Disclaimer: Still belongs to JKR. I'm only borrowing.
AN: I shall need to find better, more creative ways in which to thank my dear beta, Ariadne. She is tireless. May her addiction never be cured. ;-) Darkness ahead, my friends.
“Severus,” Hermione said, in wonder at all the books surrounding her. “All of this is on the Dark Arts alone?”
Severus surveyed the room with an odd type of fascination in his eyes. He had gone to the far end before turning back to her. Trailing a finger through the thick layer of dust obscuring the mahogany table top, he said in a distant voice, “Yes.”
“But, no one has been in here for a long time, it seems," Hermione said, tilting her head up to find a frighteningly barbaric-looking lantern hanging on a chain from the ceiling. The glass was broken and it was somehow swinging on its own. "You don't read them?” she asked, a little disturbed at his dreamlike expression. Out of the corner of her eye, she could have sworn she saw one of the books straining against the chains. It was tilted forward, just enough to bow the chain out slightly.
“I have read some,” he said, moving his eyes up to the top-most shelves. “Dumbledore's policy was only to allow the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to know of the collection's existence. He did not share its location until recently. He told me shortly before... everything happened.”
"Why would Dumbledore have Dark Arts books here at Hogwarts?"
"Know the darkness and ye shall know the light," he recited, fingering a clasp that appeared to hold the chains for one bookshelf. He answered her before she could ask. "Know thine enemy, Hermione. Anyone who thinks that Dumbledore didn't know Dark Magic is very naive indeed. It isn't the knowledge, it's the application."
“Severus, do you think it's a – well, I mean... ” she started, trying to express that it might not be beneficial for him to have access to this type of information.
“I am well aware of what you're thinking,” he said softly. He gazed at the numerous spines, his head tilted slightly to read them. A long stretch of silence descended between them, making her as nervous as in that first Potions class so long ago. The air, heavy from lack of circulation, seemed to be making her sleepy. When he spoke again, it was with a far away look in his eye as he settled on one of the books, touching it lightly with something dangerously close to reverence.
“That my interest, if you will, in the Dark Arts is dangerous. That all the time Dumbledore denied me the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, he was somehow saving me from myself. From my own descent into evil,” Severus trailed off, then shifted his eyes to her.
Before Hermione could speak, he startled her by muttering what sounded like a harsh warning to the occupants of one of the shelves behind him.
Whatever it was, it involved fire.
“Did I capture your thoughts?” he asked, approaching her slowly.
He tilted his head slightly and sneered, although it didn't seem to be directed at her. “It's no matter. Now that interest will serve some purpose, yes? It is certain that the Dark Lord has protected the Horcruxes with Dark Magic. I have done some research on the kinds of magical protection that may be placed on such things. I won't know, however, until I see the object just how destructive it will be. Simply being in a Horcrux's presence may be deadly."
Hermione noticed that Severus was absently rubbing his forearm. “May I ask you a question?”
“I have never known you not to,” he said, smirking faintly.
“Have you thought about the Mark? I mean, now you are no longer a spy," she said cautiously.
“Hermione,” he said slowly as if speaking to a small child, “The Mark is hardly something that you can simply remove at will. If it were, there are more than a few who would immediately be rid of it.” A mix of disgust and regret spread across his face as he considered it.
“You don't think it's possible?” she asked, gesturing towards to the books. As if in response to her attention to them, she was certain now she could hear the chains moving slightly. Suddenly, one shifted forward, then its neighbors joined it. The chains held, but shook softly.
If Severus noticed the books' menacing display, he was ignoring it. He gazed into the depths of the library, where the light from the sitting room died out. With a touch of what sounded like wonder, he said softly, “It could be.”
She tried to ignore the odd expression on his face. “I had a thought. In the end, Harry will need to face Voldemort alone. If we can figure out the Mark, maybe we can divert the Death Eaters so Harry will have a better chance. Divide and conquer,” she said with a devious smile.
Severus looked positively impressed. “Are you certain you shouldn't be in Slytherin?”
Hermione laughed, happy that the frighteningly distant look was gone from his face. “Quite sure.”
Thinking for a moment, he said, “Hermione, most of these books contain magic that is far too advanced for you to manage. This is not the library, and you will not be settling in here with a parchment to take notes. It's far too dangerous.” He glanced back at the books, as if to make sure they weren't at that moment planning something evil.
“What if you select a book that you would allow me to read?” she asked. “Besides,” she said with a sly smile, “we can't have you lose another duel because of the Mark, can we?”
He appeared insulted. "I did not lose."
