LL Chapter 11

A/N: normal disclaimer, not mine, blah blah. Also, a bit shorter than last time. And a bit faster pace with some actual information! *gasp!* We’re moving along, people! Please, as you read this, understand it is disjointed in places on purpose and I hope it came across that way. Forgive me if it didn’t. Yiggersentia slapped me around a few times, but all faults are mine. Also, most of Snape’s flashbacks in his ‘nightmare’ are direct quotes from HP:DH ch.33. I’ve just taken A LOT of artistic license with how they’re played in his mind to fit what I want it to say. It’s symbolism, gimme a break ;) Lastly, THANK YOU EVERYONE for your fantastic words of encouragement and praise, your critiques and questions. I love them all! Happy New Year! xoxo Dena


Chapter 11

He sat and stared quietly at the white queen in front of him, contemplating the shape, the carving, the deliberation in such a tiny piece of…plastic. Such a pretty piece, full of curves and turns, statuesque in her own right…proud.

Was that what Lily had been like? Proud?

Severus reached forward for it, running his thumb along the crowning ridge as he grasped it, wondering how many thousands of mass-produced items were just like this one…

Is that how he’d seen her? Focusing singly upon her unique package when instead he might have been overlooking any triteness in a possibly carbon-copy creature?

Well, that put a perspective on things, didn’t it?

Little things danced on the edge of his mind like hoarfrost on a leaf, delicate, so easy to break at the slightest touch. Silken red hair, emerald eyes…shared moments flashed across his mind, faded like old silk…kinship…laughter…

Those emerald eyes framed with bitterness and betrayal…

He blinked, tightened his hold on the queen, and shook his head slightly, dismissively turning in his chair even as Hermione watched him cross his arms and look off to the greenery once more.

He remembered what the woman looked like now, at least. It was a connection to the eyes from his safe place, a logical conclusion—would that make it correct? Regardless, it was a hazy recollection at best, as if viewing what memories he had through a gauzy curtain.

No. Something was missing, and that something was more than the obvious amnesia of who the woman was. She was obviously someone… special to him and someone who linked him and Potter—the eyes made that much obvious—but there was something larger, deeper, sunk underneath the quagmire of identity.

There was a depth that should be there that wasn’t.

It was a strange feeling, knowing there was a hole but not knowing what filled it. Ha! A hole. He wasn’t some plot in the ground! Not yet!

Severus took an unsteady breath and watched it dissipate into the gloaming, casting about for some explanation or reasoning for the empty hole…

He wasn’t some plot in the ground…not yet, he repeated to himself…not anymore…

Narrowing his eyes to look for any wayward migratory birds that seemed to herald something painful to come, he scanned the boughs for flits of movement. Hmph. Nothing so far, but it was hard to see in this lack of light.

The river of dark branches took his mind back down a dark road. Had he been dead? Had he been a ghost? He might as well be now, for all the life he’d be able to live. He gritted his teeth in overwhelming anger, remembering Weasley’s words,

Kingsley felt it was safer to declare you dead, you see? Your house had already been ransacked—sorry mate—and with rumors flying about with your body missing, every crime was yours or ‘Snape made me do it’,”

Dead! He’d been declared dead, his house ransacked—all those years collecting information—books! Wasted! His collective tenure as professor and Death Eater couldn’t have been more succinctly put: Wasted!

He pulled his gaze from the garden to the domed ceiling of the folly, leaning his head back against the chair in defeat.

He should be dead. Everyone thought so, even the ministry. Even D—

Even the almighty insufferable one across from him this very moment had said he should be dead. And when he left here, for surely he couldn’t eat off Potter’s table indefinitely, begging for scraps like some dog, some beggar, some leprous attachment of his household…

What then?

For lack of anything better to show up in his life and demand his presence, he had NOTHING!

