A/N: *Pops out of the snow! (like daisies!)*
*offers you hugs and a new chapter*
*slithers away to write more*
As soon as her feet hit the floor, Hermione wrenched her wrist free of Snape's grasp, back-pedaling away from him and training her wand on him.
"Don't you dare," she warned him, her eyes narrowed. "Not now. Not you."
He narrowed his eyes on her in return, but he didn't go for his wand, despite her threatening stance.
"I say! Is that Miss Granger?" a familiar voice intruded over the sound of her hammering heart and the blood rushing in her ears as everything she knew about this man filled her mind.
He was dark. He was a Death Eater. He'd killed Albus Dumbledore. He'd kissed her…
"So, this is what you think of me," Snape practically purred, ignoring the portraits, though his tone was deadly and cold and made the hair on the back of her neck standing at attention.
"Miss Granger, so wonderful to see you!" another voice said, and Hermione darted a look that way, though distraction might prove deadly, before realizing with a dazed blink that he'd brought her to the Headmaster's office.
Professor Dumbledore's portrait smiled widely, his blue eyes twinkling over his half-moon spectacles while he gave her a little wave in greeting.
"P-professor Dumbledore," Hermione frowned, her wand lowering a little before her eyes flicked back to Snape.
"What have you done to the poor girl, Severus?" Dumbledore demanded though he sounded no less chipper. "She seems poised to hex you, my boy."
"Evidently she is under the impression that I'll be hauling her off to the Dark Lord, gift wrapped with two of his Horcruxes," Snape drawled, turning his back on her despite the wand trained on him.
He crossed the room to a liquor decanter and poured two glasses before turning back to look at her stonily.
"Well, you did kill me, my boy," Dumbledore offered reasonably. "She has little reason to trust you."
Snape didn't contradict the portrait, but Hermione could tell from the look on his face that he rather thought he'd given her a number of reasons to trust him, and if she wasn't mistaken, she suspected he was a little annoyed and maybe even a little offended that she doubted him in a single moment of turmoil.
"Do you plan to lower your wand, or will you proceed with hexing my bollocks off, Miss Granger?"
"Here, Snape, you can't say bollocks to a student," the portrait of Headmaster Dippet scolded him.
"She's not a student," Snape replied, never taking his eyes off her. "Miss Granger is nothing more than a high-school drop-out."
Hermione scowled at him, thinking about hexing him just for good measure.
"Why have you detained me?" she demanded.
"You have in your possession two Horcruxes, and I have in mine a school on high alert for an invader and several violent Death Eaters stalking the halls searching for you," he answered. "You won't be wandering through their midst with two of the darkest and most precious items currently known to wizard-kind where they might fall into the wrong hands before they can be properly destroyed."
"You found it?" Dumbledore asked. "Did you say two?"
"The cup and the diadem," Snape supplied, sparing the portrait a glance.
"Destroy them!" Dumbledore commanded. "Quickly. The sooner the better. What are you waiting for, Miss Granger? Were both here, in the school?"
"Only one," Snape filled the man in quickly. "The other was already in her possession because she and Potter lacked the weapons with which to destroy the cup."
"What happened to the sword of Gryffindor?"
"Griphook made off with it amid the fray getting out of Gringotts," Hermione sighed, lowering her wand and dropping tiredly into one of the chairs before the Headmaster's desk, accepting the glass of fire-whiskey when Snape brought it over and offered it to her wordlessly.
"She detoured via the Chamber of Secrets for Basilisk fangs when she arrived," Snape told Dumbledore, and Hermione sighed again, sipping the whiskey liberally and coughing at the burn of it in her throat, rather thinking she'd have preferred a cup of tea.
"Winky?" Snape called quietly, and the small female elf appeared in their midst, pulling on the corner of one of her enormous, bat-like ears nervously.
"Master called?" she asked worriedly before spotting Hermione.
The elf had never liked her when Hermione had led her campaign to free the house-elves from perceived enslavement, but when she spotted her, Winky perked up, waving at Hermione in greeting and bowing a little.
"Miss Granger has missed dinner," Snape said before frowning at Hermione. "Has missed most of her dinners all year, by the looks of her, Winky. Do what you can to remedy the situation, including a pot of tea."
"At once, sir," the elf bowed deeply, looking Hermione over critically as she did so before disappearing with a soft pop.
"There's no time for dinner," Hermione protested. "There are Horcruxes to kill. I need to get back to Harry and Ron so we can destroy them."
"You'll be destroying them here," Snape countered.
"What? No, I won't. I told the boys I wouldn't destroy them alone because it's dangerous. What would you have me do? Tell them that you helped me? They both still think you're a murderer."
"Miss Granger, do you know how long I have been fighting to take down the Dark Lord?" Snape asked her baldly, eyeing her over the rim of his whiskey glass. "Do you know the horrors I have endured to bring about his end?"
