In this chapter: Both Hermione and Snape discover that almost nothing they have believed up to this point is actually true.
**The Bloody Stare of Mars
The next evening, Hermione had planned to visit Remus in Tartrosgate; for the first time ever, she found herself wondering whether or not to go. Before, her talks with him had sustained and comforted her. Now, it seemed like just one more way to torture herself. From that point on, she had determined to live her life by a simple maxim: What's past is past.
Her memory of Remus' face gaunt, crowned with silvery hair was enough to make her set out for the prison camp anyway. She wasn't the only person whose feelings mattered, and even the depth of her present misery couldn't erase her knowledge that Remus still relied upon their time together.
But it was duty, not hope, that drove her on.
Though the summer days were already sticky and warm, the evening was comfortable, and Hermione realized with a sort of dulled amazement that Tartrosgate no longer seemed so horrible to her any longer. As she waited with the others an almost entirely different group of visitors by now, because so many prisoners had died Hermione knew no dread, no fear. The Phlegathon Barrier itself still made her shiver, but she'd become much better at looking the other way. When the banshee gave the signal, Hermione walked rather than ran, making her way easily to the bent-over lamppost that had served as a kind of marker for her and Remus.
However, when she reached her place, it was Firenze she saw waiting for her instead. He lifted his heavy head to gaze at her, with a kind of deliberate grace that slowed her steps and quickened her heart.
Remus had looked so old the last few times she'd visited so thin, so tired
"Where's Remus?" she said, and her voice was thin to her own ears.
"He will be with us shortly," Firenze replied. Ignoring Hermione's sigh of relief, he continued, "He has work, as do we all, now."
"I know they're awful to you," Hermione said. She had little idea how to comfort a centaur, assuming such creatures even needed comfort, so she repeated things she'd said to Remus before in the faint hope Firenze would take them the same way. "You'd think locking you up would be bad enough giving you labor as well is so cruel, and petty, and useless."
Firenze's large, glassy eyes stared at her, unblinking. "You have changed form."
Hermione was stopped short by that one. Awkwardly, she smoothed her hands across her robes. "I, uh, gained a little weight "
"I do not speak of such insignificance," Firenze said, with that centaurian arrogance she'd always found so annoying. "As the feeble ages of man pass, even the stars alter their harmonies. The constellations change, as do the destinies they tell."
Two years since they destroyed Hogwarts, Hermione thought, and still I'm trapped in Divination class. "That's very interesting," she said, without bothering to put much emotion into it. "Do you think Remus will be, er, very much longer?"
"They are near," Firenze said. He rose, great hooves thumping against the ground. "Lupin and I shall not approach for several minutes."
"Several minutes? What " But Firenze was already gone. Hermione straightened up, frowning slightly at the prospect of spending so much of this one hour of visiting time all by herself. Maybe Remus didn't find her visits as life-sustaining as she'd thought.
But almost immediately, across the Phlegathon Barrier, she could make out a shape a man, his form taking shape and color through the evening shade and the dull red mist
Hermione felt it as pain first, physical shock that hammered her brain and gut and spine. When she gasped, the air was so sharp and dry that it cut into her throat. She did not trust herself, not even the ground beneath her feet, or her own voice as she whispered, "Ron?"
"Hermione." Ron's voice. Ron's face, smiling at her in dazed wonder. Ron's red hair, brilliant even in the dark. "It's you, it's really you, I knew Lupin wouldn't lie about something like that, but I couldn't believe it."
"Ron! Oh, God, Ron!" Hermione staggered two steps toward the Phlegathon Barrier before Ron's shout stopped her; she wavered drunkenly at the edge, almost not caring if she fell within. Her life could end, right at this moment, and she would never know any greater joy. Ron was alive. Alive, and only a few feet away, and yet too far to touch. "You're here. You're here."
Ron was laughing, and he was crying, just as she knew she was too. Never had she wanted to embrace him, or anyone, so desperately and yet, somehow, Hermione thought, just seeing him completed her joy. She stumbled backwards, falling to the ground almost without noticing it; her laughter and her sobbing made her brace one arm against the ground for support. She could see Ron on his hands and knees across from her, and she had no idea whether he'd fallen as well, or whether he had simply knelt down to be nearer to her.