He shoved himself up, away, out, down the steps of the folly, his heart beating a staccato tympani in his chest so hard it hurt his ears, stole his breath, tingled his fingers and toes. Pacing along the water’s edge, staring at the glittering surface, his mind worked furiously through the narrowing facets of memory as they slumped together into some semblance of a narrative.

Burning brightly in the crucible of his mind was the foremost theme of betrayal.

A snake, an evil, a battle on the edge of reason…a few passing memories of magic, twinkling eyes falling off a precipice that was somehow his doing…staring at him with forgiveness and sadness.

Do you trust me? She’d asked him, so early on. Why should she show him so much trust as to ask for it in return? He, who’d betrayed things so precious to him in his…previous life that they haunted his dreams in the purgatory he knew now.

He remembered being pushed, mentally, into the dark water of his safe place. Staring at the pond before him, he wondered if the symbolism held true. Had it been a form of brutal protection, or something worse…

His mind skittered across that idea towards a snippet of something he’d said to Hermione before:

Am I supposed to feel something specific?” Something other than fear, devastation, betrayal, hatred, anger, love, confusion…Something that he could actually admit aloud?

Then, just as adroitly, his mind turned corner towards another conversation, another bout of anger, this time heard from the Weasley boy,

She always ends up in the weirdest places in bed,”

What was he supposed to think about her now? Again, turning away from the thought as well as the path he was taking, he spun on his heel in another direction,

How long have you known that I’d been Resurrected? Who else have you told?”

Does it even occur to you I may have valuable information to contribute?”

Oh dear Merlin. Valuable information. Of course he was searching his memories for perfidy, he’d been a spy for decades! He snorted, turned again, breathing heavier in the colder air as the sun set, turning the air a queer shade of bruised yellow-green.

It was simply who he was.

Spy. Murderer. Traitor.

Over and over again, relentless, in every direction, his life had apparently been ruled by it, defined by it. Either he had been betrayed, or had been the betrayer, but it colored his life like a rosette window, the many different facets and pieces forming a work that spoke only one story:

Treachery.

Treachery!

Anger making him insensate to the evening around him, he stumbled, then stepped out of his mind into a foggy clearing. He paused, catching his breath on the scene before him, knowing it wasn’t real, but had been real at one time…

This place was familiar, but not in a comforting sense. It reminded him of bad air, hiding, his first forays into spying, his own voice, “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” A trio of children argued, danced in uncertainty around a playset…they looked so very familiar, the boy and two girls…

He peered closer, stepped carefully around the overgrowth surrounding the clearing, hiding him from their view. He’d been here before…many, many years before…

You’re that Snape boy!”

His eyes flared as the dark haired girl flounced off and her redheaded sister followed. The boy, himself, stood in consternation. He remembered that feeling, not knowing what had gone wrong with his carefully planned approach, but never taking the prejudiced sister into consideration.

The mist grew heavy, obscuring his view, and stirred before him. Like through a curtain parting, a man with two different eyes and a surly mood swept through the dense fog with a hard, limping stride and stared him down. “I say there are spots that don’t come off… Spots that never come off, d’you know what I mean?”

That crazed blue eye swirled in its magical socket once, then pinned back on Severus like a dart thrown with deadly precision.

Spots?

He looked down to his arm, his left arm, the blank canvas that once was painted with the darkest magic.

Never? But it had come off…

He felt a tug on his clothing, distracting him from the man before him. The redheaded girl from the playset was now behind Severus, pulling on his black, black, billowing robes. He turned to her young, beautiful face pouting in a disdainful tone, “But you call everyone of my birth Mudblood, Severus. Why should I be any different?”

Echoes of words, fights, insults, curdled in his mind like old milk.

I see no difference.”

The girl’s face flitted between long and round, eyes shifted between green and brown, hair red to brown and back again…some trick of the light or eye or Muggle cinematic falsehood made his vision falter on the girl before him. When her form finally stalled, Lily, at first ageless, now aged before him into a lovely, lovely woman. She smiled at him with her emerald eyes. He felt a pull behind his heart, wanting to answer that smile, but not knowing how.

