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True Lies

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Wednesday afternoon

"Tell us again," Lupin said, stroking his thin mustache with two fingers. "What were Voldemort's exact words?"

I slid the small wooden box carefully into the center of the table, around which were gathered as many adult members of the Order of the Phoenix as I had been able to contact at such short notice, along with Potter and Granger. Potter's presence was nothing but an irritant, but hers... "He said, 'Take this, Severus, as a Yuletide gift. Open it before our next meeting. I will be most interested in the results."

Granger nibbled a thumbnail, gazing fiercely at the box as if by pure force of will she could penetrate its secrets. I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. "He said he was interested 'in the results'," she said. "Not 'in your opinion' or 'in what you find'. So he expects something to happen when you open it."

I massaged my temples in a vain attempt to counter the headache that never seemed to leave me these days. I could barely remember a time when I had not been tired and in pain. "Evidently. And clearly he will know if I do not, since whatever it is will have failed to happen."

"What if it kills you?" she said. "What if he knows that you're working with the Order and this is his way of getting rid of you?"

Ah, how little they understood our enemy. "If the Dark Lord desired my death, he would be far more likely to do the deed himself. At the very least, he would have me open the box in front of him so he could have the pleasure of watching my demise. And if he knew I were betraying him, he would assuredly want a more...personal vengeance, not something done at one remove."

Moody picked up the box and rotated it slowly in his hand, scrutinizing it with his magical eye. Made of olive-wood, it was carved on all six sides, the lid sealed shut with a snake impressed in wax of a venomous green. Replacing it on the table, he pointed his wand at it and murmured a few words. A silvery glow enveloped the casket briefly, then faded. "Hmph. There's a curse of some kind here, but not a fatal one."

"That's good, right?"

"You've got a lot to learn, Granger," Moody growled. "There's a near-infinite number of terrible things you can do to a person without killin' 'em."

Granger leaned across the table to pick up the box and as she did so I caught the fragrance of jasmine. Was it something she used on her hair? A perfume? I would know it anywhere. At the castle, I could tell when she had passed through a hallway just before me; the sensual aroma lingered in the dungeons long after Potions classes. A discriminating sense of smell was vital for mastery of Potions, but lately she had turned mine into more of a distraction.

She ran her fingers gently across the top of the box. "I thought these were leaves carved around the edge of the lid, but they're words."

I had already seen them, of course, in my initial examination of the item before I deemed it safe to bring it here to Grimmauld Place, but I was impressed that she had spotted them so quickly. " 'Χωρίς την αλήθεια , δεν μπορεί να υπάρχει σοφία.' 'Without truth, there can be no wisdom.' No doubt it is in some way connected with the nature of the curse."

"Maybe it's something you can fake," Tonks mused. Her hair was an eye-watering electric blue at the moment. "To make him think you opened it."

Not for the first time, it occurred to me that Auror training ought to include a required course in basic logic. "To fake it, I would need to know what it does," I said patiently. "To know what it does, I would need to open the box. If I open the box, I will no longer need to fake it."

"What if we have someone else test it first?" Lupin suggested. "Maybe Kreacher would be willing."

I gave a snort. "Sirius Black, amongst his numerous flaws" -- Potter's mouth opened to defend his godfather but Granger elbowed him into silence -- "had, as you know, an exceedingly low opinion of me. As house elf to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, Kreacher would be unlikely to look kindly upon my request for assistance."

Moody shrugged. "No problem there. Harry can just order him--"

"Absolutely not!" Granger was up in arms immediately, her face flushed with anger. "Kreacher can't refuse a direct order from Harry, you know that. It wouldn't be fair to force him to put himself in danger!"

"This isn't a tea party, Granger," Moody growled. "We can't go around sticking our pinkies out, saying Please and Thank you and If it isn’t too much trouble. War means using the weapons we have to hand."

"House elves are not weapons!" she retorted defiantly.

Watching Granger face down Alastor Moody was like watching a kneazle pit itself against a dragon. What must it be like, I wondered, to feel such passion for a cause? To do something because you believed in it, not out of ambition or fear or a need to do penance? Had I ever felt such purity of purpose, even at the beginning?

"She's right," Molly put in firmly. "Besides, the effects on a house elf might be completely different from the effects on a human." Molly had a delightfully practical streak. I suspected it came from having six sons.

Lupin ran a distracted hand through his hair, leaving it more disarranged than ever. "Well, what about one of us, then?"

Tonks' eyes narrowed and her hair went fire-engine red. "Don't you dare, Remus Lupin."

"I'll do it," Granger said. "I'm the only one around here who's expendable. No, shut up, Harry," she said, rounding on Potter. "It's obvious you can't do it. And everyone else here has something important to do -- Aurors, children..." She cast a sideways glance at me. "...spying. I'm the obvious choice."

Nothing on this earth would have persuaded me to let her do such a thing, but I was not about to say so. Fortunately I had a rational rebuttal. "Admirable though your offer is, Miss Granger," I said, deliberately making my tone as sardonic as possible, "it may be that whatever is in this box works only once. If so, and if we waste that one use on someone other than myself, how am I to prove to the Dark Lord that I obeyed his commands? And trust me, he does expect to be obeyed."

The table erupted into heated discussion, with various ridiculous theories proposed and rejected. I said nothing, fully aware that if I wished to maintain my pose as a Death Eater I had only one choice, and that sooner or later they would realize it. Meanwhile, I could take some small pleasure in the fact that she was here, in this room, almost close enough to touch.

