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Pride of Time

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Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

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Hermione received a flurry of owls two days later. The one from James fairly summed them all up, though Sirius, Marlene, Alice, Lily, Remus, Moody, Kingsley, and even Frank had something to say to her.

I can't believe you did that! James's letter exclaimed. I mean, gods, but that was brilliant! I wish I'd seen the look on their faces when you threw their offer back at them like a sack of dung bombs—but that was also ruddy stupid, too! Now they're going to be after you more than anyone else, and we've got enough on our hands without a bunch of fucked-up Death Eaters rioting for your head. I hope they delivered your message about where to stick it, though— everyone in the Order couldn't help but laugh their heads off when they heard that. If anyone had any doubts about your loyalty to the Order, they were all thrown out the window the moment that came out. No one tells You-Know-Who where to stick his offers of immortality and world domination…

Yes, they were all along those lines. Shocked, but awed and admiring. Cautiously worried that she had just made a bigger target out of herself, but still roaring with laughter at her audacity. Glad that she had finally, vocally, and very unalterably made her allegiance against Voldemort known.

Hermione also heard news from Alice that Molly Weasley ("A very nice woman, Hermione, you've never met her, but she's heard all about you and was so horrified—and secretly admiring, I think— when she heard about what you did!") had given birth to her sixth son and named him Ronald Billius Weasley. It was just a side-note from Alice, who was now five months along; she was getting some experience by helping Molly handle her other kids when her husband was away at the Ministry and she needed to either focus on her newborn or help out the Order by cooking dinner for them all ("She's a fantastic cook, you know." Yes, Hermione did know.)

A good deal of Alice and Lily's letters had begun to become very baby-oriented. They both wondered what their babies would look like when they were born, and they worried constantly about their babies' health over their own. Above all they tried to muse out how they were all going to handle dealing with children in the middle of a war. ("It wasn't exactly the best time, you know," Alice wrote dryly, "but I'm still very happy. I just hope this war is over soon…") and Hermione, though she could not sympathize with them, offered them her ear and attention as an outlet for their frustration while the stress of their pregnancies grew on top of everything else.

Lily even sent Hermione a picture of them all together at the Order Headquarters, though Hermione couldn't have for the life of her determined where they were from the picture alone. It looked like a large, well-furnished wooden house, and she suspected it belonged to another Order member who was willing to have their home put under considerable protections against even neighborly visits. In it, Lily, Alice, and Marlene stood shoulder to shoulder, arms wrapped around each other, smiling happily for the camera. Marlene stood between the two of them, not pregnant, but definitely a comforting presence for the two women. Hermione tucked the picture away with her other important things in the drawer of her nightstand, feeling comforted by the memo of them all being happy and healthy together even in this time of war.

Now that she had made her allegiances unmistakably clear, she began receiving more information in her letters concerning the Order and the enemy. She was no longer entirely in the dark, though she knew she would not be made privy to everything until after she had been properly inducted, and it was not safe to write down important plans in a letter unless it was in code. In return, from the perspective of an upper-class student, Hermione was able to give them information and keep tabs on students who she suspected or known to be present or future Death Eaters. It was a great help to the Order, because by identifying the students, it was easier to identify who was being influenced into their choice by their parents—and then add their parents to the list of known Death Eaters.

She later received a short letter of apology from Caradoc Dearborn for suspecting her of being the leak. Hermione's response was kind, and she was rather under the impression that this misjudgment of character had upset the man greatly. She had never met him, of course, but heard a great deal about him from the girls at Headquarters, and thought him to be a very capable and considerate wizard based on the information given to her.

On the other end of the scale, Hermione now had to watch her step whenever she passed someone in the corridors. The group of Slytherin Death Eater wannabes, as she had dubbed them, wanted her head on a pike, or at least her body in the Hospital Wing.

It was an unfortunate occurrence for them that most of their efforts resolved themselves in their being sent to Madam Pomfrey in her stead.

As Severus was unable to make it to Slughorn's Valentine's Day supper, Hermione spent the evening up in Gryffindor Tower, alone.