Before he could move his face into the tiniest smile, an august, bearded old man, familiar to him now, again, walked up out of the fog behind her and glared over her shoulder. “You disgust me. You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die as long as you have what you want?” He snatched the girl away from him, tossed her aside as if she were nothing…

All the time I was watching you…”

He tried to go to her as she lay crumpled on the grass, but every step took him into mist, heavier and heavier, pulling his steps and his lungs. Lily

There was a twitter of laughter, and a darker snark to his left that had him peering through the gloaming to find the children sitting there, “Oh yes, they’re arguing, but it won’t be that long and I’ll be gone.”

The wave of helplessness and frustration belted into him from his parents invaded his senses. No wonder Lily, in all her fiery independence, had intrigued him so early. She was the antithesis of his obedient, self-trapped mother. He was never so glad as to leave that house…

Something happened between the children and the girl stood up screaming, pointing at her injured sister. “Did you make that happen?”

“No.”

“You did! You did! You hurt her!”

“No—no I didn’t!”

She’s only a—”

Dumbledore stalked between his vision, ripping it to tendrils of mist. “I prefer not to put all of my secrets in one basket, particularly not a basket that spends so much time dangling on the arm of Lord Voldemort.”

He responded automatically, as if from a script already written, “Which I do on your orders!”

What could he do to prove himself? “The prophecy…the prediction…Trelawney…”

Trelawney. Yes, she was the turning point, wasn’t she? As if by call, Sybill glided up out of the cloudy ground only to stare at him from behind her buggish glasses and many scarves, her magnified eyes darting over his body as if to divine some higher purpose. He snorted at her apparent inventory. Such a waste of a gift, of a teaching post on this woman!

A chill ran through him, around him, over his hands and neck like a Dementor’s breath. Trelawney faded away into nothing, her eyes the last he could see in the darkness closing about him.

Yes, darkness.

There had been another teacher caught in these many machinations, hadn’t there? A dark form, floating, lifeless, conceived of the very fog surrounding him, pushed forward and revealed itself to be a woman’s corpse, blue and purple in all the wrong ways, trussed and inverted in the air beside him so that he had to turn and see her. Another shadow beyond her pointed and turned her more clearly to him. “Do you recognize our guest, Severus?”

The corpse had tears trickling down her upside-down face. It…she opened her mouth, and where a deathly rattle of breath should emit, she instead pled with him once more…”Severus…please…please…”

He turned awayfrom the mad laughter and green flash of light this time, just because he could.

Angry, bitter, hating blue eyes flared through the mist like some sort of golem. “Ah, yes, how much did you relay to Lord Voldemort?” Severus fought not to look at the half-formed, shadowed and cruel man in front of him, the one so many thought benevolent, wise, kind.

Sadness and something more built inside him like a great wave. Was it remorse, or spite that had him yell back, “Everything—Everything I heard!”

Everything I’ve heard I gave to him and to you! I’ve betrayed everyone and it’s the only way I can live! It’s the only way you let me live!

“I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe.”

Dumbledore disappeared back into the air, the wind, like a tempestuous Ariel.

I’ve been watching you for a while.”

The fog went dark, dark as night and a light focused on a dais, an evil, a vile creature he wish he’d never believed, never followed. Bending to the Dark Lord’s hem, he kissed it, revealing the prophecy…“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…”

From behind him, a heavy hand came down on his shoulder, holding him in place in front of this poised effigy of evil. Dumbledore’s voice, low and gentle, peeled into the darkness, “And what will you give me in return, Severus?”

He stared at the glittering red slits for eyes as he bowed between the two men…”Anything.”

Voldemort stood, hissed, then spun as if to Apparate, the illusion spinning into a flannel-wrapped boy with round, black glasses. “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.” At that, Dumbledore shoved Severus forward, hard, so that he fell to his hands before the boy.

Anger mounted inside of him and he pressed himself up, up, up to his full height, equal to that of the intimidating old man and turned to face him.