"I… well, no, not really," Hermione frowned. "But that doesn't change that fact that…"
He cut her off.
"It is highly likely – so high as to hazard a guess at it being ninety-nine percent likely – that I will die at the Dark Lord's hand before Potter defeats him if the idiot boy manages to defeat him at all," Snape interrupted her. "As such, after all the blood, sweat, and tears I have paid to bring about his end, I think I deserve to put a stop to at least one fragment of his demented soul, don't you?"
"I can hardly return to the boys having destroyed both Horcruxes without giving them a story about who might've helped me," Hermione argued. "Would you have me give away your secret to Harry and Ron that you killed the Headmaster on his orders and have been working this entire time to bring down the dark from the inside when the two of them might still end up in the hands of the enemy where sacrificing your secret might save their skins?"
Snape's eyes lifted to Dumbledore, but the portrait was silently, offering no guidance on the matter.
"Miss Granger, the Dark Lord's defeat hinges on three things," Snape said eventually, lowering his eyes back to her a taking a liberal gulp of his whiskey before setting down the glass and interlocking his fingers in an echo of the mentor he'd murdered so poignant, it almost hurt to see.
"First, the Horcruxes must be destroyed in the hope that when Potter faces the Dark Lord, he will be mortal," Snape held up one finger. "Second, the Dark Lord must murder me. And third, Potter must go to the Dark Lord to die without hope that it will achieve anything more than the empty promise that the Dark Lord will withdraw once Harry is dead."
"Why must he murder you?" Hermione frowned.
"You did read The Tales of Beedle Bard bequeathed to you, did you not?" he asked dryly.
Hermione scowled at him.
"Of course, I did."
"And you have spent an inordinate amount of your youth secreted under the Invisibility Cloak, have you not?"
Hermione narrowed her eyes.
"A quantitively small portion, I would argue."
Snape rolled his eyes.
"Then you understand that the Deathly Hallows are more than just a children's story, don't you?"
"I hardly see how their debatable existence relates to the apparent necessity for your murder, sir," Hermione said, crossing her arms over her chest when she noticed that the very thought of this man dying made her hands shake.
"The Dark Lord, as I'm sure Potter has discovered, has been desperately seeking the Elder Wand, Miss Granger," Snape said.
Hermione raised her eyebrows waiting for more.
"Can you truly not figure out in whose possession it has been these past fifty-odd years?"
Hermione's brow furrowed before Snape eyes lifted to the portrait of Dumbledore and suddenly it all clicked together.
"I assume he already has it, then?" Hermione guessed, frowning deeply.
"Grave robbing was one of his lesser acts of evil," Snape inclined his head. "He is noticing, however, that the acts of magic he performs with it feel no more powerful and the wand is no more responsive than any other."
Hermione's heart sank.
"Because grave robbing doesn't constitute winning the wand," she nodded, putting her head in her hands.
"You know about the winning of wands and it's lore, Miss Granger?" Dumbledore's portrait asked her, sounding surprised.
"I wanted to know how magic wands worked in my first year," she said, her voice slightly muffled by her hands. "I wanted to know why some of the wands I tried at Olivander's worked okay, some terribly, and one, perfectly. I wanted to know what he meant and why the wand chooses the wizard."
"You studied it to death, as you do with all things, in other words," Snape summed up for her, sounding scornful but perhaps just a little bit proud.
"He's going to kill you because he's actually not as clever as he thinks and has no grasp of finesse. He's going to kill you because he thinks the touted Death Stick got its name based on a means of winning it, rather than it's bloodied and dark history," Hermione said. "And if what Harry said is true… he's going to kill you for nothing."
"Miss Granger," Dumbledore warned, and Snape's glass hit the desktop hard enough to chink, causing her to lift her head.
"What do you mean, for nothing?" Snape was frowning at her.
"Malfoy disarmed Professor Dumbledore that night on the Astronomy Tower, did he not?" Hermione confirmed, searching his suddenly pale face before twisting to look up at Dumbledore.
For the first time, he was frowning fiercely and looking very much like he didn't want her to continue, like Snape wasn't supposed to know this part of his multi-faceted plan.
"I killed him," Snape argued.
"But you didn't win the wand," Hermione said. "It had already been surrendered to another, and after so powerful a holder for so very long, a wand must assume the one powerful enough to take it to be it's new, true master."
"But I…" Snape's eyes lifted to Dumbledore and for a long moment he looked confused before his expression darkened with anger.
"You would have me die for nothing?" he growled at the old man. "After all I have done, all I have sacrificed, all I have endured, you would allow me to go to an early death believing it was the only way to end the Dark Lord when in actuality, it would only be for nothing?"
