"Professor Snape?"

Snape glanced up from his grading and paused.

"Yes, Miss Granger?"

"May I come in?" she asked. "I have a question for you."

Snape rolled his eyes. "Seeing as it is office hours…"

Hermione flushed and thanked him, closing the door behind her.

The wooden chair in front of his desk was the same as ever, and she mourned the fact that she'd grown too tall to swing her legs from it like she'd been able to her first year. She sighed, shuffling her feet on the ground anyway, and Snape cleared his throat, making Hermione's eyes fly up to his.

"Am I just to presume I'll intuit your question telepathically?" he said dryly. "Or are you going to remember you need to speak to communicate?"

Hermione flushed.

"It's—hard," she said, a moment later. "I want to talk to you and ask you something, but I can't figure out a metaphor or accurate comparison to use."

Snape rolled his eyes. "Miss Granger—"

"And I'm scared," Hermione admitted. "I'm scared to just talk to you plainly, to tell you the truth."

"Scared?" Snape's eyes glittered, a slight scowl on his lips. "Miss Granger, as snide as I might be in class, I did not think you, of all Slytherins, would be one to be afraid of me."

"I'm not scared of you," Hermione said quietly. "I'm scared of disappointing you."

There was a silence.

"Hermione."

She looked up, meeting her teacher's eyes, which had softened.

"The fact you are coming to me directly to discuss your concerns is a credit to your maturity and mark in your favor," he said, his voice gentle. "Whatever you have done, whatever you need to ask – I will not judge you for it. I am here to help you and help you grow, not castigate you for your failures as you learn."

"Rationally, I know that," Hermione said. "It's just… it's hard to admit a failure this big to you."

Snape raised an eyebrow, and Hermione took a deep breath.

"I cast Dark magic," she blurted out. "I cast Dark magic, thinking I could make it not Dark through my intentions, but I couldn't, it didn't work that way, and now I don't know what to do to make sure I don't keep doing it and become a Dark witch and turn evil and bad."

Snape stared at her, and Hermione clapped her hands to her mouth, mortified.

"I—I didn't mean for it to come out like that," she said, her face coloring.

"Oh, really?" Snape said, a dark amusement tinging his tone. "And here I thought word vomit was the most effective way of communicating and controlling one's words."

Hermione glanced up at him, but Snape seemed mildly amused.

"Take a deep breath," he advised her, "and try again."

Hermione did so, steadying her heart and words.

"I cast Dark magic," she confessed. "And now I don't know what to do."

There was a silence. Snape's dark eyes bored into hers.

"Why?" he asked softly.

Hermione blew out air from her lips in frustration.

"Because I thought I could and get away with it, I guess," she admitted. "I was arrogant. I assumed that if I cast a Dark spell with good intentions, that I would be able to do it without it being Dark magic."

Snape raised an eyebrow.

"And it did not work that way?" he inquired.

"No," Hermione said, looking at the floor. "It did not."

The office was quiet for a long moment, silent save for the scuffing of Hermione's feet upon the floor.

"I'd never done it before, not really," Hermione said. "And it—it was intoxicating. It was such a rush, the feeling of power and control. I understand why people say the Dark Arts are seductive, now. It was…" She swallowed. "…It was a lot."

She looked up, meeting his eyes.

"I had originally planned to avoid Dark magic entirely," she said. "But now that I've stepped onto that slope, I don't know how to keep from slipping down it further and further. And—I thought you might know how to help me stop from becoming a Dark witch."

Snape had been silent while she spoke, his face smooth and neutral. Once she finished, he regarded her silently for a moment, before letting out a long sigh.

"Ease your shame, Hermione," he said. "You are not the first Slytherin to come into my office having accidentally fallen to the Dark Arts, nor will you be the last."

Hermione relaxed a little bit into her chair, and Snape leaned back in his, watching her.

"So, you have cast Dark Magic, and you want to make sure you do not become a terrible and fearsome Dark Lady," Snape summed up. He raised an eyebrow. "Or is Dark Lady in the cards, now?"

"No!" Hermione objected. "It's not!"

"Then why," Snape said, "do you think you will suddenly become one?"

Hermione bit her lip.

"Because it felt good," she admitted. "The rush… the power… I could see how it could be addictive. I want to do it again." She looked up at him. "But casting Dark magic over and over again seems like a good way to accidentally become Dark."

Snape looked at her carefully.

"When I was your age, but a little older," he told her, "I, too, first cast Dark magic."

Hermione gasped. "You did?"

"I did," Snape confirmed with a small sigh. "We are all young and stupid, once, and I, too, in my arrogance, thought I could resist the lure of the Dark Arts while still casting Dark magic to suit my whims."

"What happened?" Hermione asked, eyes wide.

Snape eyed her sideways.

"The Dark Arts are seductive, Miss Granger," he told her. "What do you think happened?"

Hermione was astonished.

"You—" she faltered. "Did you—are you—"

"I am fine now," Snape told her, his tone gentle. "But there was a long time I was not."