"We have no options," I said finally, when the debate had run its course. "Whatever it is, it is mine to deal with." I reached for the box. "Be watchful. I have no way of knowing what may happen." I took a deep breath and broke the seal.

The moment I did so, the lid sprang open. Inside the box lay a small heap of silvery, glittering dust, shifting gently as though stirred by an unseen hand. Even as I watched, it rose from the interior of the box and surrounded my head in a sparkling simoom, entering my nose and mouth, but instead of making me cough as I had expected it brought a clean, fresh scent, like the air after a thunderstorm or at the top of a high mountain. I gasped involuntarily as a strange cool sensation rippled through me, from my scalp to the tips of my toes.

A circle of anxious -- and wary -- eyes watched me from around the table.

Nothing happened.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Wednesday night

Six hours later, nothing had still happened except that the others were treating me like an unexploded bomb.

I poured myself a glass of wine. Molly and Arthur were preparing dinner, moving around each other in the kitchen with the ease of two people who have done the same domestic dance a thousand times. Potter was somewhere about the house, while Granger, Lupin and Tonks were at the table going through the few books the Black library had yielded that might be of use.

Moody, unsurprisingly, was busy watching me for signs of imminent disaster, as he had been since I opened the box. Constant vigilance indeed.

Tonks looked up at me. "So, you don't feel any different?" she asked for what must have been the fifth time.

"No faintness, no dizziness, no sudden inexplicable urge to murder you all in your beds," I confirmed. "Although I may make an exception for you, Moody, if you do not cease this incessant glaring."

Moody simply grunted, but he did back away a few paces.

Lupin turned a few pages in the book he was perusing, a ponderous volume on curses and hexes. "Stone of Truth, truth in advertising -- Molly, you ought to have Fred and George read that -- truth potions (see veritaserum), truth sequencing, truth-telling...nothing about truth curses." He slammed the book shut. "Not that this is much use as a reference, it's nearly a century out of date."

"The Black family were never particularly interested in books," I murmured. "A common failing of aristocrats in every age."

Granger glanced up at me. "Muggle or magical?" she said with a half-smile.

"Both," I said, hoping that the unsettling effect her direct gaze had on me was not perceptible to others. "Those who are granted power and wealth by virtue of their birth rarely feel the need to prove that they deserve it. Others of us...have to work at it."

Footsteps sounded outside the kitchen and a moment later Potter entered. "Look at this picture I found in Sirius' room," he said, sitting down next to Granger and showing her a photograph.

She leaned over to look. "Oh, Harry. It's your mum and dad, isn't it? She's lovely."

My first instinct was to leave the room. The last thing I wanted was to listen to Potter talk about Lily and James, but instead I remained, leaning against the doorjamb.

"She wasn't just a pretty face," Moody added. "She was a damn fine witch."

Molly dried her hands on a dishtowel and came to stand beside Potter. "She was a good friend, too, Harry. Look, Arthur, this must have been right after they got married. She's got her hair done with that curly bit on the side."

I remembered that style. I had hated it. Lily must have too, for she had kept it only briefly.

Unexpectedly, Potter turned to me. "I know what you thought of my father, Professor. What did you think of my mother?"

"I loved her, of course." I froze, my wine glass halfway to my lips. What. The bloody. Hell.

There was a shocked silence. Six and a half pairs of eyes stared at me. Potter's mouth was hanging open, making him look even more dunderheaded than usual. Granger, oddly enough, looked unsurprised and faintly sympathetic.

"You...loved her?" Potter said slowly and carefully.

"Of course not," I said. Or rather, that was what I intended to say. What I said instead was, "Yes." A queasy sensation began in the pit of my stomach. What in the name of Merlin was going on here?

Potter was staring at me, green eyes bright with fury. "Liar! You don't deserve--"

"Easy, Harry," Arthur said, putting a restraining hand on his arm.

Lupin stood up slowly from the table, a worried look on his face. Moody narrowed his good eye and moved closer to me again. The soup on the stove began to boil over and Molly with a quick exclamation hastened over to deal with it.

"I can't imagine why you'd want to make such a thing up, Severus," Lupin said, shaking his head. "But if it's true, I also can't imagine why you would admit it. Neither makes any sense." He took a deep breath. "I think we have to consider that this might be the effect of the curse manifesting itself."

"What, giving him delusions?" said Potter through clenched teeth.

I said nothing, fearful of what might come out of my mouth. My sense of queasiness was rapidly building to panic.

"''Without truth, there can be no wisdom,'" Granger said softly. "The words on the box. That's why he admitted it. That's what the curse does."

My mind was racing. I had been asked a direct question and had replied with the truth, not because I wished to but because I could not prevent myself. Was Granger right? If so, was it only direct questions, or did it extend to every statement that came out of my mouth? Gods below, let it not be that!

"How do you know?" Harry demanded, turning on her. "How do we know the curse isn't meant to lead us away from wisdom, by making him say nothing but lies? Voldemort would love that, wouldn't he?"

"Voldemort already assumes I am lying through my teeth to you, stupid boy," I said without thinking. Which was true enough, but as I had meant to say it, it proved nothing either way.

"We'll have to test you," Moody said harshly. "Find out if Granger's right."