"Not for nothing," Dumbledore answered, his voice colder than Hermione had ever heard it. "As long as Tom believes you are the master of the Elder Wand, he will not turn his attention to Draco or Harry."
"Draco's not the master either, anymore," Hermione interrupted.
"What?" Dumbledore asked.
"You would have me die to protect that whelp?" Snape snarled.
"Miss Granger, what do you mean Draco's no longer it's master?"
"Harry wrestled a fistful of wands, including Draco's from him when we fled Malfoy Manor," Hermione said. "With his own wand broken in Godric's Hollow facing off against Nagini, Malfoy's has become a substitute wand for Harry. It works almost perfectly for him, despite the unicorn hair core being rumored to be terribly volatile."
"Potter is the master of the Elder Wand already?" Snape demanded.
"I would assume so. Harry overpowered Malfoy and took his wand. It wasn't the actual Elder Wand, obviously, but wandlore is nine-tenths meta-physical as opposed to literal."
Snape's face was murderous when he lifted his eyes back to Dumbledore.
"After all I have done," he hissed quietly. "All I have given you… still you would punish me for the mistakes of my youth?"
Dumbledore was silent for a long time – so long that the vein pulsing in Snape's forehead seemed fit to burst and he looked very much like he might set the portrait on fire.
"It is the only way to protect the children, Severus," Dumbledore said gently after what felt like a lifetime.
"FUCK THE CHILDREN!" Snape exploded, roaring furiously, hurling his whiskey glass at Dumbledore's portrait where the glass shattered. "I'VE GIVEN MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE TO THE IDIOTIC BLASTED CHILDREN BECAUSE YOU DEMANDED IT! I SACRIFICED EVERYTHING TO PROTECT THE FUCKING CHILDREN, AND STILL YOU WOULD PLOT MY DEATH, ALLOW MY NEEDLESS DEATH FOR NO REASON OTHER THAN… WHAT? PUNISHMENT THAT YOUR OWN FAILURE TO PROTECT ME AS A CHILD LANDED ME IN THE RANKS OF THE DEATH EATERS? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU, YOU COWARDLY, HATEFUL, CONNIVING, VINDICTIVE, MOTHERFUCKING CUNT!"
Hermione had never seen Snape so angry, as he continued hurling nearby objects from his desk at the portrait of the wizard who'd so manipulated and controlled such a large portion of his life.
He ranted for what felt like hours, shouting furiously about the things he'd endured, the crimes he'd committed and the blood he'd spilled on Dumbledore's orders. He screamed about the complicity he'd been forced to practice in order to play the role of dutiful spy for both sides, about the lives he'd seen destroyed, the people he'd seen murdered, the torture he'd personally endured every time Dumbledore had given him incorrect or useless information to feed back to the Death Eaters.
Winky popped into the room at one stage while he shouted, cringing and eyeing Hermione worriedly while the witch watched him rage, enraptured to see so controlled a man finally explode; shocked to see him so enraged about the intent to see him dead when she'd rather thought he'd welcome death, all things considered. When the elf noted that it wasn't Hermione being yelled at, she brought over her food, which Hermione cleverly conjured a TV tray to host the plates of food and pot of tea for herself, lest Snape snatch it off the desk as a missile to fling at Dumbledore's portrait.
She tucked into the food while he continued to shout, though she sensed that many of the things he was sharing were things he'd rather no one knew about as he detailed some of the things expected of him at something called a revel that sounded terribly demeaning to Hermione. At that point, when his breath stuck in his throat and he gagged a little from the memories, Hermione quietly rose from the desk and carried the tray of food up the stairs and through a door, realizing belatedly that she'd invaded his bedroom, but thinking it was better than staying down there. She didn't imagine he would calm down any time soon and she didn't think it would be taken favorably by him to have her know so many sordid and horrible details of his life up to that moment.
Curious about his private chambers, Hermione set down her tray of food but for a lamb chop bone she was happily gnawing on, and she helped herself to his quarters, taking in the dark, earthen tones of the space. The bed was unmade, she noted idly, wondering why the elves hadn't pulled it up, and every wall was lined with books and potions ingredients. A solitary window looked out over the Black Lake, though the curtain was pulled to partially obscure the view. On his night stand a heavy tome rested with a bookmark tucked inside and Hermione couldn't resist investigating what he was reading, crossing to pick it up and raising her eyebrows at the cover.
"A novel?" she asked, surprised.
A boring one, at that, by the sound of the blurb on the inside fold of the dust jacket. Maybe he used it as a means of getting to sleep because it sounded like the dullest book she'd ever picked up, and she'd read 1001 Magical Mushrooms from cover to cover, so that really was saying something.