"Really? What would you call it?"
He narrowed his eyes and moved towards her, indicating that they should leave the room.
Once outside, the door disappeared. He turned on her, saying, "One would think you would have more to say about my training methods than keeping score. It seems that Minerva is more upset about yesterday's demonstration of instant enlightenment through attempted murder than you."
Hermione was thrown for a moment by how he could shift so suddenly.
"I understand the reason," she said, refusing to take his bait.
Severus circled around her, cutting her off. "I see. And that is?"
Hermione sighed, "I understand that we don't have time to waste. Harry needs to learn quickly, and if that means using – different methods, then I suppose it's best."
A gleam of victory shined in his eyes as he pressed, "And?"
She rolled her eyes. "It worked."
He offered her a mock bow, as if he was at her service. "Now is the time to allow a true duel to occur. The Dark Lord will not simply try to disarm our dear hero. He will not kill him immediately either. No, the Dark Lord finds pleasure in toying with his prey. It is the imminent strike that inspires the most fear. Potter is about to learn how a Death Eater fights."
Hermione looked at him suspiciously.
“Do you honestly think he could take me in a real fight?” he said softly and stepped towards her.
Hermione stared at him. “Are you saying you're not trying?”
A smug grin appeared on his face. “Not – even – close.”
“Severus! How is Harry supposed to prepare if you're not trying?” Hermione complained.
“Because, Hermione, your dear headmistress keeps begging me to spare him from too much bloodshed or pain. She feels that my training methods are too severe,” he sneered, waving his hand dismissively. “She fails to realize that this is not a schoolboy dueling club.”
Hermione considered for a moment before asking, “If I talked with her, would you still help Harry?”
He shrugged and turned towards the bedroom. “What else do I have for entertainment?”
Hermione followed him to the bedroom, watching as he dragged his leg after him. He was becoming quite good at his substandard version of walking and she now realized how he made it to the gates so quickly.
“You need to walk properly,” she commented, readying herself for an argument.
“What?” he said, reaching the bed. Clearly exhausted, he laid back and closed his eyes.
Standing in front of him, she repeated, “I said, you need to walk properly. Poppy said no lurching about.”
Without opening his eyes he said irritably, “I do not lurch, Hermione. I'm tired. Leave me be.”
Hermione shook her head and regarded him with a stern look. “That was lurching, Severus.”
“Hermione,” he growled, opening his eyes again and lifting his head. “I am hardly going to discuss the definition of 'lurching' with you at this hour.”
“Does your leg still hurt?” she asked with concern.
“No. It's fine,” he said a little too harshly.
“Oh, it's fine, is it?”
She reached out and rested a hand on his leg.
Severus hissed in a mixture of pain and surprise, striking her hand away. He glared at her, shouting, “What are you doing?”
“Oh, but you said it was fine,” she said innocently, trying to hide a smile but failing, “and yet you scream like a girl.”
Severus only snorted and laid his arm over his eyes.
She grinned as she picked twigs and bits of leaves out of the folds of his robes. After watching her remove various remnants of the forest floor from his clothes, he murmured, “You really are beautiful when angry. Dangerous, but beautiful.”
Smiling warmly down at him, she opened his robes and started on his shirt. “Hit you kind of hard, didn't I? I heard you say that, you know. I was just too angry with you for leaving.”
He lifted his eyes up to her. “Hermione, I thought I could—”
“You thought what? That committing suicide would be a lovely idea?” she asked, her anger rising.
“I thought it would be worth trying to continue. After all, I promised Albus... ” he said with a sigh and trailed off.
“Severus, that time has passed. No more, okay?” she whispered, laying tiny kisses on his chest and pulling the shirt tails out of his pants. He winced at the movement, trying vainly to hide it.
“I'll get a pain potion for you,” she said, giving him a quick kiss.
He shook his head “No” and closed his eyes.
When she returned to the bedroom, she knew immediately that he had fallen asleep. Sighing, she set the potion aside and looked down at him. With a smile, she leaned down and kissed him gently. His face held a pained look, but he didn't wake.
Brushing his hair away from his face, she whispered, “Stay with me?”
From somewhere, under many layers of sleep, Severus muttered, “Yes.”
The morning sun warmed a corner of the sitting room where Severus sat drinking his tea. Hermione had argued with him thoroughly about getting some sun, so here he was, allowing himself to bake to appease her. Part of him just didn't want to admit that it felt nice.
He had chosen several books that he deemed safe enough for Hermione to research the Mark. While in the library, he had to take care with the chains, as some of the books threatened to push free. One had taken to growling in some language disturbingly close to English.