"But how?" Tonks said, scowling. "We can't ask questions only he knows the answer to, since we'll have no way of knowing if the answer he gives is true or not. In fact the only way it'd be a fair test is if we know the answer and Severus doesn't. And even under veritaserum, if the person doesn't know the answer, he can just say 'I don't know.'"

"Well, you're not asking him anything else about my mother," Potter said heatedly.

Again it was Granger who came up with the solution, and my already-substantial respect for her intelligence climbed another few notches. "Think of a statement that only you know whether it's true or false. Then ask him to repeat it. If he can repeat the true ones but not the false ones, then we'll know."

"What if he can repeat them all, regardless?" Tonks objected. "What will that prove?"

She shrugged. "We have to start somewhere, don't we?"

"Clever," Moody said approvingly. "I'll go first. Repeat this, Snape: Alastor Moody has sixteen Galleons and seven Knuts in his pocket at this very moment."

"Alastor Moody has sixteen Galleons and seven Knuts in his pocket at this very moment," I said rapidly, willing him to have fifteen, or eighteen, or none at all.

Moody took his hand from his pocket and scattered the coins on the table: sixteen Galleons and seven Knuts. "Arthur, you next."

Arthur thought for a moment, then said, "Charlie's favorite dessert is apple crumble."

I opened my mouth to repeat it, but my lips and tongue refused to form the words. I struggled for a moment, gaping like a fish, but to no avail.

Arthur nodded slowly. "It's sticky toffee pudding."

One by one they went round the circle, and in every case I was only able to repeat a statement if it were true. Potter waved away his chance, his face still strained with the effort to absorb my first involuntary revelation. Finally, it came around to Granger.

She hesitated, biting her lip as if struggling with a difficult decision. Finally she took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and looked me straight in the eye. "Hermione Granger is in love with Ron Weasley," she said clearly.

I stared at her. Certainly I had no idea whether it was true or false, but there were -- to my regret -- so many things I did not know about her. Why would she choose that, out of all possible statements? I was reluctant to speak, feeling as though I would be venturing where I had no right to go, but far stronger than that was my desire to respect her right to do as she chose.

I opened my mouth, but try as I might I could not speak the words. Though it was, in a sense, the final nail in my coffin, I could not help but feel a brief sense of gratification. The youngest Weasley was a decent sort but I could not imagine Granger mated to him. It would be like matching a hummingbird with a bear.

The others glanced at Granger for confirmation, and she nodded, her eyes never leaving mine.

"Well, that's that," Moody said, with an air of finality.

"You cannot lie." Arthur Weasley's face was somber.

There was a long silence as the full implications sank in. I watched their faces as they each realized what this meant.

I sank into a chair, feeling cold and rather sick. Of all the mishaps that might befall me in my role as spy for Dumbledore, I had never even considered something as dire as this. Narcissa surprising me with her request for the Unbreakable Vow a few months ago had made things thorny enough; add this handicap and the complications would become well-nigh insupportable. At a minimum, my usefulness as a double agent was over; at worst, I was now an active liability to the Order.

"The minute Voldemort asks you, you'll tell him everything, won't you?" Potter said coldly, as if I had somehow planned this. "You won't be able to stop yourself. Maybe that's what you wanted all along."

I opened my mouth to utter a sharp retort, then closed it, suddenly reluctant to speak at all. Who knew what might come out?

Granger leaped to my defense. "Don't be an idiot, Harry. If S--Professor Snape wanted to betray the Order he's had plenty of chances. He doesn’t need to invent a curse and inflict it on himself."

Tonks shifted uneasily. "Veritaserum can be resisted, if the person is strong-willed enough. Maybe this can, too."

Moody shook his head. "This curse, whatever it is, goes a lot deeper than veritaserum. Veritaserum is effective only when the person under the influence knows what is true and what is not. As Granger's test just proved, this curse isn't limited by the victim's own knowledge. I doubt it could be resisted."

"We have two options," I said. "Break the curse, or find something to counteract its effects. And our time is short, since Voldemort has set a meeting for the Death Eaters in two days' time."

"If we want to break the curse, the first step is to identify it," Moody said. "Best place to do the research for that is the Restricted Section at Hogwarts. Lupin, you come with me. We'll contact McGonagall and Slughorn and get them to help us. Arthur, Molly, you might as well head home since Arthur has to be at the Ministry tomorrow. The rest of you, keep working on the other possibility."

 

Two hours later, the four of us that remained were no closer to "the other possibility." It was dark out and Kreacher had lit a fire in the library for us.

Potter was cross-legged on the floor in front of the hearth, drumming his fingers on his thigh. "What about a potion that just...stops you from talking? Or mangles your words so they can't be understood?"

"I realize it is a trope of Muggle literature that 'the bad guys are always stupid,'" I said acidly, "but I can assure you that the Dark Lord is far from unintelligent. He is perfectly aware of what he gave me, and such a transparent stratagem would not even fool Hagrid."

"But--"

"Harry, if he said it, it must be true," Tonks reminded him from her position curled up in a chair. As more and more suggestions had been raised and shot down, the color had leached out of her hair and it was now a drab grey-brown.

Granger was pacing up and down the room, muttering to herself and twisting a piece of hair in her fingers. In anyone else, this would have irritated me beyond belief. It was, no doubt, yet another sign of my foolishness that in her I found it...charming?