~o~O~o~

One Friday night, in the middle of March, Hermione stirred in her sleep overcome with the feeling that something was not right. Her eyes were closed, and she was still comfortably dreaming, but her nighttime fantasies of strong hands and mouths that nuzzled and kissed her were disturbed by the sense that someone else was in the room. Her level of awareness was strictly heightened, since she often fell asleep in the library and had to be up at a moment's notice to avoid being hexed with her head down on the table. But she wasn't in the library, so she didn't know why her senses were going off until there was a cautious but near-frantic tapping on her shoulder.

Annoyed, Hermione buried her face deeper into the pillow.

"Go away James," she mumbled, forgetting at that moment that James was not in school anymore.

"Hermione—Hermione—" it was definitely not James's voice, but it was familiar and soothing enough that at the moment, Hermione really did not care that it wanted her to wake up. It was the middle of the night, damn it. "Hermione, please, wake up—don't make me… Hermione!"

With an annoyed groan, Hermione forced herself up and opened her eyes. It took less than a moment to register who it was, and then her eyes widened.

"Severus!" she hissed, glancing around at her roommates, all of whom were still sleeping soundly. "What are you doing here?"

Severus pressed a finger to her lips. Like James had before him, he looked panicked and afraid, and it registered in his voice.

"I made a mistake, Hermione," he said, gripping her shoulder with his other hand to make sure he had her attention. "I—a terrible mistake. I completely fucked up—all my fault—"

Hermione was utterly bewildered. "How? What did you do?"

"I—I was spying on Dumbledore," Severus said, his expression pained. "In the Hogs Head—there was a prophecy—I was thrown out, but I still managed to relay it to the Dark Lord—and now he thinks—this is all my fault, all my bloody fault—"

Hermione slid out of the covers quickly, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "Talk to me," she demanded insistently. "Tell me what happened. What do you need me to do?"

Severus took in a deep breath, rambling insensate. "Tell—tell the Headmaster—I need to arrange a meeting with him, one where he won't try kill me—I need to explain to him, warn him—"

"Is this a trap, Severus?" Hermione shook him. "Did Voldemort tell you to do this?"

Severus's eyes snapped open, and he seemed to return to himself, if only slightly. "Do not say his name—! No, I'm here on my own—he doesn't know…"

Hermione squeezed his shoulders in a measure of comfort as she tried to figure out his words. They made very little sense to her, but they didn't need to right now. Right now, she needed to notify the Headmaster. "Wait here," she said, standing up. "I'll go get Professor Dumbledore."

"No," Severus hissed. His pupils were dilated in fear. "No—I can't do it here. I shouldn't even be here—my departure was suspicious as it was, it has to be tomorrow… tell him," he insisted, standing up and pulling Hermione almost frighteningly close to his face. "Tell him to meet me on the westernmost moor in West Yorkshire." Hermione stared at him, her expression near-uncomprehending, and he uttered, "Please!"

Hermione pulled away, trying to process this all. "Westernmost moor in West Yorkshire… tomorrow, at noon?"

"Yes. Please!"

"Alright," Hermione said, standing up straight. "I'll go tell him—but you'd better get out of here quickly. I don't know how you got in, and you're going to have a good deal of explaining to do when you return, but for now—get out."

Severus gave a short, jerky nod of his head, and then with a flap of his cloak, he turned around and left through the door. Hermione swallowed down her apprehension, and brought her fingers down to the third dial on her watch. She couldn't afford to be caught wandering the halls right now with such an urgent matter to deal with, and this did classify as an emergency—

She flicked the dial out, gave it a full turn, and pressed it back in.

There was a yank behind her navel, and she was gone.

~o~O~o~

Hermione found herself pacing the Headmaster's office as she watched the arching path of the sun move painfully slow throughout the day. Her sudden appearance in the Headmaster's office, which had been fortunately occupied by its owner, had been followed by a rapid explanation of recent events. Dumbledore had made a quick request to the portraits to check that Severus had, indeed, left the school and commanded them to help make sure he was not caught by any night-time patrollers, should that not be the case. He then ordered Hermione to wait in his office. He left by Floo moments later, and Hermione had spent the greater part of her Saturday locked in his office.

She had fallen asleep curled up in one of the armchairs after three hours of waiting, and woke up early, still on edge with uncertainty. The house elves had been considerate enough to bring her food and a fresh change of clothes, and she had tried to settle herself with a book from one of the shelves, but she was too distracted to apply much brainpower to them. She didn't dare touch or fiddle with the things on the Headmaster's desk, and thus, tired of being cooped up and bored and worried out of her mind, she was reduced to pacing like a caged lion.