As soon as she could manage to breathe, Hermione gasped out, "I thought you were dead."
"I know," Ron said. He looked grave an odd expression, on his face and for the first time she recognized that he, too, was two years older. "I'm so sorry, Hermione. I hated it, you'll never know how much. But I had to stay with our best friend."
This time the blow was more diffuse, but even more profound. Hermione dug her fingers into the cracks of earth among the broken pavement, trying to concentrate on the feel of it, to know that all this was real. She glanced around at the other visitors and prisoners; though none were very close, even the faintest whisper of the name they couldn't say would carry like a scream.
"Ron oh, Ron " Hermione lay her head on her arms, unable to stop sobbing. Her head was swirling, her body shaking, as though she'd had too much mead. I am drunk, she thought. I'm drunk on this moment. Ron's alive. Harry's alive. This is like a dream; this is better than dreams.
"Our best friend is he's alive too?"
"Yeah," Ron said. He grinned that beautiful lopsided grin; how had she lived two years without seeing that? "For a long time, he wasn't well, I guess you'd say he wasn't himself."
"That could mean a lot of different things," Hermione said, forcing herself to focus despite her trembling and confusion.
"Remember how he said You-Know-Who was before that whole ceremony-whatchacallit in the forest?"
Hermione remembered the story of a small, creeping thing, not entirely human. "Oh, God."
"The Battle of Samhain didn't go easy on anybody," Ron replied. "But that's over now. Soon, real soon, our best friend will have his strength back. And then, Hermione the whole world's going to change."
He was so confident, so sure. That was just how she remembered him, but it seemed so unreal to her now. "But, Ron they caught you, you're in Tartrosgate "
Ron shook his head, still grinning. "They didn't lay a finger on me. I sneaked in."
He rolled his eyes and grinned. "See, I told you all that sneaking around Hogwarts would do us some good eventually."
"You're mad," Hermione said, laughing despite herself. "You went into Tartrosgate -- on purpose? How? Why?"
"'How' wasn't hard," Ron said earnestly. "They don't try nearly so hard to stop people from getting in. 'Why' is to help the people in here discover a way to get out. We sent Firenze in first to get ready; I'm here to help with the big night itself. With our best friend coming back so soon you know, he's going to need more help than just me."
Hermione put her head down on the ground for just a moment, trying to regain some sense of steadiness. This is real, she thought. All of this, everything that's happening, Ron, all of it it's real.
"Hermione?" Ron was trying his best to meet her eyes, though her position made it difficult. He craned his neck and said, "I'm so sorry I couldn't come to you before. It wasn't ever because I didn't want to you know that, right?"
"I do," she said. If Ron had returned to her after two months, maybe three, she would have been furious at his absence. Now, whatever indignation she might ever have felt was drowned in relief and joy. "I missed you so much. I didn't have anything left to fight for or anybody left to talk to sometimes there were days " But even as Hermione looked into Ron's worried face, she realized that she didn't want to tell him any of it: None of the privation, none of the loneliness, none of the days she'd spent paralyzed by grief. Compared to this moment, this new reality, none of that mattered.
"Maybe this isn't the best time to bring it up," Ron said, hesitating, "but I can't wait any longer to tell you. Hermione I still love you. Never stopped. I know it's been a long time "
"I love you too," Hermione whispered. "I never loved anyone else, Ron. Never."
Even as Ron smiled at her, she felt the cold grasp of Severus Snape closing around her, as though he had appeared to embrace her from behind. Hermione put her hand to her mouth to hide her own dismay.
Quickly, she said, "Does Lord Vold does You-Know-Who know where, um, our best friend is?"
"I should hope to hell not. Don't think he even knows our best friend's alive. If he did, the Death Eaters wouldn't just be parading around all proud of themselves, would they?"
"They may be doing more than that," Hermione said. When was the ceremony to perform the spell? Snape had mentioned it last night, and she'd been so lost in depression that she'd paid his words no mind. "When are you leaving this place?"
"Soon," Ron said. "We'll keep you posted, and then, see, when we go, you can come with us." He took a deep breath. "And we won't have any stupid barrier between us then."