"Do sit down, Miss Granger," I said finally. "I am already exhausted, and your ceaseless motion is exacerbating it."

She stopped pacing and turned towards me, biting her lip in a distracting manner. "Veritaserum," she said.

"If you are proposing the antidote for veritaserum as a possible solution to my...problem, I can assure you it will not work." I said. "The antidote acts directly on the presence of veritaserum itself, neutralizing its ingredients."

She shook her head, her hair catching amber glints from the firelight, and I found myself wondering how it would feel if I were to run my fingers through it.

She was looking at me expectantly. "My apologies. I was..." I snapped my mouth shut, groping desperately for a true but unrevealing end to the sentence I had thoughtlessly begun. "I was thinking of something else."

"I said, what if you brewed veritaserum backwards?"

I frowned. "Explain."

"If we took the recipe for veritaserum and sort of inverted it. Turned it inside out. Where it calls for hot oil, we use cold. If it calls for red wine, we use white. Instead of chopped something we use whole something. Where it calls for, I don't know, something red we use something green."

I pondered. "In theory, the end result would in effect be a kind of anti-veritaserum, forcing someone who drank it to speak only lies."

"Which might cancel out your compulsion to speak the truth."

"Fascinating," I said. To my knowledge such a thing had never been attempted.

"Is it worth a try?"

"Indeed so," I said. "We will begin first thing in the morning."

Tonks stood up and stretched. "Let's get some sleep then. And Harry, why don't you help them out tomorrow? I hear you've been awfully good at Potions this year."

Granger and I exchanged a glance. "No," we said in unison.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Thursday morning

"I had no idea there was a fully-functional potions laboratory here." Granger moved slowly around the hidden basement room, her fingers gently brushing the vials and flasks, the cauldrons and alembics. We had decided to begin work first thing in the morning, since part of the potion-bewing was sensitive to time of day.

"Walburga Black was an enthusiastic amateur," I said, opening a cupboard and beginning to sort through the various pots and bags of ingredients. Walburga had also been obsessively organized, thank Merlin, and everything was neatly labeled. "Mostly poisons, of course, but anyone who brews poisons also brews antidotes. Between the two, we should have the ingredients we need."

"I still remember our first Potions class. I knew all the answers and you never called on me." Her voice behind me held no reproach, only a trace of amusement.

"If you already knew the answers, there was no point in calling on you. The point of public humiliation, after all, is to inspire lazy students to work harder." Damn it, I hadn't meant to admit that. I turned away from the cupboard, my arms full of potion ingredients, and found myself face to face with her, her lips parted in surprise. For a moment we stood there motionless, almost close enough to touch, then she colored and stepped aside.

"I am, as it happens, capable of brewing a potion myself," I went on as I laid out the containers on the table, concentrating on keeping my voice cool and controlled. My heart was another matter; its galloping, I was certain, ought to have been audible across the room.

"It was my idea," she said pointedly. "I'm not going to let you take all the credit."

"Impertinence," I growled. I lit the flame under a pewter cauldron half-filled with water and oil of aloe and sprinkled the surface with white chrysanthemum petals

"What are you going to do, take points from Gryffindor?" she said, giving me an arch look.

"Here." I shoved a mortar and pestle at her. "Grind these duboisia leaves." I had assumed she would go around the table to the opposite side, but instead she moved to stand beside me.

I busied myself chopping bittersweet and truthwort bulbs, trying to ignore the proximity of her body beside mine. She worked quickly and efficiently, as she always had; it was a pleasure to observe her skill and know that I had helped to hone it. I appreciated, too, that she did not seem to require idle chatter.

We had finished the first phase of preparations before she spoke again. "I didn't think of it last night when I suggested this," she said diffidently, "but last year, you told Professor Umbridge that veritaserum has to mature for a full lunar phase. If that's true, I don't see how--"

I raised an eyebrow. "Come, come, Miss Granger, surely you can guess that was a deception on my part, to avoid being ordered to brew more for her. Do you think a potion involving truth would ever be tied to 'the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb'?"

She paused in her stirring. "Romeo and Juliet?" she said, brown eyes wide in surprise.

"But of course."

"You...you've read Shakespeare?" Her voice went up so high on the last word it nearly squeaked.

"I am full of surprises, Miss Granger," I said reprovingly, enjoying her amazement. "As to the brewing, it will require some calculation, but I should guess that the entire process will take no more than eighteen hours or so."

I took out a piece of parchment and a quill. The arithmantic calculations for veritaserum were complex and involved; to invert them required careful determination of the order of operations as well as integrating the reversal of other steps in the process. There were also the alternate ingredients we were using to consider, all of which factored into the formula.

I had been scratching away for perhaps twenty minutes when I realized she was standing close behind me, watching. "I've always been fascinated by Arithmancy," she said interestedly.

"Have you," I said in my least encouraging tones.

"Oh, yes. What's that?" She leaned over my shoulder to point at the parchment.

"Ansuz, reversed," I said, determinedly ignoring the sensation of her body pressed against mine.

"It's odd, when you think about it," she went on. "The combination of something as precise as mathematics with something as woolly as divination -- you'd think it would never work."

"And yet it does," I said. Her breath was warm on my cheek, the scent of jasmine was all around. All I had to do was turn my head...