They stared at each other, one angry and desperate to prove himself, the other seemingly unimpressed.

“Karkaroff intends to flee if the Mark burns.”

A darkness, a bitterness flit through the old man’s blue eyes. “Does he? And are you tempted to join him?”

He always expected the worst, didn’t he! Then acted as if he’d known all along I would stand the higher ground when I did! Assuming, righteous, pompous, machinating—

Dumbledore conjured a chair and sat with as much grace as an old man in long flowing robes had practice to have. “Well, really, this makes matters much more straightforward.”

He looked up at Severus with glittering blue eyes. Had he been laughing at him the entire time?

He stood taller, straighter. He must impress the importance of this information upon Albus. “The Dark Lord does not expect Draco to succeed. This is merely punishment…slow torture for Draco’s parents, while they watch him fail and pay the price.”

Dumbledore’s eyes brightened and he steepled his hands before him. “In short, the boy has had a death sentence pronounced upon him as surely as I have.” Severus waited for the final blow… “Now, I should have thought the natural successor to the job, once Draco fails, is yourself?”

A frisson of fear rippled down his spine. That. That was it. Both Voldemort and Dumbledore had planned in all eventuality to kill their most trusted adviser, regardless of his value to either cause. “That, I think, is the Dark Lord’s plan.”

Even when Potter was frozen beneath the Astronomy Tower, watching us, he knew it was just another shift of power to ensure I would not survive. The boy had come after me. I was stronger…

Shock, shame, anger, sadness, all these things ran like a river through his heart as he stared at the old man in front of him. How had he accepted this while it was happening?

How had he let this happen? Was he so defeated, so bereft of any will to live? How? How could he let them do this?

Regardless of the complete and utter servitude he’d given both masters, both men, both causes, both lives. He’d given them everything they’d ever wanted and they had both decided to cast him aside for their own petty requirements.

The only difference between them lay in the fact that Voldemort wanted to live forever, and Dumbledore was ready to die…

“Are you intending to let him kill you?”

He laughed. Laughed! “Certainly not. You must kill me.”

You must kill me.

Had that been how he’d killed him, fed the anger and hatred necessary for the spell?

Kill me.

“Severus, please.”

He remembered the spell, the determined anger, Avada Kedavra!

He remembered crying out, “DON’T!…Gone…dead…”

At his hands.

How many? So many…

Albus…

Lily…

The wrenching bastard!

Always.”

With a gnashing groan, Severus came out of his nightmare, stumbling toward the bulrushes at the pond’s edge as if drunk. He grasped at the tall leaves, ripping them out of their stalky bases with a squeaky sound, their unexpectedly sharp edges cutting the palm of his right hand. “GAH!” He stared at the slice as it welled blood in the darkening daylight, then wrapped it in a crushing fist around the pudgy, brown head of the offending plant, breaking it off into clumps that stuck and fell, the lighter seed pods floating off to some safer destination.

He watched them fly off, wished for a brief moment he were they, then threw the messy clump to the water with a yell.

“Severus?”

He turned at his name. Who? Oh, her. That other Mudblood he’d nearly soiled with his—he looked down—bleeding, murderous hands…

Merlin…

He broke into a lope across the footbridge, into the messier foliage they’d not broken down this morning and started yanking, tearing, pulling—

“Severus! Wait! What’s wrong!”

Deeper! He must get deeper so she couldn’t find him. She shouldn’t find him. That elastic coil was wrapping so tightly inside again, it hurt, it hurt—the pressure—he fell to his knees and clutched his head, squeezed it as if more pressure could make the pain stop.

Stop, stop, stop—no—

“Severus, are you all right?”

NO!” She was too close! He felt it crawling over him, like a climbing vine of electricity over every nerve, and he couldn’t stop it, he couldn’t warn her to get away and she wasn’t stopping him! “Herm-m-”

Everything went so completely quiet.

Was he truly, finally dead? So quiet. Peaceful.