His longing was palpable, making her shiver as surely as his touch would have done. But once again, Snape's memory obscured her sight, dimming Ron and everything else as she remembered the many nights she'd spent in his bed. Ron would find out the truth but he'd find out the whole truth but Ron was such a hothead, sometimes --
"Hope you two have had a nice chat," Remus said, stepping out of the distant dark somewhat sheepishly. Firenze, completely unabashed, followed behind. "Sorry to intrude, Hermione."
"It's all right," she said, wiping again at her cheeks. "I understand why you never told me what was going on. I could never have hidden this for long." She also realized why they were telling her now the break from Tartrosgate must be planned for only the very next few days. "Is there anything you need from me?"
"Not yet." It was Ron who answered her, his eyes fixed on her as though nothing else existed. "Come back as soon as you can, okay? Tomorrow, if you can swing it."
She saw the next questions before Ron could put voice to them, saw the uncertainty and dread in Remus' expression. Ron was going to ask where she lived, how she was getting by, and the answer to that question was going to kill him. And, Hermione knew, it was inevitable.
"I'll be here tomorrow night if I can be," she promised. "In the meantime I guess Remus can fill you in." She looked at Remus, hating the task she gave him but knowing there was no other way.
Remus gave her a look she couldn't fully interpret, but Hermione knew he would tell Ron the truth the entire truth if that was what she really wanted. And she knew that it was what she wanted; as horrible as it would be to say those words to Ron "I am Snape's lover" it would be worse to actually have held him, touched him, kissed him, before she had to lose him again. If Ron couldn't handle the truth, she was better off knowing that right away.
As slightly as she could manage, Hermione nodded. Remus quickly said, "I can get Ron caught up, certainly."
Brave man. She smiled at him gratefully, hoping there would someday be a way in which she could possibly return the favor. "I'll come back tomorrow. I mean I'll try. I'll try my very best."
"Then you'll be here," Ron said, his belief unquestioning and pure. For a few moments, Hermione stopped torturing herself with doubts, stopped thinking about the future, and just looked at Ron's face. She had almost forgotten that this was what joy felt like.
That night, in her bedroom, Hermione was shaking so hard that she had trouble removing her clothes.
Any moment, Snape would enter the room, expecting to make love to her. Any moment, she would have to go to bed with him, knowing that Ron was alive. Even when she'd thought Ron dead, what happened in this bed had felt like a betrayal. But now that she knew Ron was only a few miles away, no doubt thinking of her
Would Remus already have told him?
I can't think of that now, she told herself. I mustn't. If I do, I'll get upset, and for all our sakes, I can't show that I'm upset. Just for a few more nights. Maybe just for tonight.
When Snape did come to her, pulling back the covers to lower himself atop her, she found it surprisingly easy to embrace him, kiss him warmly, even to smile. Somehow it was all right, perhaps because she knew it was probably the last time.
As always, Severus disliked secrets when they were not his own.
Lord Voldemort's half-shadowed comments two days before continued to haunt Severus' thoughts; even as he went through his various tasks and errands, he kept turning what the Dark Lord had said this way and that, weighing meanings, judging possibilities.
The most obvious interpretation had occurred to him first, but he rejected that instantly as impossible. No, his task was to think of what was less obvious, to find what was hidden and make it known.
He had yet another ghastly function at Malfoy Manor, a dinner party, to endure that night. Hermione had pleaded a headache; Severus did not believe her, but he remembered the animosity between her and Draco Malfoy well enough from Hogwarts and did not blame her for avoiding a reunion. She walked him to the door and even kissed him farewell in the late-afternoon sunlight, which distracted him from his considerations until well into his trip to the Malfoys. But he returned his attention to the problem what had Voldemort meant? Who was it that he sought with the locator spell? ‹ thereafter, mulling on it through cocktails, salad and soup, using it to blot out the noxious presence of Pansy Parkinson on his left.
But then, just as he took his first bite of the roast duck, it hit him: Perhaps the impossible was actually possible. What if
What if Harry Potter were alive?