No. This was ridiculous. I was reading far too much into this. "Miss Granger, you are making it rather difficult to concentrate." Gods knew that was true. Much more of this and I would be unable to think at all. "Go and stir the potion. Six times clockwise, once counterclockwise, pause ten seconds and then repeat."

For a moment she did not move, as if reluctant to leave my side, then she stepped away.

I continued my calculations as she stirred the cauldron. Six, one, pause. Six, one, pause.

"If this doesn't work," she said quietly, "will we have time to try something else?"

I would have liked to offer her a comforting lie, but the question was unambiguous and the curse would not let me. "No."

"What will we do if we can't break the curse before your next meeting with Voldemort?" Her voice was low, as if she both wanted and did not want to hear the answer.

I tensed, my quill poised over the parchment. Thankfully, the question was open-ended enough to allow me to be evasive. "You...and the Order will go on as you have been." Though I likely would not.

"Severus," she said softly, and the sound of my name on her lips stirred in me a feeling I had thought gone forever. "What will you do?"

I strove to hold back the first answer that leaped to my lips, searching for another that would be equally true but less revealing. "What I must," I finally said, praying that she would ask no further.

She seemed to sense my unspoken wish, and said no more. We worked in silence for a time, though from the corner of my eye I caught her watching me more than once.

Finally she spoke. "Did you--" she began, then shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. I won't ask you any questions. I don't want you to be forced to answer. You've already got too many people forcing you to do things." I shot her a startled look, wondering how much she really knew. "But if you'd like to tell me anything...anything at all," she finished gently, "I would very much like to hear it."

Perhaps it was my growing conviction that this would fail, Lupin and Moody would fail, and that I would never be held to anything I said. Perhaps it was being poised between the freedom she had given me to speak or not, and the rigid constraint to speak only the truth. I only know that I found myself talking easily, quietly, about things of little importance but great meaning. The pleasures of potion making. The satisfaction of observing a new concoction work as I had designed it. The serenity of early morning by the lake, watching the sun rise over the towers of the castle.

When I chose to be silent she did not press me, and at times the only sound was the muresatirev (for so we had decided to call it) bubbling gently in the cauldron. She had brought a book and so had I, and we sat in a companionable silence that threaded its way into me until I found a measure of peace in the midst of the chaos of lies and deception that for so long had comprised my life.

I asked nothing of her, and she volunteered little. I sensed a reserve in her which I attributed to my earlier rebuff; she was simply being kind, as she was with everyone. That would have to be enough.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Thursday evening

Dinner that evening was a somber affair. While Granger and I worked in the laboratory that afternoon, an an owl had arrived from Lupin: Dumbledore was away, no one knew where; they were working with Horace and Minerva but thus far had discovered nothing. Finally, just after ten o'clock, they returned. Moody's scarred face was unreadable. Lupin looked as he always did -- rumpled, tired, and in dire need of a good tailor -- but his expression was, if possible, even more hangdog than usual. This did not bode well.

"Got your owl about the anti-veritaserum," Moody said when the six of us were gathered round the table. "Interesting approach, that. Worth a bit of investigation when things settle down a bit. Your idea, Granger?"

She nodded. "But I wouldn't have been able to carry it out myself. I don't have anywhere near the expertise to figure out the antithesis of every ingredient and every part of the process."

"Yet," I said, and she gave me a tired smile. Despite the circumstances, I had enjoyed our day of brewing far more than I had anticipated.

"Is it done? Will it work?" Lupin asked anxiously, reinforcing my suspicion that what they had found was not encouraging.

"It is cooling as we speak, then will need to sit in a stoppered flask for sixteen hours, which is four o'clock tomorrow. With veritaserum, the flask must be lapis; in this case we are using agate, for its properties of eloquence and of turning enemies' swords against themselves. As to whether it will work?" I shrugged. "The chances are...not great. Such a thing has never been attempted before, and it is possible, even likely, that we have made errors in our choice of ingredients or our calculations."

"Let's hope it does," Moody growled. "Because it may be our only chance."

Granger went pale but spoke calmly. "What did you find out?"

"The curse is αλήθειας κατάρα, alí̱theia katára, the Truth Curse," Lupin said. "As you might guess from the language of its name, it's quite ancient. The curse is inflicted via the inhalation of dust formed from --"

I raised a hand. "Omit the history lecture, Lupin. Our time is limited. Is there or is there not a way to break it?"

Lupin ran a hand through his hair. "Yes, there is a way to break the curse, but I'm not sure we have time."

"How long will it take?" Potter asked.

"It...well, I guess it depends on individual circumstances."

"I am, shall we say, highly motivated," I pointed out. "I am unlikely to dally."

"I'm not sure it's the sort of thing you can do yourself, Severus. I don't mean you personally," he added hastily. "I mean anyone. In fact, I'm not sure how one would go about it at all."

I sighed. "Do stop dancing around the point, for Merlin's sake. Just tell me: how is it done?"

He licked his lips and shot a nervous glance at Moody. "To break it requires discovering the person's most deeply-held conviction, and proving to them that it is a lie. Shatter the truth that lies at a person's core, and you destroy the curse's ability to use truth against them."

My most deeply held conviction. Did I even know what it was? Did any of us know what lay buried in the center of our soul?

"But...that's dreadful," Granger said after a moment. "A person's most deeply-held conviction, that's part of what makes them who they are. If you take that away it's like killing them, almost. Destroying them inside."

Moody nodded. "Not to mention it's well-nigh impossible to do."