Putting the book back down where she found it, Hermione helped herself to his bookshelves, though she didn't imagine he'd appreciate it, before crossing to the small settee so she could finish her dinner and read the tome she'd selected comfortably. Snape's muffled shouting could still be heard downstairs and she wondered how much anger and hatred for the old man he must be releasing that he still had so much to shout about.
After a while, the shouting stopped, replaced by a knock at the door, before two familiar female voices invaded.
"How dare you allow those students to end up in such a state," Poppy Pomfrey screeched at Snape. "Broken bones. Internal bleeding. Cuts and bruises and prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus curse. It's a miracle they're not dead, and I won't stand for it, Snape! You hear me! I've patched you up enough times to know you know what those poor children are enduring, and still, you condone it."
"This is despicable, Snape," Minerva McGonagall piled on. "The Carrows have got to go and so help me Merlin, if you don't remove them, I'll do it myself. If they lay one more finger on a student within the walls of this school, I will rain down upon them every conceivable pain I can conjure, and you along with them, young man. How dare you!"
"How dare I?" she heard Snape growl, and Hermione winced, thinking the two well-meaning witches had the worst timing known to wizardkind. "Is that what you said? How dare I assign them detentions with Hagrid, rather than Filch or the Carrows? How dare I take away house point, rather than their fingers or their tongues? Who the fuck do you two imagine you're talking to?"
"Just because you've shown your true colors and reverted to the cold-hearted shit I always knew you to be, doesn't give you the right…" Professor McGonagall roared before a deafening boom sounded from downstairs.
Horrified, Hermione dropped her book and scrambled to her feet, dashing down the stairs without concern for herself and charging back into the office only to find Snape had evidently picked up the tall-backed Headmaster's chair and flung it across the room where it slammed into the heavy wood of the office door and splintered. McGonagall and Pomfrey were cringing out of the trajectory the chair had taken, and Snape was breathing heavily and looking murderous before his eyes fell on Hermione.
"Stupefy!" he snarled at both elder witches, watching them crumple to the floor before narrowing his eyes on Hermione. "Get back upstairs and out of sight this instant."
"But…" she began but the look he gave her was so frightening that Hermione bit her tongue on her protests and turned on her heels, hurrying back up the stairs to his chambers without another word.
She'd never seen him so angry.
Not even when Harry provoked him had he been this angry. Not even when he and Sirius roared at each other in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place had he been this furious. At this very moment, Severus Snape was a man at his wit's end. All out of spoons, her mother would have said. Out of fucks to give, her father would have muttered. And if half of the things she'd heard him say were true, she couldn't blame him that he had finally snapped.
The idea that Dumbledore planned to let him die thinking he was being self-sacrificing for the greater good when in actuality it was quite literally for nothing much of anything was hideous. That the same man had insisted Harry also needed to surrender to a heroic death for vague reasons suggested that perhaps the man had just lost his marbles. If Harry did surrender himself and die without a fight, Voldemort wouldn't magically call off his army. It wouldn't halt the wheels of war. They would simply be dealt a devastating blow and reel from it long enough to allow the Death Eaters to win. Was that what Dumbledore wanted? Had he secretly been on their side all along?
Hermione jumped when the door was flung open with a muted bang, startled from her musing where she paced nervously back and forth across Snape's bedroom, wringing her hands together. Snape stood framed in the doorway, positively seething as he narrowed his eyes on her before he stalked inside and slammed the door. Hermione gulped nervously as it closed, feeling rather suddenly like a mouse trapped in a cage with a hungry tiger.
"What did you do with them?" Hermione asked nervously wondering what he'd done to be rid of the witches who'd come shouting at him.
"Afraid I've killed them?" he sneered hatefully, looking very much like he wanted someone else to yell at and was only too willing to let it be her.
"Of course not," Hermione frowned. "I just wondered how you'd gotten rid of them. You did get rid of them, didn't you? They're not still crumpled, unconscious on the floor in your office down there?"
"They've been obliviated," he huffed. "And removed from my office. Winky has returned them to their chambers to sleep off the effects."
"What were you doing up here?" he demanded.
"Pacing?" Hermine guessed. "Eating. And trying to read."
She pointed to the tome she'd abandoned to rush downstairs earlier. He curled his lip, obviously displeased that she'd helped herself to his quarters, but he didn't say anything.
Instead, he ran an agitated hand through his inky black hair, looking away from her and obviously trying to control his temper.
"You're sure that Potter is technically already the master of the Elder Wand?" he confirmed, his voice quiet and controlled once more as though he'd reined all of his anger in and trapped it behind an impenetrable wall within himself. Hermione wondered how he managed it and supposed it must be one of the many skills imparted along with the mastery of Occlumency and Legilimency.