Severus knew the official version of the Battle of Samhain as well as if he were one of the schoolchildren now being forced to memorize it by rote: Voldemort's resounding triumph, the burning of Hogwarts, the triumphant glow of the Dark Mark in the night. He knew the unofficial versions as well, from whispers in alleyways and from his own experience: the executions of the members of the Order of the Phoenix, the torture of family members supposedly for information but really only for revenge. The details varied sometimes, even in Severus' own memory, it was hard to accept precisely how it had all gone but they all had one fact in common. On that long-ago October night, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort had faced each other in battle, and Harry Potter had died. Severus had never been given the slightest reason to doubt that one fatal truth, until two nights ago.
The Dark Lord had spoken of a cause rising and falling on the life of just one man. He had spent considerable money on Severus' project and dedicated resources to the perfection of a potion to empower a locator spell accurate beyond all others in existence. He was eager to use the spell at its first opportunity upon an enemy he was unwilling to directly name.
Dumbledore, Severus thought, trying to dissuade himself. Or another, perhaps Alastor Moody, or even Arthur Weasley. People might rally around any of them
But if the cause rose and fell on just one person's life, that person could not be anyone but Harry Potter.
"Severus?" Narcissa Malfoy was giving him a piercing look. "Is the duck not to your liking?"
He stared across the enormous ebony dining table, realizing for the first time that he'd been utterly still, fork poised in midair, not even chewing for at least a solid minute. Narcissa looked offended. Lucius looked concerned. That twit Draco was obviously trying not to laugh.
"Forgive me," Severus said. "Lucius will have told you about the ceremony tomorrow night?" She nodded, already bored; Draco narrowed his eyes, hoping for more information, which Severus had no intention of supplying. "I have forgotten a very important detail in the preparation of the necessary potion. It will be easy enough to fix, but I must leave immediately if all is to be in order at the appropriate time."
Nobody seemed terribly disappointed to see him go. Lucius, the most polite, saw him to the door. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to go by Floo?" he asked smoothly.
"It's too blasted hot for that," Severus said, forgetting his aplomb for a moment; in truth, he didn't want any record of his movements available to Voldemort of any of his other followers. He quickly forced a smile, covering the slip. "Summertime does make Floo inconvenient."
"It's true, it's true." Lucius smiled and clapped Severus on the shoulder. "Until tomorrow night, then."
Did Lucius know? Had Voldemort trusted him with the information? Severus studied Lucius' steely eyes, but he could not tell. "Tomorrow evening," he said, and hurried out into the twilight.
His footsteps were quick the entire way home, as he attempted to process this insight. It had stunned him with the kind of force that, Severus thought, could only come from truth. He thought: Potter is alive. If Potter is alive, then he retains the ability to do what no one else can do to kill Lord Voldemort.
Severus never paused to ask himself if he still wanted Voldemort dead. That was not a question. That was a fact, as sure and as constant as any of the chemical properties in his laboratory.
But what was he now to do? He couldn't disguise the existence of the potion from Voldemort, not after having presented it so boldly. Voldemort had a sample now, and even if Severus destroyed all his work, his papers and notes, there were potions masters who could work backwards from the final product and re-create the formula. For the first time, Severus found himself missing the meetings of the Order of the Phoenix. Smug and self-righteous as he had found most of its members, they would have provided able and immediate assistance.
There were no survivors of the Order, save for that wretch Remus Lupin, now getting his comeuppance in Tartrosgate.
Severus considered that thought more carefully as he drew closer to home. Lupin. Alive.
He had come to dislike Remus Lupin heartily within the first year of their acquaintance and had been given no reason to change his opinion in the quarter-century since. But Severus did not deny that Lupin was intelligent, and he had a way of knowing far more than he should. Perhaps neither of them was in a position to be choosy about allies any longer.
But to get to Lupin, he would need to go to Tartrosgate, and to convince Lupin to see him. To do that, he would need Hermione's help. And he had no doubt that, if there was a hint that Harry Potter might be alive, Hermione would help.
Do not be cruel to her, Severus thought. Do not torment her with false hope.
But he didn't think it was false, not any longer.
Severus went into the house quickly, too fast for Binks to even make her way to the door and greet him. Even as he opened his mouth to call for Hermione, he heard odd sounds the clink of breaking glass, the rustle of papers being crumpled up and torn. Frowning, he made his way toward the sound. Toward his workshop.