Potter shook his head. "How could we hope to do it, let alone in a single day? I mean, Muggles go to therapy for years for things like this."

"We can at least find out what we're working with," Tonks said. "Maybe it's not impossible." She turned to me, and before I could stop her, said "What is your most deeply-held conviction?"

"That I am unworthy of love." Bound by the truth curse, I had no escape from the direct question. I clapped a hand over my mouth in horror, but too late: the words had been uttered. I shoved my chair back violently and strode from the room.

I rounded the corner and stopped a short way down the hall. I leaned against the wall, closing my eyes and pressing my palms against the smooth paneling. My chest felt as though an iron band were wrapped around it, my breath came short and shallow. Oh gods, to have had that torn out of me for everyone to hear, my self-loathing put on display for Potter to laugh at! Condemned by my own mouth, learning that what I had suspected for so many years was true. My mind replayed their stricken faces, but of them all the one that stood out was Granger: there had been tears in her eyes. Oh, worst of all, to be an object of pity.

Slowly I regained control of myself. This altered nothing; I had suffered distrust, animosity, hatred, what difference could yet one more humiliation make? As I forced myself to relax muscles knotted with tension, I realized that a heated conversation was taking place in the corridor just round the corner.

"Don't you see, Hermione? Now's our chance to find out what he really thinks!"

"That's Sirius talking, Harry, not you," Granger said angrily. "You know he never trusted Sev--Professor Snape."

"Maybe he had a good reason," Potter retorted. "I think we should ask him some hard questions. Who do you really serve? Are you planning to betray us? That sort of thing."

"Dumbledore trusts him," she argued. "Don't you think the Headmaster knows what he's doing?"

There was a brief silence, and when Potter spoke his voice was less certain. "Snape could be fooling him."

"The most powerful wizard in the world? Seriously, Harry?"

Potter mumbled something inaudible.

"Besides, to interrogate him like that would be insulting," she went on. "You know what he's risking for Dumbledore, for all of us! More, it's unfair. It would be taking advantage of him while he's defenseless!"

I felt a glow of gratitude for her defense, muted by the knowledge that in three months or less, she would no more defend me than she would Greyback. The rot on Dumbledore's hand was spreading slowly but steadily; between my promise to him and the vow I had made to Narcissa to protect Draco, the moment was fast approaching when I would, with a single act, sever all ties with the Order and damn myself as a traitor. The only saving grace was that, once done, it was unlikely I would ever see her again; I could avoid the final agony of seeing disgust and hatred in her eyes. I could bear anything but that.

I wished desperately that there were some way I could defend myself, give her a glimmer of doubt regarding my guilt so that she need not wholly condemn me. And then it came to me.

I took the few steps back down the hall and stepped into view, silencing their debate. Potter looked frustrated, Granger furious. And, of course, beautiful.

"You dare to question me, Potter?" I said with all the derision and hauteur I could muster. "You doubt my loyalties?"

"Of course he doesn't!" Granger said.

Potter hesitated, then nodded firmly. "Yes."

"And if you ask, and I answer, are you prepared to take whatever action is necessary, should the answer be...not to your liking?"

Potter raised his head and looked me straight in the eye. "Yes," he said.

"Good." I spoke to Potter, but I was looking at her. "Because you cannot hope to defeat the Dark Lord if you are not willing to do whatever is necessary. Now, ask me whom I serve."

"Who--" he began.

"Not you," I cut him off. "Granger. Ask."

Her eyes were bright; could those be tears? "I don't want to. I don't need to. I trust you."

"Then trust me in this," I said, as gently as I could. "Ask."

She gazed at me in confusion, lips parted, and I wanted nothing so much as to bend down and kiss her, just once.

"Please," I said.

She licked her lips. "Whom do you serve?" she whispered.

"Albus Dumbledore, in all things," I said, then turned and left.

As I made my way to my room, I wondered if she would remember my words in a few months' time, and if, against all odds, it would be enough to preserve in her heart a sliver of belief in me.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Thursday night

Late that night, there was a knock at my door.

"Who is it?" I said, knowing it could not be the person I wanted it to be.

"Lupin."

"I know how you feel," he said quietly, when he had come in and closed the door behind him. "I felt the same way for a long time, after Greyback attacked me and I realized what he had done to me. I hated him, of course, but I had become a monster just like him. I was a killer, an animal."

I did not look at him. "Your wounds were imposed upon you. Mine, invisible though they are, I have inflicted myself." Then, because I could not help myself, I asked, "What changed your mind?"

"Tonks," he said simply. "I know the kind of person she is, and if she can find it in her heart to love me, then there is something in me worth loving."

I stood up and went to the window, clasping my hands behind my back and gazing out at the dark street. "I see."

"Do you...is there someone like that for you?" he asked diffidently.

Much as I hated to respond, the curse would not allow me to remain silent in the face of a direct question. "Yes," I said brusquely.

"Who --" he began, then broke off. "No, it's unfair of me to ask you that. Not while you're defenseless. But is there any chance you might speak to them, ask them...?"

I thought of the statement Granger had chosen for our test the night before. She must have known what my answer would be, therefore she must have had a reason for wanting a public declaration of it. Perhaps she had wanted some particular person to hear it, and know it to be true? Even so, I had no reason whatsoever to think that I was that person. More likely it was Potter.