His eyes opened. Nothing above him but sky. No one there. He tried to move his head, but felt pain. Not much, but enough to stop him. Pain wasn’t felt by the dead. Was it? He tried to move and found himself amongst a rubble of trees, as if a giant construction machine had played havoc in their enchanted garden. Even the folly was reduced to ruins.

His hearing came back in a rush of falling and dripping leaves, pattering down onto broken things.

How long had he been out? He looked more at the condensed ruin of the garden in shock as it registered with him:

Dear Merlin, where was Hermione?

He tried to speak, but it came out broken, too. He coughed, found his throat clearer, and croaked out, “Hermione?”

Nothing.

Fuck! He painfully pulled his aching body to stand and started peering into the evening for any bits of color out of place: her shirt, her jeans, her trainers, anything that didn’t look like wood or leaf or rubble.

In an ever widening circle, he searched, until he came to the folly, which was now decidedly not separated from the rest of the garden by a pond. In point of fact, there was no pond. He looked a bit closer to the garden, even as he heard someone calling for them. Great Goddess, the garden was no longer the size it had been! He looked behind himself to see the house nearly upon them and a light appear in an upstairs window.

He’d have to work fast to find her in this mess before anyone else came out. They’d never let him alone with her again.

There! No! Not the folly! He could see bits of blue peeking through a fluted column’s broken round and darted over. “Hermione? Hermione! Can you hear me? Bloody Hell.” He could feel the blood leach from his face as he realized she wasn’t moving nor was she making any noise. Fear gripped him and he reached for the first piece, nearly two stone heavy. He rolled it off and reached for the next. And the next.

And the next.

She wasn’t moving.

He whispered to her, “Hermione, Hermione…” He pulled a fifth column section away to reveal what he though would be her torso, only to see the back of one of Weasley’s conjured chairs.

Severus gasped for air and stumbled backwards down the half-step behind him, into something…he looked…a tree trunk at a strange angle.

Yelling reached his ears and just as he swung around to look for another spot to look, to hunt, to…anything…

A hand stuck up from behind a group of saplings pressed down by a piece of the cupola that had flown free of the folly. “Severus? Could you help me please?”

Just to hear her voice nearly sank him to the ground, but he pushed his tired body over to her and searched through the branches for her face. “Are you hurt?”

“Oh,” her eyes were watering, “Thank God! Are you okay?”

He stared at her, shocked at her question. “What? I’m the one standing! What the bloody hell—I’ve been calling for you!”

“What?”

“What—” He growled his frustration, “You insufferable…” What could possibly be the right word to describe her? “Thing!”

Her eyes softened and she’d apparently decided to take pity upon him. Bugger that. He started to pull the stone off the downed trees, “Where are your feet?”

“Um…here?”

He heard a rustling and saw a few leaves part way. Good, she could feel and move her feet, that was a very good thing. He worked harder to push the stone away from her, “Uff! Can’t you magic this off?”

“And risk your sensibilities?”

“Oh, now you want to protect my sensibilities!” He growled to her as he strained to pull at the masonry, “How about you protect my back and Levitate this crap off!” There, the stone was pushed over enough for her to get the saplings herself with her wand.

“I can’t.”

He took a few huffing breaths. “Whyever not?”

“I can’t reach my wand.”

“What? Why?”

Her answering growl was almost worthy of himself, “My arm’s pinned, Captain Obvious!”

Who? Oh. He sighed through his nose and started lifting broken branches and saplings away from her, having to practically straddle her legs and lean directly over her to reach the heaviest one.

“Oh, ow! Wait, that’s my hair!”

“Hold still and I wouldn’t catch it.”

“I don’t exactly have control over that, you’re shifting the bed.”

Now that wasn’t suggestive, no, not at all. Especially not when she was trapped underneath him like this. He looked at her a second longer than he should have, just long enough to catch her blush as she looked away.

“Just get the damned things off me.”

“I have the damned things off you, just move your arm.”