"I think so," Hermione nodded. "Without Harry actually possessing the wand, we can't be sure, but everything I've read suggests that the wand of any wizard relinquishes control to the more powerful being within any duel. Were you and I to duel now, I have no doubt you would technically be the master of my wand, for a time. Typically most wands are made not to be quite so temperamental and they do pick the wizard based on compatibility of magical core within the wand to the magical core within the wizard. The Elder Wand, as the only one of its kind and as a significantly more powerful instrument, would, I assume, retain loyalty to whomsoever wins it until they are defeated. If, for example, Harry and Ron were to break into a fierce duel in my absence and Ron managed to disarm Harry, the Elder Wand's mastery would, I suspect, transfer to Ron."
"Everything in the history of the wand suggests death is the only way to transfer mastery of the Death Stick," Snape argued.
"Likely because in most instances where the wand was won throughout the ages, it was achieved via murder," Hermione nodded. "I suspect, even, that the wand must be won in battles where lives are at stake. When Malfoy took Professor Dumbledore's wand that night, he had been tasked to kill him, had he not?"
"You're suggesting Potter and Malfoy faced off to the death?" Snape frowned.
"A circumstance of it, yes," Hermione nodded. "Had Harry not wrestled those wands from Malfoy at Malfoy Manor that day, we would have died. And I expect, were it to have truly boiled down to a fight to the death, Harry would've fought it against Malfoy and won."
"Then there is no reason I would need to die to facilitate Potter's victory," Snape said quietly.
"I should think not," Hermione nodded. "Though it calls into question the notion that if Dumbledore was willing to consign you to a needless death as part of his game of smoke and mirrors, can we truly rely on his word that Harry must face Vol… You-Know-Who alone and without fear of death?"
"That is more concrete in its reasoning," Snape allowed.
"More so than you needing to die? From what I can see, Dumbledore knew you weren't the master of the Elder Wand and wanted to let you die to make Vol… goodness, I mean, You-Know-Who… think he was the master of it. I can't imagine that if you were truly the master of it by merit of killing the man, that he would encourage you to lay down your life, thus granting Him the mastery of the wand. Unless Professor Dumbledore was a turncoat there is no logical reason that he would ever ask you to die and surrender the mastery of the wand to Him when he is the enemy."
"He's no turncoat," Snape sighed, running his hand through his hair again and crossing to drop down on the edge of his bed, looking bone-weary. "A sadistic cunt, but he was for the Light until the very end."
"Then why does Harry have to die?" Hermione asked.
"Because he's a Horcrux," Snape answered. "Dumbledore believes that if Potter elects to sacrifice his life for his friends, embracing Death as an old friend…. That the Horcrux will die and Potter will survive. Motherfucker!"
He snapped his fingers.
"What?" Hermione asked, a little shocked at his foul language but saying nothing of it, give his foul mood.
"He knew," Snape said, meeting her eyes. "He knew I wasn't the master of the Elder Wand. He counted on you figuring out it'd transferred to Draco, and on you and Potter doing whatever necessary to win that mastery from Draco. His plan hinges on the aptitude of teenagers and the willingness of a scared boy to die to save his friends. He thinks that if Potter is truly the master of the Death Stick and it has not been won from him, then Potter's soul will be protected from any magic performed by that wand. He thinks that when the Dark Lord casts the killing curse, the wand will detect both souls inhabiting Potter's body and destroy the imposter because it cannot be turned on its own master without first being won."
Hermione stared at him in mute horror.
"And though he expects it of Potter, he didn't trust that I would go to my own death willingly for little more than a lost cause. Smoke and mirrors, as you put it. The Dark Lord will eventually conclude that in order to take mastery of the wand – by his reckoning – he will have to murder me. Albus did not trust that I would allow him to do so simply for the sake of protecting Potter by keeping the wand's true mastery from the Dark Lord until they meet on the battlefield."
"Perhaps he imagined that in doing so it would prolong You-Know-Who's belief that he is the master of the wand," Hermione said, though the thought that the old man had been willing to sacrifice the self-same man he'd tasked to murder him bothered her immensely.
"Probably," Snape muttered. "Wretched prick."
Hermione bit her lip, supposing this wouldn't be the best time to mention that she needed to be going and that having him help destroy the Horcruxes in her possession would only arouse suspicion from the boys if she returned empty-handed. Picking at the remains of the hearty meal Winky had given her, thinking that she didn't know when she might next manage something so substantial, Hermione waited to see what Snape might do next. He was obviously still highly agitated, for he'd begun pacing back and forth across the width of the room.
"Sir," she said eventually. "I really need to be getting back to the boys… they'll have begun to worry by now."
And they had. The coin in her pocket had routinely been warming as they sent her correspondence asking after the location of the Horcrux and when she would be back.
"Not before they're destroyed," Snape said quietly, his pacing at an end when he moved over to stand before her, imposing as ever.
