here, he knew it... and he wasn't about to let Potter get his hands on them.
No one besides him would get a chance to see them. He would personally make sure of that.
Ahhhh don't you love to hate Harry, eh?
A lot of thanks to Dash11 as usual! And to you all for your reviews, that's the best motivation for writing and translating indeed!