The door was cracked open. Through that one sliver, Severus could see the fireplace, roaring with flames and one of his notebooks being tossed in to burn.
He flung open the door to see Hermione, who dropped the mortal and pestle in her hands and stared at him, slack-jawed. His workshop was a disaster; the surviving papers were strewn everywhere, and every flask had been shattered into shining, irregular fragments.
Hermione gaped at him, then said, as if stupefied, "I didn't expect you."
"I imagine not," Severus said. His wand was already in his hand, though he did not remember grabbing it. "Petrificus!"
She shrieked as the bands of immobility closed around her, holding her still. Severus stalked up to her and grabbed a fistful of her bushy hair, making her whimper. He did not care if she whimpered. He growled, "Explain yourself."
Despite her evident terror, Hermione answered in an even voice. "I didn't want Voldemort to have the spell or the potion. So I was destroying what I could."
"You are too late," he said. "I've given enough to Voldemort already. He can recreate everything you've destroyed. He is going to perform the ceremony tomorrow night." Tell her now? Yes, now, and if the shock hurt her, so much the better. She did not deserve the knowledge, but she deserved the pain. "He is going to use it to find Harry Potter. The very much alive Harry Potter."
Hermione's eyes went wide but, he realized, she was not shocked, not the way he had meant for her to be. "You know," she whispered. "You've always known. And you let me work on a potion that would help kill him."
He could not correct her. He was still attempting to absorb the fact that she'd known the truth for how long? As long as Remus Lupin had allowed her to know, most likely. And she had revealed nothing. She had not trusted him with the truth.
Then another suspicion struck him, this colder and harder than the other. "You were never here for work, were you? I thought you might be a spy, before, but I came to trust you. No doubt my greatest mistake." All those nights she'd lain in his bed, made love to his body, even wept on his shoulder all lies. Lies he'd fallen for like any other lonely, middle-aged fool.
"I don't think I could ever be your greatest mistake, Snape." Hermione's eyes were glowing with a passion more genuine than he'd ever seen before. "I think that's far too long a list for me to ever be at the top, don't you?"
Severus slapped her before he could stop himself, hard enough that her head whipped back and her cheek turned scarlet. In a moment of horror, he remembered his father's hand, as broad and strong as his own, and his mother's face red with the imprint of a palm.
Her voice was clotted with tears when she spoke again. "You can beat me up if you want to. You can keep helping Lord Voldemort if you want to. But you won't win."
What side did she think he was on? She seemed quite sure that he wasn't on hers. Severus could imagine them now Remus Lupin, Harry Potter, Hermione and God only knew who else. They had reformed their circle, resumed their struggle, and not one of them had considered him worth informing. All those years he'd sacrificed for the Order, and what repayment did he have? Nothing. Less than nothing.
What side did he think he was on? Severus was no longer sure. He did not want to think about the world that might yet be; he wanted to know his place in the world they'd been given.
Softly, smoothly, he murmured, "Was I the first man to know you as a whore?" Her face flushed, but she didn't answer. "I suppose you laughed at me, for believing in your affection. I've heard such laughter before. But I must warn you, Hermione I've always had my revenge."
She laughed in his face. "What else can you do to me? You've struck me, tied me up and used my body against my will, I assure you." Such contempt. Such coldness. That was all their nights together had ever meant. "There's nothing left for you to do but kill me, and if I hadn't been ready to face that, I'd never have endured you to begin with."
"Didn't Dumbledore teach you anything?" Severus sneered. "There are worse fates than death." That, at last, made her blanch, and for a moment Severus' battered pride mended itself. "Lord Voldemort should know what I know, don't you think?"
Her eyes widened with fear, and Severus could only think how good it felt to be feared again. Fear was like respect, perhaps sweeter because it was even more powerful. His reservations and questions were burning like his notebooks in the fire, all careful method and reflection gone in a blaze of heat. Severus was beyond anything but the desire for revenge.
"Yes," he said slowly. "I believe it is far past time the Dark Lord knew everything."
Finish the story in Chapter Seven.
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