She growled again, meeting his eyes, “I can’t, you dolt, it’s stuck.”

If this hadn’t been his fault in the first place, he’d have left her here, pinned, for that statement. Since it was…he reached for the last branch holding her arm in place and shoved it aside.

“There, now what had you—” He saw a Muggle manila folder, slightly crumpled in her hand, and stared, transfixed. Without asking, he reached for it, snatching it out of her grip and scanning through the information inside.

He vaguely noticed her rubbing her wrist as she sat up behind him. Facing away from her as he read past his name—John Smith—past his description—a decreasing weight and volatile temper with bouts of depression—and finally found the chemist list.

NaCl. CnH2nOn.

He looked for more, flipping the single page over, trying to find something real, something substantive.

This was…this wasn’t real. This couldn’t be his folder.

“Salt? Sugar? Are you mad?” Severus rounded on Hermione and threw the folder at her feet. “Are you arsing around with me?”

She stood up, slowly, bringing the folder with her. “It was all I could find in the short time I had. Someone was coming and I simply grabbed it.”

“The next time you wish to help me, pay attention to the insufficiency of the material you ‘grab’.”

She narrowed her eyes and set her jaw, “I shall gladly do so, Professor.

It was his turn to narrow his eyes. Insolent—he took a deep inhalation through his nose and controlled its exhale slowly before turning off towards the house. Starting to climb across the broken garden, he made it halfway across a felled trunk when Hermione pulled at his arm.

He looked down at her and remembered this happening before. “You’re going to let me go this time.”

“No, you’re going to hurt yourself if you try and climb through that mess.”

Anger welled up inside him, remembered from his nightmare, or vision, or selective memories – whatever they should be called. They clawed at him, forcing him to attempt control of an uncontrollable situation. He could feel the anger and resentment rippling through his body and knew that if she pushed too far…”I will hurt you. Leave me be.”

Astonishingly, she didn’t. She pulled his arm harder and he capitulated, climbing back down from the felled tree. She looked up at him, then down to her feet, so somber, so serious. “You won’t. You wouldn’t.”

He stared at her, incredulous, but hiding as much of the emotion as he could. What…How could she possibly—

A masculine voice called out from the other side of the broken garden. “Snape? Hermione! Are you two all right? Was it another episode?”

“Damn, that’ll be Remus.” Hermione took a steadying breath and ran her hands over her hair. “We’ve not finished talking about this.”

“Of course.” Whether she knew he meant in agreement or otherwise was up to her. Sirens pierced the night along with the sound of a diesel engine roaring ’round the block.

“Remus, we’re fine, but I need to get Severus out of here if civilians are involved.,” She looked back at Severus, “That means Ministry.” She watched him closely. Did she think he’d object?

Remus responded, “As long as you’re okay, we’ll be fine. I’ll send you my Patronus as soon as we have things settled. Do you have somewhere to go?”

“I can think of a few places.”

Could she, now? Interesting. He wondered what she had in mind.

“Fine, just let us know where you settle.”

“Thanks! I will.” At that, she stepped forward, grabbed Severus by the arms and started squenching her face into concentration.

“Now wait a minute, where are you taking me?”

“Do you want to be found by the Ministry or the London Fire Brigade? Which is it?”

“Neither.”

“Fine, then. You’re going to help me back at Hestry’s.”

“What!” He grappled for her arms out of desperation.

Crack!

With Apparating having an almost unbearable resemblance to one of his episodes, Severus was reeling when they arrived on the grounds at Tennet Hall.

“You raving lunatic!” He wheezed in discomfort, “You could have splinched me!”

She did something with her wand into the night and gave him a withering glare, surrounded once more by boxwood hedge and moonlight. “Only if you knew how to Apparate. You probably didn’t even remember what splinching was until a few moments ago.”

“That’s not the point.”

“It is the point. It was my concentration that got us here, not yours. It was Side-Along Apparation, so my will was the one that controlled yours.”