She looked down at her watch every so often to formally note the passing of time. Noon passed, and then one, two, three o'clock. It was just moving onto four-thirty, and Hermione was trying to resist the urge to either ask the house elves for yet another snack or break out of the office entirely when there was a sudden burst of flame. Hermione let out a yelp of surprise and stepped back as Fawkes appeared, perched on Dumbledore's shoulder. Severus was with him, and looking momentarily disoriented in the midst of his distress, he stumbled forward whilst trying to regain his bearings. His hair was windswept, his eyes wild, and his knees were caked with dried mud.

He looked up a moment later, and when he saw her, his expression became slightly relieved.

"Hermione," he said hoarsely.

Hermione looked up warily at the Headmaster, whose expression was serious, but also contemplative.

"Miss Granger, thank you for your patience in waiting," he said, holding his arm out to the armchairs in a gesture that they should sit. Hermione did, as did Severus, and Dumbledore moved to stand behind his desk. He let out a weary sigh, and then sat. "I am sorry to have kept you for so long." His beard lifted up slightly in the faintest of all smiles. "You must have been bored to tears."

Hermione's mind brimmed with a hundred questions, but she kept her mouth shut, waiting for him to speak.

Dumbledore let out another sigh, as though he was gearing up in preparation for something, and then he spoke.

"Miss Granger, what is said in this room does not leave this room," he said with weary sternness. Hermione nodded. "Furthermore, I ask that you not interrupt until after I have finished speaking."

"Understood, sir," Hermione said, glancing over at Severus. He was staring at the floor, his hands buried in his greasy hair, though it was clear he was listening.

"Afterwards, I will make an offer to you, and I want you to think it over carefully." The wizened old man leaned back in his chair, and with yet another sigh—he had sighed too much already for one day, Hermione felt—he began.

"In the middle of August, I had an interview with Sybill Trelawney, our new Divination teacher. I was prepared to scrap the subject altogether, and therefore not too keen on the interview to begin with, but I felt inclined to have the interview for politeness's sake." He closed his eyes. "The interview was rather dull, to say the least, and I was prepared to leave when she began acting strangely. She began reciting a prophecy to me—a true prophecy—and in the middle of it, we were interrupted when the proprietor of the Hogs Head found young Severus here—" he inclined his head toward Severus, "—eavesdropping on our conversation. Severus was promptly thrown out on his ear, so I'm told, but he had heard the prophecy— half of it, I suppose—and when he realized it was an obscure reference to the Dark Lord's downfall, he rushed to tell his master."

Hermione's brow furrowed at this, but she did not interrupt. The Headmaster continued;

"Severus's revelation to Voldemort gave him a level of safety and rank not usually given to new recruits," Dumbledore continued heavily, opening his eyes. "Voldemort spent many months pondering the meaning of the prophecy. I will recite it to you, if you will listen." He leaned forward in his chair, his eyes serious as he spoke:

"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches...Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies...and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not...and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives..."

Hermione's eyes widened as the Headmaster sat back, folding his hands carefully in his lap.

"Do you know to whom this prophecy may refer to, Hermione?"

Hermione swallowed.

"The Potters," she whispered. Everything at once began clicking into place. It had never made sense to her before why Voldemort would choose to attack Harry when he was not yet even old enough to know what a wand was, but now it did with a disturbing amount of clarity. "Lily's unborn son."

Dumbledore nodded gravely.

"Not just the Potters, I'm afraid," he said. "Alice and Frank Longbottom are also targets. Their child is due to be born near the end of July, and they have defied Voldemort three times. According to Severus, however, even you were a targeted possibility when Voldemort first heard the prophecy. When it became clear that only the children of Lily Potter and Alice Longbottom would fit the constraints, you were dropped as a suspect immediately."

Hermione swallowed. Dear gods! She thought, looking between Dumbledore and Severus. What kind of mess has this turned into?

"Protections on the Potters and Longbottoms will be increased," the Headmaster said calmly. "If the situation continues to escalate, further measures will be taken."

Forgetting Dumbledore's bid not to be interrupted, Hermione interjected, "But me, Headmaster! What on earth does this have to do with me?" She wanted to close her eyes and block out all sound. This was too much. She was not only witnessing, but now being made a part of, the months leading up to the murder of her best friend's parents. "Why are you telling me this?"