No telling what their plans would be if let loose. That's all I need, to have a gang of rogue books galloping about the castle.
Since giving a smiling Hermione the books, it had been blissfully quiet while she researched. After a while, he felt himself slipping to sleep behind eyelids colored orange by the sun.
“Severus, look at this,” Hermione called, startling him awake.
Hermione read the passage aloud as Severus rubbed his eyes. “A magical brand can be used as both a signal and a connection to a central bonder. Traditionally used by early wizarding armies to call each other to battle, the brand produces a deep burning sensation."
"Sensation, indeed," he snorted.
Hermione shrugged, as if apologizing for the book's choice of words before continuing. "The wearer may join the bonder by touching the brand and Apparating to their side. However, if the bonder's mark is disrupted by magic, the Apparition point may be changed or prevented completely. The magical bond can be broken by applying a curse reversal potion and performing a bond dissolution ceremony. The ceremony consists of taking truth serum and denouncing the bonder.” She looked at him solemnly. “A blood sacrifice is required and there is a spell described here.”
Severus looked down at the Mark on his arm where it had burned enough to leave scars. Hermione watched him as he considered his possible freedom. He had worn the Mark for half his life, and it was a burden that looked to overwhelm him.
Scowling towards the book, he said, "It cannot be that easy."
Hermione tilted her head as she asked, "How many Potions masters do you know that can brew something this nasty looking and perform a spell like this? Or for that matter, even know this information exists?"
Severus observed her for a moment before nodding. “McGonagall will have the Veritaserum locked in her office.”
Hermione closed the book and took a piece of parchment with notes. “I'll go fetch it from her.”
At the door she stole a glance back at him. The sun reflected off his hair as he stared down. Hermione noticed with pain in her heart that he appeared to be tracing the outline of his Mark, as if bidding it a hopeful farewell.
“May I speak with you?” Hermione asked as she entered the office.
“Of course, Hermione,” Minerva said, offering her a seat and smiling over her glasses. Her desk was covered with parchment and Hermione noticed that she now had two school owls stationed in the office. “Would this have to do with a certain dark-haired patient?”
“Yes. It's two things, really. I had a thought that we should try to remove Severus' Mark,” Hermione said hopefully.
Minerva leaned back in her chair. “That would be wonderful, but I imagine the magic is much stronger than you may think.”
“I thought so too until Severus showed me the Dark Arts books hidden in a secret library.”
“Severus has books on the Dark Arts?” Minerva asked quickly. A great look of concern crossed her face. “How long as he had them?”
“Not long. He said that Dumbledore allowed him access to them shortly before everything happened,” Hermione said, unnerved by McGonagall's reaction. Is it worse than I thought?
“He allowed me to read through a few, and I think I've found something.”
Minerva leaned forward and listened as Hermione read her the passage, the ceremony details, and her idea about diverting the Death Eaters. When she had finished, Minerva clasped her hands on the desk and thought for a moment.
“Removing Severus' Mark would be a great gift to him, Hermione. I daresay the best gift anyone could ever give him. One word of caution, though,” she said, her expression changing to one of worry, "Severus has had an obsession with the Dark Arts for a long time, and it's an attraction that he has trouble denying.” She looked at Hermione with great sadness. “We don't want to lose him to that again.”
“Don't worry, I won't let that happen,” Hermione said with a fierce look to her.
“Perfect. Now,” Minerva said, changing the subject. “What was your second topic?'
“Oh,” Hermione looked down into her lap. “It was about Harry's training.”
“Oh? I think he's doing quite well, don't you?”
“Hermione, what aren't you telling me?” Minerva asked, getting up from her chair.
“It's just that Severus told me he isn't trying very hard,” Hermione shrugged. “Because you've been asking him to be less violent.”
An expression of frustration, then sadness passed over Minerva's face. She came around the desk in front of Hermione and said thoughtfully, “I've asked Severus to keep things easy to give Harry a chance to build confidence and, at the same time, to keep them from killing each other.” Nodding slowly, she looked up at Dumbledore's sleeping portrait.
Hermione nodded, feeling trapped between her friend and the man she had become so close to in recent days.
“Severus and Harry seem destined to always hate each other, I'm afraid. Severus shared with me that he would press hard on Harry to force him to cast silently, but I had no idea he would resort to near strangulation," Minerva said with a slow shake of her head. "I've been hesitant to give him free rein because of what could happen.” Sighing, she continued, “I see now that it won't help Harry to have the opportunity to duel with a wizard as powerful as Severus and hold him back.”