"As I've said, sir," Hermione began carefully. "Harry and Ron are expecting me with both Horcruxes, and I promise not to attempt destroying them alone given the dangerous nature of doing so. If I return having destroyed one or both in your presence, they will be suspicious. They will have questions. What can I tell them, but the truth, if you should help me? The risk to your cover would be exponential. Harry has no great love of you, and if I've learned anything about Ron Weasley during this endeavor, it's that he will choose himself over the wellbeing of another."
"He sold you out?" Snape frowned heavily.
Hermione sighed, shaking her head and lowering her eyes to her feet.
"The locket affected us all in various ways, whispering in our heads, feeding off our insecurities, and fueling them into anger and suspicion. His biggest insecurities surrounded a life spent in the shadow of his many brilliant brothers, and in the shadow of Harry Potter. The locket fed him lies about how I must surely prefer Harry and other such rot. He grew suspicious and then paranoid before blowing up at Harry one night when all our tempers were short. He didn't sell us out, but he did leave. Harry and I were on our own for months while Ron returned to the Burrow in hiding, trying to find a way back to us."
"Coward," Snape curled his lip hatefully.
"Such is the nature of the Horcruxes," Hermione sighed. "In any case, it would not do to allow him to think you might be working for the Order after all."
Snape scowled, looking like he very much wanted to say to hell with his cover and blow it all to pieces.
"I'm not so sure that would be such a bad thing. Not that it would be trusted in the hands of Weasley, however…" he frowned at her for a long moment before turning and pacing the length of the room again, crossing to the window and looking out over the grounds of the castle.
"You… Sir, are you thinking of revealing yourself? After everything?" Hermione asked quietly, shocked to think he might go against Dumbledore's plan, even if she really didn't want him to walk quietly to his death.
"I don't particularly want to die, Miss Granger," he confessed quietly without looking at her. "I had resigned myself to doing so for the cause, but if what you say is true and I would be dying in vain for something already achieved, then it makes no sense to simply lay my head upon the chopping block and wait for the axe to fall."
"But sir, everything you've worked for… everything you and Professor Dumbledore planned…"
"Dumbledore," he snarled. "Would have me pay with my life to protect an idiot boy whose father led him astray when his common sense should've told him to run. Why should I die so that Draco Malfoy doesn't have to?"
"Malfoy's not the master of the wand either," Hermione reminded him, frowning at his back as he continued peering out the window. She wondered if he was ashamed of his thoughts and his words as he considered saving his own skin rather than falling on the proverbial sword for a world that didn't exist.
"Potter is," Snape nodded.
"Yes," Hermione said. "But You-Know-Who is in possession of that wand. Do we really simply leave it all to chance that the nature of wandlore isn't fickle enough to count as the master of a wand being focused on possession, rather than… what? Honor? Metaphysics? Wandlore theory?"
"Potter needs to go before the Dark Lord to die, Miss Granger," Snape reminded her quietly, turning to look at her with ones of those blank expressions that gave away none of his thoughts she so recalled from lessons under his tutelage when he daren't praise her for a potion well brewed.
"To destroy the Horcrux," Hermione nodded. "Yes, you said as much downstairs."
"There has always been every chance that even with the wand owing allegiance to him, Potter would have to face death with no guarantee of survival to destroy the Horcrux," Snape said quietly. "It may be nothing more than one of Albus's pipe dreams. More often than not, the only way to destroy a parasite – and a Horcrux is little more than that when placed inside another living thing – is to destroy the host."
"So Harry has to die, either way," Hermione said, her chin quivering as her lower lip trembled.
"Probably," he sighed, nodding.
"But, then… what… what's the point?" she asked. "The prophecy states that neither can live while the other survives. If Harry goes to him and lays down to die, there is no one left to vanquish him…"
"Don't be so naïve, Granger," Snape rolled his eyes in disgust. "Did you imagine all this with the Horcruxes was for nothing? When Potter goes to the Dark Lord ready to lay down his life for a doomed cause, the Dark Lord will be very much mortal."
"But the prophecy…" Hermione interrupted.
"Prophecies are folly, you daft girl. I thought you, of all people, understood that. You, who stormed out of Trelawney's class after calling her and her craft little more than fraud. You truly imagine that if Potter dies, the Dark Lord will… what? Simply live forever? That no other form of death will ever claim him? He will be mortal, Granger, and if he's mortal, there are myriad ways he could reach an abrupt end."
"He's one of the most powerful magical beings alive," Hermione reminded him.
"But still human," Snape pointed out. "There are a thousand ways he could go. Poisoned wine. A spider bite. Crushed to death by a giant. Stomped by a hippogriff. He could trip and fall and crack his head on the corner of a desk and die. He would be extremely susceptible, as we all are, to the Killing Curse."