Dumbledore's words were measured. "Because Severus is now a spy for the Order of the Phoenix."

Hermione felt her chest constrict. So this is how it happens. And all for Lily… "He's going to be spying on Vol—Voldemort, sir?" she asked, glancing over at Severus, who had flinched visibly at the use of the name. "But I still don't understand why you're telling me this—wouldn't it be smarter and safer to keep me in the dark?"

"Not necessarily, Hermione," Dumbledore said, pressing his fingertips together. "Come graduation, you will be officially inducted into the Order. As a result of your particular… situation," he said, looking at her meaningfully. Hermione knew he was talking about the fact that the Death Eaters now had a warrant issued by the Dark Lord to personally hunt her down. "I feel it would be best if you were not on the front lines. You are a strong fighter, but your talents are better used elsewhere."

"Sir…?"

"Do you know how espionage works, Hermione?"

Hermione frowned, thrown off guard by such a simple question. "A spy collects information and then disseminates it to the person he works for, sir."

"A spy does not always give information directly to the person he works for," Dumbledore said, wearing the faintest trace of a smile, though it seemed to be a rather mirthless one. "Oftentimes, a spy has a handler, a specific person who works with the spy and is in a position to give information to the person they work for without arousing suspicion. A handler's job is to look after the spy's welfare, look after the best interest of the organization's goals, and essentially take all the information given to them and deliver it back to their mutual employer."

Hermione's eyes widened.

"Any letters or meetings Severus arranged with me would put the entire operation in jeopardy," the Headmaster said, enunciating clearly enough that Hermione could not possibly misunderstand him. "No matter how careful or discreet we might be, Severus would still be at an exorbitant risk of being found out and killed for his defection. There would simply not be enough excuses in the world to cover the range of activities that would be required for me to effectively employ Severus's capabilities. You, however," Dumbledore said, his eyes lighting up for the first time that evening, "have a history of contact with him that would not only keep Voldemort's suspicions at bay, but may even provide Severus with a means of gaining his trust. Furthermore," he said, holding up a hand to stop Hermione from interjecting in protest, "you are extremely skilled at compiling information in a neat and organized manner. I need those skills from you now, Hermione. As does Severus.

"He cannot do this alone," Dumbledore stressed, "and he and I cannot have direct contact on a regular basis. We have no other Order members who would be able to fill this position, nor any whom Severus trusts to the same level or degree that he does with you. You are a good judge of his character, and are a skilled Occlumens. You are talented at cataloguing information, have a cool head on your shoulders, and can hold your own in a fight—though fighting has never truly been your forte, I must admit, you have worked exceedingly and admirably hard at it," he added, with a tilt of his head in Hermione's direction. "You are also loyal to the Order, loyal in a way that is unfaltering and strong."

Hermione swallowed, but she was unable to tear her gaze away from the Headmaster. This moment felt surreal—so surreal—and she forced herself to remain calm and collected as she absorbed every bit of the information she was being given.

"I want you to be Severus Snape's handler," Dumbledore told her firmly. "There is no one else."

Hermione took a deep breath, and glanced over at Severus. He had finally looked up, though his expression was a mixture of pain, several levels of fear, determination, and hopefulness. She knew Professor Dumbledore was right. She did fit the bill—and furthermore, he had her pinned down exactly when he pointed out that she was perfectly capable of holding her own, but was not the most inclined to rush into a fight. She was rarely the instigator in her run-ins with Slytherins, and much preferred to retaliate when they attempted to take her down.

And until Severus acquired a good excuse for being in close contact with Professor Dumbledore—such as taking on a teaching position, for starters—any contact between himself and the Headmaster would be suspect. No matter how much they tried to hide it, his constant disappearances and inability to adequately explain where he had been compounded with the lack of a solid alibi would have him tortured, his mind ripped open, and his invariable death before the month was out. He needed someone he could deliver information to without it being suspicious.

She had defied Voldemort in such a way that there were one of two outcomes. The first would be that the Dark Lord would kill Severus for remaining in close contact with a slip of a girl who had turned him down so rudely. The second would be for the Dark Lord to think he was using Severus as a means of keeping tabs on her—and by extension, the Order—as well as possibly manipulating her into helping them without her realizing it.