Her words sent chills down his spine. “You do not control me.”

She must have seen her mistake in words, for she carefully backtracked, “No, sir, I do not, but I would never have hurt you like that. Just as I know you would never hurt me.”

“Never is a strong word, Hermione.”

She backed away from the look in his eyes. He knew it just as she shrank against the hedge. “You wouldn’t. Not on purpose.”

“On purpose.” He stalked towards her. “On purpose!” With an anger left over from his nightmare and built upon by the adrenaline after his magical explosion, he rounded on her in a flash, grabbed her by the arms and tossed her away from him onto the ground. He snarled at her prone form that stared back up so calmly at him. “Wouldn’t I? I have a great capacity for violence, Hermione! I even kill those closest to me!”

She went still. “You do not.”

“I did.”

“You—”

“I did! He begged me to! And that’s not the absolute worst of it all!” Severus reached blindly about for something, anything to throw. He found nothing, then settled for tossing his hands about him widely, “Everyone thinks I betrayed him but it was he!” He threw his hands up high, fisting them. “HE WHO BETRAYED ME!”

His body decided to give out on him, then. The adrenaline rush played out and he sank down to the ground, gasping for breath. So…so very tired…gods…

Hermione took the opportunity to run up to him, her hands cold on his face. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, how did he betray you?”

He looked down into her tear-stained face and laughed in a halting bark. “That’s right. You don’t know, do you?” He took another deep breath. “You’ve not sorted that bit out, but from the looks Harry’s been giving me, I bet he has.”

She bent a little to look him more fully in the face. “What? I’m not following you. Severus, just calm down and tell me.”

He snatched his face out of her grasp, nearly falling backwards to the cold, spiky grass. “I will not calm down, I have every right to be angry. That righteous bastard set me up as a lamb to slaughter, the final distraction, the last pawn in the gods be-damned set!”

His heart was hammering again, like a herd of wildebeast galloping down his lungs. He threw his head back for a deeper breath.

“Think. Just think, with that not-insignificant mind of yours. What happened to me in the final battle with the Dark Lord?”

She knelt apart from him, but not so far that she looked afraid. “H-he tried to kill you.”

He set his gaze back down on her. “Why.”

“It-it was to gain control of the Elder Wand.”

“And why did that not happen?”

He watched her eyes blink through the right answers, searching for the one he wanted. Swot. “Because Draco had already disarmed the Professor?”

“Yes, Hermione, now use that brain again. What would have happened if the boy had not done so before me? What would have happened in the end game if all had gone according to Albus’ plan?”

“Y-you would have had control of the Elder Wand?”

“And?”

He watched with satisfaction as she realized the answer he sought. “Then so would have V-voldemort when he…k-killed…”

She really didn’t have to finish that sentence. They’d all been there.

“And in all this mistake-laden and chance-ridden planning, filled to the brim with ruthlessness, what was our esteemed Professor’s greatest and most hateful error?”

She stared in fear, somehow instinctively knowing that what Severus had to say was not what she’d always known of the august and great personage of Albus Dumbledore.

“Think about what he did to me. What did that man do to me? He took my life, my eternal enslavement and instead of giving me forgiveness, he gives me the kiss of death! Instead of freeing me from my geas, he murders me! Why! Why, Hermione! The man must have been holding a deep hatred of me to hide it so well for so long! To strike such a blow at me, to make me love him as my mentor, my father, then make me kill him! Send me to my own death, knowing I would be the reason for our world’s failure and that he wouldn’t be there to worry about it! Great Goddess, the man even forced your beloved savior Potter to watch me kill him, ensuring another avenue of vengeance against me!”

She took a tiny knee-crawl forward and whispered, “It’s not like that, Severus.”

“There is no other way about it.”

“There is.”

He stared hard at her before climbing to his feet and continuing. “I’ve heard your rhetoric. It’s got a pretty silver lining and looks lovely on a pedestal, but my interpretation fits so much better down here in the muck with us lesser mortals.”