"And who's going to throw it at him?" Hermione scoffed. "I'm certainly not quick enough. Ron's not. Moody's dead. Dumbledore's dead. Harry would be dead…"
"I'm quick enough," he said quietly. "Since adolescence, I have faced off against far worse odds and lived. Four on one gang-dueling hones the senses, you know?"
"Yes, well," Hermione sighed. "I don't believe you've faced those four in a duel since you left Hogwarts as a student, have you?"
He narrowed his eyes at her implication.
"I am quick enough," he reiterated.
"And he would see you coming," Hermione pointed out. "He means to kill you for the mastery of the wand, remember? Either you face him and let him kill you; you face him and best him while he still has Horcruxes in play and could rise again to hunt you down; or you turn on him now, before he can attempt your murder, and he will know your allegiance is with the light and try all the harder to kill you. I'm sure I don't need to remind you, professor, what becomes of those Death Eaters who turn on their master or try to flee. I heard from Bellatrix in between rounds of torture what they did to Karkaroff…"
Snape's scowl deepened hatefully, and he looked like he wanted to snap at her, obviously frustrated.
"I can understand your yearning to destroy a piece of his soul," Hermione said gently. "If even a tenth of the things you shouted at Professor Dumbledore about are true, then Merlin knows, I can sympathize with the urge to rip him to pieces."
"You cannot begin to fathom," he corrected her.
"But you risk everything if you help me destroy them now," she went on as though he hadn't interrupted. "If nothing else, placement still among his ranks protects some of the others until such time as the last two Horcruxes can be destroyed – protecting the students here from any additional torture without some kind of intervention. What's more, if by some miracle you manage to avoid having him kill you for the sake of winning the wand – don't curl your lip, I'm certain you could think of a way to reason with him about it – you would be perfectly placed among his ranks to fire the killing curse when the time comes if Harry doesn't survive to do it himself. Even if you truly are quick enough, it couldn't hurt to also have the element of surprise on your side."
He glared at her, obviously seeing the sense of her words, even if he didn't like them. Hermione wondered what he would do. He couldn't very well simply turn his back on the Death Eaters now and have it all be for nothing. Could he?
Hermione's heart turned over in her chest suddenly at the thought that if he did, she might very well convince him to come along with her back to Harry and Ron. Would he risk it? Would he subject himself to such unpleasantness? After all, Harry might've been convinced by Hermione's arguments that Snape could very well be innocent, but Ron would not be so easy to persuade. Ron had very strict morals about what was right and what was wrong, and murder was definitely in the wrong column, no matter whose orders it was one and how it might've benefitted the greater good and the very man being murdered.
What was more, if it was revealed that Hermione and Harry's reason for trusting Snape was still on their side was because he'd saved her life and kissed her, Ron would probably try to kill Professor Snape himself, out of pure spite.
"There is another option," Snape interrupted her thoughts of how such a confrontation might go were she to return to the rendezvous point with this dark wizard in tow.
"Oh?" Hermione challenged, raising her eyebrows at him doubtfully.
"If you were to claim that you were attacked whilst fleeing the school – having triggered the alarms as you did and having been hunted by the staff and students as you have been – it could be argued that they were destroyed in the melee," Snape pointed out.
"The only attack that would result in their destruction would be the use of Fiendfyre," Hermione pointed out. "Unless I'm to invent some lie about attempting to stab my assailants with pilfered Basilisk fangs? Or make up some tall tale about the items almost being confiscated and being forced to stab them to keep them out of enemy hands?"
"Say you had to flee into the Forbidden Forest on foot when the gates to the school were locked down – which they still are, by the way – and were set upon by Acromantula as you fled?" he proposed a scenario. "With Aragog dead, the forest has become hazardous even for Hagrid due to the hostile Arcomantula population. It would be perfectly reasonable that your only course for escape might be possible with the use of Fiendfyre, which you have already confessed you know how to summon, but not to control."
"But I would never…" Hermione began.
"And," Snape went on speaking, raising his voice over her interruption. "You have a history of doing so as a means of self-defense, as I'm certain Potter can vouch for given the tale Fenrir Greyback told of his group of Snatchers hunting you in the Forest of Dean. You have already used it as a means of self-defense once and against far less threatening opponents."
"And the boys are supposed to believe that while being pursued by Acromantula – the likes of which were in such abundance I felt the need to summon Fiendfyre to fight off – I just… what? Stopped to toss the Horcruxes in while I was on my way back to them."
"It would be a perfectly logical explanation," Snape pointed out. "I assume the only reason you haven't already utilized it as a means for destroying the cup is that you can't control it and don't wish to needlessly destroy a large portion of the world?"