The Dark Lord was a manipulative blowhard by nature. He liked to toy with people. And since Hermione was not immediately within his grasp, the idea of using her without her apparent knowledge would appeal to him greatly. It was the perfect cover for Severus to work under.

And even if there was someone equally placed to work with him without arousing suspicion, Severus would not have the rapport and understanding that he had with her. They had a level of trust that allowed Hermione to believe him when he had said he was here on his own, and not on Voldemort's orders. She had trusted him when they snuck out to Hogsmeade, believing that it was not a trap. She trusted him enough to sneak out of Slughorn's party with him in order to carry on their conversation privately. She trusted him enough that she had started falling for him. And she knew that out of anyone else he might have in his life, she was the one who had earned the most trust from him. That was why he had come to her, why he had wanted her along for his birthday, and why he would agree to work with her without being obstructive in any manner.

She also knew how to handle him as a person. There were times when he was friendly and times he looked prepared to hex someone into a stain on the wall. Good or bad, she was not afraid of him, which allowed her to stand her ground with confidence while she tried to get something across to him. He could be a temperamental git at times—though in truth, so could she—and only she was used enough to him to know how to deal with it.

In short, if there was anyone who could work with him without one of them going postal, it was probably going to be her. The very concept had her shaking in a mixture of fear and disbelief, but it had to be done.

"I accept," she said.

She saw Dumbledore's face, tense and lined with worry and the other concerns that had placed themselves upon the ever-growing burden that rested upon his shoulders, relax. He actually broke into a wide, relieved smile. Severus was staring at her with something akin to disbelief, as though he couldn't understand how—or why—she would agree to work with him after everything she just heard.

"I just have one question," she said, curling her hair between her fingers. "Does this mean that my summer plans are no longer my own?"

"Elaborate, if you please," Dumbledore said, sitting back in his chair with an almost relaxed look.

"Severus and I were planning on fixing up Spinner's End this summer as part of a summer project," Hermione said, glancing down at her watch. Five-thirty. They were well half-past dinner now, and she was quite certainly starving. "I was planning on staying there while I figured out what to do for a job. Am I still allowed to do that?"

To her surprise, Dumbledore's expression became more thoughtful, and if possible, more relieved. "That may not be a bad idea to begin with, Hermione. It is certainly a good way for the two of you to remain in consistent contact. As for a formal job, however, I was thinking that perhaps you might come back next year as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Horace Slughorn is retiring next year, we will have a vacant position that I'm certain Severus here can take, should he choose to do so." He gave the raven-haired man a meaningful look. "How does that sound?"

"The Defense Against the Dark Arts?" Hermione squeaked, backpeddaling at once. "Professor, the job's jinxed! No one's managed to stay for more than a year!"

"No one has ever been serious injured teaching it," Professor Dumbledore reminded her.

Actually, I beg to differ, Headmaster, but I somehow suspect explaining to you that Voldemort got caught in his own jinxed job in my first year is not going to make one whit of difference to you…

"In addition, it keeps you at close and suspicion-free contact with Severus," Dumbledore continued. "The following year, we will review the situation."

Hermione closed her eyes. In for a knut, in for a galleon, she thought with a sigh as she resigned herself to her situation.

"Very well, sir," she replied stiffly.

Dumbledore's visible ease was little comfort to her.

"I will have to ask Horace if he'll hold an April Fool's party," he said, his expression suddenly thoughtful. "He will likely jump at the chance to invite some of his former pupils to another of his gatherings. In the meantime," he said, with a nod in Hermione and Severus's direction. "I suggest you find a quiet place to talk. I'm certain you have a great deal to discuss. The Seventh Floor is a useful place for private conversation—particularly in front of the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy. Why don't you walk around for a bit?"

Hermione stood up. Naturally, she obviously knew where the Room of Requirement was. Very subtle, Headmaster. "Yes, sir."

Severus stood up as well, and with barely another word to each other, they left the office.

Hermione heard some of the portraits of previous headmasters and headmistresses stirring as they made their exit.

"But Albus," she heard one portrait protest, "they're too young! You're placing too much on them at once."

"In my time—" one other headmaster rumbled.