"No," I said flatly. "None whatsoever." I felt a twinge of regret as I realized that that must indeed be the truth, since I had been able to say it with such finality. I had never had much hope, after all. Why should it hurt so, giving up something of which I had had so little to begin with?

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Friday afternoon

I spent most of Friday reading in my room. The potion would work or it would not; my actions now could not affect it one way or the other. I -- we -- had done our best, and only time would tell if it had been enough. Besides, I had no wish to face the others, either their sympathy or their pity, and by staying away I avoided the possibility of being forced to speak truths I would rather keep hidden. I had honed my voice into my sharpest weapon; now, my only protection was silence.

The irony of the situation did not escape me.

At quarter to four I went down to the potions laboratory to fetch the agate vial, and another, this one of milky opal and stoppered in lead. As I returned I passed Granger in the hallway; she hesitated as if about to speak, but I brushed past her without a word. I could not bear to see the hope on her face, when I had none myself.

At four o'clock we gathered in the kitchen for the final test. There were eight of us: Moody had called Arthur and Molly back as reinforcements, no doubt fearing that I would try to run for it if the muresatirev failed. He knew as well as I did that flight would be ultimately futile -- the Dark Lord was not one to leave loose ends untied -- but people often did foolish things when they were desperate.

"Wands out," Moody said camly. "All but Severus."

"But surely there's no need for that," Granger objected, startled. "Even if it doesn't work, nothing will happen."

"You'd be surprised what people will do when they run out of options, Granger," he said. "We can't take chances."

A wave of exhaustion swept over me, and suddenly I simply wanted this to be over. "Put away your wands. I tell you that if this does not work, you have nothing to fear from me." Surely that was plain enough speech for an old warrior like Moody to understand.

He glanced at me sharply, then I saw comprehension dawn in his eyes and a tinge of respect. He nodded. "All right, then."

I unstoppered the vial and in one quick motion tossed the contents down my throat. It burned like acid, and I clenched my fist to keep from crying out. After a moment the pain faded somewhat. I swallowed, my throat feeling like it had been scoured with sandpaper.

"Water," I croaked.

Molly started to get a glass, but Moody put out a hand and stopped her. "No. Not until we know if it's worked." He looked around the table. "Who wants to test it?"

No one stepped forward, none of them eager to be the one to put an end to the uncertainty.

"Granger," he said finally. "You helped brew it. Let's give you the honor of finding out if it worked."

Our eyes met, and I could see her doubt and fear. "I don't...how?"

"Same way as before," he said. "Have him say something that you and only you know is false."

She stood indecisive for a moment, then leaned over and whispered in my ear so that only I could hear: "Hermione Granger is not in love with Severus Snape."

I gaped at her, thunderstruck.

She stepped back and gave me a challenging glance. "Say it. Say it and prove you can tell a lie."

Never in my life had I so desperately wanted to speak. But when I opened my mouth, I was unable to say a word.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Friday evening

Grimmauld Place, or what I could see of it from the window of my unlit room, was dark and deserted in the midnight cold. As empty as this house would be, once the Dark Lord asked me one or two questions and heard my answers. Within a day, every member of the Order would be captured; within a week, Britain would be under his thumb. All I had sacrificed, all I had tried to do in penance for my long-ago act of jealous vengeance, all would be for naught. If I had had any tears left, I would have wept.

I slipped my hand into the left-hand pocket of my robes and fingered the small lead-stoppered vial I had prepared. There was only one way out, of course. If I could not break the spell, then I could not let him question me. I could not run away -- he would set his hunters on me, Lucius and Greyback and the others, and the Dark Mark would draw them to me like nifflers to gold. That would only delay the inevitable. No, the Dark Lord would be convinced by nothing less than my corpse. I had always known that death was likely to be my payment and my reward; at times I had believed I would welcome it. But now, faced with the immediacy of it, I found that I valued my life -- miserable as it was -- after all.

Behind me I heard the soft sound of the door to my room opening.

"Go away, Lupin," I said without turning. "I am in no mood for your expressions of doggish loyalty tonight."

"It's not Lupin," she said softly. "It's me."

I closed my eyes for a moment. To save her, what would I not do? I had killed one woman I loved and the pain had nearly destroyed me. I would not repeat that mistake. "Miss Granger," I said after a moment, when I was sure I had control of my voice.

I heard her footsteps, light and hesitant, and then her hand was on my arm, gently turning me towards her. The faint glow of the streetlights illuminated her face as she looked up at me, her eyes wide and dark.

"Severus Snape," she whispered. "I love you."

For a moment I was unable to breathe, and I swear my heart stopped. Then I let out a short, humorless laugh. "If all of this was your idea of a last-ditch effort to break the curse, Miss Granger, I am sorry to say I see little chance of success if what you say is true, and even less if it is false."

"Hush." Her arms crept around my neck and she pulled my head down to hers.

Her lips were warm and alive and I felt my will to resist crumbling as her body pressed against mine. For one sweet moment I gave in, and then I grasped her shoulders and pushed her away. "No," I said, hating the sound of my voice, knowing that I was saying yes with every other part of me. "I will not allow it. Not like this."

Her lips quirked in a half-smile and she gave me a mischievous look. "So, you would allow it some other way?"

Curse her, she always had been too smart by half. "No," I said firmly. "Not any way. And besides," I added hastily, "since I know what you are attempting, you will fail. So there is no reason you should do this for me."