There was a heavy silence.

"The urge is still there," Snape said, his voice quiet. "The temptation is there every single day. And yet, I resist it. It calls to me, constantly, but I ignore its call."

"How?" Hermione wanted to know. "If you used the Dark Arts so much—if you felt them—"

"I have something more to live for, now," Snape said. "I had to find a cause greater than myself, a connection to hold me to this world so I was not lost in darkness."

"You did?" Hermione asked. "What?"

"My students," Snape said simply. "You."

Hermione was wordless, and Snape's lips gave her the ghost of a smile.

"Teaching Potions is often trying and tedious," he said. "I've longed for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position – something I'd much prefer – but regardless of what I'm teaching, I'm the Head of Slytherin, where I'm able to help students like you." He smirked. "The ambitious always come to Slytherin. By being able to play advisor, I'm able to help others like you."

"And that's enough?" Hermione asked. "Being able to help people is enough to keep you from using Dark magic again?"

"It is for me," Snape said. He considered her. "Miss Granger, have you ever heard of Rat Park?"

Hermione was taken aback. "What?"

Snape smiled thinly.

"Back in the 1970s, there was a muggle psychologist who ran a series of experiments on rats to understand the nature of addiction," he told her. "He would put a rat in a cage, and he would offer it two water bottles: one filled with water, and the other water laced with heroin or cocaine. And the rats would all repetitively drink from the drug-laced bottles until they all overdosed."

Hermione was horrified. "And they just all… died?"

"They did," Snape confirmed. His eyes sharpened. "The muggle doctor, however, had a theory. He wondered if his experiment was about the drug, or if his results might be related to the setting the rats were in."

"The... setting?" Hermione echoed.

"So he set about creating Rat Park," Snape continued. "Instead of one rat in one cage, isolated with water bottles, he created a rat utopia, where there were lots of rats and lots of tubes and toys in large cage, where they were free to roam and play and socialize and mate. And they were given the same access to the same two types of drug-laced bottles." He arched an eyebrow. "What do you think happened this time?"

"Um," Hermione said. "Did the rats stage little interventions when one of them got too addicted to the cocaine water?"

Snape snorted despite himself.

"They did not," he said. "Overwhelmingly, the rats preferred the plain water. And even when they did imbibe from the drug-filled bottle, they did so intermittently, not obsessively, and they never overdosed. Never."

Hermione was fascinated.

"A social community beat the power of drugs," Snape murmured. "Quite literally – the power of friendship saved their lives."

Snape looked reflective, staring off into space somewhat, lost in memory.

"I was a very isolated child in Hogwarts," he said quietly. "I did not have many friends, and when I lost the one friend I had in my O.W.L. year, I did not handle it gracefully. The Dark Arts are powerful and seductive, and they offered my tortured teenage self a respite from the angst of ordinary life." He smiled thinly. "I am not proud of it. It took years to tear myself free. I tell you this only so you do not follow my folly."

His eyes refocused on hers, and Hermione sat up a little bit straighter.

"You, Miss Granger, are better positioned than I ever was to resist the Dark Arts' lure," he told her.

"I am?" Hermione asked.

"You have friends," Snape commented, raising an eyebrow. "You have several different groups of them, even, and close bonds amongst your house mates. More than that, you have a coven, who will be able to feel if you taint your magic too much and begin to fall. Their strength will bolster you and support you, even when you are tempted and feel weak."

Hermione relaxed into her chair.

"So you were the poor rat trapped alone in a cage," she mused, "while I'm more like a rat in Rat Park."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "Indeed."

Hermione took a deep breath and let it out, smiling slightly.

"I feel a lot better," she told him. "If I need to learn to rely on my friends in order to avoid the Dark Arts, then I'll learn to open up more and rely on them. I don't want to become a Dark witch."

"As your Head of House, I highly support this course of action," Snape said dryly, and Hermione laughed.

"I bet," she teased.

"Still," Snape said. "I am curious. You were so determined to avoid the Dark Arts entirely for fear of falling prey to them. What Dark magic did you do by accident, thinking you could alter its nature through your intentions?"

"Oh," Hermione said. "I thought if I wanted to destroy something utterly but for good reasons, it wouldn't be that bad—"

"Destroy something utterly?" Snape's eyes went wide, and his jaw hung open, aghast.

"Not like that!" Hermione said hurriedly. "I wasn't trying to use an Unforgiveable or anything! I was only trying to learn Fiendfyre—"

"Only learning Fiendfyre?" Snape was horrified, his voice strangled. "Miss Granger—"

He broke off, rubbing his temples and clenching his eyes shut tightly. When he reopened them, Hermione gave him a nervous smile, and she could see one of his eyes twitch, like a tiny blood vessel was about to burst.

"How about we start from the beginning," he said, his voice calm though his face was twisted up in a tight grimace. "Let's start with why you are wanting to learn Fiendfyre, shall we?"

Hermione swallowed hard.

"Well," she said weakly. "It all started on the train…"