"I have great faith in Hermione and Severus," Dumbledore said, with a note of finality in his voice, cutting the conversation short. "They are remarkable young people who have had to grow up quickly— too quickly, but alas," Hermione heard him murmur as the door closed behind them. "It's been that way for far too long. But they are no longer children, Professor Derwent. I'm afraid they have seen far too much for that."

~o~O~o~

"How long have you known about this room?" Severus asked restlessly as Hermione led him through the revealed doors to the Room of Requirement.

"Quite a while, I suppose," Hermione responded, looking around the room. They had been given a cozy chamber with a roaring fire and several plush couches, along with a coffee table, though there was regretfully no food. She took a seat and verbally summoned one of the house elves, politely requesting some leftovers from dinner before leaning back and attempting to de-stress. It was difficult, to say the least. Her mind was still spinning, and her body felt so tightly coiled that unwinding seemed nearly impossible. She sighed. "Not that it matters, at this point. We need to talk."

Severus was about to speak when food appeared, almost of its own accord, and Hermione leaned forward to help herself to some steak. With a sigh that mirrored her own, he took the seat opposite her and helped himself to a goblet of pumpkin juice. Hermione took a moment to sate the growling of her belly, and then—in a decision to start from most recent and then backtrack—she began with the first line of inquiry.

"How the hell did you sneak into my dorm?"

Severus set his goblet down slowly. "I snuck in through the passage from Honeydukes. I got lucky— I was able to slip in, Disillusioned, behind one of the Gryffindors who had come back late."

Hermione stared grouchily at her food. "How the hell do boys keep getting up into the girls' dormitory?"

Severus worked his jaw for a moment, as though he were resisting the urge to smile, and then said seriously, "I didn't use the stairs. The railing just above the common room—I usedCarpe Retractum. The same spell you used to choke me during final exams last year, incidentally."

Hermione smiled faintly at him, and then snorted. "I see. That would explain it." She paused to take a bite of pudding, and then said, "Tell me about what happened at the Hogs Head."

Severus bit out an exhalation. "That was several months ago. I knew there would be an interview taking place at the Hogs Head. The Dark Lord did not know yet how to use me, so he suggested giving me a chance to prove myself by seeing what I could come up with." He looked at her glumly. "I suppose I did, after a fashion."

Hermione shook her head. "It didn't occur to you to withhold that information from him?"

"Oh, it did," Severus said, glaring into his pumpkin juice. "But not for long. I didn't have any idea who it was in reference to, and I figured that if someone was destined to dethrone him, getting into the Dark Lord's good graces by letting him know someone's out there waiting to take off his head in the interim wasn't a bad idea." He sighed, his expression focused and pained. "It seems I was wrong."

"Dumbledore will protect them," Hermione said with more confidence than she felt. Her heart sank even at her own words, but she plowed on. "As long as the Potters and Longbottoms do as they're told—put their trust in the right people—"

"And who are the right people?" Severus asked snidely.

"Their friends," Hermione said slowly, looking down at her food. "Those who wouldn't trade the lives of their loved ones to buy more time for themselves."

"Yes, I heard all about that," Severus said disparagingly. "The Dark Lord is furious with you. It's going to take a great deal of persuasion on my part to convince him that you can be tamed—manipulated—"

"You are rather adept at Occlumency, are you not?" Hermione asked, lifting a goblet of milk to her lips. "We can create false memories and scenarios for you to present him with your success, if need be, while also protecting him from seeing the more important things."

Severus nodded stiffly. "Indeed." He paused, and then said rather wearily, "do you mind if I take some time to rest?" Seeing her raised eyebrows, he leaned back tiredly in his seat to look at her. "Dumbledore performed a good deal of Legilimency on me in the time following our initial meeting, to ascertain my sincerity—it has been rather taxing." He closed his eyes. "I am tired, and have an impending headache. Some time to recover would be nice."

Hermione of all people knew just how tiring Occlumency and Legilimency could be when merely practicing, never mind when you were allowing someone to go through your head in a way that forced you to not only hand over your mind, but also go through the thoughts and memories with the observer. When done for a long period of time—such as several hours, as had been the case here—it could indeed be psychologically draining.

Severus was sitting in an armchair. Hermione was on the couch. In a moment of impulse, she tapped the cushion beside her. "Come here."