“Thank you. I'll let Severus know,” Hermione said, knowing the duels were about to take on a whole new level of intensity.
“Oh, you'll be needing this for the Mark then,” Minerva said, unlocking a small strongbox under her desk and pulling out a vial of Veritaserum. As she handed it to Hermione, she warned, “Remember, do not ask Severus anything you do not wish to know while he is under its influences.”
Hermione took the vial and when she saw Minerva wink at her, smiled in return.
Hermione returned to the rooms and paused outside the door. She felt the weight of the vial in her hand and considered the opportunity. While under the influence of the serum, Severus would be compelled to tell the truth. She knew what she wanted to ask him, but feared the worst from his possible answer. Sighing, she opened the door and entered the sitting room, where she found him still in the chair by the window. Holding up the vial, she announced, “I've got it.”
They walked in silence through the halls. Considering the seriousness of what they were about to do, Hermione let it go that he was still dragging the leg. Severus moved in a loping motion, leaning forward with each stride, then dragging the injured leg forward. His hair hung in black sheets around his face, swinging in time as he moved. Once outside the Potions classroom, he paused with a hand on the door.
“Hermione, I've read more while you were gone about this ceremony. I will need you to leave the room at one point. The magic I will be performing is far too dangerous.” His eyes took on a serious depth, imploring her to heed his warning. “I don't want to hurt you.”
Hermione refused to believe that he would ever hurt her, but slowly nodded. “I understand.”
He pushed the door open and headed towards his old private lab.
Hermione set a cauldron to simmer and gathered the ingredients which, thankfully, he had in his stores. The last ingredient, however, was too terrible to consider just yet. She watched him in quiet fascination. While he had taught for many years, she had never had the opportunity to watch him work. The line in his brow became deeper as he muttered various incantations, as if willing the colors to merge into each other. A terrible light rose from within the potion, giving it a living presence. Considering the complexity of the potion, she doubted there were many that could successfully brew it. Part of the entry mentioned the risk of a deadly explosion should the temperature be disrupted or the consistency of the ingredients incorrect. She noticed that when Severus read over that part, he showed no concern. Either confidence or arrogance, or both.
After what seemed several hours in silence, Severus removed his outer robes. After carefully placing them aside, he moved his hands to his throat, tilted his head back, and began the slow process of removing his coat. Hermione couldn't help but stare as he addressed each button, twisting his hands slightly as he moved downward. His hands seemed to glide along, intimately familiar with the process from many years of practice. When he began to remove his shirt, he allowed his eyes to meet hers. Her breath hitched, and her heart pounded with a force she didn't think possible. The moment would be positively erotic if it weren't for what he was about to do.
Answering the question in her eyes, he explained quietly, “There will be a significant amount of blood.”
Hermione's eyes widened. “How much?” she asked, approaching him and looking closer at the notes. She knew it required blood sacrifice, but in her rush she neglected to notice the amount.
“Enough to fill this,” he said, placing a long shallow bowl on the table. “You will make the cut, complete the potion, and then pour the finished product onto the wound. It will be caustic, so take care.”
“Me? Severus, I—” Hermione started with shock in her eyes. She took a step back as if to escape this responsibility. At that moment she wished she had never come across the passage.
He looked at her gravely as he picked up his wand and conjured a chain and ring of metal. Her distracted mind told her it was a shackle to hold his arm down.
“Hermione, I need you to do this.”
She shook her head in slow denial. “What about McGonagall? Can't she?”
“I trust you, and quite frankly I'm not the least bit interested in being seen this way,” he said quietly, his eyes pleading.
At that her resistance fell. She distantly heard herself say, “I'll do whatever you need.”
Severus limped to the far side of the room and pulled a shallow box off of a dusty shelf. Inside laid a long black dagger. He ran his hand lightly along the handle, carved out of marble for extra weight. The shape, of course, was a serpent. The blade was crafted specifically for blood sacrifice, fashioned to a lethal sharpness. The weight of the handle and blade was meant to allow for an easy cut, as it was used upon the holder for Dark magic potions. It would cut deep and fast, hopefully well enough to leave a precise wound favorable to quick healing. Taking a deep breath, he turned to find Hermione staring at him, the color completely gone from her face.
Hermione tried to busy herself by watching the potion calmly simmer, trying to avoid thinking of what was to come. Her eyes were drawn to watching Severus holding a dagger in his hands, almost contemplating it before he turned to approach her. The anxiety level gripping her heart rose with every disturbingly abnormal step he took towards her.