She knelt, hugging herself, giving herself comfort perhaps. “You’re wrong. You’re so wrong, he loved you. He never did anything without a thousand contingencies and his mind was the sharpest there ever was. He fought his entire life for the Light, from Grindelwald to Voldemort. I can’t believe something so completely evil of him, Severus. I can’t. If I do, then the war is lost right here and now and we all should have died.”

Albus loved him? Ha! If only she’d known the meaning of her words. As for death… “You’re right on that point. I should have died, but look where I am! You’re exaggerating his honor—his benevolent omniscience, but look at me! Here I am!”

She stood up to face him, more sure of her argument now, but how? Why? “I’m not exaggerating. You think on it. If we don’t have that silver lining and that pedestal to look up to, what have we to live for? What do we have to justify the past ten years of my life, Harry’s, Ronald’s, anyone who lived and fought in this war and the one previous? They’ll have survived for nothing if we believe this of him.”

He leveled a dark, sickened glare at Hermione. “Even if it’s the truth.”

His challenge had caught her off guard, apparently. She took a little step back. “I won’t deny that Dumbledore had his moments, but he never lost sight of the long term goal: defeating evil.”

Severus glared at her, paced away from her. “And I was part of that defeat of evil!”

She called out from behind him. “Are you evil?”

He turned to face her, surprised. “What?”

She stared at him, still holding herself, “Are. You. Evil.”

“NO.”

Her mouth tipped up at a corner as her chin rose a notch. “Were you?”

He turned away. “No. Misguided to the extreme, but never Evil. Not like that madman.” Ha. Which one? Merlin, would he ever know? He ran his left hand over the rough stubble of hair across his head, then dropped that hand in frustration.

She persisted. “So what was the question again? Did Dumbledore make you pay because he thought you were Evil?”

He glanced back at her over his shoulder. “Yes.”

She sighed at him. “Wasn’t he a Legilimens? More powerful than yourself?”

“Perhaps.”

“Severus.”

He sighed back at her. “Your point?”

“He was like God. He could read your heart and know you weren’t evil.”

“For the last time! I’m not evil!” He’d whirled on her expecting her to be back where she’d been, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t.

She was right in front of him. “I know that.” His breath caught for many reasons as her hands slowly came up to bracket his face. “I know that.” He stared at her, who was this person? He watched her raise up on tiptoes ever closer…to what…?

Her lips pressed to his, cold, soft…He didn’t know what to do with his hands…

He blinked and she’d dropped down to her own diminutive height, dropped her hands away. “I—I’m sorry—”

His heart, his heart, would it ever hurt more than it did now? His chest imploded with emotions as he watched…watched…

She’d kissed him after everything she knew?

What a fool he was!

With a decision made, he stood taller than she, walled her up to the hedge beside them and pushed her against it. Snaking an arm behind her shoulders to hold her head in place with the palm of one hand, he held her jaw with the other and descended upon her mouth with every wild emotion he’d been holding back for hours, days, months, years. Their lips met and he ate at her mouth and as she slipped her arms inside his jacket, he knew she was letting him. Letting him!

Letting him.

Dear Merlin, was she an idiot? And now this one brief, incandescent moment of beauty was tarnished by the remembrance of the fact that he was no one to like, much less love.

He lessened the kiss with little nips and nuzzles and slowly disentangled himself from her. “You know I am not evil…” He took a deep breath and watched her eyes open slowly, “But I do not know what I am. And I can’t do…this until I do.”

She looked so…lovely…mussed from his attention. Was that the look Weasley had been talking about? She stared at him as if he were the very earth on which she stood.

It was a great feeling indeed to be looked at that way.

She looked at him, from one eye to another, her eyes glittering in the moonlight with unshed tears, and smiled. “Let’s get started here, then, shall we?”

He nodded, stepped away from her and looked to the looming brick building behind them.


A/N: no notes this time, it’s all pretty much there. If you have a question, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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