Grateful, though looking the slightest bit wary, Severus crossed over to the couch and sat. Hermione scooted until she was sitting on the very edge, and then leaned over and tugged on his shoulder. He went down on his side, and after a moment of shifting, was resting his arm on her lap, using it as a pillow. He took a moment to kick off his boots, tucked his feet up with more comfort, and stretched out on the couch, which seemed to have mysteriously gained another foot and a half to accompany him.

"You're sure?" he muttered.

"Unless you'd rather have the entire couch to yourself," Hermione offered.

He shook his head slightly. "No. I appreciate this."

"We'll talk more once you're feeling better," Hermione promised quietly, shifting once to make sure she was comfortable enough to stay there for a while before placing one hand in his hair, stroking it soothingly. If she had thought this was difficult for her to take in, it wasn't a far cry to gauge how much stress he himself must be under at the moment.

His response was muffled, but then he fell silent. A few minutes later, when Hermione flicked the hair out of his face to look, she could see that he was asleep. She stared at his sleeping form for quite some time, using the lull as an opportunity to sit back and try to unwind.

She continued stroking his hair as her mind wandered elsewhere. She was now his handler. Aside from the fact that this included a whole host of responsibilities Hermione had otherwise never thought she would be taking on, she began thinking ahead about how she was going to organize this and keep her information straight. It was simply unrealistic to think that she would be able to remember every single detail that Severus gave her—details that may be as important as they sounded inane. She would need a reliable way to record the information he gave her without making it easy for others to read.

Her thoughts turned to her fifth-year for guidance. When everyone had been reading the Quibbler and working to do it under Umbridge's fat, toady nose, they had been extremely creative. Some had used spells to make their copies of the Quibbler appear to be text excerpts or blank bits of parchment. The Marauders, too, had used similar methods to charm their map to unlock to a specific phrase.

The best idea seemed to be to find a notebook to record and date everything, and then charm it for her eyes only. She tossed around the idea of giving it a password, but then rejected it. It would be useful if she could give the notebook to certain people for them to peruse, but if she were somehow captured or her notebook stolen, it would be much safer if there was no way for them to get at the information inside without potentially harming the source. No, she would charm it for her eyes only.

I need a notebook, she decided. A comfortable-sized one, perhaps of similar size to my planner—easy to write in, but also easy to carry around. A Compression Spell on it would probably not go awry, either—I'll need to keep adding pages to it without it becoming too heavy or too thick. And once the privacy spells are put in place, I can probably give it some additional protections…

She was about to lean forward as carefully as she could without disturbing Severus's sleep to retrieve her wand and summon her book bag to her when she realized that there was a book on the coffee table. Her expression dawned with realization as she picked it up and flipped through it.

Merlin's holy teakettle, this room isn't called the Room of Requirement for nothing! She thought with amazement as she examined it. It looked rather unremarkable—brown and plain, with simple blank parchment pages. A quick magical scan made Hermione sigh and lean back into her seat with disbelief; the Room of Requirement had given her the very product of her exact musings. When she flipped through the pages, there was always one more to go to the end, and they were neatly numbered; she counted over five-hundred pages in her initial flip in what looked to otherwise be a fifty-page notebook, and eager to experiment, she very conveniently found a quill and a bottle of black ink resting atop the table as well.

She paused, unsure of what to write for a moment, and then opened it to the first page.

~o~O~o~

Hermione found herself dozing off against the arm of the couch, having tucked her notebook inside her robes, when she felt Severus twitch underneath her hand. Her fingers were still twined in his hair, stroking with lazy, sleepy movements, and she felt him tense up for all of one moment before he relaxed, signaling to her that he realized where they were and why. Hermione's eyes were still closed, and she had buried her face in the arm against the couch to try and catch some sleep. He didn't move immediately, for which Hermione was fuzzily aware to be grateful for, but she knew he was no longer asleep.

A half-aware glance at her watch told her that it was well past nine, which would explain her subsequent tiredness. Weary thoughts jumbling together as she settled down for a bit of a longer nap, she momentarily forgot that it was a Saturday, and wondered what homework she had due tomorrow.

When she finally opened her eyes again, it was to find that she was no longer slumped against the arm of the couch, but that her head was resting comfortably against something warm, if slightly scratchy, and someone's hands were tangling in her hair. Opening her eyes, she realized that Severus was leaning against the arm of the other side of the couch with a book, and that her head was pillowed in his lap. Their previous positions had been neatly reversed. She took a moment to blink herself to awareness, yawn, and then finally sat up, glancing over at the coffee table to realize that the house elves had thoughtfully served breakfast. She felt Severus's fingers slip out of her hair, and found herself regretting the loss.