Hermione bit her lip, nodding. "I saw what became of the Forest of Dean after I set the blaze there," she admitted. "When I was raiding a muggle village for some supplies, I saw the papers about how the forest had been all but destroyed before they got the fire put out. I didn't want to cause such devastation again…"
"But you would if faced with hundreds of enormous spiders, wouldn't you?" he confirmed.
"Harry and Ron would know if it was a lie," she pointed out. "Something like that would get out if it actually happened – especially if it happened on school grounds."
Snape shrugged. "I am not opposed to utilizing the fire to actually be rid of some of those wretched spiders," he confessed. "They're growing bolder as the Dark Lord's influence grows. It won't be long before they begin scuttling out of the forest and snatching students if they are left unchecked."
"But Acromantula are protected," she reminded him. "They're an endangered species."
Snape rolled his eyes. "I'm already guilty of murder, Miss Granger," he reminded her. "I think that if I can continue on as headmaster despite murdering my predecessor, it's safe to assume that I won't be reprimanded or imprisoned for eradicating spiders. Particularly if I suggest doing so was in an attempt to safeguard the school and the students."
"You Know Who will know I was here if we do this," she said. "He'll know we took the Horcrux…"
"I'm certain he already knows you're here," Snape said bluntly. "It was my duty to report it to him when the alarm was breached. I'm surprised he hasn't shown up in person in the hopes of flushing out Potter."
"You think he would?" Hermione's eyes widened.
"There's been no noted activity of you since you tripped the alarm this morning since I haven't seen fit to tell anyone you're here," Snape shrugged. "They're all still searching, but after more than twelve hours, I think they all assume it's a waste of time. I'll keep them at it throughout the night or until you agree to set the forest ablaze during your 'escape'."
Hermione wondered how he could sound so blasé about potentially killing hundred of animals if they set the forest ablaze.
"The creatures…" she said quietly, uncomfortable at the thought of killing anything if she didn't have to. The spiders, she might be willing to let die because they were creepy and dangerous, but there would undoubtedly be other creatures impacted by such a fire.
"Do not forget that unlike you, I can contain Fiendfrye, Miss Granger," he reminded her quietly. "I can protect the forest as much as possible while killing a few spiders and destroying a few Horcruxes."
"And when they fight back?"
"The spiders?" he raised an eyebrow.
"The Horcruxes. They don't take kindly to destruction."
"I have seen the embodied version of the Dark Lord up close and personal, Miss Granger," he reminded her quietly. "Believe me, there is little that a dismembered fragment of his soul could do to harm me compared to the man himself."
Hermione doubted it, but she could see that his mind was made up.
"You really want to proceed with such a plan?" she asked.
He simply held her gaze and waited for her cooperation.
Hermione sighed, shaking her head but letting her shoulders sag in defeat. It would be fine. She would spin the story for the boys as he'd described it and they would believe it if she and Snape made it the truth.
"Shall we proceed to the forest, then?" she asked.
Snape's expression never changed, but he looked rather like he was relieved.
"First," he held up a finger. "Winky?"
The elf returned, still looking a little nervous, but smiling again when she spotted Hermione.
"Prepare as much food as possible that will keep for a decent time and store it such that Miss Granger can transport it," he instructed the elf. "She needs to feed herself and two ravenous companions for as long as possible."
"At once, master," Winky nodded, disappearing to complete the task.
"Thank you," Hermione said softly, pleased at the thoughtfulness. "Harry and Ron will be thrilled to be able to eat something that isn't wild mushrooms."
Snape curled his lip.
"It's the least I can do to ensure the three of you live long enough to see the Dark Lord vanquished, rather than starving to death," he muttered, turning away and going to the bookshelf lining the far wall.
Hermione watched him trailed long fingers over the many spines before he located a book and plucked it from the shelf.
"Second," he said, turning back to her. "Take this and study it as much as possible in the days leading up to whatever plan you mean to enact to destroy Nagini."
Hermione took it, wondering what hope he thought she would have to try to undo the effects of a blood curse in the middle of a war and why it was prudent to face off against a dirty great snake. She didn't ask, knowing how he felt about her inquisitive nature, and simply tucked the book into her beaded bag along with everything else.
"Anything else?" she asked a little sarcastically when the book was safely secured in her possession.
"Yes," Snape said seriously. "Explain why you kissed me in Cokeworth."
Hermione's head snapped up at his forthright and demanding tone, her stomach somersaulting and her heart clenching that he wanted to discuss this now, of all times.
"Um…" She stammered unintelligibly, scrambling for an answer; trying to think of something to say that wouldn't land her in trouble and wouldn't involve admitting that she'd been imagining a myriad of tawdry things about the man since he'd saved her life.
Hermione cleared her throat, her cheeks warming more and more by the minute before she blurted out the first thing that popped into her head that wouldn't involve admitting to her feelings.
"Why did you kiss me back?"