She lifted her chin and her eyes met mine defiantly. "I'm not doing this for you, Severus. I'm doing it for me. If you're going to be dead tomorrow --"

"What?" How could she have known what I had planned?

"'You cannot hope to defeat the Dark Lord if you are not willing to do whatever is necessary,'" she said, quoting my own words back at me. "I've seen you fingering something in your pocket all afternoon, you stupid man, and anyone with half a brain would know how your mind works. If you're going to be dead tomorrow, then at least I want tonight." Her voice broke on the last word and she bit her lip, then stepped forward and began unfastening the buttons of my robes, her fingers moving swiftly and surely.

"Miss Granger..." I half-raised one hand, then let it drop. Even knowing this was a ruse, a calculated effort, I could not bring myself to forego her touch.

She raised a hand to brush her thumb across my lips. "I think you might call me 'Hermione', don't you? Just for tonight? Please?"

"Hermione," I whispered, and kissed her, burying my hands in the thick mass of her hair, and every thought, every worry, every regret, vanished in the sensations that swept over me. She pressed me backwards until my knees struck the bed and I fell, her body a sweet weight on mine.

"Why don't you ask if I love you?" I said hoarsely, cupping her cheek in my hand.

She tilted her head, eyes shining in the dark. "Why do you think?"

"You would have the truth," I said. "Isn't that what all women want?"

"Do you think any woman wants a coerced confession? Whether your answer is yes or no, either way I would be unhappy. And so would you. It's enough that I love you."

And after that there was no more need for words.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Friday night

I drew on my robes as quietly as possible, checking the pocket for the lead-capped vial. I had thought at first I would go to Spinner's End, but then it occurred to me that it might be useful for the Dark Lord to have to waste some time searching for me, believing me to be still alive. The Forbidden Forest would be better for my purposes.

Behind me I heard the rustle of bedclothes. I had not meant to wake her, though I would have had to do so soon in any case so that she could return to her room before the others were awake. I would not have their suspicions of me transferred to her.

"Do you love me, Severus?"

At her words I turned. She lay on her side, one hand tucked under her cheek, the faint light from the window painting the curves of her body with pools of shadow. She had never looked more beautiful, and though I knew I should have sent her away the night before, I was selfishly glad I had not.

"No," I said automatically, though whether to protect myself or her I could not have said. She did not need to be burdened with my love, and I had no desire to be an object of pity. But...she had said she would not ask. Why now had she posed the question?

"You're lying," she said, and I could hear the laughter in her voice.

"Even if I am, why should you look so..." My voice trailed off. I had lied.

I had lied.

The curse was broken.

-- ++ SS&HG ++ --

Saturday evening

"Come closer, Severus," the Dark Lord invited. Bellatrix was standing beside him with a hand on his shoulder and Nagini was coiled in his lap. Both of them watched me as I moved to stand directly in front of him. We had been given a golden opportunity to cement his faith in me, but there was an equal risk of disaster. I would have to be very, very careful.

"Did you open my gift, Severus?" he asked, obsidian eyes unreadable.

"Yes."

"Show me the proof."

I handed him the box, now empty. He cast a quick charm to confirm that it was my hand and no one else's that had broken the seal.

"And did you find the results...pleasing?"

In my mind's eye I saw deep brown eyes, pale skin, felt warm lips on mine. "Some," I said. "Generally, no. Honesty is...contrary to both my nature and my habits. May I ask your purpose in this, my lord?"

His fingers slid up and down, idly caressing the snake in his lap. "It amuses me to test my followers' resourcefulness on occasion. I was curious whether, given such a handicap, you would be clever enough to avoid detection by the Order for a few days. If you were not, well, small loss to me of an inadequate lieutenant."

From the corner of my eye, I saw Bellatrix smile and lick her lips. So she too knew what the box had contained. "Test him, my lord! Test him!"

"Knowing you as I do, Severus, I am certain that you were able to identify the curse and that you are aware of the only known method of breaking alí̱theia katára. No doubt you explored this avenue." He leaned forward. "What then is your most deeply-held conviction, Severus?"

I almost smiled. It was so easy to say, now that I knew it to be a lie. "That I am unworthy of love, my lord. A conviction so useful to you that I have no desire to unseat it."

He gave a hissing laugh. "Well said, Severus. Nevertheless, now that I have had my fun, I cannot risk your encountering members of the Order and unwillingly revealing your true allegiance." He tossed me a flask. "Here is the antidote. Drink."

"The antidote?"

He shrugged. "Something developed by one of Dolohov's minions. He calls it muresatirev."

Granger had been right, then. Our failure had no doubt been due to our haste and inexperience with this technique. "Thank you, my lord. It would be...awkward to carry out my position as your eyes and ears within the Order in my present condition."

"My lord!" Bella objected, turning burning eyes on him. "Will you not question him first? Ask him the names of the Order members, where they meet, what they plan?" Her eyes narrowed and she fixed me with eyes as flat and black as the snake's. "Ask him where his true loyalties lie?"

"There is no need," Voldemort said dismissively. "It is laughably simple to guess the membership of the Order. They will soon be leaderless, in any case, and will wander aimlessly. As to his true loyalties -- ah, Bella, a man who is worthless in his own eyes is already, and always, mine."

And a man who is not, will never be, I finished silently. Now, I had not only something to fight against. I had something to fight for.