"Thanks," she murmured, stretching with another yawn before she leaned over to grab a bit of toast. "I'm sorry I fell asleep. You must have been bored."

"I had a headache when I woke up," Severus said by way of explanation, helping himself to a plate of eggs. "I was not in any mood to talk regardless of whether you had remained awake or not."

"Looks like it's good that I got some sleep, then," Hermione said, cracking a smile before she began eating in earnest. They took several minutes to satiate their hunger, before Severus set his food aside to speak.

"Knowing what you do now, about—about what caused this mess in the first place," he muttered, making a sweeping gesture at the room that Hermione knew was meant to refer to the situation in general. "Are you angry with me?"

Hermione sighed. "Not particularly. You weren't trying to get someone killed. You were trying to cement your place within Vol—within You-Know-Who's ranks so that he wouldn't be inclined to kill you for incompetence, I imagine. We all make mistakes and at the very least, you owned up to this one."

"You don't hate me for putting the Potters and Longbottoms at risk?" Severus clarified.

Hermione shook her head. "Absolutely not. Get that thought right out of your head," she ordered.

She saw Severus's lips curl up in a faint smile. He looked quite relieved to be frank, but his next question brought them back to the issue of business.

"How are we going to work this out?" he asked, stirring himself a cup of tea. "I will not be able to visit often. And Dumbledore—"

"Dumbledore will find ways to arrange plausible opportunities for us to meet, probably about once a month over the next four months," Hermione stated, taking a sip of pumpkin juice. "We know the next one is the first of April—he'll likely convince Slughorn to invite you. We'll find a way to slip out of the party and meet in private. The Room of Requirement is seven floors up, but it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to use it. Not many people know about it, and those who do can't get into it if someone else is already inside unless they know exactly what the first occupant asked for."

"After that?" Severus pressed.

"Weren't you listening in Dumbledore's office?" Hermione asked, taking another sip before draining her entire goblet and setting it aside. "I'll be staying with you in the summer, as planned. I'll be helping you fix up Spinner's End." She gave him a wicked grin, injecting humor for the first time in what had otherwise been a very sordid and depressing conversational affair. "I just hope we don't drive each other mad, being in such close quarters and all."

For the first time that evening, she saw Severus relax enough to smile. It was more of a smirk, really, but it was hard-won all the same. "I don't think that will be a problem."

Hermione couldn't help it. She flushed, and began fiddling with her watch. "I—well. Do you think we should head back up to Dumbledore's office now? He's probably expecting us."

"Just a moment." Severus set his tea down, and then in a maneuver that completely surprised Hermione, twisted around in his seat so that he was now facing her. He leaned in, and she thought he was about to kiss her when he stopped just shy of doing so. He paused to gaze into her face, and then asked very clearly, "Has this changed?"

Hermione hesitated for all of one moment. She was his handler now, but nothing said she couldn't be his lover. She was not certain how far they would get in this, but truth was, she wanted to see where it led. There were many benefits to be had if this worked out, and only a few downsides. Still, she had to be certain.

"If this doesn't work out," she asked carefully, "will you refuse to work with me as your handler?"

He shook his head no.

Hermione smiled, and leaned forward, closing the distance. She kissed him, sliding her lips with newfound familiarity over his, and he nipped playfully on her lower lip to ask her to open before moving to suckle her tongue. Hermione let him direct the kiss now that she had initiated it, and she closed her eyes, responding to him with eagerness that only seemed to drive him further. He drew back for a moment to skim his lips along her neck, causing Hermione to gasp at the pleasurable sensation before she moved to retaliate by aiming for his ear with her tongue. He conceded defeat with a groan and a swift return to devouring her lips. When they finally broke apart, she looked up at him, her eyes sparkling brightly.

"No," she said, leaning forward to kiss the tip of his nose before returning her attention to the wonders of his mouth. "I don't think it's changed at all."

They parted reluctantly several minutes later, Hermione's neck still tingling with remembered pleasure as they retraced their steps to the Headmaster's office.


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~Anubis Ankh