“It will be ready by the time we need it,” he said, checking the potion. He laid the knife next to the shallow bowl, allowing his fingers to brush down the handle's length. Bending low over the table, he laid his arm down and closed the shackle over his wrist. He muttered a spell and the metal glowed white, before dying back down to a dark metallic silver.
“It will not break or respond to spells until this is done,” he said, answering her unspoken question. His black eyes glittered with anticipation, holding hers for a moment before she looked away. Hermione felt like she was going to positively be sick. When reading the passage, she'd had no idea the reality of the process, too caught up in the possibility of setting him free.
“Hermione, when I tell you to leave, you do not hesitate, understand?” he said, searching her eyes as if confirming she was aware of the danger.
Hermione nodded. She felt a sick, twisting knot falling slowly down through her stomach as he positioned his forearm over the bowl.
Severus drank a few drops of Veritaserum and motioned for her to read from the parchment. Hesitantly, she took it and, noticing her hand was trembling, resorted to holding it down while she read.
In a shaking voice, she said, “It says you are to answer the following questions. Are you prepared?”
“Who is your bonder?”
Severus paused for a long while, and Hermione began to think he may not answer. Finally he said clearly, “Tom Marvolo Riddle”
Hermione noticed that he flinched when forced to say Voldemort's true name and wondered if that would ever leave him.
“Do you swear on your life that you wish to break this bond and denounce your bonder?”
“Yes, I swear.”
They both noticed that the Mark grew brighter as he spoke. Suddenly, Severus jerked back and strained against the chain, hissing in pain. He gripped the edge of the table with his other hand so hard she noticed his knuckles were white. Again and again he hit the end of the chain, the links echoing his pain by shaking along with him.
Hermione felt completely helpless, wanting to both comfort him and afraid to approach him in this state. Her thoughts kept flying back to how he looked when she found him on the grounds. How her image of him was completely torn apart along with his body. The strong persona he'd spent years building, reduced to a barely living wreck draped in her arms. He was strangely calm then, nothing like what he was now, gripped in the clutches of something so utterly terrifying.
“Do it now,” he gasped before throwing his head down when the Mark burned again. The shackle cut into his wrist as he twisted. His arm shook badly, every vein and tendon visible.
“Severus, I can't–”
His eyes took on a savage light as the Mark burned even brighter. Sweat beaded along his forehead, causing his hair to stick to his face.
When she continued to back away, he roared, “NOW!”
His voice echoing throughout the room thrust her from her thoughts. Quickly, she grabbed the dagger and drew it hard across the Mark. She moaned in disgust as it sank deeper when crossing his muscle. Severus threw his head back, his eyes closed and teeth bared. Immediately, a wide cut appeared as if she was writing with a quill, leaving an ink trail. Dark blood began to flow, landing in sickly drops into the bowl. The bleeding increased, coating his entire forearm and pouring in time with his heartbeat.
Hermione dropped the knife to the floor, where it clattered loudly. She stared at the blood on her hands, just as she did the night she found him dying on the castle grounds. Severus looked like a trapped animal that has given up hope of escape, patiently bleeding enough to fill the bowl. His wrist was mangled from struggling against the shackle, leaving a dark trail of blood that traveled in the wood's deep grain before dripping to the floor. Deathly pale, Severus leaned on the table at an angle, staring at her, barely breathing.
Neither of them spoke. Hermione stood frozen as they both watched the bowl fill at an agonizingly slow pace.
When the level finally reached the brim, Hermione gently eased the bowl out from under his arm and poured it into the cauldron. The potion glowed bright crimson for a moment before darkening to black.
“Now... ” Severus said through clenched teeth. He could only breathe in shallow gasps as he leaned all of his weight onto the table. What hair wasn't plastered to his head hung around his face in strings. His chest was streaked with a mixture of blood and sweat and his free arm stretched out across the table, gripping his wand. His shoulders shook. “Pour some of the potion on the cut and leave immediately.”
Hermione hesitated, shaking her head slowly.
Severus looked up and said slowly with great effort, “I need you.”
Hermione stood for a moment and, remembering the Veritaserum, knew it was true. She held his gaze for a moment before taking some potion with a ladle. Trying to steady her trembling hand, she swiftly poured the potion directly into the wound.
A very special thanks to Eliathanis for the following art. She was able to capture the Dark Arts library exactly as I saw it in my mind. A debt of gratitude goes to Ariadne for commissioning it as a gift. There is no greater bond than a